Our favorite startups from 500 Startups’ 19th class

Almabase

With federal funding for universities in a nose dive, Almabase wants to step in to be the one-stop-shop for alumni associations looking to build rapport with alumni — and ultimately raise money. Founders Sri Maneru and Kalyan Varma noticed that donation rates were considerably higher for charities than universities and figured that if they could move the needle even a little, the quality of higher education could see improvements.

Today, colleges often use Facebook groups and other manual systems to organize alumni, but they’re rarely comprehensive. Instead, Almabase combines career services, event planning, mentorship, networking and donations into a single service. Some schools that have tested the system have seen close to a 5X increase in donations — of course, it’s important to remember that some schools do have robust systems in place to manage their networks, but not everyone shares the same resources.

This privacy app may work for White House aides, but it’s still a mystery

White House staff are using an app called Confide.
White House staff are using an app called Confide.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Endorsements are a solid way to vault a product into a new stratosphere, and there are perhaps few better endorsements than the White House. 

Signal and WhatsApp are the current darlings for anyone interested in sending secure texts on their phone, but an app called Confide got a huge — uh — signal boost on Monday when The Washington Post reported that staffers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were using it because they are afraid of being “accused of talking to the media.”

But how exactly does Confide work, and how secure is it?

Confide’s website stakes the app’s appeal on three pillars. First, it claims “military-grade” encryption. Second, the texts disappear as soon as they’re read. Third, your messages can’t be screenshotted. This all fits with the app’s motto of sorts, which is that they believe texts should be as private as “the spoken word.” 

“If the reports that U.S. political operatives are using Confide are accurate, we think it makes sense, regardless of which side of the aisle they’re on,” Jon Brod, co-founder and president of Confide, said via email. “Confide is particularly useful for people who communicate sensitive information as a matter of course.”

That may well be true. Confide may have “military grade” end-to-end encryption. The feature that erases messages on sight may make it the best privacy-conscious chat app there is. But it’s a claim that’s hard to make or refute for anyone outside the company, because Confide’s source code isn’t publicly available. And several experts have questioned how secured it really is.

“Confide looks like an unknown.”

“Signal and WhatsApp are two apps that are well-respected among the security community,” said David Wagner, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “They’ve gotten quite a bit of scrutiny and analysis, and on the whole they seem to be pretty good, pretty secure. Confide looks like an unknown.”

Wagner waved off concerns others have raised about Confide’s compliance with government encrypted standards, saying such things are more a “compliance” ordeal than a security concern. But without being able to dig into the source code, he’s a little worried Confide could be too much like Snapchat. 

Snaps disappear a few seconds after a user sees them, but Snap Inc. endured a string of bad press after users learned their messages weren’t actually deleted. And if they’re not deleted, that means they can be recovered, even if not by your average internet sleuth. 

Confide may be nothing like Snapchat in this regard, but without the source code, Wagner says it’s not possible to tell. And hey, more than a few past stories have called Confide the “Snapchat for business.”

For now, White House staff will probably keep using it. And leaks to the media will probably keep coming.

Artist creates satirical ‘monument’ to Donald Trump in VR

While you’re sitting on the sidelines wondering if VR is worth the cost of entry, visual artists are embracing the medium — and making political statements in the process. 

One of those artists is Dante Orpilla, a Los Angeles-based traditional painter and illustrator who just picked up the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive a few months ago. Orpilla, who also happens to work full-time at Reddit as a designer, uses the full range of VR tools to lay out his vision, including Oculus apps Quill and Medium

His latest work is called “The Trump Memorial,” a Medium sculpture he shared on Instagram. Accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek text description, the work serves as a commentary on the U.S. president’s immigration policy and addiction to Twitter. 

But beyond art-meets-politics statements, it’s the new canvas of virtual reality that appears to have truly captured the artist’s imagination. 

“This new medium is an entirely different beast,” says Orpilla. “On a piece of paper, or canvas, or wall, or even computer screen … you have clearly defined boundaries.”

“Those rules don’t exist in VR. It’s like closing your eyes and dreaming … It’s exciting and scary at the same time.”

But that Medium sculpture isn’t even his best work. The most impressive of Orpilla’s VR art is revealed in his Quill renderings, which don’t just demonstrate his talent with lines and shapes, but with visual narrative. 

“I think that as the tools begin to catch up with our ambitions in this brave new world, and as artists begin to rewrite the rules on what we can and cannot do,” says Orpilla, “we will begin to see art take the shape of visceral experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

There’s more to these sketches than meets the eye

You may need to take a second look at the sketch. Highlighting how the new Lexus IS is “impossible to ignore”, Lexus has put the IS to the test to showcase the car’s bold design in an innovative way. Using futuristic eye-tracking technology that maps the pathway of vision, Lexus has created an interesting masterpiece from sight – the below shows just how the bold design of the Lexus IS is crafted to demand attention, the edgy images are proof itself.  

Image: lexus

How does it work? The intelligent eye-tracking technology tracks the eye movement of the viewer as they take in the new Lexus IS from bumper to bumper. The interpretive pieces position the Lexus as the bold vehicle that will make anyone do a double take and linger. Every angle is designed to hold attention. As the eye travels over bold angles of the car, a visual representation of the sight path is created using innovative software. It’s clear from the multiple lines of the sketches that participants took more than a second look at the vehicle – this provided the inspiration for the campaign concept that the Lexus IS is impossible to ignore.  

