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Original author: 
Sean Gallagher


MWE Lab's Emperor 1510 LX—don't call it a chair.

MWE Labs

Science fiction is filled with cherished seats of power, workstations that put the universe a finger-touch or a mere thought away. Darth Vader had his meditation pod, the Engineers of Prometheus had their womb-like control stations, and Captain Kirk has the Captain's Chair. But no real-life workstation has quite measured up to these fictional seats of power in the way that Martin Carpentier's Emperor workstations have.

The latest "modern working environment" from Carpentier's Quebec City-based MWE Lab is the Emperor 1510 LX. With a retractable monitor stand that can support up to five monitors (three 27-inch and two 19-inch), a reclining seat with thigh rest, a Bose sound system, and Italian leather upholstery, the Emperor 1510 LX looks more like a futuristic vehicle than a workstation.  And it's priced like a vehicle, too—it can soon be yours for the low, low price of $21,500.

Tale of the Scorpion

In 2006, Carpentier was slaving away as a web designer when he reached a breaking point. He was tired of his tangle of cables, the struggle to manage multiple monitors, and the horrible ergonomics that came with a standard computer desk. Inspired by the emperor scorpion, Carpentier modeled his workstation after its tail, with the monitors suspended at the stinger.

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iPhone App Store Icon Wall

A new breed of mobile applications is coming. These new apps will not only “sense” the world around you, using the smartphone’s sensors like the compass, GPS, and accelerometer – they’ll also be able to combine that data with a history of your actions to intelligently determine your likes, interests and favorites. This understanding of the world, or “ambient discovery” if you will, could then be piped into any app to make it smarter, whether it’s a social app for finding friends, a Siri-like personal assistant, a fitness app, a mobile game, or anything else.

This, at least, is the promise from the Palo Alto-based startup, Alohar Mobile, which recently introduced new SDKs for mobile app developers interested in experimenting with the possibilities of smarter apps.

Alohar Mobile (newly emerged from stealth mode), was founded by a former Platform Architect of Google’s Location Server Platform, Sam Liang. You may know him as the guy who put the “blue dot” location service in tens of thousands of mobile apps, including the default Map app on iPhone and Android, as well as in the Facebook check-in, Foursquare and Yelp. He also architected Google Latitude.

Liang started the company with Stanford alumni, Larry Wang and Alvin Lau, and they’ve now raised $2 million in funding from notable angel investors, including David Cheriton, the first investor in Google, Fortinet founder and CEO Ken Xie, and Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

As for what, exactly, Alohar is providing – that’s a bit more complicated. It’s not just developing a smarter Siri, although that description is sure to catch more readers’ attention than something like “mobile development platform,” for example. While a smarter Siri-like app could be the product of Alohar’s work, it is not the work itself.

Lau describes the technology as an “ambient sensing platform.”

Um, say what?

“We’ve developed technology that sits on a smartphone that analyzes data coming from all the different sensors on your phone – for example, GPS and Wi-Fi – but a lot of companies do that, that’s nothing special. But we also gather data from the accelerometer, the compass, the gyroscope,” explains Lau. “It helps us to determine a person’s exact location.”

What that means is that apps using Alohar’s technology can precisely determine where someone is because of the way data is combined. For example, an app relying on GPS alone may know that you’re somewhere near a Starbucks, but can’t really tell if you’re there or in an adjacent store. Alohar-enabled apps, however, could detect things like the rate at which you’re moving (60 MPH? You’re probably driving down the road past a Starbucks), the direction you’re headed (moving towards the building slowly? You’re probably walking into the Starbucks), the network you’re connected to (ATTWIFI? You’re probably inside the Starbucks), and even time of day (8:30 AM? You’re probably at the Starbucks on the ground level of that skyscraper, not the nightclub on the top floor).

None of the data is used in isolation, but is instead parsed by advanced algorithms to make sense of your actions and movements. The algorithms give the app higher or lower probabilities to different types of places.

These algorithms can also take into account what you’ve done in the past and use that to help weight the data appropriately. For example, if you’ve visited that Starbucks several times over the past couple of weeks, but have never visited the bagel shop next door, the algorithm knows that you’re probably at the Starbucks.

