Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’ [Update: Postponed]

Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’ [Update: Postponed]
Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-based rocket company that is looking to further amplify the commercial space frenzy, is launching its first fully paid payload atop an Electron rocket tonight — technically tomorrow morning at the launch site. If successful, it will mark a significant new development in the highly competitive world of commercial launches.
Update: Sorry folks but not today. The company said it will announce a new target soon, while the launch window remains July 6.
Liftoff is planned for 2:10 in the morning local time in New Zealand, or 7:10 Pacific time in the U.S.; the live stream will start about 20 minutes before that.

The Electron rocket is a far smaller one than the Falcon 9s we see so frequently these days, with a nominal payload of 150 kilograms, just a fraction of the many tons that we see sent up by SpaceX. But that’s the whole point, Rocket Lab’s founder, CEO and chief engineer Peter Beck told me recently.
“You can go buy a spot on a big launch vehicle, but they’re not very frequent. With a small rocket you can choose your orbit and choose your schedule,” he said. “That’s what we’re driving at here: regular and reliable access to space.”
An Electron rocket launching during a previous test
Just like not every car on the road has to be a big rig, not every rocket needs to be a Saturn V; 150 kilos is more than enough to fill with paying customers and cover the cost of launch. And Beck told me there is no shortage whatsoever of paying customers.
“The most important part of the mission is the timing in which we manifested it,” he explained (manifesting meaning having a payload added to the manifest). “We went from nothing manifested to a full payload in about 12 weeks.”
For comparison, some missions or payloads will wait literally years before there’s an opportunity to get to the orbit they need. Loading up just a few weeks ahead of time is unusual, to say the least.
Today’s launch will carry satellites from Spire, Tyvak/GeoOptics, students at UC Irvine and High Performance Space Structure Systems; you can see the specifics of these on the manifest (PDF). It’s not the first time an Electron has taken a paid payload to orbit, but it is the first fully commercialized launch.
Rocket Lab has no ambitions for interplanetary travel, sending people to space or anything like that. It just wants to take 150 kilograms to orbit as often as it can, as inexpensively as it can.
“We’re not interested in building a bigger rocket, we’re interested in building more of this one,” Beck said. “The vehicle is fully dialed in; we started from day one with this vehicle designed from a production approach. We’re fully vertically integrated, we don’t have any contractors, we do everything in-house. We’ve been scaling up the factories enormously.”
“We’re looking for a one-a-month cadence this year, then next year one every two weeks,” he continued. “Frequency is the key — it’s the choke point in space right now.”
Ultimately the plan is to get a rocket lifting off every few days. And if you think that will be enough to meet demand, just wait a couple years.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Facebook permanently grounds its Aquila solar-powered internet plane

Facebook permanently grounds its Aquila solar-powered internet plane
Facebook has announced that it will no longer pursue its dream of building a gigantic, solar-powered plane to blast internet to underserved communities via laser. Surprisingly, it’s just not practical.
In a news post on the company’s coding sub-site, Facebook’s Yael Maguire announced that “we’ve decided not to design or build our own aircraft any longer, and to close our facility in Bridgewater.” Closing the facility comes with the loss of 16 jobs specific to the development and maintenance of the aircraft, the company confirmed to TechCrunch, though plenty relating to other aspects of the project were unaffected.
The company will continue its work with partners, such as Airbus, to help advance “high altitude platform stations” (HAPS) like the Aquila.
The program has been underway since 2014 (the acquisition of Ascenta seems to have been its real start) and public since 2015, and had its first test flight in 2016 — resulting in a “structural failure,” hard landing and subsequent NTSB investigation. The second test flight was better, but far from perfect.
The craft itself, an enormous flying V that stayed aloft at extremely low power draw replenished by solar cells, seems to have worked quite well, actually, despite a few hiccups. But Facebook isn’t the only company looking to get into low-power, high-altitude communications craft.
“As we’ve worked on these efforts, it’s been exciting to see leading companies in the aerospace industry start investing in this technology too — including the design and construction of new high-altitude aircraft,” wrote Maguire.
Considering the considerable scale of investment required to build a craft like this from scratch, and the vast gap in expertise and core competencies between a social network and a veteran aerospace company, it’s not surprising that Facebook decided to cut its losses.
The decision was preceded by a report from Business Insider that the project had more or less stalled: its head and chief engineer left last month after, from reading between the lines, efforts to double down on the project with a redesign and private hangar were rejected.
The Aquila plan, like other ambitious connectivity ideas, some still in the offing, was conceived in a period one might call “peak Facebook,” when it was at the height of its growth, before it attracted nearly the level of criticism it faces today, and when its goals were lofty in several ways.
No doubt the company plans to pursue “the next billion” in a way that isn’t quite so costly or unprecedented. Maguire does indicate that work will continue, just not in such a direct way:
Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on HAPS connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries. On the policy front, we’ll be working on a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for HAPS, and we’ll be actively participating in a number of aviation advisory boards and rule-making committees in the US and internationally.
It’s hard to fault Facebook for its ambition, though even at the time there were plenty who objected to this extremely techno-utopian idea of how internet could be delivered to isolated communities. Surely, they said, and will continue to say, that money would be better spent laying fiber or establishing basic infrastructure. We’ll see.
I asked Facebook for more information, such as what projects specifically it will be backing, and what will happen to the IP and hardware the Aquila program comprised.
Although a Facebook representative declined to answer my specific questions, they emphasized the fact that the Aquila project was both successful and wide-ranging; although an actual aircraft will no longer be part of it (that duty falls to actual aerospace companies), there were many other advances in transmission, propulsion and so on that are still very much in active development. What exactly the company plans to do with those is still unclear, but we can probably expect news on that front over the next few months as the program adjusts focus.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Oh, the things I would do to get this cardboard-style Nintendo Switch

