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Updated: 54 min 9 sec ago

These Bluetooth earbuds double as a charging cord

2 hours 24 min ago

As I write this, I’m somewhere in Asia, with a bag full of assorted cables and devices. I’ve gotten better at packing light, but I’ve still got a ways to go. Certainly there’s something to be said for those products that can pull double duty — take the new Huawei phone or most recent iPad Pro update, all of which double as device chargers.

The Changer looks to be a clever take on the concept for the perpetually low on battery. The $89 yolked Bluetooth earbuds double as a charging cable. Snap the headphone bits off and you’ll find USB-C, microUSB and Lightning connectors.

The headphones sport a 12-hour battery, according to the company, and can be plugged directly into the wall. The cable can also be used to plug a mobile device into a battery pack or plugged into two different devices to share a charge.

I’ll admit I’m a bit skeptical about the efficacy of all this at this point, and the fact that its manufacturer, 49101, is opening up pre-orders through Indiegogo. The headphones are set to start shipping early next year.

EnduroSat CEO to talk about making satellites more affordable at Disrupt Berlin

3 hours 57 min ago

It has never been easier to launch a satellite into space. But EnduroSat wants to make it even easier by making CubeSats more affordable thanks to a unique platform. That’s why I’m excited to announce that EnduroSat CEO Raycho Raychev is coming to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin to talk about his platform.

Many industries have gone through a standardization revolution. Decades ago, shipping stuff from one continent to another was costly because it was a manual process. Exporters now put everything into containers so that you can carry them seamlessly from a port to a cargo ship, a train or a truck.

Similarly, it became much easier to create a new data center thanks to standardized server racks. You can fit servers, routers, or disk arrays into a metal frames, and line all the server racks in a warehouse.

The same is happening with satellites. Thanks to CubeSats, you get to choose the list of components that you want to put in your satellite and they’ll all fit nicely in a cubical package.

EnduroSat is working on next-generation CubeSats. You first choose the frame of your CubeSat. You can then buy different modules to build the perfect satellite for your use case.

The company now has over 30 clients and the EnduroSat One is currently flying above our heads. If you want to hear Raychev tell you more about what they’ve been working on, you should come to Disrupt Berlin. The conference will take place on November 29-30 and you can buy your ticket right now.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.

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CEO, EnduroSat

Raycho Raychev works in the field of space science, tech and business.

He founded EnduroSat – a fast-growing satellite company with unique market approach in the space sector. Prior to the company Raycho founded massive space educational platform – Spaceport and practice-oriented space course – Space Challenges.

His education includes Master of Science from International Space University and Innovation and Growth Program from Stanford University and Endeavor.

Google is closing its Schaft robotics unit after failing to find a buyer

9 hours 2 min ago

Sad news for anyone into giant robots: Google is closing down Schaft, its secretive unit that develops bipedal robots aimed at helping out in disaster efforts and generally looking badass.

The news was first reported by Nikkei, but Google confirmed to TechCrunch that the business will be shuttered. It said it is helping staff find new roles, most of which will likely be outside of Google and its Alphabet parent.

Firstly up, many people — myself included — might have forgotten that Google owns Schaft .

The company was scheduled to be sold to SoftBank alongside Boston Dynamics — another of Google’s robotics ventures — through a deal that was announced last year. Boston Dynamics made the transition but Schaft didn’t. Softbank never shouted that omission from the rooftops, but a source with knowledge of the deal told us that certain conditions agreed for the deal were not fulfilled, hence Schaft remained with Google.

Our source explained that Google’s robotics focused shifted away from Schaft and instead to non-humanoid robots and industry-led solutions such as robotic arms. The departure of Andy Rubin, the controversial robotics evangelist who reportedly got a $90 million payout to leave amid sexual misconduct allegations, seemed to speed up its demise inside the organization.

Google shopped the Schaft business fairly widely — since 2016 and after the SoftBank deal collapsed — but to no avail, we understand. That left closing it down as the last remaining option.

