Sonos clarifies how unsupported devices will be treated – TechCrunch

Smart speaker manufacturer Sonos clarified its stance when it comes to old devices that are no longer supported. The company faced some criticisms after its original announcement. Sonos now says that you’ll be able to create two separate Sonos systems so that your newer devices stay up to date.

If you use a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, Sonos is still going to drop support for those devices. According to the company, those devices have reached their technical limits when it comes to memory and processing power.

While nothing lasts forever, it’s still a shame that speakers that work perfectly fine are going to get worse over time. For instance, if Spotify and Apple Music update their application programming interface in the future, your devices could stop working with those services altogether.

But the announcement felt even more insulting as the company originally said that your entire ecosystem of Sonos devices would stop receiving updates so that all your devices remain on the same firmware version. Even if you just bought a Sonos One, it would stop receiving updates if there’s an old speaker on your network.

“We are working on a way to split your system so that modern products work together and get the latest features, while legacy products work together and remain in their current state,” the company writes.

It’s not ideal, but the company is no longer holding your Sonos system back. Sonos also clarifies that old devices will still receive security updates and bug fixes — but there won’t be any new features.

I still think Sonos should add a computing card slot to its devices. This way, you wouldn’t have to replace speakers altogether. You could get a new computing card with more memory and faster processors and swap your existing card. Modularity is going to be essential if tech companies want to adopt a more environmentally friendly stance.

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Vivo beats Samsung for 2nd spot in Indian smartphone market – TechCrunch

Samsung, which once led the smartphone market in India, slid to the third position in the quarter that ended in December even as the South Korean giant continues to make major bets on the rare handset market that is still growing.

According to research firm Counterpoint, Chinese firm Vivo surpassed Samsung to become the second biggest smartphone vendor in India in Q4 2019. Xiaomi, with command over 27% of the market, maintained its top spot in the nation for the 10th consecutive quarter.

Vivo’s annual smartphone shipment grew 76% in 2019. The Chinese firm’s aggressive positioning of budget S series of smartphones — priced between $100 to $150 (the sweet spot in India) — in the brick and mortar market and acceptance of e-commerce sales helped it beat Samsung, said Counterpoint analysts. Vivo’s market share jumped 132% between Q4 of 2018 and Q4 of 2019, according to the research firm.

Realme, which spun out of Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, claimed the fifth spot. Oppo assumed the fourth position.

Realme has taken the Indian market by a storm. The two-year-old firm has replicated Xiaomi’s playbook in the country and so far focused on selling aggressively low-cost Android smartphones online.

The report, released late Friday (local time), also states that India, with 158 million smartphone shipments in 2019, took over the U.S. in annual smartphone shipment for the first time.

India, which was already the world’s second largest smartphone market for total handset install base, is now also the second largest market for annual shipment of smartphones.

Tarun Pathak, a senior analyst at Counterpoint, told TechCrunch that about 150 million to 155 million smartphone units were shipped in the U.S. in 2019.

More to follow…

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As autonomy stalls, lidar companies learn to adapt – TechCrunch

Lidar sensors are likely to be essential to autonomous vehicles, but if there are none of the latter, how can you make money with the former? Among the industry executives I spoke with, the outlook is optimistic as they unhitch their wagons from the sputtering star of self-driving cars. As it turns out, a few years of manic investment does wonders for those who have the wisdom to apply it properly.

The show floor at CES 2020 was packed with lidar companies exhibiting in larger spaces, seemingly in greater numbers than before. That seemed at odds with reports that 2019 had been a sort of correction year for the industry, so I met with executives and knowledgeable types at several companies to hear their take on the sector’s transformation over the last couple of years.

As context, 2017 was perhaps peak lidar, nearing the end of several years of nearly feverish investment in a variety of companies. It was less a gold rush than a speculative land rush: autonomous vehicles were purportedly right around the corner and each would need a lidar unit… or five. The race to invest in a winner was on, leading to an explosion of companies claiming ascendancy over their rivals.

Unfortunately, as many will recall, autonomous cars seem to be no closer today than they were then, as the true difficulty of the task dawned on those undertaking it.

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Your Sonos system will stop receiving updates if you have an old device – TechCrunch

Smart speaker manufacturer Sonos has announced that the company is going to drop support for some of its products. Sonos stopped selling these devices a few years ago. While nothing lasts forever, dropping support is going to have a lot of implications and shows once again that the connected home isn’t as future-proof as expected.

Sonos points out that 92% of the products that it has ever sold are still in use today. It means that some people are still happily using old Sonos devices even though production has stopped since then.

“However, we’ve now come to a point where some of the oldest products have been stretched to their technical limits in terms of memory and processing power,” the company writes.

