Year: 2019

Maker Faire halts operations and lays off all staff

Financial troubles have forced Maker Media, the company behind crafting publication MAKE: magazine as well as the science and art festival Maker Faire, to lay off its entire staff of 22 and pause all operations. TechCrunch was tipped off to Maker Media’s unfortunate situation which was then confirmed by the company’s founder and CEO Dale Dougherty.

For 15 years, MAKE: guided adults and children through step-by-step do-it-yourself crafting and science projects, and it was central to the maker movement. Since 2006, Maker Faire’s 200 owned and licensed events per year in over 40 countries let attendees wander amidst giant, inspiring art and engineering installations.

Maker Media Inc ceased operations this week and let go of all of its employees — about 22 employees” Dougherty tells TechCrunch. “I started this 15 years ago and it’s always been a struggle as a business to make this work. Print publishing is not a great business for anybody, but it works…barely. Events are hard . . . there was a drop off in corporate sponsorship.” Microsoft and Autodesk failed to sponsor this year’s flagship Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Dougherty is still desperately trying to resuscitate the company in some capacity, if only to keep MAKE:’s online archive running and continue allowing third-party organizers to license the Maker Faire name to throw affiliated events. Rather than bankruptcy, Maker Media is working through an alternative Assignment for Benefit of Creditors process.

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

[Update 6/9/19: Dougherty tells me he’s been overwhelmed by the support shown by the Maker community. For now, licensed Maker Faire events around the world will proceed as planned. Dougherty also says he’s aware of Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey’s interest in funding the company, and a GoFundMe page started for it.]

The CEO says staffers understood the challenges facing the company following layoffs in 2016, and then at least 8 more employees being let go in March according to the SF Chronicle. They’ve been paid their owed wages and PTO, but did not receive any severance or two-week notice.

“It started as a venture-backed company but we realized it wasn’t a venture-backed opportunity” Dougherty admits, as his company had raised $10 million from Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, and Floodgate. “The company wasn’t that interesting to its investors anymore. It was failing as a business but not as a mission. Should it be a non-profit or something like that? Some of our best successes for instance are in education.”

The situation is especially sad because the public was still enthusiastic about Maker Media’s products  Dougherty said that despite rain, Maker Faire’s big Bay Area event last week met its ticket sales target. 1.45 million people attended its events in 2016. MAKE: magazine had 125,000 paid subscribers and the company had racked up over one million YouTube subscribers. But high production costs in expensive cities and a proliferation of free DIY project content online had strained Maker Media.

“It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight” Dougherty concluded. For now the company is stuck in limbo.

Regardless of the outcome of revival efforts, Maker Media has helped inspire a generation of engineers and artists, brought families together around crafting, and given shape to a culture of tinkerers. The memory of its events and weekends spent building will live on as inspiration for tomorrow’s inventors.

Audi proves two little screens are better than one big screen

I’m spending some time in the new Audi Q8, and the car company equipped the crossover with its latest infotainment system. I love it, fingerprints, dust and all.

The grimy screens are part of the story. I could have cleaned up the screens for the photos, but I thought it was essential to show the screens after a couple of weeks of use.

There are two screens placed in the center stack of the Q8. The top one features controls for the radio, mapping system and vehicle settings. The bottom screen is for climate controls and additional controls like garage door opener and the vehicle’s cameras. Both have haptic feedback, so the buttons feel nearly real.

Both screens are tilted at the right angle, and the shifter is built in a way that provides a handy spot to rest your wrist, steadying it as you hit the screens.

Car companies are turning to touchscreens over physical buttons. It makes sense on some level, as screens are less expensive and scalable across vehicles. With screens, car companies do not need to design and manufacture knobs, buttons and sliders but instead create a software user interface.

Tesla took it to the next level with the debut of the Model S in 2012. The car company stuck a massive touchscreen in the center stack. It’s huge. I’m not a fan. I find the large screen uncomfortable and impractical to use while driving. Other car companies must agree, as few have included similar touchscreens in their vehicles. Instead of a single touchscreen, most car makers are using a combination of a touchscreen with physical knobs and buttons. For the most part, this is an excellent compromise, as the knobs and buttons are used for functions that will always be needed, like climate control.

Audi is using a similar thought in its latest infotainment system. The bottom screen is always on and always displays the climate control. There’s a button that reveals shortcuts, too, so if the top screen is turned off, the driver can still change the radio to a preset. The top screen houses buttons for the radio, mapping and lesser-used settings.

