Tonal triples its physical stores with Nordstrom partnership

Tonal, maker of the smart home fitness trainer, announced it is more than tripling the number of physical locations it sells devices in through a new partnership with Nordstrom.

Starting this month, Tonal will have 50-square-foot stations in the women’s activewear departments of at least 40 Nordstrom locations across the U.S., bringing the total number of Tonal physical locations to 60 by the end of 2021. Shoppers will be able to walk in or book appointments to try Tonal devices and purchase them through employees on-hand.

“As we looked to expand our retail footprint and strategy, we looked to the retail landscape, and we really feel like Nordstrom says ‘best-in-class’ — the department store is well-suited to succeed in a COVID and post-COVID world,” explained Christopher Stadler, Tonal’s CMO.

Tonal, which manufactures a wall-mounted device with a digital weight system that emulates various traditional gym stations, already operates 16 locations across the country with devices shoppers can try and work out to, with plans to open four additional showrooms later this year. But the partnership with Nordstrom, which expects overall sales growth of 25% in 2021, marks a first-of-its-kind for at-home fitness makers. Peloton, for instance, operates a larger network of dedicated showrooms in the U.S., Canada, Germany and the UK, but it has yet to partner with an outside retailer to display and demo its bikes and treadmills.

An example of Tonal’s placement at a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek. Photo via Tonal.

Tonal’s physical expansion arrives amid a boom in demand for at-home equipment during the pandemic. According to Stadler, sales of Tonal equipment surged 800% from December 2019 to December 2020, causing 10-12 week wait times for deliveries. Those delays are somewhat comparable to Peloton, which has also faced significant delivery wait times in recent months and currently reports 6-10 week delays — an issue Peloton CEO John Foley acknowledged and apologized for in a note to users.

Tonal, for its part, is working to address shipment delays. According to Stadler, the startup has significantly ramped up production of devices, increased employee headcount, and in some cases, now air-ships equipment from Taiwan to the U.S. to meet demand.

“We have seen extraordinary demand for Tonal, and we’re working aggressively around the clock to produce, deliver and install Tonals faster and faster,” says Stadler. “We’ve absolutely ramped up production, and all facets of the organization are rallying to deliver our customer orders as quickly as we can.”


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Orca wants to give boating navigation its ‘iPhone moment’

Boating is a hobby steeped in history and tradition — and so is the industry and those that support it. With worldwide connectivity, electric boats, and other technological changes dragging the sector out of old habits, Orca aims to replace the outdated interfaces by which people navigate with a hardware-software combo as slick as any other modern consumer tech.

If you’re a boater, and I know at least some of you are, you’re probably familiar with two different ways of chart-plotting, or tracking your location and route: the one attached to your boat and the one in your pocket.

The one on your boat is clunky and old-fashioned, like the GPS interface on a years-old budget sedan. The one in your pocket is better and faster — but the phone isn’t exactly seaworthy and the app drains your battery with a quickness.

Orca is a Norwegian startup from veterans of the boating and chart-plotters that leapfrogs existing products with a built-from-scratch modern interface.

“The industry hasn’t changed in the last 20 years — you have three players who own 80 percent of the business,” said co-founder and CEO Jorge Sevillano. “For them, it’s very hard to think of how software creates value. All these devices are built on a user interface that’s 10-15 years old; think about a Tomtom, lots of menus, lots of clicks. This business hasn’t had its iPhone moment, where it had to rethink its entire design. So we thought: let’s start with a blank slate and build a new experience.”

CTO and co-founder Kristian Fallro started working on something like this years ago, and his company was acquired by Navico, one of the big players Sevillano refers to. But they didn’t seem to want to move forward with the ideas, and so he and the others formed Orca to pursue them. Their first complete product opened up for pre-orders this week.

“The challenge up until now has been that you need a combination of hardware and software, so the barrier to entry was very, very high,” Fallro explained. “It’s a very protected industry — and it’s too small for Apple and Google and the big boys.”

