Monthly Archives: April 2019
An Indian state court has reversed its ban on TikTok, allowing the short-video app to return to both Apple and Google’s app stores, according to a report this morning from Reuters. Earlier this month, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had ordered TikTok be removed from app stores, after a High Court in Madras determined the app was encouraging pornography and other illicit content.
Though the removal only affected new users who were looking to download TikTok’s app to their devices for the first time — not those who already had it installed — the ban was a major blow to TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance. The company said in a court filing the ban was resulting in a $ 500,000 daily loss, and was putting more than 250 jobs at risk.
India had become a large and growing market for TikTok, with nearly 300 million users in the country out of over 1 billion total downloads, according to Sensor Tower. (TikTok notes it had over 120 million monthly actives in India.)
India had also accounted for 27 percent of TikTok’s total installs between December 2017 and December 2018, Sensor Tower found, which meant the app was a huge source of TikTok’s overall growth.
However, some Indian politicians and parents believe the app’s content is inappropriate, particularly with regard to its use by minors. And the Tamil Nadu court — which ruled against TikTok — said the app could expose children to sexual predators, as well.
The ban, had it been upheld, could have foretold increased legal action and regulation against other social media apps in India.
This wasn’t the first time TikTok has come under fire by government regulators.
In February, the FTC in the U.S. fined TikTok $ 5.7 million for violating children’s privacy law (COPPA) and required the app to implement an age gate.
ByteDance, in a statement, welcomed the court’s decision to reverse the ban, saying:
We are glad about this decision and we believe it is also greatly welcomed by our thriving community in India, who use TikTok as a platform to showcase their creativity. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue serving our users better. While we’re pleased that our efforts to fight against misuse of the platform has been recognised, the work is never “done” on our end. We are committed to continuously enhancing our safety features as a testament to our ongoing commitment to our users in India
Braille is a crucial skill for children with visual impairments to learn, and with these LEGO Braille Bricks kids can learn through hands-on play rather than more rigid methods like Braille readers and printouts. Given the naturally Braille-like structure of LEGO blocks, it’s surprising this wasn’t done decades ago.
The truth is, however, that nothing can be obvious enough when it comes to marginalized populations like people with disabilities. But sometimes all it takes is someone in the right position to say “You know what? That’s a great idea and we’re just going to do it.”
It happened with the BecDot (above) and it seems to have happened at LEGO. Stine Storm led the project, but Morten Bonde, who himself suffers from degenerating vision, helped guide the team with the passion and insight that only comes with personal experience.
In some remarks sent over by LEGO, Bonde describes his drive to help:
When I was contacted by the LEGO Foundation to function as internal consultant on the LEGO Braille Bricks project, and first met with Stine Storm, where she showed me the Braille bricks for the first time, I had a very emotional experience. While Stine talked about the project and the blind children she had visited and introduced to the LEGO Braille Bricks I got goose bumps all over the body. I just knew that I had to work on this project.
I want to help all blind and visually impaired children in the world dare to dream and see that life has so much in store for them. When, some years ago, I was hit by stress and depression over my blind future, I decided one day that life is too precious for me not to enjoy every second of. I would like to help give blind children the desire to embark on challenges, learn to fail, learn to see life as a playground, where anything can come true if you yourself believe that they can come true. That is my greatest ambition with my participation in the LEGO Braille Bricks project
The bricks themselves are very like the originals, specifically the common 2×4 blocks, except they don’t have the full 8 “studs” (so that’s what they’re called). Instead, they have the letters of the Braille alphabet, which happens to fit comfortably in a 2×3 array of studs, with room left on the bottom to put a visual indicator of the letter or symbol for sighted people.
It’s compatible with ordinary LEGO bricks and of course they can be stacked and attached themselves, though not with quite the same versatility as an ordinary block, since some symbols will have fewer studs. You’ll probably want to keep them separate, since they’re more or less identical unless you inspect them individually.
All told the set, which will be provided for free to institutions serving vision-impaired students, will include about 250 pieces: A-Z (with regional variants), the numerals 0-9, basic operators like + and =, and some “inspiration for teaching and interactive games.” Perhaps some specialty pieces for word games and math toys, that sort of thing.
