ByteDance’s Pico debuts its Quest rival, but challenges remain

When ByteDance bought the Chinese VR headset maker Pico a year ago, the message it sent was clear: it was betting that the immersive device would be where future generations spend most of their time consuming digital content. It’s a marriage reminiscent of Meta’s acquisition of Oculus back in 2014, except the world is now in a different place with technological advances that make VR headsets cheaper, less laggy, and more comfortable to wear.

The TikTok parent has long aimed to compete in a market dominated by Oculus’s VR devices for consumers. When Meta launched Quest 2 in 2020, ByteDance worked on a confidential internal project to develop AR glasses, The Information reported. Pico’s product launch this week is a further indication of its ambition to challenge Quest, which has enjoyed roughly two-thirds of the global AR and VR market for the past two years.

The Pico 4, which starts at €429 (around $420 thanks to a strong dollar) for 128GB and ships to Europe, Japan, and South Korea aside from China, has received applause in the VR community. It weighs only 295 grams without the straps and can function as a standalone device but also be tethered to PCs for more advanced VR experiences. It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 processor as Quest 2 does. 

“It’s inexpensive and good quality, with specs that can match Quest 2,” says Gavin Newton-Tanzer, host of mixed reality conference AWE Asia.

“Was impressed with the weight, comfort, LCD display, pancake lenses, color AR passthrough, and controllers. All it needs now are serious triple-A VR exclusives to distinguish itself from Meta to get gamers interested,” writes a VR content creator.

Merely “matching” Quest 2 specs doesn’t sound good enough given the latter came out two years ago and became an instant hit. Pico not only has a lot of catch-up to do on the technological front but also in terms of content and branding.

“Oculus’s content ecosystem is more established, providing a better understanding of what consumers want,” says Newton-Tanzer. Popular rhythm game Beat Saber, for instance, had generated $100 million in revenue on Oculus Quest by October 2021.

Pico is facing a chicken-or-egg problem, the XR expert suggests. Its user base across product lines isn’t currently large enough that top-tier creators would be devoted to making games, videos, and other VR content exclusively for its platform. It reportedly sold 500,000 units last year, half of its target. In contrast, Quest 2 shipped 10 million units in the space of October 2020 and November 2021. But without premium content, Pico will have a hard time attracting users in a meaningful way.

The good news is Pico has established a strong foothold in China and doesn’t face much competition in the home market. Oculus doesn’t have an official presence in China, meaning users have to go through the hassle of ordering an overseas version, getting the Oculus app from a foreign app store, and accessing its global app ecosystem through a virtual private network as Meta’s servers are blocked in China.

The technological bifurcation could allow Pico time to test and learn in the home market before launching into the West at full steam. Expansion in the U.S. is already set in motion as ByteDance began building a team for Pico on the West Coast, according to Protocol, with a focus to attract talent in content, marketing, and R&D.

ByteDance’s Pico debuts its Quest rival, but challenges remain by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch

Google pulls the plug on Stadia

Two and a half years after unveiling Stadia on stage at GDC, the game streaming service is officially done. Subscribers will have access to the games library through January 18 of next year, after which point, it will shut down for good. Google adds in a blog post that it expects to have all refunds for subscribers issued by around that time, as well.

Google had not acknowledged previous struggles with the service. In a tweet dated late July, the company noted simply, “Stadia is not shutting down. Rest assured we’re always working on bringing more great games to the platform and Stadia Pro.” Google, meanwhile, had taken an aggressive strategy of offering months-long trials in an attempt to build an audience.

“[W] while Stadia’s approach to streaming games for consumers was built on a strong technology foundation, it hasn’t gained the traction with users that we expected so we’ve made the difficult decision to begin winding down our Stadia streaming service,” Stadia VP and GM Phil Harrison notes in the post.

The company is framing a kind of silver lining in the infrastructure it built to bring low-latency game streaming to life.

Developing…

Google pulls the plug on Stadia by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Amazon’s iRobot deal faces renewed scrutiny from Dems

A new letter penned by Senate and House Democrats accuses Amazon of “anticompetitive” practices in its bid to purchase Roomba-maker, iRobot, for $1.7 billion. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is leading the charge to convince the Federal Trade Commission to reject the deal, according to a report from Axios.

“Rather than compete in a fair marketplace on its own merits, Amazon is following a familiar anticompetitive playbook: leveraging its massive market share and access to capital to buy or suppress popular products,” notes the letter cosigned by fellow congressional Democrats, Mondaire Jones, Mark Pocan Jesus G. “Chuy” Garcia, Pramila Jayapal and Katie Porter.