But now with a combination of the right hardware and a totally rebuilt software stack, they think they can steal a march on the dominant companies and be ready for the inevitable new generation of boaters who can’t stand to use the old tech any more. Shuttling an SD card to and from the in-boat system and your computer to update charts? Inputting destinations via directional pad? Using a separate mobile app to check weather and tides that might bear on your route? Not exactly cutting edge.

The Orca system comprises a ruggedized industrial tablet sourced from Samsung, an off the shelf marine quality mounting arm, a custom-designed interface for quick attachment and charging, and a computing base unit that connects to the boat’s own sensors like sonar and GPS over the NMEA 2000 protocol. It’s all made to be as good or better than anything you’d find on a boat today.

So far, so similar to many solutions out there. But Orca has rebuilt everything from the ground up as a modern mobile app with all the conveniences and connections you’d expect. Routing is instantaneous and accurate, on maps that are clear and readable as those on Google and Apple Maps but clearly still of the nautical variety. Weather and tide reports are integrated, as is marine traffic. It all runs on Android or iOS, so you can also use your phone, send routes or places of interest to the main unit, and vice versa.

Several devices showing the Orca chart-plotting interface.

Image Credits: Orca

“We can build new services that chart plotters can’t even dream of including,” said Sevillano. “With the latest tide report and wind, or if there’s a commercial ship going in your way, we can update your range and route. We do updates every week with new features and bug fixes. We can iterate and adapt to user feedback faster than anyone else.”

These improvements to the most central system of the boat mean the company has ambitions for coming years beyond simply replacing the ageing gadgets at the helm.

Information collected from the boat itself is also used to update the maps in near real time — depending on what your craft is monitoring, it could be used for alerting others or authorities, for example if you encounter major waves or dangerous levels of chemicals, or detect an obstacle where none is recorded. “The Waze of the seas,” they suggested. “Our goal is to become the marine data company. The opportunities for boaters, industries related to the sea, and society are immense.”

Being flexible about the placement and features means they hope to integrate directly with boats, becoming the built-in OS for new models. That’s especially important for the up-and-coming category of electric boats, which sort of by definition buck the old traditions and tend to attract tech-savvy early adopters.

“We’re seeing people take what works on land taking it to sea. They all have the same challenge though, the biggest problem is range anxiety — and it’s even worse on the water,” said Fallro. “We’ve been talking to a lot of these manufacturers and we’re finding that building a boat is hard but building that navigation experience is even harder.”

Whether that’s entirely true probably depends on your boat-building expertise, but it’s certainly the case that figuring out an electric boat’s effective range is a devilishly difficult problem. Even after building a new boat from starting principles and advanced physical simulations to be efficient and predictable, such as Zin Boats did, the laws of physics and how watercraft work mean even the best estimate has to be completely revised every few seconds.

“Figuring out range at sea is very hard, and we think we’re one of the best out there. So we want to provide boat manufacturers a software stack with integrated navigation that helps them solve the range anxiety problem their users have,” said Fallro.

Indeed, it seems likely that prospective purchasers of such a craft would be more tempted to close the deal if they knew there was a modern and responsive OS that not only accurately tracked range but provided easy, real-time access to potential charge points and other resources. Sure, you could use your phone — and many do these days because the old chart plotters attached to their boats are so limited. But the point is that with Orca you won’t be tempted to.

The full device combo of computing core, mount, and tablet costs €1,449, with the core alone selling for €449, with a considerable discount for early bird pre-orders. (For people buying new boats, these numbers may as well be rounding errors.)

Fallro said Orca is operating with funding (of an unspecified amount) from Atomico and Nordic VC firm Skyfall Ventures, as well as angel investors including Kahoot co-founder Johan Brand. The company has its work cut out for it simply in fulfilling the orders it has collected (they are doing a brisk trade, Fallro intimated) before moving on to adding features and updating regularly as promised.

Stoke Space wants to take reusable rockets to new heights with $9M seed

Many launch providers think reusability is the best way to lower the cost and delay involved in getting to space. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown reusable first stages, which take a payload to the edge of space — and now Stoke Space Technologies says it is making a reusable second stage, which will take that payload to orbit and beyond, and has raised a $9.1M seed round to realize it.

