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Microsoft wins $22 billion deal to make AR headsets for US Army

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Microsoft won a nearly $22 billion contract to supply U.S. Army combat troops with its augmented reality headsets.

Microsoft and the Army separately announced the deal Wednesday.

The technology is based on Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, which were originally intended for the video game and entertainment industries.

Pentagon officials have described the futuristic technology — which the Army calls its Integrated Visual Augmentation System — as a way of boosting soldiers’ awareness of their surroundings and their ability to spot targets and dangers.

Microsoft’s head-mounted HoloLens displays let people see virtual imagery superimposed over the physical world in front of them — anything from holograms in virtual game worlds to repair instructions floating over a broken gadget.

The Army’s website says soldiers tested the gadgets last year at Fort Pickett in Virginia. It said the system could help troops gain an advantage “on battlefields that are increasingly urban, congested, dark and unpredictable.”

The Army first began testing Microsoft’s system with a $480 million contract in 2018 and said the headsets could be used for both training and in actual battle. The new contract will enable Microsoft to mass produce units for more than 120,000 soldiers in the Army Close Combat Force. Microsoft said the contract will amount to up to $21.88 billion over the next decade, with a five-year base agreement that can be extended for another five years.

It’s not clear how it corresponds to the $740 billion defense policy bill that Congress passed in January after overriding a veto by President Donald Trump. The bill affirmed a 3 percent pay raise for US troops but included cuts to the headset initiative.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that the technology is promising but its results must be closely tracked “and it’s our job to raise issues if the technology isn’t meeting the needs of our troops now and in the future.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith told Reed’s committee in February that the system could integrate thermal night vision and facial recognition to provide soldiers with “real-time analytics” on remote battlefields. He also described how it could help in planning a hostage rescue operation by creating a “digital twin” of the building.

A group of Microsoft workers in 2019 petitioned the company to cancel its initial Army deal, arguing it would turn real-world battlefields into a video game.

Microsoft is among several tech companies that have sought to wow the gaming world with glitzy new virtual reality goggles over the past decade, though the efforts have largely fizzled. Microsoft pivoted away from consumer applications for its second-generation HoloLens 2, introduced in 2019, which is the basis for the Army’s new gadgets.

Although Microsoft recently demonstrated a way to use the goggles to play the hit game Pokemon Go, it mostly pitches the devices as work tools to help surgeons, factory crews and others. Users can often control what’s on their screens using hand gestures or voice commands.

The headset deal is part of Microsoft’s broader work as a defense contractor. The Pentagon in September reaffirmed Microsoft as winner of a cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion, although the work has been delayed by a legal battle over rival Amazon’s claim that the bidding process was flawed.

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Glasses retailer Warby Parker eyeing IPO as soon as this year

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Hipster glasses retailer Warby Parker is eyeing an initial public offering.

The 11-year-old business, which started out as an e-tailer before rolling out some 130 stores across the US, is considering an IPO as early as this year, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.

The New York-based company has amassed a huge customer following by offering less expensive prescription glasses. Warby Parker raised $120 million in its most recent funding round giving it a $3 billion valuation, according to the report.

“We’ve always explored various financing opportunities in both the debt and equity markets,” the company said in a statement. “To date, we have successfully and deliberately raised money within the private market on favorable terms and have plenty of cash on our balance sheet. We’ll continue to make strategic decisions in line with our commitment to sustainable growth.”

Founded by college buddies Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, who met at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Warby Parker has attracted some large investors including the mutual fund company, T. Rowe Price.

It turned it first profit in 2018, Gilboa told The New York Times at the time.

Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal
Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal
Brian Ach/Getty Images

Customers can get prescriptions through their apps on their smartphones and use cameras to pick out frames. The company also has an optical lab in Sloatsburg, NY where it produces lenses.

While Warby Parker is not the least expensive option, it beats Costco in a recent comparison with Costco charging as little a $126 for a pair of prescription glasses compared with Warby Parker’s least expensive pair at $95.

