All posts in “Gadgets”

zGlue launches a configurable system-on-a-chip to help developers implement customized chipsets

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.  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 for the wearable and development board 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.

Bell & Ross releases a new watch for travelers

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.

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is an inspiring example of inclusive design

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.

Snapchat Spectacles tests non-circular landscape exports

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.

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