Schaft was founded in 2012 by a group led by University of Tokyo professor Yuto Nakanishi.

Alphabet acquired Shaft and Boston Dynamics in 2013, the former was part of a group of seven acquisitions, in undisclosed deals.

There’s been plenty of attention on Boston Dynamics and its crazy, even scary, robots which can trek across all terrains and get up instantly when knocked over, but Schaft maintained a fairly quiet presence. Indeed, its first major prototypes weren’t revealed until some two years after its acquisition.

Legrand acquires smart home startup Netatmo

9 hours 9 min ago

French hardware startup Netatmo got acquired by the biggest manufacturer of switches and sockets in the world, Legrand. Terms of the deal are undisclosed.

Legrand and Netatmo already collaborated together on some products. Back in 2017, the company announced that it would work with industrial groups to connect everything in your home, starting with Legrand and Velux.

With Legrand’s “Céliane with Netatmo” switches and power outlets, you could build a house with a smart electrical installation from day one. This way, you could have a wireless master switch near your entrance, activate some outlets using Amazon Alexa and control your home from Messenger.

“Our strategy is the connected home. But there are some connected features that we can’t sell to consumers because those products are sold to professionals directly,” Netatmo founder and CEO Fred Potter told me at the time of the original announcement.

Netatmo’s team is going to be integrated into Legrand. Legrand plans to release more connected objects in the future. Netatmo founder and CEO Fred Potter is becoming CTO of Legrand’s research & development division. According to the announcement, Netatmo was generating $51 million (€45 million) in annual revenue.

Netatmo’s first product was a weather station. It works over Wi-Fi and was one of the first weather stations that you could check from your phone.

More recently, the company released security products, such as a connected camera that identifies faces on the device itself, a similar camera that works outdoor and a connected smoke alarm. Some people called Netatmo the “Nest of Europe” as the company also released smart thermostats and radiator valves.

No display for your Mac Mini? No problem.

Wed, 2018-11-14 13:09

Astropad’s Luna Display isn’t just for your MacBook. It turns out that you can take advantage of that tiny little red dongle to turn your iPad into your one and only Mac Mini display.

The Luna Display was designed to extend your laptop display. Many desktop users who travel tend to feel limited with a 13-inch or 15-inch display. That’s why the Luna Display turns any iPad into a second monitor. It works wirelessly and pretty well.

But the team behind the device tried a fun experiment. Many Mac Mini users tend to use the Mac Mini as a headless server. It sits below your TV, near your router or in a closet. In that case, there’s no display connected to your Mac Mini.

You can control it using screen sharing or a VNC client. And of course, you can also enable SSH access to control it using the command line or even an SSH app on your phone.

But it also works as expected with the Luna Display. After plugging the dongle into a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can launch the Luna app on your iPad and see what’s happening on your Mac. If your Mac Mini is connected to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you’ll see your actions on the screen.

And because Luna’s dongle works over Wi-Fi, you can even control your Mac Mini from your couch. It’ll feel like you’re running macOS on an iPad. The Luna adapter was first released on Kickstarter and is now available for $80.

This isn’t the ideal setup if you plan on using your Mac Mini for multiple hours per day. But if you just need to quickly fix something, that could be enough.

MacBook Pro with updated GPU is now available

Wed, 2018-11-14 12:15

Apple recently unveiled a bunch of new products during a press event in New York. But the company also quietly shared a press release with new configurations for the 15-inch MacBook Pro. Customers can now get a MacBook Pro with an AMD Radeon Pro Vega 16 or Vega 20 graphics processing unit.

Before this update, users could only get Radeon Pro 555X or 560X GPUs. Those options are still available, but you can now pay a bit more money to get much better GPUs.

As the name suggests, Vega is a new generation of graphics processors. The iMac Pro comes with desktop-class Vega processors — the Vega 56 and Vega 64. The Vega 16 or Vega 20 are less powerful than the iMac Pro GPUs. But they also fit in a laptop and consume much less power.

