The truth about SDK integrations and their impact on developers

The digital media industry often talks about how much influence, dominance and power entities like Google and Facebook have. Generally, the focus is on the vast troves of data and audience reach these companies tout. However, there’s more beneath the surface that strengthens the grip these companies have on both app developers and publishers alike.

In reality, software development kit (SDK) integrations are a critical component of why these monolith companies have such a prominent presence. For reference, an SDK is a set of software development tools, libraries, code samples, processes and guides that help developers create or enhance the apps they’re building.

Through a digital marketing lens, SDKs provide in-app analytics, insights on campaign testing, attribution information, location details, monetization capabilities and more.

Through a digital marketing lens, SDKs provide in-app analytics, insights on campaign testing, attribution information, location details, monetization capabilities and more. In the case of companies like Google and Facebook, their ability to provide these insights dovetails with their data and reach.

While that does deliver useful capabilities to developers and publishers alike, it also perpetuates the factors contributing to their perceived monopolistic status — and the detriments a lack of competition fosters.

Almost all (90%) ad-monetized Android apps have Google’s Admob SDK integrated, data from Statista showed. Additionally, the Facebook Audience Network SDK is present in 19% of all global Android apps utilizing mobile ads. It’s worth noting that the large majority of alternative “leading” advertising SDKs outside these two players are used less than 13% of the time in Android apps.

As the app ecosystem rapidly expands beyond the borders of mobile, app developers and publishers would benefit immensely from identifying economical and secure ways of adopting more SDKs.

The state of SDK adoption

While there are many SDKs available in the market today, a few key factors contribute to Google and Facebook’s overall dominance. The most basic is around the respective organizations’ reach and industry notoriety. However, a larger component here is the lack of resources and time app developers have.

Subaru’s first electric vehicle is called the Solterra and it’s due out in 2022

For Subaru diehards holding out for an electric vehicle, the wait is almost over. The Japanese automaker just announced new details about its first-ever EV, which is set to hit the streets in 2022.

Subaru will call its first EV the Solterra, a fitting name for a brand synonymous with outdoor adventures and you know, the sun and the Earth. Also fittingly, Subaru’s first full-fledged EV will be an SUV that ships with the manufacturer’s well-regarded all-wheel-drive capabilities.

The Solterra is built on a new platform the company is developing in partnership with Toyota, which the latter company will use for its impossibly named bZ4X crossover (bZ stands for “beyond zero,” apparently).

Subaru has only released two teaser images so far, but given that the new SUV will share DNA with the Toyota bZ4X, Subaru’s offering will likely look like a toned-down, less aggressively styled version of Toyota’s forthcoming futuristic electric crossover.

Other than that, we don’t know a whole lot. If the Solterra winds up looking a lot like the BZ4X, you can expect a sort of squashed RAV4, maybe somewhere between a Crosstrek and a Forester in size.

Subaru’s first proper EV will join the plug-in hybrid Crosstrek, which the company began selling in 2014 — currently its only option for climate-conscious drivers. The Solterra will go on sale next year in the U.S., Canada, China, Europe and Japan.

 

The energy ecosystem should move to make the ‘energy internet’ a reality

As vice president of Innovation at National Grid Partners, I’m responsible for developing initiatives that not only benefit National Grid’s current business but also have the potential to become stand-alone businesses. So I obviously have strong views about the future of the energy industry.

But I don’t have a crystal ball; no one does. To be a good steward of our innovation portfolio, my job isn’t to guess what the right “basket” is for our “eggs.” It’s to optimally allocate our finite eggs across multiple baskets with the greatest collective upside.

Put another way, global and regional trends make it clear that the Next Big Thing isn’t any single thing at all. Instead, the future is about open innovation and integration of elements across the entire energy supply chain. Only with such an open energy ecosystem can we adapt to the highly volatile — some might even say unpredictable — market conditions we face in the energy industry.

Just as the digital internet rewards innovation wherever it serves the market — whether you build a better app or design a cooler smartphone — so too will the energy internet offer greater opportunities across the energy supply chain.

I like to think of this open, innovation-enabling approach as the “energy internet,” and I believe it represents the most important opportunity in the energy sector today.

The internet analogy

Here’s why I find the concept of the energy internet helpful. Before the digital internet (a term I’m using here to encompass all the hardware, software and standards that comprise it), we had multiple silos of technology such as mainframes, PCs, databases, desktop applications and private networks.

As the digital internet evolved, however, the walls between these silos disappeared. You can now utilize any platform on the back end of your digital services, including mainframes, commodity server hardware and virtual machines in the cloud.

