CES 2020

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Crowdfunded hardware startups are breathing fresh life into music making

I love music. Seriously, it’s one of the few things that brings solace in this cold, lonely world. Want to go deep on Joni Mitchell, William Onyeabor or Pablo Casals? I’m game. Yes, I worked at multiple record stores years before TechCrunch. Yes, I will always be that guy. What I will never be, however, is a musician, professional or otherwise.

I’m resolved to this fact at this point in my life. I’ll never be a rock star like I’ll never be a professional baseball player — both facts I’ve mostly made peace with. We don’t need to go into the two years of junior high when I played the trombone, or the decade and a half I attempted to master the guitar. All you need to know is I had absolutely zero aptitude for either.

It’s not for lack of desire to make music. It’s just a straight-up, good-old-fashioned lack of talent. For precisely this reason, I view any new piece of musical equipment with great interest. There’s a ton of money to be made for the startup that can truly unlock the potential of music making for those lacking the basic skills to do so.

Roli has long been of interest to me for this reason. I was one of the first people to cover the Seaboard when it debuted at SXSW a number of years ago. It’s a fascinating instrument, letting users bend notes courtesy of a soft material makeup, but mastering it — or, really, making any music at all — requires some ability to play piano.The company’s modular block system, announced a few years ago, was even more compelling, but similarly failed to scratch that itch.

Last week at CES, the fine folks at Kickstarter introduced me to the founders of a trio of crowdfunding companies that fit the bill to some degree. French startup Joué actually went on to win top prize at our CES pitch-off this year, with its modular MIDI controller of the same name.

The device operates on a similar principle as the Sensel Morph we’ve covered before, with silicone skins that overlay atop a touch surface to offer a variety of different controllers. Joué’s take is more music-focused than Sensel’s ever was. And besides, based on a conversation with Sensel at the show, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the company is turning most of its focus away from that device, in favor of compelling touch components it’s working to build into third-party handsets.

The Kickstarter project is an impressive one, as evidenced by the brief demo. It’s extremely versatile, requiring just a new skin and sound pack for the system to take on completely different aural qualities. The company also discussed the potential for customized sound packs. Joué brought NWA founder Arabian Prince in to perform at its both all week. An odd fit for CES, to be sure, but an interesting example of the kinds of artists such a product might be able to draw. It’s easy to see musicians expressing interest in a customized pad.

That said, while the company seems to be positioning the product as perfect for beginners, I do expect there’s a reasonably large learning curve here. That seems removed somewhat from Rhythmo. The Austin-based startup’s project combines music making with a guided dip into the maker world.

It’s a MIDI controller drum kit that you make out of a cardboard box. It ships with all of the pieces, and putting it together offers a nice connection into the process of creating a musical instrument. Founder Ethan Jin let me take a constructed model for a spin on the CES floor. The demo was a little glitchy for various reasons, but it was fun. The kit features large arcade buttons that can be mapped to a variety of sounds. You can use the Rhythmo app or interface with your music software of choice in iPad, desktop, etc. It’s a fun entry into that world.

Artiphon, however, is probably closest to fulfilling my very specific desires. The company is best known for its massively successful Kickstarter project, Instrument 1. That racked in a mind-boggling $1.3 million with the promise of delivering a guitar, violin, piano and drum machine all in a single device.

The newer Orba ($1.4 million this time), however, really caught my eye. The puck-shaped device is a pocket synthesizer/looper/MIDI controller that requires little if any musical knowledge to get up and running. After a conversation with founder Mike Butera, I’ve come to regard it at a very base-level as a sort of musical fidget spinner.

That is to say, it’s simple enough that you can use it absentmindedly to make music while you pace around your apartment, trying to come up with a half-decent headline for the story of crowdfunded music projects at CES you’ve been writing (a purely hypothetical example that in no way reflects my life).

Of the three, that’s the one I’m most key to review, in hopes of finally scratching that musical itch.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

After delays, noise-adapting NuraLoop earbuds are coming soon and sound great

A few buffet mistakes aside, NuraLoop were the biggest disappointment of my 2019 CES. When the headphones showed up at the show as dummy units, it hurt my heart a little. The original Nuraphones made an appearance on my 2017 best of the year list, and the idea of a portable version I could take on long flights seemed almost too good to be true.

And for a full year, it was exactly that. Understandably, the Australian startup ran into a few roadblocks attempting to bring the product to market. It’s still a young company, even though its first gen product when over remarkably well. The noise-adapting headphones were extremely well thought out, right down to the package.

The hangup for their portable, in-ear counterparts is pretty surprising, to be honest. For much of the year, Nura just couldn’t crack the code of the cable, of all things. It’s a doubly odd sticking point, given how many of its competitors have ditched the cabling altogether. It should be noted up front, however, that the decision to keep things tethered is more pragmatic than aesthetic (honestly, it wouldn’t have been choice from a design standpoint).

As CEO Dragan Petrovic mentioned in a briefing at the show this week, the customer base for the original over-ears includes a pretty strong base of professional musicians, The cable includes a magnetic adapter for an analog headphone jack, so they can be used on stage monitors. There are a number of other times that still require capable — I’m writing this on a plane, for example. What am I supposed to do, just stare at Gemini Man?

There are other benefits, including a stated 16+ hours of battery life, without requiring a charging case. Also, you can wear them around your neck while not in use, if that’s a thing you like to do.

It’s never fun to have to delay a product, of course. In the year between CESes, Apple launched the AirPods Pro. The devices are two distinctly different approaches to the category, but Apple’s product does edge into NuraLoops’ territory, with a built-in fit check and great noise canceling. Again, different products with different audiences, but one has to wonder how many folks waiting for the NuraLoop pulled the trigger on the new AirPods, instead.

I’m happy to report that the sound quality on the NuraLoop is still extremely excellent. Sure, you lose the over-ear immersive bass effect without the ear cups, but the customized sound profile is still firmly in tact. The calibration is more or less the same, and when you’re done, you can swap between profiles to see how big a difference the customization makes (hint: it’s big).

The headphones are a bit on the bulky side. I’m definitely going to go exercise with them as soon as I get a review pair to see how well they stay put. The control scheme is clever — a touch well on the outside of each ear that perform a variety of different functions.

The year-long wait was less than ideal, but if you held out, you’ll probably find them worth it. The Nuraloop are another excellent product from the small Australian startup, which has managed to distinguish itself well in an overly crowded category. They run $200 and will start shipping in March.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Impossible adds ‘ground pork’ and ‘sausages’ to its lineup of plant-based foods

Impossible Foods made huge waves in the food industry when it came up with a way of isolating and using “heme” molecules from plants to mimic the blood found in animal meat (also comprised of heme), bringing a new depth of flavor to its vegetarian burger.

This week at CES, the company is presenting the next act in its mission to get the average consumer to switch to more sustainable, plant-based proteins: it unveiled its version of pork — specifically ground pork, which will be sold as a basic building block for cooking as well as in sausage form. It’s a critical step, given that pork is the most-eaten animal product in the world.

Impossible has set up shop in CES’s outdoor area, situated near a line of food trucks, and it will be cooking food for whoever wants to come by. (I tasted a selection of items made from the new product — a steamed bun, a meatball, some noodles and a lettuce wrap — and the resemblance is uncanny, and not bad at all.) And after today, the new product will be making its way first to selected Burger King restaurants in the US before appearing elsewhere.

It may sound a little far-fetched to see a food startup exhibiting and launching new products at a consumer electronics show, attended by 200,000 visitors who will likely by outnumbered by the number of TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices on display. Indeed, Impossible is the only food exhibitor this year.

But if you ask Pat Brown, the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (pictured right, at the sunny CES stand in the cold wearing a hat), the company is in precisely the right place.

“To me it’s very natural to be at CES,” he said in an interview this week at the show. “The food system is the most important technology on earth. It is absolutely a technology, and an incredibly important one, even if it doesn’t get recognised as such. The use of animals as a food technology is the most destructive on earth. And when Impossible was founded, it was to address that issue. We recognised it as a technology problem.”

That is also how Impossible has positioned itself as a startup. Its emergence (it was founded 2011) dovetailed with an interesting shift in the world of tech. The number of startups were booming, fuelled by VC money and a boom in smartphones and broadband. At the same time, we were starting to see a new kind of startup emerging built on technology but disrupting a wide range of areas not traditionally associated with technology. Technology VCs, looking for more opportunities (and needing to invest increasingly larger funds), were opening themselves up to consider more of the latter opportunities.

Impossible has seized the moment. It has raised around $777 million to date from a list of investors more commonly associated with tech companies — they include Khosla, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, GV, and a host of celebrities — and Impossible is now estimated to be valued at around $4 billion. Brown told me it is currently more than doubling revenues annually.  

With his roots in academia, the idea of Brown (who has also done groundbreaking work in HIV research) founding and running a business is perhaps as left-field a development as a food company making the leap from commodity or packaged good business to tech. Before Impossible, Brown said that he had “zero interest” in becoming an entrepreneur: the bug that has bitten so many others at Stanford (where he was working prior to founding Impossible) had not bitten him.

“I had an awesome job where I followed my curiosity, working on problems that I found interesting and important with great colleagues,” he said.

That changed when he began to realise the scale of the problem resulting from the meat industry, which has led to a well-catalogued list of health, economic and environmental impacts (including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of natural ecosystems to make way for farming land. “It is the most important and consequential issue for the future of the world, and so the solution has to be market-based,” he said. “The only way we can replace themes that are this destructive is by coming up with a better technology and competing.”

Pork is a necessary step in that strategy to compete. America, it seems, is all about beef and chicken when it comes to eating animals. But pigs and pork take the cake when you consider meat consumption globally, accounting for 38% of all meat production, with 47 pigs killed on average every second of every day. Asia, and specifically China, figure strongly in that demand. Consumption of pork in China has increased 140% since 1990, Impossible notes.

Pigs’ collective footprint in the world is also huge: there are 1.44 billion of them, and their collective biomass totals 175 kg, twice as much as the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, Impossible says.

Whether Impossible’s version of pork will be enough or just an incremental step is another question. Ground meat is not the same as creating structured proteins that mimic the whole-cuts that are common (probably more common) when it comes to how pork is typically cooked (ditto for chicken and beef and other meats).

That might likely require more capital and time to develop.

For now, Impossible is focused on building out its business on its own steam: it’s not entertaining any thoughts of selling up, or even of licensing out its IP for isolating and using soy leghemoglobin — the essential “blood” that sets its veggie proteins apart from other things on the market. (I think of licensing out that IP, as the equivalent of how a tech company might white label or create APIs for third parties to integrate its cool stuff into their services.)

That means there will be inevitable questions down the line about how Impossible will capitalise to meet demand for its products. Brown said that for now there are no plans for IPOs or to raise more externally, but pointed out that it would have no problem doing either.

Indeed, the company has built up an impressive bench of executives and other talent to meet those future scenarios. Earlier this year, Impossible hired Dennis Woodside — the former Dropbox, Google and Motorola star– as its first president. And its CFO, David Lee, joined from Zynga back in 2015, with a stint also in the mass-market food industry, having been at Del Monte prior to that.

Lee told me that the company has essentially been running itself as a public company internally in preparation for a time when it might follow in the footsteps of its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, and go public.

“From a tech standpoint I’m absolutely confident that we can outperform what we get from animals in affordability, nutrition and deliciousness,” said Brown. “This entire industry is most destructive by far and has major responsibility in terms of climate and biodiversity, but it going to be history and we are going to replace it.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Mercedes-Benz and James Cameron built an Avatar-inspired car perfect for Pandora

Mercedes-Benz channeled the wild and imaginative world of James Cameron’s hit movie Avatar for its latest concept car — an electric autonomous vehicle covered in bionic flaps that aims to show how man and machine can merge and live responsibly in nature.

The concept car, appropriately named AVTR for Advanced Vehicle Transformation, was unveiled Monday night at CES 2020, the giant tech trade show held each year in Las Vegas. And like many concept cars, it’s outrageous and sleek and a little bit out there. Did we mention it has scales?

To be clear, this is a show car. This means the Vision AVTR won’t be available to buy now, next year or in five.  But as Ola Källenius, Daimler’s Chairman and the head of Mercedes-Benz noted Monday night, “show cars are here to spark our imagination, just like science fiction movies do.”

The idea is that these exercises conducted periodically by automakers not only spark creativity among engineers and designers, it can also telegraph where they’re headed. For Mercedes, the big message that Källenius was pushing Monday evening during his CES 2020 keynote was sustainability throughout the entire life cycle of a vehicle from the plant it is built in to materials used in the battery.

And this is indeed a goal within Mercedes-Benz.

The concept car has no steering wheel or pedals because it’s theoretically autonomous. The interior is completely vegan and it has a wide sweeping display that seems to cover and curve over the entire front dash. But that’s not the wild part.

Once sitting inside the user can control the vehicle by touching the center console. The car then comes to life and can recognize the driver’s pulse and breath. From here, the driver can lift there hand, turn their palm towards a projected light. The driver picks the projected icon they want, squeezes their hand shut and the off the car goes — again theoretically.

The vehicle is made of sustainability materials all the way down to the organic battery made from recyclable materials, which are compostable and recyclable.

The 33 multi-directionally movable surface elements on the back of the vehicle act as bionic flaps and are
reminiscent of scales of reptiles. Speaking of animals, the AVTR can move sideways by 30 degrees in a “crab movement” that gives it maximum agility.

Samsung confirms February 11 event for its next flagship launch

The Saturday night before CES seems like a less than ideal time to drop some big smartphone news — but it appears Samsung’s hand was forced on this one. Granted, the smartphone giant has never been great about keeping big news under wraps, but this morning’s early release of a promo video through its official Vimeo channel was no doubt all the motivation it needed.

The company has just made the February 11 date officially official for the launch of its upcoming flagship. As for what the flagship will be called, well, that (among other things) leaves some room for speculation. Rumors have pointed to both the more traditional S11, along with the more fascinating jump to the S20.

Say hello to a whole new Galaxy. Unpacked on February 11, 2020 #SamsungEvent pic.twitter.com/ln1pqt2vu7

— Samsung Mobile (@SamsungMobile) January 5, 2020

I’ve collated a bunch of the rumors into an earlier post. The TLDR is even larger screens across the board, coupled with a bunch of camera upgrades and a healthy battery increase. The invite art, which matches the earlier the video, appears to confirm the existence of two separate devices, with different dimensions. That could well point to the reported followup to the Galaxy Fold. In additional to better reinforced folding (a follow up to last year’s issues), the device reportedly adopts a clamshell form factor, more akin to the newly announced Motorola Razr.

More info (and rumors) to come. As ever, we’ll be there (San Francisco) as the news breaks.