In particular, Radeon Pro GPUs use GDDR5 memory just like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One X. But Vega GPUs now take advantage of HBM2 memory, which provides more bandwidth and consumes less power.

It leads to a direct bump in performance. Apple says you can expect as much as 60 percent faster graphics performance. But we’ll have to wait for the benchmarks to know that for sure.

Vega GPUs are only available on the most expensive 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration that starts at $2,799 with a Radeon Pro 560X. Upgrading to the Vega 16 costs another $250, while the Vega 20 is $350 more expensive than the base model.

Mozilla ranks dozens of popular ‘smart’ gift ideas on creepiness and security

Wed, 2018-11-14 11:05

If you’re planning on picking up some cool new smart device for a loved one this holiday season, it might be worth your while to check whether it’s one of the good ones or not. Not just in the quality of the camera or step tracking, but the security and privacy practices of the companies that will collect (and sell) the data it produces. Mozilla has produced a handy resource ranking 70 of the latest items, from Amazon Echos to smart teddy bears.

Each of the dozens of toys and devices is graded on a number of measures: what data does it collect? Is that data encrypted when it is transmitted? Who is it shared with? Are you required to change the default password? And what’s the worst case scenario if something went wrong?

Some of the security risks are inherent to the product — for example, security cameras can potentially see things you’d rather they didn’t — but others are oversights on the part of the company. Security practices like respecting account deletion, not sharing data with third parties, and so on.

At the top of the list are items getting most of it right — this Mycroft smart speaker, for instance, uses open source software and the company that makes it makes all the right choices. Their privacy policy is even easy to read! Lots of gadgets seem just fine, really. This list doesn’t just trash everything.

On the other hand, you have something like this Dobby drone. They don’t seem to even have a privacy policy — bad news when you’re installing an app that records your location, HD footage, and other stuff! Similarly, this Fredi baby monitor comes with a bad password you don’t have to change, and has no automatic security updates. Are you kidding me? Stay far, far away.

All together 33 of the products met Mozilla’s recently proposed “minimum security standards” for smart devices (and got a nice badge); 7 failed, and the rest fell somewhere in between. In addition to these official measures there’s a crowd-sourced (hopefully not to be gamed) “creep-o-meter” where prospective buyers can indicate how creepy they find a device. But why is BB-8 creepy? I’d take that particular metric with a grain of salt.

Self-flying camera drone Hover 2 hits Kickstarter

Wed, 2018-11-14 10:00

Two years after launching the original Hover, Zero Zero Robotics has returned for the sequel. In spite of landing a $25 million Series A back in 2016, the startup is going to the crowdfunding well on this one, launching a $100K Kickstarter campaign to launch the latest version of the self-flying drone.

Hover 2, which the company expects to arrive in April 2019, will feature updated obstacle avoidance, improved visual tracking and some updated internals, including a new Snapdragon processor on-board.

There’s a two-axis gimbal with electronic image stabilization for smoother shots that houses a camera capable of capturing 4K video and 12-megapixel photos. There are a number of different shot models on-board as well, including movie-inspired filters and music and a battery that’s capable of going 23 minutes on a charge.

Of course, Hover’s chief competition, the DJI Mavic line, has made some pretty massive leaps and bounds in practically all of those categories since launching the first Pro back in 2016, so the company’s got some stiff competition. Even Parrot has gotten more serious about their videography-focused Anafi line.

At $399 for early-bird pledgers, the Hover 2 is priced around the same as the handheld DJI Spark. That price includes a small handheld remote.

Google Assistant picks up a few new tricks

Wed, 2018-11-14 09:00

Google Assistant, the voice-driven AI that sits inside Google Home (plus Android phones, newer Nest cameras and a bunch of other devices) and awaits your “Hey, Google” commands, is already pretty clever. That doesn’t mean it can’t learn a few new tricks.