LEGO was already one of the toys that can be enjoyed equally by sighted and vision-impaired children, but this adds a new layer, or I suppose just re-engineers an existing and proven one, to extend and specialize the decades-old toy for a group that already seems already to have taken to it:
“The children’s level of engagement and their interest in being independent and included on equal terms in society is so evident. I am moved to see the impact this product has on developing blind and visually impaired children’s academic confidence and curiosity already in its infant days,” said Bonde.
Danish, Norwegian, English, and Portuguese blocks are being tested now, with German, Spanish and French on track for later this year. The kit should ship in 2020 — if you think your classroom could use these, get in touch with LEGO right away.
Oracle was founded in 1977. While it’s not exactly IBM or GE, which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, it is old enough to be experiencing a fair bit of disruption in its own right. For a good part of its existence, it sold databases to some of the biggest companies in the world. But today, as the market changes and shifts from on-prem data centers to the cloud, how does a company like Oracle make that transition?
Of course, Oracle has been making the shift to the cloud for the last several years, but it would be fair to say that it came late. Plus, it takes more than building some data centers and pushing out some products to change a company the size of Oracle. The company leadership recognizes this, and has been thinking at the highest levels of the organization about how to, from a cultural and business perspective, successfully transform into a cloud company.
To that end, Oracle has opened five innovation hubs over the last several years, with locations in Austin, Texas; Reston, Va.; Burlington, Mass.; Bangalore, India and Santa Monica, Calif. What are these centers hoping to achieve, and how will it extend to the rest of the company the lessons learned? Those are big questions Oracle must answer to make some headway in the cloud market.
Understanding the problem
Oracle seems to understand it has to do something different to change market perception and its flagging market position. Synergy Research, a firm that tracks cloud market share, reports that the company is struggling.
“For cloud infrastructure services (IaaS, PaaS, hosted private cloud services) — Oracle has a 2 percent share,” John Dinsdale, chief analyst and managing director at Synergy told TechCrunch. He added, “It is a top-10 player, but it is nowhere near the scale of the leading cloud providers; and its market share has been steadily eroding.”
The news is a bit better when it comes SaaS. “Along with SAP, Oracle is one of the leaders in the ERP segment. But enterprise SaaS is much broader than ERP and across all of enterprise SaaS it is the No. 4-ranked provider behind Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe. Oracle worldwide market share in Q4 was 6 percent,” Dinsdale said.
The company knows that it will take a vast shift to change from an organization that mostly sold software licenses and maintenance agreements. It pushed those hard, sometimes so hard that it left IT pros with a sour taste in their mouths. Today, with the cloud, the selling landscape has changed dramatically to a partnership model. The company knows that it must change, too. The question is, how?
That will take an entirely new approach to product development, sales and marketing; and the innovation hubs have become a kind of laboratory where engineers can experiment with more focused projects, and learn to present their ideas with goal of showing instead of telling customers what they can do.
And the young shall lead
One way to change the culture is to infuse it with fresh-thinking, smart young people, and that’s what Oracle is attempting to do with these centers, where they are hiring youthful engineers, many right out of college, to lead the change with the help of more seasoned Oracle executives.
They are looking for ways to rethink Oracle’s cloud products, to pull the services together into packages of useful tools that helped solve specific business problems, from prescription opioid abuse to predicting avocado yields. The idea isn’t just to have some section of the company where people work on dream projects. They want them to relate to real business problems that results, eventually, in actual sales and measurable results.
Hamza Jahangir, group vice president for the cloud solution hubs at Oracle, says they look for people who want to dig into new solutions, but they want a practical streak in their innovation hub hires. “We don’t want just tinkerers. If the only problem you’re solving is that of your own boredom, that’s not the type of person we are looking for,” he said.
The idea of the innovation center actually began with co-CEO Mark Hurd, according to Jahangir. He had been working for several years to change the nature of the sales force, the one that had a reputation of strong-arming IT pros, with a new generation, by hiring people right out of college with a fresh approach.