“As consumer walk into a LensCrafters or Sunglass Hut, they see 50 different brands of glasses but don’t realize that all those brands are owned by the same company that owns the store that they’re standing in, that probably owns the vision insurance plan they’r using to pay for those glasses,” Gilboa said in a recent CNBC interview.

“And so, it’s no surprise that a lot of those glasses are marked up 10 to 20 times what they cost to manufacture,” he said.

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Dogecoin hits new high boosted by DogeDay hashtags

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Dogecoin prices hit an all-time high on Tuesday, with a market capitalization above $50 billion, after social media fans used hashtags to fuel a rally in the meme-based cryptocurrency.

An 8,000 percent price surge this year has seen Dogecoin, which was launched as a satirical critique of 2013′s cryptocurrency frenzy, overtake more widely-used cryptocurrencies like Tether to become the fifth-largest coin.

While Dogecoin, whose logo features a Shiba Inu dog at the center of the meme, a represents only a fraction of bitcoin’s $1 trillion value, it can be traded on crypto exchanges and more popular mainstream trading apps.

“The Doge rally represents an interesting convergence,” said Diana Biggs, CEO of crypto start-up Valour, after Dogecoin’s price soared by more than five-fold in the last week to a record 42 cents, according to CoinMarketCap.

“A meme coin created as a joke for early crypto adopters whose community found that kind of thing to be fun, with now a new generation of retail investors for whom memes are a native language,” Biggs added.

Dogecoin fans used the hashtags #DogeDay and #DogeDay420 to post memes, messages and videos on Twitter, Reddit and TikTok, referring to the informal April 20 holiday to celebrate cannabis which is marked by smoke-ins and street parties.

“GIMME THAT DOGECOIN LAMBO!!! #DogeDay” one tweeted, referring to the Lamborghini car popular in crypto culture.

Dogecoin’s rise has come amid a surge in online trading of stocks and crypto by retail investors, stuck at home with extra cash because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not coincided with a growth in usage of the coin for payments or in commerce.

The same trend has spurred a boom in usage of online trading apps like Robinhood, and also fueled the social-media driven rally in GameStop stock that pitted retail investors against hedge funds earlier this year.

“It’s an extension of the same phenomenon that has led Tesla stock to be valued well beyond fundamentals and more recently to the GME (GameStop) short squeeze,” said Ajit Tripathi, head of institutional business at decentralised finance startup Aave.

Like other cryptocurrencies, Dogecoin’s price is heavily influenced by social media users including Tesla chief Elon Musk, whose tweets on the cryptocurrency in February sent its price soaring over 60 percent.

“If this goes as planned and everybody including Mr. Musk go ahead and just pour money into Doge on April 20th all at once Doge will reach prices that originally were not even conceptual,” a TikTok user said in a video promoting the coin.



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Amazon is opening a beauty salon in London

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Amazon is opening a hair salon in London — its latest odd lurch into new businesses as the pandemic continues to fuel the e-commerce giant’s torrid growth.

The Amazon Salon, unveiled in a Tuesday blog post, will occupy a two-story, 1,500-square-foot space in Spitalfields, a trendy neighborhood in East London that is also home to Amazon’s UK headquarters, which houses about 5,000 employees.

Indeed, the new salon, which will be open seven days a week, initially will only cater to Amazon workers. Members of the public will be able to make bookings in “the coming weeks” by calling, emailing or visiting the salon, the company says.

“This will be an experiential venue where we showcase new products and technology,” Amazon said in a blog post on Tuesday, adding that there are no plans to open other salons.

That will include making Amazon’s Fire tablets available at each station, allowing customers to use augmented reality technology to see what they look like as a platinum blonde, brunette or with highlights, the company said.

The salon is located at Amazon’s UK headquarters, which houses about 5,000 employees.
The salon is located at Amazon’s UK headquarters, which houses about 5,000 employees.
Amazon

The salon will also test new “point-and-learn” technology, where customers can point at a product they are interested in on a display shelf and the relevant information, including brand videos and educational content, will appear on a display screen.

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