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How China’s first autonomous driving unicorn Momenta hunts for data – TechCrunch

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Cao Xudong turned up on the side of the road in jeans and a black T-shirt printed with the word “Momenta,” the name of his startup.

Before founding the company — which last year topped $1 billion in valuation to become China’s first autonomous driving “unicorn” — he’d already led an enviable life, but he was convinced that autonomous driving would be the real big thing.

Cao isn’t just going for the moonshot of fully autonomous vehicles, which he says could be 20 years away. Instead, he’s taking a two-legged approach of selling semi-automated software while investing in research for next-gen self-driving tech.

Cao, pronounced ‘tsao’, was pursuing his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics when an opportunity came up to work at Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in Asia, putatively the “West Point” for China’s first generation of artificial intelligence experts. He held out there for more than four years before quitting to put his hands on something more practical: a startup.

“Academic research for AI was getting quite mature at the time,” said now 33-year-old Cao in an interview with TechCrunch, reflecting on his decision to quit Microsoft. “But the industry that puts AI into application had just begun. I believed the industrial wave would be even more extensive and intense than the academic wave that lasted from 2012 to 2015.”

In 2015, Cao joined SenseTime, now the world’s highest-valued AI startup, thanks in part to the lucrative face-recognition technology it sells to the government. During his 17-month stint, Cao built the company’s research division from zero staff into a 100-people strong team.

Before long, Cao found himself craving for a new adventure again. The founder said he doesn’t care about the result as much as the chance to “do something.” That tendency was already evident during his time at the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he was a member of the outdoors club. He wasn’t particularly drawn to hiking, he said, but the opportunity to embrace challenges and be with similarly resilient, daring people was enticing enough.

And if making driverless vehicles would allow him to leave a mark in the world, he’s all in for that.

Make the computer, not the car

Cao walked me up to a car outfitted with the cameras and radars you might spot on an autonomous vehicle, with unseen computer codes installed in the trunk. We hopped in. Our driver picked a route from the high-definition map that Momenta had built, and as soon as we approached the highway, the autonomous mode switched on by itself. The sensors then started feeding real-time data about the surroundings into the map, with which the computer could make decisions on the road.

Momenta staff installing sensors to a testing car. / Photo: Momenta

Momenta won’t make cars or hardware, Cao assured. Rather, it gives cars autonomous features by making their brains, or deep-learning capacities. It’s in effect a so-called Tier 2 supplier, akin to Intel’s Mobileye, that sells to Tier 1 suppliers who actually produce the automotive parts. It also sells directly to original equipment manufacturers (OMEs) that design cars, order parts from suppliers and assemble the final product. Under both circumstances, Momenta works with clients to specify the final piece of software.

Momenta believes this asset-light approach would allow it to develop state-of-the-art driving tech. By selling software to car and parts makers, it not only brings in income but also sources mountains of data, including how and when humans intervene, to train its codes at relatively low costs.

The company declined to share who its clients are but said they include top carmakers and Tier 1 suppliers in China and overseas. There won’t be many of them because a “partnership” in the auto sector demands deep, resource-intensive collaboration, so less is believed to be more. What we do know is Momenta counts Daimler AG as a backer. It’s also the first Chinese startup that the Mercedes-Benz parent had ever invested in, though Cao would not disclose whether Daimler is a client.

“Say you operate 10,000 autonomous cars to reap data. That could easily cost you $1 billion a year. 100,000 cars would cost $10 billion, which is a terrifying number for any tech giant,” Cao said. “If you want to acquire seas of data that have a meaningful reach, you have to build a product for the mass market.”

Highway Pilot, the semi-autonomous solution that was controlling our car, is Momenta’s first mass-produced software. More will launch in the coming seasons, including a fully autonomous parking solution and a self-driving robotaxi package for urban use.

In the long run, the startup said it aims to tackle inefficiencies in China’s $44 billion logistics market. People hear about warehousing robots built by Alibaba and JD.com, but overall, China is still on the lower end of logistics efficiency. In 2018, logistics costs accounted for nearly 15 percent of national gross domestic product. In the same year, the World Bank ranked China 26th in its logistics performance index, a global benchmark for efficiency in the industry.

momenta

Cao Xudong, co-founder and CEO of Momenta / Photo: Momenta

Cao, an unassuming CEO, raised his voice as explained the company’s two-legged strategy. The twin approach forms a “closed loop,” a term that Cao repeatedly summoned to talk about the company’s competitive edge. Instead of picking between the presence and future, as Waymo does with Level 4 — a designation given to cars that can operate under basic situations without human intervention — and Tesla with half-autonomous driving, Momenta works on both. It uses revenue-generating businesses like Highway Pilot to fund research in robotaxis, and the sensor data collected from real-life scenarios to feed models in the lab. Results from the lab, in turn, could soup up what gets deployed on public roads.

