As we reported Monday, New York City’s chief technology and digital officers recently talked about their plans for making our city a truly “smart” place. But that discussion was just a prelude to the main event inside Greenpoint makerspace A/D/O: the debut of the second cohort of the Urban-X accelerator, which began last month.
Technical.ly had the chance to meet with all eight of the participating companies. Here’s what we found.
Led by founder and CEO Jonathan Weekley and chief operating officer Briggs Fraser, Revmax is developing routing software for ride-hailing and autonomous vehicle services. According to Weekley, cabs and Uber cars are empty some 50 percent of the time — highly inefficient for drivers trying to make the most of their time on the road.
But wait, doesn’t Uber already optimize routes for its drivers? Indeed, it does, but the real target market for Revmax, Weekley said, is auto manufacturers such as GM and Ford, who are looking to get into ride-hailing.”They see declining car ownership, and they need to figure out a way to keep building cars and use that fleet more efficiently,” he said. Those manufacturers will have extra incentive to optimize routes, since they, not the drivers, will own the cars that are out on the road.
Here’s one way to encourage people not to litter: install cans that respond when people deposit trash in them. That’s what Sencity is working on. The company, founded in Sydney by Steven Bai, Ivan Chen and Josh Zhou — yes, they came all the way from Australia — seeks to bring whimsy and delight to urban infrastructure. Sencity’s trash can, called TetraBin, features a series of games that passersby can play by depositing trash: for instance, feeding a dog a bone or moving blocks into place, Tetris-style.
Chen said he and his cofounders envision other applications of Sencity’s technology down the line: for instance, displaying emergency alerts or tipping off pedestrians to street hazards. “If you think about the old arcade machines that have the flashy sound and the graphics that draw you in, this could be the same thing,” he said. “There’s just so many applications.”
Founded by Star Childs, Carl Cornilsen and Volkan Unsal, Citiesense makes a map-based data platform for urban planners. The platform is like a souped-up version of New York City’s data maps: it overlays information such as average income and property value for any given area. Citiesense’s platform will be offered under a subscription model. The free version gives users basic city data, but the paid version allows users to add their own data, run analyses of that data, and create custom maps to share with collaborators.
Citiesense’s target customers, Cornilsen said, are organizations that manage business improvement districts, which are charged with determining what amenities their communities need most. “Cities are these complex systems that have so many different layers of information that are constantly changing,” he said.
Need to haul a bunch of products throughout the city? How about an industrial tricycle? That’s the product being developed by Upcycles, founded by Daniel Wendlek, Nick Wong and Joshua Rechnitz. Unlike the founders of Sencity, they didn’t travel very far to get to Urban-X: their three-year-old company started out in Greenpoint. Upcycles’ tricycle, a human-electric power hybrid, can hold up to half a ton of freight. It’s designed for last-mile transport in areas, such as narrow alleys, that trucks and other large vehicles can’t access.
According to Wendlek, there’s an additional, though less utilitarian, benefit: boosting the visibility of the people making those deliveries. “Increasingly, people love getting stuff in the mail, but sometimes we negate the person doing it,” he said. Right now, the company is working with food service and catering companies to facilitate waste pickup and bulk deliveries.
O2-O2 aims to create a better face mask. For the company’s founders Dan Bowden, Ilya Venske and Jerry Mauger, that means rethinking its design. According to Bowden, the No. 1 issue is that face masks rely on perfect placement to ensure a proper seal. Plus, they’re uncomfortable to wear for long periods, though in cities with heavy air pollution, such as Beijing, they’re a common sight — even local marathoners wear them. (Venske, in fact was inspired to develop the product while living there; he and his wife had to leave the city after she developed respiratory problems while pregnant.)
O2-O2’s mask, by contrast, has a tiny filtration system that releases a steady flow of air; it sits over the face but does not touch it. It’s designed as a consumer product, Bowden said, to reach urban residents, particularly in Asia, concerned about air quality. He estimated that the final product would cost around $100: not cheap, but not out of reach, either. “We’re going to give the streets back to the residents,” he said.
The goal of Contextere, according to CEO Gabriel Batstone, is to bring the benefits of Big Data to blue-collar industry. “We don’t think there are enough people paying attention to that from the technology point of view,” he said.
Contextere, founded by Batstone and Carl Byers, makes a dashboard for field service reps: for instance, those sent out by utility companies. The dashboard gathers all the essential information for a specific work order by pulling data from various sources — say, the failure data sent from a sensor on a electrical panel, plus the location of the electrical failure — so that technicians know which tools to bring, how to get to the work area, and what conditions to expect once they get there.
Buildsense, founded by Gabriel Peschiera, is developing machine learning software to make heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems more efficient. How? It’s an interesting method: measuring the level of thermal energy in a given room to estimate the number of occupants and adjust the HVAC system accordingly. Best of all, it only requires a plain old thermostat to use.
Right now, Peschiera said, there are camera-based systems that perform the task of crowd estimation. But, according to him, Buildsense’s system will be cheaper. He estimated the software would cost 12 cents per square foot a year, versus $1.60 per square foot in installation fees plus recurring hosting fees for camera-based systems. Another benefit: it doesn’t capture any images or data related to individual occupants. “This is a really cool way to understand how space is being used without invading people’s privacy,” he said.
Last but not least, Wearworks, the brainchild of CEO Keith Kirkland, develops haptic (i.e., touch-based) systems to communicate information to blind and visually impaired users. Its initial product, Beyond Sight, is like Google Maps, only with vibration cues rather than written directions. This reporter had a chance to try it out, and it’s much more straightforward than it sounds at first. State your destination, and when the device begins vibrating, that’s the cue to turn until you’re oriented in the right direction. Once you’re facing the right direction, the vibrations stop — your cue to proceed.
Kirkland pointed out that unlike other touch-based systems, which use certain patterns — say, one nudge means “turn right”; two nudges mean “turn left” — Beyond Sight is designed so that its users won’t have to learn a new language, so to speak. “Our goal is to make it completely intuitive,” he said.
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