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Day: June 18, 2019

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Simone Giertz’s converted Tesla Model 3 pickup truck is wonderful

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YouTuber Simone Giertz, celebrated DIY inventor, roboticist and general maker of cool stuff, decided not to wait for Tesla’s forthcoming pickup truck. Instead, she bought a Tesla Model 3 direct from the company new and then used elbow grease, ingenuity, some help from friends and power tools to turn it into a two-seater with a flatbed.

The amazing thing is, unlike some of the robots Giertz is famous for making, the final product looks terrific — both in terms of the detail work and in terms of its functionality. Giertz also installed a cage over the truck bed, and a tailgate that can double as a work bench. Plus, as you can see from this fake commercial for the so-called “Truckla,” the thing still rips both on and off-road.

Along with her crew, Giertz rented a dedicated workshop to do the build, which took around two weeks and a lot of sawing at the metal chassis. The team had to rebuild crucial components like the roll cage to ensure that the finished product was still safe.

There’s still work to be done in terms of waterproofing, lifting up the vehicle, giving it a paint makeover and more, per Giertz, but the finished product looks amazing, and potentially better than whatever sci-fi nightmare Elon Musk is putting together for the actual Tesla pickup.

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Focals by North Review: The future is (almost) here

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The concept of an IRL heads-up display has been a part of science fiction since basically the beginning. Big players have tried their hand at it with less than stellar results — most notably Google with Glass, and more recently Intel’s Vaunt. But North may have cracked the nut on smart glasses with Focals.

They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — they’re slightly heavy and don’t feel quite as seamless as science fiction promised they would — but this may be the best pair of smart glasses yet.

Who

Focals were created by North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $200 million in funding. Around the time Google Glass was released, founders Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey and Stephen Lake were working on a smart arm band. They were disenchanted, as were many, with Glass and sought out to make something better.

Their first priority? Make a great pair of glasses, then outfit them with technology. In order to do that, they had to allow for prescription lenses, which means that the lenses of their product had to be curved. This throws a huge wrench in the idea of lens-projected notifications and content, so Focals created its own special projector.

The company also felt that the touchpad on the side of Google Glass was overly cumbersome, leading them to build the Focals Ring to let users navigate through the menu.

What

The Focals are technically AR glasses, but they’re not focused on gaming or content consumption. The product is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch for your face.

These notifications include the date and time, the weather, text notifications, email, Slack, Apple News alerts, Uber notifications, sports scores, turn-by-turn navigation and more. Users navigate through this content using the Ring, outfitted with a nub of a joystick, which is meant to be worn on the index finger of your dominant hand.

Users can proactively seek out information by clicking the joystick and scrolling, but the headset also serves up information in a push notification, including incoming messages and emails.

Importantly, North implemented a smart response system to keep users from having to pick up their phone each time they get a notification. The system gives users two options: choose from a list of smartly generated responses, or use speech-to-text through Focals’ built-in Alexa integration (the system is listening via built-in mic — but wearers have to opt-in during set up).

However, one of the great advantages for the Focals is also one of its weaknesses. The company chose to build a custom pair of glasses that could work with Rx lenses. That also means that the eyebox (the surface where you can see the projection) is smaller than other AR gadgets, which often use waveguides. In other words, your Focals have to be positioned pretty near perfectly to see the image. The company works hard to make sure that’s the case, fitting the glasses to your specific face. But glasses shift and move throughout the day, which means there’s plenty of re-adjusting in order to see the picture.

All that said, the Focals look surprisingly good. In fact, passersby would be hard-pressed to detect that they’re smart glasses in the first place. They aren’t comfortable enough to wear all day — the extra weight on the front means they get a bit uncomfortable after a few hours. But overall, these are pretty discreet as far as smart glasses go.

How

It’s a relatively time-consuming process to get your hands on a pair of Focals. Because the fit and size are so important to usability, users interested in purchasing a pair have to go to one of North’s two stores (there’s one in Toronto, and one in Brooklyn, NY).