Alohar’s technology has been packaged into a SDK for mobile developers, which allows them to create new apps or enhance existing ones. They’ve also released a sample app into the App Store called PlaceMe, which is an interesting product on its own. The app tracks and records your movements, producing a virtual trail you could later pull up online. A bit creepy, perhaps, but the company says it would be handy for Alzheimer’s patients to have installed.

But while PlaceMe is a fun experiment, the focus for the company is more so on the tech behind it. Some mobile app makers are already working on integrations, but Alohar can’t reveal who just yet, only give general descriptions. “Developers who are using [the SDK] are in the categories of dating, fitness and health apps that want to track your exercise and make recommendations, and shopping apps that make suggestions based on your location and your likes and favorites,” says Lau.

He also mentioned some check-in apps were experimenting with auto-checkins and the reduced battery consumption the tech enables. Plus, two of these twelve “ambient location” startups that were hot during this year’s SXSW have begun to implement the technology, too.

But it’s still early days for Alohar. The Android SDK came out in March and the iOS version arrived just this month. Both are in beta. So far, around 65 developers are evaluating or integrating the technology, Lau says.

And yet, almost any app that uses location services could benefit from the more precise targeting the tech offers, assuming everything works as advertised. More than that, the tech could enable a whole new kind of experience for developers to build on top of – one where users don’t have to do so much manual labor to explain to apps where they are and what they’re doing and what they want to do.

It’s yet another step towards engineering the serendipitous discovery of the world around us, via our mobile devices. It’s the underpinnings that could breathe intelligence into our apps, which could then make them, at best, more useful, more engaging, and ultimately, more loved…or, at worst, more creepy, more intrusive, more stalker-ish.

How developers choose to implement the technology, and the level of control they give to users surrounding that data’s use and storage, could raise a whole new series of questions about data privacy even though Apple, Google, developers and the government, are still figuring out what to do about the concerns we already have now – those that come more basic actions like accessing the address book or storing GPS data.

But with the fast pace of technology, sometimes you have to weigh the good with the bad and choose to move forward or get left behind. Using this scale, the possibilities to develop more intelligent apps – not to mention ones that can reduce battery drains – is a more exciting and promising step than the potential for abuse, real as it may be, from unscrupulous developers or the government (at least in less authoritarian regimes like the U.S.). You may not agree. That’s fine. But sometimes the laws have to catch up with the world, and in the mobile ecosystem, this is clearly going to be the case for years to come.

Below, a demo of how Alohar, doing things like automatically ordering an ambulance for you. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?” Yes, your phone will know.

Image credit: Ryan Orr

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estimize

Estimize is a startup trying to discover the true “whisper number” of public stocks — not just the official analyst consensus, but what Wall Street really believes. To make that happen, it’s encouraging investors to post their own estimates — and they’re getting a little more incentive starting today, thanks to the new Estimize Challenges.

CEO and co-founder Leigh Drogen previously worked at social finance startup StockTwits, where his roles included product manager and media director. Drogen says he first had the idea for Estimize there — he sees it as the quantitative flip side to the conversations that you find on StockTwits. So each quarter, Estimize members can post their guesses for a company’s earnings per share and revenue. Then you can see the aggregate prediction of the Estimize community, as well as current and past predictions for individual users.

One of the first things that you see on the Estimize website is a jar full of marbles, and that hints at Drogen’s big thesis — that as a group, investors can be smarter than any analyst. It’s the same principle behind the carnival game where you have to guess how many marbles in a jar. Usually, if you average the guesses out, you’ll get an answer that’s more accurate than all or most of the individual guesses.

Of course, to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, you need a crowd, and in the case of Estimize, Drogen says he originally thought he’d need to reach around 10,000 estimates per quarter before the data was interesting to financial companies. Estimize got 2,500 estimates in its first quarter, but Drogen says he’s already starting to get interests from major hedge funds. After all, he says the 3,600-member Estimize community is already more accurate than the analysts 63 percent of the time.

Since you can see each user’s track record, there’s already some social pressure to do well. The Challenges take that a step further with a gamification layer and prizes. Drogen says The Challenges cover five investment categories: Internet, software, hardware, consumer, and retail. (There’s a sixth prize that’s not category-specific, and is sponsored by Investors Business Daily.) Each category includes 30 stocks, and competitors have to make estimates in at least 15. The best estimators will get cash (there’s a total of $10,000 at stake) and badges for their profile page, which Drogen says is being transformed into a “Fitbit-like dashboard” for tracking your progress. NASDAQ is sponsoring the five sector-focused contests.

