All posts in “Gadgets”

GN acquires Altia Systems for $125M to add video to its advanced audio solutions

Some interesting M&A is afoot in the world of hardware and software that’s aiming to improve the quality of audio and video communications over digital networks.

GN Group — the Danish company that broke new ground in mobile when it inked deals first with Apple and then Google to stream audio from their phones directly to smart, connected hearing aids — is expanding from audio to video, and from Europe to Silicon Valley.

Today, the company announced that it would acquire Altia Systems, a startup out of Cupertino that makes a “surround” videoconferencing device and software called the PanaCast (we reviewed it oncedesigned to replicate the panoramic, immersive experience of vision that we have as humans

GN is paying $125 million for the startup. For some context, this price represents a decent return: according to PitchBook, Altia was last valued at around $78 million with investors including Intel Capital and others.

Intel’s investment was one of several strategic partnerships that Altia had inked over the years. (Another was with Zoom to provide a new video solution for Uber.)

The Intel partnership, for one, will continue post-acquisition. “Intel invested in Altia Systems to bring an industry leading immersive, Panoramic-4K camera experience to business video collaboration,” said Dave Flanagan, Vice President of Intel Corporation and Senior Managing Director of Intel Capital, in a statement. “Over the past few years, Altia Systems has collaborated with Intel to use AI and to deliver more intelligent conference rooms and business meetings. This helps customers make better decisions, automate workflows and improve business efficiency. We are excited to work with GN to further scale this technology on a global basis.”

We have seen a lot of applications of AI in just about every area of technology, but one of the less talked about, but very interesting, areas has been in how it’s being used to enhance audio in digital network. Pindrop, as one example, is creating and tracking “audio fingerprints” for security applications, specifically fraud prevention (to authenticate users and to help weed out imposters based not just on the actual voice but on all the other aural cues we may not pick up as humans but can help build a picture of a caller’s location and so on).

GN, meanwhile, has been building AI-based algorithms to help those who cannot hear as well, or who simply needs to hear better, be able to listen to calls on digital networks and make out what’s being said. This not only requires technology to optimise the audio quality, but also algorithms that can help tailor that quality to the specific person’s own unique hearing needs.

One of the more obvious applications of services like these are for those who are hard of hearing and use hearing aids (which can be awful or impossible to use with mobile phones), another is in call centers, and this appears to be the area where GN is hoping to address with the Altia acquisition.

GN already offers two products for call centre workers, Jabra and BlueParrot — headsets and speakerphones with their own proprietary software that it claims makes workers more efficient and productive just by making it easier to understand what callers are saying.

Altia will be integrated into that solution to expand it to include videoconferencing around unified communications solutions, creating more natural experiences for those who are not actually in physical rooms together.

“Combining GN Audio’s sound expertise, partner eco-system and global channel access with the video technology from Altia Systems, we will take the experience of conference calls to a completely new level,” said René Svendsen-Tune, President and CEO of GN Audio, in a statement.

What’s notable is that GN is a vertically-integrated company, building not just hardware but software to run on it. The AI engine underpinning some of its software development will be getting a vast new trove of data fed into it now by way of the PanaCast solution: not jut in terms of video, but the large amount of audio that will naturally come along with it.

“Combining PanaCast’s immersive, intelligent video with GN Audio’s intelligent audio solutions will enable us to deliver a whole new class of collaboration products for our customers,” said Aurangzeb Khan, President and CEO of Altia Systems, in a statement. “PanaCast’s solutions enable companies to improve meeting participants’ experience, automate workflows, and enhance business efficiency and real estate utilization with data lakes of valid information.”

Given GN’s work with Android and iOS devices, it will be interesting to see how and if these video solutions make their way to those platforms as well, either by way of solutions that work on their phones or perhaps more native integrations down the line.

Regardless of how that develops, what’s clear is that there remains a market not just for basic tools to get work done, but technology to improve the quality of those tools, and that’s where GN hopes it will resonate with this deal.

Litho is a finger-worn controller for augmented reality, IoT and other ‘spatial’ interactions

I first encountered the founders of Litho, a new hardware and software startup developing a new finger-worn controller, at London’s Pitch@Palace last April. The event sees startups pitch in front of the British royal family and other esteemed guests, and naturally the company’s young founders, 24-year-old Nat Martin (CEO) and 25-year-old Charlie Bruce (CTO), were a little overawed by the occasion, just like many of the other founders pitching that day. However, perhaps unbeknown to them, Litho was also one of the more notable companies, not least because, as the saying goes, hardware is hard.

Fast forward to today and the young company is ready to show the world the first publicly available iteration of what it has been building: an innovative finger-worn device that provides control over various “spatial interactions” and should find applications ranging from AR and VR to the smart home and the control of other IoT devices. The next stage for Litho is to offer the controller and access to its SDK to developers who join the startup’s beta programme for $199/£179.

“Computing is increasingly structured around the real world rather than the desktop,” says Litho’s Nat Martin. “With the advent of smart devices such as lights, thermostats, and door locks, physical things are becoming digitally connected. Equally, with the advent of AR, digital things are becoming physically anchored in the real world. These are two sides of the same coin — digital interactions are entering physical space”.

