How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars

The coronavirus pandemic is acting as a catalyst for urban transformation across Europe as city authorities grapple with how to manage urban mobility without risking citizens’ health or inviting gridlock by letting cars flood in.

Micromobility and local commerce are being seen as both short and long-term solutions for urban revival in a number of cases. We’ve run down key policy developments in four major cities, Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan, which — at varying speeds — are pushing to rethink and reclaim streets for feet and two wheels.

Paris’ 15-minute city

Every year, around 2,500 people die prematurely because of air pollution in Paris. Like most European cities, the number one cause of pollution is motorized traffic.

Due to consistent policy changes over the past two decades, pollution has been slowly decreasing. It’s a long and difficult process and each step provides a new set of challenges.

The city has only had two different mayors for the past twenty years — Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo. That consistency combined with long terms as mayor has led to some divisive changes and long-term thinking.

Paris has a long and conflictual relationship with cars. Nearly 20 years ago, bus lanes were highly controversial because it reduced space dedicated to cars. Today, nobody is asking for the removal of those lanes.

That’s why it’s a bit ironic that the same thing is happening again and again. For instance, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo banned cars from the right bank of the Seine in 2016. Many political opponents and car enthusiasts criticized the decision. Earlier this year, none of the candidate in the municipal election mentioned the right bank of the Seine — it became a non-issue.

But the city’s policies aren’t just focused on banning cars. Paris has become a mobility lab for European cities with many public and private initiatives. If they work in Paris, chances are those initiatives will be reproduced elsewhere.

There are two reasons why Paris is an interesting city for mobility experiments. First, the Paris area is the 29th metropolitan area in the world by population density. Georges-Eugène Haussmann initiated some radical urbanization changes in the second half of the 19th century leading to the city’s modern layout — mostly seven-story buildings circled by the ring road.

As the limits of the city haven’t changed in over 100 years, it is still relatively small compared to other major cities. For instance, San Francisco, which is a small city by American standards, is still larger than Paris when it comes to area.

Second, Paris attracts a lot of tourists (in a normal year). In 2019, 38 million tourists came to Paris. These tourists tend to do normal touristy things — they move around the city all day long.

Vélib’ as the epicenter of mobility changes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Vélib' bikes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and a fleet of Vélib’ bikes. Image Credits: Loïc Venance / AFP / Getty Images

In addition to a dense public transportation network with subways, regional trains, buses and trams, other transportation methods have emerged. In 2005, the city of Lyon introduced Vélo’v, a publicly subsidized bike-sharing service based on a network of stations spread across the city.

Two years later, the city of Paris introduced a similar servie called Vélib’. It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact Vélib’ has had on transportation. Just a few years after its launch, Vélib’ had hundreds of thousands of subscribers generation over 100,000 rides per day.

Other cities in Europe and the U.S. have followed course and introduced their own bike-sharing service. But nobody has come close to reaching the success of Vélib’. Despite some growing pains, Vélib’ now has over 400,000 subscribers. On September 4th, 2020, the service handled 209,000 rides. There are around 15,000 bikes on the service, which means that each bike is used nearly 14 times per day.

The reason why Vélib’ is much more successful than Citi Bike in New York or Santander Cycles in London is that Vélib’ is much cheaper. A standard Vélib’ subscription with unlimited ride costs $3.70 per month (€3.10). In London, you pay nearly $10 per month (£90 per year). In New York, it costs $15 per month. Subscribing to Vélib’ is a no-brainer.

And this is all due to political will. Vélib’ is a subsidized service. But it’s hard to understand the financial impact of Vélib’ as there are fewer cars on the road, which means that it’s less expensive to maintain roads. Additionally, the impact on pollution and physical activity means that people tend to be healthier, which reduces the pressure on the public health system.

Bike-sharing services can’t work without public money as it fosters network density, which boosts usage. Once the network reaches a critical mass, it’s a never-ending virtuous circle of network expansion and new clients.

Micromobility’s key battleground

A dozen Bikes from Obike in Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Many startups have tried to enter the lucrative market with their own take on bike-sharing without docks., Obike, Ofo, Mobike and more recently Bolt have all deployed thousands of bikes in the streets of Paris. They’ve all shut down since then. Jump, which is now a Lime subsidiary, is the only remaining contender.

