Tenka Labs raises $2.1 million to turn LEGO blocks into kids’ engineering projects

Nate MacDonald and John Schuster spent more than a decade in schools looking to teach students some basic principles of circuitry and engineering — but realized that just giving them a battery and a motor and saying “go” wasn’t enough.

So the two have started Tenka Labs, a new company that designs small blocks that operate as parts of circuits that they can connect to LEGO bricks. There are three units: a battery, a motor and a light, all of which can be connected to build creations like cars — and even a creepy moving stuffed rabbit that MacDonald showed me — in an attempt to teach kids some of the early principles of engineering. The company has raised $2.1 million in seed financing for its launch.

“Students we were teaching about basic circuitry didn’t really understand basic circuitry,” co-founder Nate MacDonald said. “When you got to people soldering, they were just blindly soldering. We wanted to find a product that would help teach them basic circuitry. Eventually as it progressed we kind of had a product. We didn’t want to just go after the teachers, we wanted it to be available for all kids and parents. We took that big concept of the block and two nails and brought it down to this size.”

The blocks operate exactly like you’d expect with units of a circuit — connecting them in sequence gets a different result than connecting them in parallel. They have small pylons on the corners that automatically snap to other units to create a circuit. For now, the company is focusing on those three elements, but it’s natural that some other basic parts would come down the line (like a resister, for example).

circuit cubes walker

The idea here is that Tenka Labs wants to catch students and give them a better foundation before they graduate to something more sophisticated like a protoboard and start building more advanced circuits. MacDonald wants to target both teachers and classrooms — which will likely get some kind of bulk discount — in addition to just parents. For now, everything is sold in kits, like one that uses all three to create a car. The kits retail at around $60.

Each is designed to be just the size of LEGO blocks and snap into various creations beyond the kits that they’re offering. The kits are available for reservation and pre-order right now. “Kids are familiar with it, they’re comfortable with it,” MacDonald said. “Every kid has a pile of LEGOs.”

Schuster also said that the company isn’t necessarily looking to compete against what he calls “screen time,” when a kid might be playing with a smartphone or tablet. But there has to be a place in the day where they’re away from screens and using their imagination to build things, he said.

“We know that we’re not against screen time, I’m not opposed, but there’s a balance,” Schuster said. “But we think with the maker movement there’s a drive toward tactile play, and being able to make mistakes. The awesome thing about making creativity, you’re gonna have 6 kids building 6 different things.”

Tenka Labs is, of course, not alone in trying to build these sort of early engineering training products. There are other companies like LittleBits building similar tools to teach STEM basics to students before they start graduating to more advanced concepts, and that company raised $44.2 million in June on 2015. Schuster wasn’t shy to say that there will definitely be competition going forward, and now the company’s next step is to show off the units at the New York Toy Fair to get things started.

“We want it to be analog, we want this to be something the kids need to learn the basics before they go to a digital product,” Schuster said. “They need to understand motor and gears. We integrate with the most common building block so we can build in three dimensions. We work with kids enough to know that you have to really ramp up the play factor. We want to help them go on this adventure. It’s not, say, ‘hey we’re gonna learn about circuits, you each have to build a car.’”

Legal challenge to Facebook EU-US data transfer mechanism kicks off in Ireland

Another legal challenge to a data transfer authorization mechanism relied upon by Facebook and thousands of other companies to legally move user data from the European Union to the U.S. for processing has kicked off in the Irish High Court today.

The hearing is expected to last three weeks, and is taking place in Ireland because Facebook’s European headquarters are located in the country.

Last May the Irish data protection commissioner said it was referring standard contractual clauses (SCCs) — sometimes referred to as “model contract clauses” — to Ireland’s High Court to seek a referral to Europe’s top court, the CJEU, for a definitive ruling on the legality of the mechanism.

