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Scape Technologies raises $8M to let machines visually understand their surroundings

Scape Technologies raises M to let machines visually understand their surroundings

Scape Technologies, a London-based computer vision startup, is de-cloaking today to announce that it has raised $8 million in seed fund and launching the first iteration of its “Visual Positioning Service,” which lets developers build apps that require location accuracy far beyond the capabilities of GPS alone.

The technology will initially target augmented reality apps, but can also be used to power applications in mobility, logistics and robotics. More broadly, Scape wants to enable any machine equipped with a camera to understand its surroundings.

Backing the round is LocalGlobe, Mosaic Ventures, Fly Ventures, and company builder Entrepreneur First. Scape Technologies was a member of EF cohort 7, which pitched at EF’s London demo day almost two years ago. The startup has remained pretty stealthy ever since. Until now, that is.

“There is a huge amount hype in the AR space right now which is why we’ve been working for the last two years in stealth, taking our time to make sure our technology is accurate, robust and scalable,” Scape Technologies co-founder and CEO Edward Miller tells TechCrunch. “We set out on a mission to build a new type of infrastructure, to allow computers to safely interpret and navigate the world, using only a camera. To make this possible, we’ve built what we refer to as our ‘Vision Engine’, which lies at the heart of everything we do at Scape”.

Miller describe’s Scape’s “Vision Engine” as a large-scale mapping pipeline that creates 3D maps from ordinary images and video. Camera devices can then query the Vision Engine using the startup’s newly launched Visual Positioning Service API to determine their exact location with far greater precision than GPS can ever provide. Starting today, the Visual Positioning Service is available within London for select partners via Scape’s SDK.

The fact that Scape’s 30 person-plus team has been able to build a detailed 3D map of London is slightly head-scratching, and that’s before factoring in the machine learning and computer vision technology required to enable machines to reference that map to accurately pinpoint “hyper location”. Miller declines to go into much detail on record with regards to how the young company was able to pull off such a large mapping exercise, for fear of giving away too much of the startup’s secret sauce.

However, it is noteworthy that Miller was one of the U.K.’s first Street View photographers, giving him a unique insight into how a company like Google can build maps at scale. He also has a background in interactive imagery, having been involved in VR projects for companies such as ESPN, UEFA and Jaguar. Scape’s other co-founder and CTO Huub Heijnen was previously a researcher in the field of robotics, where he was involved in teaching multi-legged robots how to learn to walk. “It’s pretty hardcore,” says Miller of his co-founder’s previous work.

Teaching a computer to “see” the world with a camera is no small task, either. Whereas humans might see a photograph and recognise in it a car or a building, a computer only sees a bunch of ones and zeros. The role of computer vision to interpret these ones and zeros into something meaningful.

“We’ve had to make significant technological breakthroughs to allow computers to recognise their location accurately, quickly and in varying weather conditions,” explains Miller. “Most importantly, we’ve invested significant efforts in ensuring our Visual Engine is scalable. The world is a big place and we can’t afford to rely on a system that can’t grow with demand. Unlike other approaches, Scape’s Vision Engine scales horizontally to 100s of servers at a time, so we can provide our Visual Positioning Service within areas the size of an entire city”.

More ambitious still, enabling accurate location is “just the beginning”. Over the next 5 years, Scape plans to develop what it calls “ubiquitous spatial intelligence,” which will allow devices to understand where they are and what is around them, using only a camera. The thinking is that with exponential growth in IoT and wearables, the world is becoming increasingly augmented with physical hardware designed to live and operate amongst us.

“With new industries like augmented reality and self-driving cars on the rise, it’s vital that these new types of computers understand with extreme precision where they are and what’s around them,” cautions Scape’s CEO.

Scape Technologies raises M to let machines visually understand their surroundings
Source: TechCrunch

Tesla breaks ground on Shanghai factory which will product Model 3 EVs for China

Tesla breaks ground on Shanghai factory which will product Model 3 EVs for China

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has confirmed that the company’s first overseas factory in Shanghai will focus on producing Model 3 vehicles for the Chinese market only.

Musk is currently in China to break ground on the new factory today, which is being developed in partnership with the Shanghai government — an ally that is likely to be incredibly useful. The deal was announced by Tesla in July and it was followed quickly by the opening of Model 3 pre-orders for China-based customers in November.

Initial construction of the Shanghai factory is set to be completed by the summer, according to Musk, who said that he expects production to begin before the end of this year. The facility is aimed at churning out 500,000 EVs a year when it reaches full production, which should happen during next year, all being well.

Musk clarified on Twitter — his go-to for public announcements — that Tesla’s U.S. facilities will continue to manufacture vehicles for the U.S. and other markets.

