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Airware Preps Launch Of Its Commercial Drone Operating System With $25M From Kleiner

Airware Featured Image Building a drone’s hardware and software from scratch is tough and expensive, but open source drone kits are inflexible. So to power businesses looking to customize drones for commercial uses from agriculture to industrial inspections, Airware has raised a $25 million Series B led by Kleiner Perkins. The money will fund the launch of Airware’s drone operating system later this… Read More

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Josh Constine

July 23rd

Gadgets

Google Glass’ Lead Electrical Engineer Adrian Wong Defects To Oculus

1006243_10101105202352425_1191882884_n Adrian Wong still lists himself as a “professional daydreamer” on LinkedIn, but he’s just left Google[x] where he was a lead electrical engineer on Glass to start “Building the Metaverse” at Oculus VR. Wong had been at Google since December 2010 following a stint at Sandia National Laboratories, but now he’s working at Facebook’s latest mega-acquisition. A… Read More

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Josh Constine

May 15th

Gadgets

Mobile

How Oculus And 8 Fake Ears Could Morph Concerts Into Video Games

Binaural 3D Microphone head I’m standing on a circular stage with neo-folk musician Beck. Surrounded by cheering fans, I blush, then turn and wave to thank them. They don’t see me though, because I’m actually sitting in a dark, empty back room at Sundance Film Festival, wearing an Oculus Rift. Read More

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Josh Constine

April 13th

Gadgets

How Oculus And 8 Fake Ears Could Morph Concerts Into Video Games

Binaural 3D Microphone head I’m standing on a circular stage with neo-folk musician Beck. Surrounded by cheering fans, I blush, then turn and wave to thank them. They don’t see me though, because I’m actually sitting in a dark, empty back room at Sundance Film Festival, wearing an Oculus Rift. Read More

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Josh Constine

April 13th

Gadgets

For More Than War: Airware Demos Its Drone Platform By Protecting Rhinos From Poachers

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Airware wants to prove drones have plenty of uses beyond killing people. Today the unmanned aerial vehicle hardware/software/firmware startup detailed how it’s built and deployed special drones to thwart animal poachers in Kenya, Africa. The demo could build interest for the launch of Airware’s commercial drone platform later this year.

Airware was founded in 2010 and graduated from Y Combinator in March 2013 with the goal of bringing the drone revolution to a wide variety of businesses and other areas such as precision agriculture, land management, infrastructure inspection of powerlines or oil derricks, and search and rescue.

Airware builds drone hardware, software and firmware operating systems that control them, as well as their user interfaces. Businesses and organizations can then build apps and other functionality on top of Airware’s drone platform to perform their own specific purpose without having to create an end-to-end UAV system by themselves.

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In May 2013, Airware raised a big $10.7 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by Google VenturesRRE VenturesLemnos LabsPromus VenturesShasta Ventures, and Felicis Ventures – the biggest post-Demo Day round in Y Combinator history. It’s been using the money to bridge the gap between hardcore military UAV development, and the do-it-yourself drones and toy quadcopters that have recently become popular.

Later this year, Airware’s commercial drone platform will expand beyond beta testser and become broadly available. But first it needs to help change the world’s perception of what drones are for. “We want to educate  people on the very positive uses for drones”, Airware founder and CEO Jonathan Downey tells me.

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Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Air Prime certainly helped, but commercial drone use in heavily populated area is a still a ways off and will require strict regulation. Airware wants to show how drones can be used for good right now.

So in December, Airware sent a team to Kenya to work at Ol Pejeta, East Africa’s biggest black rhino sanctuary. There the worked the Ol Pejeta Conservancy to deploy a drone built specifically to monitor the sanctuary for intrusions by poachers using the drone’s on-board cameras. Airware writes that “The drone, equipped with Airware’s autopilot platform and control software, acts as both a deterrent and a surveillance tool, sending real-time digital video and thermal imaging feeds of animals – and poachers – to rangers on the ground using both fixed and gimbal-mounted cameras.”

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Covering so much ground on foot or even by car would be cumbersome, while using full sized planes or helicopters would be prohibitively expensive. But with Airware’s drones, Ol Pejeta rangers can use a simple interface to fly drones around the sanctuary and spot poachers day and night.