Designing a first stage that can return to Earth safely is no small task, but the fact that it only reaches a certain height and speed, and doesn’t actually climb into orbit at an even higher velocity, means that it is simpler to try. The second stage takes over when the first is spent, accelerating and guiding the payload to its destination orbit, which generally means it will have traveled a lot farther and will be going a lot faster when it tries to come back down.

Stoke thinks that it’s not just possible to create a second stage that’s reusable, but crucial to building the low-cost space economy that will enable decades of growth in the industry. The team previously worked on the New Glenn and New Shepard vehicles and engines at Blue Origin, the Merlin 1C for the Falcon 9 at SpaceX, and others.

“Our design philosophy is to design hardware that not only can be reused, but is operationally reusable. That means fast turnaround times with low refurbishment effort. Reusability of that type has to be designed in from the beginning,” said Andy Lapsa, co-founder and CEO of Stoke.

 

A rocket does a test fire in an industrial environment.

Image Credits: Stoke Space Technologies

Beyond the fact that the vehicle will employ a ballistic reentry and powered landing, Stoke did not comment on the engineering or method by which it would accomplish the Herculean feat of bring down a few tons of precision equipment safely from 400 kilometers up and traveling some 28,000 km/h. (Though Lapsa did mention to GeekWire that a “good, high-performing stable injector” is the core of their engine and therefore of the system around it.)

At speeds like that reentry can be deadly, so one hopes they save a little fuel not just for landing but for deceleration. That would increase the mass and complexity of the vehicle before payload, lowering its carrying capacity.

“It’s true that any reusable system will be inherently more complex than its expendable counterpart,” Lapsa said. “However, when one optimizes on mission cost and availability, that complexity is well worth it.”

As other launch companies have pointed out, you burn up a lot of money on reentry, but so far the safest move has been to keep the first stage alive. The second stage is by no means cheap, and any company would prefer to recycle it as well — and indeed it could lower the cost of launch enormously if they did so successfully.

The promise Stoke makes is not just to bring the upper stage home, but to bring it home and have it ready for reuse just a day later. “All launch hardware is reused time after time with aircraft-like regularity – zero refurbishment with 24-hour turnaround,” claims Lapsa.

Considering the amount of wear and tear a rocket goes through in ascent and landing, “zero refurbishment” may sound to many like an impossible dream. SpaceX’s reusable first stages can be turned around pretty quickly, but they can’t just fuel them up where they landed and press the button again.

Not only that, but Stoke aims to provide reusable-rocket service beyond low-Earth orbit, where the majority of small, lower-cost satellites go. Geosynchronous orbit and translunar or interplanetary trajectories are also planned.

“Missions to GTO, GEO direct, TLI, and earth escape will initially be done with partially reusable or expendable vehicles, depending on mission requirements, however those vehicles will be the same ones that may have been used on previous fully reusable missions to LEO. The design is extensible to full reuse for these missions (and/or extraplanetary landers) in future variants,” said Lapsa.

These are ambitious claims — even, given the state of rocketry right now, ones people may with good reason call unrealistic. But the industry has advanced more quickly than many would have predicted a decade ago and seemingly unrealistic ambition drove those changes as well.

The $9.1M seed round raised by Stoke will enable it to meet the next few milestones, but anyone who follows the industry will know that far more cash will be needed to cover the cost of development and testing in time.

The round was led by NFX and MaC Ventures, along with YC, Seven Seven Six (Alexis Ohanian), Liquid2 (Joe Montana), Trevor Blackwell, Kyle Vogt, and Charlie Songhurst, among others.

Xiaomi further localizes India supply chain via BYD, DBG partnerships

China’s Xiaomi had dominated the Indian smartphone market for three consecutive years until recently losing the top spot to Samsung. It has played by the Indian government’s rulebook to support domestic manufacturing, making smartphones in India rather than shipping them from its home country of China. Now it is further ramping up production in India by adding two new supply chain partners, BYD and DBG, the company said in an announcement on Thursday.

