Google confirmed today via blog post that it has acquired Canadian smart glasses company North, which began life as human interface hardware startup Thalmic Labs in 2012. The company didn’t reveal any details about the acquisition, which was first reported to be happening by The Globe and Mail, last week. The blog post is authored by Google’s SVP of Devices & Services Rick Osterloh, which cites North’s “strong technology foundation” as a key driver behind the deal.
Osterloh also emphasizes Google’s existing work in building “ambient computing,” which is to say computing that fades into the background of a user’s life, as the strategic reasoning behind the acquisition. North will join Google’s existing team in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, where North is already based, and it will aid with the company’s “hardware efforts and ambient computing future,” according to Osterloh.
In a separate blog post, North’s co-founders Stephen Lake, Matthew Bailey and Aaron Grant discuss their perspective on the acquisition. They say the deal makes sense because it will help “significantly advance our shared vision,” but go on to noted that this will mean winding down support for Focals 1.0, the first-generation smart glasses product that North released last year, and cancelling any plans to ship Focals 2.0, the second-generation version that the company had been teasing and preparing to release over the last several months.
Focals received significant media attention following their release, and provided the most consumer-friendly wearable glasses computing interface ever launched. They closely resembled regular optical glasses, albeit with larger arms to house the active computing components, and projected a transparent display overlay onto one frame which showed things like messages and navigation directions.
Around the Focals 1.0 debut, North co-founder and CEO Stephen Lake told me that the company had originally begun developing its debut product, the Myo gesture control armband, to create a way to interact naturally with the ambient smart computing platforms of the future. Myo read electrical pulses generated by the body when you move your arm and translated that into computer input. After realizing that devices it was designed to work with, including VR headsets and wearable computers like Google Glass, weren’t far enough along for its novel control paradigm to take off, they shifted to addressing the root of the problem with Focals.
Focals had some major limitations, however, including initially requiring that anyone wanting to purchase them go into a physical location for fitting, and then return for adjustments once they were ready. They were also quite expensive, and didn’t support the full range of prescriptions needed by many existing glasses-wearers. Software limitations, including limited access to Apple’s iMessage platform, also hampered the experience for Apple mobile device users.
North (and Myo before it) always employed talented and remarkable mechanical electronics engineers sources from the nearby University of Waterloo, but its ideas typically failed to attract the kind of consumer interest that would’ve been required for sustained independent operation. The company had raised nearly $200 million in funding since its founding; as mentioned, no word on the total amount Google paid, but it doesn’t seem likely to have been a blockbuster exit.
Can Facebook Ever Stop the Drama?
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The words “crisis” and “Facebook” are practically joined at the hip. But the last month or two have been something else.
Facebook has dealt with an employee protest over how it handled inflammatory posts by President Trump, an advertiser boycott over hate speech in its online hangouts, and a scathing civil-rights audit that faulted Facebook for potentially deepening social polarization and fueling the harassment of vulnerable communities.
I spoke to Mike Isaac, who reports on Facebook for The New York Times, about the company’s decisions that helped set off the most recent drama, and what this crisis reveals about Facebook’s role in our lives.
Shira: How did this latest crisis start?
Mike: Beginning last fall, Facebook — and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, in particular — made a series of decisions to give relatively free rein to posts by political figures, including President Trump, even if they said divisive or false things on Facebook.
That set of policy choices is the root of the advertising boycott of Facebook, and it was highlighted in the report that came out of a two-year civil rights audit of the company. Civil rights advocates and others believed that Facebook made a misguided choice to prioritize free expression of the powerful and ignore the harm that expression can cause for people with less power.
Facebook says it’s stuck between political conservatives who generally want the company to intervene less in what people say online, and those on the left who want it to intervene more. Do you agree?
I get that they’re in a no-win situation. But Facebook put itself in this position. It wants all the power and is doing all it can to keep it, and that means the company will have to make tough decisions and deal with the blowback — even if that blowback is inconsistent.
