Layoffs at Waterloo-based smartphone industry pioneer BlackBerry cut deep last year, with around 5,000 employees being let go. Those cuts continue into 2013 as BlackBerry undergoes what CEO Thorsten Heins called a “complex transition” earlier this month, and the latest is that 250 employees of its core R&D and new product testing facility have been let go as of earlier this week, as confirmed by Canada’s CTV News and by BlackBerry itself to TechCrunch.
That number pales in comparison to some of the massive cuts that came in big batches last year, including one 3,000 person block in August 2012. Last year, however, BlackBerry reportedly told its employees that if they were working on services or projects key to BlackBerry 10, they’d mostly likely be safe. These cuts appear to be closer to the bone, however, coming as they do at the heart of BlackBerry’s innovation efforts, which is why it’s perhaps more worrying for the company’s overall outlook than the big sweeping trimming of potentially redundant or sub-optimal departments last year.
BlackBerry is saying the change to employee count is all about efficiency, in a statement provided to TechCrunch (included in full below), but it’s hard to see a big batch of layoffs so near to R&D, which should be the lifeblood of any technology company, as a good sign. Heins’ strategy of cost-cutting and efficiency has helped BlackBerry manage to stay relatively strong on revenue, however, and to keep a healthy cash reserve on hand.
BlackBerry has a number of products in the pipeline, apparently, including the leaked A10 (and the somewhat unimpressive Q5), a new touchscreen flagship that’s rumored to be launched later this year. But that device looks to be quite far along already; this fresh report of staffing changes begs the question of how much more new hardware we have left to see beyond that.
The full statement from BlackBerry’s Lisette Kwong follows:
I can confirm on the record, that BlackBerry on Tuesday informed 250 employees of their termination in Waterloo. These employees were part of the New Product Testing Facility, a department that supports BlackBerry’s manufacturing and R&D efforts.
This is part of the next stage of our turnaround plan to increase efficiencies and scale our company correctly for new opportunities in mobile computing. We will be as transparent as possible as those plans evolve.
Home 3D printers – particularly FDM, Makerbot-like devices – are still in their infancy and, as such, are untested when it comes to safety. That’s why some researchers at the Built Environment Research Group at the Illinois Institute of Technology decided to test a popular model for ultrafine particle emissions, a measure of how much junk these things emit while in use.
The result? PLA, a starch-based material, emitted 20 billion particles per minute while ABS, a plastic, emitted 200 billion. This is similar in scale to using a gas stove, lighting a cigarette, or burning a scented candle. In short, it’s a significant bit of potential pollution in an unfiltered environment but it’s nothing we don’t do to ourselves on a daily basis already.
The study didn’t take into account what materials were being expelled, which makes it a bit more troubling. For example, according to PhysOrg, ABS is known to be toxic in lab rats but PLA, oddly enough, is used in nanotechnology for the delivery of medicines.
What’s the takeaway? Ventilate your 3D printer.
Because most of these devices are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, results herein suggest caution should be used when operating in inadequately ventilated or unfiltered indoor environments. Additionally, these results suggest that more controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate particle emissions from a wider arrange of desktop 3D printers.
Obviously these devices are designed for home and office use and probably will never end up under a lab-grade ventilation hood. However, given the various processes used to make 3D objects, it’s important that this research is done to reduce the effects of UFPs on children who may be using these in schools as well as the teachers, designers, and makers who use them on a daily basis.
You can read the entire paper here or just turn on a fan.
Bored of quantifying your self already? Why not quantify your pet instead? FitBark is a Fitbit style health tracker for your under-walked canine companion. We’ve covered this (frankly) barking mad gizmo before, back in May, when its creators were exhibiting at Hardware Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt NY but they’ve now taken to Kickstarter to raise funds to get the device out in the wild. Again.
It’s actually FitBark’s second attempt at Kickstarting the gizmo. As Gigaom points out, its creators pulled an earlier attempt at crowdfunding the device in order to rethink the business model, scrapping the monthly subscription fee and opting for a fixed price-tag of $69 via Kickstarter or $99 for general retail.
FitBark are after $35,000 to cover manufacturing costs this time around, and are more than half-way to achieving the target with 32 days left to run on the campaign – so crazy or otherwise, this is one hardware startup that’s pretty much a dead cert for its first manufacturing run-around-the-park at least.
Now I say barking mad but that’s mostly tongue-in-cheek, being as FitBark is not the only health tracker angling for pet owners’ cash. Whistle, a startup backed by $6 million in Series A funding, launched a $99 wearable activity tracker for dogs only last month. There’s also Tagg, which combines activity and location tracking by including GPS in its device. So underestimate the pet-owning dollar at your peril.
So what does FitBark actually do? Attach it to your dog’s collar and it tracks daily’s activity levels, sending the data back to FitBack’s servers when your smartphone is in range, or throughout the day if you purchase a dedicated FitBark base station (and keep you pet penned up at home while you’re out). The latter scenario would allow owners to keep remote tabs on their pet’s activity levels when they’re not at home, but unless you own a mansion (or employ a dog walker) your dog isn’t going to be able to do a whole lot of running around without you. FitBark then crunches all the activity data, offering customisable daily activity goals, and delivering the results back to you via an app. So far, so kinda sane.