In a quick press briefing this week, Google told us a couple of new abilities Assistant will pick up in the coming weeks.

First, and perhaps most interestingly: routines can now be set to trigger the moment you dismiss an alarm on your phone. Routines are basically Google Assistant combo moves; you build them to trigger multiple actions at once. You can build a “Hey Google, I’m going to bed” command, for example, that turns off your smart lights, shuts down the TV and locks your smart locks. For a while now, you’ve been able to have routines triggered at specific times; now you can have them triggered by alarm dismissal.

The difference? If you snooze the alarm on your phone, the routine won’t go off just yet. So you can build a routine, for example, that turns on the lights and starts reading the news — but now it can go off when you’re really getting out of bed, roughly two snooze-buttons after when you probably should’ve gotten up. You’ll find this one hiding in Android’s Clock app.

Another feature, meanwhile, is getting an upgrade: broadcasts. If you’ve got multiple Google Home devices around your house, you can already “broadcast” to all of them to make house-wide announcements like “Dinner’s ready!” or “help I need toilet paper downstairs” (THE FUTURE!). Now you can broadcast messages back to your home while out and about via Google Assistant on your phone, and people inside the home can respond. You can say, “Hey Google, broadcast ‘Do we need milk?'” and anyone inside your house can say “Hey Google, reply ‘no but please get eggnog, come on, please, it’s basically December, you said we could get eggnog in December.’ ”

Broadcast replies will be sent back to your phone as a voice message and a transcription.

Google is also starting to introduce “character alarms” — which are, as the name implies, alarms voiced by popular characters. Right now they’re adding the heroes in a half shell from Nickelodeon’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and a bunch of LEGO animated series characters (alas, no LEGO Batman.) They’ll presumably expand this with more licenses if it proves popular.

And if you listen to podcasts or audiobooks on your Google Assistant devices, you can now adjust the playback speed by saying “Hey Google, play at 1.5x” or “1.8x” or whatever you want up to twice the speed. “Play faster” or “Play slower” also works if you’re not feeling specific.

Oh, and for good measure: Google Assistant can now silence all the phones in your house (or, at least, the Android phones tied to your Google account) with a quick “Hey Google, silence the phones” command.

The Da Vinci Drawmaton is a blast from the Renaissance

Wed, 2018-11-14 05:56

Robert Sabuda makes mechanical books – pop up books with mechanical features that make them move and change while you read them – and he’s made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list multiple times. Now he’s taking on a new challenge: rebuilding and selling a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing robot.

The robot, called the Da Vinci Drawmaton, uses geared wheels to move a robotic hand across a piece of paper. Like a very skilled Etch-a-sketch artist, the robot is able to draw pictures without raising its pen, creating wild and beautiful designs in a manner that hasn’t been truly recreated since the Renaissance.

“About a year ago the Leonardo da Vinci Robot Society, a loose group of enthusiasts of da vinci’s robotic work reached out to me with a special project,” said Sabuda. “It had long been rumored that the Robot Knight was able to perform more tasks other than standing, sitting, shaking hands and playing the drums. One of these tasks was that the robot could draw. The Society asked if I’d be interested in trying to reverse engineer this skill of the Robot. After carefully researching da Vinci’s work in the Codex Atlanticus, a kind of note book/sketch book combo of his robotic thoughts, I was able (after much sweat and tears) able to reproduce this skill in a robotic arm.”

Sabuda is Kickstarting the arm and is selling it for $99 for early birds. It’s made of wood – Sabuda cam from three generations of carpenters – but it is also as meticulously designed and decorated as one of his pop-up books.

[gallery ids="1746497,1746495"]

Interestingly, Sabuda equates the project to a sort of analog computer. The system is programmable thanks to a set of wooden disks that drive the arm to perform its actions.

“One kilobye of information is stored on a pair of wooden discs that da Vinci called ‘Petalos’ because he though they resembled the petals of a flower,” he said. “When the Petalos are rotated they send information down to the robot’s arm and hand and it draws a picture. Since all of da Vinci’s robots are made only of wood and a few small pieces of metal, reverse engineering all of this was quite challenging!”