Human or machine

During the 40-minute ride in midday traffic, our car was able to change lanes, merge into traffic, create distance from reckless drivers by itself except for one brief moment. Toward the end of the trip, our driver pushed the lever to trigger a lane change as we approached a car dangerously parked in the middle of the exit ramp. Momenta names this an “interactive lane change,” which it claims is designed to be part of its automated system and by its strict definition is not a human “intervention”.

“Human-car interaction will continue to dominate for a long time, perhaps for another 20 years,” Cao noted, adding the setup brings safety to the next level because the car knows exactly what the driver is doing through its inner-cabin cameras.

“For example, if the driver is looking down at their cellphone, the [Momenta] system will alert them to pay attention,” he said.

I wasn’t allowed to film during the ride, so here’s some footage from Momenta to give a sneak peek of its highway solution.

Human beings are already further along the autonomous spectrum than many of us think. Cao, like a lot of other AI scientists, believes robots will eventually take over the wheel. Alphabet-owned Waymo has been running robotaxis in Arizona for several months now, and smaller startups like Drive.ai are also offering a similar service in Texas.

Despite all the hype and boom in the industry, there remains thorny questions around passenger safety, regulatory schema and a host of other issues for the fast-moving tech. Uber’s fatal self-driving crash last year delayed the company’s future projects and prompted a public backlash. As a Shanghai-based venture capitalist recently suggested to me: “I don’t think humanity is ready for self-driving.”

The biggest problem of the industry, he argued, is not tech-related but social. “Self-driving poses challenges to society’s legal system, culture, ethics and justice.”

Cao is well aware of the contention. He acknowledged that as a company with the power to steer future cars, Momenta has to “bear a lot of responsibility for safety.” As such, he required all executives in the company to ride a certain number of autonomous miles so if there’s any loophole in the system, the managers will likely stumble across it before the customers do.

“With this policy in place, the management will pay serious attention to system safety,” Cao asserted.

Momenta

Momenta’s new headquarters in Suzhou, China / Photo: Momenta

In terms of actually designing the software to be reliable and to trace accountability, Momenta appoints an “architect of system research and development,” who essentially is in charge of analyzing the black box of autonomous driving algorithms. A deep learning model has to be “explainable,” said Cao, which is key to finding out what went wrong: Is it the sensor, the computer, or the navigation app that’s not working?

Going forward, Cao said the company is in no rush to make a profit as it is still spending heavily on R&D, but he assured that margins of the software it sells “are high.” The startup is also blessed with sizable fundings, which Cao’s resume certainly helped attract, and so did his other co-founders Ren Shaoqing and Xia Yan, who were also alumni of Microsoft Research Asia.

As of last October, Momenta had raised at least $200 million from big-name investors including Daimler, Cathy Capital, GGV Capital, Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital, Bluelake Capital, electric vehicle maker NIO’s investment arm, WeChat operator Tencent and the government of Suzhou, which will house Momenta’s new 4,000 sq-meter headquarters right next to the city’s high-speed trail station.

When a bullet train speeds past Suzhou, passengers are able to see from their windows Momenta’s recognizable M-shape building, which, in the years to come, might become a new landmark of the historic city in eastern China.

Update (June 14, 2019): The article was updated to correct investors’ names and clarify that the driver made a turn by pushing the lever, not steering the wheel.

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The best portable projectors for 2021

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We love the idea of casting a large screen whether it’s to binge-watch a series over the weekend, deliver business presentations during the weekdays, or project photos from the smartphone anytime in between. These conveniences grow manifold with the portable projectors that are mini-sized to fit right into your backpack and transform any surface into a large screen, ideally 100-inch plus, without any hassle.

We have rounded up the best 4K ultra-short throw projectors on the market previously. But if that’s not your budget or it doesn’t really fall in your scope somehow, here’s a list of (in no particular order) the best mini projectors worth your cash. Some of these may feel old but they are as good to hit the road with. Without ado then – here are the best portable projectors in 2021.

ViewSonic M2

There is still time before you start traveling for business like you did say about two years back. When you do, the ViewSonic M2 will be the right portable projector to haul along in the bag for presentation anytime, anywhere. The full HD (1920x1080p resolution) LED projector is compact for office settings and lightweight to be carried along. It provides 1,200 lumens of brightness and offers over 30,000 hours of light source usage.

