The Best 3D Games for Your Chromebook

1. Tales from the Borderlands

Storm Ventures brings on two new partners at enterprise-focused firm

In a town full of venture capital firms, Storm Ventures has made its mark with a singular focus on the enterprise. This week, the company announced it has taken on two freshly minted partners, Arun Penmetsa and Paul Willard, to continue the mission. They are doubling the number of partners with this announcement.

Penmetsa has been a principal at Storm for the last 3.5 years before being promoted to partner recently. Before joining Storm he worked as an engineer at Oracle and Google. Meanwhile, Willard, who was previously a partner at Subtraction Capital and has had stints as CMO at Atlassian and Practice Fusion also joined Storm as a partner this year.

The two men join a firm with over $800 million in assets under management and each brings real world experience working at successful enterprise companies

Willard says he felt like he found kindred spirits when started talking to the folks at Storm because their mission matched so well with his work helping young enterprise companies. “Part of the reason I came on board is I align so well with them,” Willard told TechCrunch.

As he pointed out, the company has been working with early-stage enterprise startups for the past 17 years and most VC firms in Silicon Valley are lacking that concentrated enterprise experience. “Everyone else might have a partner or two, but the enterprise is not the [primary] focus of their existence,” he said.

Penmetsa, who was hired by Storm out of graduate school at Stanford, has worked his way up the company the ladder the old fashioned way. He says working at a venture capital company that emphasizes the enterprise has its advantages. “Storm’s strategy is pretty focused on enterprise and enterprise SaaS companies. We focus on that one area, and spending more time in that area, we have some sense of how [enterprise] companies evolve. It’s not a blueprint, but patterns do emerge,” he explained.

In his role at Storm before the promotion, Penmetsa worked with a variety of enterprise startups including TruStar Technology, a security startup concentrating on threat information sharing and ShoCard, a blockchain identity startup. He plans to continue to looking at security, while also exploring digital healthcare as well.

Willard, who was an aerospace engineer at Boeing in the 1990s, has a passion for airline-related startups, and when he was at Subtraction he helped a number of companies including Zipline, which is building robot airplanes to deliver emergency supplies like blood and medicine and Boom, a company building a new generation of supersonic transport planes. He plans to bring that experience to bear at Storm as well. While he says that he is open to talking to any enterprise software startup, he has his eye on Robotics as a Service and drone companies in particular at the moment.

The two new partners are already on board and at work at Storm. Today marks the formal announcement of their hiring.


Die With Me is a chat app for sharing your phone’s last gasp

Are humans too addicted to their smartphones? I’ll leave the question hanging and point you to an art project in chat app form: Die With Me is a (paid) app that can only be used for chatting when your phone (and your interlocutors’ phones) are at 5% or less battery left.

The app is an “art project”, says co-creator Dries Depoorter — the artist half of the team behind Die With Me, along with web dev, David Surprenant.

It’s possible the pair have inadvertently stumbled on the solution for tech addiction: Apps that only function within very specific and bounded windows.

Certainly configurable time windows in which specific apps cannot be accessed would be a handy OS feature for managing device compulsion and dialing down of an evening.

But why a battery-bounded chat app? How did they come up with the idea for Die With Me?

“I’m an artist working with technology. Most of my work is about surveillance, social media and privacy,” says Depoorter. “I always try to come up with original ideas telling something about those themes” — flagging, by way of “perfect example”, another of his works: A lottery ticket vending machine where you can win up to 25,000 fake followers for your Instagram and Twitter account.

He says he got lost in a city a few times after he couldn’t find his way back to his hotel because his phone had died. “I think everyone with a smartphone landed in this sort of situation once. For me this was very inspiring,” he adds.

“As an digital artist I really wanted to do something with this feeling. For a long time I had the technique in my head of an app that you can only use when you have less then 5% battery.

“But I had no idea to make the app interesting. Later I came up the idea to make it a public chat room.”

Why did they think the idea would resonant with smartphone users? “I think because apps like this don’t exist and I think it’s a new feeling we all can recognize,” he says. “Having a low battery on your feels.. It feels like you depended on technology.”

After you’ve paid $0.99 to download the iOS (or Android) app — a price-tag is necessary to fund server costs for the project — you have to wait until you’ve got 5% or less battery left before you are able to enter a nickname into the app and be ushered into its minimalist, ephemeral public chatroom.