In a recent memo about the action, the Irish DPA writes on its website:

The DPC [data protection commissioner] is now asking the High Court to make a reference to the CJEU in relation to the validity of the SCCs mechanism. This step has been taken because the DPC has concerns as to the validity of the SCCs when considered in the light of a number of factors, to include Articles 7, 8 and 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and the CJEU’s judgment in the first Schrems case. The DPC considers that the concerns she holds, and the concerns expressed by Mr Schrems in a complaint filed with the DPC’s office, are well-founded.

Covering the opening of the hearing today, Reuters reports that the lawyer for Commissioner Helen Dixon argued the court should refer the case to the CJEU if “you share her doubts.” “The Commissioner’s concern is simply to get it right, not to advocate for any particular result,” he added.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Standard Contract Clauses provide critical safeguards, protecting EU citizens data’ in the US and around the world, and are used by thousands of companies to do business. Facebook firmly believes that SCCs are integral to businesses of all sizes, and upholding them is critical to ensuring the economy can continue to grow without disruption.”

The company will be giving evidence as part of the hearing — and was named in the original and updated complaints to the Irish DPA, the latter having resulted in today’s hearing.

“While there is no immediate impact for people or businesses who use our services, we are pleased to have the opportunity to provide input in this process,” the Facebook spokesperson added. “It is essential that the court has the opportunity to consider the full facts before it makes any decision that may impact the European economy.”

Back in June, the U.S. government asked, and was granted, permission to be joined as an amicus in the case — highlighting the high-level importance being attached to trying to prevent another data transfer challenge ending up at the CJEU, where judges would again be testing the legal robustness of a mechanism used to smooth data flows between Europe and the U.S. for e-commerce purposes.

In October 2015, the court caused a big upheaval for businesses by invalidating a prior EU-U.S. data flow arrangement that had been operational for 15 years.

Model contract clauses are one of the alternative data transfer mechanisms that thousands of companies fell back on when that prior arrangement, Safe Harbor, was struck down. The challenge had been initiated by European privacy campaigner Max Schrems, armed with intel from the 2013 Snowden disclosures about U.S. government surveillance programs. After the CJEU’s Safe Harbor ruling, Schrems resubmitted his complaint to the Irish DPA to push for a similar decision to invalidate SCCs.

The crux of the legal question remains whether U.S. surveillance activity can be made compatible with European privacy law. And since the fall of Safe Harbor, the legality of alternative mechanisms, including model contracts, has been questioned, even as the European Commission and the U.S. went on to conclude negotiations and seal a replacement deal, called Privacy Shield.

That mechanism launched last August, but is now facing at least one legal challenge. It’s also due its first annual review this summer, with signs of some early discontent on the European side — even before you factor in the question of how compatible the new Trump administration’s priorities will be with subtle arrangements seeking to legally bridge gaps in two distinct data protection regimes.

The new U.S. president signing an executive order at the end of last month to strip certain privacy rights from non-citizens/non-residents certainly has terrible optics from a European perspective. Even if that particular Trump pen stroke did not invalidate Privacy Shield, which relies on a different U.S. law to underpin its promise of “essential equivalence” of privacy protections. (Though how the ongoing combination of Trump plus Privacy Shield plays out over the longer run remains an open question.)

TechCrunch understands that a key concern for the Irish DPA over model contract clauses is a structural issue pertaining to the lack of redress facilities for European citizens wanting to pursue claims in the U.S. against companies they believe have breached their European rights.

Privacy Shield does offer a redress path for EU citizens, enabled by the U.S. signing the Judicial Redress Act into law and extending its designation to countries in the EU — although critics argue the redress path may be too complex for European consumers to be effective.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

Airsorted, a fast-growing Airbnb management startup, raises £1.5M

There are a plethora of startups offering property-management and concierge services to make the lives of Airbnb hosts easier. They include Silicon Valley’s Pillow, and Europe’s Hostmaker. Then there is Bnbsitter, which operates an on-demand model.

