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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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Eufy’s “local storage” cameras can be streamed from anywhere, unencrypted

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Enlarge / Eufy’s camera footage is stored locally, but with the right URL, you can also watch it from anywhere, unencrypted. It’s complicated.

When security researchers found that Eufy’s supposedly cloud-free cameras were uploading thumbnails with facial data to cloud servers, Eufy’s response was that it was a misunderstanding, a failure to disclose an aspect of its mobile notification system to customers.

It seems there’s more understanding now, and it’s not good.

Eufy didn’t respond to other claims from security researcher Paul Moore and others, including that one could stream the feed from a Eufy camera in VLC Media Player, if you had the right URL. Last night, The Verge, working with the security researcher “Wasabi” who first tweeted the problem, confirmed it could access Eufy camera streams, encryption-free, through a Eufy server URL.

This makes Eufy’s privacy promises of footage that “never leaves the safety of your home,” is end-to-end encrypted, and only sent “straight to your phone” highly misleading, if not outright dubious. It also contradicts an Anker/Eufy senior PR manager who told The Verge that “it is not possible” to watch footage using a third-party tool like VLC.

The Verge notes some caveats, similar to those that applied to the cloud-hosted thumbnail. Chiefly, you would typically need a username and password to reveal and access the encryption-free URL of a stream. “Typically,” that is, because the camera-feed URL appears to be a relatively simple scheme involving the camera serial number in Base64, a Unix timestamp, a token that The Verge says is not validated by Eufy’s servers, and a four-digit hex value. Eufy’s serial numbers are typically 16 digits long, but they are also printed on some boxes and could be obtained in other places.

We’ve reached out to Eufy and Wasabi and will update this post with any further information. Researcher Paul Moore, who initially raised concerns with Eufy’s cloud access, tweeted on November 28 that he had “a lengthy discussion with [Eufy’s] legal department” and would not comment further until he could provide an update.

Vulnerability discovery is far more of a norm than an exception in the smart home and home security fields. Ring, Nest, Samsung, the corporate meeting cam Owl—if it has a lens, and it connects to Wi-Fi, you can expect a flaw to show up at some point, and headlines to go with it. Most of these flaws are limited in scope, complicated for a malicious entity to act upon, and, with responsible disclosure and a swift response, will ultimately make the devices and systems stronger.

Eufy, in this instance, is not looking like the typical cloud security company with a typical vulnerability. An entire page of privacy promises, including some valid and notably good moves, has been made largely irrelevant within a week’s time.

You could argue that anyone who wants to be notified of camera incidents on their phone should expect some cloud servers to be involved. You might give Eufy the benefit of the doubt, that the cloud servers you can access with the right URL are simply a waypoint for streams that have to leave the home network eventually under an account password lock.

But it has to be particularly painful for customers who bought Eufy’s products under the auspices of having their footage stored locally, safely, and differently from those other cloud-based firms only to see Eufy struggle to explain its own cloud reliance to one of the largest tech news outlets.

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Pixel 7a rumors show similar design, big tech upgrades

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Enlarge / Yep, that’s what I thought it would look like.

OnLeaks and Smartprix

The design of the Pixel 7a does not seem like it will contain many surprises. OnLeaks has a fresh render for Google’s next mid-range phone, and it looks like a mini Pixel 7. Usually, these renders are based on CAD information passed out to accessory manufacturers, so the sizes and shapes are usually accurate, but things like the colors and materials are up for interpretation.

If rumors are true, this will be Google’s fourth phone to keep the camera-bar design going. The Pixel 6 and 6a camera bar had a clear glass or plastic covering around the camera lenses, while the Pixel 7 switched to an opaque, solid aluminum camera bar. Google likes these phones to look the same, so it’s a safe bet the Pixel 7a will also get a solid camera bar. Whether that’s aluminum or some other material is still up for interpretation. The front is also predictable and looks just like the Pixel 6a, with a flat screen and what the report calls “thick bezels.”