Before now, eye tracking has been used for pretty boring purposes – Lexus is the first company to use the tech to create something this interesting. Today, eye tracking technology is typically used to track a user journey on a webpage or handheld device – its artistic applications have gone unexplored in a bid to make “the eyeball economy” something more quantifiable. Lexus’ innovative use of the technology breaks conventions and paves the way for new uses of this brilliant technology.  

Image: lexus

This interpretive campaign isn’t the first example of Lexus being a big name in the innovative tech space. The company has been committed to breaking boundaries in the tech space for some time – their venture into the Hoverboard space was a feat of technical genius. The Lexus Hoverboard was engineered to “make the impossible, possible”, pushing the limitations of technology to new heights. As Haruhiko Tanahashi, Chief Engineer at Lexus, proclaimed – “There is no such thing as impossible, it’s just a matter of figuring out how.”  

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Moving forward, it’s clear that we can expect to see more futuristic, exciting and intuitive campaigns from the team at Lexus as its company journey continues. Beginning with the bold new Lexus IS, the company is commanding attention like never before – it truly is impossible to ignore.  

Explore the Lexus IS with your own eyes here.

Watch next: Lexus’ new concept yacht will have you dreaming of summer

Munich City Government to Dump Linux Desktop

Munich city officials turned lots of heads 10 years ago, when they voted to swap out Microsoft Windows with LiMux — a custom desktop version of the Linux operating system, based on Ubuntu Linux. The current municipal government wants to dump LiMux and replace its 15,000 computers with Windows 10.

The city’s general council this week voted to investigate how much time and money it will take to build a Windows 10 client for use by the city’s employees. The city spent millions of euros over the last decade on the Windows replacement project.

Now council members want the city to spend millions more, basically to lay the groundwork for the process of migrating back to proprietary software.

The vote this week does more than approve a feasibility study — it calls for preparing to return to Windows by 2021. After the preparatory phase is completed, the council once again will again vote on whether to proceed with replacing LiMux with Windows.

However, it appears that the second vote merely will formalize the earlier decision. The groundwork already will be done. City officials will have the actual time and cost figures in hand prior to the second vote.

Glancing Blow

One government entity dropping the Linux desktop is not likely to have much impact on overall Linux desktop adoptions, according to Howard Green, vice president of marketing at Azul Systems.

“It is unlikely that this will have much of an impact on other existing adoptions of desktop Linux by governments,” he told LinuxInsider, “although there are certainly some issues that have been highlighted by users within the city government that might give pause to net-new migrations from other platforms.”

Unclear Objectives

Some of the city officials behind the proposal have blamed LiMux for numerous ongoing IT problems. However, others maintain that the IT disarray resulted from a previous city council decision to fractionalize the staff into different departments.

That reportedly caused organizational problems that slowed down the deployment of upgrades and caused delays in fixing problems.

The city council this week also voted to support a restructuring of Munich’s IT department. However, some city officials are not sure that a return to Windows will alleviate IT troubles that aren’t directly related to the choice of OS.

The council plans to rely on market-standard commercial software rather than using open source software. Officials hope that plan will facilitate compatibility among internal and external applications.

That move would cause a similar retreat from open source cross-platform applications. City officials would deploy Microsoft Office to replace currently used open source business office suites available for Linux and Windows, such as LibreOffice and the Thunderbird email client.

Still, the infighting and negative comments some Munich officials have made are not likely to have much influence beyond Munich’s city offices.

“There is always an impact when a high-visibility adopter of a particular strategy changes direction. However, city governments and their senior IT teams — like enterprises — will shift strategy and direction based upon personnel changes as well and technology and market shifts,” said Azul’s Green. “There are no surprises there. One account allowing platform choice three years from now is not much of a trend.”

Possibly Shortsighted

The decision Munich officials made to replace the custom LiMux distro with Microsoft Windows 10 could be shortsighted. It’s possible that the dissatisfaction with the performance of LiMux could be fixed by introducing an updated Linux distro.

The wholesale dumping of the open source operating system and open source software was a decision based on politics, according to some Munich officials. Munich was the most significant organization to leave Microsoft for Linux in 2004.

That prompted a visit from Steve Ballmer, who was then CEO of Microsoft, but it was to no avail. The mayor at that time, Christian Ude, refused to stop the migration to Linux.

Microsoft last year relocated its German headquarters to Munich. A new mayor and bickering political parties run the city now.

That history between city officials and Microsoft reflects a more interesting background current, noted Green. The players on both sides have changed.

“The Microsoft that Munich shunned some number of years ago has become far more open and far more Linux-friendly over the past two-to-three years. We have noticed the shift, as have our customers across a variety of sectors,” he said.

Times Have Changed

The cultural and marketplace dynamics that caused Munich’s initial migration from Windows have changed, noted Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

That makes it unlikely that Munich’s latest reversal will have much impact on how other government entities might view adopting the Linux desktop, he told LinuxInsider.

It involves more than whether Microsoft has changed, said King, though he acknowledged that the company is far different today than it was under Steve Ballmer.

