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SpaceX and NASA are getting ready for a key test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial crew spacecraft on Saturday, and this should be the last major milestone that SpaceX has to pass in terms of demonstration missions before actual crew climb aboard the spaceship for a trip to the International Space Station. Starting at 8 AM ET (5 AM PT), a launch window opens during which SpaceX will hopefully perform what’s called an “in-flight abort” test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle, to demonstrate how its safety systems would protect astronauts on board in the unlikely event of an unexpected incident during a real crew flight.

The plan for this mission is to launch the Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 — in this case, one that’s using a refurbished booster stage previously flown on three prior missions. This will be the Falcon 9’s last flight, however, as the plan includes loss of the rocket this time around instead of a controlled landing. The launch is intentionally being terminated early — just after the rocket achieves its “Max Q” point, or the moment during its flight when it’s under maximum atmospheric stress, at about 84 seconds post-liftoff.

At that point, the rocket will be about 19 kilometres (roughly 62,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth, and about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX has rigged the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system to automatically trigger at this point, which will separate the crew spacecraft from the Falcon and propel it away from the rocket very quickly in order to get it to a safe distance to protect any future passengers. After around five minutes past launch, the Dragon will deploy its parachute system, and then at around 10 minutes after it should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean between 3 and 3.5 km (roughly 2 miles) from shore.

After that, crews will recover the Dragon capsule from the ocean, and return it to Cape Canaveral, where SpaceX will study the spacecraft, including human-sized dummies acting as passengers and sensors within to monitor what happened in the cabin during the test. They’ll use this to ideally show that the abort process works as designed and will protect astronauts on board the spacecraft in case of any emergency that results in an early mission termination.

In addition to the in-flight abort system, SpaceX and NASA are also using this mission to prepare for crewed flight in a number of other ways. Today, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will crew the first piloted mission hopefully later this year, ran through a dry run of what they would experience in a live mission. They donned space suits and walked the transom that connects the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 to its launchpad support structure, as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted on Twitter.

The test will not involve any attempt to recover the rocket, as mentioned, and SpaceX Crew Mission Management Director Benji Reed said during a press conference today that they do anticipate some kind of “ignition” event with the Falcon 9’s second stage, which could possibly be large enough to be seen from the ground, he said. SpaceX crews will be on standby to recover as much as possible from the rocket wreckage, which will be useful to study, and they’ll also be on hand to minimize any potential environmental impact from the test.

This test was originally scheduled for roughly six months ago, but SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule intended for the mission was destroyed during an unexpected incident while test firing its engines. SpaceX and NASA investigated that explosion, and are now confident that they understand the cause of that incident, and have taken steps to ensure that a similar problem doesn’t happen again. The Crew Dragon being used now for Saturday’s test was originally intended to be the one used for actually flying astronauts, and another capsule is currently in development to serve that purpose.

SpaceX’s launch window for this test opens at 8 AM ET tomorrow, but spans four hours, and Reed said it could actually extend longer tomorrow if need be. NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Leuders explained today that it’s crucial that not only launch conditions, but also recovery conditions, are optimal for the purposes of this test, so both will play a factor in when exactly they launch. Unlike with launches actually designed to reach a specific orbit, timing doesn’t have to be quite as on the nose, so there’s more flexibility in terms of making the decision to proceed or stand down. SpaceX has backup opportunities on both Sunday and Monday should they be required.

We’ll have a live stream and live coverage of the test starting tomorrow morning, so check back early Saturday. The stream will kick off around 15 minutes prior to the scheduled opening of the launch window, so at around 7:45 AM ET.


TechCrunch

The Saturday night before CES seems like a less than ideal time to drop some big smartphone news — but it appears Samsung’s hand was forced on this one. Granted, the smartphone giant has never been great about keeping big news under wraps, but this morning’s early release of a promo video through its official Vimeo channel was no doubt all the motivation it needed.

The company has just made the February 11 date officially official for the launch of its upcoming flagship. As for what the flagship will be called, well, that (among other things) leaves some room for speculation. Rumors have pointed to both the more traditional S11, along with the more fascinating jump to the S20.