At this point you’ll have an average of around four minutes’ chat time — depending on your device and battery — before your phone literally pulls the plug on the conversation. (Or, well, I guess you could have a spare battery pack on standby and keep microdosing as the battery % dips to try to maintain the connection.)

Why did they settle on 5% exactly? “We tried to find a balance so you can use the app but you also have stress to use it,” says Depoorter. “And we know for iPhone if you go less than 10% it can die every moment.”

“Most of the time you end up with around 30 people in the chatroom,” he adds. “They go and new people get in. Sometimes it can take a while because for some phones the prediction of the % battery is not very good. We saw people sharing tips how to stay in for a long time.”

If no one else happens to be in dire battery straits when you are, and you find yourself alone in the chatroom, you can scroll back through earlier messages — or leave a message for a future transient user to find.

Not all messages are going to be nice, clearly, given the anonymous transience involved — much like reading graffiti left on the inside of a public toilet door — and some reviews do complain of racist and sexist language being bandied about. Others say the app can be hilarious.

Depoorter says his favorite chat message so far is the entirely on message observation that: “this app is like the life, new people come and go away and you forget them and when you’re gone you’re forgotten”.

This is his favorite conversation:

– Malk (4%): actually it’s a bit sad. I need my alarm clock in the morning. So when I die I have to wait for it to charge and turn on
– Pablo(3%): dont forget!
 – Malk(4%): yup
– Pablo(3%): i wont you to.lost your job tomorrow!
– Malk(4%): i have none

So Is Die With Me going to live long (and they hope prosper) or is the idea for the art project to be ephemeral too — and the app wink out of existence in the not-at-all-distant future?

No straight answer from Depoorter on that but he does say they’re “working hard on a few exiting big updates!”, adding: “We can’t tell anything 🙂 But we can’t wait to share the update!”

Presumably, given all the exclamation marks, he meant to type ‘exciting’ not “exiting”. Albeit, either word almost works given the existential context.

The legacy of Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, who passed today at 91

One of the great entrepreneurs of the 20th century, Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, passed away today. As Reuters pointed out in its short biography, Kamprad created a store — as a teenager mind you — that today has more than 400 locations, revenues of $62 billion, and a cultural ubiquity that very few consumer products could ever hope to attain.

Having read the IKEA story over the years and in various forms, there are just so many lessons to take from the one-time startup turned corporate behemoth.

The biggest innovation that Kamprad discovered was that consumer inconvenience could be massively lucrative. As Youngme Moon, a business professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in her book Different (my TechCrunch review here): “Most global brands build their reputations around a set of positives—the good things they do for their customers. What’s intriguing about IKEA is that it has consciously built its reputation around a set of negatives—the service elements it has deliberately chosen to withhold from its customers.”

IKEA is quite literally the antithesis of the view that the consumer is always right.

Kamprad realized that furniture could be “flat-packed” to massively reduce the cost of shipping and transportation, which at the time were among the product’s largest cost drivers. Table legs are unwieldy, so why not just take them off?

Except, now every consumer buying furniture would have to assemble it. In the case of complicated furniture items like armoires, there can easily be fifty or more steps involved in the construction of the piece, with an instruction guide that remains as confusing as ever at all the key steps.

Yet consumers love it, so much so that researchers have actually studied the effect of consumers investing their own labor into a product as The Ikea Effect. What researchers have found is that consumers love products far more when they complete the assembly themselves, because the labor we invest makes it seem as though the product is ours. Irrational, yes, but that predictable love ensured that consumers repeatedly flocked to IKEA stores.

Indeed, that investment of labor is so key to the brand that IKEA has famously resisted building out a delivery and installation crew à la Geek Squad to continue to force customers to build their furniture (or at least switch to TaskRabbit).

Flat-packing was hardly the only inconvenience that IKEA created though. It purposely built big-box warehouses to sell its products on the outskirts of cities near major ports or transportation hubs — improving logistics while cutting costs due to cheaper rents and larger scale.

Kamprad and his team knew that with the right price and product mix, consumers would drive to IKEA as a destination shopping experience — they had to bring their cars anyway of course to bring their purchases home. The team also understood that unlike a grocery store, furniture shopping is not a daily or weekly occurrence, and so people tended to invest significant time at the store when they finally did make the trip. That’s one of the reasons that IKEA has restaurants serving those scrumptious Swedish meatballs. The more time consumers spent in the store, the more they spent with their wallets.

