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AI

7 AI startups aim to give retailers a happy holiday season

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Nothing is hotter than artificial intelligence (AI) startups that can help retailers win big this holiday shopping season. 

According to eMarketer, retailers are turning to artificial intelligence to tackle everything from supply chain challenges and price optimization to self-checkout and fresh food. And retail AI is a massive, fast-growing segment filled with AI startups looking to break into a market that is estimated to hit over 40 billion by 2030.  

These are seven of the hottest AI startups that are helping retailers meet their holiday goals: 

Afresh: The AI startup solving for fresh food

Founded in 2017, San Francisco-based Afresh has been on a tear this year, raising a whopping $115 million in August. Afresh helps thousands of stores tackle the complex supply chain questions that have always existed around the perimeter of the supermarket — with its fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and fish. That is, how can stores make sure they have enough perfectly ripe, fresh foods available, while minimizing losses and reducing waste from food that is past its prime? 

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According to a company press release, Afresh is on track to help retailers save 34 million pounds of food waste by the end of 2022. It uses AI to analyze a supermarket’s previous demand and data trends, which allows grocers to keep fresh food for as little time as possible. The platform uses an algorithm to assess what is currently in the store, with a “confidence interval” that includes how perishable the item is. Workers help train the AI-driven model by periodically counting inventory by hand. 

AiFi: AI-powered cashierless checkout

Santa Clara, California-based AiFi offers a frictionless and cashierless AI-powered retail solution deployed in diverse locations such as sports stadiums, music festivals, grocery store chains and college campuses. Steve Gu cofounded AiFi in 2016 with his wife, Ying Zheng, and raised a fresh $65 million in March. Both Gu and Zheng have Ph.D.s in computer vision and spent time at Apple and Google.

AiFi deploys AI models through numerous cameras placed across the ceiling, in order to understand everything happening in the shop. Cameras track customers throughout their shopping journey, while computer vision recognizes products and detects different activities, including putting items onto or grabbing items off the shelves.

Beneath the platform’s hood are neural network models specifically developed for people-tracking as well as activity and product recognition. AiFi also developed advanced calibration algorithms that allow the company to re-create the shopping environment in 3D.

Everseen: AI and computer vision self-checkout

Everseen has been around since 2007, but 2022 was a big year for the Cork, Ireland-based company, which offers AI and computer vision-based self-checkout technology. In September, Kroger Co., America’s largest grocery retailer, announced it is moving beyond the pilot stage with Everseen’s solution, rolling out to 1,700 grocery stores and reportedly including it at all locations in the near future.

The Everseen Visual AI platform captures large volumes of unstructured video data using high-resolution cameras, which it integrates with structured POS data feeds to analyze and make inferences about data in real-time. It provides shoppers with a “gentle nudge” if they make an unintentional scanning error.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Everseen: In 2021, the company settled a lawsuit with Walmart over claims the retailer had misappropriated the Irish firm’s technology and then built its own similar product. 

Focal Systems: Real-time shelf digitization

Burlingame, California-based Focal Systems, which offers AI-powered real-time shelf digitization for brick-and-mortar retail, recently hit the big time with Walmart Canada. The retailer is rolling out Focal Systems’ solution, which uses shelf cameras, computer vision and deep learning, to all stores following a 70-store pilot. 

Founded in 2015, Focal Systems was born out of Stanford’s Computer Vision Lab. In March, the company launched its FocalOS “self-driving store” solution, which automates order writing and ordering, directs stockers, tracks productivity per associate, optimizes category management on a per store basis and manages ecommerce platforms to eliminate substitutions. 

According to the company, corporate leaders can view any store in real-time to see what their shelves look like and how stores are performing.  

Hivery: Getting store assortments right

South Wales, Australia-based Hivery tackles the complex challenges around battles for space in brick-and-mortar retail stores. It helps stores make decisions around how to use physical space, set up product displays and optimize assortments. It offers “hyper-local retailing” by enabling stores to customize their assortments to meet the needs of local customers. 

Hivery’s SaaS-based, AI-driven Curate product uses proprietary ML and applied mathematics algorithms developed and acquired from Australia’s national science agency. They claim a process that takes six months is reduced to around six minutes, thanks to the power of AI/ML and applied mathematics techniques.

