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pi-top’s latest edtech tool doubles down on maker culture – TechCrunch

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London-based edtech startup, pi-top, has unboxed a new flagship learn-to-code product, demoing the “go anywhere” Pi-powered computer at the Bett Show education fare in London today.

Discussing the product with TechCrunch ahead of launch, co-founder and CEO Jesse Lozano talked up the skills the company hopes students in the target 12-to-17 age range will develop and learn to apply by using sensor-based connected tech, powered by its new pi-top 4, to solve real world problems.

“When you get a pi-top 4 out of the box you’re going to start to learn how to code with it, you’re going to start to learn and understand electronic circuits, you’re going to understand sensors from our sensor library. Or components from our components library,” he told us. “So it’s not: ‘I’m going to learn how to create a robot that rolls around on wheels and doesn’t knock into things’.

“It’s more: ‘I’m going to learn how a motor works. I’m going to learn how a distance sensor works. I’m going to learn how to properly hook up power to these different sensors. I’m going to learn how to apply that knowledge… take those skills and [keep making stuff].”

The pi-top 4 is a modular computer that’s designed to be applicable, well, anywhere; up in the air, with the help of a drone attachment; powering a sensing weather balloon; acting as the brains for a rover style wheeled robot; or attached to sensors planted firmly in the ground to monitor local environmental conditions.

The startup was already dabbling in this area, via earlier products — such as a Pi-powered laptop that featured a built in rail for breadboarding electronics. But the pi-top 4 is a full step outside the usual computing box.

The device has a built-in mini OLED screen for displaying project info, along with an array of ports. It can be connected to and programmed via one of pi-top’s other Pi-powered computers, or any PC, Mac and Chromebook, with the company also saying it easily connects to existing screens, keyboards and mice. Versatility looks to be the name of the game for pi-top 4.

pi-top’s approach to computing and electronics is flexible and interoperable, meaning the pi-top 4 can be extended with standard electronics components — or even with Littlebits‘ style kits’ more manageable bits and bobs.

pi-top is also intending to sell a few accessories of its own (such as the drone add-on, pictured above) to help get kids’ creative project juices flowing — and has launched a range of accessories, cameras, motors and sensors to “allow creators of all ages to start learning by making straight out of the box”.

But Lozano emphasizes its platform play is about reaching out to a wider world, not seeking to lock teachers and kids to buying proprietary hardware. (Which would be all but impossible, in any case, given the Raspberry Pi core.)

“It’s really about giving people that breadth of ability,” says Lozano, discussing the sensor-based skills he wants the product to foster. “As you go through these different projects you’re learning these specific skills but you also start to understand how they would apply to other projects.”

He mentions various maker projects the pi-top can be used to make, like a music synth or wheeled robot, but says the point isn’t making any specific connected thing; it’s encouraging kids to come up with project ideas of their own.

“Once that sort of veil has been pierced in students and in teachers we see some of the best stuff starts to be made. People make things that we had no idea they would integrate it into,” he tells us, pointing by way of example to a solar car project from a group of U.S. schoolkids. “These fifteen year olds are building solar cars and they’re racing them from Texas to California — and they’re using pi-tops to understand how their cars are performing to make better race decisions.”

pi-top’s new device is a modular programmable computer designed for maker projects

“What you’re really learning is the base skills,” he adds, with a gentle sideswipe at the flood of STEM toys now targeting parents’ wallets. “We want to teach you real skills. And we want you to be able to create projects that are real. That it’s not block-based coding. It’s not magnetized, clipped in this into that and all of a sudden you have something. It’s about teaching you how to really make things. And how the world actually works around you.”

The pi-top 4 starts at $199 for a foundation bundle which includes a Raspberry Pi 3B+,16GB SD card, power pack, along with a selection of sensors and add-on components for starter projects.

Additional educational bundles will also launch down the line, at a higher price, including more add ons, access to premium software and a full curriculum for educators to support budding makers, according to Lozano.