Hurd didn’t want to stop with sales, though. He began looking at taking that same idea of hiring younger employees to drive that cultural shift in engineering, too. “About two years ago, Mark challenged us to think about how can we change the customer-facing tech workforce as the business model was moving to the cloud,” Jahangir said.
Hurd gave him some budget to open the first two centers in Austin and Reston and he began experimenting, trying to find the right kinds of employees and projects to work on. The funding came without of a lot of strings or conditions associated with it. Hurd wanted to see what could happen if they unleashed a new generation of workers and gave them a certain amount of freedom to work differently than the traditional way of working at Oracle.
Jahangir was very frank when it came to assessing customer’s expectations around Oracle moving to the cloud. There has been a lot of skepticism, and part of the reason for the innovation centers was to find practical solutions that could show customers that they actually had modern approaches to computing, given a chance.
The general customer stance has been, “We don’t believe you have anything real, and we need to see true value realized by us before we pay you any money,” he said. That took a fundamental shift to focusing on actual solutions. It started with the premise that the customers shouldn’t believe any of the marketing stuff. Instead, it would show them.
“Don’t bother watching a PowerPoint presentation. Ask us to show you real solutions and use cases where we have solved real material problems — and then we can have a discussion.”
Even chairman and company founder Larry Ellison recognizes the relationship and selling model needed to change as the company moves to the cloud. Jahangir relayed something he said in a recent internal meeting, “In the cloud we are now no longer selling giant monolithic software. Instead we are selling small bites of the apple. The relationship between the vendor and the buyer is becoming more like a consumer model.” That in turn requires a new way of selling and delivering solutions, precisely what they are trying to figure out at the innovation hubs.
Putting the idea to work
Once you have a new way of thinking, you have to put it to work, and as the company has created these various hubs, that has been the approach. As an example, one that isn’t necessarily original, but that puts Oracle features together in a practical way, is the connected patient. The patient wears a Fitbit-like monitor and uses a smart blood pressure cuff and a smart pill box.
The patient can then monitor his or her own health with these tools in a consolidated mobile application that pulls this data together for them using the Internet of Things cloud service, Oracle Mobile Cloud and Oracle Integration Cloud. What’s more, that information gets shared with the patient’s pharmacy and doctor, who can monitor the patient’s health and get warnings when there is a serious issue, such as dangerously high blood pressure.
Another project involved a partnership with Waypoint Robotics, where they demonstrated a robot that worked alongside human workers. The humans interacted with the robots, but the robot moved the goods from workstation to workstation, acting as a quality control agent along the way. If it found defects or problems, it communicated that to the worker via a screen on the side of the unit, and to the cloud. Every interaction between the humans, goods and robot was updated in the Oracle cloud.
One other project worked with farmers and distributors to help stores stay stocked with avocados, surely as good a Gen Z project as you are likely to find. The tool looks at weather data, historical sales and information coming from sensors at the farm, and it combines all of that data to make predictions about avocado yields, making use of Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse, Oracle Analytics Cloud and other services from the Oracle cloud stack.
Moving beyond the hubs
This type of innovation hub has become popular in recent years as a way to help stave off disruption, and Oracle’s approach is actually in line with this trend. While companies sometimes isolate these innovation hubs to protect them from negativity and naysayers in an organization, leaving them isolated often prevents the lessons learned from being applied to the broader organization at large, essentially defeating the very purpose of creating them in the first place.
Jahangir says that they are attempting to avoid that problem by meeting with others in the company and sharing their learnings and the kinds of metrics that they use in the innovation center to measure success, which might be different from the rest of the company.
He says to put Oracle on the customer agenda, they have to move the conversation from religious battles, as he calls how people support or condemn tech from certain companies. “We have to overcome religious battles and perceptions. I don’t like to fight religion with more religion. We need to step out of that conversation. The best way we have seen for engaging developer community is to show them how to build really cool things, then we can hire developers to do that, and showcase that to the community to show that it’s not just lip service.”
The trick will be doing that, and perhaps the innovation centers will help. As of today, the company is not sharing its cloud revenue, so it’s hard to measure just how well this is helping contribute to the overall success of the company. But Oracle clearly has a lot of work to do to change the perception of the enterprise buyer about its cloud products and services, and to increase its share of the growing cloud pie. It hopes these innovations hubs will lead the way to doing that.
