Endel’s generative soundscapes show up in Sony’s new headphones

The other day, Brian reported on Sony’s new LinkBuds headphones, including its partnership with “what if Brian Eno was a piece of computer software” app Endel. The company uses really fascinating AI technology to generate soundscapes and music tracks to help your brain do its best work — to help you focus deeper, sleep more easily or to relax you. I spoke with one of Endel’s founders to learn more about the tech and its deal with Sony.

“Endel is first and foremost a technology that was built to help you focus, relax and sleep. And the way this technology works, it procedurally generates a soundscape in real time on the spot, on the device. It is personalized to you based on a number of inputs that we collect about you; things like the time of day, your heart rate, the weather, your movement and your circadian rhythms, like how much sleep you got last night,” explains Oleg Stavitsky, CEO and co-founder at Endel. “This technology listens to all of this data, plugs into the algorithm, which creates the soundscape in real time, which allows us to react in real time to the changes in you. Using this technology, we are building an ecosystem of products, so that our soundscapes can follow you everywhere during the day across all these channels and platforms. We are pretty much everywhere at this point; iOS, Android, Apple Watch, Mac or Apple TV, Alexa… you name it.”

In reviewing the product I did stumble across a couple of glaring omissions in where it is available: There was no way of streaming it to my Sonos speakers (the workaround is to install Alexa on Sonos), and the Endel app doesn’t support casting, so you can’t stream to Google Home either.

Running the app using earphones, however, creates an intimate and beautiful experience. The audio tracks are Eno-esque in their expansiveness; it’s like a slowly evolving ambient soundtrack to your day. Sitting at my desk, I felt myself focus; a combination of the music and blocking and drowning out distractions.

The soundscapes are stem-based — professional music industry jargon for snippets of sounds, think of them as samples. The app has a huge library of samples and stems, and the algorithm picks the right stems to sequence the audio together. On top of the basic sequencing, the software runs additional adjustments on top.

“We have a few AI systems on top of that sequencer; AI systems that generate melodies basically. There are millions and millions and millions of variations,” says Stavitsky. “Some of the soundscapes on the app are done in collaboration with some of the biggest artists on the planet. We have Grimes and Miguel and James Blake and Plastic Man and others that we’ve worked with, so they are good. The way they work with us is they prepare a stem pack, a sound pack. They never submit a musical composition. They just are the building blocks that the algorithm then uses to assemble tracks on the fly.”

The company says it’s approached by companies all the time, and have to consider whether partnerships are a cost or a benefit at any given time. It decided to say “yes” to headphones giant Sony, resulting in this collaboration.

“Sony’s headphones innovation department approached us. They said we’re working on this new model that will somehow understand the context of where you are, and we want those headphones to proactively activate a certain soundscape,” says Stavitsky, “I’m frankly very, very skeptical about all these integrations, for a number of reasons. There’s always an opportunity cost. Being a small company, you’re wondering if we should do this. What got me excited about this is that the fundamental idea of Endel is that it’s an always-on soundscape that follows you everywhere during the day. Sometimes you can barely hear it, and sometimes it’s like front and center and it shields you from the rest of the world. I think this idea of headphones that proactively trigger a certain kind of soundscape depending on the context of what’s happening with you is exactly how we envision how our product is used. This is just going to be one huge play button — you press that button, and it listens to your calendar, listens to your heart rate, and it proactively shifts between all of the soundscapes. That’s what we are working toward, and these headphones make that real.”

Luminar’s Austin Russell: ‘We probably shouldn’t have existed’ but lidar will drive next-gen safety anyway

At TC Sessions: Mobility today, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell admitted that his now successful company was founded in hubris, but that a skeptical eye during peak lidar hype helped them focus on real markets. “It’s no longer about some theoretical promise – you actually have to show real results, real deliveries, real technology and product. There’s been too many promises made out there that were broken.”

In an interview with TechCrunch transportation editor Kirsten Korosec, Russell noted that he, like pretty much everyone else, was convinced early on that self-driving cars were just around the corner. (Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.)

“The reality is, I think that the sheer complexity of solving an end to end autonomous driving problem in urban environments was underestimated in terms o the difficulty by at least a couple orders of magnitude,” he said. “If something is at peak hype cycle, it’s something you should be skeptical about. There was just a massive disconnect between the core engineers behind the actual tech, and leadership at the time, in terms of what was possible.”

