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Roli’s newest instrument, the Lumi, helps you learn to play piano with lights – TechCrunch

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There has been a longstanding gulf between the consumption of music and the creation of it: not everyone has the time or money to spend on lessons and instruments, and for those in school, many music education programs have been cut back over the years, making the option of learning to play instruments for free less common. Still others have had moments of interest but haven’t found the process of learning that easy.

Now we’re seeing a new wave of startups emerge that are attempting to tackle these issues with technology, creating tools and even new instruments that leverage smartphones and tablets, new hardware computing innovations and new software to make learning music more than just a pastime for a select few.

In the latest development, London startup Roli is launching a new interactive keyboard called the Lumi. Part colourful, sound-sensitive lightboard and part piano, the Lumi’s keys light up in a colorful array to help guide and teach you to play music. The 11-inch keyboard — which can be linked with one or two more of the same to add more octaves — comes with an iPad app that contains hundreds of pieces, and the two are now selling for $249 alongside a new Kickstarter to help drum up interest and offer early-bird discounts. The Kickstarter campaign blew through its modest £100,000 goal within a short while, and some of the smaller tiers of pledges are now sold out. The product will start shipping in October 2019, the company says.

As you might already know, or have guessed by the reaction to the kickstarter, this is not Roli’s first rodeo: the company has made two other major products (and variations on those two) before this, also aimed at music making. First came the Seaboard, which Roli described as a new instrument when it first launched. Taking the form factor of a keyboard, it contained squishy keys that let the player bend notes and create other effects alongside electronic-based percussive tapping, as you would do with a normal keyboard.

Its next product was Blocks: small, modular light boards that also used colored light to guide your playing and help you create new and interesting sounds and beats with taps (and using a similarly squidgy surface to the Seaboard) and then mix them together.

Both of these were interesting, but somewhat aimed at those who were already familiar with playing pianos or other instruments, or with creating and playing electronic music with synthesizers, FX processors and mixers. (Case in point: the people I know who were most interested in these were my DJ friends and my kids, who both play the piano and are a little nerdy about these things.)

The Lumi is in a way a step back for Roli from trying to break new ground by conceiving of completely new instruments, with new form factors built with the benefits of technology and electronics in mind. But it’s also a step ahead: using a keyboard as the basis of the instrument, the Lumi is more familiar and therefore more accessible — with an accessible price of $249 to go along with that.

Lumi’s emergence comes after an interesting few years of growth for Roli. The company is one of the select few (and I think the only one making musical instruments) to be retailed in Apple stores, and it’s had endorsements from some very high-profile people, but that’s about as mainstream as it has been up to now.

The startup’s founder and CEO, American-born Roland Lamb, is probably best described as a polymath, someone who comes across less as a geeky and nervous or (at the other end) ultra-smooth-talking startup founder, and more like a calm-voiced thinker who has come out to talk to you in a break between reading and writing about the nature of music and teaching a small philosophy seminar.

His background also speaks to this unconventional manner. Before coming to found Roli, he lived in a Zen monastery, made his way around the world playing jazz piano, and studied Chinese and Sanskrit at Harvard and design at the Royal College of Art.

Roli has always been a little cagey about how much it has raised and from whom, but the list includes consumer electronics giants like Sony, specialist audio makers like Onkyo, the music giant Universal Music Group and VCs that include Founders Fund, Index and LocalGlobe, Kreos Capital, Horizons Ventures and more. It’s also partnered with a number of big names like Pharrell Williams (who is also an investor) in the effort to get its name out.

And while it has most definitely made a mark with a certain echelon of the music world — producers and those creating electronic music — it has not parlayed that into a wider global reputation or wider accessibility. After bringing out instruments more for a high-end audience, the Lumi seems like an attempt to do just that.

That seems to be coming at the right time. Services like Spotify and YouTube — and the rise of phones and internet usage in general — have transformed how we listen to music. We now have a much wider array of things to listen to whenever we want. On top of that, services like YouTube and SoundCloud furthermore are giving us a taste of creating our own music: using electronic devices, we can go beyond what might have been limitations up to now (for example, having never learned to play an instrument in the traditional sense) to get stuck into the craft itself.

