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Facebook and Instagram’s AI-generated image captions now offer far more details

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Every picture posted to Facebook and Instagram gets a caption generated by an image analysis AI, and that AI just got a lot smarter. The improved system should be a treat for visually impaired users, and may help you find your photos faster in the future.

Alt text is a field in an image’s metadata that describes its contents: “A person standing in a field with a horse,” or “a dog on a boat.” This lets the image be understood by people who can’t see it.

These descriptions are often added manually by a photographer or publication, but people uploading photos to social media generally don’t bother, if they even have the option. So the relatively recent ability to automatically generate one — the technology has only just gotten good enough in the last couple years — has been extremely helpful in making social media more accessible in general.

Facebook created its Automatic Alt Text system in 2016, which is eons ago in the field of machine learning. The team has since cooked up many improvements to it, making it faster and more detailed, and the latest update adds an option to generate a more detailed description on demand.

The improved system recognizes 10 times more items and concepts than it did at the start, now around 1,200. And the descriptions include more detail. What was once “Two people by a building” may now be “A selfie of two people by the Eiffel Tower.” (The actual descriptions hedge with “may be…” and will avoid including wild guesses.)

But there’s more detail than that, even if it’s not always relevant. For instance, in this image the AI notes the relative positions of the people and objects:

The Facebook smartphone app showing detailed captions for an image.Obviously the people are above the drums, and the hats are above the people, none of which really needs to be said for someone to get the gist. But consider an image described as “A house and some trees and a mountain.” Is the house on the mountain or in front of it? Are the trees in front of or behind the house, or maybe on the mountain in the distance?

In order to adequately describe the image, these details should be filled in, even if the general idea can be gotten across with fewer words. If a sighted person wants more detail they can look closer or click the image for a bigger version — someone who can’t do that now has a similar option with this “generate detailed image description” command. (Activate it with a long press in the Android app or a custom action in iOS.)

Perhaps the new description would be something like “A house and some trees in front of a mountain with snow on it.” That paints a better picture, right? (To be clear, these examples are made up but it’s the sort of improvement that’s expected.)

The new detailed description feature will come to Facebook first for testing, though the improved vocabulary will appear on Instagram soon. The descriptions are also kept simple so they can be easily translated to other languages already supported by the apps, though the feature may not roll out in other countries simultaneously.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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This Week in Apps: App Store advertising expands, Google Play plans for safety, Epic v. Apple trial begins

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking at the Apple-Epic trial, Apple’s App Store advertising expansion, App Tracking Transparency opt-in rates, TikTok’s new SDKs for third-party apps, Google’s plans for its own take on privacy labels, and more.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

Apple-Epic Trial kicks off

This was the first week of the Epic Games antitrust lawsuit against Apple over App Store fees, and already it’s yielding some interesting content — mainly thanks to the internal Apple emails that have become part of the trial’s exhibits. So far, we’ve learned how Apple thought about App Store fees in the past, have gotten a peek inside internal conversations, learned of special deals it cut for Hulu and how it thought about punishing Netflix for ditching IAP, among other things.

Here are some of the highlights you may have missed.

Fees

  • Apple’s App Store head Phil Schiller, previously Apple’s marketing chief, a decade ago questioned if the 70/30 split would last. In an email to Eddy Cue, he suggested that once the App Store reached $1 billion in profitability, Apple should cut its fees to 20-25%.
  • Despite having said he’s fighting for all developers, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney in court admitted he would have accepted a special deal for a lower commission if Apple had offered one.
  • Apple is disputing testimony from financial researcher Ned Barnes, which said the App Store had operating margins of almost 78% in 2019. Barnes said he had access to P&L estimates for fiscal year 2020, and statements from 2013-15, which aided in his calculations. Apple rebutted that it doesn’t allocate costs for the App Store so any documents discussing it wouldn’t have included expenses.

Competition

  • Apple’s App Store VP Matt Fischer was questioned over a 2016 email where an employee said Fischer felt strongly about not featuring competitor apps on the App Store. Fischer said the employee who wrote the email was “very misinformed” and Apple has promoted competitors long before he joined the team in 2010.

