All posts in “Gadgets”

Shine Bathroom raises $750K for a smart home add-on that flushes away your toilet doldrums

One ongoing theme in the world of smart homes has been the emergence of gadgets and other tools that can turn “ordinary” objects and systems into “connected” ones — removing the need to replace things wholesale that still essentially work, while still applying technology to improve the ways that they can be used.

In the latest development, a smart home startup from Santa Barbara called Shine Bathroom has raised $750,000 in seed funding to help build and distribute its first product: an accessory that you attach to an existing toilet to make it a “smart toilet.”

It’s a dirty business, but someone had to do it.

Shine’s immediate goal is to flush away the old, ecologically unfriendly way of cleaning toilets; and to provide the tools to detect when something is not working right in the plumbing, even helping you fix it without calling out a plumber.

The longer-term vision is to apply technology and science to rethink the whole bathroom to put less strain on our natural resources, and to use it in a way that lines up with what we want to do as consumers, using this first product to test that market.

“Bathrooms are evolving from places where we practice basic hygiene to where we prepare ourselves for the day,” said Chris Herbert, the founder and CEO of Shine. “Wellness and self care will be happening more in the home, and this is a big opportunity.”

Intro

Shine’s first injection of money is coming from two VCs also based in Southern California: Entrada Ventures (like Shine also in Santa Barbara), and Mucker Capital, an LA fund specifically backing startups not based in Silicon Valley (others in its current porfolio include Naritiv, Everipedia and Next Trucking).

The Shine Bathroom Assistant, as the first product is called, is currently being sold via Indiegogo starting at $99, with the first products expected to ship in February 2020.

It’s a fitting challenge for a hardware entrepreneur: toilets are a necessary part of our modern lives, but they are unloved, and they haven’t really been innovated for a long time.

Herbert admitted to me (and I’m sure Freud would have something to say here, too) that this has been something of a years-long obsession, stretching back to when he made a trip to Japan as a sophomore in high school and was struck by how companies like Toto were innovating in the business, with fancy, all-cleaning (and all-singing and dancing) loos.

“We thought to ourselves, how could we make a better bathroom?” he said. “We decided that the answer was through software. When you take a thesis like that, you can see lots of opportunity.”

Sized similar to an Amazon Echo or other connected home speaker, Shine’s toilet attachment is battery operated and comes in three parts: a water vessel, a sensor and spraying nozzle that you place inside your toilet bowl, and a third sensor fitted with an accelerometer that you attach to the main line that fills up the toilet’s tank. The vessel is filled with tap water (which you replace periodically).

That water is passed through a special filter that electrolyzes it (by sending a current through the water) and then sprays it with every flush to clean and deodarize. Shine claims this spraying technique is five times as powerful as traditional deodarizing spray, and as powerful as bleach, but without the harsh chemicals: the water converts back into saline after it does its work. (And to be clear, there are no soaps or other detergents involved.)

Alongside the cleaning features, the second part of the bathroom assistant is Sam, an AI on your phone. Linked up to the hardware and sensors, Sam identifies common toilet problems, such as leaks that trickle out hundreds of gallons of water, by measuring variations in vibrations, and when it does, it sends out a free repair kit to fix it yourself.

Users can also link up Sam to work with Alexa to order the machine to clean, check water levels, and do more in future.

AlexaAskSam

The solution of monitoring vibrations is notable for how it links up with a past entrepreneurial life for Herbert and some of his team.

Herbert was one of two co-founders of Trackr, a Tile-like product that also played on the idea of making “dumb” objects smart: Trackr’s basic product was a small fob with Bluetooth inside it that could be attached to keys, wallets, bags and more to find their location when they were misplaced.

The company’s longer term goals extended into the area of IoT and how “dumb” machines could be made smarter by attaching sensors to them to monitor vibrations and sounds to determine how they were working — concepts that never materialised at Trackr but have found a new life at Shine.

On the other hand, Trackr is a cautionary tale about how a good idea can be inspiring, but not always enough.