It was in 2017, he recalled, that the company made the decision to pursue other applications for high performance lidar tech: “It became very clear that the level of requirements for an R&D test platform, versus a true series production vehicle is a completely different game altogether. The huge roof racks that you see that are $100,000 and a supercomputer in the trunk… it needs to be more like $1,000. And by the way, economies of scale are fundamentally required to be able to build a product, the cost is a significant factor at the end of the day.”

The question became not one of raw capability or even just cost, but what would consumers, and by extension OEMs, pay for? Safety. And as it turns out, even top of the line ADAS and collision avoidance tech is seriously lacking right now.

“It’s surprising to see how ineffective the current assisted driving systems are just at being able to do basic things like… not letting you smash into the thing right in front of you in your car, right? It sounds like a simple problem, like you wouldn’t even need lidar for that,” he said. “But the reality is it’s a lot more complicated, a lot more difficult than that — to even confidently understand what’s going on around you and come to a safe stop is not a solved problem.”

The company has set up numerous examples of these failures — one of which showing a small fake pedestrian being plowed down by an ADAS-equipped car went viral. The combination of robo-taxis being far further out than expected and of ADAS systems as being both desirable and incapable seems to have spurred mainstream automakers to invest heavily in something better.

“The transformation is that this is no longer about being an option on a high end, niche vehicle,” he explained. “This is something that has the opportunity to truly go mainstream, in the mass market… Nissan, they were actually showing off crash avoidance scenarios made possible by Luminar lidar; in their case they actually said they want to be able to standardize this type of tech on every vehicle they build by the end of the decade. Which I think is probably faster than any major tech adoption cycle, not for initial adoption, but full standardization across the lineup.”

There will of course be Luminar-powered cars out there sooner than that: “Within the next 12 months there’s going to be series production cars that are luminar equipped that are out there advancing this industry forward,” Russell confirmed.

It’s funny to think, however, that a company borne out of a plan to obsolete traditional vehicles has become the biggest proponent of its use in those vehicles. But an early recognition of the future of the industry made all the difference.

“We probably shouldn’t have existed,” Russell said when asked about taking part in the hype cycle he later distanced himself from. “There’s no reason why any of the Googles, Apples, all the major automakers and other stuff couldn’t have, in some theoretical world, done exactly what we did.”

“But the reason why were were able to build this company, this technology, this product and help lead the industry with it is just fundamentally because we had a completely different viewpoint. I guess what’s titled here [i.e. the name of the panel], the contrarian view,” he said, laughing.

As for another contrarian view, the oft-repeated jibe by Elon Musk that lidar is unnecessary and Tesla will get by without it, Russell took it in good humor as well:

“If somebody didn’t go out and say, ‘this is a fool’s errand, this shouldn’t exist, we made the right decision and we’re sticking to our guns!’… that’s the irony around all these things. It actually just calls attention to what’s important, because you only say that if you’re really self conscious about it.”

As Klarna looks to raise more capital, is it cutting its valuation enough?

Time is a flat circle, and all that was once old is new again. For example, back in the venture days of yore, inside rounds were considered a poor market signal; if a startup could not attract a new lead investor for its next round, what did that say about the company?

Last year, that bit of conventional wisdom was inverted by abnormal market conditions and greed; inside rounds became a sign of strength as venture players doubled and at times tripled down on their portfolio companies, looking to get as much capital in the door as they could while the startup was still in its growth phase.

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And now we’ve returned to the prior state of affairs. Inside rounds are once again signs of things not going perfectly at companies that pursue them. Buy now, pay later outfit Klarna makes the point: The richly valued BNPL giant is looking to take on new capital from existing backers at a discount to its prior valuation. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Sweden-based payments company is aiming to raise up to $1 billion from new and existing investors in a deal that could value it in the low $30-billion-range after the money is injected, the people said. That would represent a roughly 30% drop from the previous round.

No one likes a down round. They are dilutive, messy and demoralizing. But they are also miles better than not raising money and dying, so companies raise them when required.

Our question this morning is not whether it makes sense for Klarna to raise inside capital at a lower price. As the WSJ notes, the company tried to bump up its valuation slightly before changing course and pursuing a lower price. We know why Klarna is pursuing a down round: necessity. Instead, our question is whether the company is cutting its valuation enough to bring its worth in line with present market pricing.

Let’s find out.

