Elon Musk’s Boring Company lands $48.7M contract for underground “people mover” in Las Vegas

The Boring Company, Elon Musk’s tunneling and transportation startup, has landed a $48.7 million project to shuttle people in an underground Loop system around the Las Vegas Convention Center.

This is the company’s first commercial contract.

The initial design for the project, dubbed Campus Wide People Mover or CWPM, will focus on the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is currently in the midst of an expansion that is expected to be complete in time for CES 2021. The newly expanded Las Vegas Convention Center will span about 200 acres once completed. The LVCVA estimates that people walking the facility would travel two miles from one end to the other, a distance that prompted officials to find a transportation solution.

In March, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recommended that the Boring Company be selected. The board of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority voted Wednesday to approve the contract.

The approval comes with numerous strings and requires The Boring Company to achieve specific milestones, details of which The Guardian published earlier this month. The contract withholds over two-thirds of payments until construction is complete and requires The Boring Company to meet specific ridership goals.

The LVCVA estimated an initial $1.2 million outlay to TBC in fiscal year 2019, following by $15 million in 2020 and the final $32.47 million in 2021.

While the project is limited for now, TBC has said in the past project could someday connect downtown, the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Las Vegas Boulevard Resort Corridor and McCarran International Airport.

This underground people mover will involve the construction of twin tunnels for vehicles and one pedestrian tunnel, according to contract documents. The twin tunnels are expected to be less than a mile. There will be three underground stations for passenger loading and unloading and an elevator or escalator system for passenger access to each station.

The people mover, once complete is supposed to whisk people between stops at high speeds in modified electric Tesla vehicles. The contract describes these as autonomous vehicles. (Today, Tesla vehicles are not self driving, and instead have an advanced driver assistance system that handles certain tasks on highways such as lane steering and adaptive cruise control.) Before it opens to the public, the contract dictates that TBC test the system for three months.

As Musk’s Boring Company lands one contract, safety concerns have been raised on the design of another more ambitious Loop system from Washington D.C. to Baltimore.

Details of the 35.3-mile system, which emerged recently in a 505-page draft environmental assessment, reveals a design that fails to meet several key national safety standards. The underground system appears to lack sufficient emergency exits, ignore the latest engineering practices and proposes passenger escape ladders that one fire safety professor calls “the definition of insanity.”

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Boom wants to build a supersonic jet for mainstream passengers; here’s its game plan

While much of the world remains fixated on the race to build autonomous cars, there’s another race that’s gaining momentum fast. It centers on supersonic jets that can fly faster than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. Indeed, while most commercial airliners today fly at between 400 and 650 miles per hour — largely because it’s more economical to burn fuel more slowly — a spate of startups is borrowing from the age of the legendary Concorde to build planes that they say will fly at 1,000 miles per hour, 1,500 miles per hour, and, even in one case, at more than 3,000 miles per hour.

The last of these, and seemingly the most audacious, is Hermeus, a year-old, Atlanta-based startup that wants to build planes capable of getting from New York to London in 90 minutes. Just last week, it announced that it has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Khosla Ventures. It’s also reportedly being advised by the former president of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space company. (That’s also where Hermeus’s CTO, Glenn Case, spent more than four years working on propulsion design and development.)

On the other end of the spectrum are Aerion Supersonic and Spike Aerospace, both of which expect to build planes that seat around 12 people and fly at a little more than 1,000 miles per hour. Spike, an eight-year-old, Boston-based outfit, is very much focused on the luxury market. Aerion, a 17-year-old, Reno, Nev.-based concern, meanwhile wants to start with a 12-seater, then graduate to a larger and faster version of the same plane that can serve as a commercial airline.

Aerion seems to have the most momentum of the three. It’s currently collaborating with GE Aviation on its engine, Honeywell for its flight deck, and Boeing on engineering, design, and manufacturing. (Also worth noting: it has seen Lockheed Martin pull out of a partnership, as well as Airbus.)

But there is another company hoping to steal its thunder, and that’s Boom, a roughly five-year-old, Denver-based, 150-person company that has raised $141 million from investors, including Japan Airlines, Emerson Collective, and Y Combinator, and that says the capital is more than enough to begin realizing its vision of creating 55-seat airplanes that fly at twice the speed of sound at prices that compete with today’s business class fares.