But bikes are just one transportation method among what people call ‘soft mobility’ in France. A French startup called Cityscoot has also been thriving with tens of thousands of rides per day. The company operating free-floating electric moped scooter service.

And then, there are scooters. At some point, there were just too many scooter startups — Bird, Bolt, Bolt by Usain Bolt, Circ, Dott, Hive, Jump, Lime, Tier, Voi, Ufo and Wind. They all had funny-sounding names and there were even two different companies with the same name (Bolt). And I’m probably forgetting a couple of companies.

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

This shows once again that Paris is an attractive city for micromobility startups. There are many tourists and you can go from A to B quite easily.

The city of Paris had to regulate the market because scooters were taking over urban space. There are now three permits to operate shared electric scooters in Paris — Dott, Lime and Tier. They each operate a fleet of 5,000 scooters and there are now dedicated parking spots.

The 15-minute city

Up next, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has some ambitious plans to accelerate the pace of changes. During her reelection campaign earlier this year, she laid out a clear multiyear plan with a key concept: the 15-minute city.

“The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city. At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity,” Carlos Moreno, a professor at University of Paris 1, told Bloomberg.

Essentially, Moreno believes that there shouldn’t be residential neighbourhoods, business districts and commercial areas. Each neighbourhood should be a tiny town on its own with workplaces, stores, movie theaters, health centers, schools, bakeries, etc.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the 15-minute concept has the potential of revitalizing neighbourhoods altogether. By prioritizing social functions, roads immediately become an afterthought.

The 15-minute city is a concept that sums up a lot of things in three words. Suddenly, there’s a clear political agenda with a strong brand for the next decade of urban planning.

If I paraphrase neoliberal ideology, many policies trickle down from the 15-minute city. Car ownership is relatively low in Paris — more than 60% of households don’t have a car. Even more striking, people going to work use their car extremely rarely — in 9.5% of cases.

There are two consequences. First, cars are no longer the priority. In 2024, you won’t be able to drive a diesel car in Paris. In 2030, gas-powered cars will be banned.

Some major roads are now primarily focused on ‘soft mobility’. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Paris took advantage of the lockdown to accelerate their mobility agenda with new bike lanes and repurposed roads. It feels like they’re copying the neoliberal shock doctrine, as explained by Naomi Klein. And yet, in that case, it feels like a reverse shock doctrine as the administration is focusing on green initiatives.

For instance, the Rue de Rivoli used to be a major road that connects the Champs-Elysées to Bastille. Now, one-third of the road is dedicated to buses and two-thirds are reserved for bikes and e-scooters.

Rue de Rivoli. Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Second, the City of Paris wants to reclaim space. Cars in Paris remain parked 95% of the time. That’s why Paris is going to remove 50% of parking spots. Instead, the city of Paris wants to turn some streets into gardens. There are bigger plans for new parks as well in front of the city hall and between the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro.

After decades of incremental changes, everything is lining up for a drastic transition. In Paris, change happens progressively, then suddenly.

A bike traffic jam near Bastille, Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Barcelona’s Superblocks

The Catalan capital — Spain’s second largest city — approved a new Urban Mobility Plan in 2013 with the aim of flipping street space in favor of pedestrians and away from prioritizing private vehicles. The city has the highest vehicle density in Europe and that’s a major problem.

City authorities report vehicle density at around 6,000 per square kilometer — highlighting the deleterious impact on air quality and public health. Per official stats, traffic pollution causes 3,500 premature deaths annually, 1,800 hospital admissions for cardiorespiratory problems, 5,100 cases of bronchitis in adults, 31,100 cases in children and 54,000 asthma attacks in children and adults.

The city’s solution to this public health crisis is an ambitious pedestrianization plan focused, in recent years, on creating ‘superilles’ — also known as ‘super islands’ or ‘superblocks’ — which switch the function of a number of streets from carrying cars to putting neighbourhood life first.

One of Barcelona’s early superblocks in the Poblenou district. Image Credits: Toni Hermoso Pulido / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A handful of superblocks have been established over the years. Some, such as one in the Gracia barrio, is already so well established it’s all but invisible to the eye unless you stop to ask yourself how come there are so many pedestrians out and about and the cars that pass have to creep along behind them? Or why the edge of the pavement blends seamlessly into the road with no change of level.