If you use a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, Sonos is basically going to make your Sonos experience worse across the board.

The company is going to stop shipping updates to those devices. If Spotify and Apple Music update their application programming interface in the future, your devices could stop working with those services altogether.

But Sonos has decided that your entire ecosystem of Sonos devices is going to stop receiving updates so that all your devices are on the same firmware version. For instance, if you just bought a Sonos One but you’re still using an old Sonos Play:5, your Sonos One isn’t going to receive updates either.

The company says that you can get a discount if you replace your old device. But it will still cost you some money. It’s also ironic as the company promises a seamless music experience but then requires you to swap out speakers altogether.

Sonos should use this opportunity to rethink its product lineup. Planned obsolescence due to end-of-life is a great business model for sure. But it’s time to think about ways to keep your speakers for 10, 20 or even 30 years.

People in the 1980s would buy beautiful speakers and keep them for decades. Sure, they’d have to add a CD player in their system at some point. But modularity is a great feature.

Sonos should add a computing card slot to its devices. As systems on a chip, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth get faster and more efficient, users should be able to swap out the computing card for a new one without replacing the speaker altogether.

That would be a more environmental-friendly process than bricking old devices with their questionable recycle mode.

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This ultrasonic gripper could let robots hold things without touching them – TechCrunch

If robots are to help out in places like hospitals and phone repair shops, they’re going to need a light touch. And what’s lighter than not touching at all? Researchers have created a gripper that uses ultrasonics to suspend an object in midair, potentially making it suitable for the most delicate tasks.

It’s done with an array of tiny speakers that emit sound at very carefully controlled frequencies and volumes. These produce a sort of standing pressure wave that can hold an object up or, if the pressure is coming from multiple directions, hold it in place or move it around.

This kind of “acoustic levitation,” as it’s called, is not exactly new — we see it being used as a trick here and there, but so far there have been no obvious practical applications. Marcel Schuck and his team at ETH Zürich, however, show that a portable such device could easily find a place in processes where tiny objects must be very lightly held.

A small electric component, or a tiny oiled gear or bearing for a watch or micro-robot, for instance, would ideally be held without physical contact, since that contact could impart static or dirt to it. So even when robotic grippers are up to the task, they must be kept clean or isolated. Acoustic manipulation, however, would have significantly less possibility of contamination.

Another, more sinister-looking prototype.

The problem is that it isn’t obvious exactly which combination of frequencies and amplitudes are necessary to suspend a given object in the air. So a large part of this work was developing software that can easily be configured to work with a new object, or programmed to move it in a specific way — rotating, flipping or otherwise moving it at the user’s behest.

A working prototype is complete, but Schuck plans to poll various industries to see whether and how such a device could be useful to them. Watchmaking is of course important in Switzerland, and the parts are both small and sensitive to touch. “Toothed gearwheels, for example, are first coated with lubricant, and then the thickness of this lubricant layer is measured. Even the faintest touch could damage the thin film of lubricant,” he points out in the ETHZ news release.

How would a watchmaker use such a robotic arm? How would a designer of microscopic robots, or a biochemist? The potential is clear, but not necessarily obvious. Fortunately, he has a bit of fellowship cash to spend on the question and hopes to spin it off as a startup next year if his early inquiries bear fruit.

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Robotics+AI with the CEOs of Traptic, Farmwise and Pyka – TechCrunch

Farming is one of the oldest professions, but today those amber waves of grain (and soy) are a test bed for sophisticated robotic solutions to problems farmers have had for millennia. Learn about the cutting edge (sometimes literally) of agricultural robots at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 with the founders of Traptic, Pyka, and Farmwise.

Traptic, and its co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson, you may remember from Disrupt SF 2019, where it was a finalist in the Startup Battlefield. The company has developed a robotic berry picker that identifies ripe strawberries and plucks them off the plants with a gentle grip. It could be the beginning of a new automated era for the fruit industry, which is decades behind grains and other crops when it comes to machine-based harvesting.

Farmwise has a job that’s equally delicate yet involves rough treatment of the plants — weeding. Its towering machine trundles along rows of crops, using computer vision to locate and remove invasive plants, working 24/7, 365 days a year. CEO Sebastian Boyer will speak to the difficulty of this task and how he plans to evolve the machines to become “doctors” for crops, monitoring health and spontaneously removing pests like aphids.

Pyka’s robot is considerably less earthbound than those: an autonomous, all-electric crop-spraying aircraft — with wings! This is a much different challenge from the more stable farming and spraying drones like those of DroneSeed and SkyX, but the choice gives the craft more power and range, hugely important for today’s vast fields. Co-founder Michael Norcia can speak to that scale and his company’s methods of meeting it.

