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Kiwi’s food delivery bots are rolling out to 12 more colleges – TechCrunch

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If you’re a student at UC Berkeley, the diminutive rolling robots from Kiwi are probably a familiar sight by now, trundling along with a burrito inside to deliver to a dorm or apartment building. Now students at a dozen more campuses will be able to join this great, lazy future of robotic delivery as Kiwi expands to them with a clever student-run model.

Speaking recently at TechCrunch’s Robotics + AI Session at the Berkeley campus, Kiwi’s Felipe Chavez and Sasha Iatsenia discussed the success of their burgeoning business and the way they planned to take it national.

In case you’re not aware of the Kiwi model, it’s basically this: When you place an order online with a participating restaurant, you have the option of delivery via Kiwi. If you so choose, one of the company’s fleet of knee-high robots with insulated, locking storage compartments will swing by the place, your order is put within, and it brings it to your front door (or as close as it can reasonably get). You can even watch the last bit live from the robot’s perspective as it rolls up to your place.

The robots are what Kiwi calls “semi-autonomous.” This means that although they can navigate most sidewalks and avoid pedestrians, each has a human monitoring it and setting waypoints for it to follow, on average every five seconds. Iatsenia told me that they’d tried going full autonomous and that it worked… most of the time. But most of the time isn’t good enough for a commercial service, so they’ve got humans in the loop. They’re working on improving autonomy, but for now this is how it is.

That the robots are being controlled in some fashion by a team of people in Colombia (from where the co-founders hail) does take a considerable amount of the futurism out of this endeavor, but on reflection it’s kind of a natural evolution of the existing delivery infrastructure. After all, someone has to drive the car that brings you your food, as well. And in reality, most AI is operated or informed directly or indirectly by actual people.

That those drivers are in South America operating multiple vehicles at a time is a technological advance over your average delivery vehicle — though it must be said that there is an unsavory air of offshoring labor to save money on wages. That said, few people shed tears over the wages earned by the Chinese assemblers who put together our smartphones and laptops, or the garbage pickers who separate your poorly sorted recycling. The global labor economy is a complicated one, and the company is making jobs in the place it was at least partly born.

Whatever the method, Kiwi has traction: it’s done more than 35,000 deliveries at an increasing rate since it started two years ago (now up to over 10,000 per month) and the model seems to have proven itself. Customers are happy, they get stuff delivered more than ever once they get the app and there are fewer and fewer incidents where a robot is kicked over or, you know, catches on fire. Notably, the founders said onstage, the community has really adopted the little vehicles, and should one overturn or be otherwise interfered with, it’s often set on its way soon after by a passerby.

Iatsenia and Chavez think the model is ready to push out to other campuses, where a similar effort will have to take place — but rather than do it themselves by raising millions and hiring staff all over the country, they’re trusting the robotics-loving student groups at other universities to help out.

For a small and low-cash startup like Kiwi, it would be risky to overextend by taking on a major round and using that to scale up. They started as robotics enthusiasts looking to bring something like this to their campus, so why can’t they help others do the same?

So the team looked at dozens of universities, narrowing them down by factors important to robotic delivery: layout, density, commercial corridors, demographics and so on. Ultimately they arrived at the following list:

  • Northern Illinois University
  • University of Oklahoma
  • Purdue University
  • Texas A&M
  • Parsons
  • Cornell
  • East Tennessee State University
  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Stanford
  • Harvard
  • NYU
  • Rutgers

What they’re doing is reaching out to robotics clubs and student groups at those colleges to see who wants to take partial ownership of Kiwi administration out there. Maintenance and deployment would still be handled by Berkeley students, but the student clubs would go through a certification process and then do the local work, like a capsized bot and on-site issues with customers and restaurants.

“We are exploring several options to work with students down the road, including rev share,” Iatsenia told me. “It depends on the campus.”

So far they’ve sent 40 robots to the 12 campuses listed and will be rolling out operations as the programs move forward on their own time. If you’re not one of the unis listed, don’t worry — if this goes the way Kiwi plans, it sounds like you can expect further expansion soon.

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Google Russia forced to declare bankruptcy after bank account seizure

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Enlarge / The Google doodle for Russia National Day 2016.

Google’s going… out of business?! That’s apparently the case in Russia. As Reuters reports, Google’s Russia subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after “the authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to carry on operations.” Reuters has a statement from Google:

The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations. Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.

A regulatory filing showed Google Russia has been expecting to file for bankruptcy since March 22. The division did $2 billion in revenue last year, but that doesn’t matter much when authorities take your entire bank account.