The startup in its time raised more than $70 million, from a set of investors that included Amazon, Revolution, NTT, the Foundry Group and more. Ultimately, the basic concept was too commoditized (trackers are a dime a dozen on Amazon), Tile emerged as the market leader among the independents — a position it’s used to evolve its product — but even so, that’s before we’ve even determined if there really is a profitable business to be had here, and if platform companies potentially make their move to upset it in a different way.

Eventually, Trackr’s team (including Herbert) scattered and a new leadership team came in and rebranded to Adero . Now, even that team is gone, with the CEO Nate Kelly and others decamping to Glowforge. Multiple attempts to contact the company have been unanswered, although from what we understand, it’s not down for the count just yet. (Watch this space.)

“There is still something there, and I hope they can do something,” Herbert said of his previous startup.  

Meanwhile, he and several of his ex-Trackr colleagues have now turned their attention to a new shiny challenge, the toilet and the bigger bathroom where it sits, and investors want in.

“We were impressed by Shine’s vision for a bathroom to better prepare us for our day head and saw a massively overlooked opportunity in the bathroom space” said Taylor Tyng from Entrada Ventures.

The Los Angeles Fire Department wants more drones

As it looks to modernize its operations, the Los Angeles Fire Department is turning to a number of new technologies, including expanding its fleet of drones for a slew of new deployments.

One of the largest fire departments in the U.S., next to New York and Chicago, the LAFD has a budget of roughly $691 million, employs more than 3,500 and responded to 492,717 calls in 2018.

The department already has a fleet of 11 drones to complement its fleet of 258 fire engines, ambulances and helicopters.

However, Battalion Chief Richard Fields, the head of the department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program, would like to see that number increase significantly.

Los Angeles has become an early leader in the use of drones for its firefighting applications thanks in part to an agreement with the Chinese company DJI, which the department inked back in April.

At the time, the Chinese drone manufacturer and imaging technology developer announced an agreement to test and deploy DJI drones as an emergency response preparedness tool. The company called it one DJI’s largest partnerships with a fire-fighting agency in the U.S.

“We are excited to be strengthening our partnership with the LAFD, one of the nation’s preeminent public safety agencies, to help them take advantage of DJI’s drone technology that has been purpose-built for the public safety sector,” said Bill Chen, Enterprise Partnerships manager at DJI, in a statement at the time. “Through our two-way collaboration, DJI will receive valuable insight into the complexities of deploying drones for emergency situations in one of the most complex urban environments in the nation.”

Now, roughly five months later, the program seems to have been successful enough that Battalion Chief Fields is looking to double the fleet.

“Our next iteration is to start using our drones to assist our specialized resources,” said Fields. Those are firefighters and support crews that deal with hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, marine environments and swift water rescues, Fields said.

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The LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team. Photo courtesy of Flickr/ LAFD Mike Horst

The technologal demands of the fire department extend beyond the drone itself, Fields said. “There are a lot of technologies that allows us to make the drone more versatile… the most valuable tool isn’t the drone; it’s the sensor.”

So far, the most useful application has been using infrared technologies to balance what’s visible and combine it with the heat signatures the sensors pick up.

Training to become a drone pilot for the LAFD is particularly intense, Fields says. The typical pilot will get up to 80 hours of training. “Our training is nation-leading. There’s nothing out there in the commercial market that beats it,” according to Fields.

For now, the entire LAFD fleet is composed of DJI drones, something that has given military and civilian officials pause in the past few years.

Concerns have been growing over the reliance on Chinese technology in core American infrastructure, extending from networking technology companies like Huawei to drone technology developers like DJI.

Back in 2018, the Department of Defense issued a ban on the acquisition and use of commercial drones, citing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The ban came a year after officials from the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress called out DJI specifically for its potential to be used by the Chinese government to spy on the United States.

However, the rule isn’t set in stone, and many branches of the military continue to use DJI drones, according to a September Voice of America News report.

In Los Angeles, Fields says he takes those concerns seriously. The department has worked closely with regulators and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to craft a strict policy around what gets done with the data the LAFD collects.

