Here’s how to make Alexa control a toilet because why not

Alexa-controlled toilets are a thing in 2018 but cost thousands. An enterprising person can make their own by following these instructions. It takes a bit of work, multiple components and about $750 (plus the cost of the toilet) but the end result is a voice controlled toilet and everyone needs that in their life.

The trick is buying a bidet that has an IR remote and then using a Adafruit Wifi development board to trigger another device to flush the toilet. Easy!

Home voice control has long been considered the gold standard for home automation and Alexa and Google Home are making it easier than ever to make a personal Jarvis. It was just two years ago Mark Zuckerberg set a personal challenge to develop a AI system to control different part of his home and now it just takes a little hacking and coding for someone to do the same — but Zuck’s AI system has Morgan Freeman’s voice, which alone puts it on a different level from Alexa.

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Meet crypto authors Michael Casey and Paul Vigna in New York next week

A reminder that I’m going to have Paul Vigna and Michael Casey, authors of The Truth Machine, onstage with me next week at Knotel, a co-working and event space in Manhattan. I’d love for you to come.

You can RSVP here and space is limited. It’s happening on February 28 at 7pm and will feature a 35-minute talk with two of the top writers in crypto. These guys literally wrote the book on bitcoin and their new book is about to hit store shelves. I will also have a maximum of five crypto pitches on stage after the talk so if you’d like to pitch please fill this out. If you don’t hear from me you weren’t picked for this round.

See you next week.

Featured Image: NurPhoto / Contributor/Getty Images

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Moovit raises another $50M led by Intel for its urban transit app, plans Mobileye collaboration

The race for pole position in the next generation of transportation services continues to gain speed, and today a startup providing data on how best to navigate transit in urban environments is announcing a significant round and partnership to help it get out in front.

Moovit — the Israeli startup whose iOS, Android and Web apps are now used by 120 million people globally across 2,000 cities in 80 countries — has raised another $50 million in funding.

The Series D was led by Intel Capital, and it is a strategic investment. As part of it, Mobileye, the $15.3 billion Intel subsidiary that builds autonomous driving solutions, will be partnering with Moovit to incorporate its data into Mobileye’s navigation system.

(And as part of it, significantly, Professor Amnon Shashua, Senior Vice President of Intel and CEO / CTO of Mobileye, is joining Moovit’s Board of Directors as an observer.)

Others in the round included all of the startup’s previous investors: Sequoia, BMW iVentures, NGP, Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures, BRM, Gemini, Vaizra, Vintage, as well as another new investor, Hanaco.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand the company’s tech and business development.

Moovit expects to surpass 1 billion users by 2021 and to expand significantly the number of cities that use Moovit’s data analytics to improve urban mobility,” said Nir Erez, the co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “We are especially thrilled about our plans to collaborate with Mobileye. It’s a synergistic relationship at an exciting time to be shaping the future of urban mobility.”

To date, Moovit has raised around $131 million in funding, and while it’s not revealing its valuation, in its last round in 2015 it was valued at $450 million, and given its growth since then (it only had 15 million users at the time, versus 120 million today), it’s very likely that the valuation now is well above $500 million post-money. We’ll be asking Erez when we speak to him later, to see if we can shed more light on that front.

The deal comes at an interesting time in the navigation and mapping space. Citymapper, a mapping and transit navigation app based out of London, has been testing out different ideas to figure out how to monetise its service. One of the latest developments is building its own transportation offering using buses and taxis — although it will have a lot of pre-existing competition, including city’s own services and heavily capitalised startups like Uber.

Meanwhile, we’re also seeing ever more companies looking to get in on the act. In addition to public and private transit services, there are automakers like GM and Ford (which itself has its own growing pains), and tech companies that also want to bring their AI-based systems into the fray. Alexa for autos, in fact, is just today adding its first mapping services, by way of a partnership with Mapbox, to go head to head with Google Maps and Apple’s Maps.

Moovit is taking a different tack, in that regard, by striking commercial deals that will bring its data and analytics — by way of its Smart Transit Suite — into other services that are getting used in autonomous vehicles and other smart, connected cars. This suite is based around a data-in-data-out principle: Moovit partners with municipalities and transit operators to bring in their data to help them manage their networks as well.

Similarly, this will give Mobileye one more application to enhance its own service and offering to car makers. “With significant investments in automated driving, mobility management platforms and smart infrastructure, Intel is at the forefront of a fundamental transformation of urban mobility,” Shashua said in a statement. “We’re working with some of the most innovative transit companies, municipalities and transit authorities to build critical foundational technologies for this transformation.”

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Nintendo accused of illegally denying refunds on pre-orders in Europe

Nintendo has been accused of breaking European law by not allowing consumers to obtain refunds on pre-ordered games.

