Cookie walls that demand a website visitor agrees to their internet browsing being tracked for ad-targeting as the “price” of entry to the site are not compliant with European data protection law, the Dutch data protection agency clarified yesterday.
The DPA said it has received dozens of complaints from internet users who had had their access to websites blocked after refusing to accept tracking cookies — so it has taken the step of publishing clear guidance on the issue.
It also says it will be stepping up monitoring, adding that it has written to the most-complained-about organizations (without naming any names) — instructing them to make changes to ensure they come into compliance with GDPR.
Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force last May, tightens the rules around consent as a legal basis for processing personal data — requiring it to be specific, informed and freely given in order for it to be valid under the law.
Of course consent is not the only legal basis for processing personal data, but many websites do rely on asking internet visitors for consent to ad cookies as they arrive.
And the Dutch DPA’s guidance makes it clear internet visitors must be asked for permission in advance for any tracking software to be placed — such as third-party tracking cookies; tracking pixels; and browser fingerprinting tech — and that that permission must be freely obtained. Ergo, a free choice must be offered.
So, in other words, a “data for access” cookie wall isn’t going to cut it. (Or, as the DPA puts it: “Permission is not ‘free’ if someone has no real or free choice. Or if the person cannot refuse giving permission without adverse consequences.”)
“This is not for nothing; website visitors must be able to trust that their personal data are properly protected,” it further writes in a clarification published on its website [translated via Google Translate].
“There is no objection to software for the proper functioning of the website and the general analysis of the visit on that site. More thorough monitoring and analysis of the behavior of website visitors and the sharing of this information with other parties is only allowed with permission. That permission must be completely free,” it adds.
We reached out to the DPA with questions. A spokesperson told us it can’t comment on any individual complaints, but added: “Cookie walls are non-compliant with the principles of consent of the GDPR. Which means that any party with a cookie wall on their website has to be compliant ASAP, whether or not we will check that in a couple of months, which we certainly will do.”
In light of this ruling clarification, the cookie wall on the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB)’s European site (screengrabbed below) looks like a textbook example of what not to do — given the online ad industry association is bundling multiple cookie uses (site-functional cookies; site-analytical cookies; and third-party advertising cookies) under a single “I AGREE” option.
If the user does not click “I I AGREE” they cannot gain access to the IAB’s website. So there’s no free choice here. It’s agree or leave.
Again the only “choice” offered to site visitors is “I AGREE” or leave without gaining access to the website. Which means it’s not a free choice.
The IAB told us no data protection agencies had been in touch regarding its cookie wall.
Asked whether it intends to amend the cookie wall in light of the Dutch DPA’s guidance, a spokeswoman said she wasn’t sure what the team planned to do yet — but she claimed GDPR does not “outright prohibit making access to a service conditional upon consent”; pointing also to the (2002) ePrivacy Directive which she claimed applies here, saying it “also includes recital language to the effect of saying that website content can be made conditional upon the well-informed acceptance of cookies.”
The IAB’s position appears to be that the ePrivacy Directive trumps GDPR on this issue.
Though it’s not clear how they’ve arrived at that conclusion. (The more than 15-year-old ePrivacy Directive is also in the process of being updated — while the flagship GDPR only came into force last year.)
On this Matthiesen cited a “general principle of law” that he said means that “in a conflict between two rules that cover the same thing it’s the more specific law prevails.” (Though that does assume the GDPR and ePrivacy Directive are in conflict where cookie walls are concerned.)
The portion of the ePrivacy Directive that the IAB appears to be referring to is recital 25 — which includes the following line:
Access to specific website content may still be made conditional on the well-informed acceptance of a cookie or similar device, if it is used for a legitimate purpose.
However, “specific website content” is hardly the same as full site access, i.e. as is entirely blocked by their cookie wall.
The “legitimate purpose” point in the recital also provides a second caveat vis-à-vis making access conditional on accepting cookies — and the recital text includes an example of “facilita[ting] the provision of information society services” as such a legitimate purpose.
What are “information society services”? An earlier European directive defines this legal term as services that are “provided at a distance, electronically and at the individual request of a recipient” [emphasis ours] — suggesting it refers to Internet content that the user actually intends to access (i.e. the website itself), rather than ads that track them behind the scenes as they surf.
So, in other words, even per the outdated ePrivacy Directive, a site might be able to require consent for functional cookies from a user to access a portion of the site.
But that’s not the same as saying you can gate off an entire website unless the visitor agrees to their browsing being pervasively tracked by advertisers.
That’s not the kind of “service” website visitors are looking for.
Add to that, returning to present day Europe, the Dutch DPA has put out very clear guidance demolishing cookie walls.
The only sensible legal interpretation here is that the writing is on the wall for cookie walls.
The IAB’s Matthiesen disagrees, of course.
“Law’s complicated and [the definition of an information society service is] not as simple as that statement,” he said debating this point. “When a browser connects to a website it’s making technically a request on the things that are being loaded. So it is technically requesting the content that is loaded on the site.”
“The website is the property of the website owner. There are fundamental rights attached to property too,” he added. “There is nothing in the GDPR that says I must make my website’s content available to people. I am perfectly fine to determine the conditions under which I am making my property available.
“You’re not entitled to it. I can’t force you to accept tracking, right, maybe. The way in which you aren’t forced is that you don’t have to use my property. That is the fundamental disagreement between the position [that cookie walls can’t be used] and mine [i.e. that they can].”