In fact, says Boom, if all goes as planned, it will eventually make and sell planes to airlines that fly just as fast but accommodate many more people — at economy fares.

Is it possible? It’s possible to imagine, at least, for transatlantic flights, such as between New York to London, San Francisco to Tokyo, and Seattle to Shanghai. Because of the continuous loud “boom” created by the shock waves of any object moving faster than the speed of sound, most countries have banned supersonic jets from flying overhead.

Of course, there are many outstanding questions, including how these startups make the economics work, whether they can be sufficiently fuel efficient, and what it means to make flight around the globe faster — both the good and the bad.

Following, you can find outtakes from a conversation we had with Scholl last week at one of our StrictlyVC events, wherein he addresses many of these same questions. We’re also providing video of the interview, in case you’d like to hear from him directly.

We thoroughly enjoyed the conversation; we hope you will, too.

TC: Blake, you [spent a handful of years with Amazon, working on mobile shopping, then Groupon acquired a mobile payment company you’d cofounded, Kima Labs, and you stayed on]. So you’re at Groupon. You don’t have an aerospace background. But you decide that you are the guy to start a supersonic jet company. How did that happen?

BS:  It goes back to the decision I made to sell [Kima Labs] . . . I thought, is it worth what I will go through personally for the product we’re building, or should I take the great offer and live to found another day? And so I took the offer, and in reflecting on that, what I realized is, like, all startups are hard. There’s no such thing as an easy startup. And what often makes the difference is what decisions you make in those moments. What happens when you get up in the morning, and it’s a rough day — do you think, Why did I get into this thing? Or do you think, It doesn’t matter —  it’s totally worth it?

So after leaving Groupon, I had a whole bunch of startup ideas, everything from rental cars, to some stuff in healthcare, and my personal passion for a long time had been airplanes. And so I put on that lens of, how happy will I be personally if it works? And so I thought, I have to look at the supersonic thing that I’ve been sort of thinking about for a decade and do some research and probably get it out of my system.

TC: And how do you start putting together a plan to create a jet that flies at twice the speed of sound?

BS: The first thing was to understand why it hadn’t been done already. As it turns out, there was a bunch of just false conventional wisdom — that the space is capital intensive, that it’si highly regulated, that there are only two companies on the planet that build long-range commercial aircraft. So it just scares off a lot of entrepreneurs.

[So I went back to] first principles and [thought], the Concorde was created 50 years ago with slide rules and wind tunnels. And half a century later, [I wondered] why is that not working, and what would it take, and the answer was that the fuel economy was the problem. It was too expensive to operate, [so] none of the people could afford to fly on it. And you start to run the numbers and say, well — by the way, all this stuff you can do out of Wikipedia — what would you have to do to make this economically feasible? It turns out the answer is [to make the fuel efficiency] 30 percent [better] versus what was designed a long time ago. And you start to realize, that doesn’t sound impossible. [So] I went off and read some aerospace textbooks, and took a design class, and started to meet everybody I could find in the industry, and I told them to shoot holes in my idea. And eventually, people started saying, ‘No, this actually makes sense.’ And then so we started the company.

TC: How much of what you’re working on is built from scratch, versus building on the work of your predecessors?

BS: We’re really standing on the shoulders of all the work that’s happened in aerospace since literally the Concorde 50 years ago. And we’ve gone from aluminum as the material to carbon fiber composites; we’ve gone from defining aerodynamics in wind tunnels to being able to do it in simulation, through cloud computing; we’ve gone from engines that are loud and very inefficient to modern jet engines that are quiet and sip fuel. And it turns out that if you take all that technology that’s been proven, the big players in the space have been iteratively optimizing the same you’ve had since the 1960s. But you can actually take that same technology and instead of make the machine more efficient, make the human more efficient, and deploy it in service of speed. So the the design of our airplane is very radical, but the fundamental technology is conventional.

TC: So the wings are in the back. And how many jet engines does the plane feature?