The company been singled out as the worst offender of seven major digital video games platforms that were looked at by the Norwegian Consumer Council in this investigation. Though it only praises two platforms, Origin and Steam, for having what it describes as “adequate systems” for refunding purchased video games.

The Council has written to Nintendo setting out its concerns. In the letter it flags up a term on Nintendo’s eShop regarding its cancelation policy for digital purchases where it informs consumers that “all sales are final”, and warns them to check that their systems meet download requirements prior to purchase.

The Council argues that a pre-ordered game cannot qualify for an exemption to Europe’s Consumer Rights Directive for digital content because the supply of content has not yet begun. The Directive is applicable across EU and EEA countries (such as Norway).

In a press release about its action the Council writes: “[Nintendo] plainly states that all purchases are final. According to the right of withdrawal laid down in the consumer rights directive, such terms are illegal.”

“The video game industry uses incentives such as exclusive in-game content or other rewards in order to encourage consumers to pre-order games. However, pre-ordering could result in paying a lot of money for a product that turns out to be a disappointment. For most digital video game platforms, there are no possibilities to get your money back after the release date,” it adds.

At the time of writing Nintendo had not responded to a request for comment.

Lots of other video game platforms do not come out of the Council’s survey covered in glory, either.

It published a report in December which criticizes other players in the space, including, Uplay, Playstation Store and Xbox Store, for a range of less-than-consumer-friendly routes for obtaining refunds, such as requiring that buyers contact customer support.

But it’s reserving its fiercest criticism for Nintendo because the company offers no option for consumers to cancel a purchase of a pre-ordered game.

The Council suggests games fans wait until they’re 100% sure they want to buy a title before locking themselves into a pre-order.

“Consumers often face complicated systems, where they have to fill out long forms or contact customer support in order to cancel their pre-orders,” it writes. “With these hurdles in mind, we discourage consumers from pre-ordering video games, unless they are 100% sure that the game will live up to their expectations.”

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Watch SpaceX launch a Falcon 9 carrying its first internet demo satellites live here

SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 with client Hisdesat’s PAZ satellite on board today, provided weather remains favorable and everything else goes according to plan. The satellite, an imaging and radar instrument with a planned lifespan of five and a half years, will serve Spanish government and commercial needs, and will also work as part of a constellation together with TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X to be used jointly between Hisdesat and Airbus.

The launch will make use of a first stage booster for the Falcon 9 rocket first used last August during the FORMOSAT-5 mission, and today’s launch will take place at 6:17 AM PST (9:17 AM EST) during an instantaneous launch window. A backup window is scheduled for Thursday, February 22 at the same time should the launch be scrubbed for Wednesday. It’s taking off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

This launch will also carry SpaceX’s first demonstration satellites for its satellite broadband internet service, to be tested ahead of a full-scale constellation launch. It’s also said to be the first launch of the second generation of SpaceX’s fairing, which is designed to be be better able to survive launch for re-use on future missions.

The livestream for the launch will kick off likely around 15 minutes prior to launch, or at just after 6 AM PST (9 AM EST).

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Facebook’s plan to unite AR, VR and News Feed with 3D posts

What if you could digitally sculpt a 3D object and share it on Facebook, play with it in virtual reality or insert it into your world with augmented reality? Facebook is polishing up stages one and two today after debuting posts of interactive 3D models in News Feed in October that you can move and spin around.

Now Facebook 3D posts support the industry standard glTF 2.0 file format, allowing for textures, lighting and realistic rendering of rough or shiny objects. New Graph API endpoints let developers build 3D modeling apps or even 3D cameras that directly share to the News Feed and make websites that show up as 3D posts. Users can now drag-and-drop 3D objects into the feed. And users can take 3D posts and bring them into Facebook Spaces, its social VR hangout rooms.

For example, you could make a metallic personalized chess piece in a 3D modeling app, share it straight to News Feed and then bring it into Facebook Spaces, where you could play with it as part of the playground’s native chess board. Brands like LEGO, Jurassic World, Clash of Clans and Wayfair are already experimenting with 3D posts that you can play with here or on this article.

“We’re trying to make 3D a native part of the Facebook ecosystem. Stage 3 is getting these 3D objects into AR,” says Facebook’s creative director for social VR, Ocean Quigley. He sees this as a natural progression for a social network that’s gone from text, to photos, to videos, to immersive media. “We’re trying to lay the foundational steps so Facebook can go with users into their 3D worlds of VR and AR.”

Now when you share a 3D post, you’ll get to pick a background color and texture to set it on. Quigley says the hope is to “keep the upload flow pretty simple and streamlined” so sharing high-tech posts doesn’t require high-tech skills. He calls glTF 2.0 “the JPEG of 3D,” touting support from Google and Microsoft. And if you have a 3D object in another format, Facebook is open sourcing converters on GitHub so you can port them to Facebook’s preferred file type.