“The way that we establish our program is that the drone provides us with our real-time situational awareness,” said Fields. “That helps the incident commander get a visual perspective of the problem and he can make better decisions.”

The only data that is recorded and kept, says Fields, is data collected around brush fires so the LAFD can do a damage assessment, which can later be turned into map layers to keep records of hotspots.

As for data that could be sent back to China, Fields says that any mapping of critical infrastructure is done without connecting to the internet. “It’s being collected on the drone and 90% of that information is how the drone is operating. There is some information of where the drone is and how it is and the [latitude] and [longitude] of the drone itself… That’s the data that’s being collected,” Fields says. 

From Fields’ perspective, if the government is so concerned about the use of drones made by a foreign manufacturer, there’s an easy solution. Just regulate it.

“Let’s come up with a standard. If you use them in a federal airspace these are the check marks that you have to pass,” he says. “Saying that DJI drones are bad because they come from China [and] let’s throw them all out… that’s not an answer either.”

The new iPhone is ugly

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to phones. Everyone scoffs at my iPhone SE, but the truth is it’s the best phone Apple ever made — a beautiful, well designed object in just about every way. But damn is the iPhone 11 Pro ugly. And so are the newest phones from Samsung and Google, while we’re at it.

Let’s just get right to why the new iPhones are ugly, front and back. And sideways. We can start with the notch. Obviously it’s not new, but I thought maybe this would be some kind of generational anomaly that we’d all look back and laugh at in a year or two. Apparently it’s sticking around.

I know a lot of people have justified the notch to themselves in various ways — it technically means more raw screen space, it accommodates the carrier and battery icons, it’s necessary for unlocking the phone with your face.

Yeah, but it’s ugly.

If they removed the notch, literally no one would want the version with the notch, because it’s so plainly and universally undesirable. If Apple’s engineers could figure out a way to have no notch, they’d have done it by now, but they can’t and I bet they are extremely frustrated by that. They try to hide it with the special notch-camouflaging wallpaper whenever they can, which is as much as saying, “hey, we hate looking at it too.”

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You can forget for a few seconds. But in the back of your mind you know it’s there. Everyone knows.

It’s a prominent, ugly compromise (among several) necessitated by a feature no one asked for and people can’t seem to figure out if they even like or not. Notches are horrible and any time you see one, it means a designer cried themselves to sleep. To be fair that probably happens quite a bit. I grew up around designers and they can be pretty sensitive, like me.

I’m not a big fan of the rounded screen corners for a couple reasons, but I’ll let that go because I envision a future where it doesn’t matter. You remember how in Battlestar Galactica the corners were clipped off all the paper? We’re on our way.

Having the screen extend to the very edge of the device on the other hand isn’t exactly ugly, but it’s ugly in spirit. The whole front of the phone is an interface now, which would be fine if it could tell when you were gripping the screen for leverage and not to do something with it. As it is, every side and corner has some kind of dedicated gesture that you have to be wary of activating. It’s so bad people have literally invented a thing that sticks out from the back of your phone so you can hold it that way. Popsockets wouldn’t be necessary if you could safely hold your phone the way you’d hold any other object that shape.

iphone 11 pro

The back is ugly now, too. Man, is that camera bump bad. Bump is really the wrong word. It looks like the iPhone design team took a field trip to a maritime history museum, saw the deep sea diving helmets, and thought, Boom. That’s what we need. Portholes. To make our phone look like it could descend to 4,000 fathoms. Those helmets are actually really cool looking when they’re big and made of strong, weathered brass. Not on a thin, fragile piece of electronics. Here it’s just a huge, chunky combination of soft squares and weirdly arranged circles — five of them! — that completely take over the otherwise featureless rear side of the phone.

The back of the SE is designed to mirror the front, with a corresponding top and bottom “bezel.” In the best looking SE (mine) the black top bezel almost completely hides the existence of the camera (unfortunately there’s a visible flash unit); it makes the object more like an unbroken solid, its picture-taking abilities more magical. The camera is completely flush with the surface of the back, which is itself completely flush except for texture changes.