Klarna, Affirm and the BNPL valuation revision

Thankfully for our needs, there are public BNPL players for us to observe as we work to better understand what the particular fintech revenue is worth. Affirm is public and other players that have BNPL services are also publicly traded.

Affirm, being effectively a pure BNPL play, and one that has some market overlap with Klarna, is a perfect floating comp for the Swedish company. And the U.S. company released its calendar Q1 2022 (Q3 fiscal 2022) results a little over a week ago. This means we have fresh-off-the-vine data from a public company.

To understand how well Klarna is repricing itself, let’s do a little bit of data collection and math. We start with the collection side of things (all periods calendar; data via the companies):

Coca-Cola’s attached bottle cap is rock bottom of hokey greenwashing

I don’t cover post-IPO companies a lot, and Coca-Cola is def on the list of ones I can generally ignore. But when the company sends out a hand-wringing press release about how awesome they are for launching a bottle cap where the cap stays attached to the bottle “for environmental reasons,” I’m sorry, my blood just boils.

Don’t get me wrong, better recyclability is a good thing, and fewer bottle caps failing to make their way to recycling? I’m all for it. But the context for this is that in the U.K. — like in the U.S. — bottles are recycled, rather than reused. And they’re recycled at rates that are pitiful.

In the rest of Europe, Coca-Cola and other drink manufacturers figured out a functioning system: pay a deposit when you buy a bottle or aluminum can and you get a deposit back when you return it. It works: In Norway, for example, in 2018, the return ratio of reusable bottles was 95%, and aluminum cans were returned in upwards of 98% of all cases. After being returned, the packaging is reused in some cases, or recycled in others. There’s a bigger reliance on plastic bottles that are sturdy enough that they can be reused 20 times before they are recycled; and beer often comes in reusable glass bottles that are actually re-used by the breweries, rather than having to melt and re-make the bottles after a single use.

In the U.S., in contrast, not only are the bottles not re-used, less than 30% of bottles are even recycled — the rest goes to landfill. In the U.K. — where Coca-Cola is patting itself on the back about its cap-connecting prowess — the number is around 45%.

“Coca-Cola Great Britain takes another step towards a World Without Waste for PET bottles,” good heavens, come the hell on. You know that this is bollocks, as they would say in the U.K.

Congratulations, Coca-Cola, on figuring out some details here, but as a company, you know that there are better solutions, and if you wanted to, you could put systems in place to drive recycling rates to 90%+, rather than the paltry 30-45% we’re seeing in the U.K. and U.S. Yes, the markets are bigger. Yes, cultural differences exist. But if you really gave two shits about the environment, how about you lean on local governments and recycling infrastructure, and help make some difference that actually matters, rather than incremental bullshit that really only serves to entice journalists to blow smoke up your asses?

New HomePod model coming as soon as late 2022, according to Ming-Chi Kuo

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A new tweet from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggests Apple may release a new version of the HomePod, but perhaps without a radical redesign.

After Apple discontinued the full-sized HomePod, speculation has been rampant about Apple reviving the overpriced product. Now, Ming-Chi Kuo has offered new information suggesting Apple could release a new version of HomePod in late 2022 or early 2023.

Kuo doesn’t specify what kind of HomePod it would be or how it would differ from the existing HomePod mini. He only shares that Apple is still figuring out how to succeed in the smart speaker market.

The HomePod mini hasn’t been updated since it debuted in November 2020 except to add new colors. The new rumor suggests that whatever Apple releases, it will at least be a new variation on the product and not a new color way.

Ming-Chi Kuo has been active on Twitter and it isn’t always clear where data analysis ends and speculation begins. His information as an analyst has proven accurate in the past, but he tends to miss on specific details surrounding a device’s feature set.

For example, Kuo’s recent tweets claim Apple could move the “iPhone 15” to USB-C in 2023 and other Apple products will follow suit. This is in direct opposition to his previous rumors of Apple avoiding USB-C in favor of a portless device.

Rumors surrounding Apple’s smart speaker include a cheaper large HomePod, a HomePod sound bar that doubles as an Apple TV, and a HomePod with a screen. Judging by Kuo’s innovation comment, the rumored device may be a simple large HomePod rerelease.

EU law will force Apple to blow open its entire hardware and software stack

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A European Parliament committee has advanced an agreement between member states on the Digital Markets Act, which if passed as it presently stands, will force Apple and others to open up otherwise restricted app stores, hardware features, and more.

