Waxed canvas bags from Waterfield, Manhattan Portage, Saddleback and more – TechCrunch

It’s finally Bag Week again! The most wonderful week of the year at TechCrunch. Just in time for back to school, we’re bringing you reviews of bags of all varieties: from backpacks to rollers to messengers to fanny packs.

This year, like last year, I decided to focus on a specific niche in the bag community: waxed canvas. Last year I reviewed a handful of bags from Ona, Filson and other purveyors of fine waxed goods. But there are many more to choose from, so I’ve collected a second handful and used them all for long enough to get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

Waxed canvas is a wonderful material. The natural fibers infused with wax provide water resistance, structure, protection and a great look that only gets better with time as you use it. It’s my favorite material and it should be yours too. Only trouble is, it can be expensive. But keep in mind that these bags are the kind that you take with you for a decade or two.

For this post I focused on laptop bags, but later in the festivities I’ll have a couple more waxed bags more in the “messenger” style, so keep your eyes peeled.

Waterfield Bolt – $269

Pros:

  • Solid medium-weight material and construction
  • Good padding and leather protective layer
  • Surprising amount of space and pockets

Cons:

  • Somehow lacks panache
  • Leather thongs instead of metal zipper pulls not for everyone

Store link

Of all the bags I’ve looked at for this roundup, this one is perhaps the most straightforward, in that it isn’t convertible, super-heavy, super-light, blue or anything like that. It’s just a solid all-purpose laptop bag made of waxed canvas and leather, and as such makes for a sort of baseline with which to compare everything else.

The Bolt’s canvas isn’t as thick as that on other Waterfield bags, since it’s lined and padded on the inside. It still has a nice finish, though, and the leather base and trim are similarly high quality. The strap is, like the other bags from the company, nylon, where I would prefer canvas, but the grippy leather shoulder pad included is among the most practical and comfortable I’ve used.

Where the Bolt excels is not in sheer space, since it’s rather a compact bag (you can choose a larger size if you prefer), but in feeling that space is used well. There are snap pockets in the front and a larger zip one as well for quick access, all protected by a small flap but still easy to get at. On the back is a flap pocket and luggage strap so it can sit safely atop your roller bag.

And opening up the main compartment through its weather-proof zipper, the bag accordions open pleasantly to reveal laptop, tablet, notebook and other slots all easily accessible. I even like the color in there!

I only wish it inspired a little more love. It’s not a bad-looking bag by any means, but it feels very pedestrian — few stylistic choices seem to have been made. It’s practical but not individual. To some that won’t matter — this is a solid bag. But it lacks a certain je ne sais quois that the company has to spare in its other bags.

Waterfield Outback Solo – $159

Pros:

  • Great material and construction
  • Compact but not microscopic

Cons:

  • Awkward to carry without strap
  • Not a lot of room in there (by design, but still)

Store link

Sometimes you’re just going out with a tablet or laptop and book, and don’t feel like taking a whole messenger-style bag or briefcase. This little guy is sort of halfway between a laptop sleeve and a bag, and if you don’t mind its purselike nature, it’s a perfect companion for those more minimal trips.

The laptop compartment is snug and well-padded. The outside has a slip pocket with some nooks for pens and the like, big enough to fit an 8.5×11″ notebook or not-too-thick book. Just don’t try putting groceries or anything in there.

Closure is a magnetic snap that feels secure enough, but I’d just as soon have something a little more physical. I’d like to mention that the closure strap looks a little sloppy in the photos above, but it’s really not like that in general use and will wear in nicely. And although it feels great to carry this light little guy with the shoulder strap (which stows away decently well), carrying it like a sleeve or clutch isn’t so hot — a small handle or strap would make this much better.

I’d recommend this to anyone who has a larger bag for trips but doesn’t want to pack and unpack it every time they want to step out to the coffee shop. This would work well as a sub-bag or laptop sleeve if you have lots of room in the big one.

Joshu+Vela Zip Briefcase – $198

Pros:

  • Excellent lighter material that will age well
  • Straightforward style and solid straps
  • Great giant brass zippers

Cons:

  • Which side’s the front?
  • Unstructured interior can make stowage and retrieval annoying

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Coming from a shop more known for totes and lightweight, fashionable gear for everyday urban living, this one is heavy duty for them but light compared with some others in this roundup. Its style is subtle and straightforward, but high quality.