And when they did open their wallets, they were able to buy more and more furniture over the years as the company grew in scale. IKEA’s product lines rarely shift, and so the company can fine-tune the production of each product to minimize cost. As FiveThirtyEight analyzed, the Poäng chair’s price has decreased from $300 at its launch in the late 1980s to just $79 today, inflation adjusted.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, Kamprad understood that furniture didn’t have to be like a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. He might have just gotten the timing right, but the latter half of the 20th century saw some of the first evidence that workers would actively move between cities to seek the best employment. IKEA wasn’t furniture you shipped across the country, it was furniture you dumped and bought new again. Environmentally devastating perhaps, but efficient and convenient for newly mobile young people.

There is more to the story of IKEA of course, and Kamprad has received his fair share of criticism around early youth activities as a member of a far-right nationalist group and his resistance to paying taxes.

What’s a shame though is how many founders have never learned the stories and the lessons of the company and its success. Kamprad is hardly a household name, anymore than James Sinegal (founder of Costco) or John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods, who might be a bit more familiar to Austin-based entrepreneurs). At times in the tech startup world, we can be so narrow in our definition of a startup and of entrepreneurship, that these sorts of founders who have done things in other industries or just in very different ways don’t even register on our scopes.

Yes, Larry and Sergey, Steve, and Elon are all important in the annals of our industry. But ultimately we are in the debt of hundreds of of founders who have been brilliant in their own ways. In Ingvar Kamprad’s passing, let’s try to expand our vernacular to encompass more startups, and celebrate the kind of original thinking that has completely reshaped our world.

Featured Image: Richard Baker / In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images

The 5 Best Computer Speakers – January 2018

Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with quality audio products has undoubtedly heard of Bose—the sonic giant behind some of the most powerful and dynamic sound systems on earth. So we were more than pleasantly surprised to find out that Bose had rather quietly introduced these incredible computer speakers to their impressive lineup of top-notch audio products.

The first thing you’ll notice about these speakers is their compact, sleek design. A major flaw with most mid-level computer speakers is that they tend to look like, well, computer speakers—taking up far too much space and adding a bulky, unsightly presence to the room. These Bose Companion 2’s, on the other hand, look great in practically every environment, and feature a slightly back-angled body that provides for a better listening experience.

But enough about these speakers’ looks. Their most important feature is their sound, and they sound truly fantastic. At any volume, these speakers deliver crisp, defined bass that somehow manages to feel both large and compressed at the same time (which gives bass-heavy music that satisfying low-end “push”). The treble frequencies shine through without any interruption from the bass or midrange (which is indeed a rarity among smaller computer speakers such as these), and even at close-to-max volumes these speakers never distort.

There’s a volume control and headphone jack on the front of the right speaker for easy access, and an auxiliary-in alongside an 8th-inch auxiliary-out for your computer, iPhone, or any other compatible device. Given the quality and style of these speakers, we would have assumed they would occupy a price closer to $200, or maybe even $300, which is why we strongly believe these are the best computer speakers you’ll be able to find given the money.

LittleBits’ Droid Inventor kit is the first STEM toy that works

I’ve been watching STEAM and/or STEAM toys with great interest and great skepticism. While many parents and teachers report great success with programming toys like Cleverbot and whatever this thing is, I’ve found that kids (and parents) I know find many STEM toys to be sterile, boring, and just no fun.

The same held true for the notoriously fiddly LittleBits kits. These kits had little snap-together electronic parts that allowed you to create circuits and connect chips in order to build various projects. You could make synthesizers, Arduino gadgets, and robots and the like but, ultimately, nothing sparked with anyone I knew. Now, I’m pleased to report, LittleBits has finally pulled off STEM magic with the Droid Inventor kit and other manufacturers would do well to emulate them.

The kit is deceptively simple. It includes just a few components including a driving and steering motor as well as a proximity sensor and a wireless unit that connects to your phone. The kit comes with a plastic R2D2 body including removable legs and head along with stickers that let you choose between red or blue R2 units and even white stickers that let your kids color their own robot.

Assembling the project is easy and the included mounting box makes it easy to lay out your circuit and connect to to power without worrying about pinched wires or short-circuits. Once your droid is assembled you follow a set of instructions on the mobile app to teach your robot to follow you, simulate force pushes, and other cute games.