BS: It has three, so one under each wing, and the third one on the tail.

TC: And who is building the jet engines?

BS: We haven’t picked a provider yet, but we’re working with two of the three major jet engine companies; they are basically bidding to provide a custom engine for us.

TC: You’re starting with a prototype that’s one third the size of the eventual airplane you plan to produce. Why did you decide on 55 seats for the design of the bigger plane?

BS: If you look at it relative to the Concorde, and you say, ‘Well, it’s not enough just to do something really cool, you have to make the economics work,’ what you need to do is to make the machine efficient enough that more people can afford to fly on it; you’ve gotta get the fares down. Then the second thing you’ve got to do is right-size the airplanes. If you’re in the airline business, you live and die by something called load factor, which is the percentage of seats that are filled. And if you put too many seats on the airplane relative to the price of the seats, you fly around empty. At 55 seats . . . you can fill the seats and make money . . .by charging business class fares . . .on hundreds of routes.

TC: My understanding was that on the Concorde, the cabin was actually quite small and not necessarily very comfortable. I’m sure this is sort of very much a later consideration, but have you put much
thought into how the cabin will look? Does it have to be terribly narrow? 

BS: The very first thing we built in my cofounder’s garage was a mock-up of the cabin, because it is size sensitive . . . If it’s a three- or four-hour flight, instead of a seven- or eight- or nine-hour flight, you’re still in there long enough that comfort matters. And so you can put a really nice interior in the airplane. So it’ll be sort of business-class style, with nice wide seats, big windows, plenty of room to work or relax. But when the flight is three to four hours, the seat doesn’t have to lay flat the way it does in business class today. By the time to get it down, it’s time to put it back up.


TC: So you said you’re still trying to decide on a jet engine provider. But again, this is highly ambitious. Are there any other partnerships that you’ve struck, maybe with [your investor] Japan Airlines? 

BS: [I recognize that] on the face of it, it sounds like something that only big companies can do. I think Boom has [requires] four ingredients to make it successful. Number one is the engineering execution on the airplanes; that’s the one thing we control directly. Number two is the customer demand, so showing that you’re building not just something that seems cool but is something that airlines really want. Number three is the supplier partnerships, so folks that build jet engines, folks that do carbon fiber composites, folks that do avionics. Unless you’re going to build the whole thing soup to nuts yourself, you need those partnerships. And then last but not least, you need a lot of capital.

And each of those components kind of wants the rest, like the investors want to know the airlines are there. The airlines always ask about the engine. The engine companies ask who the airlines are. And so it’s like a four-way chicken-and-egg problem. I often tell the team we’re in the chicken omelet business. [Laughs.] So what you do is incrementally spiral up. The tech on the airplane is actually conventional stuff that’s flying on other airplanes today, [meaning it’s] proven safe and reliable and efficient. But the way you go to market and the way you build partnerships is completely different from the way that Boeing or Airbus would do it. We call it ‘dating engagement marriage.’ And so whether it’s an airline partnership, or a supplier partnership, you start off with something relatively loose, like a letter of intent, that allows you to go off and show credibility to other parties, and you come back and you progressively sharpen those things.

So so where we stand today on the airline side of it is we’ve pre-sold 30 airplanes [to Japan Airlines and Virgin Group] at $200 million apiece . . .

TC: What does that mean, pre-sold? Is that a letter of intent?

BS: It’s a bit more than a letter of intent. This is the part of the go-to-market engineering that turns out to matter. So it’s basically an option agreement with some like cleverly engineered terms that I can’t go into too much. But basically, we achieve some milestones on our first prototype over the next year, and that kicks the options into expiration, and so the airlines, at the maximum point of Boom being credible, have to place an order or lose a bunch of favorable things.

For more on Boom, including how much it will need to raise, how it views its competitors, and how the company realizes its long-range vision to make the fastest flight the cheapest one, do check out our interview with Scholl below. If you’ve read the above interview, you might want to start around the 10-minute mark.

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Mona Lisa frown: Machine learning brings old paintings and photos to life

Machine learning researchers have produced a system that can recreate lifelike motion from just a single frame of a person’s face, opening up the possibility of animating not just photos but also of paintings. It’s not perfect, but when it works, it is — like much AI work these days — eerie and fascinating.