What We Like

– Interesting kickstand design
– Good brightness
– Dual Harman Kardon speakers

What We Don’t Like

– No built-in battery

The $732.99 ViewSonic M2 is even more interesting because of its short throw lens that allows the projector to cast up to 100-inches from only 9 feet away. Built-in dual Harman Kardon Bluetooth speakers for amazing audio, the projector runs Android and lets users download apps to project directly for entertainment. The ViewSonic M2 supports HDMI and USB Type-C input modes and is compatible with PCs, Macs, smartphones and all sorts of media players.

AAXA P7

AAXA P7 is one of the smallest mini projectors to deliver true native 1080p resolution. This next-gen solid-state mini projector integrates compact 4th generation Texas Instruments Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology – found in movie theaters – to makes the native 1920×1080 pixel resolution possible.

What We Like

– Full HD resolution
– Great performance for its size
– Delivers big picture in low light

What We Don’t Like

– Limited contrast ratio
– No zoom

Provided with rated brightness of 600 lumens, better than some of the other projectors in a similar form factor, the AAXA P7 doesn’t support Wi-Fi but comes with VGA, USB and HDMI options for connectivity. It also features a card reader to project content directly. The versatility of this compact projector is supported by a tripod provided alongside. Backed with 30,000 hours luminous LEDs, the P7 projector produces a 120-inch image. Its MSRP has been dropped to $419 from the initial $499.

Epson EpiqVision Mini EF12

One of the more refined portable projectors from Epson, the EF12 touts 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution with 1,000 lumens brightness. Designed primarily for streaming enthusiasts in the work-from-home era, this 4K compatible (downconvert), smart streaming laser projector comes with built-in Android TV and support for HDR.

What We Like

– Up to 150-inch projection
– Built-in Android TV for direct access to apps
– Nice design, superior sound

What We Don’t Like

– Limited brightness and contrast

If you want to continue your binge-watching sessions on a screen measuring up to 150-inches, pack it and take it along in your travel bag after use, the $899.99 Epson EF12 is a delightful option. It lets you play movies, series and videos directly from Hulu, HBO or YouTube over wireless connectivity with true audio by Yamaha, right out of the box.

LG CineBeam PH550

The extremely portable and lightweight LG CineBeam PH550 LED projector features built-in TV tuner and can project TV shows with nice video and image quality. The LED-based DLP projector comes with 550 lumens rated brightness but is slightly low on resolution. The projector has only 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution and it delivers up to 100-inch screen.It is priced at $499.

What We Like

– Small structure big delivery
– Onboard rechargeable battery
– Built-in TV tuner

What We Don’t Like

– Very low resolution
– Expensive

Enabling entertainment or a professional set up is not at all difficult with this LG projector. It is Bluetooth compatible and features an HDMI port. It comes packed with a rechargeable battery onboard offering 2.5 hours of backup. The LG PH550 features wireless mirroring to connect with a smartphone or tablet and has 30,000 hours lamp life (virtually it will never need replacement).

Anker Nebula Solar

While the Anker Nebula Capsule II is a very capable projector in its own right, our preference lies with the Solar Portable. Arguably, Anker Nebula Solar is the finest portable projector in the company’s portfolio with the right blend of features to deliver immaculate picture quality both outdoors and indoors. It can be mistaken for a solar-powered projector because of its moniker, but the Nebula model is far from renewably powered. It does come with built-in battery.

What We Like

– Great features for its petite size
– Decent picture and sound
– High resolution and HDR support

What We Don’t Like

– Dreary sound

The Nebula Solar features 1080p resolution and supports HDR10. It can cast up to 120-inches screen with a good degree of brightness for impressive picture quality. The projector has 400 lumens of brightness and it runs Android TV. The onboard battery runs for almost 3 hours but this can be beefed up with the provided USB-C charging cable. Currently Anker is selling it at $469.99.

Kodak Luma 350

A flagship offering in the Luma series of Kodak’s palmtop projectors, the Kodak Luma 350 is powered by Android to let the users download apps in a jiffy and stream content directly without the phone’s intervention. The projector comes with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, HDMI and USB for connectivity.

What We Like

– Built-in Android
– Rechargeable battery onboard
– Plenty of connectivity options

What We Don’t Like

– Average video quality
– Very minimal resolution

Preinstalled with apps like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Twitch and YouTube, this LED-based DLP projector delivers content in 150 ANSI lumens brightness. The projector has an 854x480p resolution, 3,500:1 contrast ratio and is designed primarily for casual video watching. Built-in with 3-watt speaker, the LED projector has a rated lifetime of 30,000 hours and features 7,500mAh battery, good enough to last a couple of days between charges. The $536.99 price tag has been slashed by Kodak and you can pick one up for $299.99.