Why is this product so good? It’s a compelling and fun kit that is connected to a very popular franchise that acts as both a learning experience and a toy. While the robot is currently in pieces on my kids’ floor, they have played with the Droid Inventor kit far more than any other STEM kit I’ve seen, including the classic Snap Circuits that is far more complete but also far more complex than any LittleBits kit.

While I know anecdotal evidence is shaky a best, I believe that LittleBits has finally gotten the STEM formula right. This $99 toy/gadget/kit is easy to build, fun, and potentially educational. It’s essentially like a really simple Star Wars Lego kit with far smarter tech.

Will this toy make your kid a little genius? No, but they will get a rudimentary understanding of circuits and understand that small components can do cool stuff. Again, I don’t believe toys like these will make kids smarter but at least they expose them to concepts, tools, and ideas that could lead to a career in tech. And all it took was to add a popular whimsical beeping robot into the STEM mix.

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Adrian Ionel returns to CEO role at Mirantis as the company continues to expand beyond OpenStack

Mirantis co-founder Adrian Ionel left his CEO role in October 2015, at a time when the company was still solely focused on OpenStack. Now, he is coming back to reprise his role as the company’s CEO at a time when Mirantis is looking beyond OpenStack and toward the still nascent cloud native ecosystem around Kubernetes for its next big business opportunity. Mirantis’ current CEO Alex Freedland will remain a board member.

Like other companies that made an early bet on OpenStack, Mirantis, which once described itself as “the pure play OpenStack company,” went through a series of ups and downs (it now also describes itself as the “#1 pure play open cloud company”). But just like OpenStack has now found its place, Mirantis weathered these storms as an independent company and is now able to take what it learned in the last few years in delivering OpenStack to a wider swath of products.

“The company needs to find its path forward, leveraging the present — the enormous assets we have in the cloud infrastructure business — and articulate a compelling and exciting and engaging future vision that brings us into the future” Ionel told me. “That’s quite similar to where we were in 2010.”

For now, Mirantis’ foundation will remain its private cloud business, where it will continue to offer its managed cloud solution for OpenStack. “Private cloud is still a very large market and we have a very compelling answer,” Ionel said. And with companies like AT&T (which runs a 10,000 node OpenStack cluster with the help of Mirantis), the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, VW and others on its customer roster, this will likely remain a good part of the company’s business in the near term.

But in building out its continuous delivery platform for OpenStack, Mirantis also built the foundation for the future of the company. “We believe that our open source toolbox — our unique approach to open source and the open source technology out there — are central to helping companies build and run applications on any cloud and that we will use the same playbook – the continuous delivery playbook and the open approach that made us successful in OpenStack to help companies run apps in a fully automated fashion in any cloud — public or private,” Ionel explained.

Mirantis already started this journey under Freedland. With DriveTrain and its Container-as-a-Service offering, it built the kernel of the continuous delivery platform that Ionel envisions and that Mirantis needs to focus on as its customers start asking for multi-cloud solutions.

Ionel also seemed very excited about the fact that this move brings Mirantis closer to the actual applications and toward application delivery in general. “We want to give customers and autopilot for applications they want to deploy,” he said. “We will invest heavily in cloud native continuous deliver that enables developers to deploy their code with full automation and ease.”

Returning to Mirantis wasn’t an obvious choice for Ionel and he admitted that it took him a few months to make a decision. In part, that’s because he built another company, Dorsal, after leaving Mirantis. He also noted that he prefers to look forward in life, “so if you rejoin something, you want to think very carefully why you are doing it.” In the end, though, he decided that he would feel very much at home at Mirantis and that he would be able to help the company in this next phase.

How Facebook’s new way of classifying what you write may speed feature rollouts across the globe

The way Facebook processes what the world writes is about to get a bit more cosmopolitan.

As Facebook’s scope continues to grow globally, the way it rolls out features has been complicated by the fact that there are more than 100 languages currently supported on the site. When it comes to building text boxes that users can type status updates into, this isn’t that difficult of a problem, but as artificial intelligence continues to drive everything Facebook does, the challenges skyrocket for ensuring that its systems fully grasps what its users are wanting.

The company’s Applied Machine Learning team has spent the past year working on a technology called multilingual embeddings which it says could significantly improve the speed at which its natural language processing tech is able to operate across foreign languages. In early tests, the new process is 20-30X faster than previous methods, the company said.

