Reach Robotics closes $7.5M Series A for its augmented reality bots

After years of research and development, Reach Robotics has closed a $7.5 million Series A, co-led by Korea Investment Partners (KiP) and IGlobe, to bring its augmented reality bots to market in a big way. The Bristol-based startup is looking to expand into the U.S., and the team is exploring opportunities for growth into other European and Asian markets.

Reach Robotics’ first product, MekaMon, launched last fall. Today’s round comes after the company produced and sold an initial run of 500 of its four-legged, crab-like, bots. MekaMon fits into an emerging category of smartphone-enabled augmented reality toys like Anki.

Silas Adekunle, CEO of Reach Robotics, tells me the influx of capital will be used to make some strategic hires and increase brand recognition through marketing. This is the first time the startup has announced a funding round. Adekunle tells me his experience raising capital wasn’t easy; as they say, hardware is hard.

“It was hard to pitch in our early days because people didn’t believe,” explained Adekunle.

MekaMon sits somewhere between toy and full-fledged robot. Unlike the radio-controlled RadioShack robots of yesteryear, MekaMon costs a hefty $329. At first glance this can be hard to swallow, but Adekunle remains adamant that he is building a platform and not a line of toys — think PS4 instead of an expensive, single-use robot collecting dust on a shelf.

Outside of retail sales, another avenue for the company to make money is through partnerships within the entertainment industry. Adekunle says that Reach would never go out of its way to deliver a specific product for a client, but he always keeps an eye out for overlap where a partnership could occur with minimal operational changes.

“People are taken aback that something could be this realistic,” asserts Adekunle. “If you strip back the product and lose that, then you don’t have an innovative company.”

Because Reach is selling software-enabled hardware, it has the opportunity to collect all sorts of interesting data that it can use to fine-tune its products. The startup is able to track retention in aggregate and look at how people actually use their robots. Moreover, if MekaMon suffers leg failure, Reach can analyze indicators like temperature readings and torque.

Adekunle insists on keeping the Reach Robotics team interdisciplinary — one employee helped shape the way robots move in the Transformers movie series. This same team is focused on empowering the next group of developers who will build on the MekaMon platform and create new use cases, beyond the company’s initial vision for the product.

Marvel is bringing its superheroes to VR with a new Oculus-exclusive game

The Incredible Hulk and some of his other box office money-grabbing super pals will be coming to the world of virtual reality.

Marvel Powers United VR, announced at Disney’s D23 event on Saturday, will allow players a chance to step into the shoes of some familiar heroes as they destroy lots of stuff in VR.

Powers United VR, an Oculus-exclusive, looks pretty similar to existing VR wave shooters like Robo Recall, though its multi-player could spice things up a bit. The main highlight will obviously be having IP from Marvel; players will be able to choose from 12 Marvel characters as they exact righteous mayhem.

The title is being developed by Sanzaru Games, which has already done a couple of VR titles for the Rift, including VR Sports Challenge and Ripcoil.

Facebook and Oculus have devoted $500 million to funding made-for-VR content. Oculus has been doing so largely with the hopes of attracting exclusives and interest from top AAA game publishers who have been reticent to invest significant cash into a space with so few users relative to console and PC audiences.

With Marvel, Oculus has found a partnership that allows it another big-name exclusive to show off its highest-end Rift and Touch controller hardware, which it has heavily discounted in recent months as Facebook looks to sell units and keep up with competition in the niche VR space.

Building a hefty library of exclusives is even more important to the company following E3, where Oculus was largely overlooked as the highly influential ZeniMax-owned Bethesda announced a number of titles from blockbuster series, including DOOM, Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, that it will be porting to competing virtual reality systems like HTC’s Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR. This comes as Facebook fights an injunction from the Oculus/ZeniMax lawsuit, for which it has already been ordered to pay up a half-billion dollars.

Marvel Powers United VR is slated for a 2018 release.

