Google acquires holographic glasses startup North

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Google confirmed that it has acquired North, a Canadian augmented reality (AR) wearables company backed by Amazon and Intel. Neither company confirmed the value of the acquisition, but the Globe and Mail, which first reported on the deal last week, quoted sources as putting it at around $180 million. North had raised close to $200 million in a mixture of equity, debt, and grants, so if the reported acquisition price is accurate, this is pretty much a fire sale.

As a result of the acquisition, North will wind down its business and the team will join Google’s existing hub in Kitchener, Ontario, where North is based. Google didn’t share specifics about its plans for North’s technology, but Rick Osterloh — senior VP for devices and services at Google — said North’s technical expertise will “help as we continue to invest in our hardware efforts and ambient computing future.”

Out of focus

North, which was founded in 2012 as Thalmic Labs, was originally known for a gesture- and motion-guided device called Myo. The $200 armband enabled people who had amputated limbs to control a prosthetic hand and surgeons to navigate screens while carrying out complicated surgery. In 2016, Thalmic Labs raised a hefty $120 million in funding from Amazon’s Alexa Fund, Intel Capital, and Fidelity Investments Canada. The company rebranded as North in 2018 while simultaneously pivoting to holographic eyewear.

North’s first product, Focals, were glasses that connect to the user’s smartphone over Bluetooth to display key notifications directly in the wearer’s field of view. These included weather, calendar notifications, messages, turn-by-turn navigation, and more. A separate connected ring — called Loop — allowed users to control the glasses by clicking with their finger. The glasses also sported a built-in mic that let the wearer ask Alexa questions, with answers delivered on the display or via a little speaker.

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Focals by NorthFocals by North

Above: Focals by North

North’s business model encountered friction from the outset. Besides the $999 price tag, Focals required custom fitting in physical retail stores, but only two existed — one in Toronto and one in New York. The company soon scythed the starting price to $600, and in early 2019 it laid off some 150 employees. A month later, news emerged that North had raised $40 million in debt financing. Last September, North started selling its Focals AR glasses online, leaning on the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera to help custom-fit the frames remotely.

While the writing was already on the wall, in December of last year North stopped selling Focals altogether and revealed that a new “sleeker” design would be launched sometime in 2020. That new product never materialized. In a separate blog post today, North’s founders said the company was winding down Focals 1.0 — which presumably means it will no longer offer support for existing users — and would not be shipping Focals 2.0 as planned.

North's Focals 2.0 teaser imageNorth's Focals 2.0 teaser image

Above: North’s Focals 2.0 teaser image

The Globe and Mail cited a number of former North employees, who spoke to the Canadian publication on condition of anonymity. According to these sources, company executives made “many questionable decisions,” including rushing the product to market before it was ready and failing to find a proper product-market fit.

Google is no stranger to augmented reality (AR) eyewear, of course, mostly via Google Glass, which it unveiled way back in 2013. Though Google Glass didn’t quite work out as a consumer product, Google later repositioned the product for the enterprise, where the company still hopes to gain traction across manufacturing and other industries. It’s also worth noting that other companies have struggled with AR headsets, including the heavily funded Magic Leap, which recently announced significant layoffs and refocused on the enterprise. Last year, enterprise AR headset startup Daqri announced it was shutting down.

It seems that either AR isn’t quite ready for prime time, companies have yet to deploy it in a way that appeals to consumers, or people simply don’t want constant alerts in their line of sight.

North’s closure also raises questions for consumers who shelled out $1,000 for the glasses less than two years ago. VentureBeat has reached out to North and Google for clarification on whether any support or compensation will be provided.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 4100 promises deeper, faster smartwatch apps

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While the Apple Watch has leveraged Apple-developed chips to dominate the smartwatch industry, Qualcomm hasn’t given up on creating alternatives to power Google’s Wear OS and Android competitors. Today, the San Diego chipmaker announced the Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform, which will significantly raise the bars for both midrange and high-end smartwatches later this year.