You can transport digital payloads across networks that connect to any customer, supplier or partner on the planet with whatever combination of speed, security, capacity and cost you deem most appropriate. That payload can be data, sound or video, and your endpoint can be a desktop browser, smartphone, IoT sensor, security camera or retail kiosk.

This mix-and-match internet created an open digital supply chain that has driven an epochal boom in online innovation. Entrepreneurs and inventors can focus on specific value propositions anywhere across that supply chain rather than having to continually reinvent the supply chain itself.

The energy sector must move in the same direction. We need to be able to treat our various generation modalities like server platforms. We need our transmission grids to be as accessible as our data networks, and we need to be able to deliver energy to any consumption endpoint just as flexibly. We need to encourage innovation at those endpoints, too — just as the tech sector did.

Just as the digital internet rewards innovation wherever it serves the market — whether you build a better app or design a cooler smartphone — so too will the energy internet offer greater opportunities across the energy supply chain.

The 5D future

So what is the energy internet? As a foundation, let’s start with a model that takes the existing industry talk of digitalization, decentralization and decarbonization a few steps further:

Digitalization: Innovation depends on information about demand, supply, efficiency, trends and events. That data must be accurate, complete, timely and sharable. Digitalization efforts such as IoE, open energy, and what many refer to as the “smart grid” are instrumental because they ensure innovators have the insights they need to continuously improve the physics, logistics and economics of energy delivery.

Decentralization: The internet changed the world in part because it took the power of computing out of a few centralized data centers and distributed it wherever it made sense. The energy internet will do likewise. Digitalization supports decentralization by letting assets be integrated into an open energy supply chain. But decentralization is much more than just the integration of existing assets — it’s the proliferation of new assets wherever they’re needed.

Decarbonization: Decarbonization is, of course, the whole point of the exercise. We must move to greener supply chains built on decentralized infrastructure that leverage energy supply everywhere to meet energy demand anywhere. The market is demanding it and regulators are requiring it. The energy internet is therefore more than just an investment opportunity — it’s an existential imperative.

Democratization: Much of the innovation associated with the internet arose from the fact that, in addition to decentralizing technology physically, it also democratized technology demographically. Democratization is about putting power (literally, in this case) into the hands of the people. Vastly increasing the number of minds and hands tackling the energy industry’s challenges will also accelerate innovation and enhance our ability to respond to market dynamics.

Diversity: As I asserted above, no one has a crystal ball. So anyone investing in innovation at scale should diversify — not just to mitigate risk and optimize returns, but as an enablement strategy. After all, if we truly believe the energy internet (or Grid 2.0, if you prefer that term) will require that all the elements of the energy supply chain work together, we must diversify our innovation initiatives across those elements to promote interoperability and integration.

That’s how the digital internet was built. Standards bodies played an important role, but those standards and their implementations were driven by industry players like Microsoft and Cisco — as well as top VCs — who ensured the ecosystem’s success by driving integration across the supply chain.

We must take the same approach with the energy internet. Those with the power and influence to do so must help ensure we aggressively advance integration across the energy supply chain as a whole, even as we improve the individual elements. To this end, National Grid last year kicked off a new industry group called the NextGrid Alliance, which includes senior executives from more than 60 utilities across the world.

Finally, we believe it’s essential to diversify thinking within the energy ecosystem as well. National Grid has sounded alarms about the serious underrepresentation of women in the energy industry and of female undergraduates in STEM programs. On the flip side, research by Deloitte has found diverse teams are 20% more innovative. More than 60% of my own team at NGP are women, and that breadth of perspective has helped National Grid capture powerful insights into companywide innovation efforts.

More winning, less predicting

The concept of the energy internet isn’t some abstract future ideal. We’re already seeing specific examples of how it will transform the market:

Green transnationalism: The energy internet is on its way to becoming as global as the digital internet. The U.K., for instance, is now receiving wind-generated power from Norway and Denmark. This ability to leverage decentralized energy supply across borders will have significant benefits for national economies and create new opportunities for energy arbitrage.

EV charging models: Pumping electricity isn’t like pumping gas, nor should it be. With the right combination of innovation in smart metering and fast-charging end-point design, the energy internet will create new opportunities at office buildings, residential complexes and other places where cars plus convenience can equal cash.

Disaster mitigation: Recent events in Texas have highlighted the negative consequences of not having an energy internet. Responsible utilities and government agencies must embrace digitization and interoperability to more effectively troubleshoot infrastructure and better safeguard communities.

These are just a few of the myriad ways in which an open, any-to-any energy internet will promote innovation, stimulate competition and generate big wins. No one can predict exactly what those big wins will be, but there will surely be many, and they will accrue to the benefit of all.

