If the measure of progress in technology is that devices should become ever smaller and more capable, then OrCam Technologies is on a roll. The Israeli firm’s OrCam MyEye, which fits on the arm of a pair of glasses, is far more powerful and much smaller than its predecessor. With new AI-based Smart Reading software released in July, the device not only “reads” text and labels but also identifies people by name and describes other important aspects of the visual world. It also interacts with the user, principally people who are blind or visually impaired, by means of an AI-based smart voice assistant.
At the upcoming Sight Tech Global virtual event, we’re pleased to announce that OrCam’s co-founder and co-CEO, Professor Amnon Shashua, will be a featured speaker. The event, which will take place virtually on Dec. 2-3, is focused on how AI-related technologies will influence assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead. Attendance is free and pre-registration is open now.
Shashua is a towering figure in the technology world. He is not only the co-founder of OrCam but also Mobileye, the company that provides the computer-vision sensors and systems for automotive safety and autonomous navigation. Intel acquired Mobileye for $15.3 billion in 2017, the single-largest acquisition of an Israeli company ever.
Shashua started OrCam at the prompting of his aunt, who was losing her sight and hoped that her technologist nephew could apply his prodigious talents as a scientist and AI expert to help. With that goal in mind, he started OrCam in 2010 with co-founder Ziv Aviram. The firm has gone on to raise $130.4 million dollars from investors, including Intel, and sell the OrCam MyEye device to tens of thousands of users in over 50 countries. At $3900 per device in the U.S., the OrCam MyEye is far from affordable for most people, but the firm says the device price will come down as production increases.
At the start of a new era for assistive technology, OrCam’s approach with the lightweight, offline-operating OrCam MyEye is nothing if not thought provoking (the device was recognized as a TIME Best Invention of 2019). Will miniaturization of sophisticated sensors and electronics lead to unobtrusive sensor arrays as the foundation of assistive tech? Will the AI-based natural-language processing lead to an all-purpose, customizable personal assistants that work with abilities as needed?
“In OrCam’s roadmap,” says Shashua, “the ultimate AT must have the right balance between computer vision and natural language processing. For example, the “smart reading” feature recently launched harnesses NLP (natural language processing) in order to guide the device to which text information to extract and communicate to the user. NLP allows the user to specify precisely what he/she needs to know. For example, the “orientation” feature recently launched allows the user to prompt the device to describe the objects in the scene and to provide audible guidance to those objects. We see the “orientation” feature growing with respect to vocabulary, with respect to search (e.g., “notify me when you see a Toilet sign”), and with respect to obstacle avoidance (where is the free-space in the scene). The technological challenge in bringing these desires into reality critically depends on the progress of compute and algorithms.
“By ‘compute,’” says Shashua, “I mean the ever-growing trend to miniaturize processing power enables more sophisticated algorithms to reside on smaller and battery-powered footprint. By “algorithms” I mean the ever-increasing sophistication of deep-tech to mimic human intelligence. Combining the two creates a powerful impact on the future of assistive tech for people who are blind and visually impaired.”
Shashua received a B.Sc in mathematics and computer science from Tel-Aviv University in 1985 and his M.Sc in computer science in 1989 from the Weizmann Institute of Science. He received a Ph.D in brain and cognitive sciences in 1993 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), while working at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Sight Tech Global is a virtual event on Dec. 2-3 and attendance is free. Pre-registration is open now.
Sight Tech Global welcomes sponsors. Current sponsors include Verizon Media, Google, Waymo, Mojo Vision and Wells Fargo, The event is organized by volunteers and all proceeds from the event benefit The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Silicon Valley.
One man’s quest to bring back the small phone – TechCrunch
In 2017, we noted that smartphone screen sizes had settled into a sweet spot between five and six inches. In hindsight, that may well have been wishful thinking. A brief respite aside, it seems that phones have only continued to embiggen, driven by a continued spec war and panel manufacturers like Samsung.
Heck, even Steve Jobs famously missed the boat when he declared the 3.5-inch a platonic ideal a dozen years ago. “You can’t get your hand around it,” he noted about the four- to five-inch being manufactured by Samsung, “no one’s going to buy that.”
Now, the comparison isn’t entirely Apples to apples, as it were. For one thing, hardware makers have gotten much better at shrinking the phone around the screen in the intervening decade. That is to say that a five-inch phone in 2010 is a very different beast than a 2022 version. Even so, big phones are big. They’re so big, in fact, that folding the screen in half seems like the only reasonable exit ramp.
Where, Eric Migicovsky wonders, did all the small phones go? The man behind Pebble and Beeper (who also serves as a Y Combinator partner), is talking things into his own (self-described large) hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, he’s nudging it in someone’s direction in hopes that he doesn’t have to do the famously hard work of launching yet another hardware startup.
Noting that the dream of a premium, sub-six-inch Android handset is dying or dead, Migicovsky launched Small Android Phone. “My hope is that we can gather support from the community and convince Google (ideally) or another Android manufacturer to build this phone,” he writes on the site. Google may well have been the tipping point here, as the company notably abandoned smaller phones with hardware restructuring that gave us the Pixel 6.
He noted in an email to TechCrunch that he’s already had conversations with hardware companies and launched the site/petition in hopes of getting them to see things his way. “I am busy and happy running Beeper. My goal is to encourage someone else [to] make one.”
The petition cites the following bullets as driving factors in returning to a simpler, smaller, safer time:
- Fits nicely in pocket
- Are much lighter
- Are easy to use one-handed without dropping
- Won’t fall out of my pocket while bicycling
Currently around 20,000, Migicovsky believes 50,000 is the sweet spot for convincing a manufacture to go all in on small. “Just back-of-the-napkin math, but it feels right,” he says. “Probably ~$10 million [non-recurring engineering], means 50K units makes a decent profit at [an] $800 selling price.”
