Low-cost Ghost AR headset promises MacOS multitasking on steroids

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Everyone up to Apple CEO Tim Cook, head of one of the world’s most valuable companies, thinks that augmented reality is going to be big. However, it’s not quite there yet. Two reasons for this are the high price of AR headsets and the fact that if you’re not willing to spend those kind of big bucks, you’re stuck using AR on your tiny smartphone screen. But Los Angeles-based creative director Jean Helfenstein thinks he’s come up with a solution in the form of a new AR headset, called Ghost, that boasts a more affordable price tag.

A bit like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google Cardboard, Ghost keeps the price down by using your smartphone as the main screen. Unlike Gear VR or Cardboard, though, Ghost works by projecting images onto a pair of lenses for a lower-priced Google Glass effect.

“Other devices that use your smartphone exist, but they don’t deliver the same quality experience as Ghost,” Helfenstein told Digital Trends. “Our headset is the only one that can offer a wide and natural 70-degree field of view, a high-resolution OLED display up to 2880 x 1440, the tracking of user’s head movement with 6 degrees of freedom, and the ability to use the device in both AR and VR mode.”

What makes Ghost more ambitious than many AR projects is the fact that, rather than relying on an existing platform like Apple’s ARKit or Google’s ARCore, Helfenstein has gone it alone and developed his own Ghost OS.

It offers a number of impressive applications, including the ability to mirror MacOS applications in their own floating windows, which you can resize and place around you so that they hover in virtual space. Each window is fully interactive and can be used with your computer keyboard and trackpad the same way you would use any ordinary window. It’s a neat idea that promises to let you easily work with multiple applications without resorting to additional monitors.

As with any crowdfunding campaign, we advise caution when it comes to backing Ghost. That’s especially true given the scale of the operation, which places it firmly in adventurous “early adopter” territory. If you do want to get involved, however, head over to Indiegogo to pledge your support.

The headset will apparently work on the iPhone 6s or newer, both generations of the Google Pixel, Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S8 handsets, and possibly other phones still to be announced. Prices start at $79. Provided that it can reach its funding goal, shipping is planned to take place in February 2019.

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Tim Cook doesn’t believe customers want MacOS and iOS combined

Apple CEO Tim Cook believes that MacOS and iOS should remain as separate operating systems, and never merged as a single platform. He expressed this view in an interview after a recent event in Chicago, saying the company has no desire to “water down” either platform for a unified experience. Why? Because each platform is exceptional in their target devices. 

“Both [the Mac and iPad] are incredible. One of the reasons that both of them are incredible is because we pushed them to do what they do well. And if you begin to merge the two … you begin to make trade-offs and compromises,” he said. 

Of course, with just one operating system to rule all Apple devices, the company would be more efficient, he acknowledged. But Apple isn’t targeting efficiency, but rather what customers want out of their devices, whether it’s the new iPhone X or the MacBook Air. According to Cook, Apple wants to empower customers with the hardware they want for expressing their creativity, expressing their feelings, or changing the world. 

“This merger thing that some folks are fixated on, I don’t think that’s what users want,” he added. 

Cook may be indirectly referring to rumors hinting to a unified platform across all Apple devices codenamed as Marzipan. But Apple isn’t shooting for a one-OS-fits-all-devices solution. Instead, the move is something akin to Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform for Windows 10. A single app should work across all Apple devices no matter the underlying hardware and Apple-based operating system. 

Currently, developers must generate separate apps for MacOS and iOS, and right now, they appear more inclined to develop for iOS than MacOS. Just look at the Mac App Store’s seemingly barren state, which is devoid of popular apps like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and Hulu. Yet now developers are reportedly able to create a single app that works on both platforms while supporting touchscreens, trackpads, keyboard, and mice in the process. 

Will this “universal app platform” be what developers need to provide Mac owners a better app experience? Time will tell. Twitter pulled the plug on its Mac-based app in February, stating that Mac owners can get the “full” Twitter experience using their web browser. Meanwhile, Twitter’s app still remains on the App Store for iOS, Google Play for Android, and the Microsoft Store for Windows 10. 