How people use operating systems also has changed, he pointed out.

“Operating systems have become a commodity most people use, not obsess over — except for Apple customers,” said King. “The Linux ecosystem is also far different today than it was in 2003-4.”

It’s doubtful that many governments today would consider doing what Munich did — that is, develop a Linux distro (LiMux) for its own use.

“They are more likely to adopt a popular distro, like Ubuntu, along with a proven productivity suite like Google Docs,” said King. “I do not believe [Munich’s latest actions] will have a huge effect, mainly because the momentum behind desktop Linux is relatively modest.”

Different Levels of Linux

Desktop Linux mainly has caught on in technically savvy companies and organizations, such as Google, NASA, the U.S. DoD and CERN, King observed, citing a recent report showing the countries currently using custom Linux distros.

Among them are China, North Korea, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia and Iran. The countries on the list have a strong authoritarian bent, which is ironic if you consider Linux’s traditionally progressive roots, King noted. “The bottom line: The real Linux revolution occurred in the data center, not on the desktop.”


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him on Google+.

Reddit tweaks and renames public front page


The front page of reddit is a good place to catch up on the latest internets, or so an increasing number of users think. To broaden the appeal of the site to lurkers and first-time visitors, the company is making some small but significant changes to the front page that gets presented to anyone who isn’t logged in.

You can click it

Click it

Usually what a visitor would see is r/all, dominated by a set of 50 default high-traffic subreddits that the team selected a while back. Now they’ll be sent to r/popular, which will supposedly come from more sources, with a few restrictions: no NSFW content, no subreddits that have opted out of appearing on the front page and no “subreddits that users consistently filter out of their r/all page,” as administrator simbawulf wrote in the announcement.

What does that last one mean? Users were quick to ask, and quick to cry censorship when it was found that in addition to game-specific subreddits like r/overwatch, “narrowly focused politically related subreddits” like r/The_Donald — and plenty of other political subreddits on both sides of the aisle.

Some commenters saw it as a way for the redditorial team to block speech they don’t approve of under the guise of user friendliness, while others saw it as just a way to kick content off the front page that isn’t a good match for casual visitors. Which is it? You be the judge.

Nothing should change for logged-in users who have their own subscribed subreddits, but randoms who drop by the site will supposedly see both a more diverse and less NSFW front page. It’s a work in progress, of course, so expect more changes as admins figure stuff out and users revolt.

The very first IMAX VR arcade just opened and it’s already pretty popular

For the last couple of years, I’ve been telling any VR company I meet that to truly take the technology mainstream, they need to move beyond mobile to virtual reality arcades.  

On Wednesday, the industry took a giant step in that direction with the launch of the very first IMAX VR location. 

Just one block from the movie theaters of The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, IMAX VR will house 14 pods. Well, they aren’t actually “pods,” but large, rectangular spaces specifically devoted to various VR experiences. 

Two of the VR pods at IMAX VR.

Two of the VR pods at IMAX VR.

Image: IMAX 

There’s no entry fee. Instead, you can go into the space and pick any five-to-15-minute experience, which costs $7 to $10. In terms of equipment, IMAX VR uses the popular HTC Vive and the lesser-known Starbreeze StarVR headset. Among the experiences available are the John Wick Chronicles, Star Wars: Trials On Tatooine and Knockout League, all of which are experiences that truly pull you into another reality and take advantage of room-scale VR systems.  

The reason virtual reality arcades like this are so important is that they allow the public to quickly sample the highest-end VR experiences for just a few dollars, paving the way for potential purchases of home systems like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. 

Without outlets like IMAX VR, and other independent arcades popping up around the country, most people get their first taste of virtual reality through mobile devices like the Samsung Gear VR — a decent but hardly immersive experience compared to the higher-end options. 

Whoooa, trippy.

Whoooa, trippy.

And the reason IMAX is the absolute perfect company to launch this venture is because people are already accustomed to making a special trip to IMAX theaters for more premium cinematic experiences. Those are the people most likely to lead the charge in terms of becoming regular IMAX VR customers. 

Although this week marks the official launch, the L.A. location has been quietly accepting customers for weeks (5,000 so far) and the company claims a 90 percent satisfaction rating from those who have visited. A brief look at the IMAX VR ticketing page reveals that a number of time slots for VR experiences are selling out, which is a good indicator for future arcades. 

The plan is to open five more IMAX VR experiences this year, including locations in Shanghai and New York City. This is all amazing news, I just have one piece of advice: bring a VR mask!

The Microsoft Surface Studio is an illustrator’s dream

For the two weeks that the Microsoft Surface Studio sat at my desk, it attracted a lot of attention. I’m an illustrator and I work with a lot of other creatives, and artists love to look at something beautiful. There were plenty of “Oohs” and “Aahs,” and the beautiful simplicity of the device was demonstrated when, for about 15 minutes, five co-workers gathered around my desk as we went on a tour of the world via Google Maps.

Navigating a 3D satellite view of New York City became a magical experience. Swiping a single finger on the screen allowed for rotating vistas that looked incredible. Was this a high point of artistic achievement? No. Was it insanely fun and beautiful, just because it was on the Studio? Yep.

3D Google Maps on the Surface Studio is an insanely fun and beautiful experience.

