Gadgets – TechCrunch Lucas Matney

As digital assistants improve, we’re learning new things to expect from them, but the tasks that a real-life assistant may have handled before can still be a bit of a challenge to home assistants.

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is gaining functionality to help it get smarter about working with your calendar. The new abilities will let users move appointments around and schedule meetings based on other people’s availability.

If you’ve been shared on someone’s calendar availability, Alexa will be able to suggest times that work for both of you. Just say, “Alexa schedule a meeting with [name]” and Amazon’s assistant will search through your schedule for a good time, suggesting up to two time slots that could work.

On a more basic feature level, Alexa won’t make you cancel appointments and reschedule them if a meeting time changes. You’ll be able to just ask Alexa to move an existing meeting, something that should have probably been supported from the beginning, but hey, better late than never.

Both of these features are available to U.S. users today.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Sarah Perez

Comcast today is officially launching its own Wi-Fi extender devices called xFi Pods that help to address problems with weak Wi-Fi signals in parts of a customer’s home due to things like the use of building materials that disrupt signals, or even just the home’s design. The launch follows Comcast’s announcement last year that it was investing in the mesh router maker Plume, which offers plug-in “pods” that help extend Wi-Fi signals.

The company said that it would launch its own xFi pods that pair with Comcast’s gateways to its own customers as a result of that deal.

Those pods were initially available in select markets, including Boston, Chicago and Denver, ahead of today’s nationwide launch.

The pods themselves are hexagon-shopped devices that plug in to any electrical outlet in the home, and then pair with Comcast’s xFi Wireless Gateway or the xFi Advanced Gateway to help Wi-Fi signals extend to the hard-to-reach areas of the home.

The pods work with the Comcast Gateways to continuously monitor and optimize the Wi-Fi connections, Comcast explains, while its cloud-based management service evaluates the home’s Wi-Fi environment to make sure all the connected devices are using the best signal bands and Wi-Fi channels. Plus, the devices are smart enough to self-monitor their own performance, diagnose issues and “heal” themselves, as needed, says Comcast.

However, early reviews of Plume’s pods were mixed. CNET said the system was slow and the pods were too expensive, for example. But Engadget found the system had the lowest latency, compared with competitors, and helped devices roam more easily and accurately.

Comcast has addressed some of the earlier complaints. The pods are now much more affordable, for starters. While they’ve been selling on the Plume website for $329 for a six-pack, Comcast’s six-pack is $199. A three-pack is also available for $119, instead of the $179 when bought directly from Plume.

More importantly, perhaps, is that Comcast’s system is different from the pods featured in earlier reviews.

While Plume technology is a component of the new pods, they are not Plume devices, Comcast tells TechCrunch. Instead, Comcast licensed the Plume technology, then reconfigured some aspects of it in order to integrate xFi. It also designed its own pods in-house.

In addition, Comcast’s engineers developed new firmware and new software in-house to make it easy to pair the pods with a Comcast Gateway.

The Comcast xFi pods can be bought from its own website, the xFi app and in some Xfinity retail stores.

The xFi app (for iOS and Android) is also how customers can manage and view the connection status of the pods.

Comcast says it will make buying pods even easier later this year by offering a monthly payment plan.

The company has been upgrading its Wi-Fi offering in recent months as a means of staying competitive. Last year it launched the Xfinity xFi platform to help customers better manage their home Wi-Fi network with features like device monitoring, troubleshooting, “bedtime” schedules for families, internet pause and other parental controls.

Comcast declined to say how many pods were sold in its first trial markets, only that the response so far has been positive and boosted the company’s Net Promoter Score as a result.

Image credits: Comcast

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

I had a great time last year with Sony’s catchily named DPT-RP1, an e-paper tablet that’s perfect for reading PDFs and other big documents, but one of my main issues was simply how big the thing is. Light and thin but 13 inches across, the tablet was just unwieldy. Heeding (I assume) my advice, Sony is putting out a smaller version and I can’t wait to try it out.

At the time, I was comparing the RP1 with the reMarkable, a crowdfunded rival that offers fantastic writing ability but isn’t without its flaws. Watch this great video I made:

The 10-inch DPT-CP1 has a couple small differences from its larger sibling. The screen has a slightly lower resolution but should be the same PPI — it’s more of a cutout of the original screen than a miniaturization. And it’s considerably lighter: 240 grams to the 13-inch version’s 350. Considering the latter already felt almost alarmingly light, this one probably feels like it’ll float out of your hands and enter orbit.