Another company in the space, which I’m told is growing fast and claims to now be the largest, is London-based Airsorted. The startup says it manages 1,000 homes, a four-fold increase in the past six months.

To help fuel further growth — including expansion to Sydney, Australia — Airsorted is disclosing that it has raised £1.5 million in funding. Concentric led the round, with participation from 500 Startups, and Pi Labs.

Founded in early 2015, and a graduate of proptech focussed Pi Labs accelerator, the startup provides an array of services designed to remove most of the hassle experienced by Airbnb hosts and, ultimately, to help them make more money. This includes managing guests, price optimisation, marketing, cleaning, and laundry.

Asked how Airsorted fares against competitors, co-founder and CEO James Jenkins-Yates says that most of the startup’s new hosts are not “switching” from a competitor but are using an Airbnb property-management and concierge service for the first time.

“There are other hosting companies, but it’s a big fast-growing market,” he says. “Our focus has always been on host profitability because that is where the exciting stories come from. People use the additional income to fund incredible lives and live their dreams… we believe the best strategy is to move quickly, and focus on delivering a consistent high-quality experience for hosts and guests alike”.

To that end, Airsorted charges a percentage of income generated from the properties it manages on Airbnb, and Jenkins-Yates says that means the startup’s interests and those of its customers remain aligned.

“We do everything we can to increase the value of the listing — price optimisations and building processes to ensure guests enjoy the stay, etc. — so that our hosts earn as much as possible,” he says.

“People forget that while Airbnb itself may be based in California, most of their properties are actually in destination cities across Europe,” says 500 Startups’ Matt Lerner in a statement. “Expanding to 3 cities (London, Edinburgh, Dublin) in under two years was not easy. Airsorted have proven the potential of the market and should continue to expand their base of available properties quickly.”

Energy giant AES partners with Measure to improve worker safety with drones

Major power producer AES Corp. is ramping up the use of drones with an eye toward shielding workers from industry hazards. Rather than buy all their own unmanned aerial systems, they’ve engaged D.C.-based drone services provider Measure to get access to a more extensive fleet. Measure recently raised $15 million in venture funding.

According to its Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Chris Shelton, AES has flown drone missions in 10 countries. It also has a reasonable inventory of drones that it uses at power plants and projects. Working with Measure will allow AES to get newer and more drones on short notice, along with pilots to help run them, wherever they are needed.

Shelton said, “We find that using drones, we can reduce the number of hazardous hours that it takes to do certain types of maintenance. And we can also enhance the efficiency of the business.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, workers in the electric power generation business face a range of hazards, from electrocution to falls, fires and explosions.

Using drones, AES employees can remotely inspect a tower or transmission line, for example, and gather high-resolution data about what’s going on there, without having to scramble up scaffolding. AES also uses drones for inspection of solar panels, alleviating workers of a need to walk vast fields taking precise measurements.

Last year, AES ranked among America’s biggest water and air polluters, according to two separate studies by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, and a Center for Public Integrity investigation, respectively. Hopefully, the company will find ways to put drones and data to work reducing carbon and chemical emissions affiliated with energy production and distribution.

Although AES employs 21,000 people and operates in 17 countries, its drone use near-term will focus around power plants and projects in the U.S. and Latin America, Shelton said. Based in Arlington, Va., AES started using drones a couple of years ago when the available drone technology had advanced beyond RC’s and flying cameras to include new mapping and sensing capabilities.

Featured Image: measure.aero

Hootsuite acquires AdEspresso as it moves into paid content, social ads

Hootsuite, the startup and platform that lets marketers manage a company’s interactions across a range of social media networks, is getting into the business of paid content. Today, it is announcing that it has acquired AdEspresso, a company that has built a set of tools to create, A-B test, and post advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. It will sit in a relaunched version of Hootsuite Ads, first introduced in 2015, but the primary aim will be to use it to augment and boost views for other social media posts that marketers are creating.