That’s why even without a crystal ball, we should all commit ourselves to digitalization, decentralization, decarbonization, democratization and diversity. In so doing, we’ll build the energy internet together, and enable a fair, affordable and clean energy future.

The Last Gameboard raises $4M to ship its digital tabletop gaming platform

The tabletop gaming industry has exploded over the last few years as millions discovered or rediscovered its joys, but it too is evolving — and The Last Gameboard hopes to be the venue for that evolution. The digital tabletop platform has progressed from crowdfunding to $4M seed round, and having partnered with some of the biggest names in the industry, plans to ship by the end of the year.

As the company’s CEO and co-founder Shail Mehta explained in a TC Early Stage pitch-off earlier this year, The Last Gameboard is a 16-inch square touchscreen device with a custom OS and a sophisticated method of tracking game pieces and hand movements. The idea is to provide a digital alternative to physical games where that’s practical, and do so with the maximum benefit and minimum compromise.

If the pitch sounds familiar… it’s been attempted once or twice before. I distinctly remember being impressed by the possibilities of D&D on an original Microsoft Surface… back in 2009. And I played with another at PAX many years ago. Mehta said that until very recently there simply wasn’t the technology and market weren’t ready.

“People tried this before, but it was either way too expensive or they didn’t have the audience. And the tech just wasn’t there; they were missing that interaction piece,” she explained, and certainly any player will recognize that the, say, iPad version of a game definitely lacks physicality. The advance her company has achieved is in making the touchscreen able to detect not just taps and drags, but game pieces, gestures and movements above the screen, and more.

“What Gameboard does, no other existing touchscreen or tablet on the market can do — it’s not even close,” Mehta said. “We have unlimited touch, game pieces, passive and active… you can use your chess set at home, lift up and put down the pieces, we track it the whole time. We can do unique identifiers with tags and custom shapes. It’s the next step in how interactive surfaces can be.”

It’s accomplished via a not particularly exotic method, which saves the Gameboard from the fate of the Surface and its successors, which cost several thousand dollars due to their unique and expensive makeups. Mehta explained that they work strictly with ordinary capacitive touch data, albeit at a higher framerate than is commonly used, and then use machine learning to characterize and track object outlines. “We haven’t created a completely new mechanism, we’re just optimizing what’s available today,” she said.

The Last Gameboard's interface, showing games available to play on the tablet's surface.

Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

At $699 for the Gameboard it’s not exactly an impulse buy, either, but the fact of the matter is people spend a lot of money on gaming, with some titles running into multiple hundreds of dollars for all the expansions and pieces. Tabletop is now a more than $20 billion industry. If the experience is as good as they hope to make it, this is an investment many a player will not hesitate (much, anyway) to make.

Of course, the most robust set of gestures and features won’t matter if all they had on the platform were bargain-bin titles and grandpa’s-parlor favorites like Parcheesi. Fortunately The Last Gameboard has managed to stack up some of the most popular tabletop companies out there, and aims to have the definitive digital edition for their games.

Asmodee Digital is probably the biggest catch, having adapted many of today’s biggest hits, from modern classics Catan and Carcassone to crowdfunded breakout hit Scythe and immense dungeon-crawler Gloomhaven. The full list of partners right now includes Dire Wolf Digital, Nomad Games, Auroch Digital, Restoration Games, Steve Jackson Games, Knights of Unity, Skyship Studios, EncounterPlus, PlannarAlly, and Sugar Gamers, as well as individual creators and developers.

Animation of two players grabbing dots on a screen and moving them around.

Image Credits: The Last Gameboard

These games may be best played in person, but have successfully transitioned to digital versions, and one imagines that a larger screen and inclusion of real pieces could make for an improved hybrid experience. There will be options both to purchase games individually, like you might on mobile or Steam, or to subscribe to an unlimited access model (pricing to be determined on both).

It would also be something that the many gaming shops and playing venues might want to have a couple of on hand. Testing out a game in-store and then buying a few to stock, or convincing consumers to do the same, could be a great sales tactic for all involved.

In addition to providing a unique and superior digital version of a game, the device can connect with others to trade moves, send game invites, and all that sort of thing. The whole OS, Mehta said, “is alive and real. If we didn’t own it and create it, this wouldn’t work.” This is more than a skin on top of Android with a built-in store, but there’s enough shared that Android-based ports will be able to be brought over with little fuss.

Head of content Lee Allentuck suggested that the last couple years (including the pandemic) have started to change game developers’ and publishers’ minds about the readiness of the industry for what’s next. “They see the digital crossover is going to happen — people are playing online board games now. If you can be part of that new trend at the very beginning, it gives you a big opportunity,” he said.