The user interface uses a dark theme. The black levels are fantastic, even in direct sunlight, and this color scheme makes it easy to use during the day or night.

The touchscreens have downsides but none that are not present on other touchscreens. Glare is often an issue, and these screens are fingerprint magnets. I also found the screen to run hot to the touch after a few minutes in the sun.

Apple CarPlay remains a source of frustration. The Q8 has the latest CarPlay option, which allows an iPhone to run CarPlay wirelessly. It only works sometimes. And sometimes, when it does work, various apps like Spotify do not work in their typical fashion. Thankfully, Apple just announced a big update for CarPlay that will hopefully improve the connectivity and stability.

The infotainment system is now a critical component. Automakers must build a system that’s competent and feels natural to the driver and yet able to evolve as features are added to vehicles through over-the-air updates. Automakers must build a system that works today and continues to work years from now.

Audi’s latest infotainment system is impressive. It does everything right: it’s not a distraction, it’s easy to use and features fantastic haptic feedback.

Pokémon Sword and Shield arrive worldwide on November 15, 2019

Nintendo Switch has Pokémon games, but it doesn’t really have its own Pokémon games, not in the true sense. Pokémon Sword and Shield, coming November 15, 2019, will be the first real Pokémon games (don’t even mention Pokémon Let’s Go – don’t) for Nintendo Switch, and now we know more about them thanks to today’s Pokémon Direct livestream event from Nintendo.

Starting with the intro video, you can tell that Sword and Shield will be a full-fledged new extension of the Pokémon world taking place in the new Galar region – a fact emphasized by the theme song that played over it which featured the catchy hook “A whoollle new worlllddd.”

Plus in this new region, part of the fiction is that everyone loves watching battles on TV, which seems like it will come into play for big battles. We also got a glimpse at a bunch of new Pokémon, including a sheep one called Wooloo; a flower thing called Gossifleur (which evolves to Eldegoss); plus a “bite” type called Dredgnaw.

There’s also a new place called, not super imaginatively, the “Wild Area” which is pretty much an open world between human settlements where you get the chance to encounter wild Pokémon you can catch. These will vary depending on weather conditions and time of day, and it looks like much more of a free-ranging experience, when compared to the relatively hard-tracked previous instalments.

Pokémon also get a special power called ‘Dynamax’ in this instalment, which is a special power that makes them huge and more powerful for three turns. This also factors into a new mode where up to four Pokémon trainers can team up to squad raid a single Dynamax wild Pokémon who retains their amped up power for the duration of the conflict. At the end, players get a chance to capture the Pokémon – and some are exclusively available to catch this way.

We also got an intro to new characters including region champion Leon, his younger brother Hop (a primary rival for the player), plus a really quick look at some of the gym battles.

The real capper though was a CG cinematic introducing the game’s legendaries, which are wolf-like Pokémon who have – you guessed it – a sword and a shield respectively. These are called Zacian and Zamazenta.

Review: The 2019 Bentley Continental GT is beautiful, excessive and totally worth it

The Bentley Continental GT is iconic. The vehicle has long stood for excess and opulence, and I knew that going in. I expected the Continental GT to be over-engineered and capable of high-speed thrills. And it is, but there’s more.

The tester I’m driving costs $279,000. Of course it’s beautiful and fast and dripping with technology. It’s a Bentley. Inside and out, at high speed or low speed, the latest Continental GT exceeded all my expectations.

The machine glides over the road, powered by a mechanical symphony performing under the hood. The W12 engine is a dying breed, and it’s a shame. It’s stunning in its performance here. This is a 200 mph vehicle, but I didn’t hit those speeds. What surprised me the most is that I didn’t need to go fast. The new Continental GT is thrilling in a way that doesn’t require speed. It’s like a great set of speakers or exclusive liquor. Quality over quantity, and in this mechanical form, the quality is stunning.

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Review

Bentley debuted the Continental GT in 2003 and retained a familiar form over the years. Its mission has remained constant: To be the very best grand touring car available. It’s held that crown on and off since 2003 as other cars entered the game. But with this latest revision, the crown has returned to Bentley. This is an astounding vehicle to take on a road trip. It’s like a private jet on the highway.

Under the long hood sits a massive W12 engine with twin turbos. The setup results in over 620 HP and 664-foot pounds of torque. And it knows how to translate those numbers to the payment. The engine pounds not like a stack of Marshall amps at a Motorhead concert, but pounds like a symphony playing Beethoven’s 5th with intensity.