3D Google Maps on the Surface Studio is an insanely fun and beautiful experience.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Let me back up for minute: I’m Mashable‘s senior illustrator — my job is to create the art and graphics that accompany our stories on our website and across our various social channels. In other words, I’m exactly the kind of person Microsoft is trying to appeal to with the Surface Studio, the company’s sleek and powerful all-in-one PC.

In a splashy press event last fall, Microsoft unveiled the Surface Studio and showed off its arsenal of tools and toys for drawing, drafting and painting on its large digital canvas. The news immediately piqued my interest since I spend almost all of my time at work on a Wacom Cintiq 22-inch touchscreen tablet, making things like this:

Image: bob al-greene/mashable

The Cintiq is a top-of-the-line device and allows artists to draw directly on the screen almost as if they were working on paper. I’ve worked on various models from Wacom over the years, and the experience on the Cintiq is closest to the feeling of “traditional” tools of pen and ink. However, it functions as a second screen that I use solely for art creation; my everyday tasks, like web browsing and email, I do on an iMac.

The author's Wacom Cintiq tablet workstation.

The author’s Wacom Cintiq tablet workstation.

Image: Bob Al-Greene/Mashable

That would change with the Surface Studio, which puts all of your tools in one machine. I’d been thinking about the device’s promise — an enormous, beautiful screen housing an all-in-one creative suite — so I jumped at the opportunity to switch out my 27-inch iMac and Cintiq for a week or two and work exclusively on the Studio.

At the same time, I was apprehensive: I haven’t owned or regularly used a Windows device in more than five years. But the transition from macOS to Windows 10 was smooth, and with the exception of some hot-key confusion (curse that Ctrl button!) I was able to focus entirely on the hardware — which is a good thing, because there is a lot to take in on the Surface Studio.

Elite Studio

The Surface Studio is a remarkably simple and elegant device. The massively immersive 28-inch screen is attached to the rectangular base by a pair of dual-hinged struts — what Microsoft calls the “zero gravity hinge.” The base has to be heavy so you don’t inadvertently shift your entire workstation every time you adjust the reclining screen. Ports are in the back of the base — four USB 3.0, an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort, a headphone jack and Gigabit Ethernet — along with the lone power cord.

The Surface Studio makes for an impressively austere workstation.

The Surface Studio makes for an impressively austere workstation.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

I tested the fully tricked-out Surface Studio with an Intel Core i7 processor, 2TB of storage, 32GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX980M graphics card with 4GB of GPU-dedicated RAM. All that power means a price tag of $4,199, up from the base model at $2,999. The high price might be a turn-off for some, but consider that a 22-inch Wacom Cintiq retails for $1,799 — and it needs a separate computer to function.

All the ports in back: 4 x USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, microSD, headphone jack.

All the ports in back: 4 x USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, microSD, headphone jack.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

As I disassembled my usual workstation, I was frustrated by the tangle of cords and adapters connecting my Cintiq to power and to my iMac. Despite my best efforts to keep them organized, they’d become tangled, making unplugging a chore. Replacing it all with the Surface Studio doubled my extra desk space instantly and made my whole area feel cleaner and more organized. All I had to plug in was one cord, for power. I booted it up, and within minutes I was creating art. 

Getting Immersed

The Surface Studio boasts an expansive 28-inch display, and, at 192 pixels per inch (ppi), everything on it looks and feels crystal clear. The experience of using it is incredibly immersive: The screen is so large that it hides the heavy base and hinge from view, so the display seems to float on its own, magically just “there” in front of your face. In the words of one of my animator colleagues, five minutes after sitting down with the Studio: “I feel like I’m in my art.”

I’d never worked on a touchscreen computer before now. I have an iPad at home and I’ve experimented with the iPad Pro and Surface Pro, but the ability to touch a screen and manipulate programs with my fingertips on a desktop computer seemed extraneous and unnecessary. 

The Surface Studio's 28-inch screen bestows the feeling of getting immersed in your art.

The Surface Studio’s 28-inch screen bestows the feeling of getting immersed in your art.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

The Surface Studio taught me the exact opposite was true. I quickly eschewed the mouse in favor of the more direct interaction offered by the Surface Pen and the five styluses on my own right hand.

With 10-point multitouch, you can really do anything you need to on the Studio with your fingers. Pinching to zoom or rotate an image, scrolling with two fingers, tapping a link quickly with the pad of my index finger, all of this quickly became second nature, as the Studio recreates the feeling of manipulating flat paper on a desk. The ease and simplicity also makes switching between programs — a necessity when working on one screen rather than two — less of a chore.

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After you work on the Surface Studio, you’ll want to touch all your screens.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

In fact, when I did some work on my home workstation later that evening, I caught myself intermittently trying to tap my iMac screen and wishing I had touch capability on my 13-inch Cintiq (a smaller version of my work tablet). I turned this function off within a week of setting up my Wacom tablet, but now I want to give it another try. I suspect the palm rejection on the Surface Studio is more advanced than on the Cintiq, and I’ll probably find myself missing the intuitive interface of this gorgeous device. Apple, give us a touchscreen iMac already!