The project is halfway to its funding point and should ship in June. It’s a fascinating little piece of Da Vinci arcana that could be a nice way to introduce mechanics and robotics to grade schoolers and/or baffled Florentine princes.

This $199 PS4 and ‘Spider-Man’ Black Friday bundle has my bargain-sense tingling

Tue, 2018-11-13 17:30

I’m calling it — this is the best deal of this year’s Black Friday season, for gamers anyway. It’s amazing. It’s spectacular. Sony is selling a PlayStation 4 Slim with the new Spider-Man game for $199. That’s way too little money.

The 1TB PS4 slim currently retails for $300, and that used to be the cost of the 500 GB one. So a $199 price for the improved, terabyte-capacity console would already be a great deal. But throwing Spider-Man in there? I’m not usually one to call out individual details for Black Friday (we’ll have a roundup), but this is ridiculous.

That game came out just the other day, and has garnered absolute rave reviews; plenty of TechCrunch staff have lost dozens of hours to it, and expansions are on the way to suck even more time. It’s still going for full price most places, so that’s worth $50 or $60 right there.

I own a PS4 already and I’m going to do this. The Slim update didn’t change a lot, but it’s quieter, easier to use (no more invisible buttons!), and of course considerably smaller. Getting it for $139 is a no-brainer. Comes with a controller too, obviously. Then I trade in the old one and pick up Tetris Effect on store credit!

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey falls far short of its own wondrous sandbox

For comparison, both Microsoft and Nintendo are offering their basic consoles with a popular game bundled in for $299. Obviously Sony is looking to eat their lunch.

Sure, you could also save your money for a PS4 Pro. But the benefits there, while I wouldn’t call them dubious by any means, aren’t really must-haves for most gamers. Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t going to look that much better unless you’ve also got a 4K HDR setup and all that jazz. If you’re super into the AAA games and best possible graphics, by all means go for it, but for the rest of us who’d rather buy another 4 or 5 games with the money we saved? Slim it is.

There’s also a PSVR bundle for $200 and controllers are cheaper too. But the Slim is obviously the centerpiece here. You’ll have to go to “participating retailers” and probably fight people like me to get the deal, which goes live on November 18 like all the others.

How machine learning systems sometimes surprise us

Tue, 2018-11-13 05:43

This simple spreadsheet of machine learning foibles may not look like much but it’s a fascinating exploration of how machines “think.” The list, compiled by researcher Victoria Krakovna, describes various situations in which robots followed the spirit and the letter of the law at the same time.

For example, in the video below a machine learning algorithm learned that it could rack up points not by taking part in a boat race but by flipping around in a circle to get points. In another simulation “where survival required energy but giving birth had no energy cost, one species evolved a sedentary lifestyle that consisted mostly of mating in order to produce new children which could be eaten (or used as mates to produce more edible children).” This led to what Krakovna called “indolent cannibals.”

It’s obvious that these machines aren’t “thinking” in any real sense but when given parameters and a the ability to evolve an answer, it’s also obvious that these robots will come up with some fun ideas. In other test, a robot learned to move a block by smacking the table with its arm and still another “genetic algorithm [was] supposed to configure a circuit into an oscillator, but instead [made] a radio to pick up signals from neighboring computers.” Another cancer-detecting system found that pictures of malignant tumors usually contained rulers and so gave plenty of false positives.

Each of these examples shows the unintended consequences of trusting machines to learn. They will learn but they will also confound us. Machine learning is just that – learning that is understandable only by machines.

One final example: in a game of Tetris in which a robot was required to “not lose” the program pauses “the game indefinitely to avoid losing.” Now it just needs to throw a tantrum and we’d have a clever three-year-old on our hands.