App Store rejections

  • Apple said it rejected 33-36% of apps submitted to the App Store from 2017-2019. Despite the number of rejections, less than 1% of developers appeal Apple’s decision. Most of the decisions about rejections are still upheld.
  • 2017: 5.177 million submissions, 1.69 million rejections (33%)
  • 2018: 4.79 million submissions, 1.7 million rejections (35%)
  • 2019: 4.8 million submissions, 1.74 million rejections (36%)

Juicy emails

  • Apple offered Hulu and others special deals that gave them App Store API access. In a 2018 email, an Apple exec confirmed Hulu was one of the whitelisted developers that had been given access to the subscription cancel/refund API which they had been using since 2015 to support instant upgrades using a two-family setup before subscription upgrade/downgrade capabilities were built.
  • Emails revealed Apple tried to convince Netflix not to drop support for IAPs and questioned whether it should take punitive measures when Netflix’s tests were underway.
  • Apple emails revealed internal conflict over the launch of App Store ads before launch, saying that ads would be at odds with Apple’s statements that it makes products without monetizing users.

Other tidbits

  • Fischer said he was “blindsided” by the payment update that kicked off Epic’s battle with the App Store, noting the developer and Apple had a good relationship previously. He recalled dropping everything to promote Fortnite’s Travis Scott concert on the App Store, which he described as a “really cool concept.”
  • Fortnite made more than $9 billion in 2018 and 2019. It made $5.1 billion in 2020.
  • Fortnite may be returning to iOS through Nvidia’s cloud streaming service GeForce NOW.
  • It was revealed that Epic paid Sony additional royalties beyond the 70/30 split to compensate for cross-play. Apple’s argument is that it’s being singled out over the 30% cut, when Epic was actually paying more to Sony but didn’t go after the console maker with the same complaint.
  • Apple and Epic had once planned a subscription bundle that would have offered Fortnite Crew, Apple Music and Apple TV+ in a $20/mo package. The cut of subscription revenue each would take would have been based on whether the user signed up through Apple or through Fortnite.

Google to add a “Safety” section on Google Play in 2022

Months after Apple’s App Store introduced privacy labels for apps, Google says its own mobile app marketplace, Google Play, will follow suit…sorta. The company this week pre-announced its plans to introduce a new “safety” section in Google Play, rolling out in Q2 2022, which will require app developers to share what sort of data their apps collect, how it’s stored and how it’s used.

This includes what sort of personal information their apps collect, like users’ names or emails, and whether it collects information from the phone, like the user’s precise location, their media files or contacts. Apps will also need to explain how the app uses that information — for example, for enhancing the app’s functionality or for personalization purposes — and include their privacy policy, otherwise face “policy enforcement.”

But where Apple’s labels focus on what data is being collected for tracking purposes and what’s linked to the end user, Google’s additions seem to be more about whether or not you can trust the data being collected is being handled responsibly, by allowing the developer to showcase if they follow best practices around data security. It also gives the developer a way to make a case for why it’s collecting data right on the listing page itself. And Google says developers can showcase if their labels have been independently verified.

 

TikTok Login and more integrations are coming to third-party apps

Image Credits: TikTok

TikTok is expanding its integrations with third-party apps. The company announced the launch of two new SDKs, the TikTok Login Kit and Sound Kit, that will allow apps on mobile, web and consoles to authenticate users via their TikTok credentials, build experiences that leverage users’ TikTok videos and share music and sounds back to TikTok from their own apps. The Login Kit allows an app’s users to sign in quickly using their TikTok log-in credentials, similar to other social log-ins offered by Facebook or Snap. Once signed in, users can then access their TikTok videos in the third-party app, potentially fueling entire new app ecosystems with TikTok content. Meanwhile, the Sounds Kit will let app users share their sounds or music back to TikTok as sounds.

Early adopters of Login Kit include gaming clips apps Allstar and Medal; anti-anxiety app Breathwrk; social app IRL; food reviews app Burpple; dating and friend-making apps Snack, Lolly, MeetMe, Monet, Swipehouse and EME Hive; creator tool provider Streamlabs; video game PUBG; and forthcoming NFT platform Neon. Sound Kits adopters include mobile multi-track recording studio Audiobridge; music creation and collaboration suite LANDR; hip hop music creation app Rapchat; and upcoming audio recording and remix app Yourdio.