But Barcelona is now planning a major expansion of the policy, championed by mayor Ada Colau, that will see it transform the dense, central Eixample district — creating masses more green (and low speed) urban space over the next ten years. They’re dubbing this the Barcelona superblock, given its central location and the larger scale vs what’s come before.

The superblocks model is naturally suited to micromobility — and building out the city’s network of bike lanes is a key part of the urban mobility plan.

Barcelona has had a red-liveried docked bike rental scheme — called Bicing — since 2007. Recently upgraded to include e-bikes alongside mechanical rides, the scheme isn’t yet as heavily used as its equivalent in Paris (and isn’t open to tourists as the subscription requires a local ID to obtain) but it is very popular with residents.

Per official data, Bicing had more than 127,000 subscribers as of September 2020 who racked up around 1.3 million journeys in the month.

In recent years e-scooter ownership has also mushroomed, with no specific legislation preventing private use on public roads, though rental companies have faced regulatory controls. Not that that’s prevented plenty of scooter startups — from Bird to Bolt to Wind — from scooter-bombing the city seeking to workaround restrictions.

A pair of Wind e-scooters parked in a Barcelona street in the barrio of Gracia where pedestrians and bikes already have priority over cars. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

As well as boosting biking and micromobility, the superblocks plan also aims to boost local commerce as streets flip from being ‘for cars’ to greener and more pleasant spaces where people are encouraged to meet, gather and do business.

In other traffic control policy measures, Barcelona began applying restrictions to vehicles based on their emissions at the start of this year — banning older petrol and diesel cars from entering during peak times. (The policy will apply to delivery transportation from next year.) While residents who own polluting vehicles have been encouraged to give up their cars in exchange for a free three-year public transit card (nudging people toward the existing metro, train and bus network).

Righting a historical wrong

With the superblocks transformation, there’s a historical architectural challenge that Barcelona’s urban planners are aiming to overcome.

The grid structure of the central Eixample district — conceived in 1856 by Catalan civil engineer, Illdefons Cerdà — aimed to extend the growing city in a healthy way by allowing for green space within every housing block.

However, the plan was implemented with a lack of regulation that allowed infill by developers and speculators over time, fuelled by rising land values and housing prices. That gobbled up gaps in the blocks intended as open public spaces. The result is a far denser city than Cerdà had planned. And one with streets that — so long as they remain packed with petrol and diesel vehicles — are noisy, polluted and unpleasant places to hang around in.

The Barcelona superblock is thus an attempt to right a historical wrong in the implementation of the city’s urban planning. Or “to modernize the Barcelona of the late nineteenth century and achieve better conditions for public health,” as city authorities put it.

It’s also a cautionary story about the need for proper regulation to accompany urban planning to ensure it serves the public interest — to protect residents’ health, quality of life and local commerce — guarding against deleterious external forces powered by private economic interests.

Around a third of Eixample’s 61 streets will be flipped to make way for a “green axes” of pedestrianized carriageway by 2030, under the Barcelona superblock plan. It will also create 21 new public squares at diagonal intersections.

The transformation of the zone will be slow, with city authorities wanting to make sure they bring residents along with them. But they have data to champion the plan — drawing on the success of a handful of existing superblocks, such as one in the Poblenou district — and can point to examples such as a third less NO2 pollution at one of the flipped interchanges and a similar increase in street level commercial activity.

The detail of the new street model has not yet been determined — the city is holding a design competition to choose that next year — but it’s set key parameters such as the need for 80% of the street to be shaded by trees/vegetation in summer, and at least 20% of its surface to be permeable rather than paved.

The city’s vision for the evolution of streets in the Barcelona superblock. Image Credits: Barcelona City Council

“It will be necessary to generate walking spaces, spaces that facilitate spontaneous children’s play and comfortable living spaces,” it writes in a press release [translated from Catalan]. “The design will have to allow for flexible spaces that can accommodate various occasional uses such as fairs, concerts and other acts. All with a feminist vision, prioritizing children and the elderly and promoting services and local trade.”