Are the criticisms now about Facebook actually misplaced anger from the left about Mr. Trump?
That’s an undercurrent, yes, but it doesn’t invalidate the structural problems that critics of Facebook have pointed out for a long time. Facebook has been completely inconsistent with how it referees politicians or other prominent people who say outrageous or misleading things, and it seems like they change their minds depending on the political moment.
Many of the popular, divisive Facebook posts aren’t from politicians. Is it misguided to focus on what elected officials post?
It isn’t, because what elected officials say has high-stakes consequences — if it makes people less likely to vote, for example.
Is Facebook a mirror on society, as the company says? Humans can be mean and divided, and that’s why Facebook is, too?
It’s not a one-to-one reflection of the world when one influential person — the political operative Roger Stone, for example, as we learned on Wednesday — can manipulate Facebook to spread a distorted view of the world to millions of people.
What might be the next drama for Facebook?
Private Facebook groups are a slow burning crisis in the making. Facebook and Zuckerberg have seen that people are gravitating more to these smaller, closed groups, where extremism can flourish in secret and it’s harder to monitor and moderate. Zuckerberg has said private groups are the future of Facebook, and that’s going to come with a host of problems.
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Amazon (slightly) tames its Wild West
The great thing about Amazon is that it sells almost everything you might want. That’s also one of the most dangerous things about Amazon. And the company just showed that it knows this is a big risk for it and all of us.
You might not notice this when you’re shopping, but most of the stuff sold on Amazon doesn’t come from the company itself but from a sprawling network of merchants large and dinky that set up shop inside Amazon’s virtual mall. (This Crock-Pot for purchase on Amazon, for example, is sold by a merchant called Txvdeals. This one is sold by Amazon itself.)
These mostly unknown merchants give Amazon a larger variety of products than it could ever stock and sell on its own. They also create a dangerous Wild West.
Numerous investigations have found that these merchants have sold thousands of unsafe, sometimes illegal, products, including children’s toys containing lead. Companies complain that some of those sellers trick people into buying shoddy counterfeits, or manipulate Amazon reviews so we think products are better or more popular than they really are.
Amazon’s critics say the company has done far too little to protect shoppers from the rogue merchants. It’s a good bet that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, will be asked about risky merchants when he and other big tech bosses testify at a congressional hearing later this month.
Amazon this week took a notable (and overdue) step that should slightly reduce the risk.
Merchants will soon be required to show their names and addresses on their Amazon profile pages. I know this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but until now merchants who sold on Amazon in the United States — although not in some other countries — were able to shield their business information from the public. That made it harder to hold those merchants accountable for bad behavior.
Some merchants will still find ways to stay anonymous, but this is a good and necessary baby step.
The question is whether Amazon can keep the best elements of its sprawling merchant network, while reining in the abuses that threaten to erode our trust in what we buy there. It’s a tall order.
Before we go …
“They encourage people to go from training wheels to driving motorcycles.” The trading app Robinhood says it wants to make financial investing available to a broad group of people. But my colleague Nathaniel Popper also found that compared to similar services, people on Robinhood make riskier investments at a faster pace — which exposes them to more losses. The structure of Robinhood, combined with technical glitches and a difficulty in getting help, has resulted in some heartbreaking consequences, Nathaniel writes.
People. Went. Wild. Tyler Blevins — known as Ninja, one of the world’s most popular video gamers — streamed himself playing the Fortnite game on YouTube, and video game fans lost their collective minds. If you needed proof that big-name video gamers can rival the popularity of stars from Hollywood or sports, Ninja just provided it, as my colleague Kellen Browning wrote.
A 73-year-old prophecy of our smartphone-addicted lives: A 1947 French film imagined how we would be glued to watching tiny screens as we drove our cars and walked around the world. This premise, posted by the blogger Jason Kottke, was based on the then-emerging technology of television, but it sure … seems familiar.