This is part of a much bigger (and sometimes controversial) trend: content these days is appearing on social networks both organically, but also in the form of promoted, paid ads in order to get more visibility.

“Owned and earned content are not going away but the augmentation with paid is critical to success,” Ryan Holmes, the founder and CEO of Hootsuite, said in an interview. “The trend with the algorithmic ranking of content and what you see in your stream means it’s not the same world it was five years ago. Every social network and stream has filtration, so for brands to get their message across they need to have that paid component.”

Financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed; all Hootsuite’s CEO Ryan Holmes said about it in an interview this week is that the deal is in cash and shares and that “everyone is happy.”

AdEspresso, originally spun out of an ad agency in Italy in 2013 by Carlo Forghieri, Armando Biondi and Massimo Chieruzzi, and now based in San Francisco, had raised just over $3 million from a range of investors that included 500 Startups and VTF (the Vegas Tech Fund). It has about 5,000 customers using the product, Holmes said.

Hootsuite — which has 15 million people using its product with “hundreds of thousands” of those paying for a premium tier — raised just under $250 million in funding, and while its shares were marked down some time ago by at least one investor, Fidelity, Holmes confirmed to me today that the company today has a valuation of “over $1 billion.” Hootsuite has been cash-flow positive since Q3 last year and didn’t need to tap outside investment to finance this deal.

AdEspresso first got its start building tools for small and medium businesses to take better advantage and better optimise its presence on Facebook’s advertising platform — a business that has taken off and made it one of the faster growing of Facebook’s marketing partners.

While Hootsuite will be rolling it into its existing advertising business — where it will continue as a self-service ad management product — Holmes also sees the key opportunity to be how users will be able to use it to expand what they are already trying to achieve using the Hootsuite platform.

“Owned and earned is not going anywhere but we see an increase in the amount of advertising that is being created alongside them,” Holmes repeated more than once during our discussion. “Hootsuite is known for helping to schedule owned and earned content, and the engagement component around that, but what is happening as a broader trend is that brands need to layer in the paid piece. That’s why we decided that we needed this as part of that platform.”

When I asked Holmes about the fact that this has been used as a vehicle to sometimes spread “fake news” to unwitting viewers, he agreed that this is a huge and terrible problem — but he also put some of the pressure on trying to suss this out on the bigger platforms.

“I don’t want to pass the buck on this one, but this is the responsibility of our partners like Facebook and others to manage,” he said. “I am a huge supporter of cracking down on fake news. This is a great opportunity for journalism to show its value right now. Google has for years dealt with this idea of trying to get top results to weed out the spam and fake news, and now the social networks will have to invest in doing the same for the benefit of them, us and humanity. If the social networks solve this at a global scale it will solve it at the microscale from our perspective.”

While Holmes did not go into the details of how revenues break down on AdEspresso, this also helps lay more groundwork for the company in how it continues to diversify its business. Today, Hootsuite’s freemium model is heavily weighted to “free”: of the 15 million users it has, paying users number in the hundreds of thousands. Adding in more paid advertising options gives it an option of monetizing those free users without trying to woo them to paid tiers for the wider service.

Ona could help you get better at dating with an online dating coach, therapist or matchmaker

Here’s the thing about online dating: Not all of us are good at it. But if you, like me, suspect that you could benefit from a helping hand, a startup called Ona is offering professional support.

After all, I’m guessing that many of you have already asked friends for advice on how to improve your Tinder profile, or what to say in your first message, or what to wear on a date. You can think of Ona as taking that idea to the next level.

“It’s about learning how to date better, using specialists,” said co-founder Eric Berkowitz. “We want to change the idea of what a dating app is. We didn’t want an algorithm smashing people together … We wanted something that really was deeper and gave people a real chance at having a connection.”

So Ona has brought on specialists in four categories — date coaching, date consulting, therapy and matchmaking. (What’s the difference between coaching and consulting? Well, Ona says coaching can involve multiple one-on-one sessions and include secondary services like stylists and photographers, while consulting tends to be one-off, like assessing your profile or serving as a wingman/woman.)

