Newly signed funding bill gives NASA’s budget a significant boost

After enduring the longest government shutdown in history, NASA stands to receive a big boost in funding for fiscal year 2019, thanks to a new budget bill signed by President Trump today. The legislation, which funds the federal government through September 30th, 2019, would give NASA $21.5 billion — an increase over last year’s budget of $20.7 billion and much more than the $19.9 billion the agency asked for.

Practically every major program within NASA will receive a boost. The agency’s science programs, which cover planetary missions and Earth science, will receive a total $6.9 billion, up from $6.2 billion from last year. The human exploration program will get $5 billion, while it got $4.79 billion in 2018.

And many of the NASA missions that the president tried to get rid of still live on. The most notable of these is the agency’s WFIRST mission, a new space-based telescope that NASA has been developing to look for planets outside our Solar System and search for dark energy in the Universe. The president’s request for 2019, released last February, called for the cancellation of the space telescope, citing the project’s cost overruns. Today’s bill provides $312 million for WFIRST development. However, supplemental materials for the budget warn that the project must stay within the $3.2 billion cost cap placed on it by Congress.

Another survivor in the bill is a mission to send a lander to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, an enticing place for scientists who want to search for life elsewhere in our Solar System. The mission is one of two that NASA has been working on to study the moon; the other is a spacecraft that would periodically fly by Europa, to study the moon from afar and sample the plumes of liquid that are thought to burst from the surface. Both missions were championed by former Texas congressman John Culberson, a big space buff who used to chair the House Appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA.

An artistic illustration of what a Europa lander could look like
Image: NASA

But Culberson was recently ousted from his House seat in the 2018 midterm elections, leading many to wonder about the fate of the lander — which was the congressman’s passion project. Trump’s past two budget requests have called for the cancellation of the lander while keeping the other Europa mission intact. For now, the lander’s development is still being funded, but it may be on borrowed time.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Earth science initiatives are staying the same. Before taking office, an advisor for President Trump said that Earth science would be a target for cancellation by the administration. And for the last two years, President Trump has called for the cancellation of five missions to study the Earth, which included turning off instruments on an already functioning satellite in space. However, no Earth science mission has been cut, and the program’s budget is staying the same. Additionally, NASA’s education department, another target for cancellation under the president’s budget requests, remains funded.

The bill also provides funding for NASA’s new big lunar initiatives, as the agency is currently focused on sending humans back to the Moon. These include the development of a new station around the Moon called the Gateway, as well as investment in new robotic and human landers. Those initiatives will receive around $800 million in the coming year, however there’s language in the bill that says only 50 percent of that funding can be used until NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine submits a more detailed report to Congress about the agency’s plan to put humans on the Moon again. NASA’s lunar return has slowly taken shape over the last few years and has become more robust, but Congress wants just a little bit more detail about dates and the different rockets that will be used in the process.

But overall, the new budget promises a lot of money for NASA’s deep-space mission plans, more so than it’s received for the last decade. And it’s the sixth year in a row that NASA has received a bigger budget than it got the year before. It’s unclear if this trend will continue, but the president’s next budget request is expected to be submitted in March, after missing the deadline in February due to the shutdown. That proposal will shape the budget discussions for the year ahead, giving some idea of what NASA can expect in 2020.

Niantic is tweaking Pokémon Go to settle a lawsuit with angry homeowners

Pokémon Go developer Niantic has agreed to settle a lawsuit with people who had PokéStops placed near their houses, and it’s making some minor game changes as part of the deal. The settlement appeared in court filings yesterday, and it’s still awaiting a judge’s approval. It won’t resolve some big legal questions about how augmented reality mixes with physical property laws — but it should make life easier for people who find unwanted Pokémon Go players around their homes.

Niantic agreed to implement several new features and policies under the settlement, which will be binding for the next three years. Homeowners can already have pokémon gyms or PokéStops removed from private property, but Niantic now promises to resolve complaints within 15 days, remove any stop that’s located within 40 meters of that property, and maintain a database that will prevent a new gym or PokéStop from popping up nearby. Beyond private homes, park authorities will also be able to request that gyms and PokéStops only appear during open hours.

The company will also add a series of warnings for players. If more than 10 people show up for a raid in Pokémon Go, a message will flash on their screens, reminding them to “be courteous to others and respectful of their real-world surroundings.” A similar message will show up alongside other warnings when players launch the game. Financial damages are on the table as well, including $1,000 each for the people named in the lawsuit, although Niantic hasn’t agreed to a specific total sum.

The class-action suit, filed in 2016, consolidated several individual complaints from unhappy homeowners. The plaintiffs claimed that Niantic’s game had encouraged players to trespass on their property — sometimes blocking their driveway with cars, “peering into their windows,” and littering or damaging property. Court filings revealed last year that the case had been settled, but they didn’t specify what the settlement included.

