VR optics could help old folks keep the world in focus

The complex optics involved with putting a screen an inch away from the eye in VR headsets could make for smartglasses that correct for vision problems. These prototype “autofocals” from Stanford researchers use depth sensing and gaze tracking to bring the world into focus when someone lacks the ability to do it on their own.

I talked with lead researcher Nitish Padmanaban at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, where he and the others on his team were showing off the latest version of the system. It’s meant, he explained, to be a better solution to the problem of presbyopia, which is basically when your eyes refuse to focus on close-up objects. It happens to millions of people as they age, even people with otherwise excellent vision.

There are, of course, bifocals and progressive lenses that bend light in such a way as to bring such objects into focus — purely optical solutions, and cheap as well, but inflexible, and they only provide a small “viewport” through which to view the world. And there are adjustable-lens glasses as well, but must be adjusted slowly and manually with a dial on the side. What if you could make the whole lens change shape automatically, depending on the user’s need, in real time?

That’s what Padmanaban and colleagues Robert Konrad and Gordon Wetzstein are working on, and although the current prototype is obviously far too bulky and limited for actual deployment, the concept seems totally sound.

Padmanaban previously worked in VR, and mentioned what’s called the convergence-accommodation problem. Basically, the way that we see changes in real life when we move and refocus our eyes from far to near doesn’t happen properly (if at all) in VR, and that can produce pain and nausea. Having lenses that automatically adjust based on where you’re looking would be useful there — and indeed some VR developers were showing off just that only 10 feet away. But it could also apply to people who are unable to focus on nearby objects in the real world, Padmanaban thought.

This is an old prototype, but you get the idea.

It works like this. A depth sensor on the glasses collects a basic view of the scene in front of the person: a newspaper is 14 inches away, a table three feet away, the rest of the room considerably more. Then an eye-tracking system checks where the user is currently looking and cross-references that with the depth map.

Having been equipped with the specifics of the user’s vision problem, for instance that they have trouble focusing on objects closer than 20 inches away, the apparatus can then make an intelligent decision as to whether and how to adjust the lenses of the glasses.

In the case above, if the user was looking at the table or the rest of the room, the glasses will assume whatever normal correction the person requires to see — perhaps none. But if they change their gaze to focus on the paper, the glasses immediately adjust the lenses (perhaps independently per eye) to bring that object into focus in a way that doesn’t strain the person’s eyes.

The whole process of checking the gaze, depth of the selected object and adjustment of the lenses takes a total of about 150 milliseconds. That’s long enough that the user might notice it happens, but the whole process of redirecting and refocusing one’s gaze takes perhaps three or four times that long — so the changes in the device will be complete by the time the user’s eyes would normally be at rest again.

“Even with an early prototype, the Autofocals are comparable to and sometimes better than traditional correction,” reads a short summary of the research published for SIGGRAPH. “Furthermore, the ‘natural’ operation of the Autofocals makes them usable on first wear.”

The team is currently conducting tests to measure more quantitatively the improvements derived from this system, and test for any possible ill effects, glitches or other complaints. They’re a long way from commercialization, but Padmanaban suggested that some manufacturers are already looking into this type of method and despite its early stage, it’s highly promising. We can expect to hear more from them when the full paper is published.

Reports indicate that Tesla has been subpoenaed over Elon Musk’s tweets

The long week for Tesla is getting even longer as the company has now been subpoenaed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to multiple reports.

First reported by the Fox Business Network and confirmed by The New York Times, federal regulators appear to be interested in Elon Musk’s August 7 tweet regarding his plans for privatizing the electric car manufacturer and his claims to have found investors committed to finance the transaction.

From later statements it has become clear that Musk had not actually secured financing, and has only had preliminary talks with investors.

Federal securities regulators have served Tesla with a subpoena, according to a person familiar with the investigation, increasing pressure on the electric car company as it deals with the fallout from several recent actions by its chief executive, Elon Musk.

For Musk, the ill-advised tweet was either a drug-induced bit of foolishness or a short-sighted attempt to address the hordes of short-sellers who have swarmed over the stock, angling to make millions of dollars off any perceived misfortune in the market.

Tesla declined to comment for this article.

According to the Times, regulators were interested in Tesla even before Musk began his erratic tweeting. They were already questioning Tesla whistleblower Martin Tripp (according to the Times), who has claimed that the company knowingly manufactured batteries with punctured holes, which could impact hundreds of cars; misled the public about the number of Model 3s actually being produced by as much as 44 percent; and lowered vehicle specs so the company could use waste and scrap material in vehicles.

While Tripp’s allegations are explosive enough, they’re now being overshadowed by the current drama over Musk’s tweets, which sent the stock price of his company soaring.

While Tesla has now retained Goldman Sachs to arrange financing for a privatization, at the time of Musk’s tweets last week, no financing had been secured.

That could land the serial entrepreneur in a lot of hot water.

LA to become the first city to use body scanners in rail transit systems

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority just announced its plans to become the first city to use portable body scanners in its subway and light-rail systems to help detect the presence of explosive devices.

