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The year in crowdfunded PCs: Who succeeded? Who failed?

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Planet Computers Gemini PDA

The ever-maturing PC industry hasn’t deterred manufacturers large and small from embracing crowdfunding as a method of bringing new systems to market, whether they need the funds to produce their new product, or just want to gain publicity and guarantee some upfront sales. Not every launch on Kickstarter or one of its rivals is a roaring success, but enough are to keep the campaigns coming.

It was no different in 2017, as several companies offered new devices for crowdfunding, although some of them were clearly drawing inspiration from the past. That includes the Gemini, which answers the question: What would a PDA look like in a world filled with smartphones that have essentially replaced it? That answer is a clam-shell handheld with a physical keyboard, 5.99-inch screen, and Android and Linux dual-boot capability (along with built-in Wi-Fi and 4G option to keep up with the times).

As unlikely as you might think such a device would be attractive in a world of iPhones, tablets, Chromebooks, and other portables, the company behind the Gemini, UK startup Planet Computers, easily surpassed its campaign target on IndieGogo, raising over $1.1 million. If you want to see how the Gemini matches up with one of its inspirations, the 20-year-old Psion Series 5 PDA, check out ZDNet’s Sandra Vogel comparison from last month.

Another tiny computer, the GPD Pocket, doesn’t look all that different from the Gemini, though it doesn’t try to market itself specifically as a PDA. Instead, parent company GamePad Digital (or GPD) defines it as a 7-inch Windows laptop, complete with 8GB of RAM, 128GB solid-state drive, and full HD touchscreen. Like the Gemini, the Pocket ran its campaign on Indiegogo, and also like the Gemini, the Pocket blasted through its target fundraising goal, cashing in to the tune of more than $3.5 million.

While not as successful as the Gemini and the Pocket, French firm Miraxess doubled its campaign goal (again, on Indiegogo) for the Mirabook, which takes your smartphone out of your pocket and places it in a dock that turns it into a laptop. It’s not the first, or the most successful, crowdfunded smartphone dock, but the Mirabook will offer a bigger display and claims higher battery life than the cheaper Sentio Superbook that earned more than $3 million on Kickstarter last year. The Mirabook is about to go into beta, and will have a presence at the upcoming CES, so we’ll see if they can ride that momentum through to a final shipping product.

Actually getting a product into the hands of backers isn’t always a guarantee with crowdfunded campaigns, and there have been some notable vaporware disasters that have burned customers over the years. Even if companies can produce a shipping device, there can be delays or limited supplies that can hamper future growth. One example of being a victim of its own crowdfunded success is Purism, a new laptop maker that raised $2.5 million for its privacy-focused Linux notebooks, the Librem 13 and 15. Its original batches were made to order, which required buyers to patiently wait for their systems to arrive, but 2017 saw Purism being able to stock up on inventory to slice the wait time for a Librem from months to weeks.

Then there’s Tanoshi, which launched a Kickstarter campaign in September for a kid-friendly 2-in-1 Android laptop. By the middle of October, the campaign had raised less than 20 percent of its $50,000 goal and was canceled. That wasn’t the end for the company, however, as its crew of Silicon Valley vets managed to carry on and place an order for its systems anyway, which it’s currently pre-selling through its site.

The Tanoshi experience highlights one of the changes in crowdfunding over the years. Once the vast majority of campaigns required financial backers because the inventors didn’t have access to money to produce, now there are many campaigns that established companies run just as an additional funding source and marketing tactic.

Such is the case with Chuwi, a Chinese PC maker that has turned to Indiegogo to crowdfund laptops, despite being in existence for over a decade. Then again, it’s hard to argue with the success of its SurBook, a budget clone of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet. It has raised over $1 million since launching its Indiegogo campaign, raising awareness in the U.S. that it probably couldn’t have managed through more conventional means.