I’ve collated a bunch of the rumors into an earlier post. The TLDR is even larger screens across the board, coupled with a bunch of camera upgrades and a healthy battery increase. The invite art, which matches the earlier the video, appears to confirm the existence of two separate devices, with different dimensions. That could well point to the reported followup to the Galaxy Fold. In additional to better reinforced folding (a follow up to last year’s issues), the device reportedly adopts a clamshell form factor, more akin to the newly announced Motorola Razr.

More info (and rumors) to come. As ever, we’ll be there (San Francisco) as the news breaks.


TechCrunch

Snapchat’s most popular yet under-exploited feature is finally getting the spotlight in 2020. Starting in February with a global release, your customizable Bitmoji avatar will become the star of a full-motion cartoon series called Bitmoji TV. It’s a massive evolution for Bitmoji beyond the chat stickers and comic strip-style Stories where they were being squandered to date.

Creating original in-house shows for its Discover section that can’t be copied could help Snapchat differentiate from the plethora of short-form video platforms out there ranging from YouTube to Facebook Watch to TikTok. Bitmoji TV could also up the quality of Discover, which still feels like a tabloid magazine rack full of scantly clad women, gross-out imagery, and other shocking content merely meant to catch the eye and draw a click.

With Bitmoji TV, your avatar and those of your friends will appear in regularly-scheduled adventures ranging from playing the crew of Star Treky spaceship to being secret agents to falling in love with robots or becoming zombies. The trailer Snapchat released previews an animation style reminiscent of Netflix’s Big Mouth.

TechCrunch asked Snap for more details, including how long episodes will be, how often they’ll be released, whether they’ll include ads, and if the company acquired anyone or brought on famous talent to produce the series. A Snap spokesperson declined to provide more details, but sent over this statement: “Bitmoji TV isn’t available in your network yet, but stay tuned for the global premiere soon!”

The Snapchat Show page for Bitmoji TV notes it is coming in February 2020. Users can visit here on mobile to subscribe to Bitmoji TV so it shows up prominently on their Discover page, or turn on notifications about its new content.

Snap realizes Bitmoji’s value

Snap has had a tough few years as many of its core features have been ruthlessly copied by the Facebook family of apps. Instagram Stories killed Snap’s growth for years and effectively stole the broadcast medium from its inventor. Facebook also ramped up it augmented reality selfie filters, added more ephemeral messaging features, and launched Watch as a competitor to Snapchat Discover.

Two years ago I wrote that Facebook was crazy not to be competing with Bitmoji too. Six months later we were first to report Facebook Avatars was in the works, and this year they launched as Messenger chat stickers in Australia with plans for a global release in 2019 or early 2020. But Facebook’s slow movement here, Google’s half-assed entry, and Twitter’s lack of an attempt have given Snapchat’s Bitmoji a massive headstart. And now Snap is finally leveraging it.

“TV” is actually a return to Bitmoji’s roots. The startup Bitstrips originally offered an app for customizing the face, hair, clothes, and more of your avatar and then creating comic strips for them to appear in. Snap acquired Bitstrips back in 2016 for just $ 64.2 million — a steal not far off from Facebook snatching Instagram for under a billion. The standalone Bitmoji app blew up as soon as Snapchat began offering the avatars as chat stickers. It had over 330 million downloads as of April according to Sensor Tower despite Snapchat now letting you create your avatar in its main app.

Eventually, Snap began expanding Bitmoji’s uses. In 2017 Bitmoji went 3D and you could start overlaying them as augmented reality characters on your Snaps. The next year Snap improved their graphics, then launched the Snap Kit developer platform and Bitmoji Kit. This allows apps to build atop Snapchat login and use your Bitmoji as a profile pic. Soon they were appearing as Fitbit smart watch faces, alongside your Venmo transaction, and on Snapchat-sold merchandise from t-shirts to mugs. It’s part of a wise strategy to beat copycats by allowing allies to use real thing rather than building their own knock-off. That’s fueled the “Snapback” comeback which has seen Snap’s share price climb out of the gutter at $ 5.79 at the start of 2019 to $ 16.09 now.