Pokémon Go’s incredible early popularity revealed many pitfalls in location-based games, including players who trespassed or took risks to find hard-to-reach pokémon, or PokéStops being placed in inappropriate locations like cemeteries and memorials. The game apparently retains a strong player base, and it started letting users nominate new PokéStops last year. But with the initial hype period over, it seems likely that far fewer people are getting their houses mobbed by roving pokémon trainers. Still, this settlement helps codify some best practices for running similar games without bothering non-players — even if it doesn’t establish a legal precedent for regulating digital space.

Deploy the space harpoon

Watch out, starwhales. There’s a new weapon for the interstellar dwellers whom you threaten with your planet-crushing gigaflippers, undergoing testing as we speak. This small-scale version may only be good for removing dangerous orbital debris, but in time it will pierce your hypercarbon hides and irredeemable sun-hearts.

Literally a space harpoon. (Credit: Airbus)

However, it would be irresponsible of me to speculate beyond what is possible today with the technology, so let a summary of the harpoon’s present capabilities suffice.

The space harpoon is part of the RemoveDEBRIS project, a multi-organization European effort to create and test methods of reducing space debris. There are thousands of little pieces of who knows what clogging up our orbital neighborhood, ranging in size from microscopic to potentially catastrophic.

There are as many ways to take down these rogue items as there are sizes and shapes of space junk; perhaps it’s enough to use a laser to edge a small piece down towards orbital decay, but larger items require more hands-on solutions. And seemingly all nautical in origin: RemoveDEBRIS has a net, a sail, and a harpoon. No cannon?

You can see how the three items are meant to operate here:

[embedded content]

The harpoon is meant for larger targets, for example full-size satellites that have malfunctioned and are drifting from their orbit. A simple mass driver could knock them towards the Earth, but capturing them and controlling descent is a more controlled technique.

While an ordinary harpoon would simply be hurled by the likes of Queequeg or Dagoo, in space it’s a bit different. Sadly it’s impractical to suit up a harpooner for EVA missions. So the whole thing has to be automated. Fortunately the organization is also testing computer vision systems that can identify and track targets. From there it’s just a matter of firing the harpoon at it and reeling it in, which is what the satellite demonstrated today.

This Airbus-designed little item is much like a toggling harpoon, which has a piece that flips out once it pierces the target. Obviously it’s a single-use device, but it’s not particularly large and several could be deployed on different interception orbits at once. Once reeled in, a drag sail (seen in the video above) could be deployed to accelerate reentry. The whole thing could be done with little or no propellant, which greatly simplifies operation.

Obviously it’s not yet a threat to the starwhales. But we’ll get there. We’ll get those monsters good one day.

Here are three features Twitter could add to earn some trust

I love Twitter, so it’s a real shame that it’s owned by the Twitter corporation. In many ways Twitter is already a human artifact worthy of history books, but as a software product in 2019, it stinks. The company’s crowning achievements in the past decade include replacing a star icon with a heart, doubling the length of tweets, and solving harassment with blog posts. Twitter’s upside is world-shaking and poetic — and that’s why its delinquent stewardship is so frustrating.

This week brought another bizarre interview with Jack Dorsey, and a fresh round of promises by the Twitter CEO to maybe someday do something useful with his company’s product. Well, I’m not buying it — fucking up constantly is in Twitter’s DNA — but I do have three recommendations just in case the company wakes up from its user experience nightmare.

Batch Tweet deletion

Let me oversimplify Twitter’s entire business: Twitter is happy when there are more tweets, and is sad when there are fewer tweets. So we can at least understand why Twitter and every other company that makes money from hosting your content doesn’t spend too much time thinking about how to help you make less of it. But they ought to.

They ought to because letting people control the stuff they own is both the right thing to do and the only reasonable way for a business to behave. It’s absurd that you have to rely on third parties to delete all of your tweets — content that you own and should be able to more easily manage. Imagine if someone started a bank that only let customers withdraw money one dollar at a time. You can’t, because nobody would be dumb enough to operate a product that way, unless they faced no meaningful competition.

To be fair, this problem is everywhere. Instagram introduced an archive feature in 2017 to let you prune your past, but you have to click multiple buttons to archive your posts, one at a time. Is it rational for platform companies to create friction for users who want to delete stuff? Sure. Is it a shitty thing to do? You bet.

Self-destructing Tweets

Twitter and its peers have what I’ll call a maximalist perspective on permanence. The idea that you upload something and it just stays there forever is baked so deeply into these services that entire competitors have emerged whose value proposition hinges on a different concept of time. (Hi, Snapchat.) People still only slowly seem to be realizing this is probably a bad idea — usually when they get owned online for something they said 10 years ago and forgot to delete.

Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. Twitter could easily let you choose how long a tweet should live, and then let it die. Most things we say online have a shelf life of about 24 hours and it’s just weird to preserve every spasm of human expression in amber for all time. Future generations may wish they had a complete picture of what we said and did online, but we don’t owe them a complete historical record if it means self-surveillance in the present.