“We’re dealing with persistent threats to our transportation systems in our country,” TSA administrator David Pekoske in a statement. “Our job is to ensure security in the transportation systems so that a terrorist incident does not happen on our watch.”

The portable scanners will begin rolling out in a few months, the executive director of security for the LA Metro Alex Wiggins said yesterday. According to the AP, the scanners will be able to conduct full-body scans from 30 feet away and are capable of scanning more than 2,000 passengers per hour.

“We’re looking specifically for weapons that have the ability to cause a mass-casualty event,” Wiggins said. “We’re looking for explosive vests, we’re looking for assault rifles. We’re not necessarily looking for smaller weapons that don’t have the ability to inflict mass casualties.”

The machines, designed by the company Thruvision and costing $100,000 each, will project radio waves to create a visualization on a split-screen display that enshrouds “clean” passengers in bright-green and suspicious items in black.

The city is one of several in which the TSA has piloted these new body scanners, although LA will be the first to fully adopt them. The agency has also worked with public transit officials from San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, New Jersey’s transit system, as well as Amtrak stations at New York’s Penn Station and DC’s Union Station. Wiggins assured passengers that screenings in the LA Metro would be well-marked and that those choosing to opt out could do so by leaving the station.

These automated options appear to be a definite step forward in protecting the 10.1 billions trips taken on public transit in America last year; however, they are still no replacement for increased security personnel at these transportation hubs. Incidents, like the murder of Nia Wilson in a BART station this summer, would not be detected by these scanners but are preventable acts of violence nevertheless.

As transportation security continues to become more sophisticated, it will be important to enhance not only the technology but the training and use of officials, as well.

Making way for new levels of American innovation

Matt Weinberg

Matt Weinberg is a former White House appointee with the U.S. Small Business Administration, where he served as a Senior Advisor in the Office of Investment and Innovation.

New fifth-generation “5G” network technology will equip the United States with a superior wireless platform, unlocking transformative economic potential. However, 5G’s success is contingent on modernizing outdated policy frameworks that dictate infrastructure overhauls and establishing the proper balance of public-private partnerships to encourage investment and deployment.

Most people have heard by now of the coming 5G revolution. Compared to 4G, this next-generation technology will deliver near-instantaneous connection speed, significantly lower latency — meaning near-zero buffer times — and increased connectivity capacity to allow billions of devices and applications to come online and communicate simultaneously and seamlessly.

While 5G is often discussed in future tense, the reality is it’s already here. Its capabilities were displayed earlier this year at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Samsung and Intel showcased a 5G enabled virtual reality (VR) broadcasting experience to event-goers. In addition, multiple U.S. carriers, including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, have announced commercial deployments in select markets by the end of 2018, while chipmaker Qualcomm unveiled last month its new 5G millimeter-wave module that outfits smartphones with 5G compatibility.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – 2018/02/26: View of the phone company QUALCOMM technology 5G in the Mobile World Congress. (Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While this commitment from 5G commercial developers is promising, long-term success of 5G is ultimately dependent on addressing two key issues.

The first step is ensuring the right policies are established at the federal, state and municipal levels in the U.S. that will allow the buildout of needed infrastructure, namely “small cells.” This equipment is designed to fit on streetlights, lampposts and buildings. You may not even notice them as you walk by, but they are critical to adding capacity to the network and transmitting wireless activity quickly and reliably. 

In many communities across the U.S., 20th century infrastructure policies are slowing the emergence of bringing next-generation networks and technologies online. Issues, including costs per small cell attachment, permitting around public rights-of-way and deadlines on application reviews, are all less-than-exciting topics of conversation but act as real threats to achieving timely implementation of 5G according to recent research from Accenture and the 5G Americas organization.

Policymakers can mitigate these setbacks by taking inventory of their own policy frameworks and, where needed, streamlining and modernizing processes. For instance, current small cell permit applications can take upwards of 18 to 24 months to advance through the approval process as a result of needed buy-in from many local commissions, city councils, etc. That’s an incredible amount of time for a community to wait around and ultimately fall behind on next-generation access. As a result, policymakers are beginning to act. 

Thirteen states, including Florida, Ohio and Texas, have already passed bills alleviating some of the local infrastructure hurdles accompanying increased broadband network deployment, including delays and pricing. Additionally, this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has moved on multiple orders that look to remedy current 5G roadblocks, including opening up commercial access to more amounts of needed high-, mid- and low-band spectrum.

The second step is identifying areas in which public and private entities can partner to drive needed capital and resources toward 5G initiatives. These types of collaborations were first made popular in Europe, where we continue to see significant advancement of infrastructure initiatives through combined public-private planning, including the European Commission and European ICT industry’s 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5G PPP).

The U.S. is increasing its own public-private levels of planning. In 2015, the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation launched its successful “Smart City Challenge” encouraging planning and funding in U.S. cities around advanced connectivity. More recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded New York City a $22.5 million grant through its Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) initiative to create and deploy the first of a series of wireless research hubs focused on 5G-related breakthroughs, including high-bandwidth and low-latency data transmission, millimeter wave spectrum, next-generation mobile network architecture and edge cloud computing integration.