At its more barking mad fringe, the FitBark also lets pet owners compare – well, they say “unify” – their own fitness with their dog’s fitness/activity. So yeah, boasting that you are fitter than Fido is apparently a thing now…
FitBark is also the first platform that leverages existing APIs of human fitness trackers to bring you a unified view of your fitness level and that of your dog. From the outset, FitBark will seamlessly receive input from your Nike Fuelband, Fitbit, Withings Pulse, or Bodymedia Fit. We’ll look to expand the list as we learn about new open APIs or partnership opportunities. If you’re not only a devoted dog parent but are also serious about tracking your own fitness, you’ll love this.
SmartThings, the “Internet of Things” Company That Connects the Gadgets in Your Home, Launches Its Own Store
SmartThings, the connected-home platform that lets you control your lights, your coffee maker and even your door lock from a mobile app, doesn’t just want to control them – it wants to sell them, too.
The Washington, D.C.-based startup is launching its own online store of home-automation devices, called the SmartThings Shop. SmartThing’s own devices, along with compatible third-party products, will be marketed in the store.
The company had previously said that an e-commerce platform was in the works, so this isn’t a total surprise, but the move underscores the company’s efforts to be a one-stop shop for home-automation gadgets, an area of tech that has been largely fragmented to date.
As mentioned here, SmartThings is an open platform that works with a bunch of different wireless standards, like Bluetooth, ZigBee and Z-Wave, thus allowing it to work with various protocols and third-party devices. The company was recently profiled in Wired, and gave a full onstage demo at the D11 conference this spring.
That said, it’s obviously not without competition: Home-automation solutions abound and big-box retailers like Lowe’s have their own viable systems for automating the home.
SmartThings first came into existence as a Kickstarter project in 2012. It began shipping in April, and quickly sold out of available kits. The company says that about 10,000 kits have sold to date – about 50,000 devices in total – and another 20,000 kits have been reserved.
With the birth of the SmartThings Shop, the company is making new kits available, and is essentially selling three categories of products: SmartThings starter kits, individual devices, and solution sets, which are supposed to directly address some of the more frequently requested home automations.
A starter kit will run from $199 to $299, and will offer a variety of sensors and “things,” along with a SmartThings hub. Individual devices include SmartThings sensors and GE light and appliance outlets, Jasco in-wall lighting dimmer switches, Kwikset lever door locks and Schlage deadbolts, to name a few of about a dozen products.
The solution sets range from $59 to nearly $300 and have themes or titles that identify their function. For example, there’s the I Can: Automatically Turn On/Off Lights in Response to Motions kit, for $99; the I Can: Turn Off Appliances With My Phone kit, also for $99; and the I Can: Lock and Unlock My Doors, for $235.
The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset isn’t even available for consumers to buy yet but here comes the cut-price competition… While the Rift development kit will set you back $300 – and still requires a PC to do the gaming horse-work – vrAse, a soon-to-be-launched-on-Kickstarter project, is approaching virtual reality from another direction. It wants to turn your existing smartphone into a pair of wearable virtual reality/3D specs. And do so for as little as 48/$75.
Since high-end smartphones are powerful computers in their own right, and come furnished with cameras front and back, why not just stick your phone right on your face, right? Provided you don’t mind looking like Mr Phone Face, of course. vrAse is one part Oculus Rift, one part Google Glass, one part sci-fi ski goggles – with gaming, 3D movie-watching and augmented reality use-cases envisaged by its creators, assuming they can get developers to make the apps to go with their goggles.
At launch there’s clearly not going to be a lot of ready to rock apps but they say they will offer demo content to show off vrAse’s AR and 3D gaming capabilities. Plus, any movies already made for 3D can also be downloaded or streamed in Side by Side format (SBS) for viewing on vrAse. And films and games can also apparently be converted to SBS for viewing on the device.
vrAse is effectively a toughened smartphone case, attached to a pair of wearable goggles. Your existing smartphone slides inside the case so you’re looking directly at its screen through vrAse’s dual lenses – which generate the 3D/immersion effect. And that’s pretty much it. Compatible smartphones at launch are the iPhone 5, HTC One, Xperia Z, Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 2. In future the creators say they will make it compatible with any smartphone.
How immersive will vrAse be? That’s the key question. And the answer will depend (in part) on the smartphone screen you’re pairing it with. The higher the screen res, the better looking the picture will presumably be. Beyond that, vrAse’s creators aren’t going into detail about what sort of field of vision to expect from vrAse so it’s hard to say how it will stack up against the likes of Oculus Rift. It is looking considerably cheaper to buy, however, so set your expectations accordingly. Update: vrAse says the range of vision is configurable but currently the device offers more than 105 degrees of binocular vision field.
vrAse’s makers are hoping to raise 55,000 via Kickstarter. If they hit their target they’re aiming to ship to backers in February. Their crowdfunding campaign kicks off on Saturday.