The startup has certainly come a long way from its founders’ first luridly green 3D printed laptop which caught our eye back in 2015. Today it employs more than 80 people globally, with offices in the UK, US and China, while its creative learning devices are in the hands of “hundreds of thousands” of schoolkids across more than 70 countries at this stage. And Lozano says they’re gunning to pass the million mark this year.

So while the ‘learn to code’ space has erupted into a riot of noise and color over the past half decade, with all sorts of connected playthings now competing for kids’ attention, and pestering parents with quasi-educational claims, pi-top has kept its head down and focused firmly on building a serious edtech business with STEM learning as its core focus, saving it from chasing fickle consumer fads, as Lozano tells it.

“Our relentless focus on real education is something that has differentiated us,” he responds, when asked how pi-top stands out in what’s now a very crowded marketplace. “The consumer market, as we’ve seen with other startups, it can be fickle. And trying to create a hit toy all the time — I’d rather leave that to Mattel… When you’re working with schools it’s not a fickle process.”

Part of that focus includes supporting educators to acquire the necessary skills themselves to be able to teach what’s always a fast-evolving area of study. So schools signing up to pi-top’s subscription product get support materials and guides, to help them create a maker space and understand all the ins and outs of the pi-top platform. It also provides a classroom management backend system that lets teachers track students’ progress.

“If you’re a teacher that has absolutely no experience in computer science or engineering or STEM based learning or making then you’re able to bring on the pi-top platform, learn with it and with your student, and when they’re ready they can create a computer science course — or something of that ilk — in their classroom,” says Lozano.

pi-top wants kids to use tech to tackle real-world problems

“As with all good things it takes time, and you need to build up a bank of experience. One of the things we’ve really focused on is giving teachers that ability to build up that bank of experience, through an after school club, or through a special lesson plan that they might do.

“For us it’s about augmenting that teacher and helping them become a great educator with tools and with resources. There’s some edtech stuff they want to replace the teacher — they want to make the teacher obsolete. I couldn’t disagree with that viewpoint more.”

“Why aren’t teachers just buying textbooks?” he adds. “It takes 24 months to publish a textbook. So how are you supposed to teach computer science with those technology-based skills with something that’s by design two years out of date?”

Last summer pi-top took in $16M in Series B funding, led by existing founders Hambro Perks and Committed Capital. It’s been using the financing to bring pi-top 4 to market while also investing heavily in its team over the past 18 months — expanding in-house expertise in designing learning products and selling in to the education sector via a number of hires. Including the former director of learning at Apple, Dr William Rankin.

The founders’ philosophy is to combine academic expertise in education with “excellence in engineering”. “We want the learning experience to be something we’re 100% confident in,” says Lozano. “You can go into pi-top and immediately start learning with our lesson plans and the kind of framework that we provide.”

“[W]e’ve unabashedly focused on… education. It is the pedagogy,” he adds. “It is the learning outcome that you’re going to get when you use the pi-top. So one of the big changes over the last 18 months is we’ve hired a world class education team. We have over 100 years of pedagogical experience on the team now producing an enormous amount of — we call them learning experience designers.”

He reckons that focus will stand pi-top in good stead as more educators turn their attention to how to arm their pupils with the techie skills of the future.

“There’s loads of competition but now the schools are looking they’re [asking] who’s the team behind the education outcome that you’re selling me?” he suggests. “And you know what if you don’t have a really strong education team then you’re seeing schools and districts become a lot more picky — because there is so much choice. And again that’s something I’m really excited about. Everybody’s always trying to do a commercial brand partnership deal. That’s just not something that we’ve focused on and I do really think that was a smart choice on our end.”

Lozano is also excited about a video the team has produced to promote the new product — which strikes a hip, urban note as pi-top seeks to inspire the next generation of makers.

“We really enjoy working in the education sector and I really, really enjoy helping teachers and schools deliver inspirational content and learning outcomes to their students,” he adds. “It’s genuinely a great reason to wake up in the morning.”

