Vezeeta, the leading MENA healthcare startup, secures $12M Series C led by STV

One of the major structural issues in the Middle East is the lack of consistent healthcare across the region. So this market was clearly waiting to be disrupted by technology.

In 2011 Vezeeta came along to change that. Launched initially in Cairo as a sort of “Uber for Ambulances”, it has since expanded to cover a wide area of the MENA population across several cities, and now provides a much wider range of health services to both patients and healthcare professionals.

By solving the ambulance problem, it reversed backwards inside the healthcare systems to provide a free of charge medical search platform for end users by integrating information about medical practices and doctors’ individual schedules. This scheduling system is provided on a paid subscription basis for medical personnel, allowing users to find a free slot in a doctor’s schedule and make appointments. And it’s gradually going well beyond that.

Vezeeta, has today announced a Series C investment of $12M led by Saudi Technology Ventures, the largest VC fund in the region. Joining the round are existing investors: BECO Capital (UAE), Vostok New Ventures (Sweden) and Silicon Badia (Jordan), along with new investor Crescent Enterprises’ CE-Ventures (UAE). Vezeeta says the financing will be used to fund its continued expansion primarily in (the increasingly more open) Saudi Arabia and for further investments in key new products.

Competition-wise Vezeeta is in a good place with only smaller players like Dabadoc in Morocco which are usually very region-locked. Vezeeta has alone succeeded in expanding across the whole region.

Amir Barsoum, founder and CEO of Vezeeta said in a statement: “We could not find a better investment team or strategic partner to help us take Vezeeta to its next stage in the region. We also welcome to our prominent investors profile, CE-Ventures, and we are proud to receive the continuous support from our current investors BECO Capital, Vostok New Ventures and Silicon Badia.”

“Upon meeting Amir and Vezeeta’s management team, it was immediately apparent to us that they are on such a mission. We believe Amir and the Vezeeta team can truly elevate the healthcare experience in the region,” said Hani Enaya, Partner at STV.

Vezeeta claims it has managed 3 million bookings in the region, served 2.5 million consumers/patients and connected more than 10,000 doctors in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

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IBM launches cloud tool to detect AI bias and explain automated decisions

IBM has launched a software service that scans AI systems as they work in order to detect bias and provide explanations for the automated decisions being made — a degree of transparency that may be necessary for compliance purposes not just a company’s own due diligence.

The new trust and transparency system runs on the IBM cloud and works with models built from what IBM bills as a wide variety of popular machine learning frameworks and AI-build environments — including its own Watson tech, as well as Tensorflow, SparkML, AWS SageMaker, and AzureML.

It says the service can be customized to specific organizational needs via programming to take account of the “unique decision factors of any business workflow”.

The fully automated SaaS explains decision-making and detects bias in AI models at runtime — so as decisions are being made — which means it’s capturing “potentially unfair outcomes as they occur”, as IBM puts it.

It will also automatically recommend data to add to the model to help mitigate any bias that has been detected.

Explanations of AI decisions include showing which factors weighted the decision in one direction vs another; the confidence in the recommendation; and the factors behind that confidence.

IBM also says the software keeps records of the AI model’s accuracy, performance and fairness, along with the lineage of the AI systems — meaning they can be “easily traced and recalled for customer service, regulatory or compliance reasons”.

For one example on the compliance front, the EU’s GDPR privacy framework references automated decision making, and includes a right for people to be given detailed explanations of how algorithms work in certain scenarios — meaning businesses may need to be able to audit their AIs.

The IBM AI scanner tool provides a breakdown of automated decisions via visual dashboards — an approach it bills as reducing dependency on “specialized AI skills”.

However it is also intending its own professional services staff to work with businesses to use the new software service. So it will be both selling AI, ‘a fix’ for AI’s imperfections, and experts to help smooth any wrinkles when enterprises are trying to fix their AIs… Which suggests that while AI will indeed remove some jobs, automation will be busy creating other types of work.

Nor is IBM the first professional services firm to spot a business opportunity around AI bias. A few months ago Accenture outed a fairness tool for identifying and fixing unfair AIs.