Unlike many tech companies that have abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Google has tried to keep doing business in the country. Heavy hitters like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and Google Play are all still running in Russia. Google’s most important product, the ad platform, was shut down on March 3 in Russia after the Russian government started demanding it censor ads about the war. Over the next few days in March, the big four credit card companies all pulled out of Russia, making normal business transactions very difficult. Google cited this “payment system disruption” as the reason for shutting down Google Play paid apps.

It’s not clear how much of a presence Google will have in Russia going forward. Google has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Russia, and its behavior is an outlier over competitors like Microsoft and Apple, which both voluntarily stopped paid services in the country before the credit card companies pulled out. While Google enjoys a ~90 percent search market share in many countries, Russia is one of the few places it faces a viable search competitor; Google splits the search market nearly 50/50 with local tech company Yandex. That market share might explain why Google doesn’t take a tough stance against Russia—if it gets blocked even temporarily, there might not be a market to come back to.

The Russian government still wants to rely on Google for some services, though. The government said Tuesday it wants to keep YouTube running in the country, saying that a shutdown would harm Russian citizens. Like the rest of the world, there are no video sites on the same scale as YouTube in Russia.

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Microsoft previews a new, totally redesigned Outlook for Windows app

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Enlarge / The new Outlook client for Windows will unify the web and offline clients—when it’s done, anyway.

Microsoft

For years now, Microsoft has been planning behind the scenes to unify its disparate Outlook clients across the web, Windows, and macOS. Today, that goal moved one step closer to completion with the introduction of a new Outlook client for Windows users that closely mirrors the interface and functionality of the Outlook web client.

The new app is available to Office Insiders in the Beta channel who have work or school Microsoft 365 accounts. Regular Microsoft accounts aren’t currently supported. This appears to be the same version of the Outlook client that leaked to the public a couple of weeks ago.

A unified Outlook client, also known as “One Outlook” or “Project Monarch,” will be an especially welcome change for Mac users. The Mac version of Outlook has always looked different from and been less fully featured than the Windows client, though the current situation is much better than the bad old days of Microsoft Entourage.

The new Outlook app will reportedly replace not just the current Outlook app but also Windows’ built-in Mail and Calendar apps. Those apps received minor updates for Windows 11 to bring them in line with its redesigned user interface but otherwise haven’t seen many functional improvements in recent years. The new Outlook app will run on Windows 10 and 11, but we don’t know whether it will replace the Mail and Calendar apps in both OSes.

The new Outlook app is still in early development, and as such, there is a long list of common mail client features that it doesn’t support. In-development and planned features that aren’t yet supported include support for IMAP mail accounts, @outlook.com accounts, offline use, use with multiple accounts, and support for working with .pst Outlook data files.

We may get more information on the One Outlook project at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, which runs next week from May 24–26.

Listing image by Microsoft

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Acer’s new portable monitors can make 2D look like 3D

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Enlarge / Acer’s SpatialLabs View portable monitor.

Acer

Good portable monitors improve your computing experience by providing more screen real estate. But two 4K portable monitors announced today, Acer’s SpatialLabs View and SpatialLabs View Pro, have a trick up their sleeves: making content look like it’s coming out of the screen. Using Acer’s proprietary hardware-software solution, SpatialLabs, the monitors can convert 2D content, like supported games, photos, and CAD designs, into stereoscopic 3D.

Certified by Adobe and Autodesk, SpatialLabs uses a specialized optical lens, two eye-tracking cameras, and AI to make 2D work look 3D without pesky glasses or other clunky headgear. SpatialLabs works by creating a set of images for each eye and projecting them through the optical lens to where you’re looking.

Acer’s idea is that creators, like CAD designers, 3D animators, and developers, quickly see how their work looks in 3D. The stereoscopic 3D environment doesn’t require time-consuming rendering, so it can provide a helpful and more immersive way to preview work.

Acer introduced SpatialLabs through its ConceptD 7 SpatialLabs Edition laptop in October and is now bringing it to entertainment and work-focused 15.6-inch portable monitors. It also announced a gaming laptop with the tech today.

Acer showed the monitors with an HDMI 2.0 and USB-C port for video, plus USB-A and a headphone jack.
Enlarge / Acer showed the monitors with an HDMI 2.0 and USB-C port for video, plus USB-A and a headphone jack.

Acer

Meant for personal use, the SpatialLabs View monitor claims to present supported games in stereoscopic 3D through the new SpatialLabs TrueGame platform.