Downey says “I think the more people that see these [non-military uses for drones], the more comfortable they’ll be with someone coming to their house and doing a rooftop inspection using a small drone.” While it’s easy to imagine all the scary things that drones can do, it’s important to remember that few technologies are inherently bad. It’s about what we do with them. Sure, some inventors become masters of war.  But Airware wants to democratize drones to benefit mankind, not blow it up.


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Josh Constine

January 14th

Gadgets

Mobile

Who Gets Rich From Google Buying Nest? Kleiner Returns 20X On $20M, Shasta’s Biggest Hit Yet

Nest Baseball

Google just bought Nest for $3.2 billion cash, and that means the startup’s early investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and Shasta Ventures have struck it rich. Multiple sources say Kleiner invested $20 million in Nest and got a 20X return to pull in $400 million. Meanwhile, the exit appears to be Shasta’s biggest win to date.

Nest didn’t disclose the size of its Series A and B rounds or who invested how much, so it’s hard to pinpoint who earned what on the sale of the home automation startup.

Shasta and KPCB funded all of Nest’s Series A round back in September 2010, just a few months after the connected device startup was founded. Then in August 2011, they both participated in Nest’s Series B, which also included Google Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Intertrust, and Generation Investment Management.

10998v8-max-250x250Multiple sources say Kleiner Perkins was Nest’s biggest investor, and was able to invest $20 million in Nest across the A and B rounds. Our sources say the $3.2 billion cash price Google paid for Nest will generate a 20X return for KPCB — which matches the 20X multiple Fortune’s Dan Primack heard from a souce. The money came from 2010′s $650 million KPCB XIV fund, which means Kleiner returned over 60% of the fund with just its Nest investment. The treasure should also boost the status of KPCB partner Randy Komisar, who sourced the investments and sat on Nest’s board.

The win for Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers is reminiscent of its early home runs on investments in Google, Amazon, AOL, and Intuit in the 1990s. Recently, it’s gotten a piece of huge exits like Facebook and Twitter as well as rising stars like Square and Spotify, but not until later rounds when potential returns are much lower. But with Nest, KPCB got in on the ground floor and will reap the benefits when the acquisition by Google officially closes.

Shasta Ventures' Managing Director Rob Coneybeer, who led its Nest investment

Shasta Ventures’ Managing Director Rob Coneybeer, who led its Nest investment

As for Shasta Ventures, today is a massive win for the firm and its managing director Rob Coneybeer, who we hear fought relentlessly to get Shasta into Nest’s Series A and B rounds. The Google deal almost surely trumps other Shasta hits like Zenprise which was bought by Citrix, and Mint which was bought by Intuit. The returns could bolster confidence in limited partners and help Shasta raise its next fund.

As for the venture capital industry as a whole, the Nest acquisition may contribute to a frothy market for hardware entrepreneurs. If companies like Google are out there paying billions in cash for young startups that build devices instead of software, it may become easier for hardware tinkers to raise serious capital and move from their garage to a real laboratory.


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Josh Constine

January 13th

Gadgets

Nest Says Shut-Off Heat Not Its Fault, But Pushes Thermostat Update To Fix 4.0 Problems

Nest Cold

Nest is now rolling out a 4.0.1 update to its smart thermostat after last month’s faulty 4.0 firmware caused Wi-Fi and battery issues. However, it tells me the 4.0 bugs are not responsible for turning people’s heat off or down in the dead of winter. Instead, it says incompatible furnaces and people forgetting to change their air filters are to blame.

This paints a much rosier picture than if you check out Nest’s Facebook wall or run a Twitter search on it.

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Customers like Clayton and Richard (seen above) have been flocking to social media to report Nest problems ranging from annoyance to disaster. Some say they’ve come home or woken up in the middle of the night to a freezing cold house. When they investigate their Nest, they find it turning on and off repeatedly, or suddenly out of battery. In some cases it’s shut off or down their heat. One unlucky customer had his pipes freeze because his house got so cold.

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One user wrote to TechCrunch explaining his Nest issues in detail:

“At about 4PM Friday, our heat shut off without warning. On inspection, the Nest unit appeared to be stuck in an endless loop of power cycling.  Each time it powered on, it would display the spinning blue loading indicator, and then a message would appear, instructing that we detach the Nest from the mount and reattach it. After being reattached, the unit displayed a message indicating that it was restarting, and the process would repeat indefinitely.