Swipe to block

Twitter is happy when there are more tweets, so it follows that it is happy when there are more people connecting and tweeting at each other. But for many of us, other people are hell. It should be easier to block them.

It may not be possible to moderate communities of incomprehensible size. And it may be true, as the Jack Dorseys and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world would have us believe, that moderation at enormous scale is only possible with the assistance of sophisticated artificial intelligence. But in the meantime, they can make it a lot easier for us to deal with people who are bad online, and they haven’t spent enough time or attention on ways to control who gets to speak to us online.

I hope we get to a place where some super smart AI nukes racist trolls before they can strike. But in the meantime, Twitter, can you make a better button? Here’s the idea: let people swipe left on a tweet in the app to block the person who tweeted it. One swipe and they’re gone.

Thanks for reading, Twitter. I’m sure I’ll think of some more useful buttons the next time I open the app, but I’m sure this is enough to keep you busy for the next three to five years.

Tesla’s latest challenge is finding new customers for the Model 3

As Tesla transitions out of a year full of Model 3 “production hell” and “delivery hell,” a new question has emerged: how many more customers are there for the car?

This question was repeated a number of times during a call with industry analysts on January 30th where Tesla discussed its full financial results for 2018. Tesla still hasn’t started production of the $35,000 version of the Model 3 originally promised in 2016, and some on Wall Street are worried that the company has tapped out demand for the higher-priced versions of the car in the United States — especially as other automakers are warning of a rough 2019 as car sales cool worldwide.

It would be a stark turnaround in the story of Tesla, considering the company spent most of 2018 proving it could make enough cars to satisfy hundreds of thousands of preorders. “Tesla has now shifted from a production story to a demand story,” Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives wrote this week. There is clearly “heavy lifting ahead,” he said.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk dismissed the issue of demand a number of times on that call. “The demand for Model 3 is insanely high. The inhibitor is affordability,” he said. “It’s just, like, people literally don’t have the money to buy the car. It’s got nothing to do with desire. They just don’t have enough money in the bank account. If the car can be made more affordable, they will… the demand is extraordinary.”

So, according to Musk, the problem in the US is pricing. When that’s addressed, the demand will be there, just like it was when Tesla sold about 140,000 higher-priced Model 3s in 2018 during the first full year of production.

But it’s still not clear when that pricing will change. Musk admitted on the call that Tesla still hasn’t figured out how to make a Model 3 it can sell for a profit at that $35,000 price point. Until it does, the Model 3 still costs thousands — in some cases, tens of thousands — of dollars more than the originally advertised base price.

Tesla dropped the price of the current cheapest version of the Model 3 to $42,900 last week after lowering it by $2,000 in January. But the car still starts at about $6,000 more than the current average selling price in the US, which was $37,149 in January, according to Kelley Blue Book. Depending on certain options (like Autopilot or all-wheel drive), the Model 3 can cost as much as $70,000. In fact, a tricked-out Model 3 can become so expensive that Tesla recently removed the base versions of the Model S and Model X to avoid overlap, Musk said.

Unless there are further price cuts, the Model 3 is only going to get more expensive because Tesla’s cars are no longer eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. When the $35,000 Model 3 finally does arrive, which Tesla’s website says is still “4 to 6 months” away, there might only be a few months of overlap with any federal tax credit at all.

That’s because the automaker passed a crucial threshold last summer when it sold its 200,000th car in the US, which caused the federal tax credit to be cut in half to $3,750 on January 1st of this year. The credit drops again on July 1st to $1,875, and it will expire completely at the end of the year. State incentives can knock as much as $2,500 off the cost of the car, but $32,500 would be a long way off from the original dream of an under-$30,000 price tag after the federal tax credit. And that’s giving analysts pause.

“Despite management’s focus on expanding supply, we believe that pent up demand for the higher priced variants in the US has largely been exhausted,” Cowen’s Jeffrey Osborne wrote in a note this month.

“[G]rowth rates domestically appear to be rapidly decelerating,” he added. Reports of low sales figures in January and cuts to the company’s delivery team during recent layoffs have only added to that worry. This is why, in the short term, Tesla will “need to rely on these higher priced variants in Europe and China to offset” a dip in sales Stateside, according to Osborne.

(Tesla says it does not break out sales by country or region and would not comment on the reported January sales figures. It described the report about the cuts to the delivery team as “not accurate” in a statement, adding that call center employees at the location in question are still scheduling deliveries. Musk also said offering leases on the Model 3 — something it doesn’t currently do — would be another way to boost demand, but added he’s hesitant because it could make the company’s financials look worse.)

Both of those new markets for the Model 3 represent huge opportunities for Tesla in building on the car’s momentum. China is the largest EV market in the world, and Europe is on par with the US. Musk said on the call that he believes success in these new markets could someday lift Tesla sales “something on the order of” 700,000 to 800,000 Model 3s per year in a strong economy.” In a recession, he estimated, that could slip to about 500,000.