The back of the iPhone 11 Pro has a broad plain, upon which sits the slightly higher plateau of the camera assembly. Above that rise the three different little camera volcanoes, and above each of those the little calderas of the lenses. And below them the sunken well of the microphone. Five different height levels, producing a dozen different heights and edges! Admittedly the elevations aren’t so high, but still.

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If it was a dedicated camera or another device that by design needed and used peaks and valleys for grip or eyes-free navigation, that would be one thing. But the iPhone is meant to be smooth, beautiful, have a nice handfeel. With this topographic map of Hawaii on the back? Have fun cleaning out the grime from in between the volcanoes, then knocking the edge of the lens against a table as you slide the phone into your hand.

Plus it’s ugly.

The sides of the phones aren’t as bad as the front and back, but we’ve lost a lot since the days of the SE. The geometric simplicity of the + and – buttons, the hard chamfered edge that gave you a sure grip, the black belts that boldly divided the sides into two strips and two bows. And amazingly, due to being made of actual metal, the more drops an SE survives, the cooler it looks.

The sides of the new iPhones look like bumpers from cheap model cars. They look like elongated jelly beans, with smaller jelly beans stuck on that you’re supposed to touch. Gross.

That’s probably enough about Apple. They forgot about good design a long time ago, but the latest phones were too ugly not to call out.

Samsung has a lot of the same problems as Apple. Everyone has to have an “edge to edge” display now, and the Galaxy S10 is no exception. But it doesn’t really go to the edge, does it? There’s a little bezel on the top and bottom, but the bottom one is a little bigger. I suppose it reveals the depths of my neurosis to say so, but that would never stop bugging me if I had one. If it was a lot bigger, like HTC’s old “chins,” I’d take it as a deliberate design feature, but just a little bigger? That just means they couldn’t make one small enough.

sung 10

As for the display slipping over the edges, it’s cool looking in product photos, but I’ve never found it attractive in real life. What’s the point? And then from anywhere other than straight on, it makes it look more lopsided, or like you’re missing something on the far side.

Meanwhile it not only has bezels and sometime curves, but a hole punched out of the front. Oh my god!

Here’s the thing about a notch. When you realize as a phone designer that you’re going to have to take over a big piece of the front, you also look at what part of the screen it leaves untouched. In Apple’s case it’s the little horns on either side — great, you can at least put the status info there. There might have been a little bit left above the front camera and Face ID stuff, but what can you do with a handful of vertical pixels? Nothing. It’ll just be a distraction. Usually there was nothing interesting in the middle anyway. So you just cut it all out and go full notch.

Samsung on the other hand decided to put the camera in the top right, and keep a worthless little rind of screen all around it. What good is that part of the display now? It’s too small to show anything useful, yet the hole is too big to ignore while you’re watching full-screen content. If their aim was to make something smaller and yet even more disruptive than a notch, mission accomplished. It’s ugly on all the S10s, but the big wide notch-hole combo on the S10 5G 6.7″ phablet is the ugliest.

galaxy s10 camera

The decision to put all the rear cameras in a long window, like the press box at a hockey game, is a bold one. There’s really not much you can do to hide 3 giant lenses, a flash, and that other thing. Might as well put them front and center, set off with a black background and chrome rim straight out of 2009. Looks like something you’d get pointed at you at the airport. At least the scale matches the big wide “SAMSUNG” on the back. Bold — but ugly.

Google’s Pixel 4 isn’t as bad, but it’s got its share of ugly. I don’t need to spend too much time on it, though, because it’s a lot of the same, except in pumpkin orange for Halloween season. I like the color orange generally, but I’m not sure about this one. Looks like a seasonal special phone you pick up in a blister pack from the clearance shelf at Target, the week before Black Friday — two for $99, on some cut-rate MVNO. Maybe it’s better in person, but I’d be afraid some kid would take a bite out of my phone thinking it’s a creamsicle.

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The lopsided bezels on the front are worse than the Samsung’s, but at least it looks deliberate. Like they wanted to imply their phone is smart so they gave it a really prominent forehead.

