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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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Google claims it will stop tracking individual users for ads

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As Google’s plan to kill third-party tracking cookies ramps up, the company is answering questions about what will replace it. Many people have wondered: if Google kills cookies, won’t the company just cook up some other method for individually tracking users?

Today, Google answered that concern in a post on its “Ads & Commerce” blog, pledging it won’t come up with “any technology used for tracking individual people.” The company wrote:

We continue to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers. Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

You might look at that statement and think that Google is sacrificing something or turning over a new leaf when it comes to privacy, but really, the fact is Google doesn’t need to track individuals for advertisements. Google’s cookie-tracking replacement technology, the Chrome “Privacy Sandbox,” uses group tracking, which is more in line with how advertisers think anyway.

As Google puts it in its blog post, “advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising. Advances in aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing and other privacy-preserving technologies offer a clear path to replacing individual identifiers.” If you’re an advertiser with a phone ad, you would only ever want to show your ad to “people who care about phones.” As an advertiser, you wouldn’t really care about individuals or exact browsing history, as long as you knew they were open to being manipulated by your ad.

Chrome’s “Privacy Sandbox” interest tracker

The plan to kill cookies is still a bit fuzzy since none of this exists yet. But generally, Google wants to build a machine-learning-powered tracking system into Chrome that groups people into various interest groups like “classical music lovers” rather than building individual profiles of people. Then, when it’s time to serve ads, Chrome can serve up a list of your interests and pull in relevant ads. It’s all the same ad relevance but without any personally identifying info going up to the cloud.

I think a good way of explaining this was that, before, through cookies, you would end up sending personal information and detailed browser history to various web ad servers, which could then build an ad interest file on you in the cloud. Now, the goal is that Chrome will keep that detailed information locally and build that ad interest profile locally, and only the interest profile would be shipped to the advertisers for relevant ads through an open API. Again, this is all very early and only in the experimental stage right now, so there’s not an abundance of concrete detail to go into.

Google thinks this solution will be good enough to continue to make almost $150 billion in ad money per year, even if it stops tracking individuals. The new setup is also a valuable weapon in the war against government regulators, who did get a shout-out in Google’s blog post. The company wrote that, while other ad agencies might build new individual user-tracking technologies, “We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long-term investment. Instead, our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers.”

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All US Apple stores are open for the first time in almost a year

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Enlarge / NEW YORK, June 17, 2020 – Staff workers serve customers outside an Apple store on Fifth Avenue.

For the first time in just a few days shy of a year, all Apple Store retail locations in the United States are open this week, reports 9to5Mac.

Apple first closed all retail locations outside of China on March 13, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company originally planned to reopen its stores by the end of that month, but history had other plans.

Apple has periodically reopened and reclosed certain locations in the United States and elsewhere based on local case levels and government guidance—for example, a major push was attempted to reopen on May 31 as the virus’s spread slowed as a result of lockdown measures. But that was before COVID cases began rising sharply again. The last locations to reopen in the US this week were located in Texas.

That said, not all Apple Stores offer the same mid-pandemic experience. In previous reopening pushes, Apple opened some stores with strict rules like temperature screenings, appointment-only shopping, and curbside-style pickup options.

Depending on location and other factors, each Apple Store retains some or all of the above restrictions. Apple still operates a website where would-be customers can go to check what the process is for a specific location.

Beyond the US, 14 Apple Stores remain closed globally due to the pandemic, according to CNBC, including two in Brazil and 12 in France.

Apple has long seen the retail experience as part of the Apple product experience; executives have talked not just of integrating software and hardware but of including retail and services in that integration as well. But the past year has been tumultuous for Apple Stores, to say the least.

The pandemic was not the only factor that negatively affected the stores. Rioting amid the protests for racial justice last year resulted in damage and theft at some stores around the country, and natural disasters like California wildfires and the winter storm in Texas further battered specific locations.

Despite all that, Apple’s sales have been strong over the last year. It may be impossible to say just how much retail closures affected those numbers, though; CEO Tim Cook recently suggested that Apple’s blockbuster holiday could have been even bigger if physical retail had been a bigger part of the story.