On Monday, The EU Parliament’s Internal Market Committee approved the provisionally reached agreement with 43 votes in favor, one vote against, and one abstention, the legislative body has announced. The approval marks another crucial step toward the DMA becoming law in Europe.

“Today’s overwhelming majority shows that the Parliament stands united against the unfair practices of gatekeepers,” said Andreas Schwab, who led negotiations. “This is the penultimate step for the DMA to enter into force – for me, it has always been important to fast-track this law while making it better.”

The Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act will place a bevy of restrictions on so-called “gatekeeper” companies like Apple and Google.

For example, the rules could force Apple to allow third-party app stores on its platforms, make iMessage interoperable with other communication apps, and end self-preferencing of first-party apps within marketplaces.

Futhermore, it requires the companies to open up NFC communications, features like ultrawide broadband implementations, and other specific hardware features tied to an integrated ecosystem. Both software and hardware are under the gun for opening to others to use.

The rules will come with strict penalties for noncompliance. The European Commission can levy fines of up to 10% of a company’s global revenue from the proceeding financial year. Those fines can reach up to 20% in cases of repeated violations.

Both the DMA and the DSA are slated to go before Parliament for a final vote in July. Once that happens, they will be formally adopted by the Council and published into the EU Official Journal.

DMA regulations could go into effect 20 days after the publication, and its provisions will begin to apply to businesses six months afterward.

NativeNonprofit.day highlights Native-led organizations

Native Americans/American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians make up 2% of the U.S. population, yet large philanthropic foundations allocate less than half a percent of their total annual grantmaking towards Native communities, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy.

The Native Ways Federation (NWF) is working to change this disparity. Founded in 2008 by seven national, Native-led nonprofit organizations, the NWF unites the Native nonprofit sector, advocates for Native nonprofits and provides resources to educate people on the needs of Native communities. On May 20, NWF is launching their inaugural Native Nonprofit Day to drive awareness for Native-led nonprofits that are systematically underfunded. To help celebrate this initiative, they’ve partnered with the Google Registry team to register and use the domain NativeNonprofit.day, which anyone can visit to learn about and support Native nonprofits.

Initiatives like Native Nonprofit Day play an important role in building awareness and amplifying the voices of Native people. As a citizen of the Oneida (Onyota’a:ka) Nation of Wisconsin and a lead for the Google Aboriginal and Indigenous Network (GAIN), I see so many inspiring Indigenous organizations that are doing impactful work, but these groups and their efforts are sorely underrepresented in mainstream media. That’s why I hope everyone will take a moment today to visit NativeNonprofit.day to learn more about the NWF’s efforts, and other Native-led organizations that are doing critical work to support Native communities.

At Google, we’ve also launched several initiatives to support Native communities. Google.org recently announced a $10 million grant to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance to provide vocational internet training to thousands of rural and tribal communities.

Grow with Google made a $1 million investment in Partnership with Native Americans to provide digital skills curriculum and career services to 10,000 students at more than 50 Native-serving organizations. This program will also reach high school students preparing for college and careers, as well as vocational and non-traditional students.

If there’s an initiative or special day you want to raise awareness for, you can get your own .day domain name by visiting new.day.

Apple 'Studio Display Pro' delayed until October, according to display analyst

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A rumored 27-inch Apple display sporting mini LED technology and ProMotion has reportedly been internally delayed because of production lockdowns in Shanghai.

According to Display Supply Chain Consultants analyst Ross Young, the 27-inch monitor was originally meant to be produced at a Quanta Computer facility in Shanghai. However, Covid-19 lockdowns in the city earlier in 2021 have derailed those plans.

Currently, Apple is working to move production of the display to another location, Young said, attributing his information to an “Apple leak.”

The 27-inch monitor is now on track for a potential October release, Young added. In a response to another Twitter user, the analyst added that he didn’t know how much the device will cost beyond “expensive.”

Back in March, Young said that panel production on the 27-inch display had started and the device was slated for a June launch. He didn’t provide any additional details, but said DSCC assumes it’ll be called the Studio Display Pro..

Apple already has a first-party 27-inch monitor, but the upcoming device is set to an upgrade on the Studio Display. In addition to mini LED backlighting, Young believes that the display will also come with Apple’s ProMotion variable refresh rate.

The Apple Studio Display in its current form is a $1,599 device with its own A13 processor, support for Center Stage and Spatial Audio, and a 12MP Ultra Wide camera and 3-mic array.