We followed the online troubleshooting guide with no success. We then tried to call support, but were met with impressively-long wait-times and a message acknowledging the existence of a breaking software change that seems to have been pushed out just as the bulk of the country was starting to rely on their furnaces.”
Nest ScreenWhile there are plenty of happy customers who’ve had no problems, others are angry Nest didn’t proactively notify users about the 4.0 bugs. Instead, last month Nest posted to its support center about “Intermittent low battery or connectivity issues with thermostat software 4.0″. There it says:

“We have discovered a bug in our latest 4.0 thermostat software that affects a small percentage of our users…affected users will see a low battery warning on the thermostat, see their thermostat as “OFFLINE” intermittently in the app, and won’t be able to control them using the Nest app….As of Sunday, Dec. 8th, we have a short-term solution and have started updating affected thermostats. We’re rolling these thermostats back to version 3.5.3, which should fix the problem.”

Unfortunately, some people rolled back to 3.5.3 are experiencing a new set of issues. Exacerbated by lots of new users installing Nest products they received for Christmas, customers contacting support are enduring extremely long wait times. Those who do get help on the phone or over email are given long sets of instructions to troubleshoot their own devices.

Affected customers are demanding Nest do more thorough testing of its updates before pushing them out, or at least provide a way to turn off automatic updates. In the meantime, some are switching back to their old, cheap analog thermostats.

But today, I spoke with Nest co-founder Matt Rogers who says the 4.0.1 update is ready and is now being rolled out. He also denied that Nest issues shut off people’s heat. In a statement, the company explains:

“As stated in the support center message, the 4.0 update caused a small percentage of customers to lose Wi-Fi connectivity and therefore the ability to control the temperature remotely. Their heating and cooling remains unaffected except for remote control.  We’ve rolled many of those customers back to 3.5.3 to resolve Wi-Fi connectivity while we work on the fix. In the coming days, we expect to release version 4.0.1, which has the same Wi-Fi performance as 3.5.3 with all the great features of version 4.0.

Regarding the small percentage of customers who experience drained batteries, we work with users who contact our Support team on a case-by-case basis because there are many variables that can cause this – including homes with clogged air filters, or with old or unusual HVAC wiring. Sometimes the fix is to run a power wire, other times the customer’s system is incompatible with Nest. To clarify, this is not related to the 4.0 update. “

It seems anyone with problems or considering buying a Nest should be sure to change their air filters and ensure their furnace is compatible.

Replace NestStill, Nest will need to better educate customers and ramp up support to avoid being blamed for problems it didn’t cause. Otherwise, customer issues like these could shake confidence in Nest right as Re/code reports it’s trying to raise $150 million to $200 million at a $2 billion to $3 billion valuation. Fortune’s Dan Primack says this round “remains very much a work in progress.”

That work could get a lot harder if investors worry Nest is souring opinions of some of its earliest adopters, even if it’s not responsible for problems. Because accurate or not, people’s opinions on social media influence their friends’ buying habits.

Every product has its vocal minority of jilted users and we can’t verify that all the issues customers are reporting are entirely Nest’s fault. But there seems to be a critical mass of discontent right now. For what it’s worth, though, Rogers sounded legitimately saddened about the 4.0 problems distressing customers, and told me “We do take these things really seriously, even if it’s not our fault.  We’ll answer support calls and we’re always there to help people when they have issues.”

As we move toward having more of our lives managed by high-tech devices, their creators will need to double down on stability and security. Unlike work or entertainment gadgets, devices like Nest’s thermostats and smoke detectors are vital pieces of home infrastructure. Software bugs don’t just cause inconveniences, but real quality-of-life and safety issues. “Move fast and break things” just doesn’t work when you’re involved in our survival.


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Josh Constine

January 7th

Gadgets

Mysterious Computer Chip Crop Circle Is A Nvidia CES Publicity Stunt

Nvidia Crop Circle

An intricate crop circle recently cut into a field two hours south of San Francisco baffled onlookers and spawned crackpot theories that aliens were responsible, but sources tell me it was created by Nvidia to publicize a big CES announcement. The design looks like Nvidia’s Tegra 4 chip, and though we can’t confirm this, it may be designed to drum up interest in the Tegra 5 chip Nvidia is expected to launch at CES.