These coaches, consultants and therapists don’t work for Ona, but they have been vetted by the startup’s team. (The therapy is provided by licensed psychotherapists, for example.) And they might specialize even further, for example focusing on matchmaking for LGBT users.

Ona users can browse general tips in the app and search the provider listings in each category. You can even get matches (more on that in a second) and chat with the providers for free, but if you’re interested in availing yourself of one of the paid services, then the specialist will name a price and accept payment in the app itself.

Ona experts

Co-founder Mark Zuppe said the company encourages providers to charge prices between $75 and $200 for their “core service,” with possible premium services for an additional charge.

And yes, you can also end up getting connected with other users for dates. However, these connections happen through Ona matchmakers, which mean that you’re not just going through a stack of photos and swiping left and right. In fact, Zuppe said your profile is only visible to the specialists, not to other singles.

Zuppe also said that when he and Berkowitz first came up with the idea, they assumed it would appeal mostly to people in their 30s and 40s — “people who put their careers first” and now want to get serious about finding a relationship. However, he said they’ve seen interest from younger users too; you can be in your 20s and already feel, “I need so much help.”

One more thing about that user base: They’re required to connect through their LinkedIn or Facebook profiles, and Ona also performs criminal background checks, so you can feel a bit more safe in going on that date.

The app is currently available for iOS users in New York City.

[embedded content]

Ode to Sprint: Somebody Calls You, You Answer Quite Slowly

As I write this, I’m listening to twangy guitar music that calls up vague images of big spiny cactus, dust, and a riderless swaybacked horse. Lots of dust. I’ve been listening to the same few bars for 43 minutes and counting.

Every few seconds, the music is interrupted by this: “We apologize for the wait. We are currently experiencing higher than normal volumes and long hold times. If you do not wish to wait, please hang up and call back at a later time, or you may stay on the line, and the next available representative will assist you.”

I’m on hold on Sprint’s fraud management line. (It’s 1-888-788-0788 if you’d like to hear the music.)

I decided to wait for the next available representative, because I previously wasted about 30 minutes trying to navigate Sprint’s customer service line but was unsuccessful at reaching a human. I did speak to a human at my local Sprint store, who couldn’t do anything to help me other than give me this great number.

Grinch Foiled

If someone were to pick up, here’s what I would say: Back around Christmas time, some unauthorized person accessed my account, ordered a couple of iPhones, and tried to set up a couple of new lines. (Thanks, Yahoo.) Because my account was set up for autopay, and since it happened around the holidays, the charges might have gone unnoticed for quite a while.

I’m glad Sprint’s fraud management folks were on their toes and thwarted the crime. In order to protect my account, Sprint erased my online profile and canceled my autopay. I was told I’d get my future bills in the mail, and I should pay only my usual monthly charges, even if I were billed for more.

Well, that seemed inconvenient but necessary, so I heaved a sigh and went on with my life.

Can You Feel My Pain?

I didn’t receive anything in the mail from Sprint, though — no acknowledgment that a fraud had occurred, no monthly statement, no nothing. However, this week, I got an email saying that a larger-than-usual payment was due.

I attempted to log on to my account but found that Sprint no longer knew me online. Neither my old user name nor my current email address were recognized. I called Sprint’s customer service and got caught on the automation wheel of hell. There’s no selection for “representative.” Don’t press zero in the hope of getting a Sprint operator — it just disconnects you.

I couldn’t find a customer support email address — the billing email I’d received warned me not to bother trying to reply. I found no opportunity to chat online — I guess online chat is only for customers. Oh yeah, I’m a customer.

Cue the Indiana Jones Music

Wow. At 1 hour, 4 minutes, Robert answered — a real guy! We spoke for about a minute, and he apologized for the long wait. After a bit of checking, he acknowledged that what I’d told him was right. Then he put me on hold again.