Desktop Metal gets $115 million in funding to deliver metal 3D printing for manufacturing

Personal note: they borrowed knowledge from the metal injection molding process.

Desktop Metal has already earned a number of fans with its 3D printed metal technology — Lowe’s, Caterpillar and BMW were all among its earliest clients. As first noted by CNBC, the Massachusetts-based startup is also getting some healthy monetary support, adding $115 million of venture funds to its coffers this week. The Series D features a number of high profile names, including New Enterprise Associates, GV (formerly Google Ventures), GE Ventures, Future Fund and Techtronic Industries, the holdings company that owns Hoover U.S. and Dirt Devil.

Founded in 2013 by four MIT professors, Desktop Metal isn’t the first company to bring metal 3D printing to market, but it’s probably the most efficient. By its own measure, the company’s machines are able to print objects at up to 100-times the speed of their competitors. That’s good news for those clients using Studio, the prototyping machine the company announced last year — but even more useful for those planning to use the upcoming Production, a system designed to bring the technology to manufacturing.

Speed has been of the main bottlenecks in mainstreaming 3D printing for manufacturing — metal or otherwise. The Production system isn’t going to replace wide scale manufacturing any time soon, but it will make it a more realistic possibility for smaller speciality parts, with its ability to print 500 cubic inches of metal per hour. According to CEO Ric Fulop, that works out to millions of parts per year for a given machine.

“You don’t need tooling,” he tells TechCrunch. “You can make short runs of production with basically no tooling costs. You can change your design and iterate very fast. And now you can make shapes you couldn’t make any other way, so now you can lightweight a part and work with alloys that are very, very hard, with very extreme properties.”

 The list of companies that have embraced the $50,000+ Surface is pretty diverse. Automakers like BMW are using it to prototype products, and the local robotics community has also been extremely excited about the device’s ability to print in a broad range of alloys. For smaller companies without access to big machining warehouses, prototyping with metal is a pretty big pain point.

“One of the benefits for this technology for robotics is that you’re able to do lots of turns,” says Fulop. “Unless you’re iRobot with the Roomba, you’re making a lot of one-off changes to your product.”

Desktop Metal is still pretty small, at around 150 people — mostly engineers, according to Fulop. Along with R&D, this latest funding round will go a ways toward increasing that staff and reach, with plans to extend to more markets, including Europe and Asia.

 

Snapchat’s Foursquare and Factual partnerships double geofilter usage

Personal note: what a waste of time… People, in particular, teens, have the tendency to show off something that happen to them to their friends. The fact of geofilter could boost the number of views…

Borrowed location databases are paying off big time for Snapchat. They allow users to turn any nearby landmark or business into a stylized geofilter that they can overlay on their photos and videos. Before Snapchat partnered with location data providers Foursquare and Factual, only a few popular neighborhoods, cities, and places had their own geofilters.

Making geofilters scalable so even people in small towns around the world can use them has massively boosted viewership. Today on the third anniversary of the launch of geofilters, Snap Inc tells me that every minute, geofilters are viewed over 1.5 million times by message and Story viewers. That equals 2.16 billion views per day.

Snapchat’s recently rolled-out geofilters that turn any nearby location into an overlaid text title

For reference, Snap announced in its February IPO filing that geofilters were viewed 1 billion times per day. Since then, Snap’s daily user count has only grown 7.7%. Yet geofilter viewing has more than doubled. That’s a strong sign that Foursquare and Factual’s location data that unlocked geofilters everywhere has made the feature much more popular.

Snapchat announced the partnership with Foursquare in November, though at the time it was designed to power better ad targeting. Foursquare doesn’t just know the coordinates of every business in certain countries, but also the category. The partnership would allow a brand to buy a geofilter ad available at every beach in the US, or every convenience store. Snap doesn’t provide any info on Snapchat usage back to its location partners.