Using the Surface Studio mouse — a cheap-feeling, dull gray, plastic blob with a scroll wheel — felt unnatural and often unnecessary compared with the touchscreen. That’s partly because the mouse is overly sensitive and twitchy compared to the Apple Magic Mouse I’m used to. But also, when a device features five input mechanisms — a keyboard, a mouse, a stylus, a dial (more on that in a minute) and your own hand — you’re bound to start ignoring one.

One sleek all-in-one

Two things about the Surface Studio can’t be overstated: the crystal-clear display and the thinness of the screen. At only 0.34 of an inch (8.6mm) along the edge (and 0.49 inch at the center), the Studio puts the bulging back of the iMac to shame. And the ridiculously high resolution (4,500 x 3,000) means 4K videos look next-level gorgeous (heck, I was thrilled enough with a 4K desktop wallpaper). 

The Microsoft Surface Studio is an unbelievably slim all-in-one.

The Microsoft Surface Studio is an unbelievably slim all-in-one.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

As loyal as I am to my Cintiq, it’s worth noting that the color display has never been perfect. No matter how many times I’ve adjusted the RGB settings on both devices, they never quite match their accompanying iMacs in terms of color saturation and tone. This means double-checking and adjusting every piece of art I make on two screens. But by using just one screen with an sRGB  display, this problem disappears on the Surface Studio.

I would be remiss without mentioning two other functions the Studio boasts over my usual work setup: Cortana and Windows Hello. The former, an easily accessible voice-controlled desktop assistant, I found competent but superfluous. I’d expect to use it about as much as I use Siri on desktop, which is to say: not much. But Windows Hello — which uses face-scanning technology to recognize me and automatically log me in every time I sat down at the Studio — was easy to set up and felt pretty cool every time. Again, the word I keep coming back to with the Studio is magical.

Call it a draw

I’m ambivalent about making the switch from a Wacom stylus to the Surface Pen. On one hand, it’s a fine-looking instrument: Sleek and silver, it’s slimmer and shorter, yet heavier, than the Wacom stylus.

The Surface Pen feels natural in my hand, and I was surprised to learn that many of my colleagues dislike the fatter Wacom stylus, which does feel like a fat kindergarten crayon by comparison. To me, both are more than fine.

The Surface Pen was very capable, but lacked the same precision and tools as a Wacom stylus.

The Surface Pen was very capable, but lacked the same precision and tools as a Wacom stylus.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Where the Surface Pen loses out is functionality. To start off, the Pen touts 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity — precisely half of the Wacom Cintiq’s 2,048. So expect less pressure control right off the bat. I do a lot of drawing and often need to vary line width based on how much pressure I’m applying, so I want the highest level of pressure control possible. The Surface Pen is just not that.

The Surface Pen touts 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity — precisely half of the Wacom Cintiq’s 2,048.

Beyond that, there’s the issue of customization. Every Wacom stylus I’ve used has two buttons on the side that can be programmed to suit the user. I personally use one button as a Pan/Scroll shortcut, and the second to right-click. The Surface Pen has only one button on its side, with only one programmable action: a right-click function I found sluggish.

The Pen’s shortcut button, located where you would find an eraser on a pencil, offered more promise to me as a first-time user. Its Eraser function not so much — it’s quicker and easier to just use a keyboard shortcut than to constantly be flipping the Pen back and forth in my hand — but the Windows Ink Workspace allows for some cool tricks.

A double-click, for instance, brings up Screen Sketch mode and instantly creates an editable screenshot that I can draw on, crop, and save. I take a lot of screenshots on my Mac, so having this function programmed right into my Stylus was refreshing.

Another big feature of the Surface Pen is that it can be magnetically attached to either side of the Studio’s massive screen at any time. I’m a bit absent-minded and I often misplace my Wacom stylus or let it roll underneath my tablet, then have to scrounge around my entire desk looking for it. Not so with the magnetic Stylus Pen. Kudos, Microsoft!

The power of gravity

A lot of the Surface Studio’s reputation as a revolutionary device hinges on one element: namely, the “zero gravity” hinge. Because it’s been designed as a multi-purpose creative tool for artists, photographers, designers, videographer and musicians, the Studio’s screen can be tilted and readjusted almost instantaneously based on what you want out of it.

The Surface Studio’s “zero gravity” hinge.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

So if you’d prefer to work on a nearly flat 20-degree incline in Studio Mode, or the more traditional 90-degree Desktop Mode, or somewhere in between, the choice is up to you.

Angling the screen is effortless and cool every time — the ease of adjustment makes it a cinch to find your preferred angle instantly. I typically grabbed the screen by its left and right edges to adjust, but you can lift it from the bottom with one hand or press it down with a single finger. It’s that easy. The process is smooth and virtually silent, reinforcing the illusion that this is not a grounded device but a levitating screen.

This light-touch adjustment is both a great strength and one of the Surface Studio’s few apparent flaws. I prefer to have my screen closer to a 45-degree angle when I’m drawing. The Studio accommodated me and it was easy to find my perfect position and begin drawing… but I found that applying too much pressure with the stylus would push the screen down slightly, changing the angle.

This happens because the hinge was designed without the locking mechanism seen on devices like the Wacom Cintiq. Of course, the absence of a lock also makes the experience intuitive and smooth, but it’s a trade-off. I hope Microsoft can incorporate some kind of locking mechanism into a future model of the Surface Studio while keeping the adjustment process smooth, simple and elegant.