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Apple doubles down on Fitness+ with new “Time to Walk” Apple Watch content

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Today, Apple launched a new component of its Fitness+ personal health subscription service: “Time to Walk.” With it, users who own an Apple Watch can take a tracked walk exercise while listening to stories or inspiring talks from “influential and interesting people.”

These talks will be automatically downloaded to users’ Apple Watch, provided those users subscribe to Fitness+. When users start listening to one of the 25-40 minute episodes, the Watch will begin tracking a Walk workout. For users in weelchairs, Time to Walk is instead called “Time to Push” and offers up an Outdoor Weelchair Walk Pace workout instead.

The announcement states that “each Time to Walk episode is shaped by the guest’s personal, life-shaping moments and includes lessons learned, meaningful memories, thoughts on purpose and gratitude, moments of levity, and other thought-provoking topics, recorded while walking outside or in locations that are meaningful to them.”

The stories and talks obviously involve audio of the figure speaking, but Apple says this feature will also surface photos on the Apple Watch at specific times during the talks to illustrate the stories or points.

Also, the talks are followed by short playlists composed of songs that gave the speaker “motivation and inspiration.”

The first Time to Walk episodes come from the following guests: country singer Dolly Parton, NBA player Draymond Green, musician Shawn Mendes, and actor Uzo Aduba. New episodes will be released each Monday “through the end of April.”

The announcement came with this statement from Jay Blahnik, Apple’s senior director of Fitness Technologies:

Walking is the most popular physical activity in the world, and one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies. A walk can often be more than just exercise: It can help clear the mind, solve a problem, or welcome a new perspective… Even throughout this challenging period of time, one activity that has remained available to many is walking. With Time to Walk, we’re bringing weekly original content to Apple Watch in Fitness+ that includes some of the most diverse, fascinating, and celebrated guests offering inspiration and entertainment to help our users keep moving through the power of walking.

Experts and organizations like the United States Department of Health and Human Services advise that people get 150 minutes per week of medium intensity exercise, which for some could include walking—but many Americans don’t get anywhere close to that.

Increasingly, personal tech products like smartphones and smart watches have become parts of the battle against that problem in the United States and elsewhere. Apple launched Apple Fitness+ in December—its first health-oriented subscription. There are also numerous third-party apps on the iOS and Android App Stores that offer similar content and features, and many other big tech companies have been looking to make waves in personal health as well.

Listing image by Apple

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Google Maps will soon show COVID vaccine locations

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Enlarge / Vaccine info in Google search.

Google

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine means a ton of people are soon going to be looking for vaccination sites. As usual, Google wants to be at the center of getting people where they’re going, and in a new blog post Google says it will start loading Search and Maps with information on vaccination sites. “In the coming weeks,” the company writes, “COVID-19 vaccination locations will be available in Google Search and Maps, starting with Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, with more states and countries to come.”

Soon you’ll be able to search “COVID vaccine” and get location results showing access requirements, appointment information, and if a site has a drive-through. Google says it is partnering with the Boston Children’s Hospital’s VaccineFinder.org, government agencies, and retail pharmacies for the data.

Elsewhere in the Google Empire, the company says it will open up various Google facilities as vaccine sites.

To help with vaccination efforts, starting in the United States, we’ll make select Google facilities—such as buildings, parking lots and open spaces—available as needed. These sites will be open to anyone eligible for the vaccine based on state and local guidelines. We’ll start by partnering with health care provider One Medical and public health authorities to open sites in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in California; Kirkland, Washington; and New York City, with plans to expand nationally. We’re working with local officials to determine when sites can open based on local vaccine availability.

Google also says it plans on launching a “Get the Facts” campaign across its services, probably to counter the conspiracy theories the company is often caught promoting via the YouTube algorithm. The post says the initiative will run across Google and YouTube to “get authoritative information out to the public about vaccines.”