The Lumi is also tapping into another important theme, and that is of music being “good for you.” There is a line of thought that says learning an instrument is good for your mind, both if you’re a younger person who is still in school or indeed out of school and looking to stay sharp. Others believe it has health benefits.

But realistically, these beliefs don’t get applied very often. Roli cites stats that say that only 10% of adults aged 18-29 have played an instrument in the past year, and of those that played as children, some 80% say they quit by age 14.

Putting this together with the Lumi, it seems that the aim is to hit a wider swathe of the market and bring in people who might want to learn something like playing an instrument but previously thought it would be too much of a challenge.

Roli isn’t the first — nor likely the last — company to reconsider how to learn playing the piano through technology. The Chinese company ONE Music Group makes both smart pianos with keyboards that light up, as well as a strip that you overlay on any keyboard, that also corresponds to an iPad app to learn to play piano.

An American startup called McCarthy Music also makes illuminated-key pianos, also subscribing to the principle that providing this kind of guidance to teach muscle memory is an important step in getting a student acquainted with playing on a keyboard.

The Lumi is notable not just because of its cost, but its size — the single, lightweight keyboards have a battery life of six hours and can fit in a backback.

That said, Roli is hoping there will be a double audience to these in the longer term, bridging the divide between music maker and listener, but also amateur and pro.

“Many people would love to play an instrument but worry that they don’t have the talent. Through our research, design, and innovation at ROLI, we’ve come to believe that the problem is not a lack of talent. Rather, instruments themselves are not smart enough,” said Lamb in a statement. “What excites me most is that the intelligence of LUMI means that there’s something in it for everyone. On one hand my own kids now prefer LUMI time to movie time. On the other hand, several of the world’s leading keyboard players can’t wait to use LUMI in the studio and on the stage.”

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It sounds like Google will unveil its ChatGPT clone February 8

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Everybody panic! Next week Google is hosting what can only be described as an “emergency” event. According to an invite sent to The Verge, the event will revolve around “using the power of AI to reimagine how people search for, explore and interact with information, making it more natural and intuitive than ever before to find what you need”—in other words, Google’s going to fire up its photocopier and stick OpenAI’s ChatGPT onto the platen. The 40-minute event will, of course, be live on YouTube on February 8.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had its earnings call yesterday, and Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai promised that “very soon people will be able to interact directly with our newest, most powerful language models as a companion to Search in experimental and innovative ways.” Earlier this year, the company declared a “code red” over the meteoric rise of ChatGPT and even dragged co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin out of retirement to help.

Google has plenty of AI technology, but it is mostly not open to the public. It has a chatbot language model called “LaMDA” (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) and an image-generation AI called “Imagen.” While OpenAI turns similar technologies into public products like DALL-E and ChatGPT that wow the world and earn the company a ton of attention, Google keeps everything internal and only ever talks about these projects in blog posts and research papers.

One result of Google’s productization efforts, according to a CNBC report, is called “Apprentice Bard,” a chatbot that uses LaMDA technology enabling people to “ask questions and receive detailed answers similar to ChatGPT.” The report laid out a ton of possible directions Google is experimenting with, like “an alternate search page that could use a question-and-answer format,” “prompts for potential questions placed directly under the main search bar” on the Google homepage, and a results page that shows “a gray bubble directly under the search bar, offering more human-like responses than typical search results.”

Google's invite.
Enlarge / Google’s invite.

Google

It’s not even clear ChatGPT is a real problem for Google. Google has a history of overreacting to other popular things on the Internet, and these “clone a competitor” projects litter the Google Graveyard. At one point, it considered Facebook an existential threat and built Google+. That project was eventually shut down, and today Google has no social presence, yet the company still seems fine. Before that, it was Amazon that was “Google’s biggest search rival.” Those fears eventually gave birth to the Amazon Prime clone Google Shopping Express. That project failed, too, and somehow Amazon has yet to replace Google search. ChatGPT is hyped as a search competitor because it’s a way to get direct answers to questions. While that is a part of Google Search’s business, Google already has an interface for direct answers: Google Assistant. Just like ChatGPT, Assistant was originally pitched as a chatbot.