City authorities describe the aim as “a more sustainable model of public space, healthy and designed for people” — and one which “promotes social relations, which encourages local trade and focuses on the needs of children and seniors.”

They have also committed to maintain access to public transport throughout the superblocks.

Work on converting the first four streets is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2022: In Consell de Cent, Girona, Rocafort and Comte Borrell. City authorities have committed $44.8 million (€37.8 million) to these first transformations — though clearly a lot more public funding will be needed to deliver the full switch.

The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a small-scale opportunity for accelerating pedestrian-focused urban remodeling — enabling city authorities to expand Barcelona’s network of bike lanes during the relative quiet of lockdowns, and install some emergency pedestrian zones to expand outdoor space as an anti-COVID-19 measure.

Some street parking around the city has also been requisitioned and repurposed to make outdoor terrace space for cafés and bars during the pandemic.

But the need to reset an urban infrastructure that’s unhealthily monopolized by motorized traffic is an issue the city has been grappling with for decades — slowly chipping away at the problem with a variety of policies, such as those that allow for temporary road closures for local events and at weekends.

So, for many Barcelona residents, it’s not controversial to say that creating healthy, commercially active urban spaces means cars giving way to foot traffic. And the 2030 ‘Barcelona superblock’ looks like it will tip the balance for good.

That said, criticism of the project includes that it’s not radical enough — leaving a number of high-speed thoroughfares to keep on slicing right through the heart of the city. So Barcelona’s creep away from cars doesn’t yet look as radical as what’s being planned in Paris.

A Bird e-scooter parked next to a bike lane in Barcelona’s Poblenou district. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

London’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods

The UK capital has operated congestion charging in central zones of the city since 2003 — charging motorists to drive into the area in a bid to reduce road use during the busiest times. The policy made London a major European pioneer in applying controls on urban car use.

However, a lack of public and political consensus on the issue has restricted policy development for long periods — and even led to a rolling back, at the end of 2010, when then London mayor, Boris Johnson, scrapped a portion of the zone known as the western extension.

London’s huge population and sprawling size — with commercial zones tending to be clustered and concentrated away from large swathes of residential housing (which are often segregated by income) — means the issue of how to get around can be a divisive one, for people and businesses. So, it’s not an obvious candidate for going ‘car free’.

Yet, at the same time, London is extremely well served with public transport (buses, subways, trams and trains) — meaning plenty of journeys can be made without owning or using a private vehicle. There has also been investment in expanding the city’s network of cycle lanes in recent decades. And since 2010 a pay-as-you-go docked bike rental scheme has been in operation — racking up more than 10 million trips in total as of 2017.

Though, again, car-clogged streets and a Northern European climate can put limits on people’s willingness to brave the elements on two wheels.

London’s docked bike hire scheme. Image Credits: Elliott Brown / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Existing UK regulations have also held back the uptake of modern alternatives like e-scooters — though there are now moves to open up streets to this type of micromobility, with the city’s transport regulator preparing a trial for scooter rental companies.

While a lack of decisive political action to curb car use has undoubtedly contributed to decades of terrible air quality in London — with drastic impacts on public health (one study in 2015 suggested deaths from long term exposed to pollution could be as high as 9,500 annually) — rising awareness of the health risks associated with urban traffic has led city authorities to push policies that aim to deter the most polluting vehicles from driving through the congestion zone by applying a surcharge, which appears to have led to a decline in peak pollution levels.

London’s ‘ultra-low emission zone’ (Ulez) will be expanded to cover a larger area of the city next year. So, there’s been a centralized and somewhat sustained push to make urban car use cleaner and less harmful, even though there’s been an inconsistent approach to discouraging car use itself.

But, in a more radical recent development, the shock of the coronavirus has fuelled grassroots campaigns at a borough/neighbourhood level to bar through-traffic in residential neighbourhoods.

This is done by implementing so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) which use a variety of interventions to limit traffic — such as strategically placed planters or bollards and/or timed road use restrictions to block rat runs.

Residents in a number of London boroughs who are sick of living alongside the noise and pollution generated by traffic have seized on the opportunity of COVID-19-related mobility restrictions to restrict access to roads in their immediate vicinity to through traffic.