Finally, a highly anticipated crowdfunding campaign didn’t wind up materializing in 2017. The resurrected Atari brand announced with great fanfare that it would be accepting preorders of its new Ataribox living room device, which combines retro console gaming with a Linux-based PC, via Indiegogo starting on December 14. However, the campaign was a no-show on that date, with the company blaming an unspecified snafu for the delay. Atari promises an updated launch plan soon, but the incident highlights the risks inherent with hitching your PC launch to a crowdfunding campaign. Expect more of the same — smashing successes and puzzling stumbles — in the year to come.

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As Florida punishes schools, study finds masks cut school COVID outbreaks 3.5X

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Enlarge / A second-grade teacher talks to her class during the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

Schools with universal masking were 3.5 times less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak and saw rates of child COVID-19 cases 50 percent lower in their counties compared with schools without mask requirements. That’s according to two new studies published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new data lands as masks continue to be a political and social flash point in the US. And children—many of whom are still ineligible for vaccination—have headed back into classrooms.

In one of the newly published studies, health researchers in Arizona looked at schools with and without mask policies in Maricopa and Pima Counties. Together, the counties account for more than 75 percent of the state’s population. The researchers identified 210 schools that had universal masking requirements from the start of their school years. They compared those to 480 schools that had no mask requirements throughout the study period, which ran from July 15 to August 30.

The researchers tallied 129 school-associated COVID-19 outbreaks in all of those schools during the study period. About 87.5 percent of the outbreaks were in schools without mask requirements. The researchers then ran an analysis, adjusting for school sizes, COVID-19 case rates in each school’s zip code, socioeconomics measures, and other factors. The researchers found that the odds of a school-associated COVID-19 outbreak were 3.5 times higher in the schools without mask requirements compared to those with universal masking.

In a separate study, CDC researchers tried to assess if schools’ mask policies have broader impacts for their communities—and they do. The researchers looked at county-level data on the rates of pediatric COVID-19 cases in 520 counties around the US. They compared rates of child COVID-19 cases in the week before and week after schools started their terms.

Though all counties generally saw increases in pediatric COVID-19 cases after schools started up, the counties with universally masked schools saw smaller bumps. For counties with school mask requirements, the average increase in case rates after schools started was 16.32 cases per 100,000 children per day. Counties without school mask requirements saw an average rate increase about twice as high—34.85 cases per 100,000 children per day.

Mask safety

The US continues to see a patchwork of mask use and other protective measures in schools as the 2021-2022 school year gets underway. Many schools in many states do not have universal masking requirements even though the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend universal masking in schools. In some states state leaders have prohibited schools from issuing mask requirements—and even penalized them for requiring masks.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is among the leaders who have banned mask mandates in schools. And, although the ban is being challenged in court, DeSantis is withholding money from school boards that have issued mask mandates anyway.

On Thursday, the US Department of Education announced that it had granted the school board of Florida’s Alachua County $147,719. The money is intended to “restore funding withheld by state leaders—such as salaries for school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut—when a school district implemented strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

In a statement, Alachua County Public School Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon: “I’m very grateful to [US Secretary of Education Miguel] Cardona, President Biden and the federal government for the funding. But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

Alachua is the first county in the nation to receive such funding, provided through the new Project to Support America’s Families and Educators (Project SAFE) grant program.

In a separate statement, education secretary Cardona said: “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities.”

Public health experts say that masks are a critical tool to help protect children, teachers, and staff from the spread of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Masks are intended to be one key layer of a multi-layered approach that also includes vaccination for those eligible, physical distancing when possible, improved ventilation, testing, quarantining, improved hygiene, and disinfection and cleaning.

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NASA seeks a new ride for astronauts to the Artemis launch pad

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Enlarge / NASA first began using the 1983-model Airstream for space shuttle missions in 1984.

NASA

NASA has asked industry for ideas to develop an “Artemis Crew Transportation Vehicle” that will take its astronauts from suit-up facilities to the launch pad on launch day.

The space agency, of course, has not launched its own astronauts on a NASA-built vehicle since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. From 1984 through the end of the shuttle era, the agency used a modified Airstream motor home, known as the “Astrovan,” to ferry crews to the launch pad. This iconic vehicle had a shiny, silvery exterior but a fairly spartan interior. “The current vehicle’s appeal is rooted in its tradition rather than its décor,” the agency acknowledged in 2011.

