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Main article: Gadgets

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Leica releases the CL Street Kit for all of your decisive moments

22:58 | 7 December

Leica’s pricey – but sexy – CL camera is the closest thing you can get to an original portable luxury shooter without spending more than a used Toyota Corolla. The CL, which launched last year, is essentially a pared down M series camera that has gotten rave reviews over the past year. Now, in time for Noel, Leica is offering a Street Kit that includes the CL along with a Leica Summicron-TL 23 mm f/2 lens. This flat pancake lens gives you a “tried and true 35 mm equivalent focal length for the quintessential reportage style of shooting” and should suffice for street shots taken on the wing while wandering the darkened alleyways of certain Central European cities.

Now for the bad news. Leica is traditionally some of the most expensive and best made camera gear on the market and this is no different. While you get a camera that should last you well into