The move comes at a time when the Indian government is applying more pressure on Chinese tech companies. Along with TikTok, dozens of other popular Chinese apps were banned in India last June over national security concerns.

So far the hardware companies have remained largely unaffected, but worsening India-China relations won’t likely bode well for Chinese companies that are wooing Indian consumers. Xiaomi and its Chinese competitors Vivo, Oppo and Oppo-affiliated Realme together commanded as much as 64% of the Indian market in the third quarter of 2020.

This is probably the time for Chinese firms to demonstrate to the Indian government how they could make contributions to the local economy. Under the new production partnerships, Xiaomi will be able to significantly ratchet up its output in India, the company said.

The tie-up with BYD and DBG also reflects a growing trend of Chinese manufacturers setting up overseas plants to cope with rising labor costs back home and increasingly hostile trade policies against China. BYD is China’s largest electric carmaker with a long history of making electronics parts, while DBG has been a major supplier to Chinese telecom firms including Huawei. DBG has set up a production plant in Haryana and has increased Xiaomi’s local production by about 20%. BYD’s facility in Tamil Nadu is scheduled to begin operation by H1 this year.

Prior to its deals with BYD and DBG, Xiaomi was already making 99% of its smartphones in India through Apple’s long-time contract manufacturers, the Taiwanese giant Foxconn and California-based Flex.

Xiaomi also stressed that it sources locally, buying mother-boards, batteries, chargers and other components from domestic suppliers like Sunny India and NVT, which together account for over 75% of the value of its smartphones.

Separately, Xiaomi’s India business has onboarded a new partner, Ohio-based Radiant Technology, to make its smart TVs, which have been a bestseller in India. Local electronics company Dixon currently makes its smart TVs.

Xiaomi’s localization effort has led to a 60,000-strong team in India, six years after it first landed in the country, including staff in production, sales, and logistics. The company prides itself on boosting local employment. As Manu Kumar Jain, managing director for Xiaomi India, pointed out in toay’s announcement, the company added 10,000 employees in India last year. “When organizations were downsizing their workforce, we were focused on putting together the building blocks for our growth in the India market – our employees.”

Rode’s Wireless Go II delivers key upgrades to the best mobile mic for creators

Rode Microphones has a new and improved version of its much-loved Go portable mic, the Wireless Go II, which uses the same form factor as the original but adds a list of new and improved features. Most notably, the Go II offers two transmitter packs that can simultaneously talk to a single receiver, letting you record two individual speakers to the same camera or connected device.

Basics

The Rode Wireless Go II ($299) ships with everything you need to begin recording high-quality audio to a camera or anything else that can connect to a 3.5mm jack. The transmitter packs – there are two of them in the box – have built-in microphones that offer great sound on their own, or you can use them with any 3.5mm-equipped lavalier mic depending on your needs.

The receiver pack can output to 3.5mm TRS, but it can also transmit using USB Type-C (which is also for charging). This is new for this generation, and Rode also sells USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to Lightning cables so that you can use them with modern Android devices, iPhones, iPads, Macs and PCs.

Image Credits: Rode

Each of the three packs has a built-in rechargeable battery that can provide up to 7 hours of operating time on a single charge. You can independently adjust the gain on each of the transmitters, and mute each individually or both from the receiver pack. You can also swap between mono recording with each transmitter as a channel, and stereo recording modes.

The transmitters can operate at a range of 200 meters (roughly 650 feet) from the receiver, provided they have line-of-sight, and the receiver has a display to show you input levels, battery status, connectivity and more. The transmitters each have two LEDs that provide visual feedback for connectivity and gain. Each also automatically records locally, with the ability to store more than 24 hours of audio on built-in storage in case of dropouts in connectivity.

Design and performance

With this update, it really feels like Rode has thought of everything. You can get started immediately, for one, since the transmitter packs and receiver come pre-paired and assigned to left and right channels by default. They’re incredibly user-friendly, and while Rode has introduced a new Windows and Mac app for centralized control of them called Rode Central, you don’t actually need any additional software to get started recording with them.