Apple expands App Store advertising

Image Credits: Apple

As Apple cracks down on the ad tech industry’s ability to personalize ads using user data, it is expanding its own advertising business with a new App Store ad slot. The new and more prominent ad placement is found on the App Store’s Search tab, which sees millions of visits from Apple device owners every month. The ad will appear in the Suggested section at the top of the list of apps.

Like Apple’s existing Search results campaigns, there’s no minimum spend required for a Search tab campaign, as these ads are called. Developers can spend as little or as much as they want, then start, stop or adjust the campaign at any time, says Apple. Ad pricing is based on a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) model. The actual cost is the result of a second price auction, which calculates what the developer will pay based on what the next closest bidder is willing to pay. Impressions are counted when at least 50% of the ad is visible for one second.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

✨ Although a poll indicated iOS 14.5 users may be more willing to allow apps to track them than previously thought, Flurry’s app data shows that few are opting in. After upgrading to the new version of iOS, only 4% of U.S. iPhone users have enabled app tracking. Worldwide, the number jumps to 12%.

Image Credits: Flurry

Apple apologizes and refunds a woman $1,116.32, after her 9-year-old son (who has autism spectrum disorder) racked up charges on mobile games like Roblox and Coin Master. The son said he didn’t understand the games cost money. The son had memorized the mom’s Apple ID password, which he entered when asked to authorize the purchase. Apple had initially refused to refund the money, prompting Global News‘ Consumer Matters to step in and help.

Apple snags a former Google AI research scientist, Samy Bengio, to work on Siri. He will lead a new AI research unit alongside another ex-Googler, John Giannandrea, focused on making Siri more of a Google Assistant competitor.

Apple released iOS 14.5.1, which included a bug fix for App Tracking Transparency, which prevented some users from seeing the ATT prompts.

Platforms: Google

The Google Play Store in India paused auto-renewals and free trials, amid new rules on recurring transactions in the country from India’s central bank and financial regulator, the Reserve Bank of India. Google in an email to developers said the features would be paused while “ecosystem challenges are addressed.”

Some users aren’t happy with the recent Play Store redesign, which now makes it harder to see a list of your recently updated apps or those you’re beta testing.

Google releases Android Studio 4.2 in the stable release channel. The focus areas for this release is an upgraded IntelliJ platform and a handful of new features centered around improving developers’ productivity.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: Snapchat

Snap will launch a new Creator Marketplace later this month, which will initially focus on connecting AR Lens Creators with businesses and brands who want to run AR ads. It will then expand to support all Snap Creators by 2022. It also announced a new lineup of Originals, including those with TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Megan Thee Stallion, and others.

Fintech

Top neobanking app Chime was asked by a California regulator to stop calling itself a “bank” in its website URLs and advertising. The app is not actually a bank — it offers front-end banking services to customers, but the accounts themselves are held with Chime’s banking partners, The Bancorp Bank and Stride Bank, both FDIC members. Chime updated its website to make it clear it’s not a bank. Expect other neobanks to follow suit, soon.

WhatsApp Pay is rolling out to users in Brazil on iOS and Android. The P2P payments feature requires the user has a Mastercard or Visa debit card in one of the following banks: Banco do Brazil, Banco Inter, Bradesco, Itaú, Mercado Pago, Next, Nubank, Sicredi or Woop Sicredi. The feature is also live in India.

Social

Twitter expanded its Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, to all users with 600 followers or more. The company says this number will allow users to have a good experience, but it still plans to expand to all users in the future.

Twitter launched a Tip Jar feature on mobile that lets users tip people directly on their user profile. The feature supports payment platforms PayPal, Venmo, Patreon, Cash App and Bandcamp.

Twitter also rolled out an improved version of its “reply prompts” feature, aimed at cutting down on harmful tweets. The feature, which is now globally available in English on mobile, shows a prompt that asks a user to reconsider their language when they were about to tweet something mean.

And Twitter rolled out the new feature that lets you post bigger images on iOS and Android, without having the images cropped. (Busy week!)

Instagram is rolling out a captions sticker for Stories, and soon Reels. The sticker, which only works in English-language for now, can be customized with your preferred style, color and text.