The material is a lighter weight and color canvas with a crispy feel that will very quickly show patterns of use as, for example, one front pocket is habitually used for a book or keys. Empty it is possibly the lightest waxed bag I’ve used, which of course makes it good for anyone trying to stay minimal. The simple leather straps are sturdy and comfortable, though their springy, upright nature does mean they occasionally interfere with access.

I love the huge brass zipper and pulls, though I could do without the leather bits (you can remove them). I didn’t like the plain natural canvas strap at first, but it, like other aspects of the bag, has grown on me.

The simplicity of the design is good, but it also leads to some problems. Unless you look closely it can be hard to tell which side is the front — only the zipper flap and small label hint at it. Something to secure or differentiate the front or rear pockets, even as simple as removing the divider in the back, would be welcome.

Inside has three divisions, but the billowing, unstructured canvas plus the limited zip-top entrance can make stowage and retrieval a little awkward, more so than a flap-top bag, anyway. A tighter compartment for a laptop or tablet would be great in here rather than having it swim in a big undifferentiated section. There’s also no padding, so I’d recommend keeping your device in its own case (this also helps it fill out the space).

Manhattan Portage Cortelyou – $365

Pros:

  • Classy messenger/briefcase crossover style
  • Lovely blue color
  • Great handle, closure and straps

Cons:

  • Not particularly waxy or robust
  • Steel and brass? Sacrilege
  • Interior material not for everyone (also has a tacky watermark)

Store link

Waxed canvas is normally tan or brown, but that’s just tradition. I like the forest green of the Croots bag from last year or the Saddleback one below, but the rich navy blue of this Manhattan Portage Token bag is also excellent. The material is very light, with a fine weave and barely any wax. That means it probably won’t show the characteristic scuffs and patterns that give this type of bag its personality. (You can always wax it yourself.)

This bag, with its half-flap and top handle, straddles the line between laptop bag and briefcase. It’s not particularly thick but has lots of room for big documents, laptops and other long items. Its structure means it’ll stay relatively svelte even when full — this won’t get lumpy.

The leather straps and trim are a nice chocolate color and complement the blue well. It’s not heavy or stiff, and the shoulder strap in particular is very pliable — though so long I had to knot it to keep the extra out of the way (fortunately it looks cool that way). The snap closure can be a little tricky to get right by feel, but attaches solidly. The handle, which folds flat but pops up when you need it, is genius — probably the best handle of all the bags in this roundup, though not quite as robust as the Saddleback (but what is?).

The interior isn’t to my liking. The red nylon watermarked with a branded pattern seems sort of gauche compared to the refined outside, and at the same time it feels like this choice of material should have allowed for more small pockets. It should help keep things dry, though, which is good considering the thinness of the waxed canvas layer.

Manhattan Portage Saratoga

Pros:

  • Convertible style makes it a good companion for conventions, business trips, etc.
  • Plenty of handles and exterior pockets

Cons:

  • Not the best of both worlds (but not the worst either)
  • Straps make it feel bulky and lumpy if not stowed carefully

When I’m at CES or some other big show where I do a lot of walking but need to carry my basic loadout everywhere, I often wish I could transform my laptop bag into a backpack or vice versa. The Saratoga accomplishes this, and while it ends up compromising both forms as a result, it also fundamentally scratches an important itch.

The material is a soft-feeling canvas that doesn’t feel very rugged but is showing a nice wear pattern already. The weather-sealed zippers are good news for anyone who wants to take this out in the rain, but there are just too many of them. Six on the exterior, five visible on the front side! This thing jingles like a festive little elf.

The back of the bag is a large pocket in which the pack straps sit, providing extra padding while they’re in there. You pull them out and clip them onto some unobtrusive little D-rings, and boom, it’s a backpack. Doing the reverse is a little harder, as you need to make sure the straps don’t bunch up in their pouch.

I would have much preferred a more elegant pocket solution, not least because some of the pockets don’t make much sense while in one or the other configuration. And the leather bottom, while great in briefcase mode, makes it seem a little lopsided in backpack mode. Obviously these are drawbacks inherent to the switchable design, which brings its own benefits, but they’re worth considering. I might have liked a single big pocket on the front that can be opened from the side or top, and sub-pockets within.