Gaming in stereo 3D

Acer's SpatialLabs View will be pricier and slower than your typical portable gaming monitor.
Enlarge / Acer’s SpatialLabs View will be pricier and slower than your typical portable gaming monitor.

Acer

“This is possible because games are mostly created with three dimensions in mind: Developers include information about depth into each scene and object they build,” Acer said in its announcement. “SpatialLabs leverages this already existing information in order to present the games in stereoscopic 3D.”

Acer said that TrueGame would support more than 50 games upon release, including BioShock Infinite, Borderlands 2, Forza Horizon 4 and 5, God of War, No Man’s Sky, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Tiny Tina’s Wonderland. TrueGame will provide preconfigured 3D profiles for each title that will automatically launch when you play a supported game. Acer claimed it will add more games “on a continuous basis.”

So what’s the benefit of making gaming graphics look like they’re popping out of a 15.6-inch screen? According to Acer, you can expect more spacious-looking rooms and objects that “appear genuinely layered.” Before passing judgment, we have to see it in person but are curious how the effect might impact fast-paced action. The SpatialLabs View is also a smaller, high pixel density (282.4 pixels per inch) display with a 60 Hz refresh rate and response time of up to 30 ms, making it much slower than the 360 Hz desktop-sized gaming monitors and laptops available.

A secondary 3D screen for creators

The SpatialLabs View Pro is more similar to the ConceptD 7 SpatialLabs Edition laptop in that it targets creative professionals. Acer said the portable monitor supports “all major file formats,” including OBJ, FBX, STEP, STL, COLLADA, IGES, glTF, 3DS, BLEND, PLY, DAE, IGS, and Datasmith, enabling the use of 3D design software like Cinema 4D, Revit, and Solidworks.

The monitor also works with the SpatialLabs Model Viewer, which lets you bring over images, models, and animations from 3D software and view them in stereoscopic 3D. And if you use Autodesk Maya or Blender, you could edit on a normal screen in 2D and view those changes in real time in stereoscopic 3D on the portable monitor. SpatialLabs also has a feature to generate a simulated stereo 3D image from 2D photos and videos. Integration with 3D modeling platform Sketchfab, for downloading additional 3D assets, could also help Acer encourage more use cases.

Acer also sees the SpatialLabs View Pro attracting customers to kiosks and point-of-sale displays, equipping it with a VESA mount, hand gesture recognition, and up to a 5-hour battery life to help.

Acer hopes images seemingly popping out of a screen will catch shoppers' eyes.
Enlarge / Acer hopes images seemingly popping out of a screen will catch shoppers’ eyes.

Acer

When you’re not using the upcoming displays’ 3D features, they’re just regular 4K IPS panels. They claim a max brightness of 323 nits, which would be strong for a portable monitor, 100 percent coverage of the Adobe RGB color space, and 1,200:1 contrast ratios.

Moving the needle?

SpatialLabs was a niche use when Acer announced it in the fall, and that remains the case. But these monitors may move the needle a bit—at least more than the laptop did.

For one, they should be notably cheaper than the SpatialLabs laptop. Acer didn’t share a price for the upcoming monitors, but the PC sells outside the US for 3,500 pounds/4,000 euros (about $4,366/$4,216).

Portable monitors are also a more approachable path to stereoscopic 3D than investing in a computer. Of course, the portable monitors assume you already have the computing capabilities to drive your 3D apps and SpatialLabs. Acer didn’t provide GPU or CPU requirements for a smooth SpatialLabs experience (we’ve asked and will update this piece if we hear back), but the ConceptD 7 SpatialLabs Edition has an octa-core Intel Core i7-11800H, and Nvidia RTX 3080 (8GB), while the Predator Triton Helios 300 SptialLbas Edition gaming laptop announced today goes up to an i9-12900H and RTX 3080

It remains to be seen if SpatialLabs can work with games in a way that looks good and doesn’t hinder gameplay or induce nausea. Competitive gamers will opt for something with a higher refresh rate, but it’s also hard to imagine more casual gamers flocking to the SpatialLabs View for stereoscopic 3D gaming. That’s especially true considering that the SpatialLabs View will cost way more than most desktop-sized gaming monitors at $1,099 “this summer.”

Having a second screen dedicated to the 3D experience seems more natural for creators and developers already working in this space, especially if it’s executed well. But dealing with a smaller screen and finding the proper use is a pertinent obstacle for professionals. Creatives may also be hesitant to become dependent on somewhat new technology for critical work.

Acer didn’t share a price or release date for the SpatialLabs View Pro ahead of press time.

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