The visit to the store is by appointment. Upon arrival, store associates will take you into a booth where you’ll sit before 11 cameras that will 3D model your head, determining where your eyes and ears sit relative to the rest of your face. The cameras also try to understand your gaze.

From there, you get a demo with a standard (not fitted) pair of Focals, during which you learn how to align the Focals and use the Ring. It takes a few weeks for your custom-fit Focals to be ready to pick up, at which point you go through a final sizing with an optician.

It’s tedious, and will be difficult for the company to scale, but it’s part of what gives Focals an edge in quality. Luckily for folks outside of Toronto and NY, Focals is heading off on a pop-up tour. You can check out the tour dates and locations here.

Why

‘Why?’ is perhaps the toughest question to answer when it comes to the Focals. The goal, as outlined by the company, is to keep you connected to the digital world without taking you out of the real world. In short, stop looking down at your phone.

That said, Focals also take away the option. When your phone rings, or even when your Apple Watch buzzes, you have a choice to make: look down, or ignore. When you’re wearing the Focals, that decision is eliminated.

For this reason, I feel like this product is meant for early adopters and folks who enjoy being ultra-connected to the digital world. If you’re already addicted to the sweet chime of your phone, the Focals may very well keep you more connected to the real world, and potentially save your neck from some stiffness. But if you do well to live in the real world and don’t appreciate the constant flow of notifications to your phone, the Focals likely won’t help you maintain that separation.

There are also some minor issues with the Focals themselves. The Ring isn’t super comfortable, particularly when typing on a computer (something most of us spend hours each day doing). The Ring also seems like something that would be very easy to lose or break — this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (For now, North is replacing broken rings for free.)

With the Focals themselves, I’d like to be clear when I say that I was pleasantly surprised with the over all experience. The UI is pleasant to look at, and the little chime of a notification that whispers in your ear is most certainly addictive.

However, I found my eyes getting tired after more than an hour wearing the Focals. Using the Focals means that you’re constantly changing the focus of your eyes from close to far away, which can be tiring. Moreover, if the glasses shift a bit on your face, the text of the notification can become fuzzy, making the experience even more tiring.

Plus, the glasses are built to bend halfway through the arms, as opposed to where the arms meet the frames. This means you can’t hang the Focals off the front of your shirt, which is an admittedly minor gripe, but it bugged me throughout the review process.

Add to that the fact that Focals start at $600, this product is really for technophiles. For now.

North is on the right track. The company is constantly developing new features that are released each week — they recently launched Google Fit support to check your steps, as well as language lessons to brush up on your French during your walk to work. And they’ve started with the right priorities in mind. The Focals are fine looking glasses, and in general, the tech works. Now it’s about refinement.

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GoTenna is ramping up public sector mesh networking with a $24M C round

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GoTenna is best known for its outdoors-oriented consumer products that let you text and share locations between smartphones off the grid. But the company has found that government work — military, fire, rescue — is the real market, and is pursuing it with a vengeance on the strength of a $24 million funding round.

“We’ve been busy!” said Daniela Perdomo, founder and CEO of the company, in an interview. “We have a good problem, which is a technology that can be so foundationally enabling for so many use cases.”

GoTenna’s core tech is mesh networking over radio frequencies normally used for walkie-talkies: long range but low bandwidth. Yet if all you need to send are GPS coordinates or a short message, it’s perfectly sufficient and works great where mobile and satellites connections are impractical. Just on the device, smaller than a deck of cards, and you can chat over miles in the middle of nowhere with your climbing partners or back country ski pals.

In the last couple years the company has shifted its priorities from consumer tech — the GoTenna and Mesh series of gadgets — to filling the needs of public sector clients that have been asking for something like this for years.

Firefighters, military operations, local law enforcement, search and rescue — many were using bulky, over-engineered, expensive solutions that haven’t changed much in decades. GoTenna works with nearly any smartphone and instantly creates a mesh network that can span miles, making it perfect for off-grid communications.