The interior, while it’s the same watermarked red nylon as the one above, is populated with tons of little pockets and useful stashes that helpfully all close independently, meaning there’s no need to re-pack when you’re going from one mode to the other.

(I can’t seem to find this for sale any more — but keep your eyes open if you like it.)

Manhattan Portage Hewes – $265

Pros:

  • Pockets! So many pockets!!

Cons:

Store link

I’ll just say right off the bat that this one isn’t for me — I prefer a plainer exterior, and this thing does not have that. On the other hand, for the organized gadget fiend, this might be a fantastic match.

The front side is just pocket after pocket. There are two big enough for a small phone, another good for a notebook, pens or a power adapter, and a third with a removable divider that could hold all manner of things small and large. Nothing too bulky will fit in them, but any number of audio recorders, lens filters, earbuds and so on will go in there.

Then there are two totally separate full-size compartments, one with more organizing space inside and both with plenty of padding. The simple strap is easy to release and stashes inside nicely.

Saddleback Leather Co Canvas Messenger – $439

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Pros:

  • Built like a waxed tank
  • Seriously, this thing is a beast
  • Spacious and handsome

Cons:

  • Also heavy as a tank
  • Very basic pockets and interior
  • Price reflects its “for life” nature

Store link

This bag came with a label on it sporting the company’s motto: “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.” And I’m inclined to believe it. This is definitely by far the heaviest-duty waxed canvas bag I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, which may or may not make it to your taste.

The olive-colored canvas is very thick and stiff, and waxed all the way through, not just in a layer on the outside. The stitching is industrial-grade and probably uses half a mile of thread. Quarter-inch-thick leather plates stiff as a board protect the back and bottom of the bag, and another serves to connect with the handle. The strap is a kind of folded-over canvas that feels even tougher than the leather. On top is a unique and practical thick leather handle that folds flat if necessary but feels very robust.

The muscular materials and construction, however, preclude the inclusion of fine details like small pockets and pen sheaths. Instead there are two major exterior pockets that simply fold over themselves to close up, being held shut by the flap; there’s also room between them and the main compartment. Smaller side pockets under the massy strap hardware are good spots for flashlights but pens may disappear to the bottom.

This thing is also heavy as hell. Empty, it weighs as much as another bag with a light load. For some that weight will be reassuring, but for others it’s just too much.

Inside the main compartment is plenty of room but little organization; there’s a single flap that will hold a laptop in place (my 13-inch MacBook Pro fits perfectly), and beyond that it’s just a big empty space. This is the only briefcase-style bag that rivals Filson’s (in my last roundup) for overnight capability. This one is definitely going to get your stuff waxy for the first few trips, though.

That’s all for today, but keep an eye out for more waxed canvas bags later in Bag Week as well!

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Starship Technologies raises $40M, crosses 100K deliveries and plans to expand to 100 new universities – TechCrunch

Starship Technologies invented the category of rolling autonomous sidewalk delivery robots, and to date, the company has made more than 100,000 commercial deliveries on behalf of customers. The milestone comes as Starship adds $40 million in Series A funding, bringing its total funding to $85 million. When it announced an additional $25 million in June 2018, Starship was also piloting its first university deployment — and now the company has a plan to expand to 100 university campuses over the next two years based on the strength of that pilot.

“When I came on board, I was testing a whole bunch of different go-to-market strategies,” explained Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer. “We were testing grocery delivery, university campuses, corporate campuses, industrial campuses, and we’ve actually seen tremendous traction on most of these environments. Our grocery business north of London, in Milton Keynes, is going exceptionally […] But one of the experiments was to try university campuses. And I think, you know, as a company that’s a startup still, we have to always focus and have sequencing in terms of how we grow. And the university campus has just been pulling our business forward — not only our students pulling it, meaning there are more orders than the restaurant from the robots can keep up with that, sorry, we had to add restaurants and add hours. And so we’ve seen signal from the students, but we’ve also seen signal from universities reaching out to us, and from the food service providers.”