One of Snap smartest innovations was Bitmoji Stories — the ancestor to Bitmoji TV. These daily Stories let you tap frame-by-frame through short comic strip-style interactions starring your avatar. Occasionally Bitmoji Stories would include rudimentary animation, but most frames were still images with text bubbles. Bitmoji could once again drive a narrative, rather than just being a communication tool. Still, they seem underutilized.

In 2019, Snapchat wised up. Bitmoji have become nearly ubiquitous amongst teens and Snapchat’s 210 million daily users. They’re the Google or Kleenex of cartoonish personalized avatars. Their goofy nature is also a perfect fit for Snapchat, and a reason they’re tough for stiffer and older tech giants to convincingly copy.

In April, Snap announced its new games platform inside its messaging feature that let you play as your Bitmoji against friends’ avatars in games ranging from Mario Party ripoff Bitmoji Party to tennis, shoot-em ups, and cooking competitions. Snap injects ads into the games, making Bitmoji key to its efforts to monetize its central messaging use case. Last month it launched custom and branded clothing for Bitmoji, which could open opportunities to earn money selling premium outfits or showing off brand sponsorships.

To truly take advantage of Bitmoji’s unique popularity, though, Snap needed to build longer-form experiences with the avatars at the center that . Stickers and Stories and games were fun, but none felt like must-see content. With Bitmoji TV, Snap may have found a way to get users to drag their friends into the app. Since everyone sees their own Bitmoji as the star, the cartoons could be more compelling then ones with impersonal characters you might find elsewhere around the web.

But Bitmoji TV’s success will depend largely on the quality of the writing. If your avatar is constantly getting into funny, meme-worthy situations, you’ll keep coming back to watch. But Snap’s teen audience has a keen nose for inauthentic bullsh*t. If the Shows feel forced, too childish, or boring, Bitmoji TV will flop. Snap would be savvy to invest in great Hollywood talent to produce the episodes.

High quality Bitmoji TV shorts could rescue Snapchat Discover from its own mediocrity. There are a few strong brands like ESPN SportsCenter on the platform, and Snap has several original Shows with over 25 million unique viewers. It’s also greenlit additional seasons of Shows like Dead Girls Detective Agency and new biopic clips from Serena Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still, a scroll through the Discover and Shows sections reveals plenty of trashy clickbait that surely scares away premium advertisers.

Bitmoji TV could offer video that’s not only fun and snackable, but out of reach for competitors who don’t have a scaled avatar platform of their own. As with the recent launch of Snapchat Cameos, the company has realized that the most addictive experiences center on its users’ own faces. Snapchat turned the selfie into the future of communication. Bitmoji TV could make an animated recreation of your selfie into the future of content.


TechCrunch

NASA and partners Boeing and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are gearing up for a crucial milestone moment on Friday: The ‘Orbital Flight Test’ (OFT) of the Boeing Starliner CST-100 Crew Capsule. The capsule, a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts on board from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program, will be launched on an Atlas V rocket provided by ULA – without anyone on board this time, but in a mission that is one of the last key steps before astronauts take their first ride.

What’s happening

On Friday, pending weather and everything else cooperates, ULA’s Atlas V rocket will carry the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). This launch will be essentially a full run-through of the forthcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT), the first flight of the Boeing crewed spacecraft with actual astronauts on board.

While this is one key component before that CFT mission takes place, it’s not the only one remaining: Starliner must still undergo three remaining reliability tests for its parachute system, on top of the data gained about this crucial component of the overall launcher, before the spacecraft is certified for regular service transporting astronauts to and from the ISS in a non-testing capacity.

During the mission, the Starliner will ascend atop the Atlas V rocket to a heigh of 98 nautical miles, at which point it’ll separate from the rocket and continue under its own power for the remainder of the trip to orbit, where it’ll rendez-vous with the ISS for docking. Astronauts on board the ISS will assist with docking using the station’s robotic arm, and then unload around 600 lbs of equipment and supplies that’s being carried aboard the crew capsule as a secondary mission, before the capsule undocks and returns to Earth.

