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Clubhouse finally launches its Android app

Clubhouse finally has an Android app that you can download from the Play Store — provided you live in the U.S.

The voice-based social network launched its beta Android app on Play Store for users in the U.S. on Sunday, and said it will gradually make the new app available in other English-speaking countries and then the rest of the world.

The social network, valued at about $4 billion in its most recent fundraise, launched as an iPhone-only app last year. The app quickly gained popularity last year, attracting several high-profile celebrities, politicians, investors, and entrepreneurs.

Clubhouse began developing the Android app early this year and started to test the beta version externally this month. In a town hall earlier Sunday, the startup said availability on Android has been the most requested product feature.

“Our plan over the next few weeks is to collect feedback from the community, fix any issues we see and work to add a few final features like payments and club creation before rolling it out more broadly,” the team wrote.

Clubhouse download figures across some of its popular markets, according to estimates by mobile insight firm AppMagic. (Though Clubhouse’s precise download figures from other mobile insight firms vary, they all agree that Clubhouse app’s popularity has dropped in recent months.)

As Clubhouse struggles to maintain its growth — data from mobile insight firms including AppMagic suggests that Clubhouse installs have drastically dropped in recent months — the Android app could prove pivotal in boosting the startup’s reach across the globe.

Clubhouse could potentially — on paper — also supercharge its growth by allowing any user to join the service without an invitation. But the startup said retaining the waitlist and invite system is part of its effort to “keep the growth measured.” (Clubhouse has faced several moderation challenges in recent months.)

Clubhouse’s launch on Android comes at a time when scores of technology giants including Facebook, Twitter, Discord, Spotify, Reddit, and Microsoft’s LinkedIn, have either launched their similar offerings — or announced plans to do so.

Twitter’s clone of Clubhouse, called Spaces, has emerged as one of the biggest competitors to the A16z and Tiger Global-backed-startup. An unplanned Twitter Spaces, available on Android as well, hosted by a high-profile Indian startup founder on earlier Sunday attracted hundreds of listeners within a few minutes, for instance.

“As we head into the summer and continue to scale out the backend, we plan to begin opening up even further, welcoming millions more people in from the iOS waitlist, expanding language support, and adding more accessibility features, so that people worldwide can experience Clubhouse in a way that feels native to them,” Clubhouse team wrote.

Clubhouse’s beta Android app currently lacks a number of features such as the ability to follow a topic, in-app translations, localization, ability to create or manage a club, link Twitter and Instagram profiles, payments, as well as the ability to change the profile name or user name.

“With Android, we believe that Clubhouse will feel more complete,” read the blog post.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/09/clubhouse-android-app-launch/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Manish Singh

Live video platform Bright lets you Zoom with your favorite creators

What if you could Zoom with your favorite creator and ask them questions? That’s the promise of Bright, the new live video platform launching today from co-founders Guy Oseary and early YouTube product manager Michael Powers. The service, built on top of Zoom, allows fans to engage in live, face-to-face video sessions with creators, ask questions and even join creators on a virtual stage for a more personal and direct learning experience.

Though the startup has some similarities to voice chat apps like Clubhouse, as it also democratizes access to big-name talent at times, the co-founders explain that Bright’s focus will be very different. Besides being a video-on experience, Bright is solely focused on educational content — that is, learning from people who are sharing their expertise with the community. In addition, the sessions hosted on Bright are ticketed events, where the creator decides how many tickets they want to sell and how much they’re charging.

Image Credits: Bright

“Twenty percent of the content on YouTube was learning. It was the second-biggest area next to music. And that was true the first year of YouTube and it’s true now at scale,” explains Bright CEO Michael Powers, as to why Bright has chosen to focus on learning. Powers knows the creator industry firsthand, having launched the YouTube Channels feature while at YouTube, and later managed YouTube’s first revenue-generating opportunities for creators. More recently, he served as SVP and GM at CBS Interactive.

Powers says he saw how powerful educational and learning content could be, but also how difficult it was for creators earning a rev share off an ad network, like YouTube’s, to become self-sustainable.

“I watched that over the past five years, especially, as the different platforms have scaled up,” Powers says, and became inspired to launch a better way for creators to monetize their expertise. “We’ve got to empower [creators] so they can go beyond just being a personal brand or social brand, and be an actual business,” he adds.

Oseary, meanwhile, was tooling around with a similar concept, having also had direct experience with creators in the music industry and through his investments. The founder of Maverick music management company, Oseary continues to manage Madonna and U2, but these days has his hands in numerous startups as the co-founder of Sound Ventures and A-Grade Investments with actor Ashton Kutcher.

Though Oseary and Powers have yet to meet in person, they connected over the web — much like Bright’s creators will now do — to get the new startup off the ground during a pandemic.

With today’s launch, Bright is promising a lineup of more than 200 prominent creators, many from the arts, including Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Naomi Campbell, Shawn Mendes, Amy Schumer, D-Nice, the D’Amelio Sisters, Laura Dern, Judd Apatow, Deepak Chopra, Diplo, Kenny Smith, Kane Brown, Drew and Jonathan Scott (Property Brothers), Lindsey Vonn, Rachel Zoe, Diego Boneta, Tal Fishman, Ryan Prunty, Demi Skipper, Charlotte McKinney, Jason Bolden, Yris Palmer, Cat & Nat, Ronnie2K, Chef Ludo Lefebvre and Jonathan Mannion, among others.

And it has another 1,500 creators on a waitlist, ready to begin hosting their own sessions when Bright opens up further.

Image Credits: Bright session example

Although Bright’s lineup implies it’s aiming at a high-profile creator crowd, Oseary insists Bright will be for anyone with an audience of their own — not just famous names.

“This is not elitist…If you’ve got an audience and you have something to offer your audience, we would like you on the platform,” he says.

Today, creators can go to other social networks, like Facebook Live or Instagram Live, if they want to just chat with fans more casually. But people will come to Bright to be educated, Oseary notes. And short of getting a creator to FaceTime you directly, he believes this will be the next best way to reach them — and one people are familiar with using, thanks to the Zoom adoption that grew out of the pandemic’s impact to business culture and remote work.