These three companies and founders are at the very frontier of what’s possible at the intersection of agriculture and technology, so expect a fruitful conversation.

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Samsung invests $500M to set up a smartphone display plant in India – TechCrunch

Samsung, which once led India’s smartphone market, is investing $500 million in its India operations to set up a manufacturing plant at the outskirts of New Delhi to produce displays.

The company disclosed the investment and its plan in a filing to the local regulator earlier this month. The South Korean giant said the plant would produce displays for smartphones as well as a wide-range of other electronics devices.

In the filing, the company disclosed that it has allocated some land area from its existing factory in Noida for the new plant.

In 2018, Samsung opened a factory in Noida that it claimed was the world’s largest mobile manufacturing plant. For that factory, the company had committed to spend about $700 million.

The new plant should help Samsung further increase its capacity to produce smartphone components locally and access a range of tax benefits that New Delhi offers.

Those benefits would come in handy to the company as it faces off Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone vendor that put an end to Samsung’s lead in India.

Samsung is now the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the world’s second largest market with nearly 500 million smartphone users. The company in recent months has also lost market share to Chinese brand Realme, which is poised to take over the South Korean giant in the quarter that ended in December last year, according to some analysts.

TechCrunch has reached out to Samsung for comment.

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Baraja’s unique and ingenious take on lidar shines in a crowded industry – TechCrunch

It seems like every company making lidar has a new and clever approach, but Baraja takes the cake. Its method is not only elegant and powerful, but fundamentally avoids many issues that nag other lidar technologies. But it’ll need more than smart tech to make headway in this complex and evolving industry.

To understand how lidar works in general, consult my handy introduction to the topic. Essentially a laser emitted by a device skims across or otherwise very quickly illuminates the scene, and the time it takes for that laser’s photons to return allows it to quite precisely determine the distance of every spot it points at.

But to picture how Baraja’s lidar works, you need to picture the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

GIFs kind of choke on rainbows, but you get the idea.

Imagine a flashlight shooting through a prism like that, illuminating the scene in front of it — now imagine you could focus that flashlight by selecting which color came out of the prism, sending more light to the top part of the scene (red and orange) or middle (yellow and green). That’s what Baraja’s lidar does, except naturally it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The company has been developing its tech for years with the backing of Sequoia and Australian VC outfit Blackbird, which led a $32 million round late in 2018 — Baraja only revealed its tech the next year and was exhibiting it at CES, where I met with co-founder and CEO Federico Collarte.

“We’ve stayed in stealth for a long, long time,” he told me. “The people who needed to know already knew about us.”

The idea for the tech came out of the telecommunications industry, where Collarte and co-founder Cibby Pulikkaseril thought of a novel use for a fiber optic laser that could reconfigure itself extremely quickly.

We thought if we could set the light free, send it through prism-like optics, then we could steer a laser beam without moving parts. The idea seemed too simple — we thought, ‘if it worked, then everybody would be doing it this way,’ ” he told me, but they quit their jobs and worked on it for a few months with a friends and family round, anyway. “It turns out it does work, and the invention is very novel and hence we’ve been successful in patenting it.”

Rather than send a coherent laser at a single wavelength (1550 nanometers, well into the infrared, is the lidar standard), Baraja uses a set of fixed lenses to refract that beam into a spectrum spread vertically over its field of view. Yet it isn’t one single beam being split but a series of coded pulses, each at a slightly different wavelength that travels ever so slightly differently through the lenses. It returns the same way, the lenses bending it the opposite direction to return to its origin for detection.

It’s a bit difficult to grasp this concept, but once one does it’s hard to see it as anything but astonishingly clever. Not just because of the fascinating optics (something I’m partial to, if it isn’t obvious), but because it obviates a number of serious problems other lidars are facing or about to face.

First, there are next to no moving parts whatsoever in the entire Baraja system. Spinning lidars like the popular early devices from Velodyne are being replaced at large by ones using metamaterials, MEMS, and other methods that don’t have bearings or hinges that can wear out.

Baraja’s “head” unit, connected by fiber optic to the brain.

In Baraja’s system, there are two units, a “dumb” head and an “engine.” The head has no moving parts and no electronics; it’s all glass, just a set of lenses. The engine, which can be located nearby or a foot or two away, produces the laser and sends it to the head via a fiber-optic cable (and some kind of proprietary mechanism that rotates slowly enough that it could theoretically work for years continuously). This means it’s not only very robust physically, but its volume can be spread out wherever is convenient in the car’s body. The head itself also can be resized more or less arbitrarily without significantly altering the optical design, Collarte said.