Per Bloomberg, there were 114 plans for LTNs in the works in London as of late July.

There’s push and pull here too, with LTNs generating opposition, including complaints that rat-running cars are simply being displaced to other streets.

There are also important socioeconomic critiques that they disproportionately benefit wealthier areas at the expense of more deprived neighbourhoods.

Such opposition may in part reflect the relative rapidness of implementation since the pandemic — something a more participatory process and well-rounded monitoring and consultation might be able to avoid.

But for those lucky to be living in LTNs the gains look hard to ignore. “Now, instead of speeding cars, the streets carry street chalk, murals, flowers, and signs with children’s illustrations asking people to step out of their car and explore the neighborhood,” Bloomberg reports on the changed character of street life in one LTN.

A pedestrianized junction in Dulwich as part of emergency coronavirus measures to create more street space for people Image credits: Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

In May, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan — who has pledged to make London carbon neutral by 2030 if he’s reelected next year — announced a ‘Streetspace’ plan: Pushing a range of policies aimed at “rapidly transforming London’s streets to accommodate a possible 10x increase in cycling and 5x increase in walking.”

The plan also explicitly encourages scooting alongside walking and cycling as an urban mobility priority in London.

Part of the motivation for the policy push has been trying to steer Londoners away from a mass regressive switch away from London’s public transport — and into cars — as lockdown restrictions ease yet the risk of COVID-19 infection lingers.

Khan’s Streetspace plan also voices support for LTNs. But, ultimately, the power to restrict London traffic rests with local councils (or central government) — leaving the mayor to “urge” government/borough councils to get on board with measures aimed at persuading Londoners to switch to “cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport”.

The lack of a central London authority with a policy plan for LTNs may limit how far or fast these through-traffic-free neighbourhoods can spread in the UK capital.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting development that shows how much appetite there is among Londoners to reclaim residential streets for neighbourhood life.

Planters block a road to through traffic as part of the London’s mayor’s Streetspace plan Image credits: Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

Milan’s Open Streets

Italy’s industrial north was among the hardest hit regions in Europe during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. An extended lockdown was implemented — clearing cars off the streets of cities like Milan for months, as businesses got shuttered and residents were confined indoors — which in turn led to a noticeable improvement in air quality in a region infamous for pollution.

Since then, authorities in Milan have seized on the enforced break with a smog-filled ‘norm’ to push forward with an experimental citywide expansion of cycling lanes and pedestrianized zones — under a mobility plan called Strade Aperte (aka Open Streets) that’s aimed at adapting city infrastructure to find space for social distancing as urban life gets opened back up.

The Open Streets plan includes dropping the speed limit to 30kmph on a majority of Milan’s roads (replacing a 50kmph maximum), via signage and incorporating some structural elements for speed control; and adding 35km to its existing bike network before the end of the year.

The city launched its docked bike rental scheme, BikeMI, in 2008.

Milan is looking to boost cycling after lockdown by expanding its network of bike lanes Image credits: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

“As the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy foresees, the current health crisis can be an opportunity to decide to give more space to people and improve the environmental conditions in the city, increasing more sustainable, non-polluting, means of travel and redefining the use of streets and public spaces for commercial, recreational, cultural, and sport purposes, while respecting physical distance requirements,” city authorities write in a memo on the plan.

The overarching policy push is toward the same goal as Paris’ vision: Supporting what’s described as “the neighbourhood dimension” — aka making sure every citizen has access to almost all services within 15 minutes’ walk.

This is a strategic aim while residents are forced to live alongside the virus — and some of the measures are being couched as ‘temporary’.

But while the pandemic is acting as a catalyst/justification for rapid changes, city authorities were already looking for ways to repurpose urban infrastructure to deliver health benefits to citizens, environmental gains and boost local commerce by getting people out of cars and peddling/walking through the neighbourhood.

So, it’s hard to see where the impetus would come from to advocate a reversal back to noisier, more polluted, less playful streets.

In Milan, it’s the same story: The direction of urban travel is about rethinking streets as open public spaces for people and hyper-local micromobility, rather than letting cars colonize the commons and render its roads default highways elsewhere. Addio macchina.

