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Gates-backed Lumotive upends lidar conventions using metamaterials – TechCrunch

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Pretty much every self-driving car on the road, not to mention many a robot and drone, uses lidar to sense its surroundings. But useful as lidar is, it also involves physical compromises that limit its capabilities. Lumotive is a new company with funding from Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures that uses metamaterials to exceed those limits, perhaps setting a new standard for the industry.

The company is just now coming out of stealth, but it’s been in the works for a long time. I actually met with them back in 2017 when the project was very hush-hush and operating under a different name at IV’s startup incubator. If the terms “metamaterials” and “Intellectual Ventures” tickle something in your brain, it’s because the company has spawned several startups that use intellectual property developed there, building on the work of materials scientist David Smith.

Metamaterials are essentially specially engineered surfaces with microscopic structures — in this case, tunable antennas — embedded in them, working as a single device.

Echodyne is another company that used metamaterials to great effect, shrinking radar arrays to pocket size by engineering a radar transceiver that’s essentially 2D and can have its beam steered electronically rather than mechanically.

The principle works for pretty much any wavelength of electromagnetic radiation — i.e. you could use X-rays instead of radio waves — but until now no one has made it work with visible light. That’s Lumotive’s advance, and the reason it works so well.

Flash, 2D and 1D lidar

Lidar basically works by bouncing light off the environment and measuring how and when it returns; this can be accomplished in several ways.

Flash lidar basically sends out a pulse that illuminates the whole scene with near-infrared light (905 nanometers, most likely) at once. This provides a quick measurement of the whole scene, but limited distance as the power of the light being emitted is limited.

2D or raster scan lidar takes an NIR laser and plays it over the scene incredibly quickly, left to right, down a bit, then does it again, again and again… scores or hundreds of times. Focusing the power into a beam gives these systems excellent range, but similar to a CRT TV with an electron beam tracing out the image, it takes rather a long time to complete the whole scene. Turnaround time is naturally of major importance in driving situations.

1D or line scan lidar strikes a balance between the two, using a vertical line of laser light that only has to go from one side to the other to complete the scene. This sacrifices some range and resolution but significantly improves responsiveness.

Lumotive offered the following diagram, which helps visualize the systems, although obviously “suitability” and “too short” and “too slow” are somewhat subjective:

The main problem with the latter two is that they rely on a mechanical platform to actually move the laser emitter or mirror from place to place. It works fine for the most part, but there are inherent limitations. For instance, it’s difficult to stop, slow or reverse a beam that’s being moved by a high-speed mechanism. If your 2D lidar system sweeps over something that could be worth further inspection, it has to go through the rest of its motions before coming back to it… over and over.

This is the primary advantage offered by a metamaterial system over existing ones: electronic beam steering. In Echodyne’s case the radar could quickly sweep over its whole range like normal, and upon detecting an object could immediately switch over and focus 90 percent of its cycles tracking it in higher spatial and temporal resolution. The same thing is now possible with lidar.

Imagine a deer jumping out around a blind curve. Every millisecond counts because the earlier a self-driving system knows the situation, the more options it has to accommodate it. All other things being equal, an electronically steered lidar system would detect the deer at the same time as the mechanically steered ones, or perhaps a bit sooner; upon noticing this movement, it could not just make more time for evaluating it on the next “pass,” but a microsecond later be backing up the beam and specifically targeting just the deer with the majority of its resolution.

Just for illustration. The beam isn’t some big red thing that comes out.

Targeted illumination would also improve the estimation of direction and speed, further improving the driving system’s knowledge and options — meanwhile, the beam can still dedicate a portion of its cycles to watching the road, requiring no complicated mechanical hijinks to do so. Meanwhile, it has an enormous aperture, allowing high sensitivity.

In terms of specs, it depends on many things, but if the beam is just sweeping normally across its 120×25 degree field of view, the standard unit will have about a 20Hz frame rate, with a 1000×256 resolution. That’s comparable to competitors, but keep in mind that the advantage is in the ability to change that field of view and frame rate on the fly. In the example of the deer, it may maintain a 20Hz refresh for the scene at large but concentrate more beam time on a 5×5 degree area, giving it a much faster rate.

Meta doesn’t mean mega-expensive

Naturally one would assume that such a system would be considerably more expensive than existing ones. Pricing is still a ways out — Lumotive just wanted to show that its tech exists for now — but this is far from exotic tech.