In December, Instagram launched location stickers that let users turn any location into a stylized overlay for their posts. With Instagram, you can pick from any place anywhere, not just what’s nearby. That’s helpful if you’re uploading a photo you took a few hours ago somewhere else. The scalable location sharing sticker launch was seen as one of Instagram’s first innovations in the Stories space after copying much of the feature from Snapchat.

Over the past months, data from Factual and Foursquare has allowed Snapchat to roll out its own version. After swiping through the more flashy, illustrated geofilters available nearby, users see a simpler white title for a place close to them. Tapping the name cycles through other nearby places. That interface is less robotic and fits into the content creation experience more seamlessly than Instagram’s.

Getting users to add these organic geofilters is critical to Snapchat’s product and business strategy.

Beyond Stories, Snapchat Zeroes In On Location

Recently Snap has been investing heavily in location.

Snap launched Stories Search that shows you content from any place or event. It acquired location-based analytics and ad measurement startup Placed, reportedly for over $200 million, to prove geofilter ads lead to in-store purchases. It bought the location augmented reality and messaging patent of a startup called Drop, and a core geofilter patent from Mobli for $7.7 million. It spent around $300 million to buy French location sharing startup Zenly, TechCrunch first reported. And it used Zenly to inspire its high-potential new Snap Map feature for finding nearby friends.

Snap’s constantly engaged, digital native teen user base is the perfect market for location sharing features. These kids are less concerned about revealing where they are than the generation above them. The more Snap can get them thinking about adding location to their posts via geofilters, the more likely they are to try the rest of its location features.

And if they’re adding organic geofilters, it’s just a small step to them sticking geofilter ads atop their Snaps and becoming a viral vector for marketing. Teens have developed banner ad numbness. But when an ad is overlaid on their friends’ content, they’ll actually look at it. The startup’s “Snap-To-Store” ad measurement feature meanwhile detects if users view a geofilter ad, then subsequently go to that brand’s brick-and-mortar store. This is the online-to-offline conversion tracking that makes advertisers salivate.

How Snap-To-Store geofilter ad measurement works

With Instagram successfully outcompeting Snapchat around Stories, Snap needs to find its next hit product. Before great augmented reality becomes a reality, that product appears to be Snap Map and location sharing. Doubling geofilter viewership in just six months is a great sign that Snap’s on the right path.

 

Jawbone’s demise heralds the end of the wearables industry

Personal note: The decline of this type of wearables started two years ago when the market was flooded with them and it’s no longer “cool” to have one. Most people stop using it after a few months. Just think – who wants to check the heart rate so many times a day? We acknowledge the fact that this type of device exposes some information to consumers which they didn’t have easy access to before. But people just won’t develop a habit for it. 

The company’s apparent collapse is a lesson for all that hardware is hard.

Sometimes deaths are sudden, but most company deaths are the opposite, with Jawbone’s protracted terminus taking upward of a year. The company was an early pioneer in the consumer-wearables market and had raised close to a billion dollars in investment, but that wasn’t enough to save it. Its end doesn’t just mean the demise for one company, but signals the end of the great generation of wearables.

A report by The Information claims the company has begun the process of liquidating itself, at least in part. It’s also believed that co-founder and CEO Hosain Rahman is launching a new company — Jawbone Health Hub — to continue part of his mission. Health Hub will apparently produce health-related wearable hardware and software, as well as service the existing Jawbone devices in the wild.

Whatever form the remains of Jawbone take, the company will never again scale the heights it once did. The wearables market, and the world, has moved on to the point where new entrants have a nigh-impossible journey to success. A variety of factors killed Jawbone the first time out, but there’s no indication that Rahman knows how to get past those obstacles.

One lesson that many startups learn the hard way is that developing consumer hardware is far harder than it may seem. Even Jawbone, which had experience building Bluetooth audio gear, couldn’t easily apply its knowledge to wearable technology. In 2011, the Jawbone Up promised the world a stylish fitness tracker that made the Nike+ Fuelband and Fitbit’s belt-worn pedometers look outdated by comparison.