The report arrives during a moment of increased regulatory scrutiny for the online retail giant. Both the planned iRobot and One Medical deals have raised antitrust concerns among lawmakers. The FTC has notable already been investigating both. Amazon has seemingly been more aggressively pursuing acquisitions under new CEO Andy Jassy, at a time when the regulatory body has pushed to block similar deals by big tech. Most notably, FTC chairwoman Lina Khan recently sued to block Meta/Facebook’s acquisition of VR firm, Within Unlimited, citing anticompetitive concerns.

The deal is at the center of Amazon’s plans to aggressively push into the home robotics category, in much the same way its 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems helped it become a dominant force in industrial robotics. Amazon’s offering in the category is currently limited to the home robot Astro, but folding iRobot into the department would find the firm dominating the space overnight. iRobot’s Roomba is the rare home robot that has managed to break into mainstream use.

Given Amazon’s history and iRobot’s home mapping, the deal has also raised concern among privacy advocates.

TechCrunch has reached out to both Amazon and Senator Warren’s office for comment.

Amazon’s iRobot deal faces renewed scrutiny from Dems by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Fairphone adds fully refurbished handsets to its modular reuse mix

Away from the premium smartphone feature-utility hyperbole swirling around dynamic islands, mobile devices remain much of a muchness. But ethical mobile brand Fairphone has always done innovation differently — applying attention to supply chain conditions and novel modularity to support repairability and lifespan longevity, with a dual mission to make consumer electronics more ethical and sustainable.

It’s now added another string to its sustainability bow by selling a (limited) stock of its 2019 flagship, the Fairphone 3, as refurbished handsets — which come with a two-year warranty.

It said the refurbished Fairphone 3 devices are on sale from today — offered as a more environmentally conscientious alternative to purchasing last year’s Fairphone 4 flagship (aka, its first 5G handset).

This means you can pick up a three-year-old Fairphone 3 with the promise that it’ll work for (at least) another couple of years. That represents a decent run for an Android-based smartphone — akin to iPhone-levels of device longevity. (NB: Fairphone has previously achieved seven years of software support for the Fairphone 2 by getting Android 10 running on the 2015-released device.)

The “New Life Edition” of the Fairphone 3 is being sold for €359. 

The Fairphone 3 is already modular, so owners of the device have always been able to avoid the need for a full upgrade by paying to replace only parts that break or otherwise need a boost.

Fairphone said it will also be offering refurbished Fairphone 3+ handsets in the coming weeks. The latter was already backwards compatible with the Fairphone 3 and available as a €70 upgrade by swapping out a few modules (vs buying a whole new Fairphone handset).

The Dutch social enterprise is now taking that reuse agenda a little further by bringing fully refurbished handsets to market — offering an entry point to its reusable, modular mobiles that comes with an even lower carbon footprint since the handset you’re buying has already been pre-owned.

“These pre-owned phones have been refurbished in France and tested to ensure 100% functionality,” said Fairphone in a press announcement about the refurbished device sale which notes the second-hand devices will come with a new or “almost-new” battery that it said “guarantees at least 80% of the original capacity”.

There is limited stock of the refurbished phones — so sales will only continue while stocks last.

“They have the same 2-year manufacturing warranty originally reserved for new devices of this model,” Fairphone added.

The market for second hand smartphones has been heating up for years as the mobile market has matured and hardware innovation has become increasingly incremental — driving major investments into reseller marketplaces such as France’s Back Market and Finland’s (iPhone-focused) Swappie, to name two.

Environmental concerns are also encouraging consumers to look toward pre-owned mobiles — and opt for reuse vs buying new.

Fairphone adds fully refurbished handsets to its modular reuse mix by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch

BMW will use Amazon Alexa to build its next voice assistant

Amazon Alexa will be the foundation of BMW’s next-generation voice assistant, the companies announced Wednesday at Amazon’s annual Devices and Services launch event.

The German automaker and Amazon are have had a relationship for years now. BMW started offering the Alexa assistant in select cars starting in 2018 and the partnership has grown from there.

This announcement stands out because BMW won’t just embedded Alexa into vehicles. It will use the Amazon technology to build its own assistant. The first vehicles with the new generation of BMW’s voice assistant will launch within the next two years.

The idea, if executed well, will be for BMW to use the underlying Amazon tech that it couldn’t develop on its own to focus on what automotive and maybe even model specific features.

Stephan Durach, senior VP of the connected company and development technical operations at BMW Group, said this approach will bring the digital experience to an entirely new level.

It also shows how Amazon is attempting to capture more marketshare within the automotive industry, which Dave Limp, senior VP of devices and services at Amazon, hinted at in his remarks.

“This cooperation with BMW is a great example of what Alexa Custom Assistant was designed for — to make it faster and easier for companies to develop custom intelligent assistants for virtually any device, without the cost and complexity of building from the ground up,” Limp said.