Jahangir recognizes that he has to constantly keep adjusting the approach. “The hub model is still maturing. We are finding and solving new problems where we need new tooling and engagement models in the organization. We are still learning and evolving,” he said.
Google updated their Test My Site tool to include custom recommendations for mobile sites. Read more to find how this tool can improve your mobile performance.
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If content is queen, and the critical role SEO plays a role of bridging the two to drive growth, then there’s no question as to whether or not keyword research is important.
However, connecting the dots to create content that ranks well can be difficult. What makes it so difficult? How do you go from a target keyword phrase and write an article that is unique, comprehensive, encompasses all the major on-page SEO elements, touches the reader, and isn’t structured like the “oh-so-familiar” generic SEO template?
There’s no one size fits all approach! However, there is a simple way to support any member of your editorial, creative writing, or content team in shaping up what they need in order to write SEO-friendly content, and that’s an SEO content brief.
Key benefits of a content brief:
- Productivity and efficiency – A content brief clearly outlines expectation for the writer resulting in reduced revisions
- Alignment – Writers understand the intent and goals of the content
- Quality – Reduces garbage in, garbage out.
So the rest of this article will cover how we actually get there & we’ll use this very article as an example:
- Keyword research
- Topical expansion
- Content/SERP (search engine results page) analysis
- Content brief development
- Template and tools
Any good editor will tell you great content comes from having a solid content calendar with topics planned in advance for review and release at a regular cadence. To support topical analysis and themes as SEOs we need to start with keyword research.
Start with keyword research: Topic, audience, and objectives
The purpose of this guide isn’t to teach you how to do keyword research. It’s to set you up for success in taking the step beyond that and developing it into a content brief. Your primary keywords serve as your topic themes, but they are also the beginning makings of your content brief, so try to ensure you:
- Spend time understanding your target audience and aligning their goals to your keywords. Many call this keyword intent mapping. Rohan Ayyr provides an excellent guide to matching keywords to intent in his article, ‘How to move from keyword research to intent research’.
- Do the keyword research in advance, it will allow writers and editors the freedom to move things around and line it up with trending topics.
How does all this help in supporting a content brief?
You and your team can get answers to the key questions mentioned below.
- What will they write about? Primary keywords serve as the topic in your content brief.
- Who is the intended audience? Keyword intent helps unearth what problem the user is trying to solve, helping us understand who they are, and what they need.
Now with keywords as our guide to overall topical themes, we can focus on the next step, topical expansion.
Topical expansion: Define key points and gather questions
Writers need more than keywords, they require insight into the pain points of the reader, key areas of the topic to address and most of all, what questions the content should answer. This too will go into your content brief.
We’re in luck as SEOs because there is no shortage of tools that allow us to gather this information around a topic.
For example, let’s say this article focuses on “SEO writing”. There are a number of ways to expand on this topic.
- Using a tool like SEMRush’s topic research tool, you can take your primary keyword (topic), and get expanded/related topics, a SERP snapshot and questions in a single view. I like this because it covers what many other tools do separately. Ultimately it supports both content expansion & SERP analysis at the same time.
- Use keyword suggestion tools like KeywordTool.io or Ubersuggest to expand the terms combined with Google search results to quickly view potential topics.
- Use Answerthepublic.com to get expanded terms and inspirational visuals.
- Alternatively, Ann Smarty offers up four additional tools, for related keywords to support topical expansion.
You’ve taken note of what to write about, and how to cover the topic fully. But how do we begin to determine what type of content and how in-depth it should be?
Content and SERP analysis: Specifying content type and format
Okay, so we’re almost done. We can’t tell writers to write unique content if we can’t specify what makes it unique. Reviewing the competition and what’s being displayed consistently in the SERP is a quick way to assess what’s likely to work. You’ll want to look at the top ten results for your primary topic and collect the following:
- Content type – Are the results skewed towards a specific type of content? (For example, in-depth articles, infographics, videos, or blog posts)
- Format – Is the information formatted as a guide? A how-to? Maybe a list?