When and where it’s going down

The launch is scheduled for Friday morning, December 20th at 6:36 AM EST (3:36 AM PST). It’ll launch from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and currently weather conditions are looking 80% favorable based on current forecasts, which means that as it stands there’s a good chance weather will be within acceptable limits for take-off.

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that it only open for that specific time and if anything prevents the launch from happening, there are backup dates potentially available either December 21 and 23 – as well as options on either Christmas Day or a few days following. After launch, the Starliner will dock with the station on the morning of December 21, and then spend around a week at the ISS, before undocking on December 28 for its return trip. The journey back is as important as the trip to the ISS in terms of proving out the spacecraft’s proper functioning.

What happens after that

Should everything go to plan, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 will be much closer to its ultimate goal of transporting people to space. As mentioned above, the parachute system still requires some additional testing for certification purposes, but the crewed CFT test launch should happen sometime in “early 2020” according to Boeing provided everything meets their strict requirements in terms of safety and other readiness standards.

On Wednesday, ULA rolled out its mobile launch platform and the Atlas V rocket to the launchpad in preparation for Friday’s mission. The teams will now conduct pre-launch preparations leading up to Friday, a process it already conducted in dress rehearsal mode covering everything right up to the actual ignition two weeks ago.

We’ll have live coverage of the launch right here on TechCrunch as it happens, and a summary of how the launch went immediately following, so check back Friday for updates.


TechCrunch

Jeff Bezos -founded Blue Origin has recorded another successful mission for its New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle, which is a key step as it readies the spacecraft for human spaceflight. This is also the sixth flight of this re-used booster, which is a record for Blue Origin in terms of relying on and recovering one of its rocket stages.

This is the ninth time that Blue Origin has flown commercial payloads aboard New Shepard, and each launch moves it one step closer to demonstrating the system’s readiness for carrying crew on board. This launch carried experimental payloads that will be used for research, including materials used in student studies. It also had thousands of postcards on board written by students from around the world, which were submitted to the Club for the Future nonprofit set up by Blue Origin earlier this year to provide educational resources about space to schools and students.

Blue Origin intends to fly paying space tourists aboard New Shepard eventually, along with other commercial astronauts making the trip for research and other missions. Up to six passengers can fit in Blue Origin’s capsule atop the New Shepard, but we don’t yet know when it’ll actually be carrying anyone on board, either for testing or for commercial flights.


TechCrunch

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This week saw a ton of activity in the space industry, with multiple launches, key preparations for commercial crew missions, robots and much more.

Besides all the real space news, there’s also some extreme fan service for Star Wars lovers, courtesy of Disney and Boeing. Now I’m one day closer to my lifelong dream of becoming a real X-Wing starfighter pilot.

Rocket Lab completes key step towards reusable rockets

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been successfully delivering payloads to orbit for a while now, but earlier this year they announced they’d be moving to a launch system in which the booster they use to propel their spacecraft to orbit is reusable.

An Electron rocket launching during a previous test.

During their 10th mission with their Electron rocket, they took a crucial first step – testing the re-entry systems to bring the booster back to Earth’s atmosphere. Rocket Lab says the test went better than expected, which bodes well from moving to an actual test of properly recovering and refurbishing the thing.

SpaceX launches 19th Space Station resupply mission

The other big launch this week was SpaceX’s CRS-19 launch, which delivered 5,200 lbs of experiments and supplies to the ISS. This launch used a brand new Falcon 9, which SpaceX recovered with a landing at sea, and it also employed a Dragon cargo capsule that the company has flown twice before. On board, there’s a load of amazing new equipment for the ISS, like a ‘robot hotel.’

Emotionally intelligent IBM-powered assistant robot is heading to space

You may not have heard, but there’s an advanced Alexa for astronauts called CIMON, and after a successful first test, it’s headed back to the ISS aboard the above SpaceX launch with improvements. One of its key improvements is a new ability to detect and respond to human emotions, which is, you know, HAL territory.