The model is documented in a paper published by Samsung AI Center, which you can read it here on Arxiv. It’s a new method of applying facial landmarks on a source face — any talking head will do — to the facial data of a target face, making the target face do what the source face does.

This in itself isn’t new — it’s part of the whole synthetic imagery issue confronting the AI world right now (we had an interesting discussion about this recently at our Robotics+AI event in Berkeley). We can already make a face in one video reflect the face in another in terms of what the person is saying or where they’re looking. But most of these models require a considerable amount of data, for instance a minute or two of video to analyze.

The new paper by Samsung’s Moscow-based researchers, however, shows that using only a single image of a person’s face, a video can be generated of that face turning, speaking, and making ordinary expressions — with convincing, though far from flawless, fidelity.

It does this by frontloading the facial landmark identification process with a huge amount of data, making the model highly efficient at finding the parts of the target face that correspond to the source. The more data it has, the better, but it can do it with one image — called single-shot learning — and get away with it. That’s what makes it possible to take a picture of Einstein or Marilyn Monroe, or even the Mona Lisa, and make it move and speak like a real person.

In this example, the Mona Lisa is animated using three different source videos, which as you can see produce very different results, both in facial structure and behavior.

It’s also using what’s called a Generative Adversarial Network, which essentially pits two models against one another, one trying to fool the other into thinking what it creates is “real.” By these means the results meet a certain level of realism set by the creators — the “discriminator” model has to be, say, 90 percent sure this is a human face for the process to continue.

In the other examples provided by the researchers, the quality and obviousness of the fake talking head varies widely. Some, which attempt to replicate a person whose image was taken from cable enws, also recreate the news ticker shown at the bottom of the image, filling it with gibberish. And the usual smears and weird artifacts are omnipresent if you know what to look for.

That said, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does. Note, however, that this only works on the face and upper torso — you couldn’t make the Mona Lisa snap her fingers or dance. Not yet, anyway.

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Spotify resets some account passwords citing ‘suspicious activity’

Music streaming giant Spotify has notified an unspecified number of users that the company has reset their account password, but has left dozens of users asking why.

In an email, some Spotify users were told their password was reset “due to detected suspicious activity,” but gave no further details.

When reached, Spotify spokesperson Peter Collins said: “As part of our ongoing maintenance efforts to combat fraudulent activity on our service, we recently shared a communication with select users to reset their passwords as a precaution. As a best practice, we strongly recommend users not to use the same credentials across different services to protect themselves.”

In other words, Spotify says this is a credential stuffing attack, where hackers take lists of usernames and passwords from other breached sites and brute-force their way into other accounts.

We asked several people who received the email reset message. Some used the same password across different websites and some used passwords unique to Spotify. Two people who commented on this Hacker News thread also said their passwords were unique, casting doubt on the veracity of a credential stuffing attack.

It’s not uncommon for companies to reset user passwords if they believe they are weak or easily guessed. Companies typically don’t store user passwords in plaintext. Instead, they scramble passwords using a hashing algorithm. By scrambling lists of weak or stolen passwords using the same algorithm, companies can match weak passwords against their own databases and proactively send out password reset emails.

Netflix, Facebook, and Spotify too have all proactively reset account passwords in the aftermath of third-party data breaches by obtaining the dataset and matching exposed passwords against their databases.

Spotify did not respond to our follow-up questions.

Customers of Chipotle, DoorDash, and OkCupid have all reported account hacks in recent months. All three have denied data breaches.

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Google’s Duplex calls still frequently require human intervention

When Google launched Duplex with a demo at I/O last year, the audience was left wondering how much of the call was staged. The AI-based reservation booking service seemed almost too impressive to be a machine. Now that it’s been used for real-world reservations, Google has revealed that it frequently isn’t.

The company recently told The New York Times that Duplex calls are often still made by human operators at call centers. Roughly a quarter of calls start with a live human voice. Of the calls that start with machines, 15 percent require a human to intervene.