In other words, Amazon sees this as the next step in its plan to dominate — or at least try to — the experience in the car. Amazon also introduced the second-generation of Echo Auto, a more compact device with new features that aim to broaden the e-commerce giant’s reach by bringing its Alexa voice assistant into more vehicles.

Notably, customers will still be able choose to use either the BMW voice assistant, Alexa individually, or have both assistants work alongside each other.

BMW will use Amazon Alexa to build its next voice assistant by Kirsten Korosec originally published on TechCrunch

Amazon expands Eero line and introduces Internet Backup

Amazon showed its Eero Wi-Fi lineup some love this morning during a hardware event, announcing the Eero PoE 6, a Wi-Fi 6 Power over Ethernet (PoE) access point that can provide up to 2,000 square feet of coverage and support up to 100 devices. A complementary new product, the Eero PoE Gateway, delivers up to 100 watts of pooled power for multiple PoE devices.

Amazon says that the Eero PoE 6 can go almost anywhere Ethernet cable can be pulled, including mounted on walls or ceilings. As for the the Eero PoE Gateway, it’s Amazon’s first device with 10 Gigabit Ethernet, delivering what one would assume is a speedy wired experience.

Amazon Eero PoE

Image Credits: Amazon

Both new and existing Eero devices will be able to tap into Eero Internet Backup, a new software feature that allows customers to set up a “backup” internet connection — like a phone or mobile hotspot — and have their network automatically attempt to switch over when an outage occurs. Eero Internet Backup will begin to roll out in coming months as a software update for subscribers to Eero Plus, Eero’s premium service plan, and select ISP customers with a compatible Eero device.

Amazon Eero PoE

Image Credits: Amazon

Eero PoE 6 will be available in October through authorized installers starting at $299.99; it’ll come to ISP partners and Amazon in early 2023. Meanwhile, the Eero PoE Gateway will come to market early next year through ISP partners and Amazon priced at $645.99.

read more about Amazon's fall event, September 28, 2022

Amazon expands Eero line and introduces Internet Backup by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

The new Echo Dot is also an Eero

You already know whether you’re an Amazon Echo type person. If so you’re probably looking at one right now, thinking “should I upgrade that thing or is it pointless?” Probably the latter — unless you also have Amazon’s Eero mesh wi-fi product, in which case: it’s probably still pointless, unless it’s pretty old. In which case, you can get a new or lightly used Dot that will now act as a wi-fi range extender.

The new Dot and other Echo products were announced at Amazon’s hardware event today; the Dot has been lightly redesigned with a better speaker and a couple monster-themed prints for the ones that go in the kids’ room.

No one really expects such a small device to offer anything but serviceable sound, so that part of the upgrade isn’t particularly notable. But the next piece is interesting: the latest Dot will automatically connect to your Eero network and extend its range. The 4th-gen Dots and spherical Echo will also gain this ability after a software update soon.

It won’t push the coverage as far as a dedicated router, but there are tricks that a stationary, powered transceiver can do with wi-fi that a phone or laptop can’t, and that means it can act as a repeater even when signal is weak. Then it can pass that signal on to your other devices.

We haven’t had a chance to test this, though we know the Eero is probably the leading consumer mesh wi-fi brand and it’s unlikely Amazon would half-ass this, even with the cheapest Echo.

You can probably expect lots more devices to offer “Eero Built-in,” as it seems to be a thing now, having started with the Ring Alarm Pro. Don’t all rush out to buy Echo Dots as cheap-ish ($50) wireless extenders.

The new Echo Dot is also an Eero by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Amazon sheds some light on your would-be intruders with Blink Floodlight

Weighing in at $100, Amazon’s new the new Blink Floodlight camera brings more brightness and smarts to its camera line. The company also launched a brand new $30 Blink Mini Pan Tilt mount, giving security-conscious customers the ability to look around a bit more than before.

The two new additions to the Blink family were launched at Amazon’s Fall event today – you can see our full coverage from the event here!

Blink Wired Floodlight camera

Who goes there? Image Credit: Amazon

The Blink Wired Floodlight camera adds powerful LED lighting and Amazon’s own AZ2 processors to process video footage locally without having to stream the video to the cloud to get AI smarts.

“The Blink Wired Floodlight Camera is our first wired floodlight device, and it adds to the existing lineup of easy-to-use, reliable, and affordable security devices that help customers keep an eye on their homes,” said Mike Harris, COO at Blink. “With an all-in-one security and lighting design, and a price below $100, it offers a mix of performance and value that’s hard to beat. Plus, it leverages the intelligence of Amazon silicon, enabling us to offer features such as computer vision and local video processing for the first time.”

At $100, the Blink Wired Floodlight camera is a competitively-priced camera solution. It includes the features you’re used to from other smart camera providers, including ‘preferred motion detection’ zones, and person detection, so cats, badgers, and butterflies don’t send notifications to your phone needlessly.