Nvidia has a major CES press conference planned for tonight at 8pm PST in Las Vegas where it may fess up to creating the crop circle and is likely announce details of its new products. The Tegra is a “system on a chip” for mobile devices that combines a CPU, GPU, and memory controller. The new Tegra 5 Nvidia is expected to show off at CES is codenamed “Logan”, and will likely be faster and more energy-efficient than the Tegra 4 “Wayne” predecessor Nvidia showed at CES last year. Alternatively, the crop circle could related to the new Maxwell GPU Nvidia may unveil.

Tegra-4

The crop circle appeared in the farming town of Chualar, California on the morning of Monday, December 30th. It was pressed into a field owned by a farmer named Scott Anthony who was out of town. On Tuesday, he ordered a crew to plough the crop circle, erasing it to the dismay of small crowds who had flocked to see it. You can see more footage of the crop circle and watch local news anchors’ hilariously misguided attempts to decode what it is in the embed below.

As tech companies battle it out for press at overcrowded conferences like CES and SXSW, publicity stunts are getting more and more ridiculous. Last year’s CES saw the typical, demeaning booth babes and free swag, but also paintball shooting galleries while SXSW parties featured celebrity performances from Justin Timberlake and Prince.

You could call these stunts signs of an indulgent tech bubble, but as gadgets and apps gain more and more mainstream appeal, there’s big money to be made in owning a moment with some theatrics. If Nvidia can sell more chips, it could easily make up for whatever the crop circle cost.

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[Image: 111th Aerial Photography & Video via KDVR, KSBWUFOSOnEarth]


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Josh Constine

January 5th

Gadgets

Mobile

Basis Fitness Watchmaker Raises $11.75M To Build A Cross-Device Health Data Hub

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Fitbits, FuelBands, and Jawbones don’t matter and neither does their data unless they make us healthier. That’s why Basis wants to build a platform that unites our fragmented quantified self data and mines it for healthy ways to improve our behaviors. So today Basis announced an $11.75 million extension of its Series B and the hire of Ethan Fassett, former head of platform at gaming giant GREE.

The idea of a health data hub isn’t new. The promise is that instead of having one piece of software for each of our devices, all our data flows into a central repository where insights can be gleamed that no single piece of hardware could provide. But all attempts have failed. Even Google couldn’t make it work. But Basis CEO Jef Holove thinks he knows why: They didn’t start with hardware people loved and needed.

Hardware, Software, Platform In One

That’s where Basis’ own multi-sensor wristwatch comes in. While Fitbit, the Nike FuelBand, and the Jawbone Up just use accelerometers to track your steps and overall physical activity, Basis also tracks your heart rate, perspiration level, skin temperature and more. It’s bigger and costs more, but does a lot more too.

Until now, the Basis has been back-ordered. But now the company has finally worked through its “high five-digits” waiting list and is starting to openly sell the Basis B1 watch to the public for $199.

The watch hooks into Basis’ software that collects all your data. But beyond the typical charts and graphs whose novelty wears off because they don’t really tell you much, Basis crunches its multi-sensor data to provide more serious health insights. It can give you actionable suggestions for how to modify your behavior, and encourage you to keep exercising, This combats the number one problem with fitness devices, which is that people stop wearing them because they don’t feel like they’re getting any real value out of it.

What could make those suggestions even better is data more other non-Basis devices and apps. So Basis plans to build a device-agnostic platform with Fassett’s experience and part of the $11.75 million it raised from Intel Capital (which will help it bolster its supply chain to crank out watches faster), iNovia Capital, Dolby Family Trust, Stanford University, and Peninsula-KCG, as well as previous investors Norwest Venture Partners, Mayfield Fund, and DCM. The funding expands the $11.5 million Series B that Basis raised in March, bringing it to a total of $32.3 million in venture capital.

Holove explains that “The platform we’re building is intended to be open. There’s no reason we couldn‘t have complementary devices contribute data and make habits out of that data.”

Becoming the central quantified self hub brings all sorts of opportunities, both to make the human race healthier and to make a lot of money, so it’s no wonder Basis was able to raise again. With its platform pre-populated with data from its own watch, Basis may have the gravity to attract data from other devices. And there are plenty of other devices on the way.