In reality, however, the first version of the Up was a disaster, with individual models randomly bricking and components liable to failure. The promised 10-day battery life never materialized, and vibration motors were prone to breaking at inopportune moments. Engadget’s review unit broke after two weeks, and while the company began offering free replacements to buyers, its reputation was already damaged.

Unlike software, which can be fixed months or even years after it is originally released, hardware is a much trickier proposition. Whatever advantage Jawbone had in getting the first Up through the door was lost when the company had to claw back those devices and start again. If some of the richest companies in the world can ship hardware with massive defects, what hope does a tiny startup have?

Jawbone’s hardware chops didn’t improve, however, and my own Up 3 review unit broke after just three weeks of use. I charged it to full before going to bed, but the low-battery alarm went off five times in a single night. Given that the company had talked up its smart-wake features, the failure was extraordinarily grating.

Jawbone might have been smart to prioritize durability and looks over function, but the follow-up device was hamstrung by what it couldn’t do. A lack of wireless connectivity meant you had to plug the band into your smartphone’s headphone jack to sync data, a bugbear rival wearables quickly eliminated. Its high cost also began to alienate users who were looking for cheaper devices — a market that Fitbit was quick to embrace.

Then there’s the fact that the watch industry itself is never going to be as big as that for other technology products, like Bluetooth speakers or smartphones. The advent of the mobile phone helped reduce people’s need for a dedicated timepiece on their wrist, and not everyone wears one on a daily basis, anyway. Those who do may want a device that can actually tell the time — a feature that Jawbone’s devices notably lacked.

Economics played its part in Jawbone’s demise, because the job its devices professed to do could be done by much cheaper hardware. It’s hard to justify buying the Up 3, a $180 fitness band that can’t tell the time, if your smartphone can track your activity just as well. It was also released after the first Apple Watch, making Jawbone’s newest device a relic from a simpler time.

For those people who don’t want a smartwatch, it’s possible to buy a fitness tracker for the same as a bucket of fried chicken. Chinese behemoth Xiaomi has become the biggest name in the wearables market with its MiBand, which is priced at around $22. For that little cash, you get a device that will monitor your activity and sleep that packs both an optical heart rate monitor and an OLED display.

Jawbone isn’t the only wearables outfit to face tougher competition, and gloomy clouds are beginning to linger over Fitbit. The company has spent big to control the middle tier of the wearables market with its $70-ish devices like the Flex. But it’s hard to justify such a purchase if you can get a similarly-workable piece of kit for half, or even a third, of that price. Meanwhile, at the top end, it’s hard to justify spending almost as much as a true smartwatch for a premium fitness tracker like the Blaze.

The Blaze is a good case study, because it retails for $199.95 — just $50 less than LG’s Watch Style and $70 less than the cheapest Apple Watch model. It explains why Fitbit is so desperate to build its own smartwatch platform that can stand toe-to-toe with the offerings from both Apple and Google. But even Fitbit, which has spent big to acquire smartwatch companies like Pebble and Vector, is struggling. Although it may, once again, attempt to buy Jawbone in the hope of bolstering its own ambitions — something we’ve talked about before.

The wearables market is looking an awful lot like Main Street after the advent of big-box retail on the outskirts of town. Jawbone, Basis, Pebble, Vector and the rest look like mom-and-pop stores compared to the behemoths of Apple and Google. Fitbit is holding on and using its cash to buy up whatever talent it can in the hope of staying afloat, but that’s no guarantee of success.

It’s hard to see how the wearables market, at least concerning devices that go on your wrist, can continue from here. Earlier this year, iMore’s Rene Ritchie commented that there is no longer a “smartwatch market, just an Apple Watch market.” Looking at the IDC figures for the first part of 2017, it’s hard not to see his point, especially when the only company coming close to Apple is Xiaomi.