Now, NASA is gearing up for a new era of deep space exploration, and it plans to launch four astronauts at a time inside the Orion spacecraft, on top of a Space Launch System rocket. The first human flights on these vehicles could occur in late 2023 or early 2024, NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently said.

While it has taken literally decades and tens of billions of dollars to develop the spacecraft and rocket, NASA is hoping its launch pad ride can be furnished a little more quickly. In its solicitation, released Friday, NASA says its “Artemis CTV” should be delivered no later than June 2023.

NASA is considering three different options for the new vehicle. A provider can custom-build a vehicle, modify a commercially available vehicle, or repair and refurbish the venerable Astrovan.

As part of its solicitation, NASA has a lengthy list of requirements for its Artemis transport vehicle. Among them:

  • It must be a zero-emission vehicle, such as battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric
  • It must have a carrying capacity of eight passengers, including four fully suited astronauts
  • It must have extensive capacity for equipment, including large bags for helmets, ice-based cooling units, and more
  • Have sufficiently wide doors of 24 to 36 inches for ingress and egress by suited astronauts

According to Ars automotive editor Jonathan Gitlin, it is unlikely that any existing zero-emissions vehicle meets these requirements, even with modifications. Ford’s forthcoming electric Transit Van may come close, Gitlin added.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus inside the Astrovan in 2011.
Enlarge / NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus inside the Astrovan in 2011.

NASA

The best option, in fact, may be renovating the old Airstream. This is because the vehicle will not be called upon for particularly long journeys—it’s only a few kilometers to and from the launch pad—and this demand would be well within the capabilities of a couple Tesla drive units and a slab of batteries.

With the Artemis program, NASA is going back to the Moon like it did in the 1960s. It’s using a capsule design, not dissimilar to Apollo, and a large rocket with space shuttle main engines designed in the 1970s. So, why shouldn’t astronaut transport be retro, too?

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CDC director overrules experts, allows Pfizer boosters for health workers

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Enlarge / CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021.

Just past midnight last night, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overruled a committee of independent advisers, allowing for use of a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine booster dose in people with increased risk of occupational and institutional exposure to the pandemic coronavirus. That includes health care workers, front-line workers, teachers, day care providers, grocery store workers, and people who work or live in prisons and homeless shelters, among others.

Hours earlier, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) concluded a two-day meeting on booster recommendations—and voted 9-6 against recommending boosters for this group.

“As CDC Director, it is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact,” Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health. In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good.”

She further noted that the inclusion of people at high risk of COVID-19 from occupational and institutional exposure “aligns with the FDA’s booster authorization.” The Food and Drug Administration last Wednesday issued an amended Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which allowed booster doses for people 65 and older as well as people ages 18 to 64 who are at high risk of COVID-19 either from underlying medical conditions or occupational and institutional exposures.

Though the CDC’s advisory committee was torn over endorsing that use, they ultimately decided that the need was not there—vaccine effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalization remains very strong in those under age 65. And recommending boosters for anyone with a conceivable occupational or institutional risk could create a booster free-for-all.

By taking the unusual move to overrule the ACIP’s decisions, Walensky puts the booster efforts more in line with the Biden administration’s preliminary plans to offer booster doses to all vaccinated adults, starting this week.

Still, the current recommendations only apply to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and those who received that vaccine for their two-dose “primary series.” Those who initially received two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or one shot of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine are advised to wait for further booster data and recommendations.

For now, here are the CDC’s official recommendations of who should get a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine booster—to be given at least six months after the primary Pfizer/BioNTech series. (Emphasis added by CDC).

  • people 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people ages 50–64 years with underlying medical conditions should receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series,
  • people ages 18–49 years with underlying medical conditions may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks, and
  • people ages 18-64 years who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional setting may receive a booster shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine at least 6 months after their Pfizer-BioNTech primary series, based on their individual benefits and risks.
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