So with a major push towards automation across multiple industries there also looks to be a pretty sizeable scramble to set up and sell services to patch any problems that arise as a result of increasing use of AI.

And, indeed, to encourage more businesses to feel confident about jumping in and automating more. (On that front IBM cites research it conducted which found that while 82% of enterprises are considering AI deployments, 60% fear liability issues and 63% lack the in-house talent to confidently manage the technology.)

In additional to launching its own (paid for) AI auditing tool, IBM says its research division will be open sourcing an AI bias detection and mitigation toolkit — with the aim of encouraging “global collaboration around addressing bias in AI”.

“IBM led the industry in establishing trust and transparency principles for the development of new AI technologies. It’s time to translate principles into practice,” said David Kenny, SVP of cognitive solutions at IBM, commenting in a statement. “We are giving new transparency and control to the businesses who use AI and face the most potential risk from any flawed decision making.”

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Twitter’s former Head of People EMEA joins VC firm Atomico as Partner

Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, is announcing a number of new hires to its investment team, including new Partner Caroline Chayot, who previously led the EMEA HR team at Twitter.

I’m told she’ll be working alongside existing Atomico Partner Dan Hynes, who was formerly the Director of Global Staffing at Skype, with the pair helping meet increased demand from Atomico’s portfolio companies for talent support.

At Twitter, Chayot is said to have supported the leadership team in scaling the social media behemoth from two to six markets, growing the team from 80 based in London to 500 across the region. Prior to that she worked at Google in HR for 9 years.

In addition, Irina Haivas has joined Atomico as Principal. The former surgeon and former surgical fellow at Harvard Medical School (yes, you read that correctly) previously worked at healthcare investor GHO Capital Partners. She’ll focus on sourcing investment opportunities in machine intelligence-enabled businesses, synthetic biology, robotics and other “frontier technologies”.

The other new members of the 30-strong Atomico investment team are:

  • Senior Associate Annalise Dragic, a recent Stanford MBA graduate and who was a member of LinkedIn’s Strategy & Analytics Leadership Program’s inaugural class. She’ll be focusing on the U.K.
  • Associate Luca Eisenstecken, a German native who spent the last two years in San Francisco with Vector Capital. He’ll be covering Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
  • Associate Christina Fa, who grew up in Australia and New Zealand and joins Atomico from Google’s Corporate Finance team in Mountain View. She’ll be focusing on the Nordics and Baltic regions.
  • IR Associate Gunita Bhasin, who joins Atomico from Deutsche Bank and has lived and studied in India, Singapore, Turkey, and the U.K. She’ll support long-time Head of IR Camilla Richards in managing Atomico’s relationships with its global investor base.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Atomico’s new addition to its communications team. Eleanor Warnock, formerly with the Wall Street Journal, has joined the VC firm as Communications Manager. The hack-turned-flack will work alongside Atomico’s Head of Communications Bryce Keane to help raise the profile of the firm’s portfolio companies internationally.

Meanwhile, it’s that time of year again. Atomico has launched its latest State of European Tech survey, where it seeks your help in capturing a data-driven snapshot of the current European tech ecosystem and to confront a number of myths along the way. You can read TC’s analysis of the 2017 report here, and if you’d like to contribute, this year’s survey can be found here.

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Tandem CEO will tell you why building a bank is hard at Disrupt Berlin

Challenger banks, neobanks or digital-only banks… Whatever we choose to call them, Europe — and the U.K. in particular — has more than its fair share of bank upstarts battling it out for a slice of the growing fintech pie. One of those is Tandem, co-founded by financial technology veteran Ricky Knox, who we’re excited to announce will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Tandem — or the so-called “Good Bank” — has been on quite a journey this year. Most recently the bank launched a competitive fixed savings product, pitting it against a whole host of incumbent and challenger banks. It followed the launch of the Tandem credit card in February, which competes well on cash-back and FX rates when spending abroad.

Both products are part of a wider strategy where, like many other consumer-facing fintechs, Tandem wants to become your financial control centre and connect you to and offer various financial services. These are either products of its own or through partnerships with other fintech startups and more established providers.