Google told us during a demo last year that humans would be monitoring the system, ready to take over if something went haywire. That’s to be expected, of course. This sort of real world testing run into some snags as the company works to iron out the kinks, now that the product is available for both iOS and Android devices. But the 25 percent initiated by people seems a little high for the advanced AI-based system.

Along with initial test driving, Google is very much in a period of data collection for the service. While Duplex is extremely impressive in fits and starts (I’ve tried it, and it’s capable of fooling the listener for a quick reservation, if all goes well), the neural network requires a tremendous amount of data to improve, even though its essentially limited to a single task

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Panic’s Playmate is a pint-sized gaming machine with a ‘season’ of 12 intriguing titles

Tired of your smartphone games, and don’t want to take the Switch with you on the train today? Panic, renowned creator of useful Mac apps and more recently publisher of interesting games, has created a tiny handheld console that goes anywhere and receives a regular trickle of new games. It’s called Playdate.

One has to admire the gumption of jumping into a space that has been so thoroughly dominated by Nintendo and smartphones over the last decade that hardly anyone has even attempted to break in. But Panic isn’t trying to build an empire — just do something interesting and new.

“Nothing’s surprising anymore and surprises are great!” reads the Playdate’s FAQ. “Panic saw an opportunity for something truly different in the world of video games. Something small-scale that could deliver a dose of fun and delight to video game players who have otherwise seen it all.”

It’s different, all right. Bright yellow with a black and white screen and with no spot for removable media like cartridges, the Playdate is more or less self-contained, except of course for the charger and wireless connection. And it’s over the wireless connection that the games come: 12 of them, exclusives created by well-known developers like Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy), Bennett Foddy (Getting Over It), and Zach Gage (Ridiculous Fishing).

They appear one at a time, weekly; the first title is Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, from Takahashi. Oh, right — did I mention it has a crank?

Yes, the gadget has the usual d-pad and two buttons, but on the side is a little crank that you’ll be using in all these weird little games. In the first one, for instance, you use it to advance and reverse time. Perhaps you’ll be reeling in fish, charging a flashlight, grinding stones for crafting, or any number of other tasks. It’s not necessary for every game, though, so don’t worry if it seems too weird.

In case you didn’t notice, the games are also black and white. The 2.7-inch, 400×240 screen has no backlight, but it isn’t e-paper but rather just an LCD without color filters. I’ve been saying we should do this for years! It should make for improved battery life and change the way you play a bit — in bed by the light of a lamp instead of on the couch looking at a bright screen.

“We thought Playdate needed to be a different experience than the one you get from your phone, or from a TV-based console,” said Panic’s Director of Special Projects, Greg Maletic, in an email. “This bizarre 1-bit reflective screen was a big part of that: you just won’t see a lot of devices go this route, and for us, that was part of the attraction. And it’s worked out really well: developers have felt energized designing for this weird but cool screen.”

When the 12 titles have all been delivered, there’s the possibility that more will come, but that depends on lots of things, the company said. But they were careful to make the platform easily hackable.

“Most hardware platforms nowadays have tight restrictions, so it was important to us that Playdate be open enough to allow experimentation,” said Maletic. “That’s the kind of platform that we, as developers, were personally craving. So we’ve made sure that people will be able to develop their own games and easily share them with their friends, without having to worry about plagues of mobile development like code signing and provisioning profiles.”

You’ll be able to preorder a Playdate for $149 later in the year. Yeah, it isn’t cheap — but it’s weird and fun and for now one of a kind. That has to count for something in the increasingly genericized world of gaming hardware.

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Documentary series Foundation is back with a season 2

Paris startup campus Station F and Le Studio Next have teamed up once again for a second season of Foundation, a documentary series about building a startup. If you liked the first season, you’ll feel right at home.

A video team followed the entrepreneurs working for three startups through their work issues, their personal life and their emotional reactions. You’ll feel like you know them after watching the series.

This year, Foundation focuses on three different startups that try to have a social impact. You’ll meet Jean Guo and Binta Jammeh, co-founders of Konexio, Ruben Hallali, founder of HD Rain and Olivier Jeannel, founder of RogerVoice.