Jason Hosking, Hivery’s cofounder and CEO, told VentureBeat in April that Hivery’s customers can make rapid assortment scenario strategies simulations around SKU rationalization, SKU introduction and space while considering any category goal, merchandising rules and demand transference.  Once a strategy is determined, Curate can generate accompanying planograms for execution. 

Lily AI: Connecting shoppers to products

Just a month ago, Lily AI, which connects a retailer’s shoppers with products they might want, raised $25 million in new capital – no small feat during these tightening times. 

When Purva Gupta and Sowmiya Narayanan launched Lily AI in 2015, the Mountain View, California-based company looked to address a thorny e-commerce challenge – shoppers that leave a site before buying. 

For customers that include ThredUP and Everlane, Lily AI uses algorithms that combine deep product tagging with deep psychographic analysis to power a web store’s search engines and product discovery carousels. For example, Lily will capture details about a brand’s product style and fits and use customer data from other brands to create a prediction of a customer’s affinity to attributes of products in the catalog. 

Shopic: One of several smart cart AI startups

Tel Aviv-based Shopic has been making waves with its AI-powered clip-on device, which uses computer vision algorithms to turn shopping carts into smart carts. In August, Shopic received a $35 million series B investment round. 

Shopic claims it can identify more than 50,000 items once they are placed in a cart in real time while displaying product promotions and discounts on related products. Its system also acts as a self-checkout interface and provides real-time inventory management and customer behavioral insights for grocers through its analytics dashboard, the company said. Grocers can receive reports that include aisle heatmaps, promotion monitoring and new product adoption metrics. 

Shopic faces headwinds, though, with other AI startups in the smart cart space: Amazon’s Dash Carts are currently being piloted in Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh, while Instacart recently acquired Caper AI. 

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Categories
Game

Happy Home Paradise Fixes Animal Crossing’s Biggest Problem

It’s a huge week for Animal Crossing: New Horizons players. After a disappointing year devoid of meaningful updates, the cozy life simulator has gotten a massive update. That’s thanks to the game’s 2.0 build, which adds a sequel’s worth of features to the game. Perhaps more exciting is the game’s first and only paid DLC, Happy Home Paradise, which is included with a Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack subscription or available to buy for $25.

Happy Home Paradise is essentially a spiritual sequel to Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, a stand-alone spinoff title that was released for Nintendo 3DS after Animal Crossing: New Leaf. The game was more focused than its freeform mainline counterpart as it only asked players to design houses for villagers. It was essentially a little puzzle game about fulfilling home requests that was charming, though didn’t feel robust enough for a stand-alone title.

It was just one example of the way Nintendo has struggled to capitalize on Animal Crossing’s success. The company tried a few spinoff titles to turn it into a more varied franchise, but nothing stuck. But now, with Happy Home Paradise, Nintendo has found a perfect solution to the series’ fatal flaw: Attach the side games to the main game.

In-game spinoff

Happy Home Paradise quickly whisks players off to a new island that houses a self-contained game. Players are recruited by the Happy Home Academy to walk around the island, take requests from its inhabitants, and design their dream house. Villagers will offer a specific theme, like “sporty,” and ask that a few specific items be included in their home. Once players accept, they’ll be able to freely decorate both the interior and exterior of the house using a curated list of items (players don’t need to own the items to use them in designs).

During a demo, I watched a player create a spa-like dream house complete with starry wallpaper and aromatherapy furniture. A list of other requests showed that players will build anything from a perfect coffee room to a toilet palace (don’t ask me what that means).

It’s a simple little puzzle game that puts players’ decorating skills to good use. They’ll get to design a series of homes, customizing everything from the outer façade to the actual dimensions of the rooms within. They can even adjust the environment the house appears in, seamlessly changing the season or time of day. Any design can be saved and adjusted after the fact, so players can keep tweaking as much as they’d like.

Had this been a stand-alone title like Happy Home Designer, I don’t imagine many people would pick it up. At the end of the day, home designing is one piece of a larger game. Spinning it off into its own side title seems reductive. Nintendo has wised up to that fact this time around, realizing that home decorating works better as a minigame.

A player designs a disco room in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Paradise.

