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OmniVis could save lives by detecting cholera-infected water in minutes rather than days – TechCrunch

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Clean drinking water is one of the most urgent needs in developing countries and disaster-stricken areas, but safety tests can take days — during which tainted water can infect thousands. OmniVis aims to make detection of cholera and other pathogens as quick, simple, and cheap as a pregnancy test. Its smartphone-powered detection platform could save thousands of lives.

OmniVis, which presented on stage at Disrupt SF’s Startup Battlefield today, emerged from research conducted at Purdue University, where CEO and co-founder Katherine Clayton completed her doctorate. She and her advisors were working on the question of using microfluidics, basically very close inspection of the behavior of fluids, to detect cholera bacteria in water.

In case you forgot your Infectious Diseases 101, cholera is a bacterium that thrives in water polluted by fecal matter. When ingested it multiplies and causes severe diarrhea and dehydration — which as you might imagine can become a life-threatening problem if a community is short on clean water.

While normally uncommon, there was a huge cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 following a major earthquake there; 665,000 people were infected and more than 8,000 people died. It was this humanitarian disaster that prompted Clayton to look into how such an event might have been prevented. She’s been working on what would become the OmniVis platform since 2013.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she told me.

That’s not uncommon for academic spin-offs with valuable IP but zero product experience. Moving from lab bench to field-ready hardware has taken years of hard work. But the resulting device could upend a costly and slow water testing process that leaves communities at risk in crucial moments.

Existing water testing is generally done at a central location, a lab run by a university, utility, or the local government. It depends on the region — and of course if there has been a disaster, it may not even be functional. Going from sample collection to results may take several days, and it isn’t cheap, either. Clayton estimated it at $100 per sample.

“But that’s just supplies and labor,” she said. “Not the cost of the lab, the PCR machines — which are tens of thousands of dollars — the pipettes, the dyes, the disposables and consumables, the training… not to mention in a lot of areas you’re not just going to walk by a nice central laboratory. Some countries may only have one or two testing facilities.”

Another option is disposable rapid diagnostic tests, more like pregnancy tests than anything, meant for use with stool samples — but their accuracy is low even then, and with cholera diluted in a water source you may as well be flipping a coin.

Such was the state of testing when Haiti had its outbreak and Clayton began looking into it. In 2013 they began investigating microfluidics as a method for detection. It works by exposing a set of chemical reagents, or “primers,” to a water sample. These primers are engineered to bind to bits of cholera’s DNA and then when heated, replicate it — a process called DNA amplification.

The more cholera is present, the more DNA will be available to amplify, and it multiplies to the point where it affects the viscosity of the water — a factor that can be tested by the device. Interestingly, the device in no way “analyzes” the DNA or identifies it; all it does is measure how viscous the water is, which is a highly reliable proxy for how much cholera was present in it to begin with.

It turns out this method is both quick and accurate: In 30 minutes it gives as good or better results as central testing.

“The worst thing we could ever do is say there’s no cholera in the water when there is,” Clayton said. So they’re focused on robust test results over all else. But ultimately the device still had to go from the lab to the real world. To that end the team conducted pilot tests in Haiti, where they worked with local NGOs and communities to get some direct feedback.

What they found was promising — but also resulted in major changes to the product. For one thing, they had to switch from iPhone to Android.

“People feel safer with Android than iPhone, which is considered a luxury item,” Clayton said. They also found that men and women operated the system equally well — the team is 84 percent women, she noted, and their design choices may have crept into the product the same as can happen on what is much more common, a male-dominated team. English and Svengali users likewise did fine. Interestingly, locals were baffled by roman numerals. “That was surprising,” she said, but illustrative of how even the smallest assumptions need to be questioned.

“I love user-centered design,” Clayton said. “I think it’s the only way to get engineering to work. UX and graphic design is not my or my colleagues’ specialty, so we had to get some outside contractors for that.”

The production device, which OmniVis hopes to ship in about six months, should cost around a thousand dollars — but at about $10 per test it will pay for itself quickly, especially considering how much easily it can be deployed and used. A half-hour turnaround on a test that can be performed by an aid worker with an hour’s training is an invaluable tool in a disaster-stricken area where infrastructure like mail and roads may be in disorder.