However, the status quo is for the smartphone to be the primary interface for these spatial interactions, but smartphones were designed to interact with 2D content on screens and are therefore struggling to make the leap. “Trying to interact with objects in the real world through a smartphone is like trying to do heart surgery with a spork,” says Martin. “More often than not our phones end up being a frustrating barrier to the digital world, rather than a tool to enable interactions with it”.

To solve this problem requires a combination of hardware and software, while the Litho device itself is described as an unobtrusive finger-worn controller that connects via Bluetooth Low Energy to a smartphone or AR headset. The controller has a capacitive touch surface on the underside, which allows for precise 2D input, scrolling and tapping. But, more significantly, it also has an array of motion sensors and provides haptic feedback.

The Litho SDK uses the popular 3D game development platform Unity, and Martin says developers will be able to make apps that can not only identify the direction (/vector) in which the wearer is pointing, but what they are pointing at in the real world. It also provides an interaction framework of off-the-shelf solutions for core interactions, including templates for tools such as object creation, movement and deletion, making it easier for developers to quickly build “delightful and intuitive experiences”.

“Having an input device designed from the ground up for 3D interaction opens a whole new paradigm of mobile interactions,” he adds. “Instead of an awkward and frustrating interface, developers can create precise yet effortless interactions in 3D space. This opens up a whole new range of use cases — architects and designers can create precise 3D models in the context of the real world, and gamers can create a virtual theme park in their back garden simply by pointing and drawing. At home, instead of opening up a smartphone app, searching for the right bulb, and operating a virtual dimmer, you can simply point and swipe to dim your lights”.

Meanwhile, Litho has already picked up a number of notable investors. The burgeoning startup has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from U.S. venture firm Greycroft, Paul Heydon (an early investor in Unity and Supercell), and Chris Albinson (who co-led investments in DocuSign, Pinterest and Turo), along with several other unnamed angel investors.

Apple could release a 16-inch MacBook Pro and a a 31-inch 6K display

Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo is quite reliable when it comes to Apple’s roadmap. And he shared a ton of information over the weekend in a new report obtained by 9to5mac. In 2019, you can expect a bigger MacBook Pro, a new display and upgrades to iPhones, iPads and AirPods.

Let’s start with the Mac. According to Kuo, Apple has been working on a MacBook Pro with an all-new design. It’s unclear if those future models will retain the same keyboard as many users have been complaining about the reliability of the butterfly keyboard.

But Kuo learned that there will be a bigger model with a 16-inch to 16.5-inch display. Let’s hope that Apple is going to trim down the bezels around the display.

TechCrunch already reported that Apple will release a new Mac Pro in 2019. But Kuo believes that the company is also going to release a high-end display to go with this Mac Pro. It could be a gigantic 31.6-inch display with a 6k resolution.

When it comes to iPhones, Kuo believes that Apple will release three models just like in 2018. They should retain the same screen sizes and Lightning connector. Some models may have three camera sensors on the back of the device. Face ID and wireless charging could both receive an upgrade with bilateral wireless charging.

It means that you could charge a second device using your phone, which is a great idea when you know that updated AirPods with a wireless charging case are also coming in 2019.

On the iPad front, the entry-level 9.7-inch iPad could become a 10.2-inch iPad with slimmer bezels. iPad Pro models will receive an update with faster processors.

As previously reported, a new iPad mini is still on the roadmap as well as an updated iPod touch. Finally, it sounds like the Apple Watch might only receive a minor update with ECG coming to international markets as well as a return of the ceramic option for the next version of the Apple Watch.

Samsung gives up on Blu-ray players in the U.S.

Samsung is throwing in the towel on Blu-ray players, in the U.S. at least.

“Samsung will no longer introduce new Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray player models in the US market,” the company told CNET, in response to an earlier report in Forbes

That doesn’t mean you can’t still get your hands on a Samsung Blu-ray player — retailers have plenty of older models in stock by the look of it — but if you were holding out for a new high-end player you’ll have to go with another brand. As Engadget points out, there were already good reasons to opt for one of Samsung’s competitors, anyway. Namely, that Samsung doesn’t support Dolby Vision (it uses a different HDR standard).

That kind of competition may have ultimately contributed to the company’s decision to pull out of the U.S. market, though Samsung didn’t give a reason for its decision. Of course, the biggest hindrance to any company making Blu-ray players in 2019 isn’t competing HDR standards, but the ubiquity of streaming services like Netflix. And with 4K content becoming more and more common on these services, physical discs are an even tougher sell.

That said, other tech giants appear to be committed to Blu-ray. Both Sony and Panasonic showed off high-end players at CES, so Samsung’s exit doesn’t necessarily portend the end of your home theater. 

Still, that Samsung — which only just introduced its first 4K Blu-ray player three years ago — has decided to give up on the product is a sign that the tech could soon become a lot more niche.

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Apple acquires talking Barbie voicetech startup PullString

Apple has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. The company makes voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise $44 million.

Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying PullString could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers.

PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but countered by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes.

We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available. .

The startup raised its cash from investors including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.