Second, the method of diffracting the beam gives the system considerable leeway in how it covers the scene. Different wavelengths are sent out at different vertical angles; a shorter wavelength goes out toward the top of the scene and a slightly longer one goes a little lower. But the band of 1550 +/- 20 nanometers allows for millions of fractional wavelengths that the system can choose between, giving it the ability to set its own vertical resolution.

It could for instance (these numbers are imaginary) send out a beam every quarter of a nanometer in wavelength, corresponding to a beam going out every quarter of a degree vertically, and by going from the bottom to the top of its frequency range cover the top to the bottom of the scene with equally spaced beams at reasonable intervals.

But why waste a bunch of beams on the sky, say, when you know most of the action is taking place in the middle part of the scene, where the street and roads are? In that case you can send out a few high frequency beams to check up there, then skip down to the middle frequencies, where you can then send out beams with intervals of a thousandth of a nanometer, emerging correspondingly close together to create a denser picture of that central region.

If this is making your brain hurt a little, don’t worry. Just think of Dark Side of the Moon and imagine if you could skip red, orange and purple, and send out more beams in green and blue — and because you’re only using those colors, you can send out more shades of green-blue and deep blue than before.

Third, the method of creating the spectrum beam provides against interference from other lidar systems. It is an emerging concern that lidar systems of a type could inadvertently send or reflect beams into one another, producing noise and hindering normal operation. Most companies are attempting to mitigate this by some means or another, but Baraja’s method avoids the possibility altogether.

“The interference problem — they’re living with it. We solved it,” said Collarte.

The spectrum system means that for a beam to interfere with the sensor it would have to be both a perfect frequency match and come in at the precise angle at which that frequency emerges from and returns to the lens. That’s already vanishingly unlikely, but to make it astronomically so, each beam from the Baraja device is not a single pulse but a coded set of pulses that can be individually identified. The company’s core technology and secret sauce is the ability to modulate and pulse the laser millions of times per second, and it puts this to good use here.

Collarte acknowledged that competition is fierce in the lidar space, but not necessarily competition for customers. “They have not solved the autonomy problem,” he points out, “so the volumes are too small. Many are running out of money. So if you don’t differentiate, you die.” And some have.

Instead companies are competing for partners and investors, and must show that their solution is not merely a good idea technically, but that it is a sound investment and reasonable to deploy at volume. Collarte praised his investors, Sequoia and Blackbird, but also said that the company will be announcing significant partnerships soon, both in automotive and beyond.

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Xiaomi spins off POCO as an independent company – TechCrunch

Xiaomi said today it is spinning off POCO, a sub-smartphone brand it created in 2018, as a standalone company that will now run independently of the Chinese electronics giant and make its own market strategy.

The move comes months after a top POCO executive — Jai Mani, a former Googler — and some other founding and core members left the sub-brand. The company today insisted that POCO F1, the only smartphone to be launched under the POCO brand, remains a “successful” handset. The POCO F1, a $300 smartphone, was launched in 50 markets.

Manu Kumar Jain, VP of Xiaomi, said POCO had grown into its own identity in a short span of time. “POCO F1 is an extremely popular phone across user groups, and remains a top contender in its category even in 2020. We feel the time is right to let POCO operate on its own now, which is why we’re excited to announce that POCO will spin off as an independent brand,” he said in a statement.

A Xiaomi spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that POCO is now an independent company but did not share how it would be structured.

Xiaomi created POCO brand to launch high-end, premium smartphones that would compete directly with flagship smartphones of OnePlus and Samsung. In an interview with yours truly in 2018, Alvin Tse, the head of POCO, and Mani, said that they were working on a number of smartphones and were also thinking about other gadget categories.

At the time, the company had 300 people working on POCO, and they “shared resources” with the parent firm.

“The hope is that we can open up this new consumer need …. If we can offer them something compelling enough at a price point that they have never imagined before, suddenly a lot of people will show interest in availing the top technologies,” Tse said in that interview.

It is unclear, however, why Xiaomi never launched more smartphones under POCO brand — despite the claimed success.

In the years since, Xiaomi, which is known to produce low-end and mid-range smartphones, itself launched a number of high-end smartphones such as the K20 Pro. Indeed, earlier this week, Xiaomi announced it was planning to launch a number of premium smartphones in India, its most important market and where it is the top handset vendor.

“These launches will be across categories which we think will help ‘Mi’ maintain consumer interest in 2020. We also intend to bring the premium smartphones from the Mi line-up, which has recorded a substantial interest since we entered the market,” said Raghu Reddy, Head of Categories at Xiaomi India, in a statement.