The majority of WhatsApp users have accepted the controversial privacy update and the company continues to grow its user base, Facebook said this week. Combined, Facebook’s family of apps had 3.45 billion MAUs as of March 31, 2021, up from 3.3 billion on December 31 and 3.21 billion on September 30. The company says it now won’t deactivate accounts for not accepting the new policy, but will keep reminding them.

Facebook opens registration for F8 Refresh, which is free to all developers worldwide. Sessions will include Facebook Business Messaging, Research, Open Source, Login, Business Tools, AR, Stories, Gaming, Startups and more.

Facebook is launching its Nextdoor clone, Neighborhoods, across Canada, and soon, the U.S. Unlike with Facebook Groups, Facebook users on Neighborhoods can create a separate subprofile that includes a custom bio and list of interests, which is included in a Neighborhoods Directory. Neighborhoods will also have moderators who review posts and comments and can hide posts that violate guidelines.

Image Credits: Facebook

A court ruled Snap could be sued for its role in a fatal car crash that killed three young adults. The boys were using Snap’s controversial “speed filter” that shows your real-life speed, when the 17-year old driver accelerated the car to 123 MPH and then crashed into a tree. The parents sued Snap saying it knowingly created a dangerous game in the app, and bore some responsibility.

Facebook notes its Workplace business networking service now has 7 million paid subscribers, up 40% YoY. Customers now include Virgin Atlantic, Walmart, Telefónica, BT, Booking.com, Deliveroo, AstraZeneca, Starbucks and Save the Children.

Facebook and Instagram’s prompt that asks its users to opt into tracking on iOS 14.x uses scare tactics that suggests that Facebook could have to start charging for its app, if users didn’t agree to tracking. The pop-up says tracking enables personalized ads, supports businesses and “helps keep Facebook free of charge.”

Messaging

Signal claimed Facebook rejected its ads and disabled its ad account for trying to run an ad campaign that showed the amount of data Instagram and Facebook collected on users. Facebook responded that this campaign was a marketing “stunt” and Signal never actually tried to run the ads. It also claimed Signal was showing off screenshots from a time its account was disabled briefly in March for an unrelated issue. If Signal’s being dishonest here, that’s not a good look for an app asking consumers to trust them.

Instagram adds new chat themes featuring Star Wars characters and Netflix’s “Selena: The Series,” as well as stickers celebrating Asian and Pacific Islanders for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and a read receipts feature for DMs. Another new feature available first on iOS allows Instagram users to reply with a photo or video in DMs.

On Messenger, the tap-to-record feature no longer requires users to hold down the button to record the message. It also introduced swipe to archive in Messenger and new a Archived Chats folder on mobile.

Streaming & Entertainment

Google rolls out a new feature to Android tablets called “Entertainment Space, which offers a personalized home page featuring the user’s favorite movies, shows, videos, games and books. This saves the user time hopping in between different apps to find something to do, whether that’s play, watch or read. Each user on the tablet can have their own personalized profile, as well, Google notes.

Is Clubhouse’s hype wearing off? App downloads were 900,000 in April, down from February’s 9.6 million. To combat the decline, Clubhouse this week released its Android app to public testing, and announced its “pilot season” of new shows it’s considering funding through its accelerator.

YouTube’s TikTok rival “Shorts” is now rolling out to all creators in the U.S., and will replace the “Explore” tab on the app’s home screen.

Soundcloud partners with Triller on an integration that will add a Soundcloud-curated playlist feature into the short-form video app. Soundcloud has offered curated programs to other platforms, including SiriusXM, Dash Radio and Australia’s Southern Cross Austereo.

Amazon says its free, ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV will have its own standalone mobile app sometime later this summer.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Twitch’s mobile app hits 22 million global installs in the first quarter of 2021, up 62% YoY, reports Sensor Tower. The app ended 2020 with 80.6 million installs, up 134% from 34.5 million for the year in 2019.

PUBG Mobile will relaunch in India as Battleground Mobile. The mobile game had originally been banned in the country alongside 200 others apps with links to China. Its South Korean developer Krafton didn’t say if it had talked to India’s government or if it had received permission, but will launch with new restrictions to protect minors and their privacy.

Health & Fitness

The Facebook app added a vaccine finder in India and announced a $10 million grant to support emergency response efforts in the country.