These antique phones are precious, private Alexa vessels

Mon, 2018-11-12 17:53

Amazon’s Alexa may be in ten thousand different devices now, but they all have one other thing in common: they’re new. So for those of us that prefer old things but still want to be able to set timers and do metric-imperial conversions without pulling out our phones, Grain Design is retrofitting these fabulous old telephones to provide Alexa access with no other hints of modernity. There’s even a privacy angle!

The phones themselves (spotted by a BoingBoing tipster) are genuine antiques, and not even the mass-produced Bell sets you see so often. I personally love the copper-plated model, though I certainly wouldn’t say no to the candlestick.

Dick Whitney, who runs the company, modifies the hardware to make room for an Echo Dot inside. Pick up the phone and speak, and Alexa answers, just like the operators of yore! Except you can ask Alexa anything and it won’t be irritated. Some of the Alexaphones, as he calls them, will include the original audio hardware so you can experience the cognitive dissonance of talking to a virtual assistant and having them answer using a century-old speaker. (I bet it sounds terrible and brilliant.)

I’m also delighted to say that the microphone physically disconnects when the phone is on the hook, though — so Amazon won’t be listening in to your conversations and emailing them to random people.

“The Echo microphones have their connections severed or are removed completely, and the microphone in the handset is connected via the original switches in the base, so it’s only in contact when the handset is picked up,” explained Whitney in an email.

The modifications to the phones don’t end there: in the rear of each will be a 1/8″ audio port so you can plug in a real speaker. No one wants to sit at their telephone table (remember those?) and listen to a few songs in mono through vintage hardware. Although having written that sentence I do have to say I’d try it once. Right now all the audio would have to go out that way, but Whitney says he may have a trick to switch it back and forth in the future (you can always just unplug the audio for privacy).

There’s also an LED hidden on the front so you have that basic feedback of whether the device is on, listening and such. The rotary dial isn’t used, unfortunately, though more because it’s hard to apply its principles to a voice-operated device.

“It’s funny,” he wrote when I asked about the latter, “I’d actually built an installation for Android at MWC [Mobile World Congress] a few years ago that used a rotary dialer, so I know how to do it and have the hardware around (it’s very simple), but both couldn’t figure out a function that seemed interesting enough (dial 1 to increase the volume? Certainly open to suggestions) and didn’t want to add more complexity inside the telephones. Maybe in the future!”

No soldering or weird old tech stuff required on your part — the device will run on USB power and set up just like any other Alexa gadget. Of course, these things also cost $1,500. Yeah, kind of out of my price range, too. Still, they’re lovely and a great subversion of the “smart home” idea.

Sony filed a patent for a touchscreen-equipped PlayStation controller

Mon, 2018-11-12 08:53

According to a patent application continuation filed in 2017 and published recently, Sony may have tentative plans to build out a touchscreen-equipped PlayStation controller.

Whether the value added from having a touchscreen right on the controller will be worth the added cost is not yet clear.

Right now, PlayStation controllers have a touch-enabled center button that allows users to navigate through menus and other activities with a touch-based interface. The center button also lets gamers access more information, such as game stats, when clicked.

This patent application also leaves us wondering what type of content might be displayed on the touchscreen. As you can imagine, controller content could include in-game information that is usually shown on a heads-up display on the main screen.

However, it’s far more likely that a touchscreen-equipped PlayStation controller would offer a new interface for console-based information and actions, such as sharing a video broadcast or dealing with incoming invites and friend requests.

Interestingly, Nintendo’s own experiment with a touchscreen-enabled controller failed miserably. Remember the Wii U? Nintendo eventually corrected the mistake with the launch of the Switch, which has found its place among casual gamers as a sort of hybrid console and sold more than 20 million units since launch.

Of course, Sony’s touchscreen controller is nothing more than a patent application for now, so there’s a solid chance that the same controllers we’ve grown to know and love ship alongside the next-gen PlayStation with no update to be seen. But just in case someone at Sony decides to get inventive, the patent is in place for the company to start thinking about touchscreen controllers.