Scooting on a Milan street Image credits: Mairo Cinquetti / NurPhoto / Getty Images

How China’s Realme sold 50 million phones in just over 2 years

Starting a new phone brand in 2018 might seem too late in an already crowded market, but Sky Li was convinced that consumers between 18-25 years old were largely under-served — they needed something that was both affordable and cool.

A few months after Li founded Realme in May that year, the smartphone company organized a product launch at a college campus in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market. It brought its own production crew, built a makeshift stage and invited local rappers to grace the event.

“I was amazed. No one was sitting down and it felt like a carnival, a big disco party,” Chase Xu, Realme’s 31-year-old chief marketing officer, told me at the firm’s headquarters in Shenzhen.

“No foreign company had ever entered the campus. They didn’t think it was possible. Why would a university let you do a launch event there?” Xu, clad in a minimalist, chic black jacket from a domestic brand, recounted with enthusiasm and pride.

“Realme became widely known thanks to the event. People found it very interesting that it was mixing with students. It didn’t just launch a product. It was showing off a youthful, flamboyant attitude.”

Within nine quarters, Realme has shipped 50 million handsets around the world with India as its biggest market, even larger than China. The target this year is to double last year’s target to 50 million units, a goal that’s “nearly complete” according to Xu. It’s now the world’s 7th biggest smartphone brand, trailing only after those who have been around for much longer — Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, Apple, Oppo and Vivo, according to a Q3 report from research firm Canalys.

Realme didn’t accomplish all that from scratch. It’s yet another smartphone brand rooted in BBK Group, the mystic electronics empire that owns and supports some of the world’s largest phone makers Vivo, Oppo, OnePlus, and now Realme.

Oppo family

In 2018, former Oppo vice president and head of overseas business Sky Li announced he was resigning from Oppo to start Realme as an independent brand, similar to how OnePlus started in 2013. Today, Realme, OnePlus and Oppo all belong to the same holding group. That entity, together with Vivo, sits under BBK, which started out in 1998 selling electronic dictionaries in south China and has been diversifying its portfolio ever since.

While Realme and OnePlus operate independently, they get access to Oppo’s supply chain, a model that has allowed them to have lighter assets and consequently fewer costs.

Realme’s pop-up store in India / Photo: Realme

“Realme has an advantage because we share a supply chain with Oppo. We are able to get very good resources from the supply end, stay ahead globally and obtain what we should have,” said Xu.

For instance, the nascent phone maker was among the first to get Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865 chips and put four cameras into a handset. Priority isn’t always guaranteed, however, because “there is definitely competition between us and our peers to fight to be the first,” Xu admitted. “Of course, it also depends on the progress of each team’s research and development.”

The light-asset strategy also means Realme is able to offer competitive technologies at relatively low prices. In India, its 8GB RAM, 128GB phone cost less than 1,000 yuan ($152) and its notch screen one was under 1,500 yuan ($228).

Realme isn’t concerned about increasing margin in the “growth stage,” Xu said, and the firm has “been profitable from the outset.” On the other hand, the phone maker is also introducing a slew of IoT gadgets like smart TVs and earphones, categories with higher markups.

The smartphone-plus-IoT strategy is certainly not unique, as its siblings in the BBK family, as well as Xiaomi and Huawei, have the same vision: smartphones and smart devices from the same brand will form a nicely interconnected ecosystem, driving sales and data collection for each other.

Another way to cut costs, according to Xu, is to avoid extravagant outdoor advertising. The company prefers more subtle, word-of-mouth promotion like working with influencers, throwing campus music festivals and fostering an online fan community. And the strategy seems to be clicking with the young generation who like to interact with the brand they like and even be part of its creative process.

The most enthusiastic users would sometimes message Xu with pencil sketching of what they envisioned Realme’s next products should look like. “They have very interesting and excellent ideas. This is a great generation,” the executive said.

Chinese brands go global

A Realme event during Diwali / Photo: Realme

Realme’s India chief executive Madhav Sheth is equally adored by the country’s young consumers. A former distribution partner of Realme, he made an impression on Realme founder Li, who “understands the Indian market very well despite not speaking fluent English,” according to Xu.

