All posts in “Australia”

Airbnb agrees to acquire last-minute hotel-booking app HotelTonight

As Airbnb gears up for its big leap into the public markets, it’s expanding its accommodations platform to include more than just treehouses and quirky homes.

Today, the company has confirmed its intent to acquire HotelTonight, the developer of a hotel-booking application that lets travelers arrange last-minute accommodations. The deal was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, which wrote in January that negotiations for the transaction had “gone cold.”

Airbnb is expected to complete an initial public offering as soon as this year, though co-founder and chief executive officer Brian Chesky has refrained from revealing a specific timeline. Like Uber, which plans to become the ultimate transportation company, Airbnb’s long-term ambition is to build an end-to-end travel platform complete with home sharing, hotel booking, business travel arrangements, experiences and more.

Airbnb declined to disclose terms of its HotelTonight acquisition. Once the deal is complete, the HotelTonight app and website will continue to operate independently, with co-founder and CEO Sam Shank reporting to Airbnb’s president of homes, Greg Greeley.

“We started HotelTonight because we knew people wanted a better way to book an amazing hotel room on-demand, and we are excited to join forces with Airbnb to bring this service to guests around the world,” Shank said in a statement. “Together, HotelTonight and Airbnb can give guests more choices and the world’s best boutique and independent hotels a genuine partner to connect them with those guests.”

Founded in 2010, San Francisco-based HotelTonight garnered a valuation of $463 million with a $37 million Series E funding in 2017, according to PitchBook. In total, the startup has raised $131 million in venture capital funding from Accel and Battery Ventures, which have participated in nearly every funding round for HotelTonight. Other early investors include Forerunner Ventures and First Round Capital.

Airbnb, for its part, was valued at $31 billion in 2017, with a $1 billion round. In January, Airbnb said it was profitable for the second consecutive year on an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) basis.

HotelTonight offers discounts at hotels in the Americas, Europe and Australia. The company partners with hotels to offer un-sold rooms, catering to flexible travelers or those looking to make last-minute arrangements. The deal will make it easier for Airbnb users to book hotels without planning weeks or months in advance and will help Airbnb expand its community beyond short-term rental hosts and guests.

Airbnb introduced boutique hotels to its platform in early 2018 and has boasted its quick growth. In 2018, the business said it more than doubled the number of boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels and resorts available. Airbnb’s business travel unit, Airbnb for Work, also had quick success. Launched in 2014, it now accounts for 15 percent of bookings. In total, Airbnb offers some 5 million places to stay in 191 countries.

Airbnb is kicking off 2019 with an acquisitive streak. In January, the company acquired Danish startup Gaest, a provider of a marketplace-style platform for people to post and book venues for meetings and other work-related events. The company again declined to pinpoint the price, though given Gaest had raised just $3.5 million in equity funding, the deal pales in comparison to Airbnb’s HotelTonight acquisition.

2019 is stacking up to be a particularly busy year for unicorn IPOs, some of which were likely delayed by a weeks-long government shutdown at the start of the year. Lyft, which recently unveiled its S-1, is poised to be the first billion-dollar company to exit to the stock markets, followed by Uber, Slack and Pinterest. Will Airbnb nudge its way into that lineup? We’ll see.

Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids

Eargo wants to become the ultimate consumer hearing brand.

The company’s small and virtually invisible direct-to-consumer hearing aids, which come in an AirPods-style chargeable case, are designed to help destigmatize hearing loss. One month after revealing its newest product — the Eargo Neo ($2,550), which can be customized remotely via the case’s Bluetooth connectivity — the startup has closed a $52 million Series D, bringing its total raised to date to $135 million.

The latest round of capital comes from new investor Future Fund (Australia’s sovereign wealth fund) and existing investors NEA, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Nan Fung Life Sciences and Maveron. 

Headquartered in San Jose, Eargo, which counts 20,000 users, will use the cash to continuing crafting and innovating new products targeting baby boomers. The newly-launched Eargo Neo is the business’s third line of high-tech hearing aids. The first, Eargo Plus ($1,450), was released in 2017 and the Eargo Max ($2,510) was launched the following year.

“We can see that the product is really making a difference for users,” Eargo chief executive officer Christian Gormsen told TechCrunch. “We have the opportunity to really create a leading brand in the consumer hearing health space.”

Roughly 48 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, suffer from hearing loss but, aside from some Medicare Advantage programs, insurance companies provide no reimbursement for hearing aids. Despite high price tags — this is expensive tech — Eargo’s priority is still to make its hearing aids as accessible as possible and to send a message that there’s nothing wrong with admitting to hearing loss.