Dating

Tinder says it’s rolling out a new 48-hour, in-app event called “Vibes,” that combine the real-time push notifications from Swipe Surge with the on-profile icebreakers from Swipe Night. Vibes will present users with a series of questions ranging from personality traits to pop culture. People’s answers will be displayed on their profile for 72 hours.

Image Credits: Tinder

Tinder parent Match Group also posted better-than-expected earnings for its first quarter and an upbeat revenue outlook, saying it’s seeing stronger recovery in areas with higher vaccination rates.

Government & Policy

China said 33 apps, including a map navigation software from Baidu and Tencent, violated regulations around collecting user data. The app developers were given 10 working days to fix issues or be subject to penalties.

Funding and M&A

💰 Music-making app Rapchat raised $2.3 million in funding co-led by Sony Music Entertainment and NYC VC firm Adjacent. The company has around 7 million registered users, some 250,000 songs have been created from a catalog of about 100,000 beats by 500,000 MAUs.

🤝 Twitter acquired distraction-free reading service Scroll to beef up its subscription product. In the future, Premium subscribers will be able to pay to read news without ads or website clutter, via Scroll. Unfortunately, Scroll’s news aggregator Nuzzel, has already shut down.

💰 Brazil fintech alt.bank, which offers a mobile banking app and debit card, raised $5.5 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures. The app has been downloaded nearly 1 million times but doesn’t disclose how many active users it has.

💰 Finnish mobile games company Supercell extends a $180 million credit line to fellow Finnish games company Metacore, the maker of the popular title Merge Mansion, which has 800,000 daily players.

🤝 Cosmetic treatment review website and app RealSelf acquired YNS Group, a portfolio of websites that will give RealSelf a more international footprint.

🤝 Fortnite maker Epic Games acquires artist community ArtStation, where many artists upload work made with Epic’s Unreal Engine. The company immediately dropped commissions on sales from 30% to 12% — clearly aiming to make a point about a fair commission structure amid its trial with Apple over App Store fees.

💰 Sony announced an investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation. The investment amount was not disclosed, but gives Sony a minority stake. The news follows reports that Discord walked away from a $10 billion acquisition offer from Microsoft.

🤝 Zynga is acquiring mobile ad and monetization firm Chartboost for $250 million. The deal brings mobile game marketing, advertising and monetization in-house at a time when Apple’s privacy push is making targeting mobile ads more difficult.

🤝 Performance marketplace Perform, which offers technology to online and mobile marketers to help scale customer acquisitions, has been acquired by U.S. equity firm Beringer Capital.

💰 Virtual chronic condition care app Vida Health raised $110 million in Series D funding from General Atlantic, Centene and AXA Venture Partners. The company connects users with a personal health coach who guides them through programs for a variety of chronic conditions, including diabetes management, weight loss and mental health support.

💰 Connectcam raises $37 million from Insight Partners, O.G. Tech and others, for its smartphone app that helps employers manage remote, deskless workers.

🤝 Edtech website and app maker Kahoot acquires Clever, a startup that built a single sign-on portal for digital learning classrooms, used by 65% of U.S. K-12 schools. The deal values Clever between $435 million and $500 million.

💰 Avatar app Genies raised $65 million in Series B funding led by Mary Meeker’s firm Bond. The app, which lets users build their own digital personas, is now expanding into NFTs.

💰 Canadian fintech Wealthsimple raised $750 million CAD (~$610 million) at a post-money valuation of $5 billion CAD (~$4 billion). The round was led by Meritech and Greylock.

Downloads

News in Bullets

Image Credits: News in Bullets

This mobile news application lets you set your language and locale, then read through news summaries customized to you. But we wish they’d double down on a news reels feature — which is basically just a TikTok for news videos. Right now it presents a robotic narration of headlines overtop video news footage, that you then swipe through or double tap to like, as you would on TikTok. This could be even more useful, though, if the app would partner with news publishers already producing quality video content and make those the central focus of the video feed.

The Oregon Trail

Image Credits: Gameloft

This new Apple Arcade title refreshes the original 1970s text-based strategy game with 12 playable journeys where your every decision can impact your party and outcome. Players pick their traveling party and stock their wagon with supplies, then try to make it to Oregon by surviving a series of random events, like broken limbs, snowstorms, snakebites and more.