Cook’s view on a MacOS/iOS merger is similar to Google’s take on Chrome OS and Android. The move seems imminent given Chrome OS now supports Google Play and Android apps. But according to Senior Vice President of Android, Chrome OS, and Play Hiroshi Lockheimer, merging just doesn’t make sense. 

“I think we’re very fortunate as a company to have two very successful platforms each in their own way and in their own segments,” Lockheimer said in late 2016. “For us, there’s no point in merging them. They’re both successful. We just want to make sure both sides benefit from each other, so that’s why we brought Google Play from Android over to Chrome OS.”  

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Amazon reveals there are over 100 million Prime members

Amazon has always kept quiet about how many users its Prime service has. Until now, that is.

In a letter to shareholders on Wednesday, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos said that 13 years after launching the service, Prime now has more than 100 million members globally.

Benefits and fees vary around the world, but in the U.S., for example, Prime costs $99 a year and offers members free access to a library of online movies, TV shows, originals, and music tracks, as well as a small number of Kindle books. A range of fast and free delivery options for orders made on its site are also a big part of the package.

Bezos was keen to sing the praises of the service, telling shareholders: “In 2017, Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items with Prime worldwide, and more new members joined Prime than in any previous year — both worldwide and in the U.S.” The figure will have been boosted by the launch of Prime into new markets such as Mexico, Singapore, and the Netherlands last year.

Clearly a fan of big numbers, the CEO pointed out that members in the U.S. now receive unlimited free two-day shipping on more than 100 million different items.

When it started in 2005, Amazon Prime was a pretty basic offering, but since then, especially with its delivery operation, it’s expanded to make deliveries considerably quicker, and in some locations has the delivery dude knocking on the door within seconds of hitting the Buy button. Well, within an hour.

Bezos pointed out that its latest Prime Day — the company’s highly publicized online shopping festival — was its biggest global shopping event ever, “with more new Prime members joining Prime than any other day in our history.”

Amazon has been tweaking its Prime membership options over the years in a bid to pull in more punters. In 2016, for example, it began offering an $11-a-month option (now $13) alongside its $99-a-year offering. Although more expensive, reports suggest it has proved popular, with somewhere in the region of a quarter of Prime members now choosing to pay monthly.

Josh Lowitz, partner and co-founder of research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, said last year: “We think that the monthly membership option appeals to the later Prime adopters, with a smaller, potentially temporary commitment, that ultimately yields a long-term commitment.”

He added, “With smaller-dollar, single-month decisions, the new plan winds up helping with retention rates, which already average 85 percent for a member renewing after their first year.”

If you’re yet to try Prime and are wondering what all the fuss is about, check out Digital Trends’ handy guide to discover precisely what you get for your money.

On the flip side, if you’re reading this and thinking, “I pay for Prime but actually I never use it … how do I cancel?” then this page will guide you through the process.

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Logistics firm XPO integrates with virtual assistants to help you track deliveries

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Wondering where your delivery is? Alexa or Google Assistant can tell you. This week, XPO Logistics, the largest provider of last-mile deliveries for large items in North America, introduced voice-enabled delivery tracking through both Amazon and Google’s smart assistants. Now, folks who have an Echo or Google Home device can simply ask their A.I.-powered helpers where their packages are, and better still, schedule or reschedule deliveries.

Beginning next month, if you tell Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to set a new delivery date, the smart assistant will activate a change in XPO’s internal logistics tracking and dispatching software. The new delivery time and date will be transmitted to a driver’s mobile app, ensuring a seamless process.

XPO claims to be the first delivery and warehousing company across the globe to give its customers such an option. While trucking and delivering packages is a rather old-school industry, XPO is looking to inject a bit of 21st-century technology into the process, and perhaps cut down on the customer frustration that often comes with being unable to find a package, or having to jump through hoops in order to find a good day for a delivery.