“The best way to connect is to use a platform that we’ve all learned how to use this last year,” Oseary says, referring to Bright’s Zoom connection. “We all already have the app. We already know how to navigate through it. We’ve added a bunch of features to make it more interesting,” he adds.

Image Credits: Bright

At launch, fans will be able to visit Bright’s website, view the array of upcoming events and purchase tickets. Some of the first sessions include Laura Dern leading a “Tell Your Story” session about personal growth; Kenny Smith will interview favorite athletes and discuss their mindsets at turning points in their careers; Property Brothers Jonathan & Drew Scott will host “Room by Room,” focused on home improvement; recording artist Kane Brown will host “Record This: Nashville Edition” about the country music industry; and Ronnie2K will host a series about building a career in gaming.

Bright’s model will see it taking a 20% commission on creator revenue, which is lower than the traditional marketplace split of 30/70 (platform/creator), but higher than the commission-free payments on Clubhouse (at least for the time being!). Further down the road, Bright envisions building out more tools to help creators with other aspects of their business — like the sale of physical or digital goods, for example.

Though there are numerous creator platforms to choose from these days, Bright aims to give creators direct access to their own analytics about their biggest fans, their content and fans’ contact information, like names and emails. This allows them to continue their relationship with their community beyond Bright into other areas of their business — whether that’s email newsletters or Shopify stores.

To make all this work, LA-based Bright has recruited a team with deep expertise in both the creator economy and tech.

This includes Bright’s VP of Talent & Partnership, Kaitlyn Powell, former head of Talent at Caffeine; Bright’s lead Creator & Product Strategy, Sadia Harper, formerly a UX Strategist at Instagram; Bright’s director of Creative Programming, Jeben Berg, previously of YouTube & Maker Studios; Design lead Heather Grates, previously of Pinterest; and Bright’s finance lead Jarad Backlund, previously in roles at Apple and Facebook.

The startup has raised an undisclosed amount funding from Oseary’s own Sound Ventures, as well as RIT Capital, Norwest, Globo and other investors.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/04/live-video-platform-bright-lets-you-zoom-with-your-favorite-creators/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Sarah Perez

Duolingo can’t teach you how to speak a language, but now it wants to try

Duolingo has been wildly successful. It has pulled in 500 million total registered learners, 40 million active users, 1.5 million premium subscribers and $190 million in booked revenues in 2020. It has a popular and meme-ified mascot in the form of the owl Duo, a creative and engaging product, and ambitious plans for expansion.There’s just one key question in the midst of all those milestones: Does anyone actually learn a language using Duolingo?

“Language is first and foremost a social, relational phenomenon,” said Sébastien Dubreil, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It is something that allows people to make meaning and talk to each other and conduct the business of living — and when you do this, you use a tone of different kinds of resources that are not packaged in the vocabulary and grammar.”

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn estimates that Duolingo’s upcoming product developments will get users from zero to a knowledge job in a different language within the next two to three years. But for now, he is honest about the limits of the platform today.

“I won’t say that with Duolingo, you can start from zero and make your English as good as mine,” he said. “That’s not true. But that’s also not true with learning a language in a university, that’s not true with buying books, that’s not true with any other app.”

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder of Duolingo, visiting President Obama in 2015. Image Credits: Duolingo

While Dubreil doesn’t think Duolingo can teach someone to speak a language, he does think it has taught consistency — a hard nut to crack in edtech. “What Duolingo does is to potentially entice students to do things you cannot pay them enough time to actually do, which is to spend time in that textbook and reinforce vocabulary and the grammar,” he said.

That’s been the key focus for the company since the beginning. “I said this when we started Duolingo and I still really strongly believe it: The hardest thing about learning a language is staying motivated,” von Ahn said, comparing it to how people approach exercise: it’s hard to stay motivated, but a little motion a day goes a long way.

With an enviable lead in its category, Duolingo wants to bring the quality and effectiveness of its curriculum on par with the quality of its product and branding. With growth and monetization secured, Duolingo is no longer in survival mode. Instead, it’s in study mode.

In this final part, we will explore how Duolingo is using a variety of strategies, from rewriting its courses to what it dubs Operation Birdbrain, to become a more effective learning tool, all while balancing the need to keep the growth and monetization engines stoked while en route to an IPO.

Duolingo’s office decor. Image Credits: Duolingo

“Just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Duolingo’s competitors see the app’s massive gamification and solitary experience as inherently contradictory with high-quality language education. Busuu and Babbel, two subscription-based competitors in the market, both focus on users talking in real time to native speakers.

Bernhard Niesner, the co-founder and CEO of Busuu, which was founded in 2008, sees Duolingo as an entry-level tool that can help users migrate to its human-interactive service. “If you want to be fluent, Duolingo needs innovation,” Niesner said. “And that’s where we come in: We all believe that you should not be learning a language just by yourself, but [ … ] together, which is our vision.” Busuu has more than 90 million users worldwide.

Duolingo has been the subject of a number of efficacy studies over the years. One of its most positive reports, from September 2020, showed that its Spanish and French courses teach the equivalent of four U.S. university semesters in half the time.

Babbel, which has sold over 10 million subscriptions to its language-learning service, cast doubt on the power of these findings. Christian Hillemeyer, who heads PR for the startup, pointed out that Duolingo only tested for reading and writing efficacy — not for speaking proficiency, even though that is a key part of language learning. He described Duolingo as “just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Putting the ed back into edtech

One of the ironic legacies of Duolingo’s evolution is that for years it outsourced much of the creation of its education curriculum to volunteers. It’s a legacy the company is still trying to rectify.