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Google’s VR dreams are dead: Google Cardboard is no longer for sale

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Google’s last surviving VR product is dead. Today the company stopped selling the Google Cardboard VR viewer on the Google Store, the last move in a long wind-down of Google’s once-ambitious VR efforts. The message on the Google Store, which was first spotted by Android Police, reads, “We are no longer selling Google Cardboard on the Google Store.”

Google Cardboard was a surprise hit at Google I/O 2015 and moved the entry point for VR lower than anyone had imagined previously. The device was a literal piece of cardboard, shaped like a VR headset, with special plastic lenses. Google built a Cardboard app for Android and iOS, which would let any suitably high-end phone power the headset. The landscape display split into left and right views for your eyes, the phone hardware rendered a VR game, and the accelerometers did 3-DoF (degrees of freedom) head tracking. There was even a cardboard action button on the handset that would boop the touchscreen with a capacitive pad, so you could aim with your head and select options in a VR environment. Since the product was just cardboard and plastic lenses with no electronics whatsoever, Google sold the headset for just $20.

After cardboard, Google started to scale up its VR ambitions. In 2016, Google also launched an upscaled version of Google Cardboard, the Google Daydream VR headset. This was a plastic and cloth version of a phone-powered VR headset, with the key improvements of a head strap and a small controller, for $80.

Next, Google started to pile on software support. VR support also was built into Android 7 Nougat in 2016, allowing Google to make latency-reducing graphics pipeline improvements in the core OS. Google started certifying devices for enhanced “Daydream” support, laying out best hardware and software practices for VR. Android got a VR home screen and added a special notification style so apps could still alert you in the 3D VR interface. A VR version of the Play Store let users download the latest VR experiences in 3D. VR support came to YouTube and Google Street View, and together with Mozilla, the Chrome team launched WebVR. Google’s best app was Tilt Brush, a killer piece of VR painting software.

In 2018, Google even roped OEMs into making standalone Daydream VR hardware, so instead of being powered by a phone, Android and all the usual phone bits were integrated into a standalone VR headset. The first one announced was the Lenovo Mirage Solo.

Google’s VR legacy

As in many other areas, Google was very enthusiastic about VR for a few years, and then the company quickly lost interest when it didn’t see immediate success. The VR shutdown started in 2019, when Google omitted Daydream support from the Pixel 4 and killed the Daydream VR headset line. Google put out a VR post-mortem statement saying there was resistance to using a phone for VR, which cut off access to all your apps, and that the company hadn’t seen “the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped.” It was also around this time that Google open-sourced the Cardboard project. VR support in Android was stripped out of consumer phones with 2020’s release of Android 11, and Google quit Tilt Brush development in January 2021, choosing to open-source the app under Apache 2.0.

Google might have quit VR, but Cardboard and Android’s VR legacy live on. Android should still stick around for a long while in VR, even if it’s not officially sanctioned by Google. Oculus and Samsung originally teamed up on the Gear VR, a fancy, plastic VR viewer that was powered by Samsung’s Android phone line. While Samsung has quit phone VR, too, all of Oculus’ standalone “Quest” VR headsets still run Android. Standalone VR headsets are always powered by ARM chips and other off-the-shelf smartphone parts, so Android—however, forked or stripped-down you want to make it—will be a top pick to power this smartphone-adjacent hardware. It already has all the hardware support and APIs you could want, so why re-invent the wheel?

Three years after Cardboard, Nintendo took Google’s “cheap cardboard accessory” idea and ran with it, creating the Nintendo Labo products. Labo packaged Nintendo Switch software with a boatload of pre-cut, printed cardboard sheets, which could be assembled into all sorts of cheap peripherals like a cardboard piano, or a robot suit. The Labo VR kit was an exact Google Cardboard copy: A cardboard VR headset used the Nintendo Switch as the display, letting you view Nintendo’s worlds in 3D.

Google’s VR division has turned its attention (at least for a while) to AR instead of VR. Google’s ARCore framework lets developers make augmented reality apps for Android and iOS, and the company regularly ships AR improvements on Android phones. With Apple reportedly working on a VR headset, though, you’ve got to wonder how long Google’s fickle product direction will be able to stay away from VR.

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