Today was the day. After years of anticipation, Jeff Bezos finally left our planet this morning—by his own volition, to be clear, and only briefly. Just before 6:15am Pacific time, Blue Origin’s New Shepard flight rocketed away from a West Texas desert. The Amazon founder rode alongside brother Mark, astronaut pioneer Wally Funk, and an 18-year-old Dutch student who is notably not the person who paid a mere $28 million for the right to tag along, only to pass because of “scheduling conflicts” (this person must be from Seattle). They were in flight for just over 10 minutes before returning to our burning realm.
Jeff Bezos's Space Trip Lifts Blue Origin
Of course billionaire space travel feels like yesterday’s news thanks to Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who beat Bezos to the galactic punch by nine days. Amazon’s former CEO said all the magnanimous things after Branson’s touchdown—“@richardbranson and crew, congratulations on the flight. Can’t wait to join the club!” he Instagram-captioned—but losing a two-decade space race by just two weeks must have hurt.
Still, this morning’s launch was a big moment for Blue Origin, the Kent-based space company Bezos started in 2000, four years before Branson got Virgin Galactic off the ground. In January Blue Origin won a coveted moon lander contract, only to see SpaceX’s model get picked by NASA for our next lunar journey (Blue Origin is protesting). The flight on Tuesday positions the company as a leader in the nascent commercial space tourism, er, space, which will only transport the filthy rich initially—Virgin has reportedly sold 600 seats at $250,000 a pop. No word yet on what Blue Origin’s tickets will cost, but you can bet Bezos, who announced in February that he would step down as Amazon CEO, will be very much involved in the rollout.
Andy Jassy and the Annals of Amazon
Bezos’s successor, Andy Jassy, didn’t officially take the reins of the e-commerce giant until July 5. The buffalo wing enthusiast inherits an S-team in transition, with an executive exodus taking place over the past 18 months, per The New York Times’s intrepid tech correspondent Karen Weise. Jassy’s Day One as CEO came a few days after the company added two new “Leadership Principles” to the list of 14 that Amazonians can seemingly recite at random in the Evergreens line: “Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer,” and “Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility.” Workers at a toasty Kent fulfillment center and around the country would very much like to see the company live up to its lofty words. Something for HQ office types to ponder as they make use of their new bike subsidy.
Is the Microsoft-Google Feud Back On?
File this one in the Department of Big Tech Companies Acting Like Nation-States. Microsoft and Google have ended an-over five-year "cease fire," language that would make a lot more sense if they were, say, countries at war. So what does the end of a truce mean in Big Five parlance? Basically that they can return to suing each other, posthaste. Patent squabbles had prompted the detente, during which the companies would try to settle their differences without calling the manager (regulators). But Sundar and Satya couldn’t resolve a recent dispute over advertising technology—Microsoft says Google’s tech gives its search engine a leg up over Microsoft’s Bing in attracting ad revenue, while also siphoning it away from publishers—so here we are. Clippy’s back just in time to not ease any tension as antitrust threats swirl.
A Boost for Pay Equity from Stephen Curry
Pay equity startup Syndio recently landed a $1 million investment from a Stephen Curry–backed investment firm. The Golden State Warriors star digs Syndio’s focus on fair pay; the company creates software that can help HR departments eliminate “unlawful pay disparities due to gender, race, and ethnicity.” Nordstrom and Salesforce are among those who use Syndio, which decided earlier this year not to renew its lease in Pioneer Square.
Bits and Bytes from Nintendo, University of Washington, and More
Seattle startups are flush, both with cash and people. Amperity joins the ranks of the unicorns. Nintendo announces a new Switch model. Amazon’s Kindle Vella debuts. And University of Washington researchers can now make photos into…videos. No, they didn’t just forget to turn off “Live” on their iPhones. Instead the researchers created a machine learning method that converts still images into looping videos. Think waterfalls cascading, clouds dawdling, streams flowing.
Aleksander Hołyński, a doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, says the idea came from an app that generated a similar effect but required substantial user-tinkering to work. Machine learning could automate that process, at least when it came to natural scenes: Waterfalls always flow downward. Rivers flow across. “It seemed exactly like the type of thing that a deep learning algorithm could learn,” says Hołyński. “It could learn how things should be moving.”
The UW team used online videos to train its deep learning algorithm about everything from ripples to heavy churn. The group then developed something called (somewhat unfortunately given its focus on waterfalls) “splatting.” They predicted how the images’ pixels would align before and after the moment of capture; then they’d combine the two videos into one streaming picture.
So far Hołyński and company have only focused on natural landscapes. The method wouldn’t work if, say, a person crossed into the image; the motion has to be continuous and predictable. But the researcher hopes that one day they’ll be able to apply this motion to any one of the thousands of photos on your phone right now, to show someone’s hair blowing in the wind. “I mean, if you think about anything that you look at, or you’d want to take a picture of, it’s very seldom that these things are entirely static, right? There’s usually some amount of motion. And to be able to reproduce that for old photos, for something like photos of my grandparents, that’d be wonderful.”
But would it be real? Hołyński admits that the animation combines authentic and synthesized information—a plausible best guess, but not the real deal. It’s part of the reason why the group has focused on “inconsequential” images so far, rather than ones susceptible to deepfakes. “It’s never going to match reality entirely.” But they can get close. Instagram approves.
Hello! This was the first edition of a monthly column recapping news at the intersection of local tech and culture—happenings you may have missed in this mercilessly fast, and often quite nebulous, cycle of innovation. But even the beat writers can’t keep up with everything. Do you know of a Seattle startup doing things that don’t make eyes glaze over at parties? A corporation behaving badly? A developer trying to hack the Mercer light cycle? We’re interested. Send your tips to [email protected] or @bybencassidy on Twitter. DMs are always open.