- Differentiation points – What stands out about the top three results compared to the rest?
Content brief development: Let’s make beautiful content together
Now you’re ready to prepare your SEO content brief which should include the following:
- Topic and objective – Your topic is your primary keyword phrase. Your objective is what this content supposed to accomplish.
- Audience and objective – Based on your keyword intent mapping, describe who the article is meant to reach.
- Voice, style, tone – Use an existing content/brand style guide.
- Content type and format – Based on your SERP analysis.
- Content length – Based on SERP Analysis. Ensure you’re meeting the average across the top three results based on content type.
- Deadline – This is only pertinent if you are working solo, otherwise, consult/lean on your creative team lead.
[Note: If/when using internally, consider making part of the content request process, or a template for the editorial staff. When using externally be sure to include where the content will be displayed, format/output, specialty editorial guidance.]
Template and tools
Want to take a shortcut? Feel free to download and copy my SEO content brief template, it’s a Google doc.
Other content brief templates/resources:
If you want to streamline the process as a whole, MarketMuse provides a platform that manages the keyword research, topic expansion, provides the questions, and manages the entire workflow. It even allows you to request a brief, all in one place.
I only suggest this for larger organizations looking to scale as there is an investment involved. You’d likely also have to do some work to integrate into your existing processes.
Jori Ford is Sr. Director of Content & SEO at G2Crowd. She can also be found on Twitter @chicagoseopro.
Twitter shut down Dom Hoffman’s app Vine, giving away the short-form video goldmine to China’s TikTok. Now a year and half since Hoffman announced he’d reimagine the app as V2 then scrapped that name, his follow-up to Vine called Byte has finally sent out the first 100 invites to its closed beta. Byte will let users record or upload short, looped vertical videos to what’s currently a reverse-chronological feed.
the byte beta we’ve been running with friends and family *feels* exactly like the vine friends and family beta, down to the weird but appealing randomness of the videos. that’ll change as we expand, but it’s a pretty good sign pic.twitter.com/rBbQrNtTJ7
— dom hofmann (@dhof) April 22, 2019
It will be a long uphill climb for Byte given TikTok’s massive popularity. But if it differentiates by focusing less on lip syncing and teen non-sense so it’s less alienating to an older audience, there might be room for a homegrown competitor in short-form video entertainment.
Hoffman tells TechCrunch that he’s emboldened by the off-the-cuff nature of the beta community, which he believes proves the app is compelling even before lots of creative and funny video makers join. He says his top priority is doing right by creators so they’ll be lined up to give Byte a shot when it officially launches even if they could get more views elsewhere.
For now, Hoffman plans to keep running beta tests, adding and subtracting features for a trial by fire to see what works and what’s unnecessary. The current version is just camera recordings with no uploads, and just a feed with Likes and comments but no account following. Upcoming iterations from his seven-person team will test video uploads and profiles.
One reassuring point is that Hoffman is well aware that TikTok’s epic rise has changed the landscape. He admits that Byte can’t win with the exact same playbook Vine did when it faced an open field, and it must bring something unique. Hoffman tells me he’s a big fan of TikTok, and sees it as one evolutionary step past Vine, but not in the same direction as his new app
Does the world need Vine back if TikTok already has over 500 million active users? We’ll soon find out of Hoffman can take a Byte of that market.
Ruthless copying is common in tech. Just ask Snapchat. However, it’s typically more conceptual than literal. But car API startup Smartcar claims that its competitor Otonomo copy-and-pasted Smartcar’s API documentation, allegedly plagiarizing it extensively to the point of including the original’s typos and randomly generated strings of code. It’s published a series of side-by-side screenshots detailing the supposed theft of its intellectual property.
Smartcar CEO Sahas Katta says “We do have evidence of several of their employees systemically using our product with behavior indicating they wanted to copy our product in both form and function.” Now a spokesperson for the startup tells me “We’ve filed a cease-and-desist letter, delivered to Otonomo this morning, that contains documented aspects of different breaches and violations.”