“We are responding to where consumers want to go (to manage their deliveries),” XPO Chief Information Officer Mario Harik told Reuters, explaining how the company is adjusting to technological innovations. As it stands, XPO either makes or manages around 35,000 deliveries to homes across North America on a daily basis, and specializes in delivering larger goods like barbecue grills from Home Depot, furniture from Crate and Barrel, or large television sets from Best Buy.

As Troy Cooper, chief operating officer of XPO Logistics, said, “Today’s consumers expect access to, and control over, their personal experience within the supply chain. We’re adding simple yet powerful tools that use connectivity to strengthen these relationships.”

XPO has been expanding its network quite a bit over the last several months. Last September, the company announced that it would be adding to its last mile network with the addition of 85 last mile hubs. This, XPO claims, will help the company serve about 90 percent of the population across its delivery region. And just a few months ago, XPO added new last mile operations in five European countries as well.

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Intel to close its New Devices Group, signaling a retreat from wearables

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Unnamed sources claim that Intel will close its New Devices Group despite sinking several hundred million dollars into the division. Originally launched in 2013, this section of Intel dealt with wearables such as smart glasses and fitness trackers. But the devices reportedly never made an impact on the wearables market, and much like Intel’s failed attempt at streaming TV, the company may be bailing out of the wearables business altogether. 

Insiders say that layoffs from the Group may be possible. Around 200 people worked in the wearables division in early 2018, which was valued at $350 million as of February. That’s a steep drop from the 800-people crew that was reported in 2016. The remaining 200 employees will either transition to other positions within the company, or face layoffs. 

A former Intel executive suggests that the company is simply having trouble moving outside of its comfort zone of processors. After all, Intel resides at the top of the processor market with its Core, Xeon, and Atom chips for desktops, servers, workstations, and mobile. McAfee is a good example of its comfort zone woes: Intel purchased the security firm for more than $7.6 billion in 2011 and then sold a majority of the division (51 percent) to buyout firm TPG for $4.2 billion in 2016. 

The New Devices Group was originally spearheaded by Michael Bell, corporate vice president and general manager of the Mobile and Communications Group for Intel. He previously worked at Apple from 1991 to 2007, and then moved on to serve as senior vice president of product development at Palm from 2007 to 2010. According to Bell, his new group would “really push to make the wearables dream become a reality.” Bell departed from Intel in 2015. 

Intel’s wearables success seemed guaranteed. Intel Capital division invested in heads-up displays for sports maker Recon Instruments in September 2013, and then outright bought the company in June 2015. Intel also teamed up with Oakley to fuse premium, luxury, and sports eyewear with smart technology. Let’s not forget Nixie, the first wearable camera that can fly. 

But in June 2016, Intel was forced to recall its Basis Peak watches due to overheating. Intel initially distributed a software update to address the problem, but ultimately couldn’t fix the unfixable, issuing a recall. That was a major setback after acquiring Basis Science, creator of the Basis band, in March 2014. The purchase was to accelerate Intel’s wearables products focus. 

By November 2016, Intel insiders claimed that the company planned to let go of a large portion of its New Devices Group workforce, and perhaps even close the division altogether. Eventually, workers were apparently either moved to other departments or let go from the company. Many projects were shut down around June 2017 while Intel finally relocated the majority of its smartglasses developers during the last several months. 

“Intel is continuously working on new technologies and experiences. Not all of these develop into a product we choose to take to market. The Superlight project is a great example where Intel developed truly differentiated, consumer augmented reality glasses,” a spokesperson said. “We are going to take a disciplined approach as we keep inventing and exploring new technologies, which will sometimes require tough choices when market dynamics don’t support further investment.” 

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Gaming-focused Red Magic Phone offers monstrous specs for just $400

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The Razer Phone needs to watch its back, because it’s no longer the only gaming-focused smartphone on the market. Red Magic — the gaming arm of ZTE-owned Nubia — has taken the wraps off its first phone: the Red Magic Phone. If you’re an avid mobile gamer and your current phone just isn’t cutting the mustard, then you’ve suddenly got more than choice for your next upgrade. Here’s everything we know about the Red Magic Phone.