These devices, by the way, are not bought and paid for by the people who drink the water. Like the water-testing labs, they’ll be owned and operated by NGOs, governments and others with budgets for this kind of thing.

Cholera is the first pathogen the company is aiming to detect, but the system can just as easily detect several others simply by using different disposable tests equipped with different primers. E. Coli could be next — with the proper testing, Clayton said. And others would follow. It’s not hard to imagine an OmniVis device being a must-have for any relief work where water needs to be tested.



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Paramount+ will carry new Star Trek series Strange New Worlds and Prodigy

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Enlarge / Key art for the new Star Trek series Star Trek: Prodigy.

ViacomCBS

In an online event for investors, ViacomCBS revealed several new details about CBS All Access replacement Paramount+, including pricing as well as two new Star Trek series that will premiere on the network. Also, the company announced that a much-anticipated Showtime show will end up on Paramount+ instead.

Paramount+, which was announced several months ago, will launch on March 4 in the United States, Canada, and 18 Latin American countries. As with CBS All Access, both an ad-supported and ad-free plan will be offered. In the US, the ad-supported one will cost $4.99 per month, while the ad-free plan will cost $9.99.

That $4.99 per month is $1 cheaper than the ad-supported version of CBS All Access. However, this cheaper plan will not include local CBS stations. The service is also expected to launch in Nordic countries within a few weeks and in Australia sometime later this year.

When it launches, Paramount+ will have 2,500 films and 30,000 TV episodes, according to ViacomCBS executives. That will include some original series, many of which will be available in 4K and Dolby Vision HDR.

Original series will include those we’ve already seen on CBS All Access, including the large slate of Star Trek shows such as Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks.

Two new Star Trek series have recently been announced: a CG animated kids’ show called Star Trek: Prodigy, and a spinoff about Captain Pike and Mr. Spock called Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Prodigy was planned for airing on Nickelodeon (which is owned by the Viacom part of ViacomCBS), and it will still air there— but only after appearing on Paramount+ first.

Additionally, it has been confirmed that the long-anticipated and much delayed series based on the video game franchise Halo will be delivered via Paramount+; it was originally planned as a Showtime series. Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on the show, which is planned to premiere in the first quarter of 2022. According to Deadline, shooting was well underway when the pandemic forced a shutdown. During the break, it was decided to move the show to the broad-audience Paramount+ service rather than “adult” and “sophisticated” Showtime. (Those descriptors were used by Showtime exec David Nevins to describe the network.)

Other content includes a Frasier reboot, as well as some 2021 theatrical film releases like Mission Impossible 7.

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Google’s Wear OS neglect has left voice activation broken for months

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Enlarge / A Wear OS watch.

Ron Amadeo

Poor, dying Wear OS.

Apparently, the Google Assistant on Wear OS has been broken for months, and until now, no one at Google has noticed. About four months ago, diehard Wear OS users started a thread on the public Android issue tracker saying that the “OK Google” hotword no longer worked on Wear OS, and several claimed that the feature has been broken for months. Recently, news of the 900-user-strong thread spilled over to the Android subreddit, and after 9to5Google and other news sites picked it up, Google has finally commented on the issue.

The Verge quotes a Google spokesperson as saying the company is “aware of the issues some users have been encountering,” and it will “address these and improve the overall experience.” Google didn’t give an ETA on how long a fix would take. Google offered a similar boiler-plate response back in that November thread, with a rep saying, “We’ve shared this with our engineering teams and will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.”

Wear OS’ broken voice system is the latest in a long line of signs that Wear OS is a dead platform and that it has been abandoned by Google. Google’s last major update for Wear OS was in 2018, and many of Google’s newer services have opted to not support the platform. Google Play Music had a standalone offline music app for Wear OS, which was fantastic if someone was out jogging and wanted to leave their phone at home. Play Music is dead now, and its replacement, YouTube Music, supports the Apple Watch but not Wear OS. Google Hangouts is another dying Google app that had great support for Wear OS, but its replacement, Google Chat, doesn’t support the OS. Updates to Google Fit a few months ago killed the Wear OS weight training feature, which was one of the best parts of the platform.

Wear OS’ hardware has also been a disaster. Qualcomm suffocated the platform by letting it go six years without a significant SoC upgrade, leading to slow hardware that struggled to run the latest features. Every major hardware company that once supported Wear OS—brands like Samsung, LG, Motorola, Huawei, Asus, and Sony—has abandoned it. Wear OS devices are only sold by fashion brands now.