The accusations are troubling given Otonomo is not some inconsequential upstart. The Israel-based company has raised over $ 50 million since its founding in 2015, and its investors include auto parts giant Aptiv (formerly Delphi) and prestigious VC firm Bessemer Ventures Partners. Otonomo CMO Lisa Joy provided this statement in response to the allegations, noting it will investigate but is confident it acted with integrity:
Otonomo prides itself on providing a completely unique offering backed by our own intellectual property and patents. We take Smartcar’s questions seriously and are conducting an investigation, but we remain confident that our rigorous standards of integrity remain uncompromised. If our investigation reveals any issues, we will immediately take the necessary steps to address them.
Both startups are trying to build an API layer that connects data from cars with app developers so they can build products that can locate, unlock, or harness data from vehicles. The 20-person Mountain View-based Smartcar has raised $ 12 million from Andreessen Horowitz and NEA. A major deciding factor in who’ll win this market is which platform offers the best documentation that makes it easiest for developers to integrate the APIs.
“A few days ago, we came across Otonomo’s publicly available API documentation. As we read through it, we quickly realized that something was off. It looked familiar. Oddly familiar. That’s because we wrote it” Smartcar explains in its blog post. “We didn’t just find a few vague similarities to Smartcar’s documentation. Otonomo’s docs are a systematically written rip-off of ours – from the overall structure, right down to code samples and even typos.”
The screenshot above comparing API documentation from Smartcar on the left and Otonomo on the right appears to show Otonomo used nearly identical formatting and the exact same randomly generated sample identifier (highlighted) as Smartcar. Further examples flag seemingly identical code strings and snippets.
Otonomo has pulled down their docs.otonomo.io documentation website, but TechCrunch has reviewed an Archive.org Wayback Machine showing this Otonomo site as of April 5, 2019 featured sections that are identical to the documentation Smartcar published in August 2018. That includes Smartcar’s typo “it will returned here”, and its randomly generated sample code placeholder “”4a1b01e5-0497-417c-a30e-6df6ba33ba46” which both appear in the Wayback Machine copy of Otonomo’s docs. The typo was fixed in this version of Otonomo’s docs that’s still publicly available, but that code string remains.
“It would be a one in a quintillion chance of them happening to land on the same randomly generated string” Smartcar’s Katta tells TechCrunch.
Yet curiously, Otonomo’s CMO told TechCrunch that “The materials that [Smartcar] put on their post are all publicly accessible documentation, It’s all public domain content.” But that’s not true, Katta argues, given the definition of ‘public domain’ is content belonging to the public that’s uncopyrightable. “I would sure hope not, considering . . . we have proper copyright notices at the bottom. Our product is our intellectual property. Just like Twilio’s API documentation or Stripe’s, it is published and publicly available — and it is proprietary.”
Otonomo’s Lisa Joy noted that her startup is currently fundraising for its Series C, which reportedly already includes $ 10 million from South Korean energy and telecom holdings giant SK. “We’re in the middle of raising a round right now. That round is not done” she told me. But if Otonomo gets a reputation for allegedly copying its API docs, that could hurt its standing with developers and potentially endanger that funding round.
To be successful in a fast paced, ever changing, and competitive market, it is imperative for brands to think beyond just CPC, CPA and ROAS in the short term. Instead they should be equally aware of their brands position in the attention amongst their prospective customers, AND increasing the customer lifetime value of their existing customers.
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If you want to build a robot that can fall hundreds of feet and be no worse the wear, legs are pretty much out of the question. The obvious answer, then, is a complex web of cable-actuated rods. Obvious to Squishy Robotics, anyway, whose robots look delicate but are in fact among the most durable out there.
The startup has been operating more or less in stealth mode, emerging publicly today onstage at our Robotics + AI Sessions event in Berkeley, Calif. It began, co-founder and CEO Alice Agogino told me, as a project connected to NASA Ames a few years back.
“The original idea was to have a robot that could be dropped from a spacecraft and survive the fall,” said Agogino. “But I could tell this tech had earthly applications.”
Her reason for thinking so was learning that first responders were losing their lives due to poor situational awareness in areas they were being deployed. It’s hard to tell without actually being right there that a toxic gas is lying close to the ground, or that there is a downed electrical line hidden under a fallen tree, and so on.