“Getting a hearing aid feels like admitting a defeat like there’s something wrong with you but that’s not true, hearing loss is natural and happens,” Gormsen said. “The number one challenge for the entire industry is awareness. There is so little knowledge about hearing loss out there; it’s such a stigmatized category and how do you change that? The current channel doesn’t do anything to address it, the only way you can address it is through education and communication.”

“I think we’ve come far, but we are looking at 48 million Americans and we are still barely scratching the surface.”

Koala-sensing drone helps keep tabs on drop bear numbers

It’s obviously important to Australians to make sure their koala population is closely tracked — but how can you do so when the suckers live in forests and climb trees all the time? With drones and AI, of course.

A new project from Queensland University of Technology combines some well-known techniques in a new way to help keep an eye on wild populations of the famous and soft marsupials. They used a drone equipped with a heat-sensing camera, then ran the footage through a deep learning model trained to look for koala-like heat signatures.

It’s similar in some ways to an earlier project from QUT in which dugongs — endangered sea cows — were counted along the shore via aerial imagery and machine learning. But this is considerably harder.

A koala.

“A seal on a beach is a very different thing to a koala in a tree,” said study co-author Grant Hamilton in a news release, perhaps choosing not to use dugongs as an example because comparatively few know what one is.

“The complexity is part of the science here, which is really exciting,” he continued. “This is not just somebody counting animals with a drone, we’ve managed to do it in a very complex environment.”

The team sent their drone out in the early morning, when they expected to see the greatest contrast between the temperature of the air (cool) and tree-bound koalas (warm and furry). It traveled as if it was a lawnmower trimming the tops of the trees, collecting data from a large area.

Infrared image, left, and output of the neural network highlighting areas of interest.

This footage was then put through a deep learning system trained to recognize the size and intensity of the heat put out by a koala, while ignoring other objects and animals like cars and kangaroos.

For these initial tests, the accuracy of the system was checked by comparing the inferred koala locations with ground truth measurements provided by GPS units on some animals and radio tags on others. Turns out the system found about 86 percent of the koalas in a given area, considerably better than an “expert koala spotter,” who rates about a 70. Not only that, but it’s a whole lot quicker.

“We cover in a couple of hours what it would take a human all day to do,” Hamilton said. But it won’t replace human spotters or ground teams. “There are places that people can’t go and there are places that drones can’t go. There are advantages and downsides to each one of these techniques, and we need to figure out the best way to put them all together. Koalas are facing extinction in large areas, and so are many other species, and there is no silver bullet.”

Having tested the system in one area of Queensland, the team is now going to head out and try it in other areas of the coast. Other classifiers are planned to be added as well, so other endangered or invasive species can be identified with similar ease.

Their paper was published today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Europe is prepared to rule over 5G cybersecurity

The European Commission’s digital commissioner has warned the mobile industry to expect it to act over security concerns attached to Chinese network equipment makers.

The Commission is considering a defacto ban on kit made by Chinese companies including Huawei in the face of security and espionage concerns, per Reuters.

Appearing on stage at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona today, Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for digital economy and society, flagged network “cybersecurity” during her scheduled keynote, warning delegates it’s stating the obvious for her to say that “when 5G services become mission critical 5G networks need to be secure”.

Geopolitical concerns between the West and China are being accelerated and pushed to the fore as the era of 5G network upgrades approach, as well as by ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over trade.

“I’m well away of the unrest among all of you key actors in the telecoms sectors caused by the ongoing discussions around the cybersecurity of 5G,” Gabriel continued, fleshing out the Commission’s current thinking. “Let me reassure you: The Commission takes your view very seriously. Because you need to run these systems everyday. Nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts.

“However it is also clear that Europe has to have a common approach to this challenge. And we need to bring it on the table soon. Otherwise there is a risk that fragmentation rises because of diverging decisions taken by Member States trying to protect themselves.”

“We all know that this fragmentation damages the digital single market. So therefore we are working on this important matter with priority. And to the Commission we will take steps soon,” she added.

The theme of this year’s show is “intelligent connectivity”; the notion that the incoming 5G networks will not only create links between people and (many, many more) things but understand the connections they’re making at a greater depth and resolution than has been possible before, leveraging the big data generated by many more connections to power automated decision-making in near real time, with low latency another touted 5G benefit (as well as many more connections per cell).

Futuristic scenarios being floated include connected cars neatly pulling to the sides of the road ahead of an ambulance rushing a patient to hospital — or indeed medical operations being aided and even directed remotely in real-time via 5G networks supporting high resolution real-time video streaming.

But for every touted benefit there are easy to envisage risks to network technology that’s being designed to connect everything all of the time — thereby creating a new and more powerful layer of critical infrastructure society will be relying upon.

Last fall the Australia government issued new security guidelines for 5G networks that essential block Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment to operators — justifying the move by saying that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security.