There are huge opportunities for Facebook if it can make this work. It could leave other social networks in the dust by offering the most futuristic ways to share. You could easily imagine Facebook profiles getting a “3D shelf” where you could display objects you’ve collected for friends to play with. And hopefully, Facebook or some third-party will develop a great 3D avatar creator that automatically generates a mini virtual version of you based on your tagged photos. I’m betting Facebook eventually makes its own competitor to Snapchat’s Bitmoji avatars.

Marketers and advertisers would surely love to let users try on an augmented reality purse rather than looking at it in a photo, and some brands like Sony are already paving the way for augmented reality commerce. Wayfair now lets you inspect a 3D version of its furniture in a home setting before buying.

Facebook has been aggressive about adopting new content formats like 360 photos, Live videos and GIFs in an effort to remain appealing to teens despite being over 14 years old itself. “In the future, we envision a seamless digital world where people can share immersive experiences and objects like these across VR, AR and Facebook News Feed,” Facebook product manager Aykud Gönen writes.

There’s no way Facebook can build enough 3D objects on its own to populate the physical world with augmented reality. It needs the help of third-party developers and the crowd. Quigley tells me “we’re not going to be giving you 3D editing tools” to build your own objects inside of Facebook. But if it can make it easier for outside creators to import them, it could provide a much more wondrous and immersive experience whether you’re on a phone, headset or some future AR glasses.

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StatusToday scores nearly $4M to grow its AI-powered ’employee insights’ service

StatusToday, a London startup that is building out AI tech that it claims can help companies better understand their employees and in turn improve productivity, is disclosing $3.91 million in seed investment. The round is led by LocalGlobe, with participation from Notion Capital and Firstminute capital.

Founded in 2015 after graduating from company builder Entrepreneur First, StatusToday originally set out to use AI for cyber security, specifically by analysing a company’s internal online comms and other network activity to spot rogue employees or human lapses in security. However, the nascent company has since broadened out its offering, which launched in beta in the middle of last year, to be a more comprehensive employee insights service powered by AI.

Based on the premise that “most companies and managers do not understand their employees,” StatusToday currently plugs into various online company tools, such as those from Microsoft or Google. It then uses meta-data pulled in from these systems and artificial intelligence to analyse employee actions, thus enabling companies to gain better visibility of how their workforce is operating and to make improvements accordingly.

“Our mission is to help employers and employees understand each other. Most managers do not understand their employees,” StatusToday co-founder and CEO Ankur Modi tells me. “They don’t know what makes them inefficient, when they make mistakes or what incentivizes them. This causes a severe loss of productivity, mismanagement and an increase in risks, such as misconduct, regulatory failures and so on. We want to solve that problem by helping companies better understand their employees using artificial intelligence and data. By analyzing employee activity, we are able to determine when employees are more productive, identify looming risks and help companies to plan more effectively”.

In addition, Modi claims that StatusToday adds transparency for employees, too, by redefining the meaning of work in a way that is “transparent, rather than hierarchical and subjective”. “In time we should be able to use data to shed light on issues such as workplace discrimination and bullying,” he says.

When you plug Microsoft 365 or Google Gsuite into StatusToday, the service creates connectors to map out comms, content and activity on a real-time basis for all future events. This allows StatusToday to collect metadata and audit information for all essential activity performed by any employee in the system.

“Due to the nature and source of this data, we are able to create a company graph that consolidates baseline activity, times, locations for groups without getting actual contents or confidential info,” explains Modi.

Behind the scenes, StatusToday is currently running 22 AI modules (multiple patent-pending) that crunch this activity and create behavior models that adapt in real time to the individual, company and any relevant groups (e.g. roles, departments, managers or the London office). “This allows us to measure normal and abnormal hours, influence, mistakes and areas of low visibility,” says the StatusToday CEO.

Asked how this might be useful in practice, Modi cites a recent example of how one manager using the platform discovered the real volume of weekend work going on in his company, which far exceeded his pre-conceived expectations of work-life balance. Other recent reports generated by StatusToday include “out of band use of cloud storage”, impersonation of senior management, benchmarking contractor performance, and dedicated views for newcomers and leavers.

Meanwhile, StatusToday says the new investment will be used to attract more companies to the service, further improve the AI and expand the multinational team. The company currently has 14 employees, based in London and the Ukraine.

Customers are typically in regulated industries, sectors with high value employees or high employee turnover, “or are simply companies that want to use cutting edge technology to be more agile”. The basic service is free and open to companies of any size. However, StatusToday expects to charge for additional services in future.