CG render of a lidar metamaterial chip.The team told me in an interview that their engineering process was tricky specifically because they designed it for fabrication using existing methods. It’s silicon-based, meaning it can use cheap and ubiquitous 905nm lasers rather than the rarer 1550nm, and its fabrication isn’t much more complex than making an ordinary display panel.

CTO and co-founder Gleb Akselrod explained: “Essentially it’s a reflective semiconductor chip, and on the surface we fabricate these tiny antennas to manipulate the light. It’s made using a standard semiconductor process, then we add liquid crystal, then the coating. It’s a lot like an LCD.”

An additional bonus of the metamaterial basis is that it works the same regardless of the size or shape of the chip. While an inch-wide rectangular chip is best for automotive purposes, Akselrod said, they could just as easily make one a quarter the size for robots that don’t need the wider field of view, or a larger or custom-shape one for a specialty vehicle or aircraft.

The details, as I said, are still being worked out. Lumotive has been working on this for years and decided it was time to just get the basic information out there. “We spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the technology to investors,” noted CEO and co-founder Bill Colleran. He, it should be noted, is a veteran innovator in this field, having headed Impinj most recently, and before that was at Broadcom, but is perhaps is best known for being CEO of Innovent when it created the first CMOS Bluetooth chip.

Right now the company is seeking investment after running on a 2017 seed round funded by Bill Gates and IV, which (as with other metamaterial-based startups it has spun out) is granting Lumotive an exclusive license to the tech. There are partnerships and other things in the offing, but the company wasn’t ready to talk about them; the product is currently in prototype but very showable form for the inevitable meetings with automotive and tech firms.

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Google loses two execs: one for Messaging and Workspace, another for Payments

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Google had a pair of high-ranking executives leave this week. The first was Bill Ready, Google’s “President of Commerce, Payments & Next Billion Users,” who left to become CEO of Pinterest. The second big departure is Javier Soltero, who was vice president and GM of Google Workspace, Google’s paid business app, and was the leader of Google Messaging. Both executives made big changes to Google in their nearly three-year stints at the company. Now that they are leaving, it’s unclear what the future of their respective products holds.

Ready was only at Google for two-and-a-half years, where his highest-profile move was presiding over the disastrous rollout of a significant Google Pay revamp. The new Google Pay app was spearheaded by Ready’s payments team, led by another recently ousted executive, Caesar Sengupta. The Google Pay revamp brought an app originally developed for India to the US, where the requirement for phone number-based identity came with a huge list of downgrades: The Google Pay website had to be stripped of payment functionality, the app no longer supported multiple accounts, and you couldn’t be logged in to multiple devices.

The rollout of the new app was also clumsy. Slowly, over a month or two, users were kicked out of the old Google Pay and had to transition to a new app. The new identity system wasn’t backward compatible with the old Google Pay, though, which meant users still on the old app couldn’t send money to users on the new app.

According to Pulse network (a wing of Discover card) Google Pay has 3 percent of the entire US NFC market. Keep in mind Google entered this market years before Apple.

According to Pulse network (a wing of Discover card) Google Pay has 3 percent of the entire US NFC market. Keep in mind Google entered this market years before Apple.

The new Google Pay was announced one year into Ready’s tenure at Google and launched in March 2021. The app initially came with big plans for expansion, including a wild announcement of Google-branded bank accounts. Sengupta left Google one month after the US launch of the new Google Pay, which triggered an “exodus” of employees, according to Insider. The report said, “Dozens of employees and executives” left the payments team after Sengupta’s departure, with one employee saying there was “frustration” the new Google Pay “wasn’t growing at the rate we wanted it to.”

What happened afterward seems like a complete scrapping of the original “New Google Pay” game plan. Google generally launches a product in the US first and then slowly rolls it out to the rest of the world, but after the initial poor reception, the new Google Pay never saw a wide rollout outside of the US. Google canceled its heavily promoted plans for a Google bank account, even though, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company already had 400,000 curious users sign up for the public waitlist.

Ready appointed a new leader of Payments this January, a move Bloomberg described as a “reset” of Google’s payments strategy. Ready also made headlines at the time by saying, “Crypto is something we pay a lot of attention to,” though no Google product has emerged.