It’s not clear what the road to those kinds of global sales figures looks like, though. Tesla can’t yet make that many cars in a year, let alone that many Model 3s. The company only expects to sell between 360,000 and 400,000 cars worldwide in 2019, with around 100,000 being Model S and Model X, according to estimates the company released this month.

Tesla’s manufacturing capacity at its Fremont, California factory is also nearly tapped out. The company’s operation there was already “bursting at the seams” when the company started making Model 3s in a tent in the parking lot last summer. Tesla broke ground on a Gigafactory in China last month where it plans to make more Model 3s (specifically for that region), but production won’t start until the end of 2019 at the earliest.

Musk said on the January 30th call that the Shanghai factory is the “biggest variable for getting to 500k plus [Model 3s] a year.” Tesla’s best guess is it will be able to make 7,000 Model 3s per week by the end of the year, which means the company will spend most of 2019 making Model 3s at or near its current pace of production.

Meanwhile, Tesla hasn’t provided concrete information about the number of reservations it’s taken so far in China and Europe. In response to a question from Goldman Sachs earlier this month, Musk said there’s “absolutely” more demand beyond the reported 20,000 orders already placed in Europe and the “single digit thousands” in China.

He also said Tesla isn’t concerned about demand in Europe or China right now, and that the company is currently focused on hammering out the basic logistics of getting Model 3s to both places. But there are barriers in both markets. Tesla has had some trouble with early deliveries in Europe, and, in the case of China, Musk said Tesla is racing to deliver Model 3s before the trade war sparks any new tariffs. Pricing is already a challenge there for non-Chinese automakers, and likely will be until Tesla gets the Shanghai Gigafactory up and running. The company has already been tinkering with pricing and options there as a result.

Eventually, Tesla will have to care about demand for Model 3 sales in those markets because sustaining sales of the car is key to keeping the company out of the red. Tesla lost $1 billion across 2018, but it turned a profit in the final two quarters, thanks in part to the Model 3 reaching unprecedented levels of popularity for the company. In its first full year of production, Tesla delivered around 140,000 Model 3s, which is 40,000 more than the Model S and X combined and almost as many cars as it delivered in all of 2016 and 2017. The Model 3 outsold a number of premium vehicles from the world’s biggest automakers, like the BMW X3 SUV or the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

One key to that success was the pent-up demand for the Model 3 that came from taking hundreds of thousands of reservations for the car over the past few years. This meant sales were almost directly tied to how fast the company could make (and ship) the cars. As many as about 450,000 people had placed preorders for the car, so the more Tesla made, the more sales it could claim. (This is why there was so much focus on the Model 3’s production “ramp” throughout 2018.)

That changed heading into the second half of 2018. Tesla stopped taking reservations in the US. Instead, it allowed direct orders to come in in an effort to move more of the higher-priced versions of the Model 3 that the company has been making. This flipped the script: the company is now making a lot of the more expensive Model 3s, so it needs to keep finding buyers in the short term, which is why it’s turning to Europe and China.

If Tesla can get the $35,000 Model 3 into production, there is likely more demand waiting, as Musk said. But it’s unclear how many of those 450,000 reservation holders remain. Tesla said last October that “less than 20 percent” of reservations holders have asked for a refund, but it hasn’t provided an updated number.

Musk and outgoing Tesla chief financial officer Deepak Ahuja also curiously dismissed the reservations on that January 30th call, too. “Reservations are not relevant for us. We are really focused on orders,” Ahuja said, before backpedaling a bit. “Now, we do have a large reservations backlog still, which tells us that a lot of customers are still waiting for those cars. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to share the reservations number.”

There could be plenty of new customers for a $35,000 Model 3 once it arrives, even without the federal tax credit, but car sales are slowing around the world after years of growth. Automakers are warning investors that 2019 could be a bad year for their bottom line because of this, especially because China’s car market is seeing its first decline in decades. If Tesla is going to keep growing its business on the back of the Model 3, then the company will have to do the same thing it’s always done: prove its competitors wrong.

GoTrendier raises $3.5 million to take on Spanish-language fashion marketplaces

Thanks to environmentally conscious young buyers, throwaway culture is dying not only in the U.S., but also in Latin America — and startups are poised to jump in with services to help people recycle used clothing.

GoTrendier, a peer-to-peer fashion marketplace operative in Mexico and Colombia, has raised $3.5 million USD to do just that. And investors are eyeing the startup as the digital fashion marketplace growth leader in Spanish-speaking countries. 

GoTrendier, founded by Belén Cabido, is a platform that lets users buy and sell secondhand clothing. Cabido tells me that the new capital will enable GoTrendier to expand deeper into Mexico and Colombia, and launch in a new country: Chile. 

GoTrendier enables users to buy and sell used items through the GoTrendier site and app. The platform categorizes users as either salespeople or buyers. Salespeople create their own stores by uploading photos of garments along with a description and sale price. Buyers browse the platform for deals and once a buyer bites, the seller is given a prepaid shipping label. 