Drogen says the contest is the first step in his goal of “providing tangible benefits and a way to really promote yourself as a great analyst.”

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Snapterms

You might not think that something like a website’s Terms of Service would be all that interesting, but you’d be wrong. After that post about how awesome 500px’s Terms of Service are (tl;dr: they translate them into human speak), the inbox kind of blew up with questions. Is anyone else doing this?, emailers wanted to know, can I talk to them? (Also: hey, stupid, Aviary has done this forever. Thank you, thank you, and yes, the post is updated.)

Regardless, one email stood out from the crowd. It described a newly launched legal service called SnapTerms, which provides startups with simple, reasonably priced, and personalized Terms of Service and Privacy Policies.

The Sarasota-based company, only a few months old, was founded as a side project by legal entrepreneurs Mike Kolb and Aaron Kelly, the latter who’s an attorney specializing in Internet law. With the SnapTerms service, startup founders on limited budgets have an alternative to the naughty little practice of copy-and-pasting from another website’s Terms of Service or having to dive deep into their own pockets to pay a lawyer thousands of dollars via billable hours.

Explains Kolb, SnapTerms is sort of the sweet spot right in between the copy-and-pasting and paying big bucks.

At SnapTerms, users can choose from one of the three different packages: a Pro plan ($149) offering Terms of Service and a Privacy Policy; a Pro Plus plan ($299) that adds a few things like a complete site review, support for sites that take credit cards, and a 30 minute consultation; and finally, a Custom Plan (starting at $299), which adds COPPA compliance support, and support for SaaS companies.

The plans offer different levels of support for revisions, too. For example, on the basic plan, you get one revision within the first 48 hours. On the mid-level plan, it’s one within the first three month. (Custom plans vary).

Oh, and they can also make your Terms funny, so your customers will actually read them. For an example of how funny legalese can get, you can check out SnapTerms’ own Terms here.

Kelly has experience writing terms for sites other than startups, including celebrity fan sites, affiliate, e-commerce, diet sites, and more, so the company isn’t limited to supporting early stage startups, although it does have a couple of startups that have been featured here on TechCrunch as paying customers.

Attorney-client privilege means I can’t blog about which ones unless they give word, so we’ll update if any agree to come out of hiding. In the meantime, you can check out Photodropper, Sevacall, or Murderdate for some current, legally-approved examples. SnapTerms has about 100 clients to date, despite not having done press or having advertised (save for once on Startups.com). Almost all the sign-ups have been word of mouth, Kolb tells me.

Assuming this takes off, Kolb says they may expand to offer a network of lawyers, many of whom would likely do the work on the side.

Address a need. Fulfill it for an affordable price.

Not a bad idea, SnapTerms. Not bad at all.

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echonest

Music intelligence startup Echo Nest, which you might know better as the company powering Spotify Radio and Vevo’s recommendations, is announcing two new partnerships today which will give developers access to more data to build their apps with. The company is teaming up with JamBase, which provides concerts listings and tour schedules, and SongMeanings, which you’ve surely come across while Googling to find out what the eff that guy is actually singing about.

The new services will become part of The Echo Nest’s Rosetta Stone project, essentially a data resolution service aiming to offer a common language to music applications. Currently, the platform includes lyrics from LyricFind and musiXmatch, music from Spotify and Rdio, tweets from artists on Twitter, concert tickets from Seatwave, and links to relevant Facebook pages.

Specifically, JamBase will integrate its artist IDs into Echo Nest’s API, to make its concert listings available. At present, JamBase says it has access to the show listings for 80,000 artists across 50 genres who perform in 100,000 venues worldwide.

SongMeanings, a community-oriented website for discussing the meaning behind a song’s lyrics, reports having 2 million lyrics with over 1.7 comments available in its database.

While Echo Nest isn’t yet announcing any of its companies on its API will be rolling out support for the new additions, it certainly would make sense for music streaming apps to continue to make their apps more intelligent and feature-rich in the future.

In addition to Spotify and Vevo, The Echo Nest has deals with Nokia, EMI, and Clear Channel. Companies building on top of its APIs also include MOG, the BBC, MTV, and Discovr, to name a few. The Echo Nest is backed by $8.31 million in funding from Matrix Partners and Commonwealth Capital.

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