Satellite imaging startup Planet Labs just successfully launched two satellites into orbit, but its biggest milestone is yet to come. The company, which builds inexpensive, low-flying satellites called “doves,” is preparing to launch the largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites ever.
Planet Labs produces satellites that are ultra-efficient to make and operate, lowering the cost of satellite imagery while getting better images more often. Its “doves” are much smaller and fly much lower than traditional satellites, at an orbit of around 400 to 500 kilometers compared to 800 to 1,200 kilometers above earth. That said, Planet Labs doves don’t live as long, with a typical life-span of about one to three years.
One of the other nice things about making short-lived commercial satellites is that Planet Labs can frequently upgrade its equipment, with each new version of its Doves having the most advanced technology available for use. Compare that to traditional satellite shops, which require multiple years of development to ensure that they won’t crap out early in their expected lifecycle. Doves, on the other hand, are more or less made to be disposable – and that’s a good thing.
Since the satellites are much closer to earth, they’re able to catch high-resolution images, which can be used for a number of different applications, such as monitoring deforestation, improving agricultural yields, and tracking natural disasters. Planet Labs co-founder and CEO Will Marshall says the company has engaged with a number of partners that could be interested in the company’s data, although none have been announced yet.
Planet Labs already had two satellites sending back imagery, with Dove 1 and Dove 2. It recently added two more, sending Dove 3 and Dove 4 into space on a Russian Dnepr rocket. But the main event will come with the launch of its Flock 1 constellation, which is slated for December.
The company’s first constellation of satellites will be made up of 28 doves that will be launched on board an Antares rocket taking off from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. That constellation will create images of the entire world over a very short time span, providing an unprecedented amount of data for enterprises that need use of it.
Planet Labs was founded by former NASA physicists Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler, and Chris Boshuizen. The company has raised $13 million from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Capricorn Investment Group, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Founders Fund Angel, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective, and First Round Capital.
Personal finance startup BillGuard is launching an update to its iPhone app that will not only help users defend against fraudulent charges on their credit cards, but could also lead them to be more proactive with their money. The addition of new Spending Analytics and Smart Saving features will provide new tools for consumers to analyze their spending and save based on discounts they might not have known were available.
BillGuard was founded with the goal of helping users save money. By connecting their accounts to its big data platform, the company provided a way for its users to track and dispute fraudulent charges or billing errors on their credit and debit cards. Soon after it moved to tackle the problem of so-called “grey charges” – that is, monthly or yearly subscription charges that users either unknowingly signed up for, or signed up for and forgot about.
But all that provides is a reactive approach to personal finance. After helping users to save some $50 million in grey charges, the company wants to help users save money by making more proactive choices about their spending. With the latest update to its iPhone app, it’s doing that with the addition of two new features: Spend Analytics and Smart Savings.
“Our core mission is to use data to save people money,” BillGuard CEO Yaron Samid told me via Skype. “We’re really good at saving people from the bad stuff, and now we want to find the good stuff… [The app] is like the perfect accountant running in the background and trying to find ways to save money.”
With Spend Analytics, BillGuard is beginning to move from being just a “personal finance security” company, to also offering personal finance management tools. In other words, it’s entering Mint territory.
But unlike Mint, BillGuard isn’t trying to shoehorn users into an unrealistic budget. It’s built to provide a wide range of analytics to enable them to see how their spending stacks up against an earlier period, and also to better understand where their money is going by organizing expenses by category. Since it’s mobile, the hope is that users will be able to make more conscious financial decisions on the go.
The second feature, Smart Savings, is designed to help users save money in their everyday lives by notifying them whenever there are coupons or discounts available for items they’re likely to purchase. Because BillGuard knows your purchase history and your location, it can predict when you’re likely to make a purchase and can suggest savings you might not have known about.
Samid said Smart Savings will hopefully the data inefficiency that exists for users who aren’t aware of coupons or discounts available. By doing so, it can reduce the amount they are about to spend at any given time when preparing to make a purchase. That could mean taking advantage of a discount at the local coffee shop or becoming aware of a sale at a user’s favorite store.
In either case, Samid said BillGuard is going to be ultra-picky about the coupons that it sends to users. And since it’s scanning the web for new discounts and it’s not working with merchants to pitch discounts to users, it’s not incentivized to spam them with offers.Our core mission is to use data to save people money. – BillGuard CEO Yaron Samid
But if users find they’re getting coupons that aren’t relevant, they can provide feedback to the app saying so. Users will be able to either “redeem” and “reject” any coupon that appears, and the app will learn from those actions accordingly.
Of course, other apps have tried to help users save money through analytics and local discounts. So what makes BillGuard think it can succeed where they’ve failed?
It all comes down to the engagement the company sees from users, according to Samid. Personal finance management apps normally see users sign up and quickly lose interest once the novelty wears off. But BillGuard is seeing its users open up the app an average of four times a week. In the same way that people clean out their inbox, BillGuard users are going there to clear away questionable charges, almost every day.
BillGuard has raised $13 million from investors that include Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Bessemer, IA Ventures, Saul Klein, and Joe Lonsdale. The company now has 23 employees, most of which are based in Tel Aviv, Israel… but it’s looking to hire more. (*hint, hint*)
If people feel comfortable renting out their houses, and cars, to strangers, why not bikes?
That’s the question that the Lock8 founders asked themselves, inevitably leading to one of the first true smart locks for bikes. Plus, Lock8 uses its smart lock, paired with a mobile app, to facilitate a peer-to-peer marketplace.
Today, Lock8 surpassed its funding goal on Kickstarter, with six days to spare.
Lock8 also happened to be the winner at our first-ever TechCrunch Disrupt Europe Battlefield.
The company launched the Kickstarter campaign on our stage last month, and has now received more than $80,000 with a few days left to spare.
Lock8 works similarly to smart locks in homes; keyless unlock via pairing with a smartphone app. The Lock8 is installed onto the bike and is packed with sensors, which can alert the owner if someone is trying to steal the bike.
If the thief manages to get the bike unlocked, the owner’s phone can track the bike and even set off a remote alarm.
The idea is that, eventually, bike robbers will recognize the Lock8 and beware, paving the way for more trusting cyclists. Then, bikers can rent out their bikes to their friends or others registered on the service to make a little cash on the side.
The Lock8 usually costs around $200, but will be available for $149 for the next six days, during the campaign.
Apple has been awarded a patent today that describes a system for taking images that can change focus after their capture (via AppleInsider). The tech might sound familiar: Startup Lytro created its light-field camera hardware to accomplish the same thing. Apple’s system is likewise based on what’s called “plenoptic” tech to deliver results which can be altered in terms of what is and isn’t in focus on a computer or device after the fact.
Apple’s patent even cites the design used by Lytro as prior art, but goes on to describe a number of differences in its own invention that would greatly improve image quality and the maximum possible resolution of the pictures it takes. Apple’s design uses a movable adapter between the actual image sensor and the external lens element, which could enable it to switch between two different modes – one for high-resolution standard photos, like the iPhone takes now, and one for lower-resolution refocusable pics, like the Lytro captures.
The patent was originally filed in 2011, and describes a number of possible implementations, including integration with an iPhone, or as an add-on similar to Sony’s QX10 and QX100 digital camera accessories for smartphones.
This kind of tech is likely still a ways out from being included in a shipping iPhone, or even as an accessory, but it’s interesting to see Apple working in that direction. Lytro has said in the past that it isn’t planning to license the tech out to other manufacturers, but Toshiba has been reportedly working on similar tech aimed specifically at smartphones, and it most definitely will license to other OEMs, meaning there could be an advantage to being first. And it’s definitely the type of feature that, like slo-mo video on the iPhone 5s, can really “wow” consumers in product demos.
Buffer, the social media scheduling service, experienced a potentially brand-damaging security breach last month that saw a slew of weight-loss spam posted to Twitter and Facebook on behalf of its users. And although it turned out to be the company’s database provider, MongoHQ, that was the origin of the compromise, Buffer, by its own admission, was squarely to blame as it hadn’t encrypted access tokens for the social media services it supports. Today the startup is announcing a host of new security measures, including encrypting user email addresses and access tokens, and 2-step login, in a bid to restore confidence in its wares.
“With all that trust given to us, despite the big mess, we wanted to really step up our game in terms of safety and security,” writes the company on its blog. “For the past few weeks, we have been focusing on making Buffer the safest, most secure way for you to manage and publish to your social media accounts. We have a number of awesome things to show you. The most important step in this process is a feature we’re announcing today: 2-Step Login”.
An optional setting for all Buffer users, 2-step login requires an additional security code to login to your Buffer account. It can be powered by SMS, requiring each user to register a mobile phone number with their account, or Google Authenticator, Google’s own 2-step authentication app for iOS and Android. Both single and team Buffer accounts are supported. It’s worth pointing out, however, that 2-step login, though a very sensible move, especially since a brand’s image is essentially in the hands of its employees and Buffer’s security, wouldn’t likely have prevented the recent breach. But it’s a good thing, nonetheless.
To that end, Buffer has also added encryption for user emails addresses and access tokens for social media services (Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc.), preventing exactly the kind of hack that caused last month’s “big mess”, as well as having all of its own team members change their passwords and set up two-factor authentication (where possible) on accounts for Google, Github, Stripe, HipChat and Dropbox. The thing about security is it’s only as strong as the weakest point in the chain, and that is more often people.
Extreme Reality, an Israeli startup that provides 3D motion analysis for use with standard 2D cameras, has raised a new $10 million Series D round from existing investor Marker LLC and one of its client partners, which it declined to name, bringing the total funding for the six-year old company to $24 million. Extreme Reality’s tech is currently used in a number of mobile titles, including SEGA’s GO DANCE, which is essentially a Just Dance type of game that works on the iPad and iPhone instead of requiring something as advanced as the Microsoft Kinect.
The company provides their SDK publicly to developers as of a little while ago, and they’ve seen a big uptick in interest since, according to Extreme Reality CEO Sarit Firon. The investment will help to further those efforts, she says, and pursue additional markets.
“Extreme Motion skeletal technology became the primary focus of Extreme Reality just two years ago and we have only started marketing a product within the past 12 months,” Firon explained in an interview. “Our revenue thus far has been based on revenue sharing agreements with game developers and licensing agreements with other companies.”
Besides gaming, there are many other potential applications for Extreme Reality’s tech. One big area of opportunity is in personal security software and, and there’s a broader interest in the general consumer device market, too. I suggested that the tech might be the kind of thing that a major OEM wants to bring in-house and make exclusive, in the same way that Apple has done with Touch ID and its AuthenTec buy, for instance. Firon seemed cautious but not altogether dismissive regarding acquisition possibilities.
“We have a solid roadmap for building a long-term independent company,” she said. “The OEMs we are already working with find Extreme Reality appealing since it is a cross-platform technology that enables them to offer motion experiences to their customers on various platforms without the need for hardware modification. Various OEMs have discussed exclusivity engagements with us and we’ll have to see where it takes us in the future.”
Of course, there’s another recent high-profile development in the 3D motion space: Microsoft just shipped its Xbox One, with the included next-gen Microsoft Kinect. The Kinect was one of the least impressive features of the console, according to many of the reviews, however, which leaves one wondering how a much smaller company hopes to build mass appeal for a very similar tech.
“Consoles are aimed more at heavy gamers that play more and spend more money and time on games,” Firon contends. “Motion games are best suited to a more family oriented, casual gaming audience that typically does not purchase expensive consoles. Extreme Reality enables this larger audience to finally enjoy a motion experience on their existing devices (tablets, smartphones, PCs, etc.) using the front facing native camera.”
Lowering the bar is a key ingredient, and the company clearly hopes that injecting more funding into their open SDK program will help spur adoption even further. Full-body motion tracking on mobiles still seems a tough sell, but in theory if you could plug your iPhone into your TV and get a complete, interactive and active gaming experience on the big screen with Kinect-style powers, it could open up many new possibilities for mobile devs.