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Sense Photonics flashes onto the lidar scene with a new approach and $26M – TechCrunch

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Lidar is a critical part of many autonomous cars and robotic systems, but the technology is also evolving quickly. A new company called Sense Photonics just emerged from stealth mode today with a $26M A round, touting a whole new approach that allows for an ultra-wide field of view and (literally) flexible installation.

Still in prototype phase but clearly enough to attract eight figures of investment, Sense Photonics’ lidar doesn’t look dramatically different from others at first, but the changes are both under the hood and, in a way, on both sides of it.

Early popular lidar systems like those from Velodyne use a spinning module that emit and detect infrared laser pulses, finding the range of the surroundings by measuring the light’s time of flight. Subsequent ones have replaced the spinning unit with something less mechanical, like a DLP-type mirror or even metamaterials-based beam steering.

All these systems are “scanning” systems in that they sweep a beam, column, or spot of light across the scene in some structured fashion — faster than we can perceive, but still piece by piece. Few companies, however, have managed to implement what’s called “flash” lidar, which illuminates the whole scene with one giant, well, flash.

That’s what Sense has created, and it claims to have avoided the usual shortcomings of such systems — namely limited resolution and range. Not only that, but by separating the laser emitting part and the sensor that measures the pulses, Sense’s lidar could be simpler to install without redesigning the whole car around it.

I talked with CEO and co-founder Scott Burroughs, a veteran engineer of laser systems, about what makes Sense’s lidar a different animal from the competition.

“It starts with the laser emitter,” he said. “We have some secret sauce that lets us build a massive array of lasers — literally thousands and thousands, spread apart for better thermal performance and eye safety.”

These tiny laser elements are stuck on a flexible backing, meaning the array can be curved — providing a vastly improved field of view. Lidar units (except for the 360-degree ones) tend to be around 120 degrees horizontally, since that’s what you can reliably get from a sensor and emitter on a flat plane, and perhaps 50 or 60 degrees vertically.

“We can go as high as 90 degrees for vert which i think is unprecedented, and as high as 180 degrees for horizontal,” said Burroughs proudly. “And that’s something auto makers we’ve talked to have been very excited about.”

Here it is worth mentioning that lidar systems have also begun to bifurcate into long-range, forward-facing lidar (like those from Luminar and Lumotive) for detecting things like obstacles or people 200 meters down the road, and more short-range, wider-field lidar for more immediate situational awareness — a dog behind the vehicle as it backs up, or a car pulling out of a parking spot just a few meters away. Sense’s devices are very much geared toward the second use case.

These are just prototype units, but they work and you can see they’re more than just renders.

Particularly because of the second interesting innovation they’ve included: the sensor, normally part and parcel with the lidar unit, can exist totally separately from the emitter, and is little more than a specialized camera. That means that while the emitter can be integrated into a curved surface like the headlight assembly, while the tiny detectors can be stuck in places where there are already traditional cameras: side mirrors, bumpers, and so on.

The camera-like architecture is more than convenient for placement; it also fundamentally affects the way the system reconstructs the image of its surroundings. Because the sensor they use is so close to an ordinary RGB camera’s, images from the former can be matched to the latter very easily.

The depth data and traditional camera image correspond pixel-to-pixel right out of the system.

Most lidars output a 3D point cloud, the result of the beam finding millions of points with different ranges. This is a very different form of “image” than a traditional camera, and it can take some work to convert or compare the depths and shapes of a point cloud to a 2D RGB image. Sense’s unit not only outputs a 2D depth map natively, but that data can be synced with a twin camera so the visible light image matches pixel for pixel to the depth map. It saves on computing time and therefore on delay — always a good thing for autonomous platforms.

Sense Photonics’ unit also can output a point cloud, as you see here.

The benefits of Sense’s system are manifest, but of course right now the company is still working on getting the first units to production. To that end it has of course raised the $26 million A round, “co-led by Acadia Woods and Congruent Ventures, with participation from a number of other investors, including Prelude Ventures, Samsung Ventures and Shell Ventures,” as the press release puts it.

Cash on hand is always good. But it has also partnered with Infineon and others, including an unnamed tier-1 automotive company, which is no doubt helping shape the first commercial Sense Photonics product. The details will have to wait until later this year when that offering solidifies, and production should start a few months after that — no hard timeline yet, but expect this all before the end of the year.

“We are very appreciative of this strong vote of investor confidence in our team and our technology,” Burroughs said in the press release. “The demand we’ve encountered – even while operating in stealth mode – has been extraordinary.”

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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.

© 2023 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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