This updated version also uses a new RF transmission tech that has 128-bit encryption built in, with a much farther line-of-site range for their use. This is designed to make them much more reliable in areas where there’s a lot of RF traffic happening already – like a busy shopping mall (once COVID times are behind us), conference halls, or other public areas with lots of people and smartphones around.

The onboard memory is also new, and means you’ll never have to worry about any potential dropped connections since you’ll always have a local file to rely on on the transmitter packs themselves. A similar peace-of-mind feature is a safety channel that records a back-up track at -20db, so that if you encounter any overloud sounds that cause peaking in your primary recording, you’ll have another option. Both of these features have to be turned on proactively in the Rode Central app, which Rode will also use to deliver future firmware updates for the Go II, but they’re very welcome additions.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Meanwhile, the best new feature might be that you get all these improvements in the same great package. Rode’s original Go was remarkable in large part because it came in such a small, portable package, with transmitters that featured built-in mics as well as being great body packs. The size here is exactly the same, and these use the same integrated clips that make them compatible with all of Rode’s existing Go accessories.

Bottom line

There’s a concept of ‘lapping’ in racing, where you’re so far ahead of a competitor that you overtake them again. That’s basically what Rode has done with the Go II, which pads the lead for the best mobile video/field podcasting mic on the market, with smart features that address the few downsides of the original.

Metalenz reimagines the camera in 2D and raises $10M to ship it

As impressive as the cameras in our smartphones are, they’re fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips over that part with a camera made of a single “metasurface” that could save precious space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.

The concept is similar to, but not descended from, the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely engineered “2D” surface — not actually two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.

In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days it’s usually several stacked), which corrals the light, and an image sensor, which senses and measures that light. The problem faced by cameras now, particularly in smartphones, is that the lenses can’t be made much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise sensors are nearly at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently most of the photography advancements of the last few years have been done on the computational side.

Using an engineered surface that does away with the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. Back in 2016 I wrote about a NASA project that took inspiration from moth eyes to create a 2D camera of sorts. It’s harder than it sounds, though — usable imagery has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing that you take to Apple or Samsung.

Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s tech is built on the work of Harvard’s Frederico Capasso, who has been publishing on the science behind metasurfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did his doctorate work in Capasso’s lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.

“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” said Devlin of the field’s first entrants. “You had light scattering all over the place, the materials and processes were non-standard, the designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Making one that works and publishing a paper on it is one thing, making 10 million and making sure they all do the same thing is another.”

Their breakthrough — if years of hard work and research can be called that — is the ability not just to make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do it without exotic components or manufacturing processes.

“We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment — but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “We can already make a million lenses a day with our foundry partners.”

Diagram comparing the multi-lens barrel of a conventional phone camera, and their simpler "meta-optic"

The thing at the bottom is the chip where the image processor and logic would be, but the meta-optic could also integrate with that. the top is a pinhole.

The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that incoming light, without lenses to bend and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic way. Devlin’s own PhD work was concerned with taming this chaos.

“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] lens is controlled on the macro scale, you’re relying on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it,” he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”

Those features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little nano-scale Coke cans,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, far smaller than a visible or near-infrared light ray’s wavelength, manipulate the radiation by means that take a few years of study to understand.

Diagram showing chips being manufactured, then an extreme close up showing nano-scale features.The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and vastly less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace the main camera on your iPhone — for conventional photography purposes the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play to the chip-style lens’s strengths.

Something like the FaceID assembly, for instance, presents an opportunity. “That module is a very complex one for the cell phone world — it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.

At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation the amount of light that reaches the sensor is significantly increased. That means it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better and drawing less power.

Image (of a very small test board) from a traditional camera, left, and metasurface camera, right. Beyond the vignetting it’s not really easy to tell what’s different, which is kind of the point.

Lest you think this is still a lab-bound “wouldn’t it be nice if” type device, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $10M round A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, along with Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures — a lot of suppliers in there.

Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz isn’t starting with a short run of boutique demo devices but going big out of the gate.

“Because we’re using traditional fabrication techniques, it allows us to scale really quickly. We’re not building factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; we can use whats already there,” said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at applications that are high volume. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our foundry partners to see it making sense.”