This vertical focus on post-secondary schools will see Starship robots deployed at the University of Pittsburgh today, and Purdue University in Indiana on September 9, with many more to follow. Starship’s ambitious goal is to deploy at 100 schools within the next two years, as mentioned, and it’s going to be using this funding in pursuit of that expansion. The market appetite is strong, as Bayer notes, and it’s a way to show that the robots can operate in all kinds of environments, in and among campuses that blend seamlessly with public city streets and sidewalks. Plus, the student population has proven the ideal initial customer base.

“I think, you know, starting with the younger generation is always great for that,” Bayer said. “Because so much of the way they see the world is the way the world can be; they’re not encumbered by all of the past and the way things were done before. And so when you present them with a better solution, they just use it and they say, ‘Oh, this is how things should be normally. This is the way things should be moving forward.’ ”

Pitt Student with StarshipAnd that perceived normalcy leads to high utilization: One of the robots serving one of the universities where Starship operates manages to drive the equivalent of the distance between San Francisco and New York City, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider that they only travel at a top speed of four miles per hour. Starship’s all-electric delivery robots have, in total, racked up 350,000 miles across its delivery trips, and delivered 9,000 rolls and 15,000 bananas, among various other grocery and food items.

“The first few years were really proving that this could be done, and that this technology is even possible,” Bayer explained. “And so it took us four years to get to the first 10,000 deliveries. And then it took us eight months to go from 10,000 deliveries to 50,000 deliveries, and now it’s taken us less than four months to get to 100,000. So that is a major milestone, and we’re the first autonomous vehicle company to do that. It’s something we’re obviously very proud of. But it really shows the sort of inflection that our company’s going through and how we’re really scaling up.”

Starship’s funding this round was led by Morpheus Ventures, and included existing investors Shasta Ventures, Matrix Partners, MetaPlanet Holdings and more, along with new investors TDK Ventures, Qu Ventures and others.

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RYU’s line of backpacks offer style and function for exploring the city or weekends away – TechCrunch

Yes, it’s Bag Week, where we celebrate all the best bags of the year here at TechCrunch. And there is little more satisfying than finding a basic black one that’s functional, stylish and unique. Luckily, Canadian urban athletic apparel maker RYU makes three such bags, and while each one has its own particular appeal depending on what you’re looking for in a backpack, they’re also all winners that elevate the basic black backpack to new heights.

Quick Pack Lux 18L ($185)

RYU bags 3 Locker Pack 18LRYU’s “just right” offering for me is the Quick Pack Lux 18L capacity bag that’s pretty much perfect as a general-use day pack in terms of cargo space, and that can also serve well for a one or two-night trip, depending on how lightly you pack.

The RYU’s signature feature, and what makes it my favorite day pack in terms of everyday use around the city, is its profile — a silhouette that is made all the better because RYU uses an internal molded shell to ensure that it never flattens down or loses its shape, regardless of how full or empty the bag actually is. This is actually a huge selling point for me, and one that makes the RYU Quick Pack Lux 18L almost certain to become my go-to daily bag. Inside, there are a few pockets, including a laptop sleeve that can fit up to a 15-inch MacBook Pro — another rarity in a day pack this low-profile.

In addition to the integrated frame, the Quick Pack Lux is kitted out with premium materials, like the leather accent patch on the top flap, leather shoulder straps, an outer layer of poly-cotton blend that covers a wax-treated canvas and nylon interior for water resistance and durability. The materials definitely feel premium, though the outermost layer resembles kind of a yoga pant material, and in my house definitely attracts and picks up my dog’s easily shed white hairs with reckless abandon. I’m more than happy to get out the lint roller once and a while as a trade-off for just how good looking the bag is, however.

It wears slightly long, but tight to the back (for reference when sizing up the photos above, I’m 6’2″ and quite a bit of that is torso). The removable chest strap helps keeps the profile pretty seamless, and there’s a handle on top for easy carrying when not on the back.

Another unique feature of the Quick Pack Lux is that it opens from the front, with the flap at the top unbuckling to reveal two zippers that run the length of the bag. Undo these, and you get basically a duffel-style cargo loading method, which is great for arranging your stuff without having to layer or dig down as you would in a top-loading pack.