Beyond reductions in latency, the tech could help future Facebook features reach more people more quickly and ensure a lot more consistency across what services the website offers across the globe

“From the multilingual understanding perspective, I want everybody to use all the features that are deployed by Facebook in their own language,” Facebook head of translation Necip Fazil Ayan told TechCrunch in an interview. “This should not be limited to a particular language, but we want to move to a world where all features are available everywhere, and can be used by everybody.”

The company has already been utilizing the tech over the past several months to detect content-policy violations, surface M Suggestions in Messenger and power its Recommendations feature across several languages. Facebook has about 20 engineers inside its AML group working on the multilingual embeddings.

Word embeddings are essentially vectors that allow text classifiers to approach human language in a more context-driven way, highlighting the interrelatedness of words to eventually derive shared meaning or intent. (Here‘s a good breakdown if you’re curious.) Companies like Facebook can make (and have made) word embeddings for individual languages, but it’s pretty labor intensive to do this effectively for English, let alone more than a hundred language, that they’ve had to work towards a more scalable approach.

Simplified sample word embeddings highlighting separate word vectors in Spanish and English for “soccer”

Previously it’s led to the company essentially translating foreign languages to English and then running English classifiers on them, but this has been a rough solution due to translation errors, but perhaps more importantly the solution has been far too slow. By mapping multiple languages onto a single word vector a blog post from the company details, Facebook’s method “can train on one or more languages, and learn a classifier that works on languages you never saw in training.”

Even with the 20-30 significant reduction in latency, Facebook says that this approach is seeing results similar to what it would be getting with language-specific classifiers in some early testing.

The company’s work is still in its early stages when it comes to language support, right now feature rollouts utilizing the tech support French, German and Portuguese though Ayan says that internally the team has been investing in tech that works in the “tens of languages.” Furthermore, the group is working to improve accuracy by building up sentence and paragraph embeddings that get to the root intent of a body of text even more quickly.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Elon Musk’s Boring Co. pitches plan to build a tunnel under Culver City to LA

The Boring Company, Elon Musk’s most unassumingly named tech venture, has presented a plan to build a 6.5 mile tunnel between Hawthorne (where SpaceX HQ is located) and West Los Angeles, undercutting Culver City in between to link the two. Boring Co. executives presented the plan to the Culver City city council on Monday night, trying to sell the local regulators on the idea of a tunnel system designed to beat traffic and ease surface congestions.

The Boring Company’s chief of operations Jehn Balajadia presented the plan to city government, explaining that Musk’s venture already has permission from Hawthorne city council for an easement for that side of the tunnel, and it’s also working with LA on an excavation permit, too, according to Wired. The pitch is that this tunnel would enable The Boring Co. to create networks of electric-powered sleds or ‘skates’ that could transport passenger pods, personal vehicles and cargo at high speed, autonomously, routing goods and people like network traffic.

While Musk’s venture hasn’t done much yet, beyond dig a few test tunnels and talk about the state of the technology of tunnel borers and how much it could be improved, it has sold a lot of hats – 50,000, to be exact, a figure which Musk himself touted when citing the company’s ability to make money from its branding even before attempting to commercialize its primary business. That was apparently something a speaker at the council meeting raised, too – but as a warning.

Said meeting attendee called the Boring Co. a “thinly capitalized company that has made money selling hats,” Bloomberg reports.

Photos purportedly showcase the Xbox Watch that never was

It probably goes without saying that Microsoft, along with the rest of the tech world, was working on a smartwatch. And while, by some accounts, the category is finally having its moment, the software giant’s efforts didn’t appear to make it to far beyond the prototype stage.

New photos posted by a Twitter user and spotted by Windows Central purport to show the company’s abandoned effort. Similar images popped up late last year, but these actually show the thing powered on, betraying the same fitness focus that dominated the company’s abandoned Band wearables line.

The device appears to be in line with the one the company was said to be testing internally a few years back. Designed by part of the Xbox hardware team, the hardware has a 1.5-inch display and support for heart rate monitoring.

It’s probably for the best the device never saw the light of day. Wearables have proven elusive for Microsoft. The Band line was severely lacking from a hardware perspective, and the company didn’t really do much to distinguish the offering beyond that, failing to make headway in an overcrowded wearable space.

The company ultimately halted sales on the Band 2 and killed work on its successor. Last year, meanwhile, Microsoft appeared to be transitioning its focus toward its Health software offering, with potential plans to work with third-party hardware developers. Though admittedly, not all that much appears to have happened on that front, either.