Oh, the things I would do to get this cardboard-style Nintendo Switch
Nintendo is building on its strange but wonderful cardboard Labo platform with some sweet Mario Kart integration and a truly fabulous limited edition Switch with a faux-cardboard finish. It really is just the greatest thing and I would do terrible things to have it. Unfortunately some smart kid will probably get it, because you have to win it by designing something cool with Labo.
So, first the Mario Kart stuff. If you have Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch, and you really should because it’s excellent, you can now use the Toy-Con (buildable with the Labo Variety Kit) as a sort of real-world controller. You twist the right “handlebar” to accelerate and rotate the whole thing to turn.
This is the first game to get its own special Labo support, but the company says more are on the way. Splatoon 2, perhaps?
If you’re a creative type and you have a Labo set, you’re in luck. There are two new contests you can enter, and entry puts you in the running to win the amazing neutral-colored Switch shown up top. I really don’t know why I love it so much, but I do. And if you do too, you should enter. (If you’re in the U.S. or Canada. Sorry, world.)
The first challenge is to create a musical instrument with the Toy-Con pieces and “craft materials.” You’ll have to document its creation and show it working on video; it’ll be judged on “Quality, Creativity, Spirit, and Sound.” Caps Nintendo’s.

Nintendo Labo review

The second challenge is to create a game or game-like experience using Toy-Con Garage. Same judgment categories as before, minus Sound.
There will be one grand prize winner and four runners up per contest. Grand prize is that amazing Switch (approximate retail value $1,000?!), plus a cool (?) Labo jacket. Runners up get a pair of cardboard style Joy-Cons and a jacket. Respectable.
If you’ve been looking for a reason to pick up that Labo kit again or use some random pieces you never tried, this is surely that reason. Now get to work!

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

This smart prosthetic ankle adjusts to rough terrain

This smart prosthetic ankle adjusts to rough terrain
Prosthetic limbs are getting better and more personalized, but useful as they are, they’re still a far cry from the real thing. This new prosthetic ankle is a little closer than others, though: it moves on its own, adapting to its user’s gait and the surface on which it lands.
Your ankle does a lot of work when you walk: lifting your toe out of the way so you don’t scuff it on the ground, controlling the tilt of your foot to minimize the shock when it lands or as you adjust your weight, all while conforming to bumps and other irregularities it encounters. Few prostheses attempt to replicate these motions, meaning all that work is done in a more basic way, like the bending of a spring or compression of padding.
But this prototype ankle from Michael Goldfarb, a mechanical engineering professor at Vanderbilt, goes much further than passive shock absorption. Inside the joint are a motor and actuator, controlled by a chip that senses and classifies motion and determines how each step should look.

Po 3D prints personalized prosthetic hands for the needy in South America

“This device first and foremost adapts to what’s around it,” Goldfarb said in a video documenting the prosthesis.
“You can walk up slopes, down slopes, up stairs and down stairs, and the device figures out what you’re doing and functions the way it should,” he added in a news release from the university.
When it senses that the foot has lifted up for a step, it can lift the toe up to keep it clear, also exposing the heel so that when the limb comes down, it can roll into the next step. And by reading the pressure both from above (indicating how the person is using that foot) and below (indicating the slope and irregularities of the surface) it can make that step feel much more like a natural one.