He suggested it will be up to the European Court of Justice to provide legal clarity on the issue — assuming any Dutch websites targeted by the regulator to take down their cookie walls choose to bring a legal challenge.
This report was updated with comment from the DPA and the IAB.
PolyAI, a London startup founded by experts in the field of “conversational AI” — including CEO Nikola Mrkšić, who was previously the first engineer at Apple-acquired VocalIQ — has raised $12 million in Series A funding to deploy its tech in customer support contact centres.
The round was led by Point72 Ventures, with participation from Sands Capital Ventures, Amadeus Capital Partners, Passion Capital and Entrepreneur First (EF). PolyAI’s founders are graduates of EF, although they didn’t meet during the company building program but already knew each other from their time at Cambridge’s Dialog Systems Group, part of the Machine Intelligence Lab at the University of Cambridge.
“We started PolyAI in 2017, straight after submitting our PhD theses,” Mrkšić tells me. “At Cambridge, we developed state-of-the-art conversational technology, and starting a company was the best way to get this tech used in the real world. We brought many of our Cambridge colleagues with us and started building the commercial version of our conversational platform.”
Targeting contact centres — in a bid to help make these low-margin businesses more scalable — PolyAI’s AI tech doesn’t just attempt to understand customer queries but ensure they can be conducted in a truly conversational way, regardless of the medium, which could be over email, messaging or voice. Where a lot of conversation AI or voice assistants fall down, says Mrkšić, is that they aren’t able to really follow a conversation, often lacking the ability to understand meaning within the context of a conversation’s history or follow-up dialogue.
“Our proprietary technology allows the AI agents to support really complex use cases,” he says. “Our agents are built around a framework for modelling context, which means they can hold long conversations and remember all pieces of information that users had previously shared. The backend models are data-driven, and they are domain and language agnostic. This allows them to seamlessly scale across different use cases and world languages. In practice, this means that we don’t have to hand-craft agent behaviour — AI agents can learn by observing human agents at work.”
That’s a hard nut to crack, which is why Mrkšić believes deep vertical integration with contact centres will produce the best outcomes. He doesn’t rule out either buying a small to medium-sized contact centre or forming a strategic partnership to expedite improvements in PolyAI’s offering and the company’s understanding of how contact centres operate. His thesis is that AI can help make contact centres more profitable, although, early on in the startup’s life, the case is not yet proven.
Related to this, Mrkšić and his team aren’t proposing that “AI agents” replace human agents altogether but work alongside them, quite literally, with each playing to their respective strengths. PolyAI co-founder and CTO Shawn Wen argues that machines can do many things that humans struggle with, including having “instant access” to all of the relevant information needed to support a customer. At peak times, this can mean AI agents handling calls autonomously if human agents aren’t available, while leaving human agents with the more complex edge cases or ones where they can bring the most value through human empathy and EQ.
“We plan to pursue very tight integration with contact centres — be that through M&A, investment or other profit-sharing arrangements,” adds Mrkšić. “Whichever model we end up pursuing, we want full alignment between PolyAI and contact centres. Too many AI companies have died trying to find favourable software licensing agreements years before their technology was ready for wide-scale deployment. We believe vertical integration is the best way to fast-track the development of our ML platform, as well as for PolyAI to stay independent in the long-term.”
Two popular car alarm systems have fixed security vulnerabilities that allowed researchers to remotely track, hijack and take control of vehicles with the alarms installed.
The systems, built by Russian alarm maker Pandora and California-based Viper (or Clifford in the U.K.), were vulnerable to an easily manipulated server-side API, according to researchers at Pen Test Partners, a U.K. cybersecurity company. In their findings, posted Friday, the API could be abused to take control of an alarm system’s user account — and their vehicle.
It’s because the vulnerable alarm systems could be tricked into resetting an account password because the API was failing to check if it was an authorized request, allowing the researchers to log in.
Although the researchers bought alarms to test, they said “anyone” could create a user account to access any genuine account or extract all the companies’ user data.
The researchers said some three million cars globally were vulnerable to the flaws (since fixed).
In one example demonstrating the hack, the researchers geolocated a target vehicle, tracked it in real time, followed it, remotely killed the engine and forced the car to stop, then unlocked the doors. The researchers said it was “trivially easy” to hijack a vulnerable vehicle. Worse, it was possible to identify some car models, making targeted hijacks or high-end vehicles even easier.
According to their findings, the researchers also found they could listen in on the in-car microphone, built-in as part of the Pandora alarm system for making calls to the emergency services or roadside assistance.
Ken Munro, founder of Pen Test Partners, told TechCrunch this was their “biggest” project.
The researchers contacted both Pandora and Viper with a seven-day disclosure period, given the severity of the vulnerabilities. Both companies responded quickly to fix the flaws.
When reached, Viper’s Chris Pearson confirmed the vulnerability has been fixed. “If used for malicious purposes, [the flaw] could allow customer’s accounts to be accessed without authorization.”
Viper blamed a recent system update by a service provider for the bug and said the issue was “quickly rectified.”
“Directed [which owns Viper] believes that no customer data was exposed and that no accounts were accessed without authorization during the short period this vulnerability existed,” said Pearson, but provided no evidence to how the company came to that conclusion.