Sound familiar? Businesses like Poshmark and GoTrendier have no actual inventory, which allows the companies to take on less of a risk by having smaller overhead costs. In turn, the company acts as more of a social community for fashion exchanges.

In order to make money, Poshmark takes a flat commission of $2.95 for sales under $15. For anything more than that, the seller keeps 80 percent of their sale and Poshmark takes a 20 percent commission. Poshmark also owes its success to the socially connected shopping experience it created and the audience building features available to sellers — as detailed in this Harvard Business School study. GoTrendier has a similar commission pricing strategy, taking 20 percent off plus an additional nine pesos (about 48 cents in U.S. currency) for all purchases. The service also takes advantage of social media and sharing features to help connect and engage its fashion-loving community. 

But these companies are also largely venture-backed. In the case of GoTrendier, the round gave shareholder entry to Ataria, a Peruvian fund that invests in early-stage tech companies with high earning potential. Existing investors Banco Sabadell and IGNIA reinforced their position, along with Barcelona-based investors Antai Venture Builder, Bonsai Venture Capital and Pedralbes Partners.

GoTrendier amassed a user base of 1.3 million buyers and sellers throughout its four years of existence. The service operates in Mexico and Colombia, and will use its newest capital to launch in Chile — another market Cabido says is experiencing high demand for a secondhand fashion buying and selling service.

Online marketplace companies are growing in Latin America as smartphone adoption and digital banking services multiply in the region. But international expansion has proven to be an issue. Enjoei, a similar fashion marketplace that owns the market share in Brazil, had a botched attempt at expanding to Argentina due to Portugese-Spanish language barriers and eventually determined that Brazil was a large enough market in which to build its business — thus carving out an opportunity for companies like GoTrendier that offer the same services to dominate the surrounding Spanish-speaking markets in Latin America.

Many have remarked that Latin America’s tech scene is filled with copycats — or companies that emulate the business models of American or European startups and bring the same service to their home market. In order to secure bigger foreign investment checks, founders from growing tech regions like Latin America certainly must invent proprietary technologies. Yet there’s still value — and capital — in so-called copycat businesses. Why? Because the users are there and in some cases it’s just easier to start up.

According to investor Sergio Pérez of Sabadell Venture Capital, “The volume of the market for buying and selling second-hand clothes in the world was 360 million transactions in 2017 and is expected to reach 400 million in 2022.” A 2018 report from ThredUp also claimed that the size of the global secondhand market is set to hit $41 billion by 2022. The “throwaway” culture is disappearing thanks to environmentally conscious millennial buyers. As designer Stella McCartney famously said, “The future of fashion is circular – it will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love never end up as waste.” By buying on GoTrendier, the company claims its users have been able to save USD $12 million and have avoided more than 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

Founders building companies in Latin America aren’t necessarily as capital-hungry as Silicon Valley-based founders, (where a Series A can now equate to $68 million, apparently). Cabido tells me her company is able to fulfill operations and marketing needs with a lean staff of 30, noting that there’s a lot of natural demand for buying and selling used clothing in these regions, thus creating organic growth for her business. She wasn’t looking to raise capital, but investors had their eye on her. “[Investors] saw the tension of the marketplace, and we demonstrated that GoTrendier’s user base could be bigger and bigger,” she says. With sights set on new markets like Chile and Peru, Cabido decided to move forward and close the round.  

Poshmark, which benefits from indirect and same-side network effects, has raised $153 million to date from investors like Temasek Holdings, GGV and Menlo Ventures. Just like GoTrendier, Poshmark’s Series A was also a $3.5 million round.

Who’s to say that that amount of capital can’t boost a network effects growth model in Latin America too? The users are certainly waiting. 

13 crazy gadgets that could be ingenious or insane

We love tech here at Digital Trends, and we believe in its ability to enrich our lives. We’re always excited to see all the strange new devices at CES every year, and we appreciate the explosion in creativity that crowdfunding sites have sparked, but there are some gadgets that would give even the most hardened technophile pause for thought. Amid the glittering nuggets of gold, there are plenty of answers to questions no one posed.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. These gadgets challenge you to define it.

Somnox Sleep Robot

If you struggle to drift off into the land of nod each evening perhaps you need a robot companion, specially designed to lull you to sleep. Somnox resembles a giant peanut and you’re supposed to spoon it at bedtime as it moves gently to emulate breathing. There’s also a speaker inside that can play lullabies. You can configure it from your phone, which it links to via Bluetooth. The insomniacs behind it claim that it employs scientifically proven techniques designed to reduce stress and promote good sleep. If you fancy going to bed with this robotic limbless torso, then it will cost you $600.

Digitsole Smart Insoles

Digitsole

How would you like to get your hands on a rechargeable insole that can be used to heat your feet and track your steps? You can link up to Digitsole via Bluetooth and use an Android or iOS app to adjust the temperature of your feet (separately if necessary). The insoles will also track your steps and tell you how many calories you’ve burned. Digitsole first caught our eye after a successful Kickstarter campaign that brought in more than double the $40,000 of funding it requested. More recently, the French company brought artificial intelligence to the soles of your feet with insoles for cyclists, that track your cadence, power gain and loss, elevation, and speed to offer personalized training advice.