I will say that of the huge, ugly camera assemblies, the Pixel’s is the best. It’s more subtle, like being slapped in the face instead of kicked in the shins so hard you die. And the diamond pattern is more attractive for sure. Given the square (ish) base, I’m surprised someone on the team at Google had the rather unorthodox idea to rotate the cameras 45 degrees. Technically it produces more wasted space, but it looks better than four circles making a square inside a bigger, round square.

And it looks a hell of a lot better than three circles in a triangle, with two smaller circles just kind of hanging out there, inside a bigger, round square. That iPhone is ugly!

VR/AR startup valuations reach $45 billion (on paper)

Despite early-stage virtual reality market and augmented reality market valuations softening in a transitional period, total global AR/VR startup valuations are now at $45 billion globally — include non-pure play AR/VR startups discussed below, and that amount exceeds $67 billion. More than $8 billion has been returned to investors through M&A already, with the remaining augmented and virtual reality startups carrying more than $36 billion valuations on paper. Only time will tell how much of this value gets realized for investors.

(Note: this analysis is of AR/VR startup valuations only, excluding internal investment by large corporates like Facebook . Again, this analysis is of valuation, not revenue.)

Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

Selected AR/VR companies that have raised funding or generated significant revenue, plus selected corporates as of September 2019.

There is significant value concentration, with just 18 AR/VR pure plays accounting for half of the $45 billion global figure. Some of the large valuations are for Magic Leap (well over $6 billion), Niantic (nearly $4 billion), Oculus ($3 billion from exit to Facebook), Beijing Moviebook Technology ($1 billion+) and Lightricks ($1 billion). While there are unicorns, the market hasn’t seen an AR/VR decacorn yet.

Across all industries — not just AR/VR — around 60% of VC-backed startups fail, not 90% as often quoted. That doesn’t mean this many startups crash and burn, but that 60% of startups deliver less than 1x return on investment (ROI) to investors (i.e. investors get less back than they put in). To better understand what’s happening in AR/VR, let’s analyze the thousands of startup valuations in Digi-Capital’s AR/VR Analytics Platform to see where the smart money is by sector, stage and country.

Every state but Alaska has reported vape lung victims, now numbering 1,479 nationwide

A lung condition apparently caused by vaping has been reported in every state but Alaska, the CDC has announced. The total number of suspected and confirmed cases has risen to 1,479, and at least 33 people have died as a result of the affliction.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) updates these numbers regularly and provides news on its progress in characterizing the condition, in which the only reliable shared factor is using vaping devices. More victims report using THC products than nicotine, but no specific chemical or mechanism has been proposed as the cause.

At the outset it appeared that the problem might have been rooted in a bad batch of unofficial vape cartridges tinged with some toxic chemical — and indeed the CDC has warned against buying vaping materials from any untrustworthy sources. But the scale of the problem has continuously grown and is now clearly nationwide, not local.

The demographics skew male (70 percent of victims) and younger: 79 percent are under 35, with a median of 23 (though for deaths the median is 44). 78 percent reported using THC products, while only 10 percent reported only using nicotine.

Reported victims are concentrated in Illinois and California, in both of which over a hundred cases have been reported, but that should not be taken as an indicator that states with fewer cases, like Kentucky and Oregon, are immune — they may simply be late to report. Likewise for U.S. territories, where only the Virgin Islands have reported cases — Puerto Rico and others are likely to be equally at risk.

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If you use a vaping device and are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain (though other symptoms are also associated), you should probably check with your doctor. In the meantime the CDC has recommended ceasing all use of vaping products, though as many have pointed out that may end up pushing some users back to cigarettes. Angry about that? Direct it at the vaping companies, which promoted their products as smoking cessation tools without adequate testing.

The CDC and FDA, along with state and municipal health authorities and partners, are working on determining the cause and any potential treatments of the “lung injury associated with e-cigarette use,” as they call it. Tests and sampling efforts are underway — efforts that probably should have been done before these products were allowed on the market.

You can keep up with the latest stats at the CDC’s dedicated page.