Dial me out

The other big star of show, if less central to the Surface Studio’s function, is the Surface Dial. Microsoft has hyped it as a “completely new way to interact with technology,” though third-party dials have been available for years. This Dial is sold separately from the Studio, retailing for $99.99.

I found it to be a confounding little device. 

The Microsoft Surface Dial

The Microsoft Surface Dial

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Smooth, sleek and silver, the Dial feels heavy in your hand, like a paperweight, and at first it seems far more impressive than the Surface Studio’s mouse. The Dial’s high-friction rubber underside allows it to “stick” to your screen (sort of), but most of the time I left it sitting on my desk behind the keyboard. In this default mode the Dial has five basic functions (with two extra programmable slots): Volume, Play Next Track, Scroll, Zoom and Undo. Users can switch between these functions by pressing and holding on the dial, which brings up a circular pop-up menu.

The main functions stay the same, but some programs grant the Dial extra powers. Placing it on the screen makes it even more powerful; in the drawing program Sketchable, for instance, the Dial becomes a super-charged homebase for brush controls. Line weight, opacity, brush shape, color and more are all editable, on the fly, while you’re drawing. It makes for some eye-catching demonstrations, but I’m not convinced it’s useful in my day-to-day workflow.

The Surface Dial lets you change the color of your brushstroke on the fly.

The Surface Dial lets you change the color of your brushstroke on the fly.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

The Dial started to frustrate me when I realized it didn’t truly stick to my screen. I had assumed, based on the demo videos I’d seen, that its sticky base would allow it to cling to the screen wherever I placed it, like a phone on a car dashboard. Even on a tilted screen, I expected the Dial to hold on (at reasonable angles anyway).

Instead, I found that the Dial immediately starts to slide down the screen when you place it, no matter how gentle that angle is. Even at the Studio’s flattest setting — 20 degrees — the Dial’s slow creep downward is visible, made more obvious by the way the device’s circular menu lags behind before following the Dial downward every few seconds.

At the 20-degree setting, with a freshly cleaned screen, the Dial takes about 6 minutes to slide from the top of the screen to the bottom. It moves twice that speed when the screen has been in use; it seems the oils from my fingerprints and smudges make the screen slicker. Such is touchscreen life.

All of this simply means that the Dial cannot be placed onscreen and left until you need it again — if you want to use the Dial onscreen, Microsoft wants you to hold it there. It’s not an oversight or flaw on their part; this is how the designers want you to use it.

This essentially confirms one of the biggest fears I had about the Surface Studio: that using the Dial would be a constant routine of picking it up, placing it on screen, then placing it back on my desk. For what the Dial offers, this extra work isn’t quite worth the payoff.

But the sliding was only the beginning.

Mo’ Dial, mo’ problems

I found the Surface Dial to have problems in almost every way I used it. Let’s take a look at its five core functions:

Volume: This is probably the most intuitive of the dial’s “main” functions. Using a dial to control volume is not a strange concept to anyone, and the fine-tuning of the dial allows you to quickly and naturally find the perfect volume. If you’re listening to music while you work, it makes the most sense to leave the dial in volume mode.

God help you, though, if you then decide to use the Dial for something else: If it’s in a different mode and you want to change the volume with it, you’ll have to hold down the Dial for a moment, navigate to the volume control function, click it, and then rotate to change the volume. That’s four steps to do something I can do now by hitting one key at the top of the keyboard (or by using the volume buttons on the righthand side of the screen).

The Surface Dial is often more trouble than it's worth.

The Surface Dial is often more trouble than it’s worth.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Play next track: Brings up a widget with Play, Pause, Next and Last Track and Volume controls. I found tapping the screen more intuitive than using the Dial to skip tracks.

Scroll: Scrolling with the dial is a pleasant and smooth experience, but just marginally more pleasant than the mouse’s scroll wheel. I’d still rather use my iMac’s Magic Mouse or Trackpad — both of which allow for side-to-side panning, not just vertical scrolling.

Zoom: Working in art programs like Photoshop and Sketchable, I found myself far more likely to use the pinch-and-zoom capability of the touchscreen, which is more intuitive and precise, and allows for rotation at the same time.

The Surface Dial and the Surface Studio mouse.

The Surface Dial and the Surface Studio mouse.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Undo: This is a big one. The Dial becomes a full-on time machine in Undo mode. When activated, the onscreen Dial display shows your work progress as a percentage — 100% is your current stage (the present), and 0% is the first stroke you made (the past). By turning the wheel counterclockwise, you travel backward through your work at the pace you decide.

The Dial so sensitive that getting back to any specific point, even one or two steps backward, is a challenge bordering on impossible.

It might sound cool, but this function is the most frustrating to me. With the super-sensitive Dial, moving just one step at a time takes a light touch. In my workflow and that of the artists I talked to, the Undo command is usually used to go back only a step or two to fix an error. For anything more than that, I typically use the History panel in Photoshop. This panel displays dozens of previous steps and labels them, allowing me to quickly navigate to a point in time.

The problem with the Dial is it’s so sensitive that getting back to any specific point, even one or two steps backward, is a challenge bordering on impossible, and I found myself repeatedly getting stuck in loops — erasing too much, then jumping too far forward, then too far back, then too far forward.