Revolve Folding Wheel

[embedded content]

The original wheel may be handy for motion, but what happens when you stop and want to put it away? We have folding bikes galore, but the wheels are troublesome, in that they refuse to collapse down into a more portable form. German designer Andrea Mocellin has the answer: The Revolve wheel is a 26-inch spoked wheel that folds down to take up 60 percent less space. It also has a handle for easy carrying. Revolve wheels could also be used for wheelchairs or anything else with wheels, but they’ve yet to make it into a product you can buy.

Belty

Belty

Imagine a motorized belt that adjusts to your body when you sit down, or extends itself as your gut expands during a marathon eating session. French company Emiota realized the dream, but it didn’t end there because the original Belty could also track your waistline and measure your activity. Alongside the tiny motors, there was an accelerometer and a gyroscope. This expensive high-tech belt failed to set the world alight. It turns out that standard belts are already pretty good at telling you when you’re getting fat via notch technology, but undeterred Emiota went back to the drawing board. The second version of Belty just has a ratchet system for fine adjustment, but this time it packs a built-in 2,000mAh power bank that you can use to charge up your phone. The Belty Power costs $157. If you’re not keen on Belty, check out competitor Welt.

Lavviebot Litter Box

[embedded content]

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, sometimes by alleviating the need to perform unpleasant chores, in this case cleaning your cat’s mess out of the litter box. That’s right, the Lavviebot from Purrsong can automatically clean itself and refill the litter. It can even send an alert to the companion app on your phone, to keep you informed of Tigger’s pooping schedule. It’s a great idea, since litter boxes are easily the worst thing about sharing your home with a cat, but it’s also massive and resembles a photocopier. It’s slated to cost $379 when it goes on sale via Indiegogo later this year.

SleepIQ K2 Kids Bed

Sleep-Number-SleepIQ-Kids-Bed-13

We were impressed by Sleep Number’s smart bed for adults, but what about kids? The SleepIQ K2 is a bed for your child that tracks their sleep, sports a remote control night light, and alerts you when they decide to get up. It could truly be a genius idea. As any sleep-deprived parent will attempt to tell you, as their weary head slumps repeatedly into their coffee, getting your kids into a regular sleeping pattern can feel like endless torture. There’s a safety-conscious under bed light that comes on when they get up, a reward system for sleeping through, and even a monster detector. The whole thing syncs with an iOS app, but sadly it will cost you more than $1,000 for the mattress and base.

Sony Aibo

There is no doubt that Sony’s robotic dog, Aibo, is incredibly cool, but after living with Aibo for a week we were still divided on whether it’s crazy or genius. Aibo is definitely very cute with all sorts of expressions and behaviors that make it very hard to resist. There’s also cloud-connected A.I. inside, so it can recognize up to 100 different people and remember the interactions it had with them. The idea is that you can enjoy the fun parts of dog ownership without the messes or smells, but a lot of people will argue that there’s no substitute for man’s best friend. The Sony Aibo also costs a frightening $2,900.

Foldimate

Foldimate

Few of us enjoy neatly folding a massive pile of laundry, but would you pay nearly $1,000 to have a big machine do it for you? The Foldimate can perfectly fold shirts and pants into a neat stack and it takes around 10-15 seconds per item. The problem, beyond the big price tag, is that you have to feed each individual item into it, and it can’t deal with sheets, underwear, or socks. It also stands 4 feet tall and doesn’t exactly blend into its environment. Still, it could be handy for some people. If you’re one of them you should look out for it going on sale towards the end of 2019.

Oddball Drum Machine

[embedded content]

The sensor-packed Oddball hooks up to a mobile app via Bluetooth and triggers sounds based on collisions and force. It’s like a throwable drum machine, enabling you to make beats by chucking the ball at the floor or walls and making a louder sound the harder you throw it. You can configure it to trigger whatever sound you want and then make music by throwing it around, or even layer things up by juggling multiple Oddballs. It costs about $75 for an Oddball and unsurprisingly you’ll find it on crowdfunding sites.

Bionic Bird

Bionic Bird

For just $120 you can have a small bionic bird of your own and control it from your smartphone. It has a foam body, and carbon fiber tail and wings, and it flies just like a real bird by flapping them really fast. It even comes with a Turbo-Charge egg that can recharge it 10 times over. Apparently, real birds are attracted to it and it has a range of 100 meters. It’s ideal for tormenting cats and mail carriers.