Tesla isn’t the only one planting manufacturing roots down in the country. Byton, a U.S-China rival founded by former BMW and Infiniti executives, said this week it is on track to complete production of a plant in Nanjing by May. The outpost will have a capacity to produce 300,000 vehicles per year, the company said.

In June, Byton secured a $500 million Series B funding round from investors FAW Group, Tus-Holdings and CATL. The company has raised $850 million from investors in addition to loans and subsidies from China.

Despite optimism behind the Shanghai project, China has been the source of concerns for Tesla in recent times.

The country has reduced subsidies for green vehicles while its ongoing trade spat with the U.S. is raising concerns for U.S. businesses looking to reach consumers in the middle kingdom. Tesla’s share price dropped by nearly eight percent before the New Year after the company reduced the price of the Model 3 by seven percent in China. That followed reductions to the Model X and Model S in November, and it also coincided with Musk pledging to reimburse tax credits to U.S. customers who miss them because their pre-December order isn’t delivered before the end of the year.

Still, the Chinese market is the largest in the world for electric vehicles and hugely important for future growth.

The country is said to already account for 35 percent of global EV sales, according to Bloomberg intelligence, which reports that cumulative sales reach four million in August 2018. That’s just the start. Chinese city Shenzhen, known as the world’s mecca for hardware technology, has replaced all buses with electric versions and 99 percent of its taxis, and the government wants 20 percent of all car sales to be plug-in hybrids or battery-powered models by 2025 — that’s around seven million cars per day.

Tesla breaks ground on Shanghai factory which will product Model 3 EVs for China
Source: TechCrunch

Marc Andreessen: audio will be “titanically important” and VR will be “1,000” times bigger than AR

Marc Andreessen: audio will be “titanically important” and VR will be “1,000” times bigger than AR

In a new a16z podcast with the venture firm’s founders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, there’s a lot to enjoy, from Andreessen’s TV show recommendations to Horowitz’s secret to excellent barbecue. (It’s pretty much just “time,” as you might imagine.)

More useful for our founder readers may be Andreessen’s predictions around tech and, because he’s asked about them specifically, his predictions when it comes to wearables, including that virtual reality will be “one thousand” times bigger than augmented reality. It’s an interesting statement given the firm’s bet on Magic Leap and its AR goggles.

You can find the entire podcast here. Our favorite parts are excerpted below for your weekend reading:

On audio:

“The really big one right now is audio. Audio is on the rise just generally and particularly with Apple and the AirPods, which has been an absolute home run [for Apple]. It’s one of the most deceptive things because it’s just like this little product, and how important could it be? And I think it’s tremendously important, because it’s basically a voice in your ear any time you want.

For example, there are these new YouTube type celebrities, and everybody’s kind of wondering where people are finding the spare time to watch these YouTube videos and listen to these YouTube people in the tens and tens of millions. And the answer is: they’re at work. They have this bluetooth thing in their ear, and they’ve got a hat, and that’s 10 hours on the forklift and that’s 10 hours of Joe Rogan. That’s a big deal.

Of course, speech as a [user interface] is rapidly on the rise. So I think audio is going to be titanically important.”

On sensors:

“The second thing I’d nominate for wearables is the concept of sensors on the body. Here, the Apple Watch is clearly in the lead with what they’re doing with the heartbeat sensor. But I think we’ll have a full complement of medical-grade sensors on our body — in a way that we have chosen to [have them] — over the next five or 10 years. I think we’ll be able to predict things like heart attacks and strokes before they happen. Talk about a killer app. [Laughs.] ‘Beep. I’m going to have a heart attack in four hours. Maybe I should drive to the hospital.’

The survival rate [for heart attack victims] at the hospital is, like, 99 percent. The survival rate for people at home is like 50 percent. There’s an opportunity for a massive increase in quality of life with the sensor platforms people are going to have.”

On the future of AR/VR:

“I think optics are coming. It’s going to be a long road, but I think AR and VR are going to work, and that we’re going to have heads-up displays that are going to remove the need for what we have now, which is this little pane of glass that we’re expected to experience the whole world through. The whole world is going to open up around us.

I think AR has tons of potential applications, both at work and at home. [But] I think VR is going to be about 1,000 times bigger. In the Valley right now, this is a very contrarian view. The general theme that you hear is that AR will be bigger than VR, and obviously it should be. If you can do things overlaid over the real world, that should be inherently more interesting than having to construct a synthetic world.