Although Devlin declined to get specific, he did say that their first partner is “active in 3D sensing” and that a consumer device, though not a phone, would be shipping with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 — and later in 2022 will see a phone-based solution shipping as well.

In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup just coming out of stealth and raising its A round… it already has shipments planned on the order of tens of millions. The $10M isn’t a bridge to commercial viability but short term cash to hire and cover up-front costs associated with such a serious endeavor. It’s doubtful anyone on that list of investors harbors any serious doubts on ROI.

The 3D sensing thing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex lab equipment to handheld electronics that can be fielded easily is one, and improving the benchtop versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or quicker operation is another.

Though a device you use may in a few years have a Metalenz component in it, it’s likely you won’t know — the phone manufacturer will probably take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it may show up in teardowns and bills of material, at which point you’ll know this particular university spin-out has made it to the big leagues.

Tovala, the smart oven and meal kit service, heats up with $30M more in funding

With more of us spending significant amounts of time at home because of Covid-19, our attention has turned increasingly to how and what we eat. Today, one of the startups that has seen a lift in its business as a result of that is announcing a round of funding to expand its operations.

Tovala, the smart oven and meal kit service — has closed a Series C of $30 million. David Rabie, the Chicago startup’s co-founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that it plans to use the funding in large part to open a second facility, most likely in Utah, to help with fresh food distribution to the western half of the U.S. Other investments will include improving customer service and bringing in more talent.

It will also slowly start to bring in more options for pre-made meals and recipes: Rabie said it is working on ways of working with leading restaurants and chefs to create meals to sell and cook in the Tovala oven.

“We think we can come closer to the restaurant experience because of the oven,” said Rabie. “By pre-making food rather than just reheating, we think we can open up reach for a local restaurant.”

The funding is being led by Left Lane Capital, with Finistere Ventures, Comcast Ventures, OurCrowd, Origin Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capital, and Joe Mansueto — all previous backers — also participating.

Originally incubated a Y Combinator, Tovala has attracted other interesting investors in the company, including poultry giant Tyson. Notably, this is the second round of funding for the startup in the space of six months, after it picked up $20 million in a Series B last June.

As with that round, the valuation is not being disclosed, but the company has hit some significant numbers, evidenced by this funding, which points to how its value may well be on the rise. Annualized revenue grew tenfold in the last 18 months (that is, including growth before Covid-19); employee numbers were up 40%; the company has passed 3 million meals shipped; and the company says that their ovens are being used 32 times on average each month by their owners (stats it can rack up because those devices are connected).

It is still not disclosing total user numbers, Rabie said.

Tovala’s oven sells for $299, but the company usually knocks off $100 if you also commit to six of its $11.99 meals over the next six months. Right now — possibly to tap into the wave of people who are rethinking how they eat in the wake of restaurant closures and simply spending more time at home — it seems Tovala is offering discounts of up to $130 to those buying the oven without the meal obligation, dropping the oven price down to about $170.

In addition to the company’s own pre-made meals, Tovala’s oven can cook hundreds of pre-made dishes and meals sold in stores by way of scanning package barcodes; and recipes that it devises and you can make yourself and program the oven to cook by way of the Tovala app. You can also use it in the same way that you might use any countertop oven, to toast, steam, bake and broil whatever you choose to independent of all that.

A profusion of meal kit and food delivery businesses have changed how a lot of people think about food at home, and Tovala has been building out a business in the hopes that it can cover a specific niche: people who want to eat fresh food they cook at home, but who don’t have time or interest in putting those meals together — not even when they come with items precut and measured by meal kit companies.

However, that is just one side of the business: Tovala’s ovens, Rabie said, are a central part of the vertical integration that the company has built, and they are here to stay as part of the proposition.

“We are in the business of getting high quality meals to people, and the oven is our vehicle for doing that,” he said. “We are both a tech and food company, and at no point do I see us getting out of oven business.”