At the heart of this is the Tandem mobile app, which acts as a Personal Finance Manager (PFM), including letting you aggregate your non-Tandem bank account data from other bank accounts or credit cards you might have, in addition to managing any Tandem products you’ve taken out. The company recently acquired fintech startup Pariti to beef up its account aggregation features.

However, what makes Tandem’s recent progress all the more interesting is that it comes after a definite bump in the road last year. This saw the company temporarily lose its banking license and forced to make lay-offs following the partial collapse of a £35 million investment round from department store House of Fraser, due to restrictions on capital leaving China. The remedy was further investment from existing backers and the bold move to acquire Harrods Bank, the banking arm of the U.K.’s most famous luxury department store.

As you can see, there is plenty to talk about. And some. So, why not grab your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to the Tandem story. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Ricky Knox

CEO & Co-Founder, Tandem

Ricky is a serial investor and entrepreuner. He has built five technology disruptors in fintech and telecoms, each of which also does a bit of good for the world.

Before Tandem he founded Azimo and Small World, two remittance businesses, and is managing partner of Hexagon Partners, a private equity firm. He built Tandem to be a digital bank that helps improve customers’ lives with money.

Ricky has a first class degree from Bristol University and an MBA from INSEAD.

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Sony announces the PlayStation Classic, its own mini retro console

If you’re the kind of person who has two beers and regularly launches into the same 20 minute-long ode to the original PlayStation for playing a seminal role in the maturation of gaming as an art form, well, do we have some news for you. Sony just announced its intentions to give the PlayStation the (winning) Nintendo Classic treatment with a tiny to-scale version of the PS1 called the PlayStation Classic. The teeniest new console is scheduled to hit shelves on December 3, retailing for $99.99.

Like Nintendo’s wildly popular SNES and NES Classics that paved the way, Sony’s PlayStation Classic will come pre-loaded with a cache of well-loved games. The PlayStation Classic’s lineup will feature 20 classic games, including Final Fantasy VII [editor’s note: hell yeah], Jumping Flash, Ridge Racer Type 4, Tekken 3, and Wild Arms. 

“Almost 25 years ago, the original PlayStation was introduced to the world. Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment, it was the first home console in video game history to ship 100 million units worldwide, offering consumers a chance to play games with real-time 3D rendered graphics in their homes for the first time,” Sony said, waxing nostalgic in a blog post announcing the console. We’re here for it.

“Long-time fans will appreciate the nostalgia that comes with rediscovering the games they know and love, while gamers who might be new to the platform can enjoy the groundbreaking PlayStation console experience that started it all.”

According to Sony, the new mini PlayStation will be 45% smaller than a real PlayStation, complete with smaller controllers that also mimic their forebears. Each unit will ship with an HDMI and USB cable and two controllers for couch multiplayer. The consoles will be available to pre-order at some retailers in Canada and the U.S and more details (including the 15 other games) so keep an eye out — Sony will be sharing more details “in the coming months.” All games “will be playable in their original format” so expect them to look and feel just like they did in the dark ages, when things were simple and good.

Most of us can agree that this particular nostalgia baiting tactic is awesome, take our money, but have you seen this thing? It’s extra cute. Maybe it’s because the PS1 had those iconic circular buttons that echoed its game discs and round things are cute like Kirby is cute (Toad, on the other hand, is over).

I can still remember exactly how much give the original PlayStation’s buttons had when you pushed them, how the disc hood opened gracefully, almost suspensefully… sure I gave five years of my actual life to this thing — what’s a few months more?

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Vegan meal delivery startup Allplants is served £7.5M Series A funding

Allplants, a London-based startup that delivers ready-made “plant-based” meals (that’s vegan, to you and me), has raised £7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by VC firm Octopus Ventures, which was an early backer in healthy snack delivery company Graze.

Additional investors in the round include existing backer Felix Capital (which I’m told has doubled its seed investment), Swedish VC firm Otiva, unnamed partners at VerlInvest (who are participating in a personal capacity), David Milner (ex-CEO Tyrells), Simon Nixon (founder of MoneySupermarket), and video blogger Jack Harries. Allplants reckons it is the U.K.’s largest Series A round for a vegan company.

