Amazon Spark, the retailer’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, has shut down


Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FindItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions.

It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

That said, Instagram’s changes may have prompted Amazon to give up trying to build its own Instagram clone, so it could instead focus on building out better and more differentiated tools for product discovery, like the new site.



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Uber Air picks Melbourne as its first international launch city


When Uber first announced Uber Air, it intended for Dubai to be its first international city. That changed last year when Uber put out an open call to interested cities to describe the clear need for aerial transit, the environmental conditions of the city and local government commitment.

Today at Uber Elevate, Uber announced Melbourne, Australia as the first international city where it will test Uber Air. Already, architects have envisioned what the skyports in the city could look like.

“Australian governments have adopted a forward-looking approach to ridesharing and future transport technology,” Uber Australia Regional General Manager Susan Anderson said in a statement. “This, coupled with Melbourne’s unique demographic and geospatial factors, and culture of innovation and technology, makes Melbourne the perfect third launch city for Uber Air. We will see other Australian cities following soon after.”

In addition to Melbourne, Uber plans to launch Uber Air in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas and Los Angeles in 2023. You can read more about what to expect from Uber Air below.



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Uber unveils new skyport designs for Uber Air


Uber’s architecture and engineering partners have unveiled some new skyport designs. To be clear, skyports are the areas where people will be able to board and disembark from Uber Air vehicles.

At Uber Elevate today, eight firms unveiled 16 new designs for skyports. Below, you’ll find the top concept from each firm. You may be wondering where you’ll find these skyports. Well, Uber envisions working with real estate developers and cities to install skyports on top of parking garages and other underutilized structures.

“With the first launch of Uber Air just a few short years away, this collection of Skyport Mobility Hub concepts establish a practical, sustainable vision for the infrastructure needed in the communities we plan to serve,” Uber Elevate Head of Design for Elevate John Badalamenti said in a statement. “These designs represent a synergy of purpose, orchestrating a seamless transition between ground transit like Uber Pool and eVTOL aircraft on the roof tarmac – all while contributing to the surrounding neighborhood. Architectural minds carry the responsibility to imagine the world in a way that does not exist yet and make it a reality. So this year, we invited innovative architectural firms to imagine how connected Skyport hubs could be integrated into the urban landscape of Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne.”

Pickard Chilton and Arup’s retrofit Sky Loft design in Melbourne.

Called the “Sky Loft,” this 3,700-square-meter skyport features a landing pad, lounge, parking areas for JUMP bikes and scooters and retail. It’s designed with Melbourne, Australia in mind.

“While delivering an elegant and high-performance building, our design for the Sky Loft creates a compelling and seamless user experience,” Pickard Chilton principal Jon Pickard said in a statement. “The designs are sensitive to and respectful of their context while the Sky Lofts themselves are stewards of earth’s limited resources. It has been exciting to collaborate with Uber and Arup to create the Sky Loft – a realistic vision for intra-urban transportation in Melbourne.”

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Corgan’s new concept called CONNECT | EVOLVED in Dallas.

This concept, designed by Corgan for Dallas, Texas, incorporates restaurants, grocery stores, sports courts and co-working spaces. The design also takes into account room for bike and scooter-share services.

“In prioritizing feasibility, Corgan saw that mass adoption of this emerging modality would require evolving traditional notions of connectivity,” Corgan principal John Trupiano said in a statement. “A scalable design that seamlessly integrates with existing infrastructure and considers its environmental impact, our design is comprised of a kit of parts that can be customized for a variety of budgets and locations—adding popular amenities and creating a lifestyle of aerial mobility and connectivity.”

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Mithun’s new SkyPark concept.

In Los Angeles, firm Mithun envisions turntable parking, and spaces for bikes and scooters. The “SkyPark” sees itself as being more community-oriented with more than two acres of public park space.

“Uber SkyPark elevates the urban transportation experience, enriching lives at the personal, neighborhood and community scales,” Mithun partner Jason Steiner said in a statement. “By raising eVTOL functions, the Greenlight Hub, eBike and eScooter maintenance and charging spaces above grade, a new urban park with restorative landscape and active street life is created at the ground level. The park and its trees absorb noise, filter pollution and mitigate urban heat island effect while providing vibrant recreation and social spaces for the community.”

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The Volary is a new concept in Dallas by Humphreys & Partners Architects.

Humphreys & Partners Architects envisions a Dallas-based skyport that looks like it’s expended in the air. It’s designed to support eVTOLs, micromobility and retail operations with more than 9,500 square feet.