So without further ado, here’s Foundation season 2:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

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Consumer Reports knocks Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot, calls new feature ‘far less competent’ than a human driver

Consumer Reports is calling the automatic lane-change feature on Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot “far less competent” than a human driver and cautioned it could pose safety risks.

The consumer advocacy organization posted its review Wednesday on the newest version of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.

Navigate on Autopilot is an active guidance system that is supposed to navigate a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable “Navigate on Autopilot” for that trip.

Tesla pushed out a software update last month to allow for automatic lane changes. Drivers have to enable this feature, which gives the car permission to make its own lane changes. If not enabled, the system asks the driver to confirm the lane change before moving over. Automatic lane changes can be canceled at any time.

The system has been touted as a way to make driving less stressful and improve safety. In practice, the system had startling behavior, Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports told TechCrunch.

“It doesn’t take very long behind the wheel with this feature on to realize it’s not quite ready for prime time,” Fisher said. CR said one of the more troubling concerns were failures of Tesla’s three rearward-facing cameras to detect fast-approaching objects from the rear better than the average driver.

The CR reviewers found Navigate on Autopilot lagged behind human driving skills and engaged in problematic behavior such as cutting off cars and passing on the right. CR drivers often had to take over to prevent the system from making poor decisions.

As a result, the system increases stress and doesn’t improve safety, Fisher said, before asking “So what is the point of this feature?”

The automatic lane change reviewed by Consumer Reports is not the default setting for Autopilot, Tesla notes. It’s an option that requires drivers to remove the default setting. Tesla also argues that drivers using Navigate on Autopilot properly have successfully driven millions of miles and safely made millions of automated lane changes.

While Fisher acknowledged the default setting, he contends that isn’t the issue. He notes the Tesla has many warnings that the driver must be alert and ready to take over at any time.

“Our concern is that if you’re not alert (or ready to take over) you could be put into a tricky situation,” he said.

The bigger concern for all systems like these is the driver will put too much trust into it, Fisher said. The automatic lane-change feature might not be good enough for drivers to let down their guard yet. If Tesla improves this system, even a little bit, the risk of complacency and too much trust rises.

And that’s problematic because drivers still must be ready to take over. “Just watching automation is a harder human task than driving the car,” he said.

CR asserts that an effective driver monitoring system would mitigate this risk. DMS is typically a camera combined with software designed to track a driver’s attention and pick up on cognitive issues that could cause an accident such as drowsiness.

DMS are found in certain BMW models with an ADAS system called DriverAssist Plus, the new 2020 Subaru Outback and Cadillac’s equipped with its Super Cruise system.

This isn’t the first time CR has raised concerns about Autopilot. Last week, the consumer advocacy organization called on Tesla to restrict the use of Autopilot and install a more effective system to verify driver engagement in response to a preliminary report by National Transportation Safety Board on the fatal March 2019 crash of a Tesla Model 3 with a semi-trailer in Delray Beach, Fla.

Last year, CR gave GM’s Super Cruise the top spot in its first-ever ranking of partially automated driving systems because it is the best at striking a balance between technical capabilities and ensuring drivers are paying attention and operating the vehicle safely. Tesla followed in the ranking not because it was less capable, but because of its approach to safety, Fisher noted.

CR evaluated four systems: Super Cruise on the Cadillac CT6, Autopilot on Tesla Model S, X and 3 models, ProPilot Assist on Infiniti QX50 and Nissan Leaf, and Pilot Assist on Volvo XC40 and XC60 vehicles. The organization said it picked these systems because they’re considered the most capable and well-known in the industry.

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Modsy scores $37M to virtually redesign your home

Modsy has raised some new cash as the computer vision startup looks to get physical and build more of the furniture it recommends. The startup announced that they have closed $37 million in Series C funding led by TCV. They’ve now raised north of $70 million to date.

The service combines computer vision tech with human designer know how to let users design the trendy home of their dreams. The process begins with a user snapping pics of their room (or multiple rooms) which Modsy then stitches into a complete 3D model of the room.

Prices range from $69 to $349 depending on what level of finesse you’re looking for.

