Weekend Roundup: Amazon A.I. for Social Distancing, Apple’s App Spat

It’s the weekend! It was a week full of tech news, so let’s jump into some of the highlights—including Amazon’s new tool for keeping its employees socially distanced, and a new controversy over how Apple sets its fees in the App Store. But first… 

Magic Leap Pivots

It hasn’t been the greatest year for Magic Leap, the augmented-reality (AR) startup that once attracted so much money from prominent investors. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced that it would make deep layoffs along with “targeted changes to how we operate and manage costs.” Then its CEO stepped down in May. And now, in a seemingly last-ditch attempt to survive, it’s pivoting to… enterprise AR applications.

Adi Robertson at The Verge did a bit of digging into Magic Leap’s pivot and found reason for concern about its prospects. For starters, many of Magic Leap’s partners failed to comment on whether they would continue to build AR applications using Magic Leap’s platform. Moreover, some of the most promising apps and initiatives seem to have faded away.

If Magic Leap truly makes a leap to the enterprise, it will end up competing with Microsoft’s HoloLens, which focused on that space pretty much from its very beginning. But can an enterprise “pivot” save Magic Leap after it failed to make much of an impression in the consumer space? If this latest maneuver doesn’t succeed, the company might finally crash and burn—in which case, expect other companies to snatch up its patent portfolio. 

Amazon Automates Social Distancing

Amazon’s protection of its warehouse workers during COVID-19 has undergone intense scrutiny over the past few months, so it’s unsurprising that the e-commerce giant has turned to technology for a solution. Specifically, Amazon has unveiled a tracking system, powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.) and computer vision, that monitors warehouse employees and sends an alert when social-distancing protocol isn’t being followed.

Distance Assistant, as the platform is called, takes video footage and superimposes green circles around workers who are maintaining a six-foot distance from their colleagues; those who move too close to another human being have a red circle around them. After an initial deployment to a small number of buildings, Amazon plans on expanding the tool to other facilities throughout the summer. Here’s what it looks like in action:

Hey! It’s an Apple Controversy!

Perhaps you’ve heard of Hey.com, an offshoot of Basecamp that’s trying to modernize email with features such as “Reply Later” and more efficient ways of surfacing files. It’s available in Apple’s App Store—but Apple is reportedly threatening to remove it unless Hey’s creators start offering an in-app subscription (which would give Apple a revenue cut).

Basecamp, of course, is screaming bloody murder. “Who cares if Apple shakes down individual software developers for 30% of their revenue, by threatening to destroy their business?” David Heinemeier Hansson, CTO of Basecamp, wrote in a Tweet. “There has been zero consequences so far! Most such companies quietly cave or fail. We won’t.”

For its part, Apple told The Verge that it requires developers on the App Store to follow its guidelines, including regulations over in-app purchases. Epic Games, Spotify, and other developers have also complained about the fees attached to buying anything within the App Store, and the EU is supposedly pursuing an anti-trust investigation into the matter. But given how fees from services are an ever-growing part of Apple’s business, it seems unlikely (at least at this juncture) that the company would change how it does business without a substantial fight.   

Have a great weekend, everyone! Stay safe!