In a lengthy email, Pandora’s Antony Noto challenged several of the researcher’s findings, summated: “The system’s encryption was not cracked, the remotes where not hacked, [and] the tags were not cloned,” he said. “A software glitch allowed temporary access to the device for a short period of time, which has now been addressed.”
The research follows work last year by Vangelis Stykas on the Calamp, a telematics provider that serves as the basis for Viper’s mobile app. Stykas, who later joined Pen Test Partners and also worked on the car alarm project, found the app was using credentials hardcoded in the app to log in to a central database, which gave anyone who logged in remote control of a connected vehicle.
Outdoor Tech’s Chips ski helmet speakers are a hot mess of security flaws
Leica is a brand I respect and appreciate but don’t support. Or rather, can’t, because I’m not fabulously rich. But if I did have $5,000 to spend on a fixed-lens camera, I’d probably get the new Q2, a significant improvement over 2015’s Q — which tempted me back then.
The Q2 keeps much of what made the Q great: a full-frame sensor, a fabulous 28mm F/1.7 Summilux lens and straightforward operation focused on getting the shot. But it also makes some major changes that make the Q2 a far more competitive camera.
The sensor has jumped from 24 to 47 megapixels, and while we’re well out of the megapixel race, that creates the opportunity for a very useful cropped shooting mode that lets you shoot at 35, 50 and 75mm equivalents while still capturing huge pixel counts. It keeps the full frame exposure as well, so you can tweak the crop later. The new sensor also has a super-low native ISO of 50, which should help with dynamic range and in certain exposure conditions.
Autofocus has been redone as well (as you might expect with a new sensor) and it should be quicker and more accurate now. There’s also an optical stabilization mode that kicks in when you are shooting at under 1/60s. Both are features that need a little testing to verify they’re as good as they sound, but I don’t expect they’re fraudulent or anything.
The body, already a handsome minimal design in keeping with Leica’s impeccable (if expensive) taste, is now weather sealed, making this a viable walk-around camera in all conditions. Imagine paying five grand for a camera and being afraid to take it out in the rain! Well, many people did that and perhaps will feel foolish now that the Q2 has arrived.
Inside is an electronic viewfinder, but the 2015 Q had a sequential-field display — meaning it flashes rapidly through the red, green and blue components of the image — which made it prone to color artifacts in high-motion scenes or when panning. The Q2, however, has a shiny new OLED display with the same resolution but better performance. OLEDs are great for EVFs for a lot of reasons, but I like that you get really nice blacks, like in an optical viewfinder.
The button layout has been simplified as well (or rather synchronized with the CL, another Leica model), with a new customizable button on the top plate, reflecting the trend of personalization we’ve seen in high-end cameras. A considerably larger battery and redesigned battery and card door rounds out the new features.
As DPReview points out in its hands-on preview of the camera, the Q2 is significantly heavier than the high-end fixed-lens competition (namely the Sony RX1R II and Fuji X100F, both excellent cameras), and also significantly more expensive. But unlike many Leica offerings, it actually outperforms them in important ways: the lens, the weather sealing, the burst speed — it may be expensive, but you actually get something for your money. That can’t always be said of this brand.
The Leica Q2 typifies the type of camera I’d like to own: no real accessories, nothing to swap in or out, great image quality and straightforward operation. I’m far more likely to get an X100F (and even then it’d be a huge splurge), but all that time I’ll be looking at the Q2 with envious eyes. Maybe I’ll get to touch one some day.
Marie Kondo, the woman who stole millions of Netflix viewers’ hearts this year with her show, “Tidying Up,” is in talks to raise up to $40 million in venture capital funding to scale KonMari, the business behind her personal brand, books and TV series.
The round, first reported by The Information, wouldn’t be KonMari’s first infusion of venture investment, surprisingly. Last year, the company closed a small funding round led by top-tier VC fund Sequoia Capital, TechCrunch confirmed. A spokesperson for the business told TechCrunch KonMari isn’t commenting on fundraising at this time.
Sources have also confirmed with TechCrunch that Kondo is indeed on the fundraising circuit again, with plans to build an ecommerce platform.
“Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” debuted on Netflix on January 1, 2019 to near-instant success, spurring a wave of internet-fandom for Kondo with her catchphrase “does it spark joy?” and efficient method of cleaning and organizing. The KonMari Method encourages cleaners to tidy by category, starting with clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous items and sentimental items. “Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go,” Kondo explains on her website.
KonMari was founded in 2015 by Kondo and her husband, Takumi Kawahara.
Original Content podcast: We conquer clutter with Marie Kondo’s new show
A controversial blockchain-based mobile voting app called Voatz is getting put to the test again.
The city of Denver revealed today that it has agreed to implement a mobile voting pilot in its May municipal election using the four-year-old, Boston-based startup’s technology. It will be offered exclusively to active-duty military, their eligible dependants and overseas voters using their smartphones.
All were notified that they can use Voatz via a newsletter this morning, along with a link to sign up to participate if they so choose.
Voatz — which had raised $2.2 million in funding led by the venture arm of Overstock.com last year — says it has conducted more than 30 successful pilots already. Two of these in West Virginia attracted the financial backing of Tusk Philanthropies, the philanthropic operation of investor, operator and strategist Bradley Tusk, who was featured last year in The New Yorker for his involvement in both efforts.