New Zealand followed suit shortly after, saying kit from the Chinese companies posed a significant risk to national security.

While in the U.S. President Trump has made 5G network security a national security priority since 2017, and a bill was passed last fall banning Chinese companies from supplying certain components and services to government agencies.

The ban is due to take effect over two years but lawmakers have been pressuring to local carriers to drop 5G collaborations with companies such as Huawei.

In Europe the picture is so far more mixed. A UK government report last summer investigating Huawei’s broadband and mobile infrastructure raised further doubts, and last month Germany was reported to be mulling a 5G ban on the Chinese kit maker.

But more recently the two EU Member States have been reported to no longer be leaning towards a total ban — apparently believing any risk can be managed and mitigated by oversight and/or partial restrictions.

It remains to be seen how the Commission could step in to try to harmonize security actions taken by Member States around nascent 5G networks. But it appears prepared to set rules.

That said, Gabriel gave no hint of its thinking today, beyond repeating the Commission’s preferred position of less fragmentation, more harmonization to avoid collateral damage to its overarching Digital Single Market initiative — i.e. if Member States start fragmenting into a patchwork based on varying security concerns.

We’ve reached out to the Commission for further comment and will update this story with any additional context.

During the keynote she was careful to talk up the transformative potential of 5G connectivity while also saying innovation must work in lock-step with European “values”.

“Europe has to keep pace with other regions and early movers while making sure that its citizens and businesses benefit swiftly from the new infrastructures and the many applications that will be built on top of them,” she said.

“Digital is helping us and we need to reap its opportunities, mitigate its risks and make sure it is respectful of our values as much as driven by innovation. Innovation and values. Two key words. That is the vision we have delivered in terms of the defence for our citizens in Europe. Together we have decided to construct a Digital Single Market that reflects the values and principles upon which the European Union has been built.”

Her speech also focused on AI, with the commissioner highlighting various EC initiatives to invest in and support private sector investment in artificial intelligence — saying it’s targeting €20BN in “AI-directed investment” across the private and public sector by 2020, with the goal for the next decade being “to reach the same amount as an annual average” — and calling on the private sector to “contribute to ensure that Europe reaches the level of investment needed for it to become a world stage leader also in AI”.

But again she stressed the need for technology developments to be thoughtfully managed so they reflect the underlying society rather than negatively disrupting it. The goal should be what she dubbed “human-centric AI”.

“When we talk about AI and new technologies development for us Europeans it is not only about investing. It is mainly about shaping AI in a way that reflects our European values and principles. An ethical approach to AI is key to enable competitiveness — it will generate user trust and help facilitate its uptake,” she said.

“Trust is the key word. There is no other way. It is only by ensuring trustworthiness that Europe will position itself as a leader in cutting edge, secure and ethical AI. And that European citizens will enjoy AI’s benefits.”

Australia has emoji license plates, but U.S. is stuck with numbers and letters

Australia is inserting some fun into its license plates.
Australia is inserting some fun into its license plates.

Image: composite: Reviver auto / aap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

7NWM61😍. 

What if that could be your license plate number? 

In Queensland, Australia, the more than 3.5 million licensed drivers in the state can decide to pay for an emoji to appear on their car plates from March 1.

Until the laughing, heart-eyed, and sunglass-wearing smiley faces make it onto plates, you can design, mock up, and pre-order your future plate through the plate customization company Personalised Plates Queensland (PPQ). 

You have to include three letters and two numbers in your plate combo, and you only get one emoji. The emoji choices are: 

  • 😂

  • 😉

  • 😍

  • 😎

  • 😃

 The plates cost $336 ($A475) each, and could look something like this:

Get creative.

Get creative.

Image: PPq / screengrab

In the U.S., plates will stay emotionless — for now. A California DMV spokesperson said, “It would require legislation for California to start offering emojis on license plates.” In other words, don’t hold your breath.

But digital license plate company Reviver Auto is more optimistic about emoji-decorated plates making it to America.

Reviver CEO Neville Boston said in a phone call, “I think that’d be interesting to do with the plates as a way of personalizing them.”

Using the digital ink LTE-connected plates, which are available in California and Michigan and soon Arizona, Boston sees a possible emoji-filled future, “with the way [Reviver] technology is it can happen sooner than later.” Already custom and charity plates are available through the digital platform. 

Boston says he sees little pushback in the coming years as long as law enforcement can clearly read the plate number. “First and foremost you got to make sure they’re readable,” he stressed multiple times.

Beyond that, it’s “an opportunity to be creative,” he said. So creative that the Australian license plate company is running a contest for the best emoji use. Winner gets an iPhone XS Max and an emoji merchandise pack worth $1,419 (A$2,000) 🤑.

Meanwhile, everyone outside Australia keen for an emoji plate will have to be patient.

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