“Our approach in designing an on-demand aerial ridesharing terminal is based on the idea that ‘less is more,’ ” Humphrey & Partners CIO Walter Hughes said in a statement. “This idea has motivated us to create a highly intuitive experience for passengers, integrated within a structure that is simple to build and operate while reinforcing Uber’s brand identity. Volary is inclusive of new technologies and made of natural, organic materials for a highly sustainable building resulting in a zero net energy footprint.”

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The Beck Group’s retrofit concept Dallas Skyport.

Housed on top of an existing seven-story parking lot, this skyport is focused on the basics: the takeoff, the landing, as well as space for bikes, scooters and electric vehicles.

“As a design-build firm that is beginning to fabricate building components at Factory Blue, we are uniquely positioned to solve the challenging question of how you add on to an existing parking structure,” The Beck Group associate principal Timothy Shippey said in a statement. “The design and fabrication of modular elements in our Dallas Skyport deliver a concept that aligns with Uber’s innovative vision and is within budget.”

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Looking to connect all of Uber’s vehicles, this concept provides space for eVTOLs, bikes and scooters.

“The Uber Skyport Mobility Hub as imagined by BOKA Powell Architects celebrates our evolving experience-driven society by designing fluidity and transparency into the process of air travel re-imagined,” BOKA Powell principal-in-charge R. Andrew Bennett said in a statement. “The integration of all Uber brands substantiates first and last mile travel as major support elements to the Uber Air component that revolutionizes urban mobility. The Mobility Hub is not a thing, but rather a place of dynamic energy and integrated connectivity that celebrates the spirit of flight and the freedom to quickly access the important places in one’s life.”



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Nintendo teases ‘Breath of the Wild’ sequel, raising Zelda hype to new levels


The capstone to an eventful Nintendo’s E3 Direct was an unexpected joy: A sequel to the modern classic in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild. Of course, all they said was that it’s “in development,” but that’s enough for me.

Concluding the video that Nintendo has opted for instead of a press conference in recent years, the company’s Shinya Takahashi said, confidentially: “We have more games in development than what we’ve shown you today. I’m looking forward to the day we can introduce them to you. Speaking of… before we end this Direct, I actually have one more thing to show you.”

With that he threw to a final trailer that instantly identified itself to the trained eye as Breath of the Wild related — superfans will have recognized the green magical trails and corruption slime from that game immediately. But any doubt was cleared away when we got a closeup of Zelda herself (sporting a stylish new short hairdo), who accompanied by Link appears to be leading an expedition into a dungeon of some kind.

The two encounter a mysterious figure that appears to be mummified, gripped by a magical hand, and deeply evil — you can tell from the streams of horrible goo coming from it, and from how its eyes glowed red when it detected the presence of our heroes. A few flashes of desperate action and it cuts to the overworld, where Hyrule castle appears to sink into the ground and set off an earthquake with who knows what effects.

“The sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is now in development,” the trailer concluded.

If the trailer is any indication, the tone of this game is much darker and more dangerous than the last one, which in its promotional materials emphasized freedom, nature, and openness. In this one however all is dark, cramped, and dangerous.

Clearly Zelda and Link have awakened an ancient evil, perhaps that which first corrupted Ganondorf to begin with which the Sheikah carefully sealed away.

What could it mean? Here’s hoping the next Zelda focuses more on the intricate, dangerous dungeons that previous titles did — everyone loved Breath of the Wild, but the most common criticism was the brevity and scarcity of its big dungeons. (Scores of smaller shrines helped offset this complaint, but it’s still valid.)

I’m hoping for a huge “underworld” to mirror the vast overworld that was such a joy to explore. Caves, temples, secrets, darkness and survival elements galore!

It seems likely that Nintendo has listened to critics while also playing to its strengths, and the core gameplay systems of the last game will be married to more structured gameplay and narrative. At any rate we don’t know anything for sure other than that the game is being developed — which anyone might have guessed. But it’s nice to see that confirmed, and be given a glimpse of the next game’s darker finery.



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Sense Photonics flashes onto the lidar scene with a new approach and $26M


Lidar is a critical part of many autonomous cars and robotic systems, but the technology is also evolving quickly. A new company called Sense Photonics just emerged from stealth mode today with a $26M A round, touting a whole new approach that allows for an ultra-wide field of view and (literally) flexible installation.

Still in prototype phase but clearly enough to attract eight figures of investment, Sense Photonics’ lidar doesn’t look dramatically different from others at first, but the changes are both under the hood and, in a way, on both sides of it.