Moreover, I frequently experienced lag when rewinding quickly or going backward more than, say, 10% at a time. This led to several frustrating moments spent helplessly watching my art unmaking itself far beyond what I intended, knowing I would have to immediately turn the dial back forward again. The effect of “rewinding” the creation of art makes for a flashy visual, but not when you can’t control it effectively. More feedback from the dial or a ratcheting effect within the mechanism could increase the precision, but for now, Undo is an monster you should never unleash on your work.

One last note about the Dial. Just like adding pressure with the Pen, pressing the Dial can occasionally cause the screen to tilt down. In this way, the two premier aspects of the Surface Studio — the Dial and the Hinge — work together to make the overall experience imperfect. Oh, well.

A Studio worth visiting

At the end of my time with the Microsoft Surface Studio, I did not want to give it up. Considering what a joy it is to work on my regular Cintiq, that’s saying quite a bit. Despite its few obvious faults — the lack of a locking mechanism on the hinge, and a Dial that I have all but given up on — it remains a compelling and undeniably gorgeous instrument.

One of the pieces of art the author created on the Surface Studio.

One of the pieces of art the author created on the Surface Studio.

Image: Bob Al-Greene/Mashable

As a graphic artist and designer, I was able to adapt the Studio to my daily workflow fairly quickly. An animator colleague of mine used it for an afternoon to create motion graphics and found it up to the task of her workload as well. I have no doubt that artists of all stripes — illustrators, musicians, filmmakers, architects, and more — will find uses for the Studio and create beautiful things with it.

As hard as I am on the Dial, I’m likewise sure some artists will find it an interesting and eventually an intrinsic part of their creative process, but it’s not the right device for me right now. Luckily, Microsoft isn’t pushing anyone to buy it — you certainly don’t need it to fully enjoy the charms of the Surface Studio.

The Microsoft Surface Studio.

The Microsoft Surface Studio.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

So, is this the next big thing for digital artists? After years of Apple being the default brand for young creatives, is Microsoft going to carve out some of that space with the Surface Studio? Well, your mileage may vary. If you’re a creative just starting out in your career, or if you don’t have a significant chunk of change to drop on it, then there are certainly more affordable ways to piece together your own creative “studio.”

But if, like me, you’re in a place where you can request devices from your employer for your professional work (wink wink), or if you’re ready to take a plunge and switch up your creative process at home, then you’ll find lots to love within the Surface Studio’s canvas.

Microsoft Surface Studio

The Good

Huge, gorgeous, immersive 4,500 x 3,000 display Easily adjustable hinge True color sRGB gives it an edge over Wacom Cintiq’s wonky color settings

The Bad

Sensitive rear hinge needs a locking mechanism Surface Dial is a clumsy peripheral High price tag and Windows 10 are a hard sell for Mac loyalists

The Bottom Line

Artists will love the immersive, creative workstation that is the Microsoft Surface Studio, but the Surface Dial is a poorly thought out accessory.

Facebook’s new job opening posts poach business from LinkedIn


LinkedIn has neglected two big opportunities Facebook is now capitalizing on: helping lower-skilled workers and people who aren’t actively looking for a job. Today Facebook is rolling out a slew of new Jobs features we spotted it testing last year. They could hurt LinkedIn’s growth prospects and divert recruiting ad dollars.

Business Pages will now be able to post job openings to the News Feed through the status update composer, and host them on a Jobs tab on their Page. When users see these, they can hit an “Apply Now” button to instantly send an application through Facebook Messenger. Facebook will pre-fill the user’s name and profile picture to speed up the process. These features are now becoming available to all U.S. and Canada business Pages.

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Facebook also could start earning revenue from the feature, as businesses can pay to turn these posts into ads so they reach more people in the feed. Businesses could also get some viral help as users re-share openings to their friends, or tag people that they know are looking for a job.

Facebook’s VP of Ads and Business Platform Andrew “Boz” Bosworth tells me the company wanted to see “How can we make Facebook more useful in your everyday life?” They found small businesses were having trouble hiring, and most people are open to a better, higher-paying job, even if they’re satisfied with their current employment.

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That’s where LinkedIn has fallen short. It’s become a destination for purposeful job seekers looking for medium- and high-skilled roles.

But for people seeking part-time or hourly jobs, LinkedIn’s focus on your resume and education might have made them hesitant to sign up, and it’s not designed for applying to lots of jobs en masse. And unless you’re unemployed or actively seeking a new job, you might not have a reason to visit LinkedIn.

Yet these people and the businesses looking to hire them are on Facebook every day. A News Feed post or ad can reach a job candidate who didn’t even know they were interested in switching companies. And the “Apply Now” button makes sending your application through Facebook a quick and seamless part of your socializing experience.

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There is one problem: Some job applicants are skittish about employers doing background checks on their social media profiles. Applying directly through Facebook might make that even easier for a company.

But Boz says research has shown “overwhelming enthusiasm” for the product. While social background checks may scare high-skilled workers applying for competitive jobs at elite companies, he says “causal job seekers … they’re just looking for every opportunity they can get.”