Minigames have long been part of Animal Crossing’s DNA. One could argue that the main game is just a series of smaller games compiled into a life simulator. Fishing is its own little sport, holidays like Bunny Day feature contained side -objectives, and New Leaf’s Roost Cafe (which returns in the 2.0 update) explicitly featured a coffee-making minigame. Going even further back, the main appeal of the first entry was that it included playable NES games, putting games within a game.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf took that one step further with its Welcome Amiibo update, which brought a survival board game called Desert Island Escape and a match-three puzzler to the mix. But Nintendo wasn’t simply content with launching one core game and loading it with free content. Happy Home Designer aimed to expand the formula with mixed success, but the company flew too close to the sun with Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival. The Wii U spinoff was a full board game that utilized amiibo, almost like a Mario Party for the series. It was a total flop, critically and financially. The game reportedly sold less than half a million copies in its lifetime. Ouch.

Happy Home Paradise sees Nintendo accepting the fact that players only care about the core Animal Crossing experience, not the IP as a vague concept. They’ll check out creative new content that expands their island life, but not necessarily shell out for a separate purchase. Part of me wonders if players would actually engage with an Amiibo Festival take two if it was piped into New Horizons. It doesn’t matter how good the content is; it would just be another way to pass the time.

A classroom full of students in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Paradise.

Unfortunately, Happy Home Paradise is said to be the game’s last paid DLC and it won’t get any major free updates either. Players have to hope that it’s enough to keep them going for years to come or that little updates here and there will be enough to keep it alive. That feels like a mistake. Happy Home Paradise is a smart new strategy for the series, solidifying the core Animal Crossing games as a sort of live service hub filled with activities. In a perfect world, New Horizons would continue to get support through the Switch lifespan, with spin-off ideas folded into the game. The game could turn significant updates into paid DLC, getting more money out of the series without the need for side-gambles.

Hopefully, Nintendo has learned its lessons from New Horizons’ whirlwind life cycle and uses it to build the ultimate installment down the line that keeps fans carrying out their cozy digital lives. Animal Crossing is the only metaverse I’d actually want to live in.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Happy Home Paradise is available to purchase today for $25. It’s also included with Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack subscriptions. New Horizons’ 2.0 update is free for all players.

Editors’ Choice




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Categories
Computing

Happy Birthday, Windows 10: The History and the Future

The future at Microsoft is Windows 11. But our recent past was all Windows 10 — and if you can believe it, that history started six years ago today.

On July 15, 2015, Windows 10 hit manufacturing (known as RTM) for preinstall on new laptops and tablets. That was then followed by a public retail release on July 29. In those six years, Windows 10 has managed to make its way onto 1.3 billion devices, and the number one desktop OS in the world — but it wasn’t easy.

There were a lot of lessons learned throughout the illustrious history of Windows that informed the direction of Windows 10, and even to Windows 11 today. Happy sixth birthday, Windows 10. Here’s a little look back at your journey.

Windows 10 past

Windows 10 was born at a time when Microsoft faced a lot of fallout from the release of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. Windows 7 was still quite popular around 2015, and many people did not like the full-screen Start Menu in Windows 8.1. Changes like the Charms Bar, Live Tiles, and other touch-first design elements coming with the new “Metro UI” alienated people used to a desktop-style interface.

Windows 10 was the operating system that promised to change that. It brought back the single-row Start Menu seen in Windows 7 but also blended the Live Tiles and customization options from Windows 8. Even the aero effects from Windows 7 were back, helping make the OS look a bit more modern at the time over Apple’s OS X 10.10.

Microsoft also introduced a digital assistant, Cortana, to take on Siri (though Cortana was short-lived.) And, it hid the controversial tablet features into “tablet mode” area that only appeared if and when you detached your keyboard or turned your 2-in-1 over.  Other new features include Windows Hello login to a PC (using just your face) and the new Microsoft Edge browser.

More importantly, Microsoft improved the lousy app store from Windows 8.1 by introducing Universal Windows Platform apps — apps that can run with a single code on Windows 10 Mobile phones, Xbox, Surface, and even HoloLens headsets. Windows 10 Mobile is an entirely separate story, but it got big updates compared to Windows Phone 8, with the codebase for the mobile operating system being based on desktop Windows 10.

For Microsoft, Windows 10 was a brave new venture and the chance to reconnect with Windows users who are familiar with desktop experiences. That’s why the operating system was a free update. Anyone with a valid Windows 7 or 8 license could get Windows 10 for free.

The controversial update tactics and “Get Windows 10 ads” aside, it was a bold new move for Microsoft, which usually charged full price for installing its desktop operating systems on existing hardware.

With the goal of having Windows 10 on 1 billion devices within three years of release, Microsoft was on a bold venture, but things would still get messy.