The annoying robo-message was different, but the delightful music was the same.

When Robert returned, he had a solution for my problem. He walked me through re-establishing my online profile and was patient when I made a good many mistakes, which I doubt I would have made if my head hadn’t been filled with that effing guitar music or about to explode from the extra-large dose of frustration.

My call with Sprint ended at just over the 1:20 mark.

Unfaithfully Yours

Robert gets an A+ for being helpful and good-natured, particularly since I’m guessing everyone he speaks to has been waiting too long and is annoyed to the nth degree.

Sprint gets a C-. I’ll give the company credit for catching the fraud proactively (though its own money was at stake, of course). It also gets points because the humans in its employ actually wanted to be helpful and eventually did solve my problem.

However, Sprint clearly has adopted a “customer service” system that’s designed to push customers away instead of embracing them. It doesn’t seem to have a strong desire to instill loyalty and trust. It’s beyond ironic that a communications service provider is so horrible at communicating.

Sprint, I’d like to introduce you to Amazon. I think you could benefit by following Amazon around for a few days to observe the way it treats its customers. Amazon does it right, and it gets lots of my money, along with my enthusiastic word-of-mouth praise, for treating me so well. We’ve been together for years, and I hope to grow very old with Amazon at my side.

I want you to love me the way Amazon does, Sprint — and if you do, I might just return the affection. The way I’m feeling about you now, though, we’ve got very little chance at a long-term relationship. In fact, I think I’ll check right now to see when my contract is up.

Mick Brady is managing editor of ECT News Network.

Trump becomes a mad medieval king in this brilliant Twitter parody

There are many great Twitter parodies of Donald Trump, from “Bridget Trump’s Diary” to “Trump Draws”

But one in particular stands out for cultural and historical ingenuity, at least from a UK-centric point of view. 

“Donaeld The Unready” pokes fun at the U.S. president while teaching us precious lessons on Britain’s early medieval age, when the country was divided into the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

As the Twitter description says, Donaeld is “the best medieval King out there” of Mercia, which from the mid-7th century onwards was the most powerful of these kingdoms. 

“I’m just great. I’m the bretwalda. The bestwalda. I’ve got great swords, everyone says so. Make Mercia Great Again,” it says, mocking Trump’s motto and his typical turns of phrase.

The tweets are full of Old English words such as “bretwalda”, which was given to some of the rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

In his tirades, Donaeld is obsessed with draining the East Anglian fens, building shield walls, keeping away the Vikings, fighting other kings and disputing “bad monk Bede”, who IRL was an author and scholar who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

Enjoy this selection of Donaeld’s best tweets: 

BONUS: Sean Spicer just cannot get the Prime Minister of Australia’s name right

This gritty short film is told entirely through Snapchat

[embedded content]

LONDON — A young woman sits cross-legged on her bed, staring into the jaunty-angled camera lens and moaning about her fruitless hunt for a job.

The words “Job search got me like” appear on the screen as she narrows her eyes and presses her fingers to her temples. It looks like any other video you might see popping up on Snapchat — and that’s exactly what makes British student Trim Lamba’s short film so damn effective.

“I am fascinated by our use of social-media,” Lamba said. “Particularly, the ‘story’ function. It willingly invites us to ‘create’ our lives through a succession of images and videos stitched together for others to watch.

“Often, we skew this to present our most joyous and attractive selves.”

Actress Chantelle Levene puts in a great performance in 'Cracked Screen'.

Actress Chantelle Levene puts in a great performance in ‘Cracked Screen’.

Image: trim lamba

Lamba’s seven-minute film Cracked Screen is told entirely through a series of Snaps. Through a sequence of emoji-covered vertical videos, we watch the main character partying, going to the gym, and meeting up with friends in town.

The whole sequence is very realistic, and that makes it all the more disturbing when things suddenly take a dark turn halfway through the film.