Having said that, the company is also expanding with partnerships with others that produce ovens, too. Specifically, Tovala has a deal with LG to embed its software in LG ovens, to enable them to cook Tovala’s meals and the other dishes that can be programmed with its app an barcode scanning system. Rabie said the deal made sense since the kinds of full-sized ovens that will run Tovala’s software are “not the kind of product line that we will get into.”

It appears that LG is not an investor, and it’s not clear when these new devices will be rolled out: the deal between the two was announced back in 2019.

That partnership is a mark of how the hardware companies that are building connected appliances, and services around them, are knitting together more closely with incumbents to take their next scaling steps. In at lest two instances that has led to those startups getting acquired: BBQ giant Weber acquired June (which it had also invested in) earlier this year; and previously Electrolux acquired pressure cooker company Anova for $250 million.

An exit of that kind may or may not be on the menu for Tovala, but it’s a signal of the options that the startup has for moving from appetiser to main course in the future.

Rabie had told me that Left Lane’s interest was based on how it saw Tovala as a “Peloton”-like category definer for smart food preparation at home, in part because of how it could become part of a person’s daily habits and routines.

“The pairing of a meal subscription with a connected device has enabled Tovala to achieve a customer retention rate that is a step-function better than anything else we’ve seen in food delivery — in many ways similar to what Peloton achieved in a traditionally low-retention fitness industry,” said Jason Fiedler, co-founder and managing partner at Left Lane Capital, in a statement. “Our team brings a proven track record of investing in category-defining consumer subscription businesses, and we’re excited about Tovala’s potential to be the next major food tech company.” Fiedler is joining the board.

Canon takes tentative step towards eliminating photographers with robotic PICK camera

Canon is embracing the AI-infused future with a strange new robotic camera called the PowerShot PICK. This little device swivels and keeps its subjects in view, taking commands or snapping shots on its own.

It’s a bit like a smart security camera or Facebook’s Portal, but meant to be taken with you wherever you go, attached to a selfie stick, and so on. Its body is about the size of a juice box, making it portable but not quite pocketable.

The camera company appears to be hedging its bets by offering the PICK not as a retail product but through the Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake, where it has already blasted through its trumpery $10,000 goal (currently at about ten times that, which is still just a fraction of what it must have cost to develop this thing).

The Canon Pick camera tracks a strange looking guy on a BMX bike.

“PICK… stop watching me.” “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dennis.”

A promo video for the campaign shows the PICK being used in a variety of circumstances: recognizing faces and shooting during a party; tracking a person riding a bike around their yard; activating itself on demand in someone’s kitchen and following their position.

The idea is fun — a device you just set down and it snaps candid photos while you do your thing, or keeps you in view while you do you vlog — but the proof is in the pudding.

The sensor is small, an old point-and-shoot’s 1/2.3″ 12MP, though the F/2.8 zoom lens and image stabilization should help it out in uneven light. We won’t know what the shots look like until they send a few of these out to backers and reviewers.

Is this a ridiculous dead-end gadget from a company desperate to escape the photography industry’s death spiral? Or is it a smart, easy solution for people tired of thinking “ah – someone should get a shot of this”? You can still, of course, tweak and operate the camera from a companion app.

One thing it doesn’t appear to be is a webcam, which seems like a missed opportunity. A swiveling, smart webcam that takes voice commands would be a godsend to many people tired of taking every call in the same shabby rectangle of their improvised home office. Now that we’ve all thoroughly stopped caring about “looking professional” (and if you haven’t stopped… this is your cue) maybe we can start taking meetings while cleaning the kitchen or sitting on the patio.

Hopefully this little experimental device bears fruit for Canon and we’ll all have robot camera buddies we take around with us everywhere. Sounds creepy now, sure, but just wait a few years.

Xiaomi teases over-the-air wireless charging, but it’s not coming to its devices this year

Xiaomi, the world’s third largest smartphone maker, today unveiled “Mi Air Charge Technology” that it says can deliver 5W power to multiple devices “within a radius of several metres” as the Chinese giant invited customers to a “true wireless charging era.”

The company said it has self-developed an isolated charging pile that has five phase interference antennas built-in, which can “accurately detect the location of the smartphone.”