Design

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The Red Magic Phone is the smartphone equivalent of the mullet — business in front, party in the back.

The front of the phone is dominated by the 5.99-inch IPS LCD display running a 2160 x 1080, 18:9 resolution. You’ll find slim bezels around the edges and a minimal forehead and chin at the top and bottom of the black anodized aluminum frame. The front-facing selfie camera is situated at the top of the phone, right where you’d expect it to be. So far, so good.

Then you flip the phone over and everything goes completely crazy. The back of the phone steadily rises toward the center, sloping upwards from the edges into a prism shape. According to Red Magic, the Red Magic Phone went through hundreds of design iterations, with special attention going towards making the phone ergonomically comfortable during long-play sessions. It’s certainly a unique shape and look, and we can’t wait to get our hands on it to tell you how it feels.

The weird back panel isn’t even the best part — instead, one of the phone’s wow factors waits at the top of the raised ridge. Gamer culture is apparently obsessed with RGB lighting, and that’s why you’ll find an RGB strip extending along the phone’s back, running below the fingerprint sensor and camera lens. This strip can output 16 million different colors, and comes with four different lighting modes so users can customize their phone’s look.

You’ll also find four speakers on the back, highlighted in red. These speakers use smart amplification technology and an inbuilt DAC to provide an extensive soundstage. The Dolby-enhanced speakers on the Razer Phone were one of that phone’s highlights, and we’ll have to see how this phone compares.

There’s a USB-C port at the bottom of the phone, and a headphone jack at the top. You’ll find the power button below the volume rocker, and above both is the Red Magic Phone’s dedicated GameBoost button — which, when flipped, will divert more of the phone’s resources to whichever game is active, reducing loading times and enhancing visual fidelity and frame rate.

Specifications

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You’d be right to expect a gaming-focused smartphone to have strong specifications, and that’s what the Red Magic Phone delivers. The phone is packed with 8GB of RAM to make sure it’s able to handle a bunch of demanding tasks, as well as 128GB of onboard storage for loads of games. Unfortunately there’s no MicroSD storage, so that’s your lot — but 128GB is still a lot of memory. The phone has dual-SIM support too, for the jet-hopping mobile gamers out there.

The CPU is perhaps the one area that the Red Magic Phone could let us down — it’s packing last generation’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 835. While the Snapdragon 835 is still a powerful chip, we’re living in a post-Snapdragon 845 world, and it’s weird to see a phone that sells itself on high gaming capabilities not show up with the latest hardware. Red Magic claims to have tailored its hardware’s output to reduce power consumption by 40-percent. There’s no need to worry about overheating either, as Red Magic has equipped its phone with an air convection cooling system that takes heat away from the phone using a series of heat-conductive materials and multiple layers of graphite.

Finally, the phone is also rocking a huge 3,800mAh battery that Red Magic claims can last for up seven hours of Arena of Valor gameplay.

Camera

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The Red Magic Phone sports a single 24-megapixel lens on the back of the phone, with an aperture of f/1.7 and EIS. The camera also comes equipped with Nubia’s NeoVision 7.0 Imaging Engine, a software package that adds a bunch of extra features. This seems like a decent little snapper, but with the focus of the phone on gaming performance, don’t be surprised if the camera turns out to be one of the weaker parts of the phone. Still, we look forward to testing it out.

You’ll find an 8MP selfie-shooter around the front of the phone, and the phone is also able to record at 4K at 30 frames per second, as well as 120 fps slow motion video at 720p.

Software

The Red Magic Phone will ship with Android 8.1 Oreo, without a manufacturer skin. We like stock Android, and a bare-bones version of the operating system makes sense on a phone so enamored with performance.

However, Red Magic is a part of Nubia, which is a part of ZTE — which was recently banned from buying U.S. technology for seven years. Those legal issues could make using Android a bit trickier, and could spell trouble for the phone down the line. We’ll keep you updated here if anything changes.