CEO Shail Mehta (center) plays Stop Thief on the Gameboard with others on the team.

Allentuck, who previously worked at Hasbro, said there’s widespread interest in the toy and tabletop industry to be more tech-forward, but there’s been a “chicken and egg scenario,” where there’s no market because no one innovates, and no one innovates because there’s no market. Fortunately things have progressed to the point where a company like The Last Gameboard can raise $4M series A to help cover the cost of creating that market.

The round was led by TheVentureCity, with participation from SOSV, Riot Games, Conscience VC, Corner3 VC, and others. While the company didn’t go through HAX, SOSV’s involvement has that HAX-y air, and partner Garrett Winther gives a glowing recommendation of its approach: “They are the first to effectively tie collaborative physical and digital gameplay together while not losing the community, storytelling or competitive foundations that we all look for in gaming.”

Mehta noted that the pandemic nearly cooked the company by derailing their funding, which was originally supposed to come through around this time last year when everything went pear-shaped. “We had our functioning prototype, we had filed for a patent, we got the traction, we were gonna raise, everything was great… and then COVID hit,” she recalled. “But we got a lot of time to do R&D, which was actually kind of a blessing. Our team was super small so we didn’t have to lay anyone off — we just went into survival mode for like six months and optimized, developed the platform. 2020 was rough for everyone, but we were able to focus on the core product.”

Now the company is poised to start its beta program over the summer and (following feedback from that) ship its first production units before the holiday season when purchases like this one seem to make a lot of sense.

(This article originally referred to this raise as The Last Gameboard’s round A — it’s actually the seed. This has been updated.)

CMU researchers show potential of privacy-preserving activity tracking using radar

Imagine if you could settle/rekindle domestic arguments by asking your smart speaker when the room last got cleaned or whether the bins already got taken out?

Or — for an altogether healthier use-case — what if you could ask your speaker to keep count of reps as you do squats and bench presses? Or switch into full-on ‘personal trainer’ mode — barking orders to peddle faster as you spin cycles on a dusty old exercise bike (who needs a Peloton!).

And what if the speaker was smart enough to just know you’re eating dinner and took care of slipping on a little mood music?

Now imagine if all those activity tracking smarts were on tap without any connected cameras being plugged inside your home.

Another bit of fascinating research from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group opens up these sorts of possibilities — demonstrating a novel approach to activity tracking that does not rely on cameras as the sensing tool. 

Installing connected cameras inside your home is of course a horrible privacy risk. Which is why the CMU researchers set about investigating the potential of using millimeter wave (mmWave) doppler radar as a medium for detecting different types of human activity.

The challenge they needed to overcome is that while mmWave offers a “signal richness approaching that of microphones and cameras”, as they put it, data-sets to train AI models to recognize different human activities as RF noise are not readily available (as visual data for training other types of AI models is).

Not to be deterred, they set about sythensizing doppler data to feed a human activity tracking model — devising a software pipeline for training privacy-preserving activity tracking AI models. 

The results can be seen in this video — where the model is shown correctly identifying a number of different activities, including cycling, clapping, waving and squats. Purely from its ability to interpret the mmWave signal the movements generate — and purely having been trained on public video data. 

“We show how this cross-domain translation can be successful through a series of experimental results,” they write. “Overall, we believe our approach is an important stepping stone towards significantly reducing the burden of training such as human sensing systems, and could help bootstrap uses in human-computer interaction.”

Researcher Chris Harrison confirms the mmWave doppler radar-based sensing doesn’t work for “very subtle stuff” (like spotting different facial expressions). But he says it’s sensitive enough to detect less vigorous activity — like eating or reading a book.

The motion detection ability of doppler radar is also limited by a need for line-of-sight between the subject and the sensing hardware. (Aka: “It can’t reach around corners yet.” Which, for those concerned about future robots’ powers of human detection, will surely sound slightly reassuring.)

Detection does require special sensing hardware, of course. But things are already moving on that front: Google has been dipping its toe in already, via project Soli — adding a radar sensor to the Pixel 4, for example.

Google’s Nest Hub also integrates the same radar sense to track sleep quality.

“One of the reasons we haven’t seen more adoption of radar sensors in phones is a lack of compelling use cases (sort of a chicken and egg problem),” Harris tells TechCrunch. “Our research into radar-based activity detection helps to open more applications (e.g., smarter Siris, who know when you are eating, or making dinner, or cleaning, or working out, etc.).”

Asked whether he sees greater potential in mobile or fixed applications, Harris reckons there are interesting use-cases for both.