Surviving The Smartwatches

Beyond helping the Basis watch distinguish itself from other health hardware, its extra sensors and software are critical to it surviving the coming onslaught of smartwatches from Pebble Samsung, LG, Sony…and likely Google and Apple. Most have or will have accelerometers and be able to serve as rudimentary fitness trackers. They could make Fitibit obsolete.

The question is whether smartwatches will give so many of us a compelling reason to buy them that the industry can support a half dozen manufacturers or more. I’m skeptical. Most smartwatches seem to just make what we already do with our phones a tiny bit easier. Gee thanks, it now takes two hands to answer a phone call? One with the watch strapped to it, and one to press the buttons? That doesn’t sound worth my dollars yet.

Basis’ Holove agrees, telling me “If we’re going to ask consumers to wear technology, it must do something magical because you’re wearing it, that’s fundamentally impossible if you’re not wearing it. And I think smartwatches miss this.”

Basis couldn’t be in your pocket like a phone with an accelerometer. It has to be on your wrist to get the rest of its readings. And since Basis doesn’t just collect data but uses it to enhance your lifestyle, Holove says “When they look at it, the value is very clear. People know why they’re buying us.”

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Josh Constine

October 8th

Gadgets

Mayday! Mayday! Amazon’s On-Demand Support Could Be A Scaling Nightmare

Mayday Amazon Mayday

What happens when it’s easier to call tech support than to Google your problem? Amazon might discover the costly answer to that question depending on how much the owners of its new Kindle Fire HDX tablet‘s use its Mayday on-demand video customer support feature. And whether they behave themselves.

Mayday is available at the tap of a button in the Kindle HDX’s Quick Settings menu. 24 hours a day, year round, it pops up a little video window on-screen showing a support agent. They can’t see you but can hear you, talk to you, draw on your screen to guide you, and even take control of your screen to help you out.

As Farhad Manjoo notes, Mayday might not be able to solve one of the most common types of tech problems: broken Internet. That won’t stop it from answering plenty of other queries from the old, young, and frequently confused. You can watch videos of Mayday in action here.

If Amazon can scale Mayday it would be amazing. Both in the sense that it would make many people’s lives with technology easier, and it would be a remarkable logistics feat. It could become an industry benchmark for premier service. I’d love to see this succeed.

No Barrier To Berating Support

Today, most companies put lots of support info online, but if you want handholding from a human, you have to work for it.

Look at Apple’s Genius Bars. You have to make an appointment, trek out to a retail store, and show up on time. That erects a barrier to use while giving people an option when they really need assistance.

With phone based customer support, you have to look up the number, wade through phone menus, wait on hold, and then explain what you’re looking at to a support agent that is essentially flying blind.

All this friction sucks. So why does it exist? It’s cost-effective.

Having tons of support people available on-demand straight from your device would be awesome…and could be very expensive for Amazon. Mayday could become a big selling point for the device and save the company from losing money to returns, thereby paying for itself. But it’s a gamble on whether people will bash that button too often.

The question is how much Amazon will have to compromise on its vision. The company has told reporters it wants Mayday to let you get support within 15 seconds at any time, even on a busy Christmas morning, and have no limit on how often you can call for help. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos went to bat for Mayday, telling TechCrunch that it functions similar to the company’s other call centers. He seemed confident Amazon could pull it off. After all, it’s managed quite a few miracles in ecommerce scaling.

Still, it may need to include fine print that it can suspend Mayday service for abuse. If you Mayday because you’re lonely, or want to show someone your cat photos, it might need to cut you off. If you try to show the representative porn through the screenshare or verbally terrorize them, it might need to ban you for life. But what if you’re just really lazy and call in every day with semi-legitimate questions? Amazon will need to determine where to draw the line.

Maybe the fundamental challenges of scaling Mayday signals Amazon doesn’t have a massive amount of active Kindle users today, as Benedict Evans wonders. Amazon is notoriously secretive about Kindle sales and engagement numbers, so we don’t know what level of HDX devices it might sell and have to support.

But if anyone can figure out how to make this all work and save us from support call menu hell, it’s probably Bezos. Turning cost-prohibitive fantasies into margin-less realities is his specialty. And if the problem isn’t the volume of Mayday requests per customer but the total thanks to high Kindle HDX sales, things could be worse. Just ask the Microsoft Surface.

[Image Credit]

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Josh Constine

September 26th

Gadgets

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