Release date and pricing

The Red Magic Phone will be available worldwide as part of an IndieGoGo campaign launching April 26. Early adopters will be able to snag the phone for a reduced price of $399, and while we don’t know what the price will be after the deal expires, $400 is a steal for these specs. It’s currently unknown what the release date of the Red Magic Phone will be, but we expect to find out more on April 26. As always, be aware of the pitfalls of crowdfunding.

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Don’t just stir; Stircle

Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it.

Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that.

So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for 10 or 15 seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop.

Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There.

Once you put your cup on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener.

The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass.

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But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put it in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis.

Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though.

You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.

Samsung beats Apple in smartphone activations during the first quarter

Samsung has taken the number one spot for mobile phone activations in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2018, according to the latest consumer report by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP). Apple, on the other hand, kept first place for brand loyalty among customers.

CIRP bases its findings on its survey of 500 U.S. customers that activated a new or used phone between January and March. Of those 500 customers, Samsung accounted for 39 percent of activations — earning the title of most popular smartphone manufacturer this quarter.

Apple wasn’t too far behind as it took the second place spot with 31 percent — which is lower than the 40 percent of activations it had in last year’s fourth quarter. Meanwhile, LG came in third with 14 percent, and all brands accounted for 17 percent of activations.

But the report attributes Apple’s higher number last year to the launch of the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X. But with the launch of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus back in February, Samsung managed to snag the top spot while also returning to numbers it has seen in recent quarters.

As for brand loyalty, Samsung, Motorola, and LG have all increased loyalty rates within the past five quarters. Meanwhile, Apple has maintained its loyalty rate — with 80 to 90 percent or more of customers upgrading from their current iPhone to another. Samsung’s loyalty rates have reached over 70 percent for the last year, while LG and Motorola both increased several percentage points.

The report claims that while Android users remained loyal to Android, they would often switch brands because it didn’t require learning a new operating system — until now. “As fewer unique features are added to flagship phones, and brands have developed personalities with consistent user interfaces, consumers have fewer reasons to change brands, and more reasons not to when they upgrade phones,” Mike Levin, partner and co-founder of CIRP, said in a press release.

The report also notes that Samsung has been improving its share throughout recent quarters — specifically over the March and December 2017 quarters. This time last year, the company had actually lost share in comparison to the December 2016 quarter. With the anticipated release of the Galaxy Note 9, it will be interesting to see whether Samsung can keep its numbers high within the upcoming quarters.

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Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over wi-fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

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UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) scan pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

Square acquires corporate catering startup Zesty

Square has acquired elements of corporate catering startup Zesty . Square, which already owns on-demand food delivery service Caviar, plans to use Zesty’s assets to strengthen Caviar’s corporate ordering business, Caviar for Teams.

Neither company disclosed financial terms of the deal, but the plan is for Caviar and Zesty to operate independently in the short term.

“Restaurants turn to Caviar to reach more diners and grow their businesses,” Square Caviar Lead Gokul Rajaram said in a press release. “Expanding our corporate catering product with Zesty enables us to offer our restaurant partners another way to boost sales through higher-margin, large-format catering orders,” said Rajaram, Caviar Lead at Square. “Caviar is thriving, and we’re excited to supercharge its success with Zesty and double down on an area with great opportunity to drive more growth for our business.”

Since its acquisition of Caviar in 2014, Square has acquired OrderAhead’s pickup business to launch Caviar Pickup and Entrees On-Trays to expand its footprint in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.

Zesty currently partners with about 150 restaurants in San Francisco, which is the only city in which it operates. Some of Zesty’s customers include Snap, Splunk and TechCrunch. Zesty, which first launched in 2013 under a different name, had previously raised $20.7 million in venture funding.

“Adding Zesty’s offerings, like sophisticated menu-planning tools and algorithms, white-glove catering services, and nutrition and allergen customization, will help us expand our catering offering and even better serve companies of all sizes,” the Caviar team wrote on Medium. “Plus, it provides our restaurant partners with more opportunities to reach new corporate customers.”