More important are the software changes. There’s a new mobile app for iOS and Android that should make loading and sharing documents easier. A new screen-sharing mode sounds handy but a little cumbrous — you have to plug it into a PC and then plug the PC into a display. And PDF handling has been improved so that you can jump to pages, zoom and pan and scan through thumbnails more easily. Limited interaction (think checkboxes) is also possible.

There’s nothing that addresses my main issue with both the RP1 and the reMarkable: that it’s a pain to do anything substantial on the devices, such as edit or highlight in a document, and if you do, it’s a pain to bring that work into other environments.

So for now it looks like the Digital Paper series will remain mostly focused on consuming content rather than creating or modifying it. That’s fine — I loved reading stuff on the device, and mainly just wished it were a bit smaller. Now that Sony has granted that wish, it can get to work on the rest.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Anthony Ha

When you hear about beer vending machine BeerBox, you might wonder: Why don’t we have machines like this already?

Founder Robert Gaafar explained that there are actually several reasons why beer vending machines haven’t made sense in the past. For one thing, there’s the obvious legal necessity of ensuring that people are 21 years or older. For another, many venues won’t sell you a closed container of alcohol, because it can be used as a projectile (so you either get draft beer in a cup, or an already opened can or bottle). Plus, a normal vending machine might shake up the can too much, resulting in a foamy mess.

So BeerBox is a vending machine that opens the can for you. The company is part of the accelerator at ZX Ventures, the innovation arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Gaafar said that if all goes well, BeerBox could eventually spin out as a separate company.

He added that BeerBox is meant to address “a pain that we’ve all felt” at concerts or festivals or ball games — the long lines at the bar: “It’s like, do I really want a drink? I might miss the next quarter.”

“These venues would love to sell more beer at the end of the day but they’re limited with real estate,” Gaafar said. “They can’t build more bars in the arenas, nor do they necessarily want to hire more people to staff that.”

The machine was developed in partnership with Intelligent Product Solutions. Ralph Cassara, the company’s senior director of architecture and embedded software, explained that the can-opening functionality represents even more of a “unique technical challenge” than you might think.

One aspect was simply studying how your fingers open a can of beer and figuring out how to replicate that mechanically. But Cassara also noted that the cans can be loaded into BeerBox top-first or bottom-first, so the machine needs to detect the can’s orientation, and then locate the tab at the top of the can.

And where another beer vending startup called Civic is focused on using blockchain to solve the age verification issue, Gaafar said that’s addressable with human checks — just put the BeerBox (or, eventually, multiple BeerBoxes) in an area that’s only accessible to guests who’ve shown their ID.

The current BeerBox prototype can hold 150 25-ounce cans of beer (though Gaafar said that will end up going down to 110 cans as the machine is redesigned for airflow). Payments are cashless, but the company is also planning new models that support secure, offline payments. And while the prototype we saw only dispensed Bud Light, he said it eventually will include a touchscreen for ordering multiple types of beer.

In the meantime, you’ll be able to see the BeerBox at select concert and sports venues this summer.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Matthew Lynley

The complexity and cost of packing an array of sensors and power inside a small amount of space has opened the door to a wider and wider variety of use cases for internet-connected devices beyond just smart thermostats or cameras — and also exposed a hole for getting those ideas into an actual piece of hardware.

So there are some startups that are looking to address this hole by providing developers a path to creating the customized chipsets they need to power those devices. zGlue is one of those, led by former Samsung engineering director Ming Zhang and former Misfit founder Sonny Vu.  The company’s chiplets are built around the kind of system-on-a-chip approach that you’ll see in most modern devices, where everything is in a single unit that reduces some of the complexity of moving processes around a larger piece of hardware — shrinking the space constraints and allowing all these actions to happen on a device, such as a smartphone. As more and more IoT devices come online, they may all have varying form factor demands, which means companies — like zGlue and others — are emerging to address those needs.

“From the developer point of view, think of us as a system that is not different from any thing else on the market, user-interface-wise,” Zhang said. “It is just smaller in size, faster in time to market, and flexible — customizable by individuals rather than just by Apple and Qualcomms. [We’re] democratizing chip innovation so it is no longer [a] privilege of Fortune 500 companies.”