One wonders, ultimately, why the proliferation of the smartphone and increased competition have seemingly resulted in homogeneity. Certainly it’s not for lack of trying. When I mention the Palm Phone, he retorts, “I love that they tried! Also the Light Phone 2 is really interesting, but not great as primary phones.” He adds that — at the very least — he needs a good camera. That certainly doesn’t seem like too much to ask for these days.
Launching a new phone company isn’t an impossibility. We’ve got a close eye on Nothing and OSOM’s efforts. But one certainly questions the soundness of doing so in 2022, based entirely on a potentially niche corner of the market. On his site, Migicovsky makes it clear that he’d rather someone else do it.
“If no one else makes one I guess I will be forced to make it myself,” he writes, “but I really, really don’t want it to come to that.”
WhatsApp ramps up revenue with global launch of Cloud API and soon, a paid tier for its Business App – TechCrunch
WhatsApp is continuing its push into the business market with today’s news it’s launching the WhatsApp Cloud API to all businesses worldwide. Introduced into beta testing last November, the new developer tool is a cloud-based version of the WhatsApp Business API — WhatsApp’s first revenue-generating enterprise product — but hosted on parent company Meta’s infrastructure.
The company had been building out its Business API platform over the past several years as one of the key ways the otherwise free messaging app would make money. Businesses pay WhatsApp on a per-message basis, with rates that vary based on the region and number of messages sent. As of late last year, tens of thousands of businesses were set up on the non-cloud-based version of the Business API including brands like Vodafone, Coppel, Sears Mexico, BMW, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Iberia Airlines, Itau Brazil, iFood, and Bank Mandiri, and others. This on-premise version of the API is free to use.
The cloud-based version, however, aims to attract a market of smaller businesses, and reduces the integration time from weeks to only minutes, the company had said. It is also free.
Businesses integrate the API with their backend systems, where WhatsApp communication is usually just one part of their messaging and communication strategy. They may also want to direct their communications to SMS, other messaging apps, emails, and more. Typically, businesses would work with a solutions provider like Zendeks or Twilio to help facilitate these integrations. Providers during the cloud API beta tests had included Zendesk in the U.S., Take in Brazil, and MessageBird in the E.U.
During Meta’s messaging-focused “Conversations” live event today, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the global, public availability of the cloud-based platform, now called the WhatsApp Cloud API.
“The best business experiences meet people where they are. Already more than 1 billion users connect with a business account across our messaging services every week. They’re reaching out for help, to find products and services, and to buy anything from big-ticket items to everyday goods. And today, I am excited to announce that we’re opening WhatsApp to any business of any size around the world with WhatsApp Cloud API,” he said.
He said the company believes the new API will help businesses, both big and small, be able to connect with more people.
In addition to helping businesses and developers get set up faster than with the on-premise version, Meta says the Cloud API will help partners to eliminate costly server expenses and help them provide customers with quick access to new features as they arrive.
Some businesses may choose to forgo the API and use the dedicated WhatsApp Business app instead. Launched in 2018, the WhatsApp Business App is aimed at smaller businesses that want to establish an official presence on WhatsApp’s service and connect with customers. It provides a set of features that wouldn’t be available to users of the free WhatsApp messaging app, like support automated quick replies, greeting messages, FAQs, away messaging, statistics, and more.
Today, Meta is also introducing new power features for its WhatsApp Business app that will be offered for a fee — like the ability to manage chats across up to 10 devices. The company will also provide new customizable WhatsApp click-to-chat links that help businesses attract customers across their online presence, including of course, Meta’s other applications like Facebook and Instagram.
These will be a part of a forthcoming Premium service for WhatsApp Business app users. Further details, including pricing, will be announced at a later date.
Apple nabs half of North American smartphone shipments in Q1 – TechCrunch
A little bright spot in a market that was already struggling with declining sales well before a global pandemic, supply chain crisis and inflation concerns struck. The North American market saw a small – but hopeful – 4% increase in shipments over the same time last year, per new numbers from Canalys.
The primary driver – once again – is Apple. Sales of the iPhone 13 propelled the company to 51% of the total market, with 19.9 million units shipped. That’s up 45% from Q1 2021. The firm cites a renewed focus on the company’s home market, as demand uncertainty grows abroad. The new iPhone SE also helped the company capture more of the mid-range market.
Samsung saw an increase of one percentage point to 28% of the total market. What’s happening lower down in the top five, however, may be the most interesting story of the North American smartphones sales right now. That includes Motorola’s continued surprise comeback and a reinvigorated Google cracking the top five.
LG and HTC’s exits from the market (both planned and unplanned) have transformed the market below the top two spots. It’s not quite a profound a change as China has undergone throughout Huawei’s struggles to regain relevance, but it’s always nice to see new names in the mix for a category that’s long been dominated by the same handful of companies.
Motorola (listed as parent company Lenovo here) maintains the number three spot, on the strength of solid phones at budget prices, coupled with a fair bit of legacy name recognition. The company jumped 56% from the same time last year. It’s quite a success story from a brand that’s been in the rearview for all but a few select markets. Its ranking is bolstered by a big 21% drop by fellow Chinese manufacturing giant, TCL.
Google’s newfound focus on consumer hardware, meanwhile, seems to be paying off. The Pixel 6 helped propel the company into the top five, with a (proportionally) massive 380% growth. The company shipped 1.2 million phones for the quarter, versus TCL’s 1.4 million. The recently announced Pixel 6A and upcoming Pixel 7 could give the company a decent hot at taking fourth place before the year is up.
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