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How desperate are you for GPUs, CPUs, consoles? Newegg tests with new lottery

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Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, electronics retailers have been under increased fire and scrutiny for mishandling how they sell brand-new consoles and high-end PC components. This week, online retailer Newegg has moved forward with a new, peculiar system for selling high-demand, low-supply electronics: the Newegg Shuffle. (Or, as the site’s metadata calls it, the Newegg Popular Product Lottery Queue.)

If you catch this article early enough on Friday, January 22, consider this a drop-everything suggestion to rush to the site by 5 pm ET and place a product-purchase request. Really: Do that right now if you’re interested in recent AMD CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, or the all-digital PlayStation 5. It’s free to try. We’ll wait.

OK, so, that process might have been a bit confusing. What’s going on with the Newegg Shuffle?

Shuffling into a forced bundle? Not necessarily, but likely

The Newegg Shuffle buzz began earlier this week when savvy shoppers noticed a limited-time lottery event under the same name in messages sent to a limited pool of Newegg customers. It advertised a variety of CPUs and graphics cards, and the lead-in page included a sales pitch: Pick what you want to buy, sign into your established Newegg customer profile, and submit a request. Do this by a certain time, and within a few hours, you’d get notified if your account was selected to purchase any of the products you picked. (Meaning, you could try to sign up for every listing, or just one, without the choices apparently changing your odds of being randomly selected.)

The problems with that early test, however, came in the form of furious customers sharing images of what the shopping interface actually looked like. After clicking a shiny new AMD processor, or an Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics card, you’d be shown the real shopping option: a forced bundle. Every single option appeared to require purchasing a brand new motherboard, even if you didn’t need one. That was particularly egregious in the case of Nvidia’s graphics cards, which are compatible with the common PCI-e 3.0 standard and thus don’t necessitate a new motherboard for interested PC gamers.

When pressed by PC Mag about this anti-consumer, forced-bundle promotion, Newegg clarified that its Shuffle feature was still in “beta.” The promotion would cut down on forced bundles once it rolled out to all customers. Friday’s Newegg Shuffle launch has confirmed this—but a few forced bundles remain.

Both of today’s available AMD CPUs, the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, can be purchased as standalone options. They’re additionally listed with bundles, however, and that means you essentially have a better shot at purchasing them from Newegg if you’re willing to attach a motherboard purchase to the CPU. The same goes for one of the promotion’s GPUs, an ASUS flavor of the RTX 3070, which can either be purchased a la carte or with a bundled ASUS motherboard.

Three other GPUs appear in the promotion; two of them can only be purchased a la carte, and one, the ASUS RTX 3080, can only be purchased with a bundled ASUS motherboard (for a whopping combined price of $1179.98).

And the all-digital PlayStation 5 on offer can only be purchased as part of a bundle, adding a staggering $160 to its normal $399 price with an extra controller (sure), a 1080p webcam (meh), and a media remote (ugh). Them’s some serious Gamestop vibes, and not in a good way.

Microsoft taking leadership in the space

The worst part about Newegg Shuffle is that it’s arguably the best system currently on the market for interested PC-parts shoppers. Otherwise, your best bet is following in-the-know Twitter accounts and online-shopping guides to learn exactly when high-end computer components and consoles are in stock—since retailers seem completely disinterested in, you know, letting us pre-order these things and enter a purchase queue.

The sole exception in this madness seems to be Xbox Series X/S. Microsoft has developed a somewhat scalper-proof purchasing system in the form of Xbox All Access. Combine a monthly subscription price with a dedicated Xbox account (and associated mailing address), and you can get your hands on a shiny new Xbox. Such systems are a pain for scalpers to transfer account ownership with. (As a bonus, buying a Series X/S this way may save you money compared to buying the hardware and attached subscription rates at retail prices.)

Until we see more retailers embrace customer verification systems, purchase limits, and anti-scalper efforts, we’re likely going to see more funky “lottery” systems like Newegg’s, complete with predatory bundle-enticement offers.

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