One veteran of many prostheses, Mike Sasser, tested the device and had good things to say: “I’ve tried hydraulic ankles that had no sort of microprocessors, and they’ve been clunky, heavy and unforgiving for an active person. This isn’t that.”
Right now the device is still very lab-bound, and it runs on wired power — not exactly convenient if someone wants to go for a walk. But if the joint works as designed, as it certainly seems to, then powering it is a secondary issue. The plan is to commercialize the prosthesis in the next couple of years once all that is figured out. You can learn a bit more about Goldfarb’s research at the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Rumored full mouse and keyboard support for Xbox One could change the gaming landscape

Rumored full mouse and keyboard support for Xbox One could change the gaming landscape
Microsoft may be readying a new weapon that could shift the balance in the interminable console wars: the mouse. Wait, you say, didn’t they promise that years ago, and aren’t there peripherals already available? Kind of. But going whole hog into PC-style controls allows Microsoft to create powerful synergies with Windows, performing a flanking maneuver against arch-rival Sony.
Mouse and keyboard is, of course, the control method of choice for many games on PC, but it has remained elusive on consoles. Some fancy accessories have made it possible to do it, and years ago Microsoft said it would be adding mouse support to games on its console, but the feature has in practice proved frustratingly limited. More on-screen pointing has been done with Wiimotes by far.
Windows Central got hold of an internal presentation ostensibly from Microsoft that details what could be a full-court press on the mouse and keyboard front, which is one the company is uniquely suited to attempt.
In fact, you may very rightly wonder why it hasn’t been attempted before now. The trouble isn’t implementing it but the changes that have to be made downstream of that implementation.
One of these things? Why not?
For one thing, hardly any games will support the control method out of the box. They’ve all been made with very specific hardware in mind, and it’s nontrivial to add a pointer to menus, change relative camera movement to absolute movement and so on.
And for another, mouse and keyboard is simply a superior form of input for some games. Certainly for the likes of real-time strategy and simulations, which involve a lot of menus and precise clicking — which accounts for the relative lack of those on consoles. But more importantly in the gaming economy, first-person shooters are massively dominated by mouse users.
That may sound sort of like a gauntlet thrown to the ground between PC and console players, but this argument has played out before many times and the mouse and keyboard players always come out on top, often by embarrassing margins.
Usually that doesn’t present a big problem, since, for example, competitive Call of Duty leagues are pretty much all on console. You just don’t have match-ups between mice and controllers.
That’s starting to change, however, with the introduction of major cross-platform games like Fortnite. When you have Xbox, Switch and PC players all on the same server, the latter arguably has a huge advantage for a number of reasons.
You don’t bring an analog stick to a sniper fight.
And on the other hand, the Xbox One is lagging behind the PlayStation 4 in sales and in attractive exclusives. A fresh play that expands the Xbone into a growing niche — say, pro and competitive gaming — would be a huge boon just about now.
That’s why the document Windows Central received makes so much sense. The presentation suggests that all Windows-compatible USB mice and keyboards will work with Xbox One, including wireless ones that work via dongle. That would change the game considerably, so to speak.
The devices would have to report themselves and be monitored, of course: It wouldn’t do for a game to think it’s receiving controller input but instead getting mouse input. And that leaves the door open to cheating and so on, as well. So device IDs and such will be carefully monitored.
Whether and how to implement mouse and keyboard controls will still be left entirely to the developer, the slides note, which of course leaves us with the same problems as before. But what allowing any mouse to be used does, combined with a huge amount of players doing so on a major property like Fortnite, is create a sort of critical mass.
Right now the handful of players with custom, expensive setups to mouse around in a handful of games just isn’t enough for developers to dedicate significant resources to accommodating them. But say a few hundred thousand people decide to connect their spare peripherals to the console? All of a sudden that’s an addressable market — it provides a competitive advantage to be the developer who supports it.
Mouse support may also provide the bridge that enables the longstanding Microsoft fantasy of merging its Xbox and Windows ecosystems at least in part. It unifies the experience, allows for improved library sharing, and generally shifts the Xbox One from a dedicated console to essentially a standardized low-cost, high-performance gaming PC.
This may have the further effect of helping put pressure on Valve and its Steam store, which dominates the PC gaming world to the point of near monopoly. Being able to play on Xbox or Windows, share achievements and save games, have gameplay parity and so on — this is the kind of compelling multi-platform experience Microsoft has been flirting with for years.
Imagine that: a Microsoft ecosystem that spans PCs and consoles, embraces competitive gaming at all levels and is easy and simple to set up. Sony would have little recourse, having no desktop business to leverage, and Valve’s own attempts to cross the console divide have been largely abortive. In a way it seems like Microsoft is poised for a critical hit — if only it manages to take advantage of it.
Will this just be the latest chapter in the long story of failed mouse support by consoles? Or is Microsoft laying the groundwork for a major change to how it approaches the gaming world? We didn’t see anything at E3 this year, so the answer isn’t forthcoming, but Microsoft may be spurred by this leak (assuming it’s genuine) to publicize the program a bit more and speak in more concrete terms how this potential shift would take place.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