“Sheth is very charismatic and good at public speaking. He knows how to excite people,” Xu spoke highly of Sheth, who is an avid Twitter user and has garnered some 280,000 followers since he joined in the spring of 2018.

The Indian boss’s job is getting trickier as India becomes warier of Chinese influence. In June, the Indian government banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps over potential national security risks, not long after it added more scrutiny on Chinese investments. Anti-China sentiment has also soared as border tensions heightened recently.

Against all odds, Realme is seeing robust growth in India. In Q3, it grew 4% from the previous quarter and currently ranks fourth in India with a 10% market share, according to research firm Counterpoint.

“During the start of the quarter, we witnessed some anti-China consumer sentiments impacting sales of brands originating from China. However, these sentiments have subsided as consumers are weighing in different parameters during the purchase as well,” the researcher wrote in the report.

“Of course the India-China conflict is not something we want to see. It’s a problem of international relationships. Realme doesn’t take part in politics,” Xu assured. “There will always be extremist users. What we can do is to expand our fan base, give them what they want, and leave the extremists alone.”

Next year, Realme is looking to ramp up expansion in Europe, Russia and its home market China. None will be a small feat as they are much-coveted markets for all major phone makers.

Realme’s onion-inspired model designed by prominent Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa

Part of Realme’s effort to associate itself with what Gen-Z around the world considers “cool” is to work with prominent designers. Xu’s eyes lit up, raising his hand in the air as if he was holding a ball. He was mirroring Naoto Fukasawa, the renowned Japanese industrial designer who came up with the onion-inspired color and pattern of the Realme X model.

“The afternoon sunlight slanted through the large windows. [Fukasawa] gave me a playful look, took an onion from beneath the table, and told me that was his inspiration,” Xu recalled. “He slowly turned the onion in the sun. I was dumbfounded. The veins, the pink, gold color, the texture. It was so beautiful. You wouldn’t think it was an onion. You’d think it was craftwork.”

Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”

Google plans to test end-to-end encryption in Android messages

For the past year and a half, Google has been rolling out its next-generation messaging to Android users to replace the old, clunky, and insecure SMS text messaging. Now the company says that rollout is complete, and plans to bring end-to-end encryption to Android messages next year.

Google’s Rich Communications Services is Android’s answer to Apple’s iMessage, and brings typing indicators, read receipts, and you’d expect from most messaging apps these days.

In a blog post Thursday, Google said it plans to roll out end-to-end encryption — starting with one-on-one conversations — leaving open the possibility of end-to-end encrypted group chats. It’ll become available to beta testers, who can sign up here, beginning later in November and continue into the new year.

End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — even Google — from reading messages as they travel between sender and the recipient.

Google dipped its toes into the end-to-end encrypted messaging space in 2016 with the launch of Allo, an app that immediately drew criticism from security experts for not enabling the security feature by default. Two years later, Google killed off the project altogether.

This time around, Google learned its lesson. Android messages will default to end-to-end encryption once the feature becomes available, and won’t revert back to SMS unless the users in the conversation loses or disables RCS.

This $99 gadget helps you make music, no skill required

At CES back in January, I met with a handful of founders who were/are crowdfunding musical instruments. It’s a fascinating category and one to watch if you have a passing interest in either music or technology. Like a vast majority of hardware startups, most companies in the space will build one product if they’re lucky — and even that can feel like something of a long shot.

Coupling the Hail Mary pursuits of hardware development with an earnest attempt to reinvent the musical wheel feels like an act of futility. And honestly, it is. But every so often, something breaks through in an exciting way. Roli is probably one of the best examples of the phenomenon in recent years. The company’s Seaboard was a clever take on the synth — and the U.K. company has continued to release clever music products.

Nashville-based Artiphon managed to capture the imagination of online music lovers as well, with the simply named Instrument 1. The hybrid guitar/piano-style device pulled in a wildly impressive $1.3 million on Kickstarter back in 2015. I spoke to the company’s founders about the project at CES this year, but it was their second device that really interested me.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Last year’s Kickstarter campaign for the Orba bested its predecessor, raising $1.4 million. And it’s easy to see why. The company describes it thusly on its campaign page:

Hold out your hands and meet Orba, a new kind of musical instrument. It’s a synth, looper, and MIDI controller that lets anyone make music immediately. Orba’s minimalist design resembles a cross between a gaming controller and a half a grapefruit, and its feather-touch sensitivity translates gestures from your fingers and hands directly into sound. Orba introduces a new and fun way to make music anywhere, even if you’ve never played an instrument before.