Robots are well-suited to this type of reconnaissance, but it’s a bit of a Catch-22: You have to get close to deploy a robot, but you need the robot there to get close enough in the first place. Unless, of course, you can somehow deploy the robot from the air. This is already done, but it’s rather clumsy: picture a wheeled bot floating down under a parachute, missing its mark by a hundred feet due to high winds or getting tangled in its own cords.
“We interviewed a number of first responders,” said Agogino. “They told us they want us to deploy ground sensors before they get there, to know what they’re getting into; then when they get there they want something to walk in front of them.”
Squishy’s solution can’t quite be dropped from orbit, as the original plan was for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan, but they can fall from 600 feet, and likely much more than that, and function perfectly well afterwards. It’s all because of the unique “tensegrity structure,” which looks like a game of pick-up-sticks crossed with cat’s cradle. (Only use the freshest references for you, reader.)
If it looks familiar, you’re probably thinking of the structures famously studied by Buckminster Fuller, and they’re related but quite different. This one had to be engineered not just to withstand great force from dropping, but to shift in such a way that it can walk or crawl along the ground and even climb low obstacles. That’s a nontrivial shift away from the buckyball and other geodesic types.
“We looked at lots of different tensegrity structures — there are an infinite number,” Agogino said. “It has six compressive elements, which are the bars, and 24 other elements, which are the cables or wires. But they could be shot out of a cannon and still protect the payload. And they’re so compliant, you could throw them at children, basically.” (That’s not the mission, obviously. But there are in fact children’s toys with tensegrity-type designs.)
Inside the bars are wires that can be pulled or slackened to cause to move the various points of contact with the ground, changing the center of gravity and causing the robot to roll or spin in the desired direction. A big part of the engineering work was making the tiny motors to control the cables, and then essentially inventing a method of locomotion for this strange shape.
“On the one hand it’s a relatively simple structure, but it’s complicated to control,” said Agogino. “To get from A to B there are any number of solutions, so you can just play around — we even had kids do it. But to do it quickly and accurately, we used machine learning and AI techniques to come up with an optimum technique. First we just created lots of motions and observed them. And from those we found patterns, different gaits. For instance if it has to squeeze between rocks, it has to change its shape to be able to do that.”
The mobile version would be semi-autonomous, meaning it would be controlled more or less directly but figure out on its own the best way to accomplish “go forward” or “go around this wall.” The payload can be customized to have various sensors and cameras, depending on the needs of the client — one being deployed at a chemical spill needs a different loadout than one dropping into a radioactive area, for instance.
To be clear, these things aren’t going to win in an all-out race against a Spot or a wheeled robot on unbroken pavement. But for one thing, those are built specifically for certain environments and there’s room for more all-purpose, adaptable types. And for another, neither one of those can be dropped from a helicopter and survive. In fact, almost no robots at all can.
“No one can do what we do,” Agogino preened. At a recent industry demo day where robot makers showed off air-drop models, “we were the only vendor that was able to do a successful drop.”
And although the tests only went up to a few hundred feet, there’s no reason that Squishy’s bots shouldn’t be able to be dropped from 1,000, or for that matter 50,000 feet up. They hit terminal velocity after a relatively short distance, meaning they’re hitting the ground as hard as they ever will, and working just fine afterwards. That has plenty of parties interested in what Squishy is selling.
The company is still extremely small and has very little funding: mainly a $ 500,000 grant from NASA and $ 225,000 from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR fund. But they’re also working from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, which has already put them in touch with a variety of resources and entrepreneurs, and the upcoming May 14 demo day will put their unique robotics in front of hundreds of VCs eager to back the latest academic spin-offs.
You can keep up with the latest from the company at its website, or of course this one.
Email is one of the most direct ways for organizations to reach their audiences on a 1:1 basis, which means that it is a rich source of information for research and new product development.
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- How would Google Answer Vague Questions in Queries?
- Why Google Grants Needs To Focus on Mobile Networks
- Social chat app Capture launches to take a shot at less viral success
- What Happens When Reproductive Tech Like IVF Goes Awry?
- Qualtrics’ Julie Larson-Green will talk customer experience at TC Sessions: Enterprise