While these efforts should be applauded, it’s important to remember they are merely initial steps. A recent study conducted by CTIA, a leading trade association for the wireless industry, found that the United States remains behind both China and South Korea in 5G development. If other countries beat the U.S. to the punch, which some anticipate is already happening, companies and sectors that require ubiquitous, fast and seamless connection — like autonomous transportation, for example — could migrate, develop and evolve abroad, casting lasting negative impact on U.S. innovation. 

The potential economic gains are also significant. A 2017 Accenture report predicts an additional $275 billion in infrastructure investments from the private sector, resulting in up to 3 million new jobs and a gross domestic product (GDP) increase of $500 billion. That’s just on the infrastructure side alone. On the global scale, we could see as much as $12 trillion in additional economic activity according to discussion at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January.

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” When it comes to America’s technology evolution, this quote holds especially true. Our nation has led the digital revolution for decades. Now with 5G, we have the opportunity to unlock an entirely new level of innovation that will make our communities safer, more inclusive and more prosperous for all.

Asian investors have plenty of cash, a hearty appetite for investments and a different approach to doing deals

Daniel Zimmermann

Daniel Zimmermann navigates emerging companies and tech startups through complex corporate transactions, financings and venture technology matters.
More posts by this contributor

The VC landscape has been shifting radically in the past few years as Asian investors pump cash into startups. Last year, Asian VCs invested 40 percent of the $154 billion in global venture financing, compared to a 44 percent stake for U.S. investors, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis.

Asian VCs largely fund companies close to home, but their portfolios are expanding to include U.S. businesses. That influx of capital can be a valuable lifeline for founders who need cash to fuel hiring, product development and growth.

Securing that money, however, demands cross-cultural sensitivities and negotiation skills more commonly exhibited by diplomats and ambassadors. American startup founders are often stunned to see how much control Asian investors demand in exchange for capital.

If you’re being courted by Asian investors — and it’s more likely than ever that you will be — you’ll need to adjust the VCs’ expectations. That can be a challenging task when the parties have different perspectives on appropriate management styles and levels of control.

Taking stock

Disparate expectations often arise because laws governing investments, disclosures and financing terms vary from country to country, and conventions can be different. Prospective foreign investors routinely question the need for rights that are customary in the U.S. and may dismiss specific venture capital lingo as unnecessary or irrelevant.

For example, conversion rights or registration rights appear to be arcane provisions that can be negotiated, but in the world of U.S. venture-backed companies, these are part of the overall deal structure and are expected by the stakeholders.

Doing deals

American founders have a similar knowledge gap when it comes to typical Asian deal terms. U.S. founders aren’t accustomed to putting their own assets on the line to secure financing, though this is common in Asia for early-stage founders. Similarly, American entrepreneurs are often shocked to see Asian VC term sheets that require founders to pay the investors a significant sum for deal-related expenses — a provision that is binding even if the deal is never completed.

Without an understanding of why Asian investors include this provision, this demand seems ludicrously overreaching. Its purpose is to ensure that all parties approach negotiations with focus and gravity. With a significant amount of money on the line, the reasoning goes, the parties are more motivated to reach accord. This stipulation is familiar in Asia, but I routinely delete it from term sheets during contract negotiations because it seems counterintuitive to reaching an arm’s-length agreement.

Shunning Asian capital may ultimately cost you down the line.

Remember that the Asian VC market, while explosive, is still in its infancy: Chinese-led venture funding has increased 15-fold since 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal. Because this market is so immature, investors aim to add language to term sheets that will give them an advantage.

It’s also typical to see term sheets that include full-ratchet anti-dilution protection and most-favored-nation clauses. But their ubiquity doesn’t mean founders must be stuck with them. I encourage would-be investors to embrace realistic expectations by reviewing deal point studies, which summarize the typical terms in recent deals. Most major law firms, including mine, produce their own.

Keeping your cool

If a financing term sheet contains troublesome or even outrageous terms, don’t take it personally. Task your lawyer with explaining to foreign prospective investors why the term sheet they provided is wildly different from typical U.S. deal terms. Leave the expression of deep disappointment to your counsel so your feelings won’t taint your relationship with the investors.

I recently provided this type of feedback to a group of would-be strategic investors from China. When they produced pages of unreasonable terms, I directed them to the model financing documents on the sites of the National Venture Capital Association (NCVA) and Series Seed. The forms from these neutral sources include typical terms and agreements drawn up by a group of investors, entrepreneurs, counsel and advisers. They need to be tweaked for each financing scenario, but they cover all the basics and beyond. In this instance, the Chinese investors reviewed this information and did some additional research. They then returned with far more conciliatory terms, which the founder ultimately accepted.

If you’re concerned that the need for negotiations and diplomacy with foreign investors will be time-consuming and distract you from your business goals, reconsider. Shunning Asian capital may ultimately cost you down the line.

Many Chinese VCs are well-connected, and a respectful, productive relationship with these investors can help you open doors to wealthy investor conglomerates eager to fund promising startups. Those connections can, in turn, lead you to larger, global markets that you could never have accessed otherwise.