The LED lights throw out 2,600 lumens of light, and the camera can record in 1080p, with high-definiton live view available. The camera has the ability to store video clips locally, using the optional USB flash drive and a ‘Sync Module 2’. Using a Blink subscription plan, you can keep your videos and photos in the cloud for later inspection, too.

Blink Mini Pan Tilt

I get this feeling, someone’s watching me. Image Credit: Amazon

The Blink Mini Pan Tilt mount is the best friend of the Mlink Mini camera, giving it the power to pan and tilt so you can look around, following your pets, kids, and burglars around your house.

Amazon’s Blink Mini is the company’s entry-level, $35 camera. The new Mini Pan Tilt mount costs $30 and can be added to an existing camera by simply plugging the camera in with the included USB-C cable. If you want a brand new bundle, it can be bought bundled with a camera for $60. It gives users the ability to pan (look from side-to-side) and tilt (up and down) using the Blink app. The mount gives you full 360-degree coverage of the room.

Blink Wired Floodlight Camera will be available in the coming months in the U.S. for $99.99, while Blink Mini Pan Tilt is available for pre-order today in the U.S. and Canada. Both devices can be found on Amazon’s Blink microsite.

Story was updated with additional info and pictures from Blink. 

read more about Amazon's fall event, September 28, 2022

Amazon sheds some light on your would-be intruders with Blink Floodlight by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch

Amazon is adding two new designs for Echo Dot Kids devices

Amazon is launching two new designs for its Echo Dot Kids devices, the company announced at its virtual event today. The Echo Dot Kids devices now come in new Owl and Dragon designs. The two new designs join Amazon’s current Echo Dot Kids devices: the Tiger and the Panda. The new designs will be available starting next month for $59.99.

Amazon’s Echo Dot devices are designed to help kids learn and grow, as kids can ask Alexa questions, set alarms and get help with their homework. The devices also include parental controls that you set daily time limits, filter explicit songs and review activity in the Amazon Parent Dashboard.

The company also noted that the devices come with one year of Amazon Kids+, which is its kid-focused content service that includes ad-free book, games, apps and Alexa Skills. Amazon also teased that soon kids will get access to new partner and premium options with Amazon Kids+.

On the topic of kids, Amazon also revealed a new a new AI-powered feature will allow kids to co-create characters and visual stories with Alexa with parental consent. Following Alexa’s prompts, kids will be able to select or customize animated characters and Alexa will create a unique story with visuals and music. The company says this feature is made possible by advancements in conversational and generative AI across language and audio. Kids will be able to use the feature this holiday season.

Amazon also announced that Disney’s wearable device that lets guests enter theme parks and more, the MagicBand+, will be compatible with “Hey, Disney!” and work with Echo devices.

read more about Amazon's fall event, September 28, 2022

Amazon is adding two new designs for Echo Dot Kids devices by Aisha Malik originally published on TechCrunch

Amazon’s second-gen Echo Auto get smaller and adds roadside assistance

Amazon released Wednesday the second-generation version of Echo Auto, a smaller and slicker device aimed to broaden the e-commerce giant’s reach by bringing its Alexa voice assistant into more vehicles.

Echo Auto, which first came to market in 2018, connects to a vehicle’s infotainment system to bring the Alexa assistant into the vehicle. A driver can either plug the device into the vehicle’s auxiliary port or via a smartphone’s Bluetooth connection and the Alexa app.

The most notable changes in the second-generation version, which costs $54.99, is its smaller size and slicker styling as well as a new adhesive mount to allow drivers some flexibility in where they might want to secure the device.

Amazon second generation Echo Auto

Image Credits: Amazon

The Echo Auto now has five microphones to ensure a driver’s request is heard over typical background road noise or even music, according to Amazon. It also comes with a Quick Charge 3.0 certified adapter that can be used to fast charge a phone.

On the feature front, Amazon has added roadside assistance to Alexa, which means it’s also coming to Echo Auto. Users can say “Alexa, call Roadside Assistance,” to connect with an agent who will request help on a driver or passengers’ behalf for problems such as a running out of gas or a flat tire.

Users can also turn their smartphone into a driver friendly display via a feature called Auto Mode, which is launched via the Alexa app on their smartphone. Auto Mode isn’t new — it was first talked about two years ago — but it’s sticking around for good reason. 

Amazon wants to offer another option to owners of older vehicles that lack the higher resolution and larger displays commonly found in new models. And it shows that Amazon is keen to capture the entire vehicle marketplace not simply via automaker partnerships in which Alexa is embedded technology in the car.

Amazon’s second-gen Echo Auto get smaller and adds roadside assistance by Kirsten Korosec originally published on TechCrunch