The year after its founding, Duolingo launched its Language Incubator in 2013. Similar to its original translation service, the company wanted to leverage crowdsourcing to invent and refine new language courses. Volunteers — at least at first — were seen as a warm-but-scrappy way to bring new material to the growing Duolingo community and more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bring new language courses to the app.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/03/duolingo-ec1-future/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Natasha Mascarenhas

‘Returnal’ is a frantic, familiar pleasure — but spurns mainstream appeal to its peril

Returnal, released today for the PlayStation 5, is an action adventure that has you exploring an alien world that reconfigures itself whenever you die, bringing you back for another shot at escaping. It’s exciting, frustrating, and beautiful, though it isn’t particularly original. But while it is arguably the first game to be released that was designed and built for next generation consoles, it’s not the mainstream hit many gamers are waiting for.

First I should probably justify my “arguably.” The PS5 debuted with the impressive remake of Demon’s Souls, and while I enjoyed that greatly, it was only next-gen in its presentation; many dated aspects faithfully carried over from the original mean it can’t really be considered a fully next generation title. The pack-in Astro’s Playroom is a delight but doesn’t compare with full-scale games. Destruction All-Stars was something of a damp squib. And excellent games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla span the generations, playing best but by no means exclusively on PS5.

So Returnal really is, in a non-trivial way, the first really “next-gen” PS5 game — and it carries the “next-gen” PS5 price tag of $70, more in many regions. Can it justify this premium? In some ways yes, but like Demon’s Souls this is a difficult game that involves a potentially off-putting amount of repetition and failure for mainstream audiences.

The game starts with your character, a sci-fi space explorer working for a mysterious company called Astra (there are clear nods to Weyland-Yutani from Alien), crashing on a forbidden planet and finding herself — literally — stuck in a sort of time loop. (You’ll see what I mean by literally.)

The developers have obviously seen Prometheus.

Without getting into the specifics of the plot, which is slowly revealed through found recordings, exploration of ancient ruins, and decoding alien symbols, Selene is seemingly trapped on the planet until she can figure out what’s going on, and whenever she dies the world shifts around to provide new challenges and opportunities.

Each loop or “cycle” involves the player starting from the crash site and progressing through the world, different but familiar every time. You encounter enemies, collect power-ups like new weapons or artifacts that affect your abilities, and occasionally an item that will permanently augment your suit or open new paths to take.

To call any individual aspect of the game original would be inaccurate — it takes with a free hand from its august predecessors in both gameplay and presentation. Without spoiling too much I’d say its progression and design share the most with indie breakout hit Dead Cells, with a dose of Risk of Rain 2, and a setting lifted wholesale from elaborating on Alien and Prometheus. That said, the story and backstory owe more to Solaris. It wears its influences on its sleeve to be sure, but they come together as something cohesive, not a sloppy pastiche.

Run, gun, rinse, repeat

Returnal starts out almost frustratingly simple, but this is soon remedied as new abilities and layers of complexity are added to the mix; expect the “tutorial” to be meted out over a few hours as things are discovered organically.

You make your way through what amounts to arena after arena, sometimes large and multi-layered, sometimes confined, and fight whatever appears. Combat is frantic and high risk — monsters don’t telegraph ponderous swipes at you but rather spew dozens or hundreds of bullets in your direction, making you rely on smart anticipatory movement and the cluttered landscape to stay alive. As you defeat them you accrue increasingly powerful boons that only last until you get hit, at which point they all disappear, adding a layer of urgency to every encounter: you could gain a crucial edge for the next miniboss — or lose what you’ve built up over minutes of careful play. You can’t take any enemy lightly — those that don’t kill you will make you weaker.

The player moves forward by exploring and eventually defeating an area boss, encounters that are more than a little taxing and generally take a few tries. Then it’s on to a new, different “biome” to do it all again with a different color scheme (and new enemies, hazards and so on).

The look and feel of Returnal is what you might call “early next-gen.” It’s detailed, interesting looking and realistic in a sci-fi way, and it uses lighting and color well to create both a sense of place and gameplay objectives. It’s better in some ways than what you’d expect from a PS4 or Xbox One game but ultimately the advances here seem to be more on the side of “fewer limitations” rather than “new capabilities.” Load times are practically non-existent — a second or two at most — and in places where sightlines are farther than a room or two, the scale of what’s being drawn is impressive. The framerate is a steady 60, making combat fluid no matter how crowded and chaotic it gets.

As for the claim of a “living world” that’s truly different every time, you can pretty much ignore that. You’ll encounter the same rooms and structures repeatedly, maybe with different enemies or items, but don’t expect a wildly different experience every loop. Just enough that the repetition isn’t too repetitious.

Image Credits: Sony/Housemarque

Sound is solid and I’d definitely recommend headphones. Your number one issue is going to be getting blasted in the back and positional audio will help a lot with that, as each enemy has characteristic noises for its actions.

The PS5 controller’s advanced haptics are put to good use with two-stage virtual triggers and a lot of contextual vibrations. I do wish there was a way to control these with a bit more granularity, as the constant patter of rain in the first area was numbing my hands, but the other haptic cues were useful and quickly became second nature.

Games in the “roguelite” (i.e. you start from scratch every life like a roguelike, but occasionally gain permanent upgrades) genre can fall flat if your progression, either within a loop or over many of them, involves little more than “+4% pistol damage” or a few more hit points. Fortunately Returnal is well aware of this and its weapons, artifacts, perks and so on often confer interesting bonuses or risk/reward mechanics. And you only have one weapon at a time, meaning the choice between, say, an assault rifle with special ability A and a shotgun with special ability B is a complex and risky one.

Eventually you’ll be able to skip past certain areas, but you may not want to, preferring to scour side paths for resources so you’re not going into the next boss room naked and afraid. In general the game manages to keep a lot of interesting tensions going on with the player that make every decision consequential, not to say agonizing.

Next-gen price tag

Is Returnal worth its premium $70 asking price? For some people, yes. But this isn’t the kind of mainstream blockbuster that would ordinarily justify the increased cost.