A phase control array composed of 144 antennas transmits millimeter-wide waves directly to the phone through beamforming, the company said, adding that “in the near future” the system will also be able to work with smart watches, bracelets, and other wearable devices.

A company spokesperson said Xiaomi, which has previously introduced 80W and 120W wireless charging tech, won’t be deploying this new system to consumer products this year.

Here’s how the company has described the mechanics of its new tech:

On the smartphone side, Xiaomi has also developed a miniaturized antenna array with built-in “beacon antenna” and “receiving antenna array”. Beacon antenna broadcasts position information with low power consumption. The receiving antenna array composed of 14 antennas converts the millimeter wave signal emitted by the charging pile into electric energy through the rectifier circuit, to turn the sci-fi charging experience into reality.

Currently, Xiaomi remote charging technology is capable of 5-watt remote charging for a single device within a radius of several meters. Apart from that, multiple devices can also be charged at the same time (each device supports 5 watts), and even physical obstacles do not reduce the charging efficiency.

News site XDA-Developers reported on Friday that a Motorola executive also demonstrated a prototype remote charging system that appears to deliver power over the air. No word on when its tech will hit consumer devices either.

Huawei’s struggles hurt overall smartphone shipments in China, but rivals like Apple found new opportunities

The impact of United States government sanctions on Huawei is continuing to hurt the company and dampen overall smartphone shipments in China, where it is largest smartphone vendor, according to a new report by Canalys. But Huawei’s decline also opens new opportunities for its main rivals, including Apple.

Canalys says Apple’s performance in China during the fourth-quarter of 2020 was its best in years, thanks to the iPhone 11 and 12. Its full-year shipments returned to its 2018 levels, and it reached its highest quarterly shipments in China since the end of 2015, when the iPhone 6s was launched.

Overall, smartphone shipments in China fell 11% to about 330 million units in 2020, with market recovery hindered by Huawei’s inability to ship new units. Even though demand in China for Huawei devices remains high, the company has struggled to cope with sanctions imposed by the U.S. government under the Trump administration that banned it from doing business with American companies and drastically curtailed its ability to procure new chips.

In May 2020, Huawei rotating chairman Guo Ping said even though the firm can design some semiconductor components, like integrated circuits, it is “incapable of doing a lot of other things.”

This left Huawei unable to meet demand for its devices, but gives its main rivals new opportunities, wrote Canalys vice president of mobility Nicole Peng. “Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi are fighting to win over Huawei’s offline channel partners across the country, including small rural ones, backed by huge investments in store expansion and marketing support. These commitments brought immediate results, and market share improved within mere months.”

Apple benefited from Huawei’s decline because the company’s Mate series is the iPhone’s main rival in the high-end category, and only 4 million Mate units were shipped in the fourth quarter. “However, Apple has not relaxed its market promotions for iPhone 12,” wrote Canalys research analyst Amber Liu. “Aggressive online promotions across ecommerce players, coupled with widely available trade-in plans and interest-free installments with major banks, drove Apple to its stellar performance.”

During the fourth-quarter of 2020, smartphone shipments in mainland China fell 4% year-over-year to a total of 84 million units. Even though it held onto its number one position in terms of shipments, Huawei’s total market share plummeted to 22% from 41% a year earlier, and it shipped just 18.8 million smartphones, including units from budget brand Honor, which it agreed to sell in November.

Canalys' graph showing shipments by the top five smartphone vendors in China

Canalys’ graph showing shipments by the top five smartphone vendors in China

Huawei’s main competitors, on the other hand, all increased their shipments at the end of 2020. Oppo took second place, shipping 17.2 million smartphones, a 23% increase year-over-year. Oppo’s closest competitor Vivo increased its quarterly shipment to 15.7 million units. Apple shipped more than 15.3 million units, putting its market share at 18%, up from 15% a year ago. Xiaomi rounded out the top five vendors, shipping 12.2 million units, a 52% year-over-year increase.

Huawei’s decision to sell Honor means the brand may rapidly gain market share in 2021, since it already has brand recognition, wrote Peng. 5G is also expected to help smartphone shipments in China, especially for premium models.