While the Assistant works fine for simple queries, Google hasn’t been able to monetize the feature, and it’s reportedly been cutting resources from the division. It’s not clear how a ChatGPT competitor would change the core problem of monetization other than kicking that can down the road a few years. Monetization works when you have a list of 10 blue links to sort through but is less easy when you help people immediately find an answer. Pushing more people into that style of interface might hurt Google’s bottom line. It’s not just Google: Amazon has not been able to figure out an answer to Alexa monetization, either.

Perhaps the only part of Google that ChatGPT threatens is the stock price. Google seems rather frantic in its announcement because the company has several yearly events that this announcement could easily slot into, like Google I/O, which is held every May. That’s next quarter, though, and if Google is worried about investor confidence, that would explain why it seems to feel this event needs to happen this quarter and not next quarter. Tune in Wednesday!

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PC maker pulls Samsung Pro SSDs after users report abnormal health drops

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Enlarge / Puget Systems won’t be using the 1 or 2TB Samsung 990 Pro anymore.

Samsung has earned a strong reputation among PC enthusiasts when it comes to solid-state storage. Its Pro series of SSDs are often among reviewers’ top recommendations for users seeking high-speed storage for large work files, apps, and boot drives. Over the past year, though, reliability concerns around Samsung’s 980 Pro and most recent 990 Pro have marred this reputation. It has become so notable that custom PC-maker Puget Systems, a top proponent of Samsung SSDs since the SATA days, has pulled 1TB and 2TB Samsung drives from its lineup.

For Puget, problems with Samsung SSDs, which the 22-year-old boutique PC shop sells in its custom-built systems, started with the 980 Pro that came out in September 2020. On January 31, Puget wrote a blog noting it “received a surprising number of reports of failing Samsung drives, specifically with the 2TB version of the 980 Pro.

“The most common failure mode that we have found is that the drives are suddenly locked into read-only mode, rendering the drive unusable. If the failed drive is the primary drive, then the system becomes unbootable until the drive is replaced and the OS is reinstalled,” Chris Newhart, a Tier 2 repair technician at Puget, wrote.

Samsung recently released a firmware update to remedy the issues, and Puget noted that it worked with Samsung for months to help resolve the problems.

In August, Samsung released the 990 Pro, which was met with positive reviews from publications like PCMag and Tom’s Hardware. But users started reporting reliability issues with this updated model, too.

In January, Neowin reported seeing one of their 990 Pro’s health drop to 95 percent after about a week and before writing 2TB to the drive. This was a dramatically different experience from their other (unspecified) Samsung SSD that was 1.5 years old, had over 40TB written, and 99 percent health.

But the experience was, apparently, not an anomaly.

As detailed by Tom’s Hardware, various users across the web, including on Reddit, Twitter, and the Overclock.net forums, reported rapid health decline. One user reported the 990 Pro showing 64 percent health with 2TB of data written.

Authorized returns of the devices reportedly resulted in Samsung factory-resetting the SSDs and saying they weren’t defective.

Samsung is reportedly working on the issue with Puget but hasn’t made any public statements. In the meantime, the damage has been done, and trust, like the apparent life span of some users’ 990 Pros, has eroded.

Puget, for instance, is “transitioning” away from Samsung when it comes to 1TB and 2TB NVMe drives in favor of Sabrent offerings “while this situation unfolds and we learn more,” it announced in a blog post that was posted Thursday and spotted by Tom’s Hardware today. William George, with product development at Puget, wrote that, “if the endurance (and thus lifespan) of the [Samsung] drives is indeed dropping at this rate, it is very concerning.”

Puget is far from one of Samsung’s biggest partners, but the move and publicity of the statement illustrate the hit that Samsung’s SSD reputation has taken over the past year. Puget has been quite vocal in the past about Samsung SSDs and has gushed about their reliability. In 2016, it said Samsung’s SATA SSDs were “by far the most reliable PC component we have ever sold.” Such strong backing of Samsung SSDs was exactly why Puget felt it had to take a public stance on the current drives.

Puget’s blog noted that “there is a chance that the 990 Pro issue is just improper reporting of endurance loss.” The company will work with Samsung “to help arrive at a solution” for Puget customers and the general public.