Elsewhere in the Pixel rumor mill, big upgrades are expected for the Pixel 7a. Android researcher Kuba Wojciechowski has been tracking the Pixel 7a (codenamed “Lynx” and “Pixel 22 Mid-range”) via the Android codebase, which reveals additions like (slow) 5 W wireless charging and the same Samsung GN1 main camera as what’s in the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, along with a Sony IMX787 for the wide-angle sensor. The new sensors would be a big camera upgrade. Currently, the Pixel 6a’s main camera is the venerable Sony IMX363, a sensor that Google has been using (with one minor revision) since the Pixel 2. A fresh set of sensors would make sense, given that the IMX363 is around six years old now.

You might ask, “Well, won’t flagship cameras cannibalize the bigger Pixel sales?” and we’ll say that Google has never seemed to care about that. The Pixel 6a has the same SoC as the Pixel 6 and really seems to strive to be a third flagship next to the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Running a similar camera loadout would fit that strategy. Cannibalization might matter for companies with big, established businesses, but Google might just want to grab at whatever sales it can get at this point.

Wojciechowski’s code hunting also says the Pixel 7a will sport a 90 Hz, 1080p Samsung display, which would also be a huge improvement over the 60 Hz Pixel 6a. All of this at the 6a’s current $449 price might sound like a lot, but the Pixel 7 recently shipped in India, and if Google wants to be competitive there, this still isn’t good enough. In India, it’s normal for phones in this price range to have 120 Hz displays and flagship specs. In the US, though, this phone at Pixel 6a prices would be a killer deal.

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Elon Musk appears to reconcile with Apple after Twitter tirade

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Elon Musk said he had a “good conversation” with Apple chief executive Tim Cook and “resolved the misunderstanding” about his claim that Twitter could be removed from the App Store, just days after the world’s richest man unleashed a tirade against the most valuable tech company.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Musk said that “Tim was clear that Apple never considered” potentially removing Twitter from the App Store, describing it as a “misunderstanding.”

Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion last month, also thanked Cook for “taking me round Apple’s beautiful HQ,” and posted a video from Apple Park.

The volte-face comes after the billionaire entrepreneur on Monday accused Apple of threatening to “withhold Twitter from its App Store” without explaining why, and criticized the iPhone maker for curbing advertising on the platform, writing: “Do they hate free speech in America?”

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive also raised concerns about Apple’s “in-app purchase” policy, which gives it a 15-30 percent cut of digital purchases made on the iPhone, and claims that the company abuses its market power.

Musk has previously outlined plans to shift Twitter away from relying on advertising revenues—in which Apple takes no cut—towards more subscription revenues, from which Apple would take a slice.

Apple declined to comment.

The apparent reconciliation comes amid growing concern among some nonprofits and regulators about Musk’s relaxation of Twitter’s content moderation policing. Musk, a self-declared “free speech absolutist,” is reversing most permanent bans on the platform and allowing all speech as long as it is legal, although “negative/hate speech” will not be boosted in users’ feeds.

The approach has prompted dozens of large brands to pull spending from the platform over fears their advertising may run alongside toxic content.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Twitter said none of its policies had changed and that its trust and safety team remained “strong and well-resourced.”

Apple maintains guidelines requiring social media apps to “block abusive users,” allow users to “report offensive content” and to filter “objectionable material from being posted.”

When Apple expelled Parler, a Twitter rival used by rightwing extremists, Apple said it had “not upheld its commitment to moderate and remove harmful or dangerous content encouraging violence and illegal activity.”

Although the feud appears to be over for now, Musk’s tweets were a catalyst for renewed criticism of Apple that could prove damaging, as antitrust regulators and app developers voice concerns over its rules and the role it plays as “gatekeeper” by deciding what content is allowed on more than 1 billion phones worldwide.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, warned Apple that removing Twitter from the App Store would be viewed as a “raw exercise of monopolistic power” and “would merit a response from the United States Congress.”

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook parent Meta, was also critical of Apple’s market power during an interview at The New York Times’s Dealbook summit on Wednesday, saying: “I do think Apple has sort of singled themselves out as the only company that is trying to control, unilaterally, what apps get on the [Apple] device and I don’t think that’s a sustainable or a good place to be.”

Apple has been dealing with criticism of the App Store for years. Epic Games, the maker of popular mobile game Fortnite, sued Apple in 2020 but only won on one of the 10 counts. Epic and Apple have both appealed against the decision.

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