Locker Pack Lux 24L ($215)

RYU bags 2 Locker Pack 24L 1The Locker Pack Lux 24L is the more spacious version of the Quick Pack Lux, with 6L extra volume for packing your gear. It’s designed more for those overnights or two-day trips, and yet it doesn’t really add that much in the way of bulk if you’re looking for something that can serve flexibly as both day pack and weekender.

The Locker Pack Lux has the same materials combination as the Quick Pack, but is a bit longer and so is probably better suited for taller people. It still offers a very slim profile, and has the same internal structural components, which means it’ll keep its shape, but it has a bit more leeway for expansion, too, letting you pack in a surprising amount of stuff via the front-loading, double zipper stowage and packing flap.

Unlike the Quick Pack Lux, you also get external access to the laptop compartment in the Locker Pack, which gives you an easy way to get at up to a 15-inch notebook. The leather-accented top flap closes down over this compartment, too, to give you some protection against the elements in the case of light showers (RYU also sells a dedicated rain hood separately).

Express Pack 15L ($90)

RYU bags 4 Express Pack 15L

The Express Pack is the smallest of these RYU backpacks in terms of packing volume, but it’s also probably the best option when it comes to an all-around city day pack that will fit you regardless of height and frame. The extremely minimal aesthetic is great for the city, especially with the polyurethane outer coating that wraps a middle canvas layer for the bag’s body.

This is a very lightweight bag, but the internal pocket can actually fit a lot of stuff when needed, and there’s a single woven pocket on one side of the exterior for stowing a water bottle. This adds an asymmetrical look, which is also pretty cool looking. Inside, there’s a zippered mesh block and a fully zippered front pocket for separating your sweaty gym gear, plus a laptop compartment that can fit a full, 15-inch MacBook Pro without issue.

The bag is comfortable to wear, but doesn’t have the internal structure of the other two, so if it’s empty it’ll hug a lot closer to the body. If there’s one thing I’d change about it, it’s the RYU branding — but it does actually recede to being barely visible in less direct lighting, and is more subtle overall than it looks here.

Overall, RYU’s bag lineup is impressive, and offers something for everyone. The Vancouver-based company has done a great job of delivering highly functional designs that also offer great style with pretty much universal appeal. The company also offers non-Lux versions of both the Quick Pack and the Locker Pack, which drop the leather accents and embedded waxed canvas, but which also offer some decent discounts if the prices above strike you as too high.

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Sonos Bluetooth-enabled, battery-powered speaker leaks ahead of official launch – TechCrunch

Sonos has an event coming up at the end of the month to reveal something new, but leaks have pretty much given away what’s likely to be the highlight announcement at the event: A new, Bluetooth-enabled speaker that has a built-in battery for portable power.

The speaker originally leaked earlier this month, with Dave Zatz showing off a very official-looking image, and The Verge reporting some additional details, including a toggle switch for moving between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modes, and a USB-C port for charging, along with rough dimensions that peg it as a little bit bigger than the existing Sonos One.

Now, another leak from Win Future has revealed yet more official-looking images, including a photo of the device with its apparent dock, which provides contact charging. The site also says the new speaker will be called the Sonos Move, which makes a lot of sense, given it’ll be the only one that can actually move around and still maintain functionality while portable.

Here’s the TL;DR of what we know so far, across all the existing leaks:

  • Can stream via Wi-Fi (works with your Sonos network like other Sonos speakers) and Bluetooth (direct pairing with devices), with Bluetooth LE included for easier setup
  • USB-C port for power and Ethernet port for connectivity
  • Similar design to Sonos One, with more rounded corners, but wider and taller (likely to allow room for integrated battery)
  • Built-in handle in the back for easier carrying
  • Contacts on bottom for docked charging (as alternative to USB-C)
  • Supports Alexa and Google Assistant and has integrated mic (neither available via Bluetooth mode, however)
  • Suports AirPlay 2
  • Offer Auto Trueplay, which automatically tunes speaker sound to your place using onboard mic

No word yet on official availability or pricing, but it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll arrive sometime this fall, following that late August announcement.

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$600M Cray supercomputer will tower above the rest — to build better nukes – TechCrunch

Cray has been commissioned by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to create a supercomputer head and shoulders above all the rest, with the contract valued at some $600 million. Disappointingly, El Capitan, as the system will be called, will be more or less solely dedicated to redesigning our nuclear armament.