The Bentley Continental GT performance is where it stands apart.

It glides as speeds reach illegal levels. There’s no drama from the transmission or argument from the engine. When the accelerator drops to the floor, a gateway opens in front of the Bentley, allowing it to transcend space and time as it exceeds posted speed limits.

The Bentley Continental GT lays out its power with the precision of an electric vehicle but the intensity of a street racer. The power delivery is unreal. Under normal driving modes, the transmission is hardly noticeable, and under strain of chasing a quarter mile, the shifts are barely noticeable as it arm wrestles the massive W12.

Driving the Bentley Continental GT is an exercise in restraint. At times, say, when coming’s out of a gnarly curve, you feel the need to slam the pedal to the floor and launch the car off the apex. But that would land you in jail. This is a car that could live its best life on a track, but it doesn’t need the track to be happy. Even driving the Continental GT to the golf course or office park is nearly a thrill.

The GT is just excellent. It inspires confidence and regal intrigue that’s often missing in many of its contemporaries.

Entering the latest Continental is like sinking behind the controls of a fantasy rocket ship. Brushed metal adorns the center stack and handcrafted wood and leather wrap the cabin. Adorable metal pulls control the vents, and machined knobs perform various functions.

The leather is soft and metal real. It’s the little things, too. The lume on the analog clock is fantastic and the wood grain matches throughout. The seats feature a lovely diamond pattern with multiple layers of embroidered detail. Don’t want to look at an LCD screen? Hit a button, and it rotates away, revealing a set of three analog gauges in its place.

However, throughout the Continental GT, there are odd choices of material. Example: The gear shift is plastic and creaks like a well-used toy. It’s an odd choice for a substantial touchpoint. It feels cheap in comparison to gear shifters in other vehicles. BMW, for instance, is using manufactured crystal in its new large SUV and it conveys a sense of stoutness missing in the Bentley’s.

Other plastic bits feel out of place. When sitting down, a bar extends from behind the seats, pushing the seatbelt within reach of the driver. It’s flimsy plastic. The handle on the outside feels loose. Even the key fob is underwhelming; I think the fob for my F-150 is more substantial.

I’m nitpicking, but the Bentley Continental GT costs north of $279,000.

The controls are familiar. The Bentley uses a lot of switch plates and instruments from Audi’s part’s bin though, in the Bentley, they’re chrome. The Audi theme continues to the digital instrument cluster where the shares the same design as the one found in most Audi’s. Expect a similar experience throughout. This isn’t a bad thing. Audi has one of the best interfaces available throughout the industry.

The 2019 Bentley Continental GT is unforgettable. It’s a beautiful combination of obscene power and luxury materials.

I took delivery of this tester on the eve of a long weekend and spent as much time in it as I could. It’s more comfortable than my house. The seats are supple and supportive. The dash impressive with its woodwork and analog dials. The power is intoxicating.

Cars like the Continental GT will likely continue to exist after electric vehicles become the norm. At least until the Earth runs out of oil. They have to. Cars like this will always be a luxury item. They have a soul missing from electric vehicles. There’s nothing like putting your foot down on a Bentley W12 and feeling the world come alive around you.

Muro is a retro-style cylinder music box you control with an app

The light twinkle of an old-fashioned cylinder music box evokes many things: nostalgia, childhood memories, sometimes even horror (they are a trope in scary movie soundtracks). Most music boxes play one tune, but with the Muro Box, which exhibited at Computex this week, you can use an app to pick different songs or even compose your own. It even doubles as a smart alarm clock.

Created by Tevofy Technology, a Taiwanese startup, the Muro Box’s components are mounted on a wooden base and visible underneath a glass cover, so you can watch as a 20-note steel comb creates music by plucking pins on its cylinder. The key difference between Muro and traditional music boxes, however, is that Muro’s cylinder is programmable.

The Muro Box is a music box with a programmable cylinder

The Muro Box is a music box with a programmable cylinder

Instead of a fixed pattern of pins, Muro’s patented convertible cylinder features 20 stainless steel gears, to correspond with each tooth on the comb. Each gear is attached to an electronic magnet and commanded by an embedded microcontroller, which means Muro can play almost any melody.

A 2018 Golden Pin Design Award winner, the Muro Box is getting ready to launch its Indiegogo campaign, after completing a successful campaign on Taiwanese crowdfunding site Zec Zec last year.