Based on the premise that switching to a plant-based diet is the most impactful way to reduce our environmental footprint (and improve health), Allplants has developed a delivery service that wants to make it “effortlessly easy to eat more plants”. Specifically, either as a one-off or on a subscription basis, it delivers healthy, chef-made, vegan meals, for you to reheat at home.

They are “quick frozen” to lock in freshness and the idea is that you receive six meals at a time, to serve one or two people each, making the model more scalable and delivery more cost-effective. When your food is delivered you store it in your own freezer and cook/eat as needed, before your next order.

Since being founded in 2017 by brothers Jonathan and Alex Petrides, Allplants says it has served over 250,000 meals nationwide to plant-inspired foodies and built a “movement” with over 70,000 online fans. Notably, the company is a B-Corp, promising to do good by people and the planet.

Meanwhile, Allplants says it will use the investment to develop a broader range of ready-to-eat food, accelerate the growth of its community, further grow its North London-based 40-plus team, and expand the capacity of its production kitchen, which will operate on renewable and waste-created energy.

Adds Allplants’ Jonathan Petrides: “Most allplants customers aren’t veggie or vegan, they’re curious and hunting for convenient, healthy ways to boost their busy lives. This investment well help us fuel the plant-based movement forward”.

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Google will match up to $1M in donations for Hurricane Florence relief

As cities in Hurricane Florence’s path deal with its aftermath, Google will match up to $1 million in donations to help with relief efforts.

The disaster’s death toll is currently 35 people and about 343,000 people in North Carolina are without electricity. The hurricane caused widespread flooding and property damage throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Google drew attention to its Hurricane Florence donation campaign with a banner that appeared on top of Gmail for some users. Google has matched donations for other disasters before, including Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey last year. It’s also raised money for humanitarian efforts crises, like a 2015 matching program for up to $5.5 million in donations to provide aid to refugees in Europe. For that campaign, it temporarily added a “Donate” button to its search homepage.

The company is partnering with non-profit Network for God to collect and distribute funds. All donations will be directed to the American Red Cross, which Google said it chose to work with “because of their strong track record and existing response in the region.”

Other tech companies helping with Hurricane Florence relief include Amazon, which enabled Alexa users to make donations by saying “Alexa, donate to Hurricane Florence disaster relief” and sent trucks with food and donated items to affected areas, and Apple, which donated $1 million to the American Red Cross. Airbnb also offered free rooms to people fleeing the hurricane.

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Google launches new AI initiatives in Japan

It’s no surprise that Google used its Cloud Next 2018 event in Tokyo today — one of a number of international Cloud Next events that follow its flagship San Francisco conference — to announce a couple of new initiatives that specifically focus on the Japanese market.

These announcements include a couple of basic updates like translating its Machine Learning with TensorFlow on Google Cloud Platform Coursera specialization, its Associate Cloud Engineer certification and fifty of its hands-on Qwiklabs into Japanese.

In addition, Google is also launching an Advanced Solutions Lab in Tokyo as well. Previously Google opened similar labs in Dublin, Ireland, as well as Sunnyvale and New York. These labs offer a wide range of machine learning-centric training options, collaborative workspaces for teams that are part of the company’s four-week machine learning training program, and access to Google experts.

(Photo by Hitoshi Yamada/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The company also today announced that it is working with Fast Retailing, the company behind brands like Uniqlo, to help it adopt new technologies. As its name implies, Fast Retailing would like to retail faster, so it’s looking at Google and its G Suite and machine learning tools to help it accelerate its growth. The code name for this project is ‘Ariake.’

“Making information accessible to all our employees is one of the foundations of the Ariake project, because it empowers them to use human traits like logic, judgment, and empathy to make decisions,” says Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing. “We write business plans every season, and we use collaborative tools like G Suite make sure they’re available to all. Our work with Google Cloud has gone well beyond demand forecasting; it’s fundamentally changed the way we work together.”

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Sen. Harris tells federal agencies to get serious about facial recognition risks

Facial recognition technology presents myriad opportunities as well as risks, but it seems like the government tends to only consider the former when deploying it for law enforcement and clerical purposes. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) has written the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission telling them they need to get with the program and face up to the very real biases and risks attending the controversial tech.

