Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

Spotted: New York City startup, Masterworks, lets people invest in great works of art by securising artworks and using blockchain. The company buys artwork it believes will appreciate in value and then registers it with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Investors can then buy shares in each artwork, just like they would buy shares in a public company.

Share ownership is recorded on the Ethereum blockchain. This makes the process more secure, efficient and transparent. Company founder Scott Lynn says that blockchain democratises art collecting, which has traditionally been off limits to most people because of high prices. With Masterworks, investors can spend as little as $20 a share to own part of a masterpiece.

The company’s inaugural offering is an investment in Andy Warhol’s 1 Colored Marilyn (Reversal Series), 1979, which the company bought for $1.8 million in November 2017. A minimum investment of $1,000 is required.

In the future, Masterworks plans to develop relationships with brokerage firms to make trading and sales easier. This could create a secondary market for the art shares.

Spotted:

Chinese video streaming website Bilibili has developed a unique vetting process to help it form an enthusiastic and friendly online community. New users must pass a timed, 100-question online test to access premium content.

This is no perfunctory test. The site, which prides itself on being the centre of China’s geek culture, has previously wanted answers to questions on everything from programming language Java, C++ to Chinese history, and also asks about the smallest details about videos, movies and music.

Bilibili is one of China’s most popular video platforms. Its community is built around fans of anime (a Japanese style of film and television animation) and gamers who submit, view and comment on video content. The site also features original content, like movie reviews, animated shows and games. It is known for pioneering “bullet comments” – viewer comments that float on top of a video while users watch.

Its parent company, Hangzhou Huandian Technology (‘Fantastic Electricity’ Technology), was listed on NASDAQ last March. After the site went public, fans reported that the questions became easier, and focussed more on user guidelines than on arcane knowledge.

Spotted:

US-based Panera Bread lets customers at its restaurants design their own meals using simple technology. Information about ingredients is available digitally. This includes not just which ingredients are in a particular dish, but also the nutritional value of these ingredients and where they are sourced. Customers can then add or delete ingredients from a sandwich, say, or a salad.

“We’re allowing you as a customer the power to control what you eat,” says company Chief Growth and Strategy Officer Dan Wegiel.

In recent years, Panera has dramatically increased its digital presence. It used to be that customers could either order in a Panera restaurant or via a drive-through. Now customers can order from their computer at work and get food delivered, or by smartphone or in a kiosk at the restaurant. The initial focus of these technologies was to control long lines at peak times, like lunch. But eventually Panera Bread discovered customers were more interested in controlling what they ordered than in speedy service.

Allowing customers to design meals gives the company enormous insight into their behaviour. The data collected digitally — fuelled also by a massive loyalty programme of tens of millions of members — informs Panera about customer eating habits and when they visit. This lets the company tailor promotions that target particular days of the week or offer dishes that include spicy food, as examples.

“Digital opens more doors than just access. It also introduces opportunities for personalisation. We’re allowing customisation that really hasn’t existed before and it’s built on our transparency…you can literally deconstruct and reconstruct an entrée item,” Wegiel said.

Spotted:

Japanese startup Unipos has created a simple way to recognise and reward exemplary employee behaviour through a peer-to-peer bonus system. Here is how it works: An employee thinks something a colleague has done is outstanding (and could go unnoticed) and recognises it publicly using an app to send a peer “bonus.” The service works sort of like Facebook in that good behaviour gets “likes”, or in Unipos terminology, a “peer bonus”, i.e. positive feedback.

When employees receive a bonus, they get a notification on the Unipos app or via other communication programs like Slack, Workplace, or Microsoft Teams. The idea is to provide real-time positive feedback for jobs well done. The service includes a company-wide timeline that displays all messages team members have received. They can then “clap” for their co-worker’s messages. Hashtags can be added to messages as well so that more people see them — and help the company reinforce particular values and goals.

What the bonus is worth is up to each company. Unipos collects the points. They are then transferred to employees as perks such as Amazon gift cards or added as a monetary bonus to pay checks, the company told Springwise.

The big idea is to help companies raise morale and encourage timely recognition in the workplace.

Unipos is a subscription-based service. Companies pay for the service and the money allocated to employees through the points. Unipos’ peer recognition system already has more than 220 active customers worldwide including Mercari, Toyota, and HelloFresh.

Autonomy is the ability to make independent decisions. Autonomous robots, like humans, can make their own decisions and act on them. One of the most common autonomous robots is the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. Like other autonomous robots, the Roomba uses sensors to perceive its environment and takes appropriate actions based on these perceptions. It can be left alone to do its job without any help or supervision from humans.

So, how do autonomous robots work and how else are they being used?

How autonomous robots work: As with the Roomba, most autonomous robots have tools that allow them to perceive their environment, make decisions and carry out decisions (also referred to as actuation).

Autonomous robots sense their environment through a variety of technologies including laser scanners, cameras, microphones, force-torque sensors and spectrometers. Simpler autonomous robots such as the Roomba rely on infrared or ultrasound sensors to help the robot “see” obstacles in their path. Higher-level robots such as autonomous vehicles use more complex sensors like cameras, radar and lidar (a detection system like radar, but using light from a laser). Combined with image-recognition software, these sensors allow the robot to precisely identify and categorise the objects they “see”, and make real-time “decisions”.

Some autonomous robots are designed to work in a constrained environment. For example, lawn-mowing robots might use buried border markers to define the limits of a yard so they don’t mow the entire neighbourhood (or run over the neighbours’ cat). A cleaning robot might use a GPS to map a building and manouever from point to point. Robots designed to explore other worlds might use sensors to “build” a map of the area as they travel.