So far I’ve played about 20 hours, done 30-odd runs, and based on what I know I’m about halfway through the game. Most of my progress was made on what I think of “prestige” runs, the handful where everything goes right and I get much further than before, making them tense and exciting. (Many ended within five minutes due to poor momentum or rage quits.) The game promises replay value past the credits, though, so a guess of 40 hours of content is more of a floor than a ceiling.

One of several trips to your house, inexplicably replicated on the alien planet…

The difficulty may present a barrier to many players. A dialogue at the start of the game warns you that the game is meant to be challenging and that death is part of the journey. Great, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you get ambushed by a dozen enemies, wiping out half an hour of of progress in an instant. While generally the game falls into the “tough but fair” category, there are spikes here and there that feel gratuitous, and loops where you feel unlucky or underpowered and have to fight the urge to reset.

I don’t mind personally — compared to the Dark Souls series it’s a cakewalk. I almost beat the first boss on my first encounter; good luck doing that with Ornstein and Smough or Father Gascoigne! But like those games it takes a certain type of player to want to power through the early hours and access the huge amount of value essentially locked behind repeated failure. Similar to how many Demon’s Souls players never progress past that game’s punishing first area, players not ready for the acrobatics and perseverance necessary to traverse the unforgiving bullet hell of Returnal may never escape its gloomy, restrictive first biome for the bright, open second one or glimpse its intriguing backstory. (I’ve included some tips below to help people get through the first hours.)

Compared with the steady progression and traditional storytelling of something like AC: Valhalla or Miles Morales this may put off less masochistic gamers or prompt more than a few controller-throwing, refund-requesting moments. After all, paying $70 for a game that slaps you in the face while you try to access the latter $50 worth of it can be justifiably frustrating.

With all that said, it is nice to see a AAA next-generation game that isn’t a sequel or franchise, and seeing the “roguelite” formula embraced seriously beyond the indie world. Returnal may not be for everyone, but for the subset of gamers who have embraced this genre for years, it’s an easy one to recommend.


Tips for playing:

If you do decide to dive in, here are a handful of non-spoilery “wish I’d known that” tips to get you on the right track.

  • There are lots of hidden rooms and items, so check your mini-map frequently for things you’ve missed in the chaos and peek in every nook and cranny.
  • When you’re undamaged, healing pickups contribute towards adding crucial max health — one more reason to not get hit.
  • New abilities create new opportunities in old areas — there’s a reason so much of the first biome is inaccessible at first.
  • You can get to those treasures behind bars. Look around carefully (and shoot everything).
  • “Malignant” treasure is usually more trouble than it’s worth and the debuffs can sink a run. Only do if desperate or you have a cure handy. (Parasites on the other hand can be very useful.)
  • There’s always a healing item for sale at the biome’s “shop,” so there’s no excuse for going into a boss room without one. (And self-healing artifacts will save your life five times over.)

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/29/returnal-review-a-familiar-frantic-pleasure-but-a-risky-next-gen-debut/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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Roku launches a rechargeable, hands-free voice remote and other devices, rolls out Roku OS 10

Roku today is unveiling new hardware and software, including the latest version of its Roku OS media software, Roku OS 10, which expands support for AirPlay 2 and Apple’s HomeKit, and adds a variety of new features and optimizations focused on helping users get to content and stream faster. It’s also introducing its latest 4K player, the Roku Express 4K+; an updated version of its combo media player and soundbar; and an upgraded voice remote with a rechargeable battery and hands-free voice support via the “Hey Roku” command.

Of the three new devices, the Roku Voice Remote Pro ($29.99) may actually be the more interesting addition as it pushes Roku into the “smart speaker” space, so to speak — except in this case, the “speaker” is a TV remote equipped with a mid-field microphone that’s always listening for the “Hey Roku” command. From a practical standpoint, that means you can leave the remote laying on your coffee table and instead speak commands like “Hey Roku, launch Netflix” or “search for free movies,” or “show me comedies,” or whatever else it is you want to watch — without having to first pick up the device and press the push-to-talk voice search button.

Image Credits: Roku

This feature, of course, also comes with concerns. Consumers may be wary of bringing more voice assistants into their home, after it was discovered that tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple had initially dropped the ball on respecting consumer privacy when it came to how users’ voice data was being stored and utilized. Though they’ve all made changes since, the experience may have left its mark on consumers’ minds.

For what it’s worth, Roku says it will retain some of the audio recordings it receives for technical support and to improve the quality of its service, much like the others in the market. And users can opt out of that data collection (via Roku.com/account/voice). The company notes that voice recordings are disassociated from the consumer’s account within 30 days, and it only allows access to Roku employees, not contractor workforces.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, the remote offers a mute button for the microphone if you want to upgrade for its other features, and not use the hands-free listening.

The other features still make for a worthwhile upgrade, however, as this is Roku’s first remote with a rechargeable battery, for example. The device charges via a micro-USB cable, which is more environmentally friendly. It also offers preset buttons with access to Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and, for the first time, Apple TV+. And it offers a lost remote finder feature (which works via voice, too); private listening via the built-in headphone jack; a push-to-talk voice button if you don’t want hands-free; and two personal shortcuts for favorite voice commands.

The voice remote is on sale today via Roku’s website and will be available in retail stores in May.

Image Credits: Roku

Another new device announced today is the Roku Express 4K+ ($39.99) which will replace the older Roku Premiere.

This digital media player is targeted towards first-time streamers and secondary TVs — which are now more often becoming 4K TVs, but where consumers don’t need the full specs of Roku’s top-of-the-line players. The Express 4K+ has a faster processor than the Premiere and more storage, as well as support for dual-band Wi-Fi. It works with third-party micro-USB and Ethernet adapters, which is a plus as hardwiring your device was previously a feature only available on the pricier Roku Ultra.

The device also brings HDR 10+ to the Roku platform for the first time, though this support will soon make its way to the Roku Ultra through the upcoming Roku OS 10 software update. It additionally supports HD, 4K, HDR, and HDR 10 and ships with a standard voice remote.