SpaceX completes 7th parachute test

SpaceX is getting closer to a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to its ability to launch astronauts on its commercial crew spacecraft. The company needs to do at least 10 parachute tests in a row to get ship-shape for its crew launch, and it’s now pretty close to getting that done before year’s end.

Boeing completes dress rehearsal of crew launch

Boeing is also getting closer to its own commercial crew launch, and in fact completed an entire rehearsal of how the mission will go on on launch day when it does its uncrewed launch. This rehearsal including fully feeling the rocket, and next time that happens, it’ll be taking off.

Real X-Wings fly for real (really)

X-Wing starfighters ascended through the night sky over Orlando, Florida this week as Disney celebrated the opening of its new ‘Rise of the Resistance’ attraction at Disney World. The X-Wings (2 of them!) were modified versions of a large cargo drone that Boeing has been developing, but both companies are keeping mum on any further details right now.

Here’s what’s up in the world of space startups and investing

What’s going on with space tech, and why is it having a moment? What’s coming next, and where is the smart money going? The answers to those questions and more lie in Starburst founder and aerospace investor François Chopard’s informative deck about space and defense, available exclusively to Extra Crunch subscribers.


TechCrunch

Disney plans to bring its on-demand video streaming service to India and some Southeast Asian markets as soon as the second half of next year, two sources familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

In India, the company plans to bring Disney+’s catalog to Hotstar, a popular video streaming service it owns, after the end of next year’s IPL cricket tournament in May, the people said.

Soon afterwards, the company plans to expand Hotstar with Disney+ catalog to Indonesia and Malaysia among other Southeast Asian nations, said those people on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesperson for Hotstar declined to comment.

Hotstar leads the Indian video streaming market. The service said it had more than 300 million monthly subscribers during the IPL cricket tournament and ICC World Cup earlier this year. More than 25 million users simultaneously streamed one of the matches, setting a new global record.

However, Hotstar’s monthly userbase plummets below 60 million in weeks following IPL tournament, according to people who have seen the internal analytics. The arrival of more originals from Disney on Hotstar, which already offers a number of Disney-owned titles in India, could help the service sustain users after cricket seasons.

The international expansion of Hotstar isn’t a surprise as it has entered the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. in recent years. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, said so far the platform’s international strategy has been to enter markets with “high density of Indians.”

In an earnings call for the quarter that ended in June this year, Disney CEO Robert Iger hinted that the company, which snagged Indian entertainment conglomerate Star India as part of its $ 71.3 billion deal with 21st Century Fox, would bring Star India-operated Hotstar to Southeast Asian markets, though he did not offer a timeline.

Disney+, currently available in the U.S, Canada and the Netherlands, will expand to Australia and New Zealand next week, and the U.K., Germany, Italy, France and Spain on March 31, the company announced last week.

Price hike

Disney, which debut its video streaming service in the U.S. this week and has already amassed over 10 million subscribers, plans to raise the monthly subscription fee of Hotstar in India, where the service currently costs $ 14 a year, one of the two aforementioned people said.

A screenshot of Hotstar’s homepage

The price hike will happen towards the end of the first quarter next year, just ahead of commencement of next IPL cricket tournament season, they said. The company has not decided exactly how much it intends to charge, but one of the people said that it could go as high as $ 30 a year.

In other Southeast Asian markets, the service is likely to cost above $ 30 a year as well, both of the sources said. The prices have yet to be finalized, however, they said.

Even at those suggested price points, Disney would be able to undercut rivals on price. Until recently, Netflix charged at least $ 7 a month in India and other Southeast Asian markets. But this year, the on-demand streaming pioneer introduced a $ 2.8 monthly tier in India and $ 4 in Malaysia.

Hotstar offers a large library of local movies and titles syndicated from international cable networks and studios Showtime, HBO, and ABC (also owned by Disney). In its current international markets, Hotstar’s catalog is limited to some local content and large library of Indian titles.

In recent quarters, Hotstar has also set up an office in Tsinghua Science Park in Beijing, China and hired over 60 engineers and researchers as it looks to expand its tech infrastructure to service more future users, according to job recruitment posts and other data sourced from LinkedIn.


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