One was a small pilot project in West Virginia that gave overseas citizens and members of the military stationed abroad access to Voatz to cast ballots on their phones, though it was open only to residents of two counties. The technology was put to the test again in last November’s mid-term elections, in which nearly 150 people voted from 24 out of the state’s 55 counties.
We talked with Tusk in early December about both efforts and about Voatz more generally, which Tusk hasn’t funded but whose mission of enabling more people to vote, more easily, he aggressively advocates. Though mobile voting, blockchain-based apps and Voatz in particular have been criticized as potentially vulnerable to hacking, Tusk spent the first 20 years of his career in politics, and in his view, unless more people are empowered to “advocate politically” from their phones, politicians will continue to respond to the far smaller number of voters who actually show up at the polls.
Tusk also believes Voatz works, having hired outside examiners to assess the first West Virginia pilot, including Andre McGregor, a former FBI cyber special agent who is now the global head of security for TLDR, a company that specializes in blockchain technology. It may explain why, in partnering with the city of Denver and the National Cybersecurity Center, a federal agency that was created as an office within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security back in 2008, Tusk Philanthropies again invited Voatz as a partner in Denver’s mobile voting endeavor. (A spokesperson for Tusk Philanthropies tells us that Colorado has also explored developing an open-source mobile voting platform but that it simply doesn’t exist yet.)
Certainly, it’s conceivable that Voatz is no less secure than existing options for overseas military personnel, who often submit their votes via email. With Voatz, ballots are transmitted between up to 32 “permissioned” computers that have to agree algorithmically that a ballot is legitimate before it gets recorded and counted, and this only after a voter has been identified through numerous other steps. Among these: a voter must provide a phone number and an eight-digit pin and submit a photo of his or her driver’s license. The voter must then they shoot and submit a video of their face, which is then processed by facial recognition technology that can confirm (or not confirm) that the face in the video belongs to the same person registered as a state voter.
To assuage any lingering concerns, the city of Denver will additionally conduct its own audit. Meanwhile, Tusk Philanthropies will work with a cybersecurity partner ShiftState to conduct an independent audit, in addition to the internal audit done by of Voatz.
The city of Denver says that 4,000 international voters are eligible to use the app.
Interestingly, despite the efficiencies Voatz promises, the voting process still won’t be an easy one. Fully 65 candidates have tossed their hats in the ring for public offices, according go the region’s city magazine, 5280. And while far-flung military personnel may be using a blockchain-based app, the placement of each mayoral candidate on the ballot will be determined in decidedly old-school fashion — by drawing their names out of a bingo-ball turner.
It’s the FCC’s official duty to promote connectivity throughout the U.S., and as part of that it issues a yearly report on improvements to broadband deployment. The latest report, however, seems to contain an error large enough to throw its numbers completely off what Chairman Ajit Pai has already claimed. His office says that they are “looking into the matter.”
The information comes from advocacy organization Free Press, already a thorn in this administration’s side for having pointed out the highly questionable nature of economic claims used to justify the Commission’s new, weaker net neutrality rules.
In a comment (PDF) filed in the upcoming 2018 Broadband Deployment Report’s docket, the organization points out a single huge outlier that vastly, and incorrectly, inflates the numbers of new broadband connections in the country.
FCC report keeps faster definition of broadband and separates mobile from fixed connections
These official FCC documents are based on “Form 477” paperwork self-reporting broadband availability, submitted by internet providers abiding more or less by the honor system — which critics already point out is completely an inadequate one on which to base policy.
In the last batch of 477s was one from a company called BarrierFree, an ISP based in the Northeast that was submitting its data for the first time ever. Unfortunately there is a slight discrepancy between the numbers on its form and the numbers in reality.
As Free Press summarizes (very slightly modified for clarity; emphasis theirs):
[BarrierFree] claimed deployment of fiber-to-the-home (“FTTH”) and fixed wireless services (each at downstream/upstream speeds of 940 Mbps/880 Mbps) to Census blocks containing nearly 62 million persons. This claimed level of deployment would make BarrierFree the fourth largest U.S. ISP in terms of population coverage.
We further examined the underlying Form 477 data and discovered that BarrierFree appears to have simply submitted as its coverage area a list of every single Census block in each of eight states in which it claimed service: CT, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA, RI, and VA.
Further investigation strongly suggests BarrierFree grossly misreported its deployment. BarrierFree claims to offer speed tiers topping out at 940 Mbps/880 Mbps in all of its blocks, using both fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless services. This speed combination is unique to Verizon’s FiOS FTTH service, and Verizon is the only other 477 filer to claim such a speed tier. But according to BarrierFree’s own website, it does not market fiber-to-the-home service at any speed. Furthermore, the maximum advertised speed for its residential fixed wireless service is 25 Mbps symmetrical.
In other words the company claimed to have gigabit speeds going to 62 million people when really, it has 25 megabit speeds at best going to a few thousand. These enormous discrepancies seem to have heavily shifted national averages in the report.
In a statement to Ars Technica, which has followed the broadband report drama closely (including some good analysis last month), BarrierFree COO Jim Gerbig admitted that “There is indeed an error in the Form 477 filings for BarrierFree, and it doesn’t reflect our current level of broadband deployment. A portion of the submission was parsed incorrectly in the upload process.” He claims the government shutdown prevented correction of this issue.