Image Credits: Roku

The device goes on sale in the U.S. in mid-May online and in retail stores. Walmart, a Roku partner, will have an exclusive version of the Roku Express 4K+ called Roku Express 4K ($35) which offers a better value by dropping the voice remote for the basic one.

Along with the launch of the media player and remote, Roku is updating its Roku Smart Soundbar in mid-May. The device is being rebranded to the Roku Streambar Pro ($179.99), and will feature both 4K streaming and cinematic sound, but now ships with the same voice remote that comes with the Ultra, which means it supports private listening on headphones. And it adds support for a new Roku OS 10 feature called Virtual Surround, which aims to simulate a surround sound setup for Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Streambar Pro owners, who don’t have another set of speakers to offer true surround sound.

Image Credits: Roku

In addition to Virtual Surround and HDR 10+ support, Roku latest OS will roll out Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support to more HD devices, including the Roku Express and some HD Roku TVs.

It will also add a customizable Live TV Channel Guide with favorites; automatic Wi-Fi network detection during setup (and it tells you which of your multiple channels is better to use); and an “instant resume” feature which takes you back to where you left off when you relaunch a supported channel.

At launch, there are over 15 channels that support “instant resume,” including AT&T TV, FilmRise, FOX Business Network, FOX News Channel, Fubo Sports Network, HappyKids TV, Plex.tv, STARZ, and The Roku Channel.

Image Credits: Roku

For gamers, a new automatic game console configuration feature, which automatically configures preferred settings, could be useful.

“Depending on the capabilities of the console and the TV, it can also mean turning on things like HDR gaming, variable refresh rates, high frame rate gaming like 120Hz, or maybe THX Certified Game Mode. So, without having to go through complex menus, a user just plugs in their console, and we know exactly how to give them the best experience on the game side,” noted Roku VP of Retail Product Strategy, Mark Ely. The feature works with both Xbox and PlayStation consoles and will also update the input on the Home Screen.

Image Credits: Roku

Roku OS 10 is rolling out to select Roku players now and is expected to roll out to all supported streaming players, including the all-new Roku Express 4K+ and Roku Streambar Pro, and all Roku TV models in the weeks ahead.

The new devices and software arrive after a year of increased at-home streaming due to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced users indoors and under lockdowns. Roku in Q4 2020 reported 51.2 million active accounts, up 39% for the year, and 58.7 billion streaming hours, while its free streaming hub, The Roku Channel, saw roughly 200% growth between just June and August 2020 when it added live linear viewing.

“Our business and streaming, in general, continues to grow and accelerate just because there’s such a shift from people that are getting rid of cable and moving over to streaming. And we saw, of course, with theater shutdowns, more people streaming first-run movies at home,” Ely noted. “So, streaming hours increased, and the volume of our products and the popularity of streaming devices increased, as well,” he added.

Roku’s continued momentum, however, cannot rely on pandemic impacts alone. Amazon remains a top competitor, and just rolled out its updated Fire TV interface months ago. There are also now rumors that Apple is planning an updated player of its own, with an Apple TV-HomePod combo of sorts, similar to the existing Roku Streambar. That will leave Roku with plenty of competition to keep it on its toes for months to come.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/13/roku-launches-a-rechargeable-hands-free-voice-remote-and-other-devices-rolls-out-roku-os-10/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Sarah Perez

Amazon defeats warehouse union push, RWDSU challenges results

amazon-union-ballot.jpg?w=711

Efforts to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse were defeated by a wide margin in the second day of vote counting. More than half of the 3,215 votes cast broke in in factor of the retailer. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would have served as the workers’ union, had the vote passed, was quick to challenge the results.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement offered to TechCrunch,

Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote. Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union.

That’s why they required all their employees to attend lecture after lecture, filled with mistruths and lies, where workers had to listen to the company demand they oppose the union. That’s why they flooded the internet, the airwaves and social media with ads spreading misinformation. That’s why they brought in dozens of outsiders and union-busters to walk the floor of the warehouse. That’s why they bombarded people with signs throughout the facility and with text messages and calls at home. And that’s why they have been lying about union dues in a right to work state. Amazon’s conduct has been despicable.

This initial defeat represents a large setback in the biggest unionization push in Amazon’s 27 year history. What might have represented a sea change for both the retail giant and blue collar tech workers has, for now, been fairly soundly defeated.

Amazon has, of course, long insisted that it treats workers fairly, making such union efforts unnecessary. The company cites such standards as a $15 an hour minimum wage, a factor the company initial pushed back on, but ultimately instated after pressure from legislators.

It was a hard fought battle on both sides. A number of legislators threw their weight behind unionization efforts, in an unlikely alliance that ranged from Bernie Sanders to Marco Rubio. The conservative Florida Senator noted the company’s “uniquely malicious corporate behavior.” President Joe Biden also sided with the workers, calling himself, “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

The company will no doubt tout the results as vindication. It noted in an early statement, “[O]ur employees are smart and know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encourage all of our employees to vote.” We’ve reached out to the company for a statement following this morning’s news.

Among the expected challenges from the union are lingering questions around ballot boxes reportedly installed by the company in violation of labor board terms.”[E]ven though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” the RWDSU writes. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.”

The Bessemer warehouse, which employees around 6,000 workers, was opened at the end of March 2020, as the company looked to expand the operation of its essential workers during the impending lock down. The conversation has surface variously long standing complaints around the company’s treatment of blue collar workers, including numerous reports that employees urinate in water bottles, in order to meet stringent performance standards.

The company initially denied these claims during a social media offensive, but later clarified its stance in an apology of sorts, appearing to shift the blame to wider industry problems. The company also ran anti-union ads on its subsidiary, Twitch, before the streaming platform pulled them, stating that they “should never have been allowed to run.”

All told, 3,215 were cast, representing more than half of the workers at the Alabama warehouse. In spite of Amazon winning more than half the votes, counting will continue. Challenges are likely to stretch on for weeks.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/09/amazon-defeats-warehouse-union-push-challenges-expected/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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Microsoft outage knocks sites and services offline

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Microsoft is experiencing a major outage, so that’s why you can’t get any work done.