Early popular lidar systems like those from Velodyne use a spinning module that emit and detect infrared laser pulses, finding the range of the surroundings by measuring the light’s time of flight. Subsequent ones have replaced the spinning unit with something less mechanical, like a DLP-type mirror or even metamaterials-based beam steering.

All these systems are “scanning” systems in that they sweep a beam, column, or spot of light across the scene in some structured fashion — faster than we can perceive, but still piece by piece. Few companies, however, have managed to implement what’s called “flash” lidar, which illuminates the whole scene with one giant, well, flash.

That’s what Sense has created, and it claims to have avoided the usual shortcomings of such systems — namely limited resolution and range. Not only that, but by separating the laser emitting part and the sensor that measures the pulses, Sense’s lidar could be simpler to install without redesigning the whole car around it.

I talked with CEO and co-founder Scott Burroughs, a veteran engineer of laser systems, about what makes Sense’s lidar a different animal from the competition.

“It starts with the laser emitter,” he said. “We have some secret sauce that lets us build a massive array of lasers — literally thousands and thousands, spread apart for better thermal performance and eye safety.”

These tiny laser elements are stuck on a flexible backing, meaning the array can be curved — providing a vastly improved field of view. Lidar units (except for the 360-degree ones) tend to be around 120 degrees horizontally, since that’s what you can reliably get from a sensor and emitter on a flat plane, and perhaps 50 or 60 degrees vertically.

“We can go as high as 90 degrees for vert which i think is unprecedented, and as high as 180 degrees for horizontal,” said Burroughs proudly. “And that’s something auto makers we’ve talked to have been very excited about.”

Here it is worth mentioning that lidar systems have also begun to bifurcate into long-range, forward-facing lidar (like those from Luminar and Lumotive) for detecting things like obstacles or people 200 meters down the road, and more short-range, wider-field lidar for more immediate situational awareness — a dog behind the vehicle as it backs up, or a car pulling out of a parking spot just a few meters away. Sense’s devices are very much geared toward the second use case.

These are just prototype units, but they work and you can see they’re more than just renders.

Particularly because of the second interesting innovation they’ve included: the sensor, normally part and parcel with the lidar unit, can exist totally separately from the emitter, and is little more than a specialized camera. That means that while the emitter can be integrated into a curved surface like the headlight assembly, while the tiny detectors can be stuck in places where there are already traditional cameras: side mirrors, bumpers, and so on.

The camera-like architecture is more than convenient for placement; it also fundamentally affects the way the system reconstructs the image of its surroundings. Because the sensor they use is so close to an ordinary RGB camera’s, images from the former can be matched to the latter very easily.

The depth data and traditional camera image correspond pixel-to-pixel right out of the system.

Most lidars output a 3D point cloud, the result of the beam finding millions of points with different ranges. This is a very different form of “image” than a traditional camera, and it can take some work to convert or compare the depths and shapes of a point cloud to a 2D RGB image. Sense’s unit not only outputs a 2D depth map natively, but that data can be synced with a twin camera so the visible light image matches pixel for pixel to the depth map. It saves on computing time and therefore on delay — always a good thing for autonomous platforms.

Sense Photonics’ unit also can output a point cloud, as you see here.

The benefits of Sense’s system are manifest, but of course right now the company is still working on getting the first units to production. To that end it has of course raised the $26 million A round, “co-led by Acadia Woods and Congruent Ventures, with participation from a number of other investors, including Prelude Ventures, Samsung Ventures and Shell Ventures,” as the press release puts it.

Cash on hand is always good. But it has also partnered with Infineon and others, including an unnamed tier-1 automotive company, which is no doubt helping shape the first commercial Sense Photonics product. The details will have to wait until later this year when that offering solidifies, and production should start a few months after that — no hard timeline yet, but expect this all before the end of the year.

“We are very appreciative of this strong vote of investor confidence in our team and our technology,” Burroughs said in the press release. “The demand we’ve encountered – even while operating in stealth mode – has been extraordinary.”



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Nintendo reimagines a Zelda classic with Link’s Awakening for the Switch


It’s going to be a while before players can get their hands on the Breath of the Wild sequel teased at the end of Nintendo’s E3 Direct earlier today. The good news, however, is that Nintendo’s got a few other Zelda-related adventures in the pipeline before that. There’s the compelling beat-based Cadence of Hyrule, due out this Thursday, and later this year, the company is releasing a remastered version of the Game Boy classic, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

That one’s due out in September. As is the case with a number of recent titles (see: most of Square’s presser from earlier this week), Link’s Awakening isn’t so much a new game as a revamp of an older one designed to get the most out of the latest technology.