It said it’s helping customers who already have 980 Pro 2TB drives to install the latest firmware. The company will still use Samsung’s 500GB 980 Pro.

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Big Tech groups disclose $10 billion in charges from job culls and cost cuts

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Enlarge / The job and cost cutting come after a decade of heavy spending in a focus on top-line growth.

FT/Bloomberg

Amazon, Meta, Alphabet, and Microsoft will collectively incur more than $10 billion in charges related to mass redundancies, real estate, and other cost-saving measures, as the Big Tech companies reveal the hefty price they incur to rein in spending.

The US companies that have been implementing the largest job cuts in the tech sector disclosed the high costs related to their restructuring efforts in earnings statements released this week.

The four groups had previously announced 50,000 job cuts to convince Wall Street they were heading into a “year of efficiency,” as Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg described it. This trend comes after more than a decade of heavy spending in a focus on aggressive top-line growth.

Despite the companies’ high upfront costs such as severance payments, investors appear encouraged by the steps taken.

Since formally announcing their cuts, the companies have together added more than $800 billion to their market capitalizations. Meta, the earliest mover among the Big Tech groups, has seen its value almost double since detailing its job cuts in November.

While savings could have been made by implementing more gradual cost reductions, tech companies were being rewarded by the markets for “ripping the Band-aid off,” said Wedbush analyst Dan Ives.

“Big Tech has been spending money like ’80s rock stars for the last four to five years,” he said. “It feels like there’s adults in the room now.”

The process to become leaner in the wake of macroeconomic pressure contrasts starkly with the pandemic-era hiring boom, with headcounts increasing rapidly at tech companies that were responding to a rise in demand in digital products and services.

Apple remains the only large tech company that has not announced any job cuts or a cost-cutting program, despite on Thursday reporting its first decline in quarterly revenues in three and a half years.

According to Layoffs.fyi, a tracker logging instances of tech redundancies, almost 250,000 employees have been let go across the sector since the start of last year.

Some of the most recent, from this past week, include software group Okta, which laid off 300 employees, data analysis company Splunk, with 325, and image-sharing social network Pinterest, which said 150 roles would go.

The deepest cuts have come from the biggest names. In November, Meta announced it would let go of 11,000 of its employees, as well as dump office space and data centers.

On Wednesday, the Facebook parent detailed charges of $4.6 billion related to restructuring. Severance costs ran to $975 million, according to a company filing, though that cost was offset by “decreases in payroll, bonus and other benefits expenses.” A further $1 billion in charges related to reducing office footprint is expected in 2023.

Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy told employees in January the company would eliminate 18,000 roles.

Speaking to investors on Thursday, Amazon’s chief financial officer, Brian Olsavsky, said $640 million had been spent on severance in the fourth quarter of 2022, as well as an additional $720 million on abandoning real estate, primarily due to pulling back on opening new physical grocery stores. The company did not share further details on charges it might incur in the current quarter and beyond.

Google parent Alphabet, which is laying off 12,000 people, said it expected to incur severance costs ranging from $1.9 billion to $2.3 billion, with most of the impact in the current quarter. At the high end of that guidance, the cost of severance will work out at approximately $191,000 per employee. Alphabet faces a further $500 million in costs relating to office space reduction in the current quarter, it said.

Despite the cuts, Alphabet Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat told investors on Thursday the company would continue “hiring in priority areas, with a particular focus on top engineering and technical talent, as well as on the global footprint of our talent.”

Microsoft’s planned savings—which include 10,000 job cuts—has resulted in it incurring a $1.2 billion charge in the final three months of 2022, $800 million of which was from severance pay.

Salesforce, which will not report earnings until March, is expected to be another company facing significant restructuring costs, having announced a 10 percent reduction in its workforce last month. That move came as activist investor Elliott Management took a multibillion-dollar stake in the company, saying it intended to work “constructively with Salesforce to realize the value befitting a company of its stature.”

Likewise, Alphabet has drawn attention from activist Sir Christopher Hohn, of TCI Fund Management, who wrote to chief executive Sundar Pichai, saying he needed to make further headcount cuts and trim “excessive” employee compensation.

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