Besides its homepage, Microsoft services are down, log-in pages aren’t loading and even the company’s status pages were kaput. Worse, Microsoft’s cloud service Azure appeared to also be offline, causing outages to any sites and services that rely on it.

It’s looking like a networking issue, according to the status page — when it loaded. Microsoft also tweeted that it was related to DNS, the internet system that translates web addresses to computer-readable internet numbers. It’s an important function of how the internet works, so not ideal when it suddenly breaks.

We’ve reached out for comment, and we’ll follow up when we know more.

⚠️We are aware of an issue affecting the Azure Portal and Azure services, please visit our alternate Status Page here https://t.co/vGS3TQ8shs for more information and updates.

— Azure Support (@AzureSupport) April 1, 2021

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/01/microsoft-outage-knocks-sites-and-services-offline/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Zack Whittaker

Collabio lets you co-edit documents without the cloud

Meet Collabio Spaces: An office suite app with a cloudless co-authoring twist that looks helpful if you need to collaborate on documents without having to worry about losing control of your data or the thread of changes.

The p2p software lets multiple people co-edit a document locally — from a mobile device or desktop computer — without A) the risk of uploading sensitive information to the cloud (i.e. as you must if you’re using a shared document function of a service like Google Docs); or B) the tedium of emailing a text to multiple recipients and then having to collate and resolve changes manually, once all the contributions trickle back.  

There’s more coming down Collabio’s pipe too. Document collaborating will be possible from anywhere in the future, not only (as now) via a local network: A major release slated for next month will add p2p collaboration that works via the Internet — but still without the privacy risk of having a remote server in the loop.

Collabio’s app is MacOS and iOS only for now — but Android and Windows versions are in the works, slated for release this year.

Current supported text formats are DOCX, ODT, XLSX and ODS. Other features of Collabio’s office suite include the ability to scan and recognise texts and images using a camera; annotate and comment on PDFs (including via audio); e-sign text documents and PDFs; and view presentations.

Image credit: XCDS/Collabio

Its maker XCDS (aka “eXtended Collaboration Document Systems”), which is headquartered in London, UK with an R&D hub in Prague in the Czech Republic, has been in business for around a decade at this point — but working on office tools for some seven years, per CTO Egor Goroshko, who says they see Collabio as a startup in its own right.

The app is being funded by (an undisclosed amount of funding from undisclosed) private investors, with the team planning to take in further funding to continue development in the near future as they build momentum for the product.

With the coronavirus supercharging remote working over the past 12 months there is certainly opportunity to improve on the current crop of collaboration and productivity tools — and help to safely break down any unwelcome workflow barriers which have been erected as a result of scores of office workers no longer being co-located. Although the current version of Collabio is designed for nearby, rather than remote collaboration — so its next major release looks the most interesting from that perspective.

The early team behind Collabio included some devs who worked on Quickoffice but didn’t go to Google as part of that 2012 acquisition. Instead they focused on thinking about how to improve the user experience around documents — finally bringing their long-developed p2p document collaboration product to market last fall.

“When we started with Collabio we were ready for the long game,” Goroshko tells TechCrunch. “We knew that we would need to implement most of the features [office suite software] users were familiar with, before we could start developing our own ideas.”

“Long story short, our cloudless collaboration works exactly the same way as a cloud one. Of course there is some difference in the way you connect to the document but after that, you have exactly the same experience as if you work in the cloud,” he continues.

“We started with an iOS app in September 2020 and introduced a macOS version in October. With our early releases, we mainly concentrate on testing the app with real users and prove our ideas. Starting from our launch, we’ve got almost 15K of installs and valuable feedback on what users need and what can be improved. We pushed intensively on the market starting in February 2021 this year and got more than one thousand users during this month.”

There are some key differences between Collabio’s p2p cloudless collaboration and the (more typical) upload-to-a-server flavor that are worth flagging.

Notably, the lack of constant access to the document that you’re co-authoring/co-editing. Although that limitation may also be desirable if you want to tightly manage collaborative access to your data.

“In Collabio we call cloudless collaborative editing ‘Ad-Hoc collaboration’, because without a cloud your peers have no constant access to the document, so this thing is essential for occasional document discussion and updates,” Goroshko notes.

Another important difference he points to is that a shared document remains on the owner host devices only — and a copy can only be saved by the owner (at least for now).

“Other peers have session document access but the application does not upload/transfer files to collaborators’ devices,” he explains. “[The] session lasts til the host keeps the document open. As soon as you close the document, peers lose their access and can’t save the document locally. This is made for reasons of privacy but we are now considering giving users the option to allow connected peers to save a copy of the document.”

Given that all document work is done on devices on a local network there’s no need for an Internet connection to be able to collaborate via Collabio — which the team argues can itself be pretty useful, such as in situations like business travel (remember it?) when a stable Internet connection may not be readily available.

For this local p2p connectivity Goroshko says Collabio uses both wi-fi and Bluetooth — “to achieve better discovering quality”. “This is a common approach used, for example, in AirDrop technology. When peers’ addresses are identified, the application establishes connection via WiFi to achieve better speed and the quality of data exchange,” he says.

“All work is done only on devices in the local network so our Ad-Hoc collaboration does not need the Internet, the same way as you do not need the Internet to exchange files via AirDrop,” he goes on. “Just like with AirDrop, you do not need any specific configuration for Collabio Spaces, everything is done automatically. You start a session and peers see it on their devices, they simply connect to a selected document, and if they know the code, they can edit the document.”

Goroshko says Collabio’s team has been inspired by Apple’s technology — and the tech giant’s ‘it just works’ philosophy. But are committed to bringing the product to non-Apple platforms, aiming for a release later this year.

“It is a large, complex and ambitious project but we believe we can introduce game-changing approaches,” he continues. “The Office software market is quite conservative and market expectations from new software are really high. This is the reason why it has taken so much time to get to a public release stage. But with such a high entrance threshold and with slow innovations in the area of office document management and editing, this creates great opportunities.”