There are actually two variants of this year’s Snapdragon Wear — the 4100 and 4100+, differentiated by the latter’s addition of an AON coprocessor. The trick is that only the 4100+ will support either Wear OS- or Android-based smartwatches, while the standard 4100 is designed to only run Android. Smartwatch makers will be able to choose between the platforms, but to achieve the lowest possible power consumption, they’ll likely need the 4100+.

Both variants benefit from a major upgrade to the “big” side of the platform’s “big-little” hybrid CPU architecture, which was previously used in Snapdragon Wear 3100. The 4100 shifts from a 28-nanometer manufacturing process to 12nm technology, enabling a much denser and more power-efficient collection of chip transistors to fit in the same area. Qualcomm has consequently shifted from ARM’s 1.1GHz four-core Cortex-A7 to a 1.7GHz four-core Cortex-A53, enabling 85% faster performance with a 25% savings in power consumption compared with the Snapdragon Wear 3100. The GPU is 2.5 times faster, backed by 750MHz LPDDR3 RAM, and has two DSPs to handle discrete tasks, rather than one.

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While those numbers provide specific performance quantifications, the bigger picture is that smartwatch applications are about to become deeper, more immersive, and more interesting — closer to smartphone apps in look and features, enabling greater periods of true independence from phones. OEMs will have the option of including a new, higher-performance 4G modem in 4100-series watches, enabling users to enjoy smartphone-like features such as real-time GPS maps, full voice assistant access, real-time language translation, and robust music streaming, all without relying on a tethered phone.

Snapdragon 4100-series watches also include support for Bluetooth 5.0 and superior assisted GPS positioning, as well as continued support for the outdated Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n). OEMs will now be able to include up to two cameras, enabling direct-from-wrist video calling and/or photography with up to 16-megapixel stills. At least one OEM — BBK, the company behind Oppo — has a watch called Z6 coming with camera functionality.

That said, Qualcomm notes that smartwatches typically spend 5% of their time in active use (relying on the “big” CPUs) and 95% in “ambient” mode (using the little core). This is why prior Wear 3100 series watches were able to achieve 48-hour typical runtimes between charges and Wear 4100+ will extend that number by another 25%, depending on the apps and usage scenarios. Even high-end 4G-capable smartwatches will see around 25% better battery life, Qualcomm says, and some apps will use 40% less power than before.

The Wear 4100+ includes a QC1110 AON ultra-low power coprocessor that lets watches do more when they’re being passively worn. Always-on displays will now be able to show 64,000 colors at all times, rather than 16, and benefit from typography tweaks such as number and font kerning. AON will also be able to handle sleep, heart rate, and step tracking — plus alarms, haptics, and tilt-to-wake features — without needing to waste big CPU energy. It will also support a super low power consumption mode that promises a week of battery life with that full-color display while still tracking steps and heart rate.

Early Snapdragon Wear 4100 watches will be available later this year, including the aforemented Z6, a timepiece with an easily detachable wristband targeted at kids. Additionally, Mobvoi will introduce the first Wear OS watch based on the Wear 4100+ chipset in 2020. Given Google’s somewhat soft updates to Wear OS in 2019, it’s unclear when the software will be updated to support all of the new functionality, but Qualcomm says the companies are continuing to work together to further Google’s wearable platforms.

Microsoft pledges to upskill 25 million workers for the ‘COVID-19 economy’

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Microsoft has announced a slew of new initiatives designed to open up access to new digital skills, including cash grants, providing access to data, affordable certifications for Microsoft products, and a new learning app baked directly into Microsoft Teams.

The company said in a press release that it planned to help 25 million people globally acquire the skills needed for the “COVID-19 economy,” and that it hoped it would help accelerate economic recovery particularly for those out of work. Moreover, it said that it plans to do so by the end of 2020.

Building on the LinkedIn Economic Graph, a digital representation of the global economy using LinkedIn’s arsenal of employment data, Microsoft has launched a new portal to provide market insights into skills and gaps in the employment market — basically, the most in-demand jobs, the most desirable skills, and which companies are actively hiring for those roles. This data can be used by businesses and policymakers to better understand what’s happening in their local markets, and is available in 180 countries around the world.