In three letters provided to TechCrunch (and embedded at the bottom of this post), Sen. Harris, along with several other notable legislators, pointed out recent research showing how facial recognition can produce or reinforce bias, or otherwise misfire. This must be considered and accommodated in the rules, guidance, and applications of federal agencies.

Other lawmakers and authorities have sent letters to various companies and CEOs or held hearings, but representatives for Sen. Harris explained that there is also a need to advance the issue within the government as well.

Sen. Harris at a recent hearing.

Attention paid to agencies like the FTC and EEOC that are “responsible for enforcing fairness” is “a signal to companies that the cop on the beat is paying attention, and an indirect signal that they need to be paying attention too. What we’re interested in is the fairness outcome rather than one particular company’s practices.”

If this research and the possibility of poorly controlled AI systems aren’t considered in the creation of rules and laws, or in the applications and deployments of the technology, serious harm could ensue. Not just  positive harm, such as the misidentification of a suspect in a crime, but negative harm, such as calcifying biases in data and business practices in algorithmic form and depriving those affected by the biases of employment or services.

“While some have expressed hope that facial analysis can help reduce human biases, a growing body of evidence indicates that it may actually amplify those biases,” the letter to the EEOC reads.

Here Sen. Harris, joined by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Elisabeth Warren (D-MA), expresses concern over the growing automation of the employment process. Recruitment is a complex process and AI-based tools are being brought in at every stage, so this is not a theoretical problem. As the letter reads:

Suppose, for example, that an African American woman seeks a job at a company that uses facial analysis to assess how well a candidate’s mannerisms are similar to those of its top managers.

First, the technology may interpret her mannerisms less accurately than a white male candidate.

Second, if the company’s top managers are homogeneous, e.g., white and male, the very characteristics being sought may have nothing to do with job performance but are instead artifacts of belonging to this group. She may be as qualified for the job as a white male candidate, but facial analysis may not rate her as highly becuase her cues naturally differ.

Third, if a particular history of biased promotions led to homogeneity in top managers, then the facial recognition analysis technology could encode and then hide this bias behind a scientific veneer of objectivity.

If that sounds like a fantasy use of facial recognition, you probably haven’t been paying close enough attention. Besides, even if it’s still rare, it makes sense to consider these things before they become widespread problems, right? The idea is to identify issues inherent to the technology.

“We request that the EEOC develop guidelines for employers on the fair use of facial analysis technologies and how this technology may violate anti-discrimination law,” the Senators ask.

A set of questions also follows (as it does in each of the letters): have there been any complaints along these lines, or are there any obvious problems with the tech under current laws? If facial technology were to become mainstream, how should it be tested, and how would the EEOC validate that testing? Sen. Harris and the others request a timeline of how the Commission plans to look into this by September 28.

Next on the list is the FTC. This agency is tasked with identifying and punishing unfair and deceptive practices in commerce and advertising; Sen. Harris asserts that the purveyors of facial recognition technology may be considered in violation of FTC rules if they fail to test or account for serious biases in their systems.

“Developers rarely if ever test and then disclose biases in their technology,” the letter reads. “Without information about the biases in a technology or the legal and ethical risks attendant to using it, good faith users may be unintentionally and unfairly engaging in discrimination. Moreover, failure to disclose these biases to purchasers may be deceptive under the FTC Act.”

Another example is offered:

Consider, for example, a situation in which an African American female in a retail store is misidentified as a shoplifter by a biased facial recognition technology and is falsely arrested based on this information. Such a false arrest can cause trauma and substantially injure her future house, employment, credit, and other opportunities.

Or, consider a scenario in which a young man with a dark complexion is unable to withdraw money from his own bank account because his bank’s ATM uses facial recognition technology that does not identify him as their customer.

Again, this is very far from fantasy. On stage at Disrupt just a couple weeks ago Chris Atageka of UCOT and Timnit Gebru from Microsoft Research discussed several very real problems faced by people of color interacting with AI-powered devices and processes.