El Capitan will be the third “exascale” computer being built by Cray for the U.S. government, the other two being Aurora for Argonne National Lab and Frontier for Oak Ridge. These computers are built on a whole new architecture called Shasta, in which Cray intends to combine the speed and scale of high-performance computing with the easy administration of cloud-based enterprise tools.

Due for delivery in 2022, El Capitan will be operating on the order of 1.5 exaflops, or floating point operations per second, a measure of calculation often used to track supercomputer performance. Exa denotes a quintillion of something.

Right now the top dog is already at Oak Ridge: an IBM-built system called Frontier. At about 150 petaflops, it’s about 1/10th the power of Aurora — of course, the former is operational and the latter is theoretical right now, but you get the idea.

One wonders exactly what all this computing power is needed for. There are in fact countless domains of science that could be advanced by access to a system like El Capitan — simulations of atmospheric and geological processes, for instance, could be simulated in 3D at a larger scale and higher fidelity than ever before.

So it was a bit disheartening to learn that El Capitan will, once fully operational, be dedicated almost solely to classified nuclear weaponry design.

To be clear, that doesn’t just mean bigger and more lethal bombs. The contract is being carried out with the collaboration of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which of course oversees the nuclear stockpile alongside the Department of Energy and military. It’s a big operation, as you might expect.

We have an aging nuclear weapons stockpile that was essentially designed and engineered over a period of decades ending in the ’90s. We may not need to build new ones, but we do actually have to keep our old ones in good shape, not just in case of war but to prevent them from failing in their advancing age and decrepitude.

shasta

The components of Cray’s Shasta systems

“We like to say that while the stockpile was designed in two dimensions, it’s actually aging in three,” said LLNL director Bill Goldstein in a teleconference call on Monday. “We’re currently redesigning both warhead and delivery system. This is the first time we’ve been doing this for about 30 years now. This requires us to be able to simulate the interaction between the physics of the nuclear system and the engineering features of the delivery system. These are real engineering interactions and are truly 3D. This is an example of a new requirement that we have to meet, a new problem that we have to solve, and we simply can’t rely on two dimensional simulations to get at. And El Capitan is being delivered just in time to address this problem.”

Although in response to my question, Goldstein declined to provide a concrete example of a 3D versus 2D research question or result, citing the classified nature of the work, it’s clear that his remarks are meant to be taken both literally and figuratively. The depth, so to speak, of factors affecting a nuclear weapons system may be said to have been much flatter in the ’90s, when we lacked the computing resources to do the complex physics simulations that might inform their design. So both conceptually and spatially the design process has expanded.

That said, let’s be clear: “warhead and delivery systems” means nukes, and that is what this $600 million supercomputer will be dedicated to.

There’s a silver lining there: Before being air-gapped and entering into its classified operations, El Capitan will have a “shakeout period” during which others will have access to it. So while for most of its life it will be hard at work on weapons systems, during its childhood it will be able to experience a wider breadth of scientific problems.

The exact period of time and who will have access to it is to be determined (this is still three years out), but it’s not an afterthought to quiet jealous researchers. The team needs to get used to the tools and work with Cray to refine the system before it moves on to the top-secret stuff. And opening it up to a variety of research problems and methods is a great way to do it, while also providing a public good.

Yet Goldstein referred to the 3D simulations of nuclear weapons physics as the “killer app” of the new computer system. Perhaps not the phrase I would have chosen. But it’s hard to deny the importance of making sure the nuclear stockpile is functional and not leaking or falling apart — I just wish the most powerful computer ever planned had a bit more noble purpose.

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The Google Assistant now lets you annoy your family members with assignable reminders – TechCrunch

Do you sometimes have to nag your significant other to take out the trash on Monday night? Now, you can do so in a more passive-aggressive way by sending them a reminder through the Google Assistant instead of in person.

“Hey Google, remind Alex to take out the trash at 8pm,” is all it takes. Your family members (or roommates that you’ve added to your Google family group) will then get a notification on their phones and/or Assistant-powered Smart Displays.