Hugs to this
Please find a moment today to park yourself in the coolest spot in the house, as Feline Dion (!!!!) does in this video.
Why Hollywood needs computer games tech more than ever
Kim Libreri, an award-winning visual effects artist based in Northern California, has worked on movies including Artificial Intelligence and War of the Planet of the Apes.
For nine years he has been working with a piece of technology better known for computer games, in particular the smash-hit Fortnite.
The Unreal Engine, owned by Epic Games, provides the building blocks and tools that a computer game developer needs, but is increasingly an attractive technology for TV and film producers.
The latest version of technology, Unreal Engine 5, is coming out next year, and Epic has been heavily trailing its features.
It should allow visual effects artists like Mr Libreri to slot graphics and images straight into a scene, with little fuss.
“With traditional filmmaking, a director and cinematographer might shoot a scene on set -then down the line, hand footage and creative direction off to a team of virtual reality artists and designers, who enhance that material with visual effects and computer-generated imagery in a separate phase of production, Mr Libreri says.
With Unreal Engine collaboration between the director, cinematographer, production designer and virtual reality teams can occur simultaneously as an interactive process on set.
“Unreal Engine 5 promises to further free the artistic process by making it easier to take virtual worlds developed for feature film and television, and run them in the game engine in real time,” says Mr Libreri.
Anthony Hunt, is the chief executive of Cinesite, a multinational digital entertainment group, whose visual effects film work includes blockbusters such as Avengers: Endgame, Independence Day: Resurgence, Iron Man 3 and more.
His company recently used Unreal Engine on a live stunt show for a theme park, which includes chase scenes, punishing fistfights, and death-defying leaps.
“It all happens right in front of you with live performers, interactive props and an immense LED screen – making it impossible to determine where the live-action ends and the screen begins,” says Mr Hunt.
The film industry has long borrowed tech from the computer games industry.
Games production processes like mapping out scenes in 3D through photography, storyboards and animatics run on similar systems to those used to build games.
But the challenges of producing films and television under lockdown restrictions is likely to accelerate the use of games technology.
For example game engines are particularly good for generating big crowd scenes.
“An extra has to be fed and clothed and housed on a film set. We can replicate huge crowd scenes with computer technology now and just have our main actors in the foreground,” says Mr Hunt.
A good example of this a scene in Rocketman, the musical fantasy about Elton John’s breakthrough years.
One scene was set in Dodger Stadium, but in reality actor Taron Egerton performed the scene at Shepperton Studios. The crowds used were 3D graphics designed to be parts of a larger scene.
Computer-generated scenery can be combined with LED walls – giant screens made up of individual displays.
“LED walls are becoming more popular in film and television production because they allow filmmakers to capture visual effects in camera, and manipulate digital objects in a scene in real time,” says Mr Libreri.
“LED panels as those we’ve seen with Disney’s The Mandalorian (a science fiction TV series and part of the Star Wars family) will be a huge benefit to on-set production once restrictions start to lift, as filmmakers can reduce travel by creating photorealistic digital backgrounds to mimic any location,” he continues.
“When the physical filming restrictions are lifted, directors will have a clear plan of what and how to shoot their film/TV series because they will have done so in the computer already,” says Mr Hunt.
What will all this mean to the actors, crew and support staff who work in the industry?
“There is a possibility that production crew needs will alter somewhat. Some roles may change with the ongoing use of CGI, perhaps other roles will be created,” Daniel Green, director of the Master of Entertainment Industry Management Program at Carnegie Mellon University says.
When production returns to normal, the industry will need to be unified and make changes to assure that safety is paramount says Dr Green.
Studio executives and producers will no longer be making decisions solely based on artistic vision and production costs.
“They will now be in close consultation with public health officials to make sure that crews, actors, and staff can have a work environment that is safe and secure,” he says.
Mr Green also points out that CGI creates realistic worlds which are fun, but good story-telling is still the key.