The FTC actually had a workshop on the topic back in 2012. But, amazing as it sounds, this workshop did not consider the potential biases on the basis of race, gender, age, or other metrics. The agency certainly deserves credit for addressing the issue early, but clearly the industry and topic have advanced and it is in the interest of the agency and the people it serves to catch up.

The letter ends with questions and a deadline rather like those for the EEOC: have there been any complaints? How will they assess address potential biases? Will they issue “a set of best practices on the lawful, fair, and transparent use of facial analysis?” The letter is cosigned by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Last is the FBI, over which Sen. Harris has something of an advantage: the Government Accountability Office issued a report on the very topic of facial recognition tech that had concrete recommendations for the Bureau to implement. What Harris wants to know is, what have they done about these, if anything?

“Although the GAO made its recommendations to the FBI over two years ago, there is no evidence that the agency has acted on those recommendations,” the letter reads.

The GAO had three major recommendations. Briefly summarized: do some serious testing of the Next Generation Identification-Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS) to make sure it does what they think it does, follow that with annual testing to make sure it’s meeting needs and operating as intended, and audit external facial recognition programs for accuracy as well.

“We are also eager to ensure that the FBI responds to the latest research, particularly research that confirms that face recognition technology underperforms when analyzing the faces of women and African Americans,” the letter continues.

The list of questions here is largely in line with the GAO’s recommendations, merely asking the FBI to indicate whether and how it has complied with them. Has it tested NGI-IPS for accuracy in realistic conditions? Has it tested for performance across races, skin tones, genders, and ages? If not, why not, and when will it? And in the meantime, how can it justify usage of a system that hasn’t been adequately tested, and in fact performs poorest on the targets it is most frequently loosed upon?

The FBI letter, which has a deadline for response of October 1, is cosigned by Sen. Booker and Cedric Richmond, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

These letters are just a part of what certainly ought to be a government-wide plan to inspect and understand new technology and how it is being integrated with existing systems and agencies. The federal government moves slowly, even at its best, and if it is to avoid or help mitigate real harm resulting from technologies that would otherwise go unregulated it must start early and update often.


You can find the letters in full below.

EEOC:

SenHarris – EEOC Facial Rec… by on Scribd

FTC:

SenHarris – FTC Facial Reco… by on Scribd

FBI:

SenHarris – FBI Facial Reco… by on Scribd

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Here’s what Google’s $149 Home Hub smart display will reportedly look like

Google is reportedly getting ready to launch some new hardware at its October 9 hardware event and we just learned a lot more about a new product that might be launching.

It was rumored that Google was working on its own Smart Display, now we’ve got images of the Google Home Hub and details about its price tag via a report from AndroidAuthority.

via Android Authority

The device certainly looks like a Google Home product with all the fabric anyone could ask for and then far, far more on top of it.

It’s rocking a 7-inch screen and will cost just $149, which is quite a bit cheaper than the 8-inch Lenovo Smart Display which is currently the cheapest option at $199 while its 10-inch varietal ships for $249 as does the stereo-speakered JBL Link View.

Having played around with Lenovo’s product, Google has some very pretty software for their Smart Displays but there are some strange quirks given that the screen is basically superfluous by design as it can’t ever assumed that the speaker can see the screen when an answer is being given. Google has their work cut out for them, but it might be in their best interest to introduce some light touch interactions that allow you to perform more actions without speaking at all, otherwise the screen is always going to feel a bit misplaced aside from pulling up a YouTube video or watching a slideshow.

What will be interesting to see is what exclusive software wizardry the device has, if anything. The report details that the device will not have a camera like other Smart Displays which is a bit funny given that the whole point of it was to bolster its Duo video call service, which Google seems to realize either isn’t worth the inexpensive components or the potential privacy overhead.

If the rumored price of $149 proves accurate and Google opts for most of the internals that the partner Smart Displays have, this will be a very cool device at a great deal that will not get used very often. It is wildly unclear what the point is of this product vertical, and without breaking it free of its software prison Google seems to be missing a big opportunity that could be fulfilled by whatever the big G’s competitors eventually release.

This report seems pretty solid, but we only have to wait a couple more weeks to see what Google has in store, TechCrunch will be keeping up with the details at the company’s Pixel 3 hardware event on October 9.

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