“I wanted to test the resilience of the social avatar when faced with unpleasantness,” continued Lamba. “Our aim then was to bring together social media and cinema in a synthesis that felt authentic, searing and potentially illuminating.”

The film poster for 'Cracked Screen'.

The film poster for ‘Cracked Screen’.

Image: trim lamba

Lamba said he worked closely with actress Chantelle Levene on the main character’s story.

“It was important to problematise and continually interrogate her reliability,” he said. “For this, we introduced bumps into the narrative — writing in scenes to suggest something peculiar and simmering was happening and being strategically withheld from the viewer.”

Cracked Screen has been well-received so far. Lamba’s been invited to screen the film around London, and it will be featured as Short of the Week on Vimeo from Friday 10 February.

“Watching this style of film projected on to a big screen — rather than the confines of your phone — makes for an unusual but unique viewing experience,” Lamba said.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time film-makers have experimented with Snapchat. In 2016, writer/director Hannah Macpherson borrowed the Snapchat account of YouTube star Andrea Russett to create a five-day, real-time horror film in the style of The Blair Witch Project. 

As social media becomes increasingly ingrained in our day-to-day lives, it seems likely that there will be more and more experiments like this.

“The digital world has democratised the ways we produce and consume content,” Lamba said. “I would encourage other filmmakers to engage with it. This experimental style of filmmaking challenges our conception of what we deem ‘cinematic’ — an idea that should intrigue and propel us all.”

Alexa Voice Service now works on connected devices in UK and Germany

Since first being unbundled back in 2015 in the U.S., Alexa Voice Service — the voice-response software that powers the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot — has been one of Amazon’s chief tools to spread its services to a range of connected devices. Now Amazon is taking its strategy international. Today it announced that AVS will now also work in the UK and Germany, and will understand German and British English.

It means that consumers in any of the three markets will be able to use any device enabled with AVS to work with the full range of Alexa services in that market, and they will be able to set commands to work in any of the different languages regardless of what market they are in.

While Amazon is making Alexa available in three markets and three languages now, not all services will work everywhere. iHeartRadio, for example, is only live in the U.S. today, and so it will not work via AVS in Germany or the UK. Ditto Kindle book reading and traffic reports. Others like Amazon Music, which also expanded to Germany, the UK and Austria last November, will be usable, as will Wikipedia and local Skills — Amazon’s other huge API project that lets developers build their own services to work via Alexa’s voice response system. A full list at the end of this article.

AVS expanding to Germany and the UK follows Amazon also making these two the first markets to launch the Echo and Echo Dot last year. These are the only markets outside North America so far, but Amazon has ambitious targets for selling its own hardware — 10 million units in 2017, according to one report — so we may see more countries coming soon.

Alexa was arguably the biggest hit of CES earlier this year, where integrations appeared in phonesrefrigeratorslampscars, and much more, setting the bar for any company — such as Google, Microsoft and Apple — building AI-based voice services.

Scale is the name of the game for these services, both as a lever for expanding a company’s bigger business (in Amazon’s case: e-commerce), but also as a way of amassing ever more data into its machine-learning database to make it work better.

Amazon’s rapid roll out of AVS has picked up on a moment in the tech industry — and in the case of AVS by hardware makers who may not have the resources to develop voice interfaces but see them as a promising sign of how we will interact with devices it the future — and it has spread like wildfire.

At least that’s been the case in the U.S. It will be interesting to see how developers in the UK and Germany — and also those who have built products for the U.S. market but also sell into the UK and Germany — take up the baton to develop products using them.

Alongside this, Echosim.io, a companion service built by iQuarius Media that lets developers and nerdy enthusiasts test out Alexa commands on the web, is also expanding.

Those in the UK or Germany who may have tried it before today might have noticed it’s been working for months. Amazon tells me that today is the official launch: the Echosim.io link that might have been used in the past outside the U.S. would have been linked to U.S., not localised, skills.