Adds Modi: “The true value comes with scale because we will be able to offer valuable industry insights as a premium feature to employees and employers. Down the line we will have services that help companies take action based on our insights which will also be charged for. Needless to say, this gives us the ability to create industry-level benchmarks. We will be able to replicate what market analysts and research firms have done for decades but with real-time data and analytics. That kind of insight can change whole industries and those will generate revenue in future”.

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SoftBank’s $100B Vision Fund could get more capital from the Middle East

SoftBank’s Vision Fund looks set to bring on more capital from the Middle East as it bids to reach its $100 billion fundraise target.

The fund has already deployed around one-third of the $93 billion it raised in its first close, according to statements released earlier this month, and now it is on the hunt for more LPs.

The Middle East has proven to be fertile soil for the Vision Fund, with UAE-based Mubadala Investment Company and Saudi Arabia’s PID public fund signing on as two of its most prominent backers. Now, according to Reuters, there has been dialogue with Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat over joining the party.

“We’re talking to them, we haven’t made any commitment yet. I think it’s very interesting, and a lot of people have already put a lot of tickets,” Mumtalakat CEO Mahmood AlKooheji told the news firm in an interview.

Mumtalakat’s portfolio of investments is valued at over $10 billion, and it includes Bahrain-based operator Batelco.

In addition to closing the inaugural Vision Fund, SoftBank is also reported to be considering a follow-up. The fact it has already deployed a third of the capital in under a year — a feat that seemed very unlikely last year — shows the seriousness behind the project.

Apple, Foxconn and Qualcomm are among other publicly-disclosed LPs in the Vision Fund. To date, its investments have included deals with ARM, Nvidia, Uber, Improbable, and Flipkart among others.

Featured Image: Yumi Kimura/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-SA 2.0 LICENSE

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Twitter updates its policy on tweets that encourage self-harm and suicide

Twitter, which is constantly criticized for not doing enough to prevent harassment, has updated its guidelines with more information on how it handles tweets or accounts that encourage other people to hurt themselves or commit suicide.

The update follows an announcement by Twitter Safety last week that users can now report profiles, tweets and direct messages that encourage self-harm and suicide.

In a new section on its Help Center titled “Glorifying self-harm and suicide,” Twitter outlined its approach to tweets or accounts that promote or encourage self-harm and suicide. The company says its policy against encouraging other people to hurt themselves is meant to work in tandem with its self-harm prevention measures as part of a “two-pronged approach” that involves “supporting people who are undergoing experiences with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, but prohibiting the promotion or encouragement of self-harming behaviors.” Twitter already has a form that lets users report threats of self-harm or suicide and a team that assesses tweets and reaches out to users they believe are at risk.

Twitter says offenders may be temporarily locked out of their account the first time they violate the policy and their tweets encouraging self-harm or suicide removed. Repeat offenders may have their accounts suspended.

Last fall, Twitter published a new version of its policies toward abuse, spam, self-harm and other issues, following a promise by chief executive officer Jack Dorsey that it would be more aggressive about preventing harassment. Publishing stricter guidelines and putting them into practice, however, are two different things. Many of Twitter’s critics still believe the platform doesn’t do enough to enforce its anti-harassment measures and must provide more information about exactly what kind of content results in a suspension. For example, telling someone to “kill yourself” arguably violates its guidelines, but a quick search of #killyourself returns many recent results, including tweets aimed at specific people.

Featured Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

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Adecco Group acquires recruiting startup Vettery for $100M

The Adecco Group, a global HR services firm headquartered in Switzerland, announced today that it has acquired Vettery.

The financial terms were not disclosed, but a source with knowledge of the deal told us that the price was a little over $100 million. (It’s not clear how much of that is cash versus stock.)

We’ve reached out to the Adecco Group for confirmation and will update if we hear back. (Update: A spokesperson responded that the company isn’t sharing financial details.) A Vettery spokesperson declined to comment.

Vettery was launched in 2014. Shortly after that, co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein told me they were hoping to reinvent the traditional recruiting process. They created a marketplace where job candidates browse offers, schedule interviews with the employers that interest them and receive a signing bonus from Vettery when they take a job — all assisted by an on-staff “talent executive.”

The company says it now works with more than 4,000 employers to fill positions in IT, sales and finance. It’s raised a total of $11.9 million from investors, including Greycroft and Raine Ventures.

According to Adecco, Adcock and Goldstein will continue to lead the Vettery team.

“The acquisition of Vettery accelerates the development of the Adecco Group’s digital strategy, broadening our offering into the fast-growing digital permanent recruitment market and complementing our professional recruitment businesses,” said Adecco Group CEO Alain Dehaze in the acquisition release. “Digital innovations have the potential to transform the recruitment industry and the Adecco Group is taking the lead.”

Recent Adecco acquisitions include life sciences staffing company BioBridges and career transition firm Mullin.

Featured Image: Vettery

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