“I see use cases in both mobile and non mobile,” he says. “Returning to the Nest Hub… the sensor is already in the room, so why not use that to bootstrap more advanced functionality in a Google smart speaker (like rep counting your exercises).

“There are a bunch of radar sensors already used in building to detect occupancy (but now they can detect the last time the room was cleaned, for example).”

“Overall, the cost of these sensors is going to drop to a few dollars very soon (some on eBay are already around $1), so you can include them in everything,” he adds. “And as Google is showing with a product that goes in your bedroom, the threat of a ‘surveillance society’ is much less worry-some than with camera sensors.”

Startups like VergeSense are already using sensor hardware and computer vision technology to power real-time analytics of indoor space and activity for the b2b market (such as measuring office occupancy).

But even with local processing of low-resolution image data, there could still be a perception of privacy risk around the use of vision sensors — certainly in consumer environments.

Radar offers an alternative to such visual surveillance that could be a better fit for privacy-risking consumer connected devices such as ‘smart mirrors‘.

“If it is processed locally, would you put a camera in your bedroom? Bathroom? Maybe I’m prudish but I wouldn’t personally,” says Harris.

He also points to earlier research which he says underlines the value of incorporating more types of sensing hardware: “The more sensors, the longer tail of interesting applications you can support. Cameras can’t capture everything, nor do they work in the dark.”

“Cameras are pretty cheap these days, so hard to compete there, even if radar is a bit cheaper. I do believe the strongest advantage is privacy preservation,” he adds.

Of course having any sensing hardware — visual or otherwise — raises potential privacy issues.

A sensor that tells you when a child’s bedroom is occupied may be good or bad depending on who has access to the data, for example. And all sorts of human activity can generate sensitive information, depending on what’s going on. (I mean, do you really want your smart speaker to know when you’re having sex?)

So while radar-based tracking may be less invasive than some other types of sensors it doesn’t mean there are no potential privacy concerns at all.

As ever, it depends on where and how the sensing hardware is being used. Albeit, it’s hard to argue that the data radar generates is likely to be less sensitive than equivalent visual data were it to be exposed via a breach.

“Any sensor should naturally raise the question of privacy — it is a spectrum rather than a yes/no question,” agrees Harris.  “Radar sensors happen to be usually rich in detail, but highly anonymizing, unlike cameras. If your doppler radar data leaked online, it’d be hard to be embarrassed about it. No one would recognize you. If cameras from inside your house leaked online, well… ”

What about the compute costs of synthesizing the training data, given the lack of immediately available doppler signal data?

“It isn’t turnkey, but there are many large video corpuses to pull from (including things like Youtube-8M),” he says. “It is orders of magnitude faster to download video data and create synthetic radar data than having to recruit people to come into your lab to capture motion data.

“One is inherently 1 hour spent for 1 hour of quality data. Whereas you can download hundreds of hours of footage pretty easily from many excellently curated video databases these days. For every hour of video, it takes us about 2 hours to process, but that is just on one desktop machine we have here in the lab. The key is that you can parallelize this, using Amazon AWS or equivalent, and process 100 videos at once, so the throughput can be extremely high.”

And while RF signal does reflect, and do so to different degrees off of different surfaces (aka “multi-path interference”), Harris says the signal reflected by the user “is by far the dominant signal”. Which means they didn’t need to model other reflections in order to get their demo model working. (Though he notes that could be done to further hone capabilities “by extracting big surfaces like walls/ceiling/floor/furniture with computer vision and adding that into the synthesis stage”.)

“The [doppler] signal is actually very high level and abstract, and so it’s not particularly hard to process in real time (much less ‘pixels’ than a camera).” he adds. “Embedded processors in cars use radar data for things like collision breaking and blind spot monitoring, and those are low end CPUs (no deep learning or anything).”

The research is being presented at the ACM CHI conference, alongside another Group project — called Pose-on-the-Go — which uses smartphone sensors to approximate the user’s full-body pose without the need for wearable sensors.

CMU researchers from the Group have also previously demonstrated a method for indoor ‘smart home’ sensing on the cheap (also without the need for cameras), as well as — last year — showing how smartphone cameras could be used to give an on-device AI assistant more contextual savvy.

In recent years they’ve also investigated using laser vibrometry and electromagnetic noise to give smart devices better environmental awareness and contextual functionality. Other interesting research out of the Group includes using conductive spray paint to turn anything into a touchscreen. And various methods to extend the interactive potential of wearables — such as by using lasers to project virtual buttons onto the arm of a device user or incorporating another wearable (a ring) into the mix.

The future of human computer interaction looks certain to be a lot more contextually savvy — even if current-gen ‘smart’ devices can still stumble on the basics and seem more than a little dumb.