Unfortunately, Chairman Pai, understandably excited to share good news on broadband, already bruited some statistics from the draft report that, if this massively erroneous form were excluded, would be totally incorrect — and incorrect in an unflattering way to the current administration.
Without BarrierFree’s phantom customers, nearly two million more people than reported lack access to fixed broadband — 21.3 versus 19.4 million in Pai’s press release. This is still well below the 26 million from the previous report, but it’s still a major correction. Of 5.6 million newly served rural broadband customers Pai highlights, 2 million were supposedly on BarrierFree.
And a huge reported increase to people on a sub-gigabit but high-speed tier (250/50 Mbps) would have been largely attributable to these non-existent connections — tens of millions of them.
While there is surely good news to share from this report, it seems that the good news the chairman chose to present may in fact not be nearly as good as he claimed.
Activists and government officials alike have questioned the accuracy of previous reports and warned that the incoming one was likely as untrustworthy as those that came before. But this massive single outlier seems like a new and much more avoidable form of inaccuracy.
It seems that in collating and analyzing the forms submitted by ISPs, it would ring a few alarm bells that an ISP with no presence in 2016 would suddenly be serving more than 60 million people with speeds only offered by decades-old competitors. The error is BarrierFree’s to begin with, of course, although I am suspicious of the “parsing” issue blamed by the COO. But surely spotting an error of that magnitude is the FCC’s responsibility.
When contacted for comment, a representative for Chairman Pai’s office said “we are looking into the matter.”
Others were more verbose.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks was more verbose:
“Free Press’s allegations are troubling,” he said in a statement. “The FCC’s maps are frequently criticized for being inaccurate and overstating broadband coverage. The maps and deployment data are becoming a repeat offender.”
Senate confirms new FCC Commissioners Carr and Starks
“Without getting to the bottom of this, the FCC should not proceed with its current draft broadband report. It is the FCC’s job to have accurate data and to make available maps based on it. Without performing that basic function, we are woefully unprepared to make a number of critical policy decisions that will impact the future of our communications infrastructure.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has spoken out on the broadband report issue recently and been an outspoken critic of the FCC’s policies of late, also called for closer scrutiny:
“The FCC’s draft report concludes that broadband deployment is reasonable and timely across the country. This is hard to believe when millions of Americans have no high-speed service at home. Now there are allegations that the FCC’s numbers in this report may be based on faulty data,” she said in a statement. “This is not good. It absolutely deserves a closer look.”
While the publication of this report was hitherto expected daily, this issue seems likely to push it out by a few weeks at least — and, though it may be too much to hope — could cause the agency to question the basis on which it is built in the first place.
David Mayman has a vision for personal aviation that he’s spent the past dozen years and millions of his personal fortune chasing. He hasn’t accepted the convention that jetpacks were just a misguided fantasy for the future; his company, Jetpack Aviation, has been building them and he’s been zooming around in publicity-grabbing stunts in a plea to the public that there’s room to dream when it comes to human flight.
And while an eight-person startup aiming to build out a fleet of $380,000 “flying motorcycles” might seem like a tall order, Y Combinator, a top accelerator known for its occasionally bizarre bets, is gambling on the company and its jet engine-obsessed CEO in one of its latest investments.
Jetpack Aviation is about to become a very different company. The startup has launched pre-orders this week for the moonshot of moonshots, the Speeder, a personal vertical take-off and landing vehicle with a svelte concept design that looks straight out of Star Wars or Halo.
Deep-pocketed, sci-fi-minded buyers are going to have to fork over $10,000 just to get a spot in the pre-order line for the first vehicles to ship, but the startup’s founder seems to see the campaign as less about the money than it is about the confirmation that there are people interested in planting a stake in his wild company’s future success.
“I think it’s a validation statement for all of us,” Mayman tells TechCrunch. “If you look at how long Tesla took to deliver the Model 3 to customers, I think people understand that this is not something that’s a Kickstarted pre-delivery campaign where at the tail-end of it we’re immediately going to be delivering product.”
There are gambles and then there are flying motorcycles. This is frankly an atypical startup for YC to fund, but it is also an unconventional business path for Mayman, who has largely been self-financing his jetpack-building obsession for the past 12 years. For the Australian CEO, the YC investment is mainly about gaining access to Silicon Valley’s network of VCs, though he also acknowledges it’s a fair assumption that SF breeds the type of executive that might be interested in pre-ordering something so seemingly outlandish.
“I can’t imagine someone not being excited about a flying motorcycle,” YC partner Jared Friedman told TechCrunch in an email. “Jetpack Aviation created the future with Speeder, and I look forward to seeing how this technology transforms the dreaded commute, vacation travel, and everyday errands.”
While much of the excitement Mayman has raised for his company’s jetpacks has relied on the spectacle of prototype demos in front of throngs of news networks (Jetpack Aviation has unsurprisingly partnered with Red Bull), the company has yet to build a full-scale prototype of the Speeder, though he says their new round of funding should get them there.
Mayman flying a jetpack around the Statue of Liberty in 2015
Can they actually build this? That’s seems to be a pretty valid question.
In our conversation, Mayman acknowledges upfront that:
The Speeder is “at least” two years of development time away from ending up in customer hands.
The company will have to raise “tens of millions” of dollars to ship this design.
There are still plenty of unknowns.
Jetpack Aviation’s current design is more ambitious than most helicopter-shaped concept VTOL vehicles being pursued by companies like Uber, namely due to its relatively sleek design where the human rider is directly above a set of several gimbal-mounted jet engines.