Above: Microsoft Economic Graph: New interactive tool

Additionally, Microsoft has also identified the ten jobs that are most in-demand today and which will likely continue to grow in demand over the next decade. Criteria for inclusion in the list covered factors such as available job openings, whether it generally offers a living wage, and whether the skills can be learned online or not:

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1. Software developer
2. Sales representative
3. Project manager
4. IT administrator
5. Customer service specialist
6. Digital marketing specialist
7. IT support / help desk
8. Data analyst
9. Financial analyst
10. Graphic designer

In tandem, Microsoft is providing access to “learning paths” and resources for users to develop skills for these jobs, which will be available from today until the end of March, 2020, and includes a series of videos to help jobseekers start off on the correct footing for each role. Microsoft will also connect more technical roles with other resources and tools, including its bot-powered GitHub Learning Lab where budding coders can practice new skills. And feeding into this, Microsoft said that it will join the dots through to qualifications, by offering “low-cost access” to industry-recognized Microsoft certifications “based on exams that demonstrate proficiency in Microsoft technologies,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a separate blog post.

These exams, which cover areas such as Azure Fundamentals, Azure Data Fundamentals, Data Analyst Associate, and Security Administrator Associate, can often cost $100 or more, but for those who self-declare (i.e. Microsoft won’t require proof) that their job has been impacted by COVID-19, they will only pay $15. These exams can be scheduled from September 2020 through to the end of the year, though the exam must be completed by March 31, 2021.

Hunters.ai raises $15 million to automate cyberthreat detection

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Autonomous threat detection company Hunters.ai today announced a $15 million round that will help it scale its autonomous threat-hunting solution to defend enterprises from malicious attackers and missed intruders. Specifically, the Tel Aviv- and Lexington-based company plans to use the funds to deepen its machine learning R&D and expand its headcount internationally.

Incident detection time is a major contributor to the cost of data breaches. A study by the Ponemon Institute found companies take 197 days to identify a breach and 69 days to contain it, on average. It’s also an expensive process — threat intelligence often involves a subscription to multiple data feeds, and fees vary from about $1,500 to $10,000, depending on the number of feeds.

With its extended automated mitigation and response framework, Hunters aims to cut down on threat detection time and expenditures by picking up on weak signals hiding in the network noise. Its platform allows customers to leverage existing security solutions and data sources to detect more threats, connecting a range of databases and integrating telemetry across siloed and sparse IT stacks. Hunters applies its tactics, techniques, and procedures to surface potential attack signals, mapping them to the MITRE ATT&CK framework (a knowledge base of adversary tactics and techniques) and automatically analyzing, enriching, and correlating volumes of data.

Hunters.ai

Hunters.ai
Hunters.aiHunters.ai

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Hunters’ solution can ostensibly surface potential threats in cloud, network, and endpoint environments, synthesizing terabytes of data in total. Informed by its AI correlation graph, Hunters provides attack detection alerts with business summaries and hunting quest insights such as timelines, paths, targets, and contexts.

Hunters says this approach has already won over customers. Eighteen months after its founding, the company has secured contracts with Snowflake and TripActions via direct sales and through partner channels like the CrowdStrike Store and Snowflake Partner Connect.

Hunters’ series A was led by Microsoft’s venture fund M12 and Silicon Valley and U.S. Venture Partners, with participation from seed investors YL Ventures, Blumberg Capital, and Okta Ventures. The new investment brings the company’s total funding to $20.4 million, following a $5.4 million seed round in May 2019.

Hunters has plenty of competitors in the cyberthreat detection and remediation space. Ironscales employs AI and machine learning to defeat organization-wide phishing attacks in real time, and France- and Boston-based Vade recently raised $79 million to further develop its filtering stack that protects against compromise, malware, and spam. There’s also Tessian, which uses machine learning for securing enterprise mail, and Valimail, which nabbed $45 million last year to thwart email phishing attacks.

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