“The use of CGI and virtual production as in The Lion King remake can augment what can be shown on the screen, but at the end of the day, audiences are still going to want to be entertained by a story that captivates them.”
Travis Cloyd, chief technology officer of CMG Worldwide, a company that represents 1,700 celebrities, athletes, musicians, brands and historical figures, sees another use for games engines.
A great business opportunity lies in “resurrecting” historical figures and famous people of the past like James Dean or Rosa Parks via digital twins, according to Mr Cloyd.
“These famous people have a prebuilt awareness,” he says. “They will always resonate with the audiences and the expansion of new platforms amidst the pandemic will bring new opportunities to use them in a plethora of media,” Mr Cloyd says.
Technology like the Unreal Engine is likely to be used in that process.
Movie making is of course a business, so the hope will be that new technology will save time and money.
“Fewer things will need to be worked out on set and in post-production, and there will be less need for travel and expensive location shoots,” says Mr Libreri.
“Once people experience this new way of working,” Mr Libreri continues, “they will find that it is much more efficient and cost-effective”.
“It is safe to say that virtual production is here to stay,” he says.
Harley-Davidson’s ‘Rewire’ plan starts with 700 jobs cuts, ousted CFO
Questions remain about its future electric lineup
Harley-Davidson, the storied and struggling Milwaukee-based company that last year launched its first production electric motorcycle in an effort to reboot sales and appeal to a younger customer base, is cutting 700 jobs from its global operations. About 500 workers will be laid off before the end of the year, the company said Thursday.
The company’s CFO John Olin is also out, effective immediately. Harley-Davidson’s current VP Treasurer Darrell Thomas has taken over as interim CFO until a successor is appointed. “Significant changes are necessary, and we must move in new directions,” Harley Davidson Chairman, president and CEO Jochen Zeitz said in a statement.
Harley-Davidson has branded its job cuts and restructuring plan “The Rewire,” which Zeitz spoke about in the company’s first-quarter earnings call back in April. At the time, Zeitz said the company was still committed to its other strategic plan known as “More Roads” that aimed to make the manufacturer an accessible, global brand through marketing and dealership initiatives and a series of new products that included small displacement motorcycles for Asia markets and EVs starting with the LiveWire.
Still, Zeitz declared back in April it was time for a change.
“As a result of my observations and assessment, I’ve concluded that we need to take significant actions and rewire the company now in terms of priorities, execution, operating model and strategy to drive sustained profit and long-term growth,” he said in April. “We are calling it The Rewire. And it’s our playbook for the next few months, leading to a new five-year strategic plan, which we will share when visibility to the future returns.”
Visibility into the future has apparently returned, and in Harley-Davidson’s view it’s time to cut costs and possibly get back to its core products. Initial Rewire actions are expected to result in restructuring costs of about $42 million in second quarter of 2020, Harley-Davidson said in its announcement Thursday. The company plans to share a summary of The Rewire, including additional costs and expected savings, when it releases its Q2 results. The Rewire will set the foundation for a new 2021-2025 strategic plan which is expected to be shared in the fourth quarter.
Harley-Davidson has seen its sales drop in recent years in the U.S., its largest market as its core Baby Boomer customers have gotten older. The COVID-19 pandemic dampened sales further and the company has already cut back production, which resulted in dozens of job cuts last month at its factories in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The push into EVs and products for Asian countries aimed to expand into new markets and breath new life into Harley-Davidson.
It’s unclear is how “The Rewire” might affect the company’s push into EVs. The LiveWire, which launched last fall, was supposed to lead a future line-up of EVs planned by Harley-Davidson — spanning motorcycles, bicycles and scooters. Harley-Davidson has not responded to a request for comment; TechCrunch will update the article if the company responds.
The statement from HD makes no specific mention of EVs. It only said the key elements of its restructuring plan was to enhance core strengths and better balance expansion into new spaces, prioritize the markets that matter, reset product launches and build up its accessories and merchandising businesses.
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