Petcube Bites and Play

petcube shows off bites 2 play at ces 2019 bites2 play2

Do you miss your cat when you’re at work? For just $200 you can snag a Petcube. It’s a camera with two-way audio, and a built-in laser. It hooks up to your home Wi-Fi and works through an iOS or Android app. There’s also a larger, treat dispensing version for dogs that costs $250. You can see and talk to your pet from anywhere, and play with them, sort of, by using the laser or firing out treats. If you’re too lazy to play with your pet manually, you can set a “play schedule” each day. Finally, you can also share access to your Petcube and play with other people’s pets, which is kind of creepy.

LG Twin Wash and SideKick

Do you know what your washing machine really needs? It needs another smaller washing machine that slides out of the base allowing you to do two different loads at once. LG’s twin washing machine means you can do a regular load, but also simultaneously a very small load on a different setting. Is that useful? Do you ever curse the lack of a second washing machine? You can find out more in our LG WM5000HVA review, but be warned: It costs $1,500.

Parrot Pot

Parrot Pot

Granted, a plain-looking, Bluetooth-enabled plant pot that costs upwards of $60 does sound a bit ridiculous at first, but wait just a minute. If you’re anything like us then you’ve starved countless innocent plants to death through careless neglect. The Parrot Pot can stop the cycle of death by monitoring the soil, fertilizer, sunlight, and temperature, and automatically watering the plant. It has care profiles for thousands of plants and it’s compatible with iOS and Android, so it can remind you to take care of your plants before they wither. It could also save you from having to trust the neighbors with a key when you go on vacation.

If your appetite for strange gadgets is not yet sated, then check out some bizarre drones, weird wearables, or innovative pet tech.

Editors’ Recommendations

The Dragon Prince season 2 delivers nonstop payoff on season 1’s worldbuilding

Warning: some spoilers ahead for season 1 of The Dragon Prince.

In “Half Moon Lies,” the second episode of season 2 of Netflix’s animated fantasy show The Dragon Prince, the writers set up a pretty classic rom-com conflict. The elf assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows) has a crush on the bookish prince Callum (Jack De Sena), and hasn’t told him that she knows his stepfather, King Harrow (Luc Roderique), is dead. She resolves to finally break the bad news, but Callum’s crush, the dark mage Claudia (Racquel Belmonte) beats her to it. The predictable outcome would be for Callum and Rayla to have a huge fight over the way she hid the information from him. There would be plenty of drama in a conflict that hurts their relationship and drives Callum further toward Claudia.

But that isn’t what happens. Callum doesn’t lash out at Rayla. Instead, he only thinks about how he’ll share the grim news with his young animal-loving half-brother Ezran (Sasha Rojen). When Callum goes to talk to Ezran about growing up and facing hard truths, a monologue with an emotional significance that deepens through later reveals, Callum realizes he doesn’t have the courage to tell the truth, either.

[embedded content]

The Dragon Prince’s second season is filled with these kinds of wonderful surprises. The first season of the show from Avatar: The Last Airbender head writer Aaron Ehasz and veteran video game developer Justin Richmond showed promise, but was underwhelming compared to Ehasz’s previous work. It’s clear now that season was burdened by the weight of an immense amount of setup, introducing the world, its magic systems, and its characters. Season 2 is nonstop payoff.

In its new season, The Dragon Prince becomes both a deeply satisfying fantasy story and a deconstruction of fantasy tropes, including the ones Avatar: The Last Airbender was guilty of itself. This is a world divided between the human kingdoms and the magical realm of Xadia, where elves and dragons wield elemental magic. Humans like Claudia and her father Viren (Jason Simpson) can only cast spells by stealing power from magical creatures, or using special magic items. Callum stole one of the latter in the show’s first season, allowing him to use sky magic, but he had to give it up to save the life of the show’s title character. He wants to use magic again without the crutch of a magical device, but a powerful elf tells him that his humanity makes that impossible. Meanwhile, Claudia tempts him to try dark magic, by pointing out its egalitarian nature.

That’s a fascinating conflict, and it touches on the plot of the first season of the Avatar spinoff The Legend of Korra, where the villain tries to foment rebellion against “benders,” people with the innate ability to manipulate the elements. The same idea extends to a lot of fantasy stories involving hereditary power, from Game of Thrones to The Lion King to the Star Wars franchise — too often in this genre, power is tied to the circumstances of a character’s birth, or to some inborn special power that isn’t available to most people.

But like many of Dragon Prince’s characters, Callum refuses to accept his apparent limitations. The writers have placed a huge emphasis on diverse representation in this series, with major plot arcs revolving around a deaf general who communicates with sign language, a kingdom ruled by an interracial lesbian couple, and a blind sea captain who navigates through his understanding of the wind, with the help of a seeing-eye parrot. In an extremely powerful speech, King Harrow describes his desire to build a kingdom according to the philosophical principle of the veil of ignorance, where the laws are fair for everyone, regardless of their class, race, or gender. While so much fantasy is based around characters with great destinies, Harrow urges Callum to ignore any imagined constraints on his fate and forge his own path.