He argues that Collabio has been able to get efficiency gains vs office suites that had to bolt collaboration onto a legacy product exactly because it was being developed from scratch — with “collaborative editing in mind from the first step of proof of concept”. Hence its implementation of collaborative editing algorithms can work “with minimal resources consumption even on mobile phones”.

Goroshko says a Collabio user can have up to five peers simultaneously connected if they launch a collaboration session via a mobile device — with all participants able to edit the document. (Desktops support more connections.)

“You launch a collaboration session with a honeycomb icon, and any nearby devices with [the] Collabio Spaces app show shared documents,” he explains. “Under the hood, it works the similar way as sharing files through AirDrop or streaming audio/video through AirPlay. People nearby can join editing, if they know the security code assigned to the session.”

These p2p connections are encrypted with “standard end-to-end encryption”, according to Goroshko — who admits to “some tricks to allow trusted connections in the local network without access to the Internet”, adding: “We believe that this is enough for the start but in the future we will probably improve this approach.”

So — as with any nascent and non-independently security-tested product — prospective users should approach with caution, weighing up the sensitivity of any data they might wish to share for co-editing purposes before trusting it to Collabio’s novel implementation.

The startup, meanwhile, sees plenty of potential growth coming from frustrated office workers trying to find smarter ways to work remotely.

“Our goal is to create an editor specifically for team work, to help people get the most from collaboration,” says Goroshko. “Working together with others gives you a lot of advantages but requires more effort to sync with others. Planning, tracking, discussions, reviews — currently most of this work is performed separately from the document or locked inside the document. We want to cover this gap and give our users the most from collaboration with each other.”

“We consider two main types of competitors on the market,” he adds. “Classical office document editing suites like MS Office, Google Docs and Libre Office. We do not consider direct competition with them because their features set is enormous. However, many people simply do not use most of these features!

“And now a few newcomers have appeared on the market like Notion or Airtable, introducing smart ways how the document editing process can be integrated into your business. We see ourselves somewhere in between these products and classical office suites.”

A subscription payment is required to use Collabio Suites but a free trial version is available for up to a week.

We’re also told there’s an option for free of charge usage where the user is able to view and edit documents as a peer but can’t be the host of a collaboration session.

The major release that’s coming in May looks set to expand Collabio’s utility greatly — enabling it to tap into the remote work boom — by adding the ability to do p2p collaboration from anywhere via the Internet, also without the need for a remote server sitting in the loop.

How will that forthcoming functionality work? In a word: Math. Goroshko says the implementation will rely on an Operations Transformation algorithm keeping the document consistent “at any moment” during co-editing — avoiding the need for true real-time operations.

“It does not matter what co-editors type for in the end they all have absolutely the same content,” he says. “The algorithm does not guarantee that the result will be meaningful. If several people type in the same place, they will get an abracadabra. But this will be exactly the same abracadabra after all changes have been synced between all participants. This is the point. Operations Transformation does not require true real-time operations, changes can come early or later, even after sufficient delays. In either case they will be transformed to become inline with other changes. So regardless of cloud or cloudless collaboration mode, you do not need specific infrastructure or high speed processing to support collaborative editing.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/01/collabio-lets-you-co-edit-documents-without-the-cloud/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Natasha Lomas

Talking robots with Ford

Before we get too far into this week’s roundup, I want to kick things off with an interview we haven’t published anywhere else. Earlier this week, we noted that Ford will be deploying some 100 researchers and engineers to the new $75 million facility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The automaker told TechCrunch the set up is not an incubator, so much as “an extension of our global research and advanced engineering network.” Beyond the autonomous driving research, the company will be devoting a lot of research to how it can use third-party robots like Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Agility’s Digit, the latter of which was the centerpiece to a partnership Ford announced a couple of CESes ago.

Currently, the company currently has two Digit robots, purchasing the first two commercial units. Based on how the partnership pans out, Agility could, perhaps, be a prime acquisition target for a company more actively engaged with the robotics community.

Shortly after the event wrapped up, we hopped on the phone with Ford’s Technical Expert Mario Santillo, who will help head up the expanded robotics efforts. Some highlights below.

Ford Agility Robotics

Ford is partnering with startup Agility Robotics to research and test the use of is bipedal Digit robot. Image Credits: Ford/Agility Robotics

What kind of work is Ford doing in robotics, beyond the autonomous driving space?

We’re really looking at all area of robotics. My team is focused anywhere from the manufacturing environment to more customer-facing applications, like Digit getting out of some delivery vehicle to deliver a package to your doorstop. Working with University of Michigan, they’re really looking for us to provide better use cases. We would like to — not necessarily develop the robots — but use robots like Digit or Spot to make them smarter and deliver things that Ford really cares about and to ultimately help humanity.

How close are you actually working with the team at Agility?

We’re working very closely. We’re in almost daily stand-ups in terms of getting everything up and running. We just got our Digit in Dearborn, just a couple of months ago. We have another Digit, which is sitting out in Palo Alto, so they’re a little ahead of us, in terms of actually getting real use cases. We work very well with Agility Robotics. There’s nothing hidden from either side. We just want to come together in a partnership and similar to the University of Michigan, we want to come together to make this thing better, useful and safe.

In terms of the actual research, what role does the university play?

The university is starting with the teaching of the next generation of roboticist, so that’s a huge role. The work they’re doing really spans all areas of robotics: air, land, sea, space, you name it. It’s amazing to see how interconnected things are. The walking lab, they’re specifically focusing on doing rehabilitation robotics, and that can directly lead into our Digit being more capable walking over rough terrain.

For the moment, Digit is a primary focus.

Digit is a clear, direct link, but Ford has a lot of wheeled robots, and a lot of work can feed into how we might better use these, based on research that’s going on at the University of Michigan.

Is Ford actively looking into acquiring startups or technologies in the robotics space?