It’s that last bit in particularl that caught my attention. The thing that united most of the devices I looked at in January is some kind of base-level requirement of musical skill. Which, understandable. But as an overzealous music fan with — let’s just say limited — ability, I’ve been looking for something that might scratch that musical itch. Honestly, I was pretty hopeful for Roli’s Blocks, but ultimately found their appeal for novices to be overstated.

I’ve been asking after the Orba since January. I doubled down in March/April when the COVID-19 shutdown really hit us in earnest here in New York, thinking it would be a good way to pass some of the time that didn’t involve rewatching Tiger King. Initially planned for an April delivery, founder/CEO Mike Butera notes that things like COVID-19 and the ongoing trade war put a damper on those plans.

“Despite that, we started shipping to our 12,000+ Kickstarter backers first this summer, and we’re now 95% shipped globally (100% in the countries where we’ve opened sales),” he says. “All remaining backers are already in logistics.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It took a while for the device to finally come through, but I finally got my hands (well, hand, really) on it — and so far I’m pretty into the thing. I can’t promise my attention span is going to hold up beyond a week or two, but I’m really digging it right now. As you’d expect, having some musical skill is certainly helpful, but it’s not a prerequisite. The learning curve is surprisingly small, and the thing, quite literally, works out of the box. Hooking it up to a computer (via USB-C) or smartphone (Bluetooth) enhances the experience, sure, but it’s not necessary.

The easiest way to think about the peculiar little object is as a kind of compact, pre-programmed MIDI controller you can use to build songs by layering loops on the fly. The “grapefruit” comparison is pretty apt (especially if you get the citrusy silicon cover), with each of the “slices” representing a different element of an instrument. In “lead” or “chord” mode, they generally represent different notes. With “drums” they’re different pieces in a kit or other percussion instruments.

Holding down the big “A” lets you switch between instruments, adjust the BPM (tempo), record a track or play it back. I’ve found the easiest way to approach it is laying down a rhythm track with the drums (to the built-in metronome) and then layering chords over that. Here’s a Day One attempt. It’s not Bach or Wendy Carlos, but you get the picture:

I should add the software doesn’t currently support saving/exporting songs, which is a big bummer. The above recording was jury rigged in a very lo-fi way by holding the instrument up to a mic during playback. There are other methods, including using the headphone jack as audio out, but the above was honestly just the easiest method at the time. The feature is included in the instructions, but not the app. Butera has since confirmed with me recording/sharing is, indeed, coming soon.

For the time being, the app is mostly good for switching sounds. There are about 10 sound packs per instrument (with considerable overlap between them). It’s a pretty good start, though most tend toward the electronic and ambient, with drum sounds that more closely approximate an 808 than a proper analog drum kit. It makes sense. Again, this thing is a MIDI controller at its heart and will never be able to sufficiently approximate a chamber orchestra.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The chords/leads are in a scale, so it’s impossible — or at least difficult — to hit a wrong note. Artiphon is working to expand the library of sounds. There are no plans to let users contribute to the library, though they can alter the sounds themselves by using the system as a MIDI controller.

The current level of customization leaves a little to be desired. Though that’s certainly to be expected from a first-gen product from a small startup. And, honestly, there’s something to be said for keeping things relatively simple when it comes to appealing to beginnings. It also warrants mention that the little hunk of plastic is surprisingly versatile when it comes physical interaction. The “keys” don’t have give, but the company has added a number of clever ways to alter the input. It takes some getting used to and can sometimes lead you to trigger an accidental result, but over all, it’s a nice feature.

Stealing the graphic from the Kickstarter page:

Image Credits: Artiphon

I’m not ready to classify the Orba as a serious musical instrument — and honestly, I don’t think that’s really the point. I have no illusions of becoming the next Flying Lotus or Dan Deacon here, but damn if the $99 gadget isn’t fun to have lying around to blow off steam, kill some time and keep myself occupied during boring conference calls — on mute, of course.