It’s easy to predict that the wearables market will soon crunch down, with Apple dominating the high end and Google living off its scraps. Fitness trackers, the stock in trade of companies like Fitbit and Jawbone, will become the province of cheap, mass-market brands like Misfit in the US and Xiaomi in China. The rest will be divided up between niche players like Garmin and Polar, the traditional-watch industry, and Fitbit, for however long the latter can survive.

Micro:bit Small-board Computer Launches in U.S. & Canada to Inspire Next Generation of Students

The Micro:bit Foundation aims to put the device into the hands of 2 million children in the U.S. & Canada by 2020

microbit

The Micro:bit Educational Foundation announced today the micro:bit is now available to schools, clubs and families across the U.S. and Canada. The micro:bit is a credit card-sized, programmable device designed to teach the next generation of children fundamental critical thinking skills through computer programming.

The goal of the micro:bit is to give educators and parents an easy-to-use tool to teach the basics of computer programming and inspire students to imagine, invent and innovate, said Hal Speed, Head of North America at the Micro:bit Foundation. Our goal is to put this device into the hands of 2 million elementary and middle school students in the U.S. and Canada by 2020, in an effort to ensure all children have the opportunity to learn these valuable skills. In the digital age, computer science is a foundational skill vital for every student to learn. It’s a skill that applies to many different subjects, including math, science, art and music.

A recent study conducted by Gallup found that while 90 percent of parents in the U.S. want their child to learn computer science, only 40 percent of schools offer computer programming or coding classes. Additionally, the diversity problem in STEM fields starts in elementary school. Girls, students of color and lower-income students are all less likely to have access to computer science learning in K-12 schools.

schoolchildren working with microbit

The Micro:bit Foundation hopes to address these disparities by integrating the micro:bit device into elementary and middle school curricula throughout the U.S. and Canada. As part of this effort, the Foundation has partnered with a number of organizations that specialize in the development of curricula including, Project Lead The Way in the U.S. and Fair Chance Learning in Canada. Microsoft has also developed its own curriculum for the micro:bit and a wide-range of lesson plans are available on the micro:bit website

The micro:bit is incredibly powerful, not only for getting students excited about computer science, but also for teaching the critical thinking skills necessary to solve complex problems, said Heather Koleszar, an elementary STEAM teacher at the Union School District in San Jose that recently participated in a micro:bit pilot study.

The pilot study focused on pinpointing the most effective ways to integrate the micro:bit into existing curricula and on identifying new opportunities for teachers and educators to use the device to fulfill their digital education goals.

code blocks

The micro:bit includes 25 LEDs to display simple images and text, two programmable buttons, a variety of sensors and can connect to other devices via Bluetooth. Additionally, the pins on the edge of the device allow for easy expansion to other hardware modules and broadens the creative options for students.

The micro:bit can be programmed using the popular block-based coding language Scratch. The micro:bit Scratch extension is available at scratchx.org. Students can also program the device using Microsoft MakeCode, which allows them to switch back and forth between block-based and text-based coding.

The Micro:bit Foundation aims to put the device in the hands of 2 million children across the U.S. and Canada by 2020 and hopes to eventually reach more than 100 million kids around the world. The device starts at $14.95 USD and authorized resellers include Adafruit, CanaKit, Fair Chance Learning, Fry’s, MCM Electronics, Micro Center, SparkFun and others. For more information about the micro:bit or to find the nearest reseller, visit the Foundation resellers list.

For those attending, the micro:bit will be on display at ISTE 2017 in booth 3241.

About the Micro:bit Educational Foundation

The Micro:bit Foundation is enabling children around the world to get creative with technology and invent in school, in clubs and at home. A micro:bit was given to every year 7 student in the UK in 2016 and is now starting to be used around the world. Started by the BBC and a great team of partners, the Micro:bit Foundation is an international nonprofit organization.