I think Ford is always interested in evaluating new needs and companies as they come. I wouldn’t necessarily say, “no.”

Image Credits: University of Waterloo

Some cool research coming out of the University of Waterloo in Canada, where a team of researchers are exploring wearable cameras and machine learning to help robotic exoskeletons and prosthetics interact more naturally with their users. Per one of the researchers, “Our control approach wouldn’t necessarily require human thought. Similar to autonomous cars that drive themselves, we’re designing autonomous exoskeletons that walk for themselves.”

A number of companies are currently producing exoskeletons for mobility and rehabilitation purposes. Work like this could be a key step toward removing the need for a smartphone app or other external control.

Image Credits: HAI Robotics

In fundraising news, Hai Robotics completed a “nearly” $15 million Series B+ that adds to the Series B it announced late last year. The Shenzhen-based producers of the Haipick shelving system are one of a number of Chinese logistics robotics manufactures worth following. The system is tall and skinny, capable of moving up to eight boxes at once.

The company says it’s capable of improving warehouse operating efficiency by up to 4x. Like a number of entrants in the category, the pandemic has proven a big opportunity, as more people turn to e-commerce and companies look toward automation to avoid unnecessary shutdowns.

Image Credits: Surfacide

And just because I’m excited about baseball happening again, the Red Sox announced that they’ll be deploying UV disinfecting robots at Fenway this year. At the moment, the team appears to have only purchased three robots from Surfacide (also the legal name for the murder of a proprietary Microsoft tablet). So this will likely be a small part of a larger effort focused on, “disinfecting close quarters like team clubhouses, training rooms, as well as higher-traffic fan areas such as suites and restrooms.”

The robotic umpires, meanwhile, will have to wait a while longer for their MLB debut.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/03/18/robotics-roundup-4/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Brian Heater

Firms backed by Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates have funded an electric motor company that can slash energy consumption

Sometimes the smallest innovations can have the biggest impacts on the world’s efforts to stop global climate change. Arguably, one of the biggest contributors in the fight against climate change to date has been the switch to the humble LED light, which has slashed hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions simply by reducing energy consumption in buildings.

And now firms backed by Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Gates are joining investors like Amazon and iPod inventor Tony Fadell to pour money into a company called Turntide Technologies that believes it has the next great innovation in the world’s efforts to slow global climate change — a better electric motor.

It’s not as flashy as an arc reactor, but like light bulbs, motors are a ubiquitous and wholly unglamorous technology that have been operating basically the same way since the nineteenth century. And, like the light bulb, they’re due for an upgrade.

“Turntide’s technology and approach to restoring  our planet will directly reduce energy consumption,” said Steve Levin, the co-founder (along with Downey Jr. ) of FootPrint Coalition Ventures

The operation of buildings is responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions worldwide, Turntide noted in a statement. And, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), one-third of energy used in commercial buildings is wasted. Smart building technology adds an intelligent layer to eliminate this waste and inefficiency by automatically controlling lighting, air conditioning, heating, ventilation and other essential systems and Turntide’s electric motors can add additional savings.

That’s why investors have put over $100 million into Turntide in just the last six months.

PARIS, FRANCE – JUNE 16: Tony Fadell Inventor of the iPod and Founder and former CEO of Nest attends a conference during Viva Technology at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on June 16, 2017 in Paris, France. Viva Technology is a fair that brings together, for the second year, major groups and startups around all the themes of innovation. (Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images)

The company, led by chief executive and chairman Ryan Morris is commercializing technology that was developed initially at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Turntide’s basic innovation is a software controlled motor, or switch reluctance motor, that uses precise pulses of energy instead of a constant flow of electricity. “In a conventional motor you are continuously driving current into the motor whatever speed you want to run it at,” Morris said. “We’re pulsing in precise amounts of current just at the times when you need the torque… It’s software defined hardware.” 

The technology spent eleven years under development, in part because the computing power didn’t exist to make the system work, according to Morris.

Morris was initially part of an investment firm called Meson Capital that acquired the technology back in 2013, and it was another four years of development before the motors were actually able to function in pilots, he said. The company spent the last three years developing the commercialization strategy and proving the value in its initial market — retrofitting the heating ventilation and cooling systems in buildings that are the main factor in the built environment’s 28% contribution to carbon dioxide emissions that are leading to global climate change.

“Our mission is to replace all of the motors in the world,” Morris said.

He estimates that the technology is applicable to 95% of where electric motors are used today, but the initial focus will be on smart buildings because it’s the easiest place to start and can have some of the largest immediate impact on energy usage. 

The carbon impact of what we’re doing is pretty massive,” Morris told me last year. “The average energy reduction [in buildings] has been a 64% reduction. If we can replace all the motors in buildings in the US that’s the carbon equivalent of adding over 300 million tons of carbon sequestration per year.”

That’s why Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition, and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the real estate and construction focused venture firm Fifth Wall Ventures have joined the Amazon Climate Fund, Tony Fadell’s Future Shape, BMW’s iVentures fund and a host of other investors in backing the company.

The company has raised roughly $180 million in financing including the disclosure today of an $80 million investment round, which closed in October.

Buildings are clearly the current focus for Turntide, which only yesterday announced the acquisition of a small Santa Barbara, Calif.-based building management software developer called Riptide IO. But there’s also an application in another massive industry — electric vehicles.

“Two years from now we will definitely be in electric vehicles,” Morris said. 

“Our technology has huge advantages for the electric vehicle industry. There’s no rare earth minerals. Every EV uses rare earth minerals to get better performance of their electric motors,” he continued. “They’re expensive, destructive to mine and China controls 95 percent of the global supply chain for them. We do not use any exotic materials, rare earth minerals or magnets.. We’re replacing that with very advanced software and computation. It’s the first time Moore’s law applies to the motor.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/03/03/firms-backed-by-robert-downey-jr-and-bill-gates-have-funded-an-electric-motor-company-that-can-slas/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Jonathan Shieber

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