That conflict also brings depth to the show’s villains. In season 1, Viren tasked his son, the good-natured, mildly dim knight Soren (Jesse Inocalla) with murdering King Harrow’s sons, but an extended flashback in season 2 shows Viren’s genuine love for Harrow. Viren has done indisputably terrible things with his dark magic, but he’s also used it as a practical solution to prevent tragedy. The same flashback sequence again questions the nature of fantasy’s emphasis on heroic quests, as Viren and Harrow agree to lead an expedition into Xadia to slay a magma titan whose heart can be used to prevent famine. “We kill one monster to save 100,000 people,” Harrow tells his queen, Sarai (Kazumi Evans), as they spar with sword and spear. “Is it intelligent? Does it think? Does it feel? Does it have a family?” she asks. “You said you want to build a better world, to really change things. That’s going to take decades of work. There’s no monster you can slay and solve all your problems. There’s no shortcut.”

That’s a powerful message for a kid-friendly cartoon, cutting to the core of the escapism critique of fantasy. The Dragon Prince is packed with beautiful action sequences, which look even better this season, thanks to improvements in the show’s computer-generated animation. There’s a breathless intensity to the sequences of human soldiers doing battle against a Sunfire elf with a blade that can cut through anything, or Soren and Claudia trying to use ballistae to shoot down a fire-breathing dragon. But the show is often at its best in quiet scenes that just emphasize the humanity of its characters, and the impossible pressures life has placed on them. It teaches that there are no easy solutions, and that people need to question the wisdom of their elders, and learn to admit fault and forgive mistakes.

Cutting through the heavy material is the same goofy sense of humor that made Avatar so charming. The wordless rivalry for Ezran’s attention between the glow-toad Bait and the doglike dragon Azymondias is endlessly entertaining, and the dialogue is punctuated by references to influential pop culture like The Simpsons and The Lord of the Rings. There’s even a nod to Avatar itself, as Soren struggles to come up with a good haiku, while Claudia checks his work by counting syllables on her fingers.

Season 2 is a huge improvement over season 1, and it sets up a new spate of fascinating plots to come. Most notable is the introduction of the Startouch elf mage Aaravos, voiced by Erik Dellums with the same unctuousness that he brought to the face-stealing spirit Koh in Avatar. “Why should I trust you?” Viren asks him, as they begin an arcane collaboration with terrifying potential. “You shouldn’t,” Aaravos replies.

That ominous line might come off as cliché in another work, but Ehasz and Richmond have shown a powerful ability to defy expectations for what an all-ages fantasy show should be. What started off as a pleasant worldbuilding exercise with cute kids on an adventure is growing into an epic with nuanced characters and a philosophical approach to storytelling. If it can continue surprising audiences with these kinds of heartfelt social scenes and heart-pounding action sequences, The Dragon Prince may well grow into a new all-time classic.

The nine-episode second season of The Dragon Prince launches on Netflix on February 15th, 2019.

Amazon backs Rivian, the Tesla rival behind a new electric truck and SUV

Amazon is on a spending spree.

Last week the online retailer invested in self-driving vehicle startup Aurora. On Friday, it announced it was the main investor in an upcoming all-electric truck and SUV company, Rivian.

Amazon leads a group investing $700 million in the company, which debuted its R1T pickup and R1S SUV at the LA Auto Show in November.

Amazon wants better delivery and logistics, making the electric technology that gives Rivian vehicles more than 400 miles of range very appealing. In a statement, Jeff Wilke, Amazon CEO of Worldwide Consumer, said, “We’re inspired by Rivian’s vision for the future of electric transportation.”

The R1S SUV is a tougher Tesla Model X.

The R1S SUV is a tougher Tesla Model X.

Image: Rivian

Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe has called his vehicles the Patagonia of EVs, able to handle snow, mud, rain, and tough roads, but still stylish and premium with space for gear. The company hasn’t shared pricing for the “electric adventure vehicles,” but you can preorder the truck and SUV for a $1,000 deposit. 

An Amazon spokesperson said it wasn’t giving any additional information beyond Rivian’s announcement.

Production of the five-seater truck and seven-passenger SUV is set to begin in 2020 at the company’s Illinois factory. It’s in something of a race with Tesla, who has been teasing an electric pickup truck that could be unveiled as early as this summer. Tesla is also developing an electric semi cargo truck.

Uploads%252fvideo uploaders%252fdistribution thumb%252fimage%252f90406%252f633d6aee 908e 4dba bfdb 98701ca38e91.jpg%252foriginal.jpg?signature=vf7enivfw7ndgdpjr1c6wtb yno=&source=https%3a%2f%2fblueprint api production.s3.amazonaws

We attended an AI’s first art exhibit in NYC — Future Blink

Scientist Ahmed Elgammal went from doing artificial intelligence research to attending his first art exhibit in Chelsea. How? With the help of his creative partner AICAN, an nearly autonomous AI artist. Together they made stunning art that is molding the field of AI art and the art scene in general. We stopped by the Chelsea gallery to talk to Elgammal about how AICAN works, and of course, see the art.