That sounds like an explanation. As my colleague Rita pointed out last year, Chinese smartphone makers have launched sub-brands in recent years to launch handsets that deviate from their company’s brand image. Xiaomi needed POCO because its Mi and Redmi smartphone brands are known for their mid-range and low-tier smartphones. But when the company itself begins to launch premium smartphones — and gain traction — the sub-brand might not be the best marketing tool.

Tarun Pathak, a senior analyst at research firm Counterpoint, told TechCrunch that the move would allow Mi brand to flourish in the premium smartphone tier as the company begins to seriously look at 5G adoption.

“POCO can continue to make flagship-class devices, but at lower price points and 4G connectivity. 5G as a strategy requires a premium series which has consistent message across geographies..and Mi makes that cut in a more efficient way than POCO,” he said.

Besides, Xiaomi has bigger things to worry about.

In our recent Xiaomi’s earnings coverage, we noted that Chinese electronics giant was struggling to expand its internet services business as it attempts to cut reliance on its gadgets empire. Xiaomi posted Q3 revenue of 53.7 billion yuan, or $7.65 billion, up 3.3% from 51.95 billion yuan ($7.39 billion) revenue it reported in Q2 and 5.5% rise since Q3 2018.

On top of that, the smartphone business revenue of Xiaomi, which went public in 2018, stood at 32.3 billion yuan ($4.6 billion) in Q3 last year, down 7.8% year-over-year. The company, which shipped 32.1 million smartphone units during the period, blamed “downturn” in China’s smartphone market for the decline.

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‘PigeonBot’ brings flying robots closer to real birds – TechCrunch

Try as they might, even the most advanced roboticists on Earth struggle to recreate the effortless elegance and efficiency with which birds fly through the air. The “PigeonBot” from Stanford researchers takes a step toward changing that by investigating and demonstrating the unique qualities of feathered flight.

On a superficial level, PigeonBot looks a bit, shall we say, like a school project. But a lot of thought went into this rather haphazard-looking contraption. Turns out the way birds fly is really not very well understood, as the relationship between the dynamic wing shape and positions of individual feathers are super complex.

Mechanical engineering professor David Lentink challenged some of his graduate students to “dissect the biomechanics of the avian wing morphing mechanism and embody these insights in a morphing biohybrid robot that features real flight feathers,” taking as their model the common pigeon — the resilience of which Lentink admires.

As he explains in an interview with the journal Science:

The first Ph.D.student, Amanda Stowers, analyzed the skeletal motion and determined we only needed to emulate the wrist and finger motion in our robot to actuate all 20 primary and 20 secondary flight feathers. The second student, Laura Matloff,uncovered how the feathers moved via a simple linear response to skeletal movement. The robotic insight here is that a bird wing is a gigantic underactuated system in which a bird doesn’t have to constantly actuate each feather individually. Instead, all the feathers follow wrist and finger motion automatically via the elastic ligament that connects the feathers to the skeleton. It’s an ingenious system that greatly simplifies feather position control.

In addition to finding that the individual control of feathers is more automatic than manual, the team found that tiny microstructures on the feathers form a sort of one-way Velcro-type material that keeps them forming a continuous surface rather than a bunch of disconnected ones. These and other findings were published in Science, while the robot itself, devised by “the third student,” Eric Chang, is described in Science Robotics.

Using 40 actual pigeon feathers and a super-light frame, Chang and the team made a simple flying machine that doesn’t derive lift from its feathers — it has a propeller on the front — but uses them to steer and maneuver using the same type of flexion and morphing as the birds themselves do when gliding.

Studying the biology of the wing itself, then observing and adjusting the PigeonBot systems, the team found that the bird (and bot) used its “wrist” when the wing was partly retracted, and “fingers” when extended, to control flight. But it’s done in a highly elegant fashion that minimizes the thought and the mechanisms required.

PigeonBot’s wing. You can see that the feathers are joined by elastic connections so moving one moves others.

It’s the kind of thing that could inform improved wing design for aircraft, which currently rely in many ways on principles established more than a century ago. Passenger jets, of course, don’t need to dive or roll on short notice, but drones and other small craft might find the ability extremely useful.

“The underactuated morphing wing principles presented here may inspire more economical and simpler morphing wing designs for aircraft and robots with more degrees of freedom than previously considered,” write the researchers in the Science Robotics paper.

Up next for the team is observation of more bird species to see if these techniques are shared with others. Lentink is working on a tail to match the wings, and separately on a new bio-inspired robot inspired by falcons, which could potentially have legs and claws as well. “I have many ideas,” he admitted.

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