Eventually Facebook says it will consider doing more relevancy sorting of Jobs posts and the tab to show people roles that match their education level or work experience. There are also opportunities in recruiting if Facebook allowed a company’s existing employees or viewers of these posts to see which of their friends might be a good fit for an opening. If the Messenger channel becomes popular for receiving applications, it may also need tools to help those hiring manage all their inbound interest.

facebook-jobs-applications

For now, though, Facebook’s opportunity is showing jobs to people (the now Microsoft-owned) LinkedIn forgot. “Two-thirds of job seekers are already employed,” says Boz. “They’re not spending their days and nights out there canvassing for jobs. They’re open to a job if a job comes.”

While LinkedIn might be the leader in the employment social network space, its 467 million user count is dwarfed by Facebook’s 1.86 billion. And Facebook’s users come back every day for a variety of reasons, giving them a chance to serendipitously hear about and apply for a dream job they didn’t know they wanted.

Ozobot raises $3 million for toys that teach kids coding basics off-screen

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There are many toys on the market today that promise to teach kids programming skills, and a good percentage require the use of a connected tablet or smartphone. At a time when parents are already struggling to keep kids’ screen time to a minimum, father and entrepreneur Nader Hamda wanted to build something different. He also observed a lot of expensive educational toys on the market, and wanted to create an affordable alternative to reach a broad population of schools and students.

His creation, the Ozobot, is a line of toy robots about the size of a golf ball that follow lines that kids draw with markers on white paper. Kids can use different colors to change the Ozobot’s movement or behavior. The toy robots can work offline, but can also be controlled by an Ozobot mobile app, where kids also learn to write programs that they can later send to each other by text message. When they send each other one of these programs, it controls the recipient’s nearby Ozobot.

The company’s starter kit costs about $60. The toys are sold online directly by Ozobot, or through major brick and mortar retailers including Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us. They will soon be available at Best Buy and Target, Hamda says. Over half a million Ozobots have been sold to-date to kids, families and educators. That’s including the original Ozobot, Bit and newer Evo edition Ozobots.

The Ozobot Evo in white.

The Ozobot Evo in white.

Hamda’s Redondo Beach, Calif. startup, incorporated as Evollve Inc., has recently secured $3 million in Series A venture funding to ramp up production of the Ozobot, and to develop new features and content to reach even more kids, in the US, France and South Korea. Tribeca Venture Partners led the Series A investment in Ozobot, joined by unnamed venture firms and angel investors including ZICO coconut water founder Mark Rampolla.

Rampolla more typically invests in ecologically minded food and agriculture startups through his fund PowerPlant Ventures. Why back an edtech business? Rampolla tells TechCrunch, “Nader has gotten the Ozobot built and into more than 3,000 schools with limited resources, some friends and family funding. They’ve had a really amazing response from teachers around the country already. And this funding just helps expand on that early success.”

Rampolla said Ozobot has a chance to create a new category within edtech much the way ZICO helped create a new beverage category. By this time, there are more than 80 coconut water brands sold at groceries in the US, he noted. Back when he started Zico was the only one available nationally. The category that’s shaping up here, as he sees it, has to do with affordable educational hardware that can grow along with students’ skills.

Ozobot CEO Nader Hamda at TechCrunch in San Francisco.

Ozobot CEO Nader Hamda at TechCrunch in San Francisco.

Ozobots CEO Nader Hamda said “Our goal is to change kids and adults from only consuming tech to creating it. We’d like the Ozobot to be a tool that helps people learn programming from kindergarten through PhD. But for the time being we are more focused on tweens and young teens. We are adding in features and content to make the Ozobot a deeper experience for older high school students.”

Some of the new Ozobot features in the works will allow the “smart social robots” to respond to one another, so students can build robotic “swarms” that collaborate and are programmed to take action together, the CEO said. Ozobot is also developing more classroom-ready curriculum for educators who want to put the device to use in their classroom.

Educators often reach out to Evollve to share the lessons they’ve created using Ozobots. One favorite example Hamda said he’s seen so far came from a biology teacher who asked kids to program Ozobots to circulate through drawings of the human digestive system as food would circulate when a person eats it.

One thing helping to fuel Ozobots growth is a licensing tie-in with Disney’s Marvel Avengers. The company sells toppers kids can affix to their robots, changing the way the Ozobot sounds and moves when attached. Popular characters include Iron Man and Captain America. Ozobot will offer Black Widow, Ultron and The Hulk characters this year as well.

Tribeca Venture Partners’ co-founder and Managing Director Brian Hirsch tells TechCrunch his firm, which does not typically back consumer hardware startups, invested in Ozobot in part because of the massive market opportunity it’s tapping into. Gartner predicts that smart toy sales will grow globally from 8 million units this year to 421 million units by 2020, the investor said. Juniper research forecasts that worldwide sales of smart toys will balloon to $11.2 billion by 2020.

Ozobot competes with a bevy of smart toy brands, from the makers of Dash & Dot to the Anki Cozmo, to Bots_alive and Osmo.  But, Hirsch suggests, this isn’t a “winner take all” market. Thinking back on all the great toy brands that the 80s yielded, from Transformers to Speak and Spell, or to something more contemporary like Minecraft, it’s not hard to see several big winners in this space.

Featured Image: techcrunch.com