Update:

Brave’s mobile browser added a playlist feature that offers quick access to your favorite audio and video content.

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Cowboy launches the Cowboy 4 e-bike, with a step-through version and built-in phone charger

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E-bike startup Cowboy has launched the Cowboy 4, its newest generation of urban electric bikes. The bike will come in two different frames, a traditional frame, and a step-through.
The C4 is basically an upgrade on the previous version 3, while the ‘C4 ST’ is a step-through model which the company is predicting will appeal to young people used to city bikes.

The C4 and C4 ST are both priced at £2,290/€2,490 inclusive of mudguards and are available for pre-order with a €100/£100 deposit starting from today cowboy.com, with deliveries starting in September 2021.

Cowboy has raised $46.1M in venture capital and largely extent competes with VanMoof (which raised $61.1M) and Furo Systems (£750K) to a lesser extent. The basic differences between the three are that Cowboy is moving closer to leverage the cloud and apps as its main differentiation, VanMoof tends to built things (like a screen) into the bike (and has an app), and Furo is more about ease of maintenance, and weight.

Cowboy says both bikes feature 50% more torque via their automatic transmission. There are no gears to change, with the engine kicking in as you turn the cranks. The removable battery weighs 2.4kg, giving the bike a range of up to 70km.

The heaviest version of the bikes is 19.2 kg including battery and both will hit 25 km/h (15 mph).

Adrien Roose, Cowboy Co-Founder and CEO said in a statement: “The Cowboy 4 completely redefines life in and around cities. By designing two frame types featuring our first-ever step-through model, an integrated cockpit, and a new app, we are now able to address a much larger audience and cater to many more riders to move freely in and around cities,” he added. “Our mission is to help city dwellers move in a faster, safer and more enjoyable way than any other mode of urban transportation. Be it wandering through the city or staying fit, it’s a reconnection with your senses and a rediscovery of the simple thrill of riding a bike.”

The step-through model is optimized to suit riders 160-190cm in height, while the normal C4 will accommodates riders 170-195cm tall.

Mike Butcher meets Cowboy's Adrien Roose

Mike Butcher meets Cowboy’s Adrien Roose

Doing a very quick test of the new bikes in a London basketball court and around local streets, I found both bikes to be very nippy on the off and a pleasure to ride. Cowboy is probably right – the step-through version is likely to appeal to a wide variety of riders.

Roose said the bike has been custom-designed. Only the saddle and the carbon belt are made by third-party companies Selle Royal and Gates, respectively. The brake cables are now integrated into the handlebars and stem, brakes and pedals have new angles, and the rear wheel has a ‘dropout’ design.
Cowboy will offer a custom-designed series of accessories starting with a rear rack and kickstand. The C4 and C4 ST will come in Absolute Black, Peyote Green, and Sand Dune, and are available to pre-order now, with deliveries beginning in September. Both models will feature pre-fitted mudguards.

The bikes also now feature a wireless charging mont on the stem featuring a built-in Quad Lock mount to hold the rider’s smartphone and wirelessly charge it via the bike’s internal battery.

Tanguy Goretti, Co-Founder, and VP Software added: “The new Cowboy app [will show] remaining battery range, air quality en route and a wide range of live fitness stats.”

The app also has a new navigation screen, 3D map rendering layout, turn-by-turn directions, air quality index for routes, live fitness data, leaderboard rankings; a new community feature offering the ability to join curated group rides across capital cities in Europe.

Cowboy is also offering a free repair network across Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Austria and Luxembourg; 6 days a week customer support; and a subscription plan operated in partnership with Qover which includes theft detection, theft insurance throughout Europe.

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When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working

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The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.

What happens when the machine stops though?

It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.

Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.

So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.

While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.

Wireless resilience as the world burns

Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.

Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.

Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.

Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”

AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.

Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet One dirigible to offer internet access from the air for first responders. Image Credits: AT&T/FirstNet

Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.

As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.

Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.

The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines

While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.

Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.

Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.

Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.

Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”

The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.

That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.

FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.

Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.

With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.

That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.

Five, Gee

We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.

Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.

Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.

That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”

Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”

Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”

5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.

Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.

Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.

Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.


Future of Technology and Disaster Response Table of Contents


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