The company claims finished designs will move faster than 150 mph at altitudes up to 15,000 feet. The flight time is still a limiting factor; max flight times for the models are estimated to be around 30 minutes. The company is planning a number of versions, including an ultralight model that complies with some federal regulations and won’t require a pilot’s license, the company says.
The startup’s most pertinent problem is creating the autonomous stabilization technologies that will make flying the Speeder effortless and safe. Mayman notes that most VTOL designs look like quadcopters simply because the physics of putting weight directly on top of the thrust system is so challenging. “It’s like trying to balance a pencil on your finger,” he says.
His team has been training people to use their jetpacks — now in their 11th design iteration — and say it takes about a week to get potential flyers up-and-running with the particulars of the system. But Mayman says he wants this to be a device that just works, a design concept that made a lot of sense when Steve Jobs was using it to refer to the simplicity of the iPad, but feels a tad more aggressive when presented with the rendered images of someone flying this thing over city centers:
A lot of the industry’s existing work around autonomous flight and stabilization for drone aircraft really doesn’t account for Jetpack Aviation’s design, though Mayman says they’ve already made some significant progress with their 1:3 scale prototype. He also notes that the company does have a “less elegant-looking” plan-B design if they determine the centrally clustered jet engines are too much of a stabilization liability.
Indeed, the key for getting a concept like this off the ground and ensuring the company doesn’t miserably fail is being flexible about how this vision matures, Mayman says, noting that they’re approaching the vehicle with multiple designs and multiple considerations for how the regulatory environment for certification shapes up, including work on a separate military version and consideration for designs more focused on emergency response like rapid medical evacuation.
Asked whether pre-orderers plunking down $10K might be disappointed by a different-looking product, the founder said that they’ve done enough modeling to know that what they build will fall into a roughly similar design. “It may not look exactly like what we’ve rendered, but I’m confident that it’s still going to be the same sort of concept, a motorcycle or jet-ski size and shape.”
It is certainly a unique choice for the company to launch its pre-orders already with so much in the air, but it’s fairly apparent that they are looking to emulate Tesla here, and if people with nearly $400K to throw around want to buy a jet-engine jet-ski, then by all means, let the free market do its thing.
Y Combinator’s $150,000 investment is an early step for the moonshot effort and a vote of confidence that places them on others’ radar. Mayman, for his part, does seem genuinely thrilled about expanding the ambitions of his passion project, even if the road ahead is crowded with obstacles for realizing the vision.
“If you don’t start it, you’re never going to get there,” Mayman says. “If our guys weren’t able to wake up every morning saying, ‘Holy shit, this would be freaking amazing if we can build this,’ then it’s sort of not worth doing. We might as well go do something else.”
Melissa Kaufman is the executive director of The Garage at Northwestern. She is a former Googler, startup veteran and entrepreneur. She is a committee member of ChicagoNEXT, a member of P33 and a venture partner at Chicago Ventures.
Women in tech.
In addition to turning up nearly two billion Google search results, those three words are music to the ears of every informed CEO or human resources manager across the U.S. And while most executives are under pressure to portray and speak in the vernacular of diversity, there’s one slight problem.
Bridging the gender gap in tech starts long before a woman joins the workforce: it starts in the classroom.
When I studied computer science at Dartmouth, there were times when I was one of the only women in the classroom. This didn’t affect my studies or my ambition, but it was frustrating because I knew other women who were capable of being in those classes, but they felt like outsiders.
Whether it’s middle school, high school or college, the time young women spend in classrooms is formative — it’s where passions are ignited and life paths are plotted. Needless to say, bridging the gender gap in tech at this source is an imperative. But this isn’t about meeting quotas, sharing platitudes on social media and trumpeting hollow awards. Reversing the brogramming trend and cultivating a more diverse tech workforce requires a tangible, scalable model to see that idea come to fruition.
During my career at Google, I had my finger on the pulse of the tech industry and realized that a realistic plan to get more women into tech would be far different than what journalists and authors were talking about. As Whitney Wolfe, the CEO and founder of the dating app Bumble, pointed out, we don’t need to criticize the workplace — we need to criticize the classroom.
With that said, here are three essential strategies that educators must embrace to get to the root of gender imbalance in tech.
Mentorship is a must
Many undergraduate women are under the impression that getting their foot in the doors of tech companies necessitates more classes or more hard skills. These are helpful, but even more important for young women is having an actual human being who can help them navigate foreign territory.
Social media influencers and sugar-bomb self-help authors are not mentors.
Let’s be clear: Social media influencers and sugar-bomb self-help authors are not mentors. In order to have a lasting impact, mentors must formalize relationships with young women, not haphazardly come in to deliver rah-rah talks. That’s why we have Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at The Garage like Northwestern alumnae Lilia Kogan, a Chicago angel investor, for students to bounce ideas off of. This transparent access to another woman who has been in their shoes, and gone on to succeed, often gives them the extra nudge they need to go from idea to execution.
Less preaching, more opportunities
Simply telling a young woman, “You can do it!” or “We value diversity!” is a cop-out. Uprooting years of gender inequity in tech requires more than saccharine speeches and corporate platitudes. It requires giving young women not just permission, but tangible opportunities to experiment, build and explore.