LifeDoor crowdfunds the production version of its fire-thwarting door-closer

LifeDoor crowdfunds the production version of its fire-thwarting door-closer
At CES in January I was pleasantly surprised by the LifeDoor, a smart home gadget that’s actually worth having. These little boxes automatically close doors when smoke detectors go off, inhibiting the spread of fire and smoke. The company is heading to KickStarter to fund the production version of the device, which has several improvements over the prototype I saw.
The simplicity and practicality of the device made it a standout at a show flooded with useless junk; the small team essentially made a gadget that automatically does what firefighters all insist you do: close the door in case of fire. That can be hard to remember to do or enforce, but the LifeDoor makes it so you don’t have to do either.
Installation, on any standard door hinge, shouldn’t take longer than a minute or two. It doesn’t detect smoke or heat, but rather lets your smoke detectors and other gadgets do that — instead, it listens for the beep when smoke is detected, and quickly (but gently) shuts the door against the threat. It’ll then light up and sound its own alarm in case you didn’t hear the first or the door muted the noise.
The version I saw was fully working, but was 3D-printed and the team was still making improvements. The production device is only about two-thirds the size of the prototype, which wasn’t too big to begin with. The new enclosure should help with detecting alarm signals as well. The microphone subsystem also will now sit idle unless it hears something, saving power and allowing the LifeDoor to go for up to two years on one battery.
Right now they’re looking to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter — they’re going for a little less than $100 each as perks. My guess is all the backers so far are firefighters. I can say honestly that if I had an actual house I would buy a couple of these things in a second. I’ll leave myself open to accusations of shilling here because unlike most smart home knick-knacks, this one is more than useful — it could save lives.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air
For many of us, clean, drinkable water comes right out of the tap. But for billions it’s not that simple, and all over the world researchers are looking into ways to fix that. Today brings work from Berkeley, where a team is working on a water-harvesting apparatus that requires no power and can produce water even in the dry air of the desert. Hey, if a cactus can do it, why can’t we?
While there are numerous methods for collecting water from the air, many require power or parts that need to be replaced; what professor Omar Yaghi has developed needs neither.
The secret isn’t some clever solar concentrator or low-friction fan — it’s all about the materials. Yaghi is a chemist, and has created what’s called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that’s eager both to absorb and release water.
It’s essentially a powder made of tiny crystals in which water molecules get caught as the temperature decreases. Then, when the temperature increases again, the water is released into the air again.
Yaghi demonstrated the process on a small scale last year, but now he and his team have published the results of a larger field test producing real-world amounts of water.
They put together a box about two feet per side with a layer of MOF on top that sits exposed to the air. Every night the temperature drops and the humidity rises, and water is trapped inside the MOF; in the morning, the sun’s heat drives the water from the powder, and it condenses on the box’s sides, kept cool by a sort of hat. The result of a night’s work: 3 ounces of water per pound of MOF used.
That’s not much more than a few sips, but improvements are already on the way. Currently the MOF uses zicronium, but an aluminum-based MOF, already being tested in the lab, will cost 99 percent less and produce twice as much water.

With the new powder and a handful of boxes, a person’s drinking needs are met without using any power or consumable material. Add a mechanism that harvests and stores the water and you’ve got yourself an off-grid potable water solution.
“There is nothing like this,” Yaghi explained in a Berkeley news release. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”
He says there are already commercial products in development. More tests, with mechanical improvements and including the new MOF, are planned for the hottest months of the summer.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Women’s Safety XPRIZE $1M winner is a smart, simple panic button

Women’s Safety XPRIZE M winner is a smart, simple panic button
Devices like smartphones ought to help people feel safer, but if you’re in real danger the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone, go to your recent contacts and type out a message asking a friend for help. The Women’s Safety XPRIZE just awarded its $1 million prize to one of dozens of companies attempting to make a safety wearable that’s simple and affordable.
The official challenge was to create a device costing less than $40 that can “autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds.”