“Assignable reminders on the Google Assistant help families and housemates better collaborate and stay organized while at home or on the go,” explains Google. “This means you can now create reminders for your partner or roommate to do things like pick up the groceries, pay a recurring bill, walk the dog — or send them a note of encouragement when they need it the most (‘Hey Google, remind Mary that she will do great on tomorrow’s exam.’)”

I’m pretty sure Mary would prefer a bit of human contact with that encouragement, but sometimes the Google Assistant is all you have.AR HubTechnically, for all of this to work, you need to have the person you are sending the reminder to in your contacts list and in your Google Family group. You also need to set up Voice Match for them for this to work on a smart display or speaker. Parents can set up accounts for children under 13 through Family Link.

This new feature will become available in English on phones, speakers and Smart Displays in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Like with all Google reminders, you can set times and locations for your messages to pop up.

Mercifully, you can block people from sending you reminders, too, thanks to a new toggle in the Assistant Settings menu.AR Mobile

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Next Apple Watch could include new ceramic and titanium models – TechCrunch

Apple’s next Apple Watch revision could include new materials for the case, including titanium and ceramic. That’s according to new assets pulled form the latest watchOS beta release, as uncovered by Brazilian site iHelp.br (via 9to5Mac). The new screens discovered in the beta show graphics used to pair the Apple Watch during setup, and list “Titanium Case” and “Ceramic Case” alongside model size identification info.

Apple has previously offered a ceramic Apple Watch, alongside its Series 2 and Series 3 models, with a premium price and white and black case options. The company hasn’t previously used titanium, but the lightweight, durable metal is popular among traditional watchmakers because it can really significantly reduce the heft of a watch case, while still providing a premium look and feel.

apple watch titanium ceramci

Last year’s Apple Watch Series 4 was the first significant change in body design for the wearable since its introduction in 2015, so it seems unlikely that Apple will change that this year again. The new physical design includes larger case sizes (40mm and 44mm, respectively, vs. 38mm and 42mm for previous generations), a thinner profile and a display with rounded corners and slimmer bezels.

Offering new materials is a way for Apple to deliver new hardware that is observably new on the outside, in addition to whatever processor and component improvements they make on the inside. Apple will likely also offer these alongside their stainless steel and aluminum models, should they actually be released this fall, and would probably charge a premium for these material options, too.

The Series 4 Apple Watch proved a serious improvement in terms of performance, and added features like the onboard ECG. Splashy new looks likely won’t be the extent of what Apple has planned for Series 5, however, especially since the company is revamping watchOS to be much more independent of the phone, which would benefit from more capable processors.

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Ikea doubles down on smart home tech with new business unit – TechCrunch

Ikea’s smart home investments to date have been smart but scattered – now the Swedish home goods brand says it’s going to amp up its smart home bets with a brand new dedicated business unit.

The company’s smart home endeavors began in 2012, and focused on wireless charging and smart lighting. It’s iterated in both areas since, developing self-installed integrated wireless chargers for its furniture, as well as light/charger combos, and finally with a new partnership with Sonos that produced the Symfonisk line of wireless smart speakers.

Ikea also has its own ambitions in terms of being the hub for future smart home products, not only from a hardware perspective, but also via its Home smart app, which it rebranded from being more strictly focused on its Tradfri line of connected bulbs in June. During the Symfonisk launch, Ikea told me it has broader ambitions for the Home smart app as a central hub for connected home control for its customers.

“At IKEA we want to continue to offer products for a better life at home for the many people going forward. In order to do so we need to explore products and solutions beyond conventional home furnishing,” said Björn Block, Head of the new IKEA Home smart Business Unit at IKEA of Sweden, in a press release from the company.

Ikea also characterized this as its biggest new focus area in terms of the overall business and brand since it introduced its Children’s Ikea line.

The partnership between Sonos and Ikea that produced the Symfonisk line is a long-term one, and both companies told me to expect more products to come out of that team-up in future. But it sounds like Ikea intends to explore how smart home tech might touch all aspects of its business, so it’s fair to anticipate more partnerships and product categories to follow as a result of this new investment focus, too.

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Flexible stick-on sensors could wirelessly monitor your sweat and pulse – TechCrunch

As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of physiological data.

Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.

The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smartwatches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.

Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.

The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.

bodynet sticker and receiver

The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. Although they managed to create a unit that’s light enough to be clipped to clothes, it’s still not the kind of thing you’d want to wear to the gym.

The good news is that’s an engineering and design limitation, not a theoretical one — so a couple years of work and progress on the electronics front and they could have a much more attractive system.

“We think one day it will be possible to create a full-body skin-sensor array to collect physiological data without interfering with a person’s normal behavior,” Stanford professor Zhenan Bao said in a news release.

Over at Cal is a project in a similar domain that’s working to get from prototype to production. Researchers there have been working on a sweat monitor for a few years that could detect a number of physiological factors.

SensorOnForehead BN

Normally you’d just collect sweat every 15 minutes or so and analyze each batch separately. But that doesn’t really give you very good temporal resolution — what if you want to know how the sweat changes minute by minute or less? By putting the sweat collection and analysis systems together right on the skin, you can do just that.

While the sensor has been in the works for a while, it’s only recently that the team has started moving toward user testing at scale to see what exactly sweat measurements have to offer.

RollToRoll BN 768x960“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us — I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition. For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” explained Ali Javey, Berkeley professor and head of the project.

As anyone who’s working in hardware will tell you, going from a hand-built prototype to a mass-produced model is a huge challenge. So the Berkeley team tapped their Finnish friends at VTT Technical Research Center, who make a specialty of roll-to-roll printing.

For flat, relatively simple electronics, roll-to-roll is a great technique, essentially printing the sensors right onto a flexible plastic substrate that can then simply be cut to size. This way they can make hundreds or thousands of the sensors quickly and cheaply, making them much simpler to deploy at arbitrary scales.

These are far from the only flexible or skin-mounted electronics projects out there, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the point when they begin to leave the lab and head out to hospitals, gyms and homes.

The paper describing Stanford’s flexible sensor appeared this week in the journal Nature Electronics, while Berkeley’s sweat tracker was in Science Advances.

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These robo-shorts are the precursor to a true soft exoskeleton – TechCrunch

When someone says “robotic exoskeleton,” the power loaders from Aliens are what come to mind for most people (or at least me), but the real things will be much different: softer, smarter and used for much more ordinary tasks. The latest such exo from Harvard is so low-profile you could wear it around the house.

Designed by researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute (in collaboration with several other institutions), which focuses on soft robotics and bio-inspired mechanisms, the exosuit isn’t for heavy lifting or combating xenomorphs, but simply walking and running a little bit more easily.

The suit, which is really more of a pair of shorts with a mechanism attached at the lower back and cables going to straps on the legs, is intended to simply assist the leg in its hip-extension movement, common to most forms of locomotion.

An onboard computer (and neural network, naturally) detects the movements of the wearer’s body and determines both the type of gait (walking or running) and what phase of that gait the leg is currently in. It gives the leg making the movement a little boost, making it just that much easier to do it.

In testing, the suit reduced the metabolic load of walking by 9.3% and running by 4%. That might not sound like much, but they weren’t looking to create an Olympic-quality cyborg — just show reliable gains from a soft, portable exosuit.

“While the metabolic reductions we found are modest, our study demonstrates that it is possible to have a portable wearable robot assist more than just a single activity, helping to pave the way for these systems to become ubiquitous in our lives,” said lead study author Conor Walsh in a news release.

The whole idea, then, is to leave behind the idea of an exosuit as a big mechanical thing for heavy industry or work, and bring in the idea that one could help an elderly person stand up from a chair, or someone recovering from an accident walk farther without fatigue.

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The whole device, shorts and all, weighs about 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds. Most of that is in the little battery and motor pack stashed at the top of the shorts, near the body’s center of mass, helping it feel lighter than it is.

Of course, this is the kind of thing the military is very interested in — not just for active duty (a soldier who can run twice as far or fast) but for treatment of the wounded. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this came out of a DARPA project initiated years ago (and ongoing in other forms).

But by far the more promising applications are civilian, in the medical field and beyond. “We are excited to continue to apply it to a range of applications, including assisting those with gait impairments, industry workers at risk of injury performing physically strenuous tasks, or recreational weekend warriors,” said Walsh.

Currently the team is hard at work improving the robo-shorts, reducing the weight, making the assistance more powerful and more intuitive and so on. The paper describing their system was the cover story of this week’s edition of the journal Science.

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