Four months later, at Google I/O 2022, another revamp of Google Pay was announced, re-branding the product to “Google Wallet.” That’s right, after a big revamp of Google’s payment app in 2021, there’s now another new revamp in 2022. Ready is now leaving five months after appointing a new Payments lead and setting these plans in motion, but he won’t be around for the launch of Google Wallet. Between the departure of old Payments lead Sengupta, Sengupta’s boss, Ready, and “dozens” of team members, it sure seems like the payments team ended up cleaning house.

This nightmare of a map has the US with Google Pay and Google Wallet co-existing, while the rest of the world gets a cleaner solution of one payment app: Wallet.

This nightmare of a map has the US with Google Pay and Google Wallet co-existing, while the rest of the world gets a cleaner solution of one payment app: Wallet.

Google

At the heart of Google’s payments turbulence is probably the fact that most estimates put Google Pay at 3-4 percent of the US NFC payments market, which is way behind Apple’s nearly 92 percent market share. It’s an embarrassing loss considering Google was a pioneer in NFC payments and entered the market three years before Apple.

A big part of Google’s payment problems is this kind of instability, with Google’s payment app running through four different brands in 10 years (Google Wallet, then Android Pay, then Google Pay, now Google Wallet again). It still doesn’t seem like the company has arrived at a great solution with the new Google Wallet. The current plan—which could change once Ready’s replacement is hired—is for Google Wallet and Google Pay to co-exist in the US. In the rest of the world, there will be one payment app, Wallet, which sounds like a clean, reasonable offering. In the US and Singapore, though, Google doesn’t want to kill the widely panned new Google Pay app, so Google Wallet and Google Pay will be available. Why? If Wallet is rolling out to the rest of the world, the codebase clearly has the full payment feature set, why not just roll it out everywhere?

Google is still searching for a VP to replace Bill Ready, but the interim Payments president will be longtime Googler Nick Fox. Fox was previously front and center in the Google tech landscape as the head of Google messaging when the company produced Google Allo. Allo was Google’s main messaging app from 2016-2018, lasting about 576 days on the market. Since Allo, Fox has been running Google Search.

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Forget smart glasses, this smart contact lens prototype has a new vision for AR 

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Enlarge / Smart contact lenses don’t work quite this easily yet. (credit: Getty)

Since 2015, a California-based company called Mojo Vision has been developing smart contact lenses. Like smart glasses, the idea is to put helpful AR graphics in front of your eyes to help accomplish daily tasks. Now, a functioning prototype brings us closer to seeing a final product.

In a blog post this week, Drew Perkins, the CEO of Mojo Vision, said he was the first to have an “on-eye demonstration of a feature-complete augmented reality smart contact lens.” In an interview with CNET, he said he’s been wearing only one contact at a time for hour-long durations. Eventually, Mojo Vision would like users to be able to wear two Mojo Lens simultaneously and create 3D visual overlays, the publication said.

According to his blog, the CEO could see a compass through the contact and an on-screen teleprompter with a quote written on it. He also recalled viewing a green, monochromatic image of Albert Einstein to CNET.

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Some Macs are getting fewer updates than they used to. Here’s why it’s a problem

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Aurich Lawson

When macOS Ventura was announced earlier this month, its system requirements were considerably stricter than those for macOS Monterey, which was released just eight months ago as of this writing. Ventura requires a Mac made in 2017 or later, dropping support for a wide range of Monterey-supported Mac models released between 2013 and 2016.

This certainly seems more aggressive than new macOS releases from just a few years ago, where system requirements would tighten roughly every other year or so. But how bad is it, really? Is a Mac purchased in 2016 getting fewer updates than one bought in 2012 or 2008 or 1999? And if so, is there an explanation beyond Apple’s desire for more users to move to shiny new Apple Silicon Macs?

Using data from Apple’s website and EveryMac.com, we pulled together information on more than two decades of Mac releases—almost everything Apple has released between the original iMac in late 1998 and the last Intel Macs in 2020. We recorded when each model was released, when Apple stopped selling each model, the last officially supported macOS release for each system, and the dates when those versions of macOS received their last point updates (i.e. 10.4.11, 11.6) and their last regular security patches. (I’ve made some notes on how I chose to streamline and organize the data, which I’ve put at the end of this article).

The end result is a spreadsheet full of dozens of Macs, with multiple metrics for determining how long each one received official software support from Apple. These methods included measuring the amount of time between when each model was discontinued and when it stopped receiving updates, which is particularly relevant for models like the 2013 Mac Pro, 2014 Mac mini, and 2015 MacBook Air that were sold for multiple years after they were first introduced.

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