Windows 10’s evolution to Windows 11

Windows 10 Start menu open on the desktop.

As more and more people updated to Windows 10, Microsoft started selling Windows 10 as a service. That meant that (as one Microsoft employee put it) Windows 10 could be the “last version of Windows.” It would get yearly “featured” updates, without the need to pay. Buy in and get Windows 10 once, and you’re good for all future updates as long as Windows is supported. It’s what Apple did with MacOS Mavericks back in 2013.

Those updates meant that Windows 10 continued to evolve based on the feedback of Windows users. Microsoft pushed out yearly “featured” updates for Windows 10 up until 2016. The Windows 10 November Update and Windows 10 Anniversary Update introduced new performance features and major revamps for inking, Windows Hello, gaming, Cortana, and more.

After 2016, Microsoft shifted the way Windows 10 updates worked. It now got twice a year updates (spring and fall), which we still have today. Releases included the Creators Update, Fall Creators Update. Starting in 2018, updates got named for the month released — see the October 2020 Update and May 2021 Update as examples.

The rush of updates meant that Windows 10 would evolve. Microsoft constantly improved Windows with new features. They even addressed privacy concerns, putting users in control with new settings toggles. Other new features include Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the Fluent Design visual revamp, Xbox Game Bar, Dolby Atmos, a people app, improved file sharing, and more.

Later releases even introduced cross-platform features like the Your Phone app to sync up Android phones with Windows PCs. And more recently, the new Chromium-powered Edge browser, and a revamped visual update for the Start Menu.

But the big updates eventually stopped coming. After issues with the Windows 10 October 2018 update caused user’s files to be deleted, Microsoft went back to the drawing board with Windows Updates in 2019 — to get us where we are today. Since then, Windows 10’s twice-a-year updates were focused on adding smaller features and patching bugs.

Microsoft slowed down the pace of development of Windows to the point where it fell behind massive visual redesigns introduced in MacOS Big Sur, and Chrome OS. There even was a shakeup internally at Microsoft, with Panos Pany taking charge of things in a new team known as Windows + Devices. The Windows Insider program also saw changes, with “rings” being discontinued in favor of “branches.” It all shaped up things to where we are today.

The future of Windows

Heading into the future, Windows 10 will continue to be supported by Microsoft through the year 2025. It’s been confirmed multiple times, and it’s even listed on the current support page.

But don’t forget, Windows 10 was initially supposed to evolve into a flavor of Windows 10X. The pandemic shifted those plans and that ended up becoming Windows 11 instead.

As far as we know, Windows 10 will now live alongside Windows 11. It is rumored that Windows 10 will still get twice-a-year updates, too. The next update is said to be Windows 10 21H2, as mentioned in three separate support documents for Windows Hello, Windows IT Pros, and Windows Autopilot.

But Windows 11 is the future. Windows 11 brings many changes that fans long requested in Windows 10. A sweeping visual redesign, new Start Menu, Android apps in the Microsoft Store, are just some of the changes. It’s a free update for select Windows 10 devices, and it’s all thanks to six years of Windows 10.

Editors’ Choice




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Categories
Tech News

Happy 20th birthday to my beloved VLC — the finest software known to mankind

I still remember when I first met you, VLC. It was the early 2000s. The family computer had a hard drive measured in megabytes, and it was impossible to find a good bit of software to play video files I… acquired. But, in my darkest moment, you appeared and helped me watch a grainy rip of a South Park episode.

And you know what? You’ve never let me down since. Thank you, VLC. I love you. Dearly. Forever and forever, you and me, running through the fields into Valhalla. Together.

Yes — on February 1, one of the internet’s finest institutions turned 20. Clap. Cheer. I SAID CLAP AND CHEER. Stand up. Louder. LOUDER.

A tiny bit of history. VLC — run by the VideoLAN non-profit — was founded in France all the way back in 2001, a time when the majority of Americans didn’t even have internet access. Even in regular human terms, 20 years is a long ass time, but online? That’s geological.

What’s even more impressive is how VLC has navigated these past two decades. In that time, the internet has changed beyond recognition; from a scrappy, creative upstart, to a moneymaking machine that sits at the center of our society. Yet, amidst this, VLC has remained true to its core values. The software remains open source, free to download, has no adverts, and includes no bloatware — it simply plays video files and, to this very day, is the very best at it.