Visual One smartens up home security cameras with object and action recognition

“Smart” cameras are to be found in millions of homes, but the truth is they’re not all that smart. Facial recognition and motion detection are their main tricks… but what if you want to know if the dog jumped on the couch, or if your toddler is playing with the stove? Visual One equips cameras with the intellect to understand a bit more of the world and give you more granular — and important — information.

Founder Mohammad Rafiee said that the idea came to him after he got a puppy (Zula) and was dissatisfied with the options he had for monitoring her activities while he was away. Here she is doing what dogs do best:

There are no bad dogs, but chairs are for people

“There were specific things I wanted to know were happening, like I wanted to check if the dog got picked up by the dog walker. The cameras’ motion detection is useless — she’s always moving,” he lamented. “In fact, with a lot of these cameras, just a change in the lighting or wind or rain can trigger the motion alert, so it’s completely impractical.”

“My background is in machine learning. I was thinking about it, and realized we’re at a stage where this problem is starting to become solvable,” he continued.

Some tasks in computer vision, indeed, are as good as solved — detecting faces and common objects such as cars and bikes can be done quickly and efficiently. But that’s not always useful — what’s the point of knowing someone rode their bike past your house? In order for this to have value, the objects need to be understood as part of a greater context, and that’s what Rafiee and Visual One are undertaking.

Unfortunately, it’s far from easy — or else everyone would be doing it already. Identifying a cat is simple, and identifying a table is simple, but identifying a cat on a table is surprisingly hard.

“It’s a very difficult problem. So we’re breaking it down to things we can solve right now, then building on that,” Rafiee explained. “With deep learning techniques we can identify different objects, and we build models on top of those to specify different interactions, or specific objects being in specific locations. Like a car in the wrong spot, or a dog getting on a couch. We can recognize that with high accuracy right now — we have a list of supported objects and models that we’re expanding.”

In case you’re not convinced that the capabilities are that much advanced from the usual “activity in the living room” or “Kendra is at the front door” notifications, here are a few situations that Visual One is set up to detect:

  • Kid playing with the stove
  • Toddler climbing furniture
  • Kid holding a knife
  • Baby left alone for too long
  • Raccoon getting into garbage
  • Elderly person taking her medications
  • Elderly person in bed for too long
  • Car parked in the wrong spot
  • Garage door left open
  • Dog chewing on a shoe
  • Cat scratching the furniture

The process for creating these triggers is pretty straightforward

If one of those doesn’t make you think “actually… that would be really good to know,” then perhaps a basic security camera is enough for your purposes after all. Not everyone has a knife-curious toddler. But those of you who do are probably scrolling furiously past this paragraph looking for where to buy one of these things.

Unfortunately Visual One isn’t something you can just install on any old existing system — with the prominent exception of Nest, into which it can plug. Camera workflows are generally too locked down for security and privacy purposes to allow for third-party apps and services to be slipped in. But the company isn’t trying to bankrupt everyone with an ultra-luxury offering. It’s using off-the-shelf cameras from Wyze and loading them with its own software stack.

Rafiee said he pictures Visual One as a mid-tier option for people who want to have more than a basic camera setup but aren’t convinced by the more expensive plays. That way the company avoids going head-on with commodity hardware’s race to the bottom or the brand warfare taking place between Google and Amazon’s Nest and Ring. Cameras cost $30-$40, and the service is $7 per month currently.

Ultimately the low-end companies may want to license from Visual One, while the high-end companies will be developing their own full stack at great cost, making it difficult for them to go downmarket. “Hardware is hard, and AI is specialized — unless you’re a giant company it’s hard to do both. I think we can fill the gap in the market for mid-market companies without those resources,” he said.

Of course privacy is paramount as well, and Rafiee said that because of the way their system works, although the AI lives in the cloud and therefore requires the cameras to be online (like most others), no important user data needs to be or will be stored on Visual One servers. “We do inference in the cloud so we can be hardware agnostic, but we don’t need to store any data. So we don’t add any risk,” he said.

Visual One is launching today (after a stint in YC’s latest cohort) with an initial set of objects and interactions, and will continue developing more as it observes which use cases prove popular and effective.