For example, we launched the Propel Program at Northwestern, which provides grants of up to $1,000 for women students to experiment with their ideas. The six-month program allows students to demonstrate what they did with the funding and what they learned. The most engaged participants are invited to guide the following year’s participants, reinforcing the mentorship and community components.
Collaboration with women’s student organizations
Entering an environment in which you’re the minority can be discouraging, but if young women see their peers launching startups, writing code and leading teams, that confidence has a viral impact. Nearly every school has a variety of women’s student organizations, and uniting them under a common bond is far more effective than relying on them to do so alone.
In 2015, only 25 percent of students incubating startups in The Garage were women. But once we partnered with groups on campus like The Society of Women Engineers and Women in Business, we saw a spike in women. Today, half of our student-founders are women.
Sure, “strength in numbers” sounds cliché, but camaraderie has profound psychological benefits that can inspire people, especially young women, to break through barriers. Getting more women into innovative environments is no exception.
Why are these steps so important? Because diverse teams — especially in tech — are unequivocally better equipped to solve problems and ultimately give organizations a competitive advantage. It’s just that simple.
If we want to get serious about reversing the brogramming trend, we have to go beyond quotas or playing the blame game with history, companies and “the system.” Instead, we must connect with young women early on, through mentorship, tangible opportunities and communities in which they can thrive.
It’s not a great time to be a live venue. Once the only game in town, clubs, arenas and other live event spaces now have to compete with the seemingly endless on-demand entertainment options. Competing with the convenience of 4K Netflix on a 50-inch screen is a big ask, even for the biggest stars.
It’s a perfect market opening for a startups. A technology company that can sufficiently augment the live experience for a connected audience stands to make a lot of money outfitting venues and touring acts. It’s no wonder the category has gotten crowded in recent years, with a number of players looking to bring personalized augmented audio experiences to concertgoers.
London-based Peex has risen in the ranks quickly, courtesy of one prominent celebrity endorsement: Last year, the company announced that Sir Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick would be the first tour to publicly utilize its technology. It’s a bit of a baptism by fire for the startup.
Granted, Peex’s headsets will only be available in limited quantities to attendees who opt into the VIP package for the show, but live music events don’t get much higher-stakes than the farewell tour for one of the most beloved entertainers of the 20th century.
The value proposition, meanwhile, is pretty simple. Live music is tough. Even the most technologically sophisticated venues find it impossible to deliver the perfect music mix to every seat in the house. The idea of attempting to accomplish that for a capacity of 20,000 boggles the mind, even for a crew like the folks at Madison Square Garden.
The company was on hand at last night’s show. It was John’s 70th — and for now, at least, final — appearance at the legendary venue. To prep for the event, Peex set up four transmitters in the arena, primarily on lighting rigs. The whole process takes about a day and offers enough coverage to fill the whole space — an impressive feat in and of itself.
Backstage, there’s a small (in MSG terms, at least) production setup, including a mixing board that separates the live show’s feed into five channels. Upon entry, VIPs are handed the RX, a device that sits around the neck. There’s a large disc up front and two headphone cables that dangle down on either side. It’s a little strange and a bit dorky — as the company ushered us backstage before the show, I overhead some bystanders rightfully wondering aloud what were the things around our necks?
Wearers must download the Peex app to an iOS or Android device for the full experience. The handset is paired to the device via Bluetooth. From there, users customize the listening experience on a per-channel basis. Generally that’s broken down by instrument — of course, things get a bit more complicated with larger bands, so the artists get the final say.
For the case of John’s band, the channels were vocals/keyboards (John), guitar, bass, second keyboard and percussion/drums (which incorporated three musicians). As the music plays, users can adjust the different channels with the five graphic sliders on the app.
The experience was responsive, though I ran into issues with the app. It ended up crashing a few times, even while the connection remained constant with the headset. Some early bugginess is to be forgiven for what is essentially a very public beta. The company’s COO David Johnson, who walked us through the process, noted that there may have been some issue with the fact that I brought an S10 to the show. The unreleased Samsung is still untested with the program. Fair enough.
The tech is impressive overall here. I couldn’t detect any latency between the performers and the headphones. Johnson noted that the tech is designed to augment the live audio, rather than replace it. As such, the headphones don’t offer much of a buffer with the ambient noise in the venue, but on a whole, the two tend to complement each other fairly well.
One of the perks of getting access to the show through Peex was some stupidly good seats — 11th row, center to be exact. Sir Elton was within sweating distance for the 2.5-hour performance. That’s great from the standpoint of seeing a rock and roll show, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion it’s not the ideal case use for the product. That’s arguably the part of the venue that least needs augmentation. Freaking Michael Stipe was sitting two seats away, enjoying the hell out of the show without a headset — and I generally trust that dude’s opinions on live music.
For the first time in forever, I had to eschew the earplugs in order to get the full Peex experience. I found myself upping the volume in order to isolate elements of the music above the ambient sound. When we headed to the lobby mid-set, I was a bit shocked to hear how loud my headphones had gradually gotten. I would never listen to music on headphones at that volume outside of a venue.
That’s going to be a tough nut for the company to crack, as awareness about hearing loss becomes an increasingly important issue among aging show-goers. Johnson notes that the Peex wearable has an aux input where people can plug in their own third-party headphones, so if you have ones that effectively seal out ambient noise, that’s certainly an option — albeit an imperfect one.