ASUS ZenBeam Latte L1

A new member on the block, the ASUS ZenBeam Latte L1 LED projector has a slightly low native resolution of 720p and 300 lumens brightness, but that doesn’t stop it from delivering up to 120-inch screen with minimum picture distortion or color difference. The coffee mug-shaped projector features operative controls on the top in circular orientation and includes wireless smartphone mirroring, USB Type-A and HDMI for connectivity.

What We Like

– Lovely design
– Powerful 10W Bluetooth speaker

What We Don’t Like

– Average brightness and resolution
– Lacks USB charging

Interestingly, ASUS packs the ZenBeam Latte L1 with a 6000mAh battery that provides the compact LED projector video playback time of 3 hours and 12 hours in case of audio. It features a rather powerful Harman Kardon 10W Bluetooth stereo speaker that enhances the bass and overall audio for an authentic theatre-esque experience.

Xgimi MoGo Pro

Xgimi MoGo Pro is one of the more versatile portable projectors you can lay your hands on. The compact 1080p resolution projector delivers impressive picture quality with decent contrast and features Android TV to stream movies and tons of other content without having to connect to an external device like a phone or a media player.

What We Like

– Runs Android TV with Chromecast
– Appealing design
– Doubles as Bluetooth speaker

What We Don’t Like

– No card reader
– No USB-Type C

The MoGo Pro works at Full HD with HDR support and also accepts 4K only to downconvert it to the supported resolution. Built-in with dual 3-watt speakers, the MoGo Pro supports both for output and input, meaning the projector can be used as a Bluetooth speaker. The projection from Xgimi’s device is pretty bright thanks to the 300 ANSI lumens of rated brightness. The battery onboard the projector lasts 2 hours while playing video in full brightness and almost 30 mins are increased in energy-saving mode.

Final thought

There is so much variety in the portable projectors currently available. Amid this list of options – or others that didn’t make it – your choice will depend on the requirement and budget. Of importance is also the type of content you want to stream (your need) and the size of the projection image you want.

Then finally you can arrive at a budget for a mini projector. A projector like this may not be a TV alternative in a bright room but in dimmer lighting the image quality is good and its space-saving aesthetics weigh heavier.

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OnePlus Buds Pro are here, should you buy or ditch

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The OnePlus Buds Pro have been finally launched. The company bills it as the “most advanced listening device” in the portfolio that now adds the third set of TWS earbuds. The advanced earbuds have been revealed alongside the OnePlus Nord 2 and there’s enough reason to be excited.

The new pair of buds are a major step up from the OnePlus Buds released last year as OnePlus looks to take on the popular options in the market with features that seem hard to ignore. So, should you jump the gun and buy the Buds Pro or wait for the other options? Let’s delve into the details to help you make a measured decision.

Design and looks

There has been a major design overhaul from the original OnePlus Buds with shorter stems and a horn-like driver casing profile. They get a more modernized aesthetic shape that seems to flow immaculately. This is well complemented by the dual-tone finish with matte plastic for the upper half and a cool shiny metal plating adorning the stems.

The design is definitely distinct from the other options on the market, and so far we love it. The same design language flows to its charging case that now has a lying down flat profile (compared to the original having vertical profile) where the earbuds rest. This also assists in the wireless charging aesthetics of the buds via Qi-certified pads/mats.

Another design feature worth mentioning is the freedom of using silicone replaceable eartips (in three sizes) as compared to the predecessor. This ensures you get a desired secure fit, which in turn helps in blocking out ambient noise for the ANC to work like a charm.

Specs and features

The biggest feature coming to the OnePlus Buds Pro is the smart adaptive noise cancellation. This helps toggle the amount of active noise cancellation being applied depending on the environment. The earbuds have three microphones each for either bud, capable of filtering noise levels almost up to 40dB. A big advantage over fixed level ANC earbuds that have a handful of presets only.

The 11mm dynamic driver delivers a punchy sound and with the Dolby Atmos audio, the earbuds are a pleasure for listening. For those who like the idea of binaural sounds, the earbuds come with the Zen Mode Air feature to play white noise in a jiffy via the headphone settings or the Hey Melody app.