Reports suggest that the next-generation Sony console could arrive as early as 2019 or as late as 2021.

[via DualShockers]

Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing

Sun, 2018-11-11 22:25

Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba blind smartphone feature

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

Facebook Portal needs more. At least it just added YouTube

Sun, 2018-11-11 16:03

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week.

Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Amazon Alexa inside. And now, Google’s YouTube is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, YouTube.com is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice.

The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Google Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access.

Read our comparison of the top smart display gadgets

YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube.

But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me “We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.”

The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when testing the Portal with my 72-year-old mother, not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.

So I sent my mom that newfangled Facebook Portal

Facebook launches Portal auto-zooming video chat screens for $199/$349

Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal

SpaceX’s Starlink aims to put over a thousand of its communications satellites in super-low orbit

Thu, 2018-11-08 18:54

SpaceX’s planned communication satellite constellation, known as Starlink, will now be targeting a much lower orbit than originally planned, at least for over a thousand of the satellites, the company revealed in an FCC filing. The move should help mitigate orbital debris and provide better signal for the company’s terrestrial users as well.

Starlink plans to put 1,584 satellites — about a third of the 4,409 the company aims to launch — in an orbit just 550 kilometers about the surface of the Earth. For comparison, many communications satellites are in orbits more than twice as high, and geosynchronous orbits are more than 20 times farther out (around 36,000 miles).

At that distance orbits decay quickly, falling into the atmosphere and burning up after a handful of years. But SpaceX isn’t daunted; in fact, it writes in its application, lower orbits offer “several attractive features both during nominal operation and in the unlikely event something goes wrong.”

In the first place, orbital debris problems are naturally mitigated by the fact that anything in that low orbit will fall to Earth quickly instead of cluttering up the orbit. Second, it should shorten the amount of time it takes to send and receive a signal from the satellites — ping time could be as low as 15 milliseconds, the company estimated. And 500 fewer kilometers means there will be less spreading for beam-based communications, as well.

The satellites will have to do more work to stay at their optimal altitude, as atmospheric drag will be higher, and each one will be able to see and serve less of the planet. But with thousands working together, that should be manageable.

SpaceX successfully launches Falcon 9 carrying Starlink demo satellites

The decision was informed by experimental data from the “Tintin” test satellites the company launched earlier this year. “SpaceX has learned to mitigate the disadvantages of operating at a lower altitude and still reap the well-known and significant benefits discussed above,” it wrote.

This change could lead to competitive advantages when satellite communications are more widely used, but it will also likely lead to a more intensive upkeep operation as Starlink birds keep dropping out of the air. Fortunately a third benefit of the lower orbit is that it’s easier to reach, though probably not so much easier that the company breaks even.

Starlink is aiming for the first real launches of its systems early next year, though that timeline may be a little too ambitious. But SpaceX can do ambitious.

Gift Guide: 11 picture perfect gifts for your photographer friends

Thu, 2018-11-08 16:30

Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots ten times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate.

Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive

Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required.

They’ve been around for years but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed.

The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity) costs $400. A comparable WD device costs about half that. If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing.

Microfiber wipes

On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen, or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. I’ve been buying these and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from.

SD cards and hard cases

Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or ten of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hardcase for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin another brand is fine.

Moment smartphone lens case

The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on, and so on lens sets but Moment’s solution seems the most practical. You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount.

Moment lenses — the DSLR killer?

The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out what model phone your friend is using.

Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really)

Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. I’m partial to waxed canvas, and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the ONA Union Street is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said everyone is into these Peak design ones as well.

Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera

Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an Automat since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed.

If on the other hand you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure.

Circular polarizer filter

Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right.

The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get.

Wireless shutter release

If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10 second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on.

Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the Hama DCCSystem. These can be a bit hard to find so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead.

Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap)

Another pick from our video and photo team, Blackrapid’s cross-body straps take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera in.

If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot.

Adobe subscription

Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing.