Perdomo said this was actually more or less the plan from the beginning.

“It was in my first ever pitch deck when we raised our seed in 2013, there was this blue-sky vision of how the technology would be used,” she told me. “But it was simpler to launch an MVP to consumers. We always felt that product was going to bring in the public sector. And that’s exactly what happened — when we launched our first generation product, I think within 24 hours we had a variety of different public sector customers reach out to us.”

“We now have some federal agencies that have been customers through every generation of the product. We sill have our consumer product, and people love it, but it’s a small part of our business compared to the public sector,” she said.

An example of how the interface might look in use. It can relay the locations of other GoTenna devices at intervals, helping teams keep in touch automatically.

While disaster response crews could of course just buy a couple dozen of the regular GoTenna products, they were quick to ask for “pro” versions with features prized by advanced users and military customers.

Longer range, more programmable wireless parameters, compatibility with various legacy systems — the Pro and new ProX versions of the GoTenna system hit a lot of sweet spots. As Perdomo told me when the Pro first came out, legacy systems are powerful in some ways but can also be horribly expensive, incompatible with foreign wireless systems, or even have legal restrictions on where they can be used.

For a cash-strapped NGO that goes around doing global aid, a $100-$500 gadget that turns an ordinary phone into a versatile mesh node is potentially game-changing. (You can also use them to temporarily replace destroyed communications infrastructure.)

But deep-pocketed federal agencies and military branches are also shelling out for the devices, and increasingly for the software support contracts that go with them. GoTenna’s Aspen Grove is a proprietary mesh network protocol that they’ve engineered to be faster and more robust than anything else out there. I’d exert a little skepticism here normally, but from what I’ve seen the systems GoTenna is replacing or augmenting aren’t exactly competitive.

In fact GoTenna’s next major hardware project is to create a mesh networking board that can be integrated right into existing hardware, simplifying the systems and baking its protocols in even deeper.

“We have a long list of companies that want to integrate our tech into vehicles, aircraft, anything you can think of,” Perdomo said. “So you can put one of these babies on a UAV and let ‘er rip! Our record range, point to point from a UAV, is 69 miles.”

Meanwhile the company is also releasing a broader open source mesh platform called Lot 49 that’s meant to be capable of supporting a global messaging infrastructure without relying on any wireless providers. That could be a big deal for internet of things type devices as well.

Interestingly, Perdomo doesn’t feel threatened by the new and rather scary kid on the block: communications satellite constellations like Starlink and OneWeb. If the idea is that GoTenna lets you communicate where the grid doesn’t reach, what happens when the grid is global?

“No matter how many satellites you put up, repeaters you put up, cables you lay down, you always have that last mile. You need resiliency, access, and I believe neutrality as well,” she said. And indeed you’re not going to take a Starlink ground station with you on a covert operation or into an active wildfire. And having an existing, ongoing business agreement with a satellite communications provider may not even be desirable in the first place.

“There’s a reason why certain incumbents in the tactical radio space as well as carriers are partnering with us,” Perdomo pointed out — and indeed Comcast Ventures is a new face among the investors. “We’re creating a new layer in the communications stack, mesh networks with a focus on bursty data. I think of us as perfectly complementary to every other communications company.”

As for that funding, it will go towards easing the rapid growth the company is experiencing, finishing the pro and embedded options, hiring up, and expanding operations to support their growing services business. The $24M round was led by Founders Fund, with participation from Comcast Ventures and existing investors Union Square Ventures, Collaborative Fund, Walden VC, MentorTech, and Bloomberg Beta.

“We’ve been in R&D for a really long time,” Perdomo said. “It’s exciting now to also be becoming a business. All of the most impressive mainstream telecommunications technologies we use today, things like the internet or GPS, they hit it out of the park with the public sector first. If you can win there, in life or death situations, you know you can win everywhere else as well.”

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