Anu and Naveen Jain, the entrepreneurs who funded the competition, emphasized the international and very present danger of sexual assault in particular.
“Women’s safety is not just a third world problem; we face it every day in our own country and on our college campuses,” said Naveen Jain in the press release announcing the winner. “It’s not a red state problem or a blue state problem but a national problem.”
“Safety is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t be considered a luxury for women. It is the foundation in achieving gender equality,” added Anu Jain.
Out of dozens of teams that entered, five finalists were chosen in April: Artemis, Leaf Wearables, Nimb & SafeTrek, Saffron and Soterra. All had some variation on a device that either detected or was manually activated during an attack or stressful situation, alerting friends to one’s location.
The winner was Leaf, which had the advantage of having already shipped a product along these lines, the Safer pendant. Like any other Bluetooth accessory, it keeps in touch with your smartphone wirelessly and when you press the button twice your emergency contacts are alerted to your location and need for help. It also records audio, possibly providing evidence later or a deterrent to harassers who might fear being identified.
It’s not that it’s an original idea — we’ve had various versions of this for some time, and even covered one of the other finalists last year. But they haven’t been quantitatively evaluated or given a platform like this.
“These devices were tested in many conditions by the judges to ensure that they will work in real-life cases where women face dangers today. They were tested in no-connectivity areas, on public transit, in basements of buildings, among other environments,” explained Anu Jain to TechCrunch. “Having the capability to record audio after sending the alert was one of the main differentiators for Leaf Wearables. Their chip design and software was also easy to be integrated into other accessories.”
Hopefully the million dollars and the visibility from winning the prize will help Leaf get its product out to people who need it. The runners-up don’t seem likely to give up on the problem, either. And it seems like the devices will only get better and cheaper — not that this will change the world on its own.
“Prices will come down as the sensor prices drop. In many countries it will require community support to be built,” continued Jain. “These technologies can act as a deterrent but in the long term culture of violence again women must change.”

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Here’s the sequel to the surprisingly nice BlackBerry KeyOne

Here’s the sequel to the surprisingly nice BlackBerry KeyOne

TCL just dropped the sequel to the KeyOne, the company’s surprisingly good keyboard-sporting BlackBerry handset. We reviewed it roughly this time last year, and it was almost enough to restore our faith in the possibilities of BlackBerry as a brand. Almost. Of course, that had much more to do with TCL’s ability to create solid hardware than any residual BB legacy.

The Key2 builds on the promise of its predecessor, bringing back the physical keyboard and familiar BlackBerry-styled design, constructed around a 4.5-inch touchscreen and aluminum frame. The phone, naturally, runs Android (8.1 to start), loaded up with your standard suite of BlackBerry software, including DTEK. The security app has been updated with a new Proactive Health feature, which offers a full system scan.

As TCL proudly notes, this is the first BlackBerry/BlackBerry-branded device to feature dual rear-facing cameras, so that’s something. The pair of 12-megapixel cameras help deliver the device into 2018 with features like Portrait Mode, Optical Super Zoom and Google Lens.

There’s a chunky 3,500mAH battery and a middling Snapdragon 660, coupled with a generous 6GB of RAM and either 64- or 128GB of storage. Not too shabby, but all of that comes with a $649 price tag, which marks a $100 premium over the KeyOne, which should make this a bit of a tougher pill to swallow for what to many no doubt still feels like a bit of a novelty in the smartphone category.

The Key2 starts shipping this month, and TCL tells me that it plans to keep selling the KeyOne as well, for the time being.

Source: Mobile – Techcruch

Indiegogo expands its efforts to help Chinese startups reach global consumers

Indiegogo expands its efforts to help Chinese startups reach global consumers
While crowdfunding company Indiegogo has been running a pilot program in China for the past couple of years, it’s now building on those efforts with the launch of the Indiegogo China Global Fast-Track Program.
CEO David Mandelbrot is in Shenzhen, China this week to announce the program, which is designed to help Chinese entrepreneurs reach a global audience. In an email, he told me:
The China Pilot Program is officially out of pilot phase — today, we are officially launching the Indiegogo Global Fast Track. During the pilot phase, the team experimented with different ways to help service Chinese brands and manufacturers who were looking to launch products overseas. After helping companies raise over $100 million and launch over 3,000 China-based projects over two years time, the team has finalized its new suite of services.
Those services include guidance around crowdfunding and marketing in the United States and other countries, access to a network of more than 65 service providers (including retailers and marketing firms, as well as Indiegogo’s manufacturing partner Arrow Electronics and shipping partner Ingram Micro) and Chinese-to-English consultation with bilingual staff.
Even while in the pilot phase, Indiegogo has had some success stories in helping Chinese companies launch globally. For example, Bluetooth headphone company crazybaby raised more than $4 million across three campaigns.
Mandelbrot said Indiegogo also has opened a satellite office in the Tencent incubator in Shenzhen — a manufacturing hub that’s become a hub for hardware startups, too.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch