Apple continuing research on how an iPhone could slot into an 'Apple Glass' headset

Apple is continuing to refine the concept of how an augmented reality wearable device like “Apple Glass” could be made to use an iPhone as its head-mounted display.

And you thought Google Glass was unsightly. In the future, we may be strapping our iPhones in front of our eyes.

It’s not that Apple sees the iPhone as a potential replacement for “Apple Glass,” more that it is looking to see how users can leverage all of their devices. An iPhone has a particularly good display, so maybe there are situations where you could comfortable have one placed in front of your eyes.

“Head-Mounted Display Apparatus for Retaining a Portable Electronic Device with Display ,” is a newly-revealed patent application that examines the benefits of doing this. It’s not the first time Apple has researched this, either.

Apple has been investigating different approaches to a head-mounted display for at least the best part of the last decade, too. What this latest version offers is that it posits we’ll use an iPhone as a headset only occasionally.

“Using head-mounted devices, a user may view media provided by a portable electronic device,” says the patent application. “For example, a user may couple a personal electronic device, such as the iPod.TM. available from Apple Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., or the iPhone.TM. also available from Apple Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., to the head-mounted device via a cable or wire.”

“Such a configuration can allow the user to view media on a private display, while the media is provided by a personal handheld device,” it continues. “Sometimes, however, a wired connection may be inconvenient and cumbersome for the user in certain situations (e.g., the user must separately hold multiple devices and deal with cables).”

“In addition to being unwieldy, the coupled system often utilizes redundant features, which are not necessary when using the devices together,” says the patent application. “By way of example, each device utilizes a display screen, which adds cost, size, weight, and complexity to the entire system.”

The iPhone in place in

The iPhone in place in “Apple Glass,” plus remote control

The patent application actually discusses many different configurations of using an iPhone or iPod as the source of the video or image being watched. Each, though, is concerned with producing a system that “temporarily integrates or merges both mechanically and electronically a head-mounted device with a portable electronic device.”

If Apple expected anyone to solely slot the iPhone into the “Apple Glass” device and use just that, it could sell bare spectacle frames. And one description in this patent application is for exactly that, “[a] frame that is configured to physically receive and carry a portable electronic device.”

The rest of the patent is concerned with how the iPhone, or other device, can recognize that has been connected to a head-mounted display. That involves, for instance, automatically “adjusting the image based content displayed on the screen for close up viewing.”

This patent application is credited to two inventors, including Christopher D. Prest. His previous work includes a patent application concerning an all-glass iPhone with wraparound touchscreen.

Three different space launch companies – three very different approaches to solving for cost and efficiency

Launch startup Astra had a monumental week, achieving their first spaceflight with a rocket test on Tuesday. Astra CEO Chris Kemp joined Relativity CEO Tim Ellis, and VOX Space President Mandy Vaughn at our TC Sessions: Space event on Wednesday, and with Relativity’s huge $500 million round earlier this year, and Virgin Orbit’s milestone test flight in May, it was a big year for all involved.

A significant portion of our discussion focused on the very different approaches that each of these launch companies is taking to solving what boils down to the same problem – improving cost and availability of launch. Kemp first described Astra’s approach, which boils down to rigorous and continuous process and cost optimization.

“Where we focus our software effort is in understanding where to make engineering optimizations,” Kemp said. “So by having an Astra operating system that is making it visible to all of our engineers, where your costs are, because you have a long lead time on this part, because there’s a lot of labor to assemble this part. […] We’re not throwing any specific technology solution at a problem, we’re trying to basically triage the trade-offs that you’re making between the performance of the rocket – you can always use a higher-cost material, and you can potentially also use a higher cost manufacturing process, like 3D printing, but it isn’t always the right approach.”

Kemp added that Astra is essentially technology-agnostic when it comes to their production stack, and flexible in terms of how to configure that based on available resources and end goal parameters.

“You want to optimize the overall economics of the business without regard to what technology you’re going to use,” he said. “So we pick the right technology to optimize the business based on the capital we have, and the production rate and the launch rate that we’re trying to target.”

Ellis, meanwhile, talked about Relativity’s use of 3D printing, and how it differs significantly from its use in the production stack of other existing rocket manufacturers.

“What we’re doing at Relativity is completely different than then what almost everyone else is doing with using 3d printing for bits and pieces of a rocket,” he said.” From Apollo and launching rockets to the Moon, how we fundamentally build and develop, and the tool sets we use to make rockets and aerospace products is more or less the same as what it was 60 years ago – you walk into a factory, and it’s full of giant, expensive, fixed tooling, very complicated supply chains building products one at a time by hand with hundreds of thousands, to even millions of parts, depending on whether it’s a rocket or commercial aircraft.”

Image Credits: Virgin Orbit, Astra, Relativity Space

By contrast, Ellis pointed out that it’s creating rockets with less than 1,000 total components by viewing 3D printing from a top-down angle, and using it for the vast majority of the production process, rather than for select components.

“Then we’re able to actually build each rocket and from raw material and fly it in 60 days, once our factories operational, and then 60 days later, we’ll do a better version and 60 days later, a better version than that,” he said. “So the compounding rate of progress that’s possible with an all-in 3d printing approach, I believe, is equivalent to going from on-premise servers to cloud, or from gas internal combustion engines to electric – it’s really actually an entirely different tech stack and value chain, it’s not just the rocket itself.”

Vaughn pointed out that while all the companies have different approaches, they all seek to change the accessibility and cost of getting payloads to orbit. She then pointed out that Virgin Orbit has identified launch location flexibility as one of the key levers to speed that change in the right direction.

“It’s not just about getting mass to orbit. It’s about how do we change what is that cost point to do, and how do we change the accessibility to do so,” she said. “Also, really unique from our perspective is, what is that just kind of inherent mobility to do – so how can we actually just fly the launch pad around, and really change the CONOPS [concept of operations] of what it takes to establish an infrastructure and leverage that infrastructure to have access to space.”

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is carried by a modified 747 passenger airplane, which takes off from and lands at a traditional runway. That not only means the rocket itself requires less fuel, and therefore less mass, to deliver its cargo to orbit, but also introduces a lot of launch site flexibility.

“By changing the discussion in terms of what is a launch, and what is the end game, it’s not just about mass to orbit, it’s about all of these other elements of how can we react quickly, how can we design and produce something quickly, as well as deploy that capability, maybe in a unique way from an unexpected location, and then get the on-space effects delivered uniquely and quickly,” Vaughn said.

All three panelists agreed that the market will likely support many providers when it comes to small launch vehicles, and their existing sold inventory queues reflects that. We also heard later in the day from Amazon SVP Dave Limp, who pointed out that they alone will require multiple launch providers contracted for multiple missions to get Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation in place on orbit.

Jared Leto in negotiations to star in WeWork rise-and-fall Apple TV+ series

Oscar-winner Jared Leto is in talks to star in the Apple TV+ series “WeCrashed,” which will dramatize the rise and fall of WeWork.

Leto would reportedly play CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann, a larger-than-life figure whose erratic behavior led to his 2019 ousting. “WeCrashed” is based on the podcast series “WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork.” It was first reported in February that Apple was developing the series about the Silicon Valley cautionary tale.

WeWork was at one point valued at nearly $50 billion, but fell from grace after a series of reports detailed mismanagement and Neumann’s alleged self-dealing. A prospectus filing for a hotly anticipated initial public offering revealed heavy losses that were in part pinned on Neumann’s erratic behavior, leading to his ousting.

Neumann was worth an estimated $750 million before resigning from the company in 2019.

This would be Leto’s first foray into television since the 90s series “My So-Called Life,” co-starring Claire Danes. He won the 2014 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

There isn’t yet a word on a release date for the Apple TV+ series.

Apple TV+ 'For All Mankind' gains Michaela Conlin for season two

“For All Mankind” has picked up Michaela Conlin for a supporting role in season two of the Apple TV+ space race drama.

“For All Mankind” is an alternate history drama about the space race and what would have happened had the USSR beat the U.S. to the moon. The critically acclaimed first season did well for reviews and was a standout hit for Apple’s streaming platform.

Michaela Conlin is best known for a previous role in “Bones” and now joins Apple’s increasing list of celebrities on its network. Deadline reports that she will play the role of Helena Webster, a former pilot who is now an astronaut.

Returning cast members include Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Wrenn Schmidt, Jodi Balfour, Krys Marshall and Sonya Walger. They are joined in Season two by new cast additions Cynthy Wu, Coral Pena and Casey W. Johnson.

Apple recently renewed “For All Mankind” for a third season even as the second season is set to premier on February 19, 2021. The new season picks up ten years after the first season as space becomes militarized and the fight for lunar territory begins.

Ramp raises $30M as the battle to own corporate spend heats up

Corporate spend management startup Ramp has raised $30 million more in a new round, it announced today. TechCrunch covered Ramp’s launch earlier this year, when it also detailed that it had raised around $23 million up to that point.

The startup raised its latest round in August of 2020, with conversations about the deal kicking off in June. The new capital is Ramp’s second priced raise after its August, 2019 seed round worth $8 million and the first after its February, 2020-era $15 million raise. D1 and Coatue were new investors in this new investment, which included some prior backers.

Ramp CEO Eric Glyman called the new equity something akin to a Series A3, noting that it had effectively reused docs from a preceding round, albeit with a new price attached. Venture history purists could argue that Ramp’s new raise was the company’s Series B — the second priced round after its seed — or that it is really a Series C, as the startup’s seed round was as big as a 2000s-era A and was also a priced event.

Whatever.

Ramp did not need the funds. Per Glyman, the startup still had part of its original seed round in the bank when it raised the latest check. That implies that the company had more than $45 million in cash as of August, 2020.

Asked why he raised the capital if it was not needed, the CEO told TechCrunch that its new investors had “pretty unbelievable” investment track records. And Glyman added that the round was attractively priced, limiting dilution. The exec also said that having the new funds helped Ramp hire more aggressively with confidence.

But while the round is interesting to a degree, more intriguing is the space in which Ramp competes. So let’s talk about the power of software, and when the startup and its competitors might start charging more for their deployed code.

Software

Ramp competes for market share in corporate spend management, an active vertical with a number of venture-backed players. That actor density has generated a level of competition that has rewritten the ground rules for getting credit and charge cards into the hands of companies. The table stakes are higher than ever in the niche.

Why? Because issuing credit and debit cards to consumers and corporations has largely been commoditized, causing startups hunting for slices of spend via interchange to build increasingly powerful software suites around their original products; if you can’t entice new customers with fancy cards, how about lots of digital tooling built around spend itself, to help your company manage and limit cash outflows?

The examples of this trend are myriad: Brex built out a cash management solution, for example, and expense management tools. Ramp itself launched expense management software of its own this year, and Divvy has a similar service along with other card-related software tools.

Venture capitalists have poured $55 million into Ramp, by our count, north of $400 million into Brex, not counting debt raised by the unicorn, and more than $250 million into Divvy. So, the game of building increasingly robust software stacks atop corporate cards is one to watch, as the scale of venture bets made on the key players in the space is titanic.

Ramp is dropping new code with its funding news, underscoring the point. The company recently added vendor management tooling, and is now adding reimbursing capabilities so that employees can be paid back for expenses not made on the startup’s cards.

Which of the three has the best software stack? They each think that they do, we reckon.

The result of the efforts by Ramp and its competitors to build out software around their card offerings has been rapid customer growth. Divvy, reached this week concerning its own metrics, told TechCrunch that it has seen its customer number expand 120% in 2020 and total spend on its platform rise 100% this year. Brex declined to share growth metrics.

Ramp announced its own growth figures as part of its news passel, including that it reached $100 million in spend on its platform in the first 18 months following its incorporation (a somewhat non-GAAP time frame, we admit), and that a quarter of the total spend that it has supported for corporations was recorded in the last 30 days.

There appears to be plenty of market for the startups to grow into, just as there is plenty of capital available for them to tap.

To close, a question: When will corporate spend management startups flip the switch, and start to charge for their software suite? Currently the trio make money largely from interchange, collecting a tiny piece of transactions that they power with their cards. This scales well, and keeps friction of signing up new customers low; after all, who doesn’t want a free set of financial tooling?

But, eventually, they will charge for their software. SaaS revenue is simply too highly valued to not go after. At some point. Perhaps that day will mark the end of the corporate spend land logo grab, and the start of the software niche’s maturation. At which point I expect new competitors to sprout up and the cycle to repeat.

Watch SpaceX launch a U.S. spy satellite live and bring its booster back for a landing on terra firma



SpaceX is launching a Falcon 9 today from Kennedy Space Center, with a launch window that spans three hours and opens at 9 AM EST (6 AM PST). The mission will carry a spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and will include a recovery attempt for the first-stage booster used on the Falcon 9 vehicle.

This Falcon 9’s first stage has already flown four times previously, including during two of SpaceX’s commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA, and during a Starlink launch, as well as for SAOCOM 1B, a satellite launch operation for the Argentinian space agency in August.

SpaceX will be attempting a landing back at its landing pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, a rarer occurrence vs. its use of its two drone landing ships positioned out in the ocean. SpaceX’s at-sea launches were introduced to allow for recovery of rocket boosters that didn’t have enough fuel remaining on board to make it all the way back to land – meaning this NRO mission’s parameters allow for a ‘return to sender’ trip back home.

Typically, when there’s a longer launch window, SpaceX will aim to launch at the beginning, depending on weather conditions. If that’s the case today, the stream above should begin at around 8:45 AM EST (15 minutes prior to the opening of the window).

Magdrive secures Seed funding for new propulsion system which could take us to the stars

A startup with a new type of spacecraft propulsion system could make the interplanetary travel seen in Star Trek a reality. Magdrive has just closed a £1.4M seed round led by Founders Fund, an early investor in SpaceX, backed by Luminous Ventures, 7percent Ventures, and Entrepreneur First.

Magdrive is developing a next generation of spacecraft propulsion for small satellites. The startup says its engine’s thrust and efficiency are a “generational leap” ahead of any other electrical thrusters, opening up the space industry to completely new types of missions that were not possible before, without resorting to much larger, expensive and heavier chemical thrusters. It says its engine would make fast and affordable interplanetary space travel possible, as well as operations in Very Low Earth orbit. The engine would also make orbital manufacturing far more possible than previously.

Existing electrical solutions are very efficient but have very low thrust. Chemical thrusters have high thrust but lack efficiency and are hazardous and expensive to handle. Magdrive says its engine can deliver both high thrust and high efficiency in one system.

Magdrive prototype render

Magdrive prototype render

If it works, the Magdrive engine could make spacecraft go faster for longer. This could open up the industry to new space missions, such as a satellite (or X-wing fighter?) that can make multiple, fast maneuvers, without worrying about conserving fuel. In order to do this right now, satellites require a chemical thruster, which requires a significant payload in fuel for launch. A 200kg satellite would require 50kg of hydrazine fuel, which would cost £1,350,000 in launch mass alone.

Co-founder (and Star Trek fan) Dr Thomas Clayson did a PhD in plasma physics, working on advanced electromagnetic fields. He realized this could be a cornerstone for developing a plasma thruster that could achieve the accelerations required for interplanetary space travel. After meeting Mark Stokes, a mechanical engineer at Imperial College London with similar dreams of space travel, they decided to build a small scale thruster for satellites.

But Magdrive is not alone. Other companies are developing so-called ‘Hall Effect Thrusters’, which is a technology that has existed since the 1960’s. Much of the development is towards miniaturization and mass reduction, but thrust and efficiency remain the same. These companies include Busek, Exotrail, Apollo Fusion, Enpusion, Nanoavionics. Meanwhile, large international companies with huge technology portfolios are working on improving chemical propulsion and making it non-toxic to handle, such as Aerojet Rocketdyne and Moog ISP.

They plan to scale up our technology to power larger manned spacecraft (once in orbit) to long-distance destinations such as the Moon and Mars. Our system would present a much more affordable than a chemical or nuclear solution, due to the huge reduction in fuel costs, and because it is reusable.

Andrew J Scott, Founding Partner, 7percent Ventures: “At 7percent we seek founding teams with ‘moonshot’ ambitions. With Magdrive this is not just a metaphor: their revolutionary plasma thruster will soon be powering satellites, but in the future could take us to deep space. While the UK’s expertise in constructing satellites is world-renowned, there has been far less focus on propulsion. In fact, Great Britain is the only country to have successfully developed and then, in the 1970’s abandoned, an indigenous satellite launch capability, which undoubtedly curbed the UK’s space sector. So we’re excited to be backing Magdrive, one of a new generation of British space startups, which has the vision and ambition to become a world-beating company in this burgeoning sector.”

The satellite industry is worth $5 Billion in 2020, predicted to grow to USD$30Billion by 2030, due to the rise in mega-constellations. Some 5,000 satellites are due to be launched in the next two years and 75% of all the companies launching these satellites have already flown something in space.

Magdrive is at the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centre in Harwell, Oxford.

Microsoft Edge gains native M1 support in new public beta

Microsoft’s publicly available “Canary” beta of the Microsoft Edge browser has been released in a native version for Apple Silicon M1.

Microsoft Edge

Microsoft’s development team has announced that an Apple Silicon M1 native version of its Microsoft Edge browser is now available. So far it’s presented in what the team calls its Canary channel, where the latest versions are available ahead of a full public launch.

The Canary channel presents one download button for the latest version of Microsoft Edge. Selecting it then prompts users to choose between “Mac with Intel chip (most common), and “Mac with Apple chip.”

“Microsoft Edge has been optimized for both Macs with Intel chips (most common),” says Microsoft, “and Macs with Apple chips (some newer Mac models).”

The Canary channel is where each day’s latest build of Microsoft Edge is automatically uploaded for anyone to try. Releases there may not have been through any testing or checking, but the latest features always appear there first.

Microsoft posts the latest official release on a separate site. Although there is no regular pattern to when beta features arrive in the official release, it’s likely that the M1 support will be made public shortly.

Brainly raises $80M as its platform for crowdsourced homework help balloons to 350M users

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a major upswing in virtual learning — where some schools have gone (and stayed) remote, and others have incorporated significantly stronger online components, in order to help communities maintain more social distancing. That has in turn led to a surge in the usage of tools to help home learners do their work better, and today, one of them is announcing a growth round that speaks to the opportunity in that market.

Brainly, a startup from Poland that has built a popular network for students and their parents to engage with each other for advice and help with homework questions, has raised $80 million, a series D that it will be using both to continue building out the tools that it offers to students as well as to hone in on expansion in some key emerging markets such as Indonesia and Brazil. The news comes on the heels of dramatic growth for the company, which has seen its user base grow from 150 million users in 2019 to 350 million today.

The funding is being led by previous backer Learn Capital, with past investors Prosus Ventures, Runa Capital, MantaRay, and General Catalyst Partners also participating. The company has now raised some $150 million and while it’s not disclosing valuation, CEO and co-founder Michał Borkowski confirmed it is “definitely” an upround for the company. For more context, Pitchbook estimates that the company was valued at $180 million in its last round, a Series C of $30 million in 2019.

That C round was raised specifically to help Brainly grow in the U.S. It currently has some 30 million users in that market, and it happens to be the only one in which Brainly is monetising users. Everywhere else, Brainly is currently free to use.

“Brainly has become one of the world’s largest learning communities, achieving significant organic growth in over 35 countries,” said Vinit Sukhija, Partner at Learn Capital, in a statement.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Brainly was finding an audience with students — primarily those aged 13-19, said Borkowski — who were turning to the service to connect with people who could help them with homework when they found themselves at an impasse with, say, a math problem or getting to grips with the sequence of events that led to the revolutions of 1848. The platform is open-ended and is a little like a Quora for homework, in that people can find and answer questions they are interested in, as well as ask questions themselves.

That platform, however, took on a whole new dimension of importance with the shift to virtual learning, Borkowski said.

“In the western world, online education wasn’t a big investment area [pre-Covid] and that has changed a lot, with huge adoption by students, parents and teachers,” he said. “But that big transition, switching from offline to online, has left kids struggling because teachers have so much more to do, so they can’t engage in the same way.”

So with “homework” becoming “all work”, that has effectively led to needing more help than ever with home studies. And while many parents have tried to get more involved to make up the difference, “having parents as teachers has been hard,” he added. They may have been taught differently from how their kids are learning, or they don’t remember or know answers.

One thing that Brainly started to see, he said, was that with the pandemic more parents started using the app alongside students, either to work out answers together or to get the help themselves before helping their kids, with a number of these being from parents of kids younger than 13. He said that 15-20% of all new registrations currently are coming from parents.

Brainly up to now has been mainly focused on how to build out more tools for the students — and now parents — that use it, and has so far been about organic growth for those communities.

However, there is clearly scope to expand that to more educational stakeholders to better organise what kind of questions are answered and how. Borkowski said that the company has indeed been approached by educators, those building curriculums and others so that answers might tie in better with the kinds of questions that they are most likely to ask of students, although for now the company “wants to keep the focus on students and parents getting stuck.”

In terms of future products, Brainly is looking at ways of bringing in more tutoring, video and AI into the mix. The AI aspect is very interesting and will in fact tie in to wider curriculum coverage based on more localised needs. For example, if you ask for help with a particular kind of quadratic equation technique, you can then be served lots of same practice questions to help better learn and apply what you’ve just been learning, and you might even then get suggested related topics that will appear alongside that in a wider mathematics examination. And, you might be offered the chance to meet with a tutor for further help.

Tutoring, he said, is something that Brainly has already been quietly piloting and has run some 150,000 sessions to date. Having such a large user base, Borkowski said, helps the startup run services at scale while still effectively keeping them in test mode.

“It will be about looking at what students are studying and how to map that to the curriculum in the country, and what we can do to help with that.” Borkowski said. “But it will require a heavy lift and and machine learning to pinpoint students” for it to work properly, which is one reason it has yet to roll it out more comprehensively, he added.

Tutoring and more personalization are not the only areas where Brainly is actively testing out new services. The company is also creating more space for adding in video to demonstrate different techniques (which I suspect is especially good for something like mathematics, but equally helpful for, say, an art technique).

There are “thousands per week” being added already, but as with tutoring “that, for us, is a testing stage,” added Borkowski. There should be more coming in Q1 about new products, he said.

Austin’s edtech startup Aceable adds another $50 million for accelerated expansion

In the eight years since Aceable’s launch, the company has grown from a driver’s ed test prep service to an online training tool for drivers and real estate agents.

Only four years ago, Aceable was raising $4 million in financing, from investors including Floodgate Capital and Silverton Partners.

Now, with another $50 million in the bank and over $100 million in total capital raised, Aceable is looking to grow the number of certifications it offers — with a special focus on professional development.

The company said that it would look to grow both organically and inorganically (which is an inelegant way of saying that it’s likely to go shopping for potential acquisitions).

Re-skilling and up-skilling are set to become buzzwords again as Americans who were laid off because of the inadequate support small businesses received from Congress in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak begin looking for new work.

EdTech has seen a huge boost during the pandemic, with millions of Americans turning to online classes to learn new skills or trades or hone existing skillsets.

“Changing or growing your career can create new opportunities to reach your life goals. Our vision is to make it accessible to anyone to gain a skill and a certification capable of setting you on the path of a well-paid career that you love,” said Blake Garrett, Aceable’s founder and chief executive. “We see HGGC as a strategic, long-term financial partner that embraces and accelerates our vision to create unparalleled education experiences that make it accessible for people to change their lives.”

Other startups have also landed tens of millions of dollars to capture this newfound interest in reskilling or upskilling. In June, Degreed raised $32 million for its own spin on the edtech market. But there’s still some question over who benefits from these new platforms.

It’s possible that Aceable could exist along a continuum with some of these other platforms, or serve communities that aren’t addressed by the current options on the market.

As the company notes, one in four working professionals takes license and certification training a year — and these classes are often the gatekeeper to greater financial success.

“We are big believers in Aceable’s mission and their long track record of success in developing mobile-first education technology,” said John Block, Partner at HGGC. “Our investment reinforces our confidence in the team and will allow Aceable to grow to the next level while helping people achieve the life they want through continuing education.”

Aceable now counts more than 2,200 hours of educational content on its platform, which have been used to train 13 million students across 36 states. The company was first spun up from the Capital Factory accelerator program and has raised its cash from investors including Sageview Capital, Silverton Partners, Floodgate Fund, Next Coast Venture Partners, Wildcat VC, Nextgen Partners and now HGGC.