OnePlus Buds Pro have the latest Bluetooth 5.2 for connectivity that promises stable connection and 94ms ultra-low latency Pro Gaming mode. Another highlight is the addition of IP55 water and dust resistance rating making this new accessory perfect for workouts and running as well. Even the charging case gets an IPX4 water resistance rating, which is an added bonus for the outdoorsy.

Battery life and charging

The battery of the OnePlus Buds Pro goes on for seven hours on a single charge without ANC and five hours with ANC enabled. That number can be stretched up to a duration of 28 hours (with ANC) and 38 hours in normal listening mode via the charging case.

Where the earbuds edge slightly ahead of the competition is the fast charging support courtesy of the Warp Charging technology. So we are talking about 10 hours of playback time with just 10-minutes of charging via the USB-C. Add to this the ability to charge the case by placing it on the back of a OnePlus 9 Pro, if you happen to own the phone.

Price and release date

The earbuds are all set to release in Europe on August 25 and in the U.S. and Canada on September 1, 2021. They might just nudge ahead of AirPods 3 or the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 in terms of the release date, which will be a slight advantage to win over the eager buyers. The OnePlus Buds Pro will come in two color options – white or matte black.

OnePlus Buds Pro will arrive at $149 – a lot more than the OnePlus Buds’ initial price tag of $79. However, they are more feature rich and look absolutely amazing compared to the predecessor. Given they have a nice ANC mode that price tag will be just right for many buyers. Of course, they do undercut the AirPods Pro by a good margin.

Options to consider

Given the number of options, the ones that are most reliable in terms of feature to price ratio have to be AirPods Pro, Beats and LG TONE Free FN7. Depending on what you want from the earbuds, some features you might miss more than others, it is good to have a four-way choice as all of these are interesting in their own right.

If price is a major consideration, the Beats Studio Buds are also a very feasible option depending on what features you value more. As an overall package, LG TONE Free FN7 earbuds are the best bet –given their set of features (bacteria-killing UVnano tech) and the balanced price point.

AirPods Pro brings added features like transparency mode or even a couple of extra microphones, but other than that, they are fairly comparable. OnePlus instead nudges ahead in some comparisons like the battery life, water-resistance rating and Bluetooth connectivity.

You would not want to count out the upcoming Nothing Ear (1) earbuds by Carl Pei, former co-owner OnePlus. The ANC earbuds are aggressively priced at $99 and they also boast impressive features. The niche earbuds is the first product developed by the tech wizard, and it’s already backed by some big names in the audio and tech industry.

Wrap up

It goes without saying, OnePlus has hit the nail on its head with the Buds Pro. The Chinese OEM has a very competitive feature list that’ll appeal to most buyers at the given price. OnePlus has truly made a leap forward from the previous offerings here, and there is no reason audio lovers will not cherish using them. Now that the availability has been announced, the decision to wait for other options like AirPods 3 or Galaxy Buds 2 is dependent on what you really desire.

However, in the current scenario, there is little reason for you to shy away from the Buds Pro. Until they land in our court and we review them thoroughly, the decision will largely depend on how the Buds Pro looks on paper. On paper, the earbuds look exciting, and they should do well in real-life usage too.

For us, they are a definite yes at this point in time. The attractive design sets them apart from the crowd that still follows more or less the same measured design approach.

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iPad mini rumors may have one key detail wrong: Analyst weighs in

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Apple is expected to release an updated iPad mini tablet later this year, one that may feature a mini-LED display. The latter rumor is a contentious one, with multiple claims that are at odds with each other. Only a day after a leak claiming the new model will feature a mini-LED panel, an analyst is stating otherwise.

Yesterday, July 22, a report surfaced at DigiTimes that claimed the next iPad mini model will feature a mini-LED display, building upon rumors that Apple will reveal a sixth-generation iPad mini model this year. Such hopes may have been quickly dashed, however, at least when it comes to the display.

A day later, analyst Ross Young took to Twitter to directly counter the DigiTimes report, saying simply, “No miniLED iPad Mini this year. Digitimes (sic) story was not correct.” Young went on to clarify that his statement referred to an iPad mini model for 2021, noting that he confirmed the details with Apple’s “supposed miniLED supplier.”

The analyst likewise points out that mini-LED displays are reserved for Apple’s high-end products, of which the iPad mini doesn’t qualify. Though this miniature slate has managed to persist through five solid generations, it doesn’t offer the same features as its larger siblings.

The iPad mini — at least in its current 5th-generation iteration — features Touch ID as with the base $329 iPad. Rumors claim the alleged 6th-generation model will feature around the same 7.9-inch display as the current version, likely also retaining Apple Pencil support while adding more powerful hardware.

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