Autonomous robots have on-board computers, but they may also connect to the Internet to download information and upload updates. “Self-learning” robots, also called adaptive or intelligent robots, use on-board artificial intelligence software to learn from their environment and adapt their behaviour. One example of this is Aibo, a pet robot from Japan that adapts to its environment. Aibo can learn to shake, for example.

Benefits: Autonomous robots are already being used for a wide variety of tasks. Their use is growing daily as more sophisticated robots are developed. Uses range from cleaning dangerous places, such as sewers and nuclear plants, to delivering lab results and patient samples in busy hospitals. Autonomous robots are also being used to conduct research. For example, researchers at Virginia Tech created a five-foot-long autonomous robotic jellyfish designed to monitor the underwater environment.

Things to keep in mind: At the moment, most autonomous robots need some human assistance to help them navigate their environment. For example, self-driving vehicles are not yet at the point where they can operate without a human “backup”. But as the technology grows more “intelligent”, this is likely to change. Soon, autonomous robots will be able to carry out many tasks that today require humans such as making deliveries, farming, research, construction and even some forms of law-enforcement.

Spotted: Helsinki-based virtual reality (VR) company, Varjo, has released a new virtual reality “bionic” headset. The headset’s resolution is 60 pixels per degree. This is more than 20 times higher than the display of any VR headset on the market, according to the company.

The resolution of this device, unlike other devices, mimics what a person with 20/20 vision would see, recreating textures, contours and colours like you see in the real world. It is designed for use in complex, technical industries such as aerospace and engineering.

Varjo’s headset, which is tethered to a computer, weighs almost a kilogram and requires a professional-quality graphics card. The starting price is $5995, plus a yearly service fee of $995. It is currently only available to businesses and academic institutions.

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Spotted:

Greek startup Loceye is offering a tool to track when, where and how long people focus on various parts of a webpage. Users upload a web design onto the Loceye platform. The digital content is stored in the cloud. Next, Loceye shares the content with real people recruited to match a company’s required demographic. Reports sharing their behaviour are generated in less than a day. These include heat maps and visualisations to help customers easily understand the results of the biometric eye-tracking study.

Loceye was founded by four electrical engineers from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The startup has won several awards, including a creative prize from the Startup Europe Awards and another from the ACT John and Mary Pappajohn Business Plan Awards. In late 2018, Greek venture capital company, Velocity Partners, announced a second round investment of €300,000 in the business.

Takeaway: The platform makes it simpler for designers to see what works or doesn’t on a webpage. It is particularly useful for media companies, creative agencies, marketers, and really all designers of webpages who want to make maximum use of online space. The system is relatively simple. Normally, tracking how users focus on a website requires extensive and complicated research. Loceye’s technology bypasses that by offering a quick and low-cost one-stop way to track end-users’ attention without elaborate equipment or time-consuming processes. It means users can make better informed, and faster data-driven decisions to optimise web design.

Spotted: Japanese company AI Silk has turned raw silk into an electricity-conducting wearable fabric. The material, which is primarily for the health and medical fields, can act as an electrode to collect medical information or to help people recover from injury or illness.

Made by a special dyeing technique, the fabric is durable and non-irritating, according to the company. AI Silk says the fabric doesn’t deteriorate with washing. It is also comfortable because it reduces the tingling sensation often caused by electrical stimulation of the muscles in medical treatments. The silk fibre is highly absorbent, which means it is less affected by sweat, which can lower conductivity.

Using a separate technique, the company is also able to create textiles that are only conductive in some areas, by printing electricity-conducting polymers onto fabric. The techniques are not limited to silk, but can be applied to other natural fibres, according to the company.

Spotted: A robotic hand gives users the ability to feel and manipulate objects from as far away as another country. The technology is a combined effort from three companies with robotics from the Shadow Robot Company, fingertip sensors from SynTouch and haptic feedback gloves by HaptX.

The sensors feel everything a finger would including force, vibration, and temperature. Combined with a dexterous anthropomorphic robotic hand, the device can move with precision. Motion data captured by HaptX Gloves helps better control remote hand movements to perform everything a real hand can. With technology like this, someone could theoretically defuse a bomb from a safe distance away.

While haptic robots have transmitted touch before, this is the first successful example of remote touch using a haptic robot hand, the company’s managing director, Rich Walker said.

The firms were brought together by Japanese airline ANA as part of its avatar technology initiative.

Spotted:

Belgium-based startup Customs4trade (C4T) is offering trading companies a one-stop shop for coping with Brexit. The software is designed to help companies keep on top of customs and compliance related to trade. The software, Customs Accounting System (CAS), automates import and export compliance. It also provides clients with real-time updates about changes in customs and trade laws.

CAS differs from other platforms, according to the company, because it lets clients centralise, automate, and manage customs and trade compliance in-house from a single platform. The software is updated immediately to reflect legislative changes. For example, it is already compatible with the UK’s future Customs Declaration Service, according to the company’s white paper. That feature will help companies prepare for Brexit — and other fluid negotiations, like China-US trade talks.

It offers companies “the digital tools that combine expertise, legal content and compliance services”, says founder Pieter Haesaert.

CAS is available as on-demand software, otherwise known as Software as a Service (SaaS). International companies like Honda Motor Europe, Isuzu Motors Europe, Agristo and Reynaers Aluminium are already using the software. CAS is poised to expand. It recently raised €2 million from investors 42CAP and 10x Group.

Takeaway: The ever-changing nature of the Brexit negotiations makes it difficult for companies to plan. A report from the Institute for Government has warned that any form of Brexit “inevitably means significant changes to the way the UK border operates, whether it is the Irish land border or ports and airports around the country.” That puts pressure on both the government and private companies. Software like CAS could make the transition easier by keeping companies up-to-date on all changes to laws and tariffs.