The company’s first product is called the zOrigin, a “chip-stacking” product that aims to allow developers to embed the sensors and processes necessary for their devices. Stemming from an ARM 32-bit core processor (meaning it can handle more complex and precise calculations), the first launch costs $149 and can include pieces like a Bluetooth radio, accelerometers, and other necessary features.

zGlue’s chipsets have embedded memory, which is an increasingly common approach to try to reduce the number of trips going from the actual processing power to where the information is stored. Those trips cost power, speed, and can restrict the scope of use cases for internet-connected devices. Zhang said the chiplets are packaged closer together — literally reducing the space that information has to cross — in order to speed it up, though that of course carries consequences when it comes to heat constraints these processors can have.

“That’s the price to pay for the continuation of Moore’s law, as it has in the past 40 years,” Zhang said. “Heat dissipation in our system is not going to be any worse than a conventional system. In fact, with the silicon substrate in place, it’s easier to conduct heat compared to a conventional package or board substrate.”

As a kind of templated approach, zGlue is geared toward helping developers produce a custom setup that the can implement into devices that may require a wide set of sensors. The company says it looks to help developers go from a design to a prototype in a few weeks, and then reduce the turnaround time from a prototype to production in “weeks or months,” depending on the complexity and volume.

While this is one example of trying to get a prototype chip out into the wild, there are a few others as well. Si-Five, for example, offers developers a way to prototype custom silicon for their specific niches based on the hardware and IP the startup has. The goal there is to offer both a prototype flow and the ability to graduate into a production flow, allowing developers and companies to get products out the door that require custom silicon. Si-Five hardware is based on the RISC-V architecture, an open-source instruction set for silicon, and the company most recently raised $50.4 million.

Zhang, too, said RISC-V offers some potential, especially in its own scope. “RISC-V is a great tool to build small, fast, and low power IoT applications,” he said. “The nature of open source makes it more available to more people. We welcome and embrace RISC-V to join the family of ‘MCU’ chiplets supported by our technology.”

When it comes to inference — the machine learning processes that happen on the hardware to execute some kind of action, like image recognition, based on trained models — Zhang said the chipsets would support it, but he would not comment further. There is a blossoming ecosystem around custom silicon that looks to speed up inference on devices like cars or IoT devices, which is geared toward reducing the space and power constraints of those chips while also running those processes much more quickly. Companies like Mythic have raised significant venture funding in order to build that kind of hardware.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

In my endless quest to get geeks interested in watches I present to you the Bell & Ross BR V2-93 GMT 24H, a new GMT watch from one of my favorite manufacturers that is a great departure from the company’s traditional designs.

The watch is a 41mm round GMT, which means it has three hands to show the time in the 12-hour scale and another separate hand that shows the time in a 24-hour scale. You can use it to see time zones in two or even three places and it comes in a nice satin-brushed metal case with a rubber or metal strap.

B&R is unique because it’s one of the first companies to embrace online sales after selling primarily in watch stores for about a decade. This means the watches are slightly cheaper — this one is $3,500 — and jewelers can’t really jack up the prices in stores. Further, B&R has a great legacy of making legible, usable watches, and this one is no exception. It is also a fascinating addition to the line. B&R has an Instrument series, which consists of large, square watches with huge numerals, and a Vintage series that hearkens back to WWII-inspired, smaller watches. This one sits firmly in the middle, taking on the clear lines of the Instrument inside a more vintage case.

Ultimately watches like this one are nice tool watches — designed for legibility and usability above fashion. It’s a nice addition to the line and looks like something a proper geek could wear in lieu of Apple Watches and other nerd jewelry. Here’s hoping.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step towards fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option.

The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad. 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals, and Microsoft-made accessories plug in.

It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC is meant to enable it.

I’d go into detail, but it would be impossible to do better than Microsoft’s extremely interesting and in-depth post introducing the XAC, which goes into the origins of the hardware, the personal stories of the testers and creators, and much more. Absolutely worth taking the time to read.

I look forward to hearing more about the system and how its users put it to use, and I’m glad to see inclusivity and accessibility being pursued in such a practical and carefully researched manner.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Josh Constine

The worst thing about Spectacles is how closely tied they are to Snapchat. The proprietary circular photo and video format looks great inside Snapchat where you can tip your phone around while always staying full screen, but it gets reduced to a small circle with a big white border when you export it to your phone for sharing elsewhere.

Luckily, Snapchat has started beta testing new export formats for Spectacles through the beta version of its app. This lets you choose a black border instead of a white one, but importantly, also a horizontal 16:9 rectangular format that would fit well on YouTube and other traditional video players. The test was first spotted by Eric Johnson, and, when asked, a Snapchat spokesperson told TechCrunch “I can confirm we’re testing it, yes.”