At one point during the set we were ushered up to the MSG nosebleeds. Here the effect is far more pronounced. I got a couple of breaks in my audio stream, like an FM radio being subjected to a tunnel, but it was mostly good and definitely clear. Certain elements like acoustic guitar, which are traditionally buried in the mix, were able to shine.
This, I think is the value proposition for the company, but it’s going to be a tough one to balance. Peex plans to announce a number of venue and artist partners soon, as it begins to offer the service to the public. But the company is primarily going after a small share of the overall audience with its rental devices.
For the time being, it will be open to VIP attendees, who will be charged a relatively small fee to hold onto the device for the night. But aside from those who are far away from the source in luxury boxes, this is the chunk of the audience who requires this technology the least.
From that perspective, at least, it might be tough to compete with a company like MIXhalo, which brings their technology to the smartphone without the need for a secondary hardware product. One of the things a company like Peex does have going for it versus a MIXhalo, however, is the relatively scalability of a product that operates a lot like an encrypted form of FM radio.
There’s also another important stigma both companies face. This was made painfully clear to me about three-fourths of the way through last night’s set, when John pleaded with audience members to “put down the social media for one fucking second.” At that precise moment, I had a pair of headphones in my ears, while looking down at my mini Android mixing board.
It’s true that John and any other artist participating will have to opt in to the service, but it’s hard to fight the feeling that this is a sort of slippery slope when it comes to experiencing the world through our mobile devices. In some ways products like Peex and MIXhalo bring you closer to the source by effectively plugging you directly into the soundboard.
At the same time, however, it can feel like the aural equivalent of the dude a few rows ahead of me, who busted out his phone to FaceTime the show to some family member back home. Sometimes you’ve just got to pull out the headphones and live in the moment.
Earlier this week, we added Anthony Levandowski to a growing list of headliners that already includes Marc Raibert, Melonee Wise and Ken Goldberg. We’re back with one more headliner to add to our already packed schedule for April 18’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI event at UC Berkeley (p.s. Early-Bird ticket sales end next week).
We’re excited to announce that iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle will be joining us onstage in April.
Angle co-founded iRobot 28 years ago, alongside fellow roboticist Rodney Brooks and Helen Greiner. In 2002, the company struck robotics gold with the launch of the first Roomba. The device became the first truly successful home robot and has since gone on to become the best-selling vacuum in the U.S.
Earlier this year, iRobot announced the upcoming release of Terra, the company’s first venture into lawn care. Angle will join us to discuss the creation of a home robotics ecosystem and the 10 years of research and development that went into creating its new lawnmower.
The Early-Bird ticket sale ends next week! Book your $249 early-bird ticket today and save $100 before prices go up. Student tickets are just $45 when you book here.
The next phase of social media is about hanging out together while apart. Rather than performing on a live stream or engaging with a video chat, Instagram may allow you to chill and watch videos together with a friend. Facebook already has Watch Party for group co-viewing, and in November we broke the news that Facebook Messenger’s code contains an unreleased “Watch Videos Together” feature. Now Instagram’s code reveals a “co-watch content” feature hidden inside Instagram Direct Messaging.
It’s unclear what users might be able to watch simultaneously, but the feature could give IGTV a much-needed boost, or just let you laugh and cringe at Instagram feed videos and Stories. But either way, co-viewing could make you see more ads, drive more attention to creators that will win Instagram their favor or just make you rack up time spent on the app without forcing you to create anything.
The Instagram co-watch code was discovered by TechCrunch’s favorite tipster and reverse-engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong, who previously spotted the Messenger Watch Together code. Her past findings include Instagram’s video calling, music soundtracks and Time Well Spent dashboard, months before they were officially released. The code mentions that you can “cowatch content” that comes from a “Playlist” similar to the queues of videos Facebook Watch Party admins can tee up. Users could also check out “Suggested” videos from Instagram, which would give it a new way to promote creators or spawn a zeitgeist moment around a video. It’s not certain whether users will be able to appear picture-in-picture while watching so friends can see their reactions, but that would surely be more fun.
Instagram declined to comment on the findings, which is typical of the company when a feature has been prototyped internally but hasn’t begun externally testing with users. At this stage, products can still get scrapped or take many months or even more than a year to launch. But given Facebook’s philosophical intention to demote mindless viewing and promote active conversation around videos, Instagram co-watching is a sensible direction.
Facebook launched Watch Party to this end back in July, and by November, 12 million had been started from Groups and they generated 8X more comments than non-synced or Live videos. That proves co-watching can make video feel less isolating. That’s important as startups like Houseparty group video chatrooms and Squad screenshare messaging try to nip at Insta’s heels.
It’s also another sign that following the departure of the Instagram founders, Facebook has been standardizing features across its apps, eroding their distinct identities. Mark Zuckerberg plans to unify the backend of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram to allow cross-app messaging. But Instagram has always been Facebook’s content-first app, so while Watch Party might have been built for Facebook Groups, Instagram could be where it hits its stride.
Speaking of the Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, this article’s author Josh Constine will be interviewing them on Monday 3/11 at SXSW. Come see them at 2 pm in the Austin Convention Center’s Ballroom D to hear about their thoughts on the creator economy, why they left Facebook and what they’ll do next. Check out the rest of TechCrunch’s SXSW panels here, and RSVP for our party on Sunday.