Print services

Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it.

I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However I trust Wirecutter’s picks, Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix. $30-$40 will go a long way.

There’s a new PS4 Pro and it’s much quieter than the original

Thu, 2018-11-08 10:15

There’s a new Sony PS4 Pro and it’s much quieter than the original. Right now, it’s only available in a Red Dead Redemption bundle but eventually, it will likely be available as a standalone product, too.

The new CUH-7200 version reportedly dropped the console’s noise from 50 decibles to 44 decibels though as EuroGamer notes, it can still top out at 48 decibels. The noise reduction is reportedly thanks to improved cooling, which in turn, reduces the strain on the cooling system within the PS4 Pro. The original Playstation Pro came out two years ago, and at times, it can roar like a jet engine.

The revised model looks the same as the original so check the model number on the box to ensure you’re getting the quieter option.

Sony’s new noise-canceling headphones are great traveling companions

Thu, 2018-11-08 10:07

I’ll admit that I’ve been caught up in the Bose hype. I’ve worn qBoseSony WH-1000XM3, a pair of wireless/wired cans that truly give everything else I’ve tried a bad name.

These $349 headphones come with a USB cable, audio cable, international audio adapter, and a compact case that holds the whole thing in a tight package. The headphones also support Bluetooth and will automatically swap to wired mode when you insert the headphone cable. The WH-1000XM3s support full noise cancellation that turns even the noisiest situation into a blissful escape. An ambient audio feature lets you listen to external sounds at the touch of a button and there is even a “Quick Attention” feature that turns the headphones down instantly when you need to speak to someone. Sony touts 30 hours battery life on one charge, a claim that I won’t refute as I haven’t recharged these things after multiple flights and they’re still going strong.

In short, these things are great.

Sony likes to brand all of its features and these headphones are no exception. The cans contain a “HD Noise-Canceling Processor QN1″ that run two 1.57 ” drivers that can handle up to 40 kHz. Something called a SENSE ENGINE notices what you are doing – walking, sitting, talking – and automatically changes the audio and noise reduction. Finally, the headphones offer multiple styles including stages, clubs, and outdoor stages. I doubt many will use or notice these features but they’re nice to have.

How do they sound? First, understand that these are not audiophile headphones. You get nice separation, great sound stage, and high quality audio out of these things but mostly you’ll be listening wirelessly to music on your phone or listening to awful audio being blasted out of your seatback entertainment system. Put garbage in, as they say, and you get garbage out. That said, I found these headphones superior to nearly every other model I’ve tested recently, including my Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs. The Sony models were bright and crisp and sounded great with noise canceling on or off. I also tested the headphones in loud environments including cafes and at home with lots of ambient audio playing. The ambient audio immediately disappeared when I turned on noise canceling, leaving only great sound.

They charge via USB and easily pair with any Bluetooth device instantly.

Now for some quibbles. The WH-1000XM3 has no physical power switch, a feature that lets you ensure your headphones are completely off. This single feature could mean the difference between a good flight and a bad flight. Further, the power button is right next to and the same size as the noise cancelation button. This makes it hard to tap this button if you’re wearing the headphones.

Thankfully, the headphones work when turned off, a feature that many lower-end noise canceling models lack. This means you can still listen to headphones if the battery is dead. I also noticed a bit of a bass heaviness in the WH-1000XM3s, but that could be a relic of using the fairly flat Bose headphones for so long.

The headphones also have some fairly cryptic touch features on the right cup including a call and music pause feature that works when you tap the sensitive surface. You can swipe through songs and turn the audio up and down and change the soundstage with a little button next to the power button.

Sony produces excellent audio products and these are no exception. I fly nearly every week these days and find myself reaching for these headphones over anything else I have in my extensive test collection. Time will tell if these cans survive the rigors of travel but given the price and the build quality I wouldn’t be surprised if these headphones are nestled in my backpack for years to come. Now I just have to break up with my Bose and I just know there will be drama.

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