From there Modsy designers drop in furniture from their partners like Crate&Barrel, Pottery Barn, West Elm and others, if you pay for their $149 single room premium package, you can chat with the designers and swap out pieces or try completely different styles. All-in-all the app gives you a lot of options for the price, although the startup’s main method of monetization isn’t these one-time packages, it’s earning cash when you buy the furniture that they suggest.

Earlier this year the company branched out into creating their own furniture line of sofas and chairs which they are injecting into their room designs and recommendations. This could allow the company to transform into more of a smart furniture company as opposed to an AR/ computer vision startup.

“I founded Modsy on the premise that in the future we would all be shopping from a personalized catalog-like experience within a virtual version of our real homes,” CEO Shanna Tellerman said in a statement. “This new round of funding will bring us even closer to this reality.”

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Vignette is a handy new app that keeps your iOS contact photos up to date

If there’s a special place in your heart for single-purpose utilities that solve a nagging problem, then you’re going to want to skip your daily Starbucks coffee and instead buy yourself a copy of the new iOS contacts utility Vignette. The new app is focused on doing one thing well: finding photos for your contacts by scouring social media profiles and updating them.

Many people don’t bother to add a photo when entering in an iOS contact for the first time — it’s often an afterthought at best. And because the iOS Contacts app directs you to your own photo library to find an image when editing a contact, adding a photo tends to be something people only do for close friends and family.  (After all, most people don’t carry around photos of co-workers, clients or business colleagues on their iPhone.)

But that means when you use Apple’s Phone app or iMessage and others, you see gray boxes with the person’s initials instead of a colorful picture.

It’s a minor grievance, sure, but one that can impact people with wide networks — like those who interact with a range of clients or customers as part of their job, or remote workers who like to be reminded of what far-flung colleagues look like, for instance.

Plus, the gray initial boxes are just aesthetically displeasing.

Vignette is simple to use. The app will scan select fields in your Contacts, including Email (which is used for Gravatar), Twitter, Facebook, and the Custom social network field, Instagram. (Instagram is not one of the built-in options in iOS Contacts, unfortunately).

You can then choose to update each contact with the photo it finds. In the case of multiple photos, you can pick which you prefer. And you don’t have to make these updates one-by-one — you can “Select All” to make dozens or even hundreds of updates at once.

If you’re worried the app won’t find anything — or not enough to warrant spending $4.99 — you can opt to run the scan first, before committing to paying. But if you decide to proceed with the updates, you’ll need to make the one-time purchase.

There are some third-party utilities for contact management, including those that will update based on social network profile data; but they tend to require you to authenticate with the third-party network in order to pull in the additional content.

Vignette does not. The app instead takes a privacy-minded approach to its work. It doesn’t require you upload your contacts to its servers, and it only uses the social networks anonymously as opposed to having you log in.

The indie developer behind the app, Casey Liss — who you might know from the Accidental Tech Podcast or the video series Casey on Cars — says he has a few ideas for improving the app in the near-term.

This includes duplicate detection, limiting Vignette’s scans to select contact groups, and better Facebook integration. (Right now it requires a numeric Facebook ID like fb://profile/1234567, which Liss realizes is undesirable).

He also acknowledges that many people are asking for LinkedIn integration.

“That would require login, which I’m currently kind of allergic to, but I’ve gotten enough requests to at least consider it,” he tells us.

The app was built over three months’ time, and is now launching just days before Apple’s annual developer conference, WWDC, where it’s expected we’ll see updated versions of core apps including Messages.

Given its singular purpose, Vignette may not have a wide audience. Liss admitted that’s the case on a recent episode of the Analog(ue) podcast, in fact.

When asked, who the app was for, he responded: “it’s for me.”

“This is really scratching an itch that I had. I really was tired of looking at all these initials in my Contacts list — I wanted to have pictures,” he explained. “But I didn’t want to go through the manual process of adding them all one-by-one.”

He may be surprised to find quite a few of us were similarly annoyed by all the gray initials. The app today is making the rounds across the Apple blogs and news sites, including 9to5Mac, MacStories, The Mac Observer, Cult of Mac, and others, where it’s being largely well-received.

Vignette is a free download with a $4.99 in-app purchase on the App Store.

 

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