- A patent application and a photo uploaded to Linkedin are among the first indications of what Airbnb's internal design unit Samsara, is up to. The aesthetic of the device definitely has some hallmarks of Lapka: alien styling far from standard consumer electronic practices, contrasting materials and a high level of craft. The device itself is supposed to help travelers by transmitting travel data to them in places where cellular and Wi-Fi service is unreliable. It's hard to tell right now if Airbnb's hardware aspirations will only be available to those on their platform, or if they would venture to make devices for renters/homeowners generally. Platforms like Uber and Lyft have been building hardware for service-provider side users but there's little reason to port those widgets to the general public. It seems inevitable that if Airbnb is serious about pursuing hardware, some of those initiatives will look a lot like "smart home" products, and they'll have to decide whether or not to retail it to the general public.
- Two Boston-area tech companies focused on manufacturing technology emerged from stealth mode this past week: Desktop Metal, which has developed some new metal 3D printing tech to greatly reduce cost and increase speed over existing systems, and Tulip, which is working to make manufacturers more nimble and improve quality through sensors, software, and interactive process documentation. Printing metal is notoriously difficult so if Desktop Metal can live up to the hype of printing metal parts even relatively reliably, it could significantly change how and where metal parts with complex geometries are made. Tulip says their systems are in use by Jabil and the Merck Group - massive, experienced companies producing electronics and pharmaceuticals, respectively. Given that those companies are on the cutting edge of manufacturing optimization on both an equipment and organizational level, their positive experience of Tulip's system is pretty compelling. Desktop Metal and Tulip are representative of where manufacturing on the whole is going: towards higher flexibility of production, greater complexity of goods produced, and mixing hands-off automation with hands-on problem solving to generate value.
- The garment industry is notorious for having awful, exploitative labor practices, with sweatshops flowing to whatever market has the least regulation and the lowest wages. The garment industry has also led to some of the worst workplace disasters in history (e.g. the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 that killed 146 workers, or Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 where 1,129 garment laborers perished). One would expect to see a push for the labor-saving automation found in other sectors, but the amorphous quality of fabric has made cost-effective robotics for apparel construction nearly impossible. The startup Sewbo is hoping to use a new technique where fabric is sprayed with a soluble polymer, stiffening the work in progress to a point where robots can easily and reliably manipulate it for manufacturing. It's an interesting workaround, but so far the apparel industry seems reluctant to deal with the added steps and unknowns of implementing an new process to a very old practice.
- Amazon announced another hardware product in their Alexa-enabled smart home line. It's called Echo Look and adds a camera capable of full body selfies and that can "help you dress better." That last bit, judging your outfits and making recommendations, seems like an absurd idea to us. Fashion is incredibly personal and contextual (occasion, location, season, how you feel, etc.), so the odds that computation is going to lead to better outcomes there is dubious. This is besides the obvious privacy concerns of having a cloud-connected camera watch you dress/undress, building a trove of data on daily fluctuations that could be analyzed in any manner of ways unbeknownst to you, like speculating about your physical and mental health. This article from Wired lays out some other good points about how such (presumably crowdsourced) judging of outfits via algorithm is likely to fail people that intentionally have an androgynous or non-gender conforming style.
- The clothing business itself is at an interesting juncture, brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling and e-commerce giants like Amazon are making aggressive moves to dominate the sector, filing patents for on-demand clothing fabrication and investing in new ways to gain visibility as a fashion-connected brand through devices like Echo Look. As it stands, Amazon is likely to become the #1 seller of apparel in the U.S. this year, according to analysts. While selling more clothes and capturing extra margin by escaping the need for store rents and staff will be great for their bottom line, Amazon's focus on maximizing speed and minimizing cost might be a bad trend for the environment: 1kg of clothing generates about 23kg of greenhouse gases in attaining that final, fitted form, but we're also burning through clothes at a much faster rate. Across all apparel types, most people are using them only about half as long as we did 15 years ago.
Up In the Air:
- DJI, the world's largest consumer drone maker, is working to geofence large swaths of Syria and Iraq with software no-fly zones. These additional no fly zones first appeared in February but were not reported on until recently. The article speculates that the timing may have coincided with a U.S. led offensive into parts of Iraq around that same time. It says something about the expanded capabilities of consumer technology that a company like DJI finds itself drawn into the midst of international relations and military tactics.
- Marketer and DJ Alyce Currier sharply and succinctly describes the challenges of expanding reach as an individual enterprise, whether as artist, freelancer or micro-business - singing our own praises can seem uncomfortable but is an ever-more vital skill in an era with declining full-time employment. When it comes to art in particular, there are unspoken "rules" about self-promotion that should be upended. To survive, make meaning and share it as broadly as possible, why should the artist not make their own voice a little louder?