European lawmakers propose a ‘right to repair’ for mobiles and laptops

The European Commission has set out a plan to move towards a ‘right to repair’ for electronics devices, such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

More generally it wants to restrict single-use products, tackle “premature obsolescence” and ban the destruction of unsold durable goods — in order to make sustainable products the norm.

The proposals are part of a circular economy action plan that’s intended to deliver on a Commission pledge to transition the bloc to carbon neutrality by 2050.

By extending the lifespan of products, via measures which target design and production to encourage repair, reuse and recycling, the policy push aims to reduce resource use and shrink the environmental impact of buying and selling stuff.

The Commission also wants to arm EU consumers with reliable information about reparability and durability — to empower them to make greener product choices.

“Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy,” said EVP Frans Timmermans in a statement. “Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only. There is a huge potential to be exploited both for businesses and consumers. With today’s plan we launch action to transform the way products are made and empower consumers to make sustainable choices for their own benefit and that of the environment.”

The Commission said electronics and ICT will be a priority area for implementing a right to repair, via planned expansion of the Ecodesign Directive — which currently sets energy efficiency standards for devices such as washing machines.

Its action plan proposes setting up a ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’ to promote longer product lifetimes through reusability and reparability as well as “upgradeability” of components and software to avoid premature obsolescence.

The Commission is also planning new regulatory measures on chargers for mobile phones and similar devices. While an EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers is being considered.

Back in January the EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly for tougher action to reduce e-waste, calling for the Commission to come up with beefed up rules by this summer.

In recent years MEPs have also pushed for the Ecodesign Direction to be expanded to include repairability.

The Commission proposals also include a new regulatory framework for batteries and vehicles — including measures to improve the collection and recycling rates of batteries and ensure the recovery of valuable materials. Plus there’s a proposal to revise the rules on end-of-life vehicles to improve recycling efficiency and waste oil treatment. 

It’s also planning measures to set targets to shrink the amount of packaging being produced, with the aim of making all packaging reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.

Mandatory requirements on recycled content for plastics used in areas such as packaging, construction materials and vehicles is another proposal.

Other priority areas for promoting circularity and reducing high consumption rates include construction, textiles and food.

The Commission expects the circular economy to have net positive benefits in terms of GDP growth and jobs’ creation across the bloc — suggesting measures to boost sustainability will increase the EU’s GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 and create around 700,000 new jobs.

The backing of MEPs in the European Parliament and EU Member States will be necessary if the Commission proposals are to make it into pan-EU law.

Should they do so, Dutch social enterprise Fairphone shows a glimpse of what’s coming down the repairable pipe in future…

Storz & Bickel sidesteps Apple’s vaping app ban

Users of Storz & Bickel’s vaporizers can once again connect their vapes to iPhones. The company’s solution comes several months after Apple enacted a ban on apps for tobacco and cannabis vaporizers. This time around, Storz & Bickel turned to a web app to provide iPhone users with expanded controls over their vapes.

I found the process straightforward and requiring just a few more steps than installing a traditional app. First, using the right browser, navigate to Storz-Bickel.com and click the link on the home page. Press the Connect button and load the device. From there the web app works as advertised, providing access to temperature control and different settings on two of Storz & Bickel’s vapes.

Right now, Storz & Bickel’s web app features most of the functionality of the company’s Android app. Peter Popplewell, Canopy Growth’s CTO, tells TechCrunch more functions are coming, including the ability to update firmware. The company will soon roll out similar web apps to other products, like Juju Joints.

The web app requires the use of specific third-party browsers, as Safari and Chrome lack a critical function. Users need to install a browser that supports Bluetooth connections. Storz & Bickel recommends iPhone owners us Bluefy or WebBLE.

In my testing, I used the free Bluefy browser. The connection was reliable and easy to use. The experience isn’t as seamless as an app, but this solution is the only way to restore the features lost after Apple pulled the company’s app from the App Store.

Banned iOS apps like these from Storz & Bickel give users more control and transparency into consuming cannabis. Some allow users to fine-tune temperature and control dosage amounts. A few vape apps display detailed lab reports around the contents of pre-packaged cartridges, offering the consumer protections against harmful chemicals.

This ban came after illicit vaping products caused a public health crisis. In response, Apple instituted a complete removal on vaping apps rather than filtering apps from legitimate companies like Canopy Growth, Pax and others. Now, six months after the ban, these companies are turning out workarounds to restore advertised functions disabled by Apple’s ban.