Google’s new fling in the wearables space is with Fitbit, a company it recently acquired for $2.1 billion. Years ago, Fitbit was a trailblazer in simple, cheap step counters, but today the company is an also-ran with single-digit market share. Fitbit hasn’t been able to adapt to low-end pressure from cheap Chinese fitness trackers and high-end competition from the Apple Watch. It’s not clear how combining Fitbit’s failing wearables company with Google’s failing wearables division will lead to any kind of success, but at this point, all we can do is wait and watch.

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Framework startup designed a thin, modular, repairable 13-inch laptop

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Enlarge / The Framework laptop certainly seems slim enough in this studio shot. Note the seams around the USB-C ports on the side—those are user-replaceable modules.

Framework

Laptops these days are slimmer, sleeker, and lighter than ever—but their repairability and configurability are taking enormous hits in the process. Framework is seeking to roll back the clock in a good way with its first product, the upcoming Framework 13.5-inch laptop.

Following the lead of companies like Fairphone, the startup is focused on respecting users’ right to repair by building systems focused on modular design, with components that are easily configured, replaced, and even upgraded.

Not some massive block

Although Framework’s raison d’etre revolves around modularity, the company clearly understands that it can’t sacrifice sleek, lightweight design if it wants to maintain a wide appeal. It describes its first product, the upcoming Framework laptop, as “similar to a Dell XPS… thin, not some massive block.” The early product shots and specifications seem to bear that out:

  • 13.5-inch 3:2 screen @ 2256×1504
  • 1.3kg (2.9lb) milled aluminum chassis
  • 15.9mm thick
  • configurable Intel Tiger Lake (11th gen) CPU
  • configurable Wi-Fi up to Wi-Fi 6E
  • configurable RAM up to 64GiB DDR4
  • configurable NVMe storage “4TB or more”
  • 1080p webcam @ 60fps
  • 57Wh battery

Framework’s off-the-cuff comparison seems pretty reasonable, with specs equivalent to or slightly better than those available on Dell’s XPS 13. It is 0.1kg heavier and 1.1mm thicker than the XPS 13—but we don’t think that’s going to be a dealbreaker for most people.

Modularity

You can go a long way toward making a laptop repairable by simply including standard sockets rather than soldering everything down to the board. I’ve been personally frustrated with the latter practice many times this year—soldered components not only prevent you from repairing laptops when they fail, but in many cases, they stop you from even configuring machines as you’d prefer.

Framework pledges to do away with all of that—specifications, product shots, and even video shown to us in confidence show easily accessible sockets for RAM, storage, and Wi-Fi. The company also pledges to offer future motherboard swaps to allow for upgrading the CPU without replacing the entire laptop—although frankly, we’re a bit extra skeptical about that claim until we see it in action; it’s difficult to predict how physical layouts and thermal needs will change with entire future hardware generations.

Beyond the standard sockets we used to expect from laptops, Framework will introduce the concept of configurable external ports. Instead of building the chassis with a specific port layout, the machine has been designed with four bays which fit what the company is calling “Expansion Cards”—these offer USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, microSD, and even 3.5mm headphone ports. With this system, users will be able to decide for themselves not only what ports they need but which side of the laptop to put them on.

Finally, the company pledges to make the Framework laptop user-serviceable by focusing on ease of replacement—and availability—of frequently replaced parts, including battery, screen, keyboard, and bezel. The company also pledges to open its hardware ecosystem up to third parties, which will be able to design, build, and sell compatible modules via a Framework Marketplace.

Too good to be true?

Framework is promising an awful lot in its very first product—”thin as an XPS 13, repairable as a custom-built gaming PC” is a pretty tall order to live up to. We very much want to believe, but it’s going to take a full Ars Technica teardown before we’re completely convinced.

Although we’re skeptical, we are hopeful—the fledgling company does have a pretty solid pedigree. Framework founder Nirav Patel was Oculus VR’s head of hardware from 2012-2017, and he was a Facebook director of engineering beyond that. The company’s team also includes design, engineering, and operations people hailing from Apple, Google, and Lenovo.

The Framework laptop is expected to become widely available this summer—and a company representative promised us a hands-on review unit as soon as one becomes available.

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