Allowing Spectacles to be more compatible with other services could make the v2 of its $150 photo and video-recording sunglasses much more convenient and popular. I actually ran into the Snapchat Spectacles team this weekend at the FORM Arcosanti music festival in Arizona where they were testing the new Specs and looking for ideas for their next camera. I suggested open sourcing the circular format or partnering so other apps could show it natively with the swivel effect, and Snap declined to comment about that. But now it looks like they’re embracing compatibility by just letting you ditch the proprietary format.

Breaking away from purely vertical or circular formats is also a bit of a coup for Snapchat, which has touted vertical as the media orientation of the future as that’s how we hold our phones. Many other apps, including Facebook’s Snapchat clones, adopted this idea. But with Snapchat’s growth slipping to its lowest rate ever, it may need to think about new ways to gain exposure elsewhere.

Seeing Spectacles content on other apps without ugly borders could draw attention back to Snapchat, or at least help Spectacles sell better than v1, which only sold 220,000 pairs and had to write-off hundreds of thousands more that were gathering dust in warehouses. While it makes sense why Snap might have wanted to keep the best Spectacles content viewing experience on its own app, without user growth, that’s proven a software limitation for what’s supposed to be a camera company.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

It may be old-fashioned, but I find dedicated MP3 players wonderful little devices. I’ve used tons over the years (the Zune HD is still the best) and I’m glad to see they live on in some fashion, even if it’s as an objet d’art jammed with audiophile knick-knacks and a $700 price tag: Astell&Kern’s A&norma SR15.

Look at that thing! The ground of the tech world is littered with anonymous-looking lozenges made to appeal to as many people as possible. Then you have this thing.

What a design choice, to tilt the screen like that and form the rest of the device from prism-like complementary rectangles! The site even has a “design concept” page, on which it points out that this isn’t a purely aesthetic choice:

The slight angle and precise, mindful alignment show the empty space and tones that fills the space.
From any angle, or either hand you hold your device, it does not hinder the display screen and offers the best grip.

Isn’t that wonderful? And it’s even kind of true! Those areas we so carefully avoid with our fingers or thumbs are now grippable.

Meanwhile, the tilted screen also makes room for the knurled volume knob, while simultaneously protecting it from unwanted touches. And the angle of the screen makes for a visual hint for the power button.

I just love how risky this design is, how eye-catching, how simultaneously practical and impractical. We need much more of that in tech. This device has more personality than every iPhone since the 6 — combined.

Inside is the usual blast of audio jargon: Cirrus Logic Dual DAC, native direct stream digital, 24-bit 192KHz playback, balanced 2.5mm headphone out and a quad-core CPU to support it all. Do you need any of that? Probably not, but a few people might, and at least you’ll be sure this thing will play pretty much anything you throw at it and sound great doing so.

I’ve used a few of A&K’s previous products, and can testify that they’re extremely well-built and feel great to use, though the screens are a bit low-resolution and the UI can be lacking. The 3.3-inch screen isn’t going to blow anyone away with its 800×480 resolution, but it should be sharp enough, and the UI got a redo between the devices I’ve used and the SR15. I’m eager to see if it’s more fun to use now.

The A&norma SR15 is available now for anyone with a pocket full of money to burn.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Cornell researchers have made a little robot that can express its emotions through touch, sending out little spikes when its scared or even getting goosebumps to express delight or excitement. The prototype, a cute smiling creature with rubber skin, is designed to test touch as an I/O system for robotic projects.

The robot mimics the skin of octopi which can turn spiky when threatened.

The researchers, Yuhan Hu, Zhengnan Zhao, Abheek Vimal, and Guy Hoffman, created the robot to experiment with new methods for robot interaction. They compare the skin to “human goosebumps, cats’ neck fur raising, dogs’ back hair, the needles of a porcupine, spiking of a blowfish, or a bird’s ruffled feathers.”

“Research in human-robot interaction shows that a robot’s ability to use nonverbal behavior to communicate affects their potential to be useful to people, and can also have psychological effects. Other reasons include that having a robot use nonverbal behaviors can help make it be perceived as more familiar and less machine-like,” the researchers told IEEE Spectrum.

The skin has multiple configurations and is powered by a computer-controlled elastomer that can inflate and deflate on demand. The goosebumps pop up to match the expression on the robot’s face, allowing humans to better understand what the robot “means” when it raises its little hackles or gets bumpy. I, for one, welcome our bumpy robotic overlords.