Here that means more than most, however. Released in 1993, the original version of the game was subject to the Game Boy’s 8-bit, monochrome limitations. The title began life as a portable port of the third Zelda game, SNES’s A Link to the Past, but ultimately became a real boy under the direction of long-time Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto.

The Link to the Past connection is very much present. Link’s Awakening feels cut from the same Hyrulian cloth as A Link to the Past. As someone who’s old enough to have played the original title during its first go-round, things came trickling back to me during a gameplay demo at E3. But the graphical advances are pretty substantial. The game is a far cry from the 1998 Game Boy Color reissue, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX.

Link’s Awakening is very much a Zelda title through and through, but the visuals are more than enough to make it feel like a fresh title. A direct line for the character design can be drawn to the GameCube’s The Wind Waker, when Link became decidedly more adorable. That’s coupled with the familiar 3/4 RPG perspective that was a staple of the franchise’s early days.

The backgrounds have been refreshed nicely, with a kind of tilt-shift style art that selectively blurs out set pieces. As someone who plays Switch almost exclusively as a handheld, it was refreshing to see it played out on the big screen.

Gameplay came back in a flash. Though a rep had to walk me through a few pieces of the first mission: finding a magic mushroom for a witch’s potion. It’s all very Macbeth. Or the Scottish video game. Nintendo did a much longer walkthrough on Treehouse this morning, all of which should prove familiar if you’ve played the original.

Nothing quite scratches the itch of a new Zelda title, but a full revamp of a Game Boy game more than a quarter century after the original comes close.



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NASA moves to final planning stages for mission to explore 16 Psyche’s full metal asteroid


The value of all the nickel and iron that scientists believe make up 16-Psyche’s potato-shaped asteroid in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt totals some $10,000 quadrillion.

It’s an astronomical sum, but NASA’s Psyche mission, which has now received approval to enter the final design and development stages before manufacturing begins for its 2022 launch, is actually after a much bigger prize… one of the secrets to how the Earth came to exist.

NASA scientists and researchers at Arizona State University believe that Psyche holds a key to understanding how planetary bodies are formed. The theory is that Psyche is actually the core of a planet which broke apart after a series of cataclysmic collisions.

Scientists hope that they can get a look into the distant past of the solar system, when protoplanet encounters created Earth and destroyed other would-be terrestrial planets —  like the one whose remnants are floating between Mars and Jupiter.

This artist’s-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA’s Psyche mission near the mission’s target, the metal asteroid Psyche. The artwork was created in May 2017 to show the five-panel solar arrays planned for the spacecraft. Image credit: SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

“With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, in a statement.

There are still three more phases of mission planning that the Psyche team needs to clear. Phase D will begin in early 2021 includes the final manufacturing and testing of the spacecraft along with the planned launch in early 2022.

Phase E will happen as soon as Psyche’s exploratory craft hits the vacuum of space, NASA said. It’ll cover the deep space operations of the mission and the collection of data for science. NASA expects Psyche will arrive at its eponymous asteroid on Jan. 31, 2026 after buzzing Mars in 2023 (two years before Elon Musk predicted the first human astronauts would arrive).

Instruments on the Psyche craft will include a magnetometer designed to detect and measure the remnant magnetic field of the asteroid. A multi-spectral imager will be on board to provide high-resolution images to determine the composition of the asteroid (how much is metal vs. how much is a silicate). The craft will also include a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to detect, measure, and map the asteroid’s elemental composition and a new laster technology that’s designed for deep space communications.

Part of the NASA Discovery Program, the mission is being undertaken in conjunction with Maxar Space Solutions, which is providing the electric propulsion chassis, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Arizona State University.



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Nokia ‘regrets’ Withings health app backlash

Nokia says it is “regrettable” that problems with its Health Mate fitness-tracking app have frustrated users.

Nokia took over health tech firm Withings in 2016 and recently replaced the Withings Health Mate app with a Nokia-branded version. Continue Reading

Chip: the robot banker trying to pull millennials out of their overdrafts

A robot banker who can pull you out of your overdraft sounds like the premise of a – dull, admittedly – sci-fi story, but Chip promises that it’s here right now. Continue Reading

Apple’s Clips app is social video editing that’s simple to a fault

It was hard to know what to make of Clips at launch. Sure, Apple launches its own standalone apps from time to time, but it’s never offered up anything quite like this. For Apple, Clips is another play at mobile video editing — a dead simple solution for those who don’t have the time, skill set or desire to fiddle with Final Cut or even iMovie. Continue Reading