I just think that’s only true for people who live in a really interesting place in the real world. But only something like .1 percent and 1 percent of people on Earth live in a place where they wake up every morning and think, Wow, there are so many interesting things to see. So for everyone who doesn’t already live on a college campus or in Silicon Valley or in a major other city, the new environments we’re going to be able to create in VR will inherently be much more interesting. And there will be a lot more of them.”

Marc Andreessen: audio will be “titanically important” and VR will be “1,000” times bigger than AR
Source: TechCrunch

Served a summons via tweet? It just happened to one allegedly elusive VC

Served a summons via tweet? It just happened to one allegedly elusive VC

Jonathan Teo, long a Bay Area venture capitalist, might be regretting having a Twitter account tonight. The reason: it was used to serve a summons to Teo by the law firm Baker Curtis & Schwartz, which represents a former employee of the early-stage venture firm Teo had cofounded in 2014, Binary Capital.

The plaintiff is Ann Lai, who joined Binary in 2015 and whose role at the firm, according to her complaint, was to be “primarily responsible for establishing [Binary’s] data-driven sourcing strategy, conducting the diligence regarding their potential investments, and supporting their portfolio companies on analytics/growth strategies.”

Yet Lai, who has three Harvard degrees, says that she battled discrimination and harassment on the job “almost from the day she started work,” according to her lawsuit.

Among Lai’s grievances: that Teo and firm cofounder Justin Caldbeck “requested and received headshots of female applicants that they sought to hire, and assessed these headshots for attractiveness. They also searched the applicants’ social media profiles to determine their relative ‘hotness.’” The complaint also states the Teo, Caldbeck, and Binary, which the two controlled, “expressed a desire to hold a company retreat, without significant others, at a location in which no one would wear clothes.”

The lurid details go on.

Ultimately, states the complaint — which was originally filed by her attorneys in 2017 and amended back in September — Lai was denied benefits, opportunities, and compensation owed to her because she pushed back against such conduct. She was also forced to resign and was defamed by both Caldbeck and Teo in the aftermath of her departure, says the suit, which seeks civil penalties.

The Information first reported in June of 2017 that, according to half a dozen women in the tech industry, Caldbeck had made unwanted advanced toward them. He resigned shortly afterward, while Teo fought unsuccessfully to keep Binary a going concern.

What happens next remains to be seen, but it’s certainly interesting that Lai’s attorneys used social media to reach Teo. They had no choice, they argue in an “ex parte application for order of publication of summons.” They say they tried reaching his attorneys as well as reaching Teo at the address where he last lived in San Francisco, but they say that not only has Teo since moved to an unknown address, his attorneys claimed to not know his whereabouts and refused to accept the summons on his behalf.

There was a precedent for the lawyers’ move. In fact, multiple cases have been granted similar approval by the court system to reach subjects via both Facebook and Twitter after they evaded being served, largely because social media is now the one point of contact that people typically maintain even when they flee to a foreign country of otherwise make themselves difficult to locate. For his part, Teo last tweeted from his account on December 12.

Worth noting: Lai’s attorneys — who also represented former Uber engineer Susan Fowler after she published her account of sexual harassment and sexism at the company — were able to serve Caldbeck this fall, they say through filings.

Caldbeck subsequently agreed to pay Lai $85,000 in exchange for her dismissing litigation against him personally.

Served a summons via tweet? It just happened to one allegedly elusive VC
Source: TechCrunch

Singapore activist found guilty of hosting ‘illegal assembly’ via Skype

Singapore activist found guilty of hosting ‘illegal assembly’ via Skype

An ongoing case in Singapore is testing the legal boundaries of virtual conferences. A court in the Southeast Asian city-state this week convicted human rights activist Jolovan Wham of organizing a public assembly via Skype without a permit and refusing to sign his statement when ordered by the police.

Wham will be sentenced on January 23 and faces a fine of up to S$5,000 or a jail term of up to three years. The judge in charge of the case, however, has not provided grounds of his decision, Wham wrote on Twitter.


Wham, 39, is a social worker at Community Action Network Singapore consisting of a group of activists, social workers and journalists advocating civil and political rights. He previously served as executive director of migrant worker advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.

On November 26, 2016, Wham organized an indoor forum called “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” at a small event space inside a shopping mall in Singapore. The event featured prominent Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong who addressed the audience remotely via a Skype video call.

The event’s Facebook Page indicates that 355 people were interested and 121 went. The Skype discussion, which lasted around two hours, was also live streamed on Facebook by The Online Citizen SG, a social media platform focused on political activism, and garnered 5,700 views.

Despite being advised by the police prior to the event to obtain a permit, Wham proceeded without said consent, according to a statement by the Singapore Police Force. Wham faced similar charges of organizing public assemblies without police permits and refusing to sign statements under the Penal Code.

In Singapore, it is a criminal offence under the Public Order Act to organize or participate in a public assembly without a police permit. The Police described Wham’s act as “recalcitrant” in regard to organizing and participating in illegal public assemblies.

Commenting on the charge against Wham, a joint statement from Joshua Wong and members of CAN Singapore argued that the event was “closed-door”.

“Skype conversations that take place within the confines of a private space are private matters that should logically, not require permits before they can be carried out,” raged the statement. “Wham’s discussion with Wong ended peacefully and would not have drawn any further attention if authorities hadn’t decided to act.”

“It was a discussion about civil disobedience and social movements,” Wham pointed out in another Twitter post. “The law says that any event which is open to the public, and is ’cause related’, requires a permit when a foreigner speaks. What is considered ’cause related’ isn’t clear.”

Singapore activist found guilty of hosting ‘illegal assembly’ via Skype
Source: TechCrunch

Tencent AI Lab loses key executive

Tencent AI Lab loses key executive

Chinese internet giant Tencent just lost a leading artificial intelligence figure. Zhang Tong, who previously worked at Yahoo, IBM and Baidu, has stepped down after directing Tencent’s AI Lab for nearly two years.

The scientist will return to academia and continue research in the AI field, Tencent confirmed with TechCrunch on Thursday, adding that it hasn’t appointed a successor.

”We are grateful for [Zhang]’s contributions to Tencent AI Lab and continue to explore fundamental and applied research that can make the benefits of AI accessible to everyone, everywhere,” Tencent said in a statement.

Zhang’s departure is the latest in a handful of top AI scientists quitting large Chinese tech firms. In 2017, search giant Baidu lost its chief scientist Andrew Ng who started Google’s deep learning initiative. Last year, the firm suffered another blow as renown AI expert Lu Qi resigned as chief operating officer and moved onto spearheading Y Combinator’s newly minted China program.

Talent is key to a tech firm’s AI endeavor, for a revered leader not only inspires employees but also boosts investor confidence. Baidu stocks plunged following Lu’s exit as markets weighed on the talent gap inside the company, which had poured resources into autonomous driving, smart speakers among other AI efforts. Tencent itself had poached Zhang from Baidu’s Big Data Lab to ramp up its own AI division.

Tencent is best known for its billion-user WeChat messenger and being the world’s largest video game publisher, but it’s also been doubling down on machine learning R&D to serve users and enterprise clients. It launched the AI Lab in April 2016 and opened its first U.S. research center in Seattle a year later to work on speech recognition and natural language processing (NLP).

The AI Lab dives into machine learning, computer vision, speech recognition and NLP. Meanwhile, the social and entertainment giant also works to put fundamental research to practical use, applying AI to its key businesses — content, social, online games and cloud computing.

One beneficiary has been WeChat, which applies NLP to enable seamless dialogues between users speaking different languages. Another case in point is Tencent’s news aggregator Tiantian Kuaibao, which deploys deep learning to recommend content based on readers’ past preference. Kuaibao is a direct competitor to Jinri Toutiao, the popular AI-powered news app run by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.

To date, Tencent’s AI Lab has a team of 70 research scientists and 300 engineers, according to information on its website. Tencent operates another AI initiative called the Youtu Lab, which focuses on image understanding, face recognition, audio recognition and optical character recognition. While its sister AI Lab falls under Tencent’s research-focus Technology Engineering Group, Youtu is the brainchild of the Cloud & Smart Industries Group, a new unit that Tencent set up during its major organizational reshuffle in October to place more emphasis on enterprise businesses.

Tencent AI Lab loses key executive
Source: TechCrunch

Go-Jek extends ride-hailing service to the rest of Singapore

Go-Jek extends ride-hailing service to the rest of Singapore

After a limited rollout, Go-Jek said today that it will extend its ride-hailing service to all of Singapore tomorrow while continuing its beta phase. The Indonesian-based company began offering rides in Singapore at the end of November, but only for passengers riding to and from certain areas. It https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/gojek-introduces-dynamic-pricing-move-will-likely-attract-more-drivers-to-joinintroduced dynamic pricing there, which increases prices during peak times, a few days ago.

“We continue to welcome feedback from driver-partners and riders during this enhanced beta phase, as we work to fine-tune the app and create the best experience for our users,” the company said in a statement.

After Uber exited from Southeast Asia earlier this year by selling its local business to Grab, Go-Jek became Grab’s main rival. Uber still maintains a presence in the region, however, thanks to its 27.5 percent stake in Grab.

There is currently a waiting list for Go-Jek in Singapore, with customers of DBS/POSB being given priority.

When asked about how long new users need to wait, a Go-Jek spokesperson said in a statement that the time depends on supply and demand. “The response from the driver community since we opened pre-registration has been overwhelming with tens of thousands of drivers signing up via the pre-registration portal. While we can’t disclose figure at this moment, we are confident we can meet consumer expectations during the beta service period.”

Go-Jek extends ride-hailing service to the rest of Singapore
Source: TechCrunch

MIT researchers are now 3D printing glass

MIT researchers are now 3D printing glass

While the thought of a machine that can squirt out endless ropes of molten glass is a bit frightening, the folks at MIT have just about perfected the process. In a paper published in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, researchers Chikara Inamura, Michael Stern, Daniel Lizardo, Peter Houk, and Neri Oxman describe a system for 3D printing glass that offers far more control over the hot material and the final product.

Their system, called G3DP2, “is a new AM platform for molten glass that combines digitally integrated three-zone thermal control system with four-axis motion control system, introducing industrial-scale production capabilities with enhanced production rate and reliability while ensuring product accuracy and repeatability, all previously unattainable for glass.”

The system uses a closed, heated box that holds the melted glass and another thermally controlled box where it prints the object. A moveable plate drops the object lower and lower as it is being printed and the print head moves above it. The system is interesting because it actually produces clear glass structures that can be used for decoration or building. The researchers take special care to control the glass extrusion system to ensure that it cools down and crystallizes without injecting impurities or structural problems.

“In the future, combining the advantages of this AM technology with the multitude of unique material properties of glass such as transparency, strength, and chemical stability, we may start to see new archetypes of multifunctional building blocks,” wrote the creators.

MIT researchers are now 3D printing glass
Source: TechCrunch

Tencent left out as China approves the release of 80 new video games

Tencent left out as China approves the release of 80 new video games

Chinese internet giant Tencent has been excluded from the first batch of video game license approvals issued by the state-run government since March.

China regulators approved Saturday the released of 80 online video games after a months-long freeze, Reuters first reported. None of the approved titles listed on the approval list were from Tencent Holdings, the world’s largest gaming company.

Licenses are usually granted on a first come, first serve basis in order of when studios file their applications, several game developers told TechCrunch. There are at least 7,000 titles in the waiting list, among which only 3,000 may receive the official licenses in 2019, China’s 21st Century Business Herald reported citing experts. Given the small chance of making it to the first batch, it’s unsurprising the country’s two largest game publishers Tencent and NetEase were absent.

The controlled and gradual unfreezing process is in line with a senior official’s announcement on December 21. While the Chinese gaming regulator is trying its best to greenlight titles as soon as possible, there is a huge number of applications in the pipeline, the official said. Without licenses, studios cannot legally monetize their titles in China. The hiatus in approval has slashed earnings in the world’s largest gaming market, which posted a 5.4 percent year-over-year growth in the first half of 2018, the slowest rate in the last ten years according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

Tencent is best known as the company behind WeChat, a popular messaging platform in China. But much of its revenue comes from gaming. Even with a recent decline in gaming revenue, the company has a thriving business that is majority owner of several companies including Activision, Grinding Gears Games, Riot and Supercell. In 2012, the company took a 40 percent stake in Epic Games, maker of Fortnite. Tencent also has alliances or publishing deals with other video gaming companies such as Square Enix, makers of Tomb Raider. 

The ban on new video game titles in China has affected Tencent’s bottom line. The company reported revenue from gaming fell 4 percent in the third quarter due to the prolonged freeze on licenses. At the time, Tencent claimed it had 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline. To combat pressure in its consumer-facing gaming business, the Chinese giant launched a major reorganization in October to focus more on enterprise-related initiatives such as cloud services and maps. Founder and CEO Pony Ma said at the time the strategic repositioning would prepare Tencent for the next 20 years of operation.

“In the second stage, we aspire to enable our partners in different industries to better connect with consumers via an expanding, open and connected ecosystem,” stated Ma.

China tightened restrictions in 2018 to combat games that are deemed illegal, immoral, low-quality or have a negative social impact such as those that make children addicted or near-sighted. This means studios, regardless of size, need to weigh new guidelines in their production and user interaction. Tencent placed its own restrictions on gaming in what appeared to be an attempt to assuage regulators. The company has expanded its age verification system, an effort aimed at curbing use of young players, and placed limits on daily play.

Update (December 30, 10:00 am, GMT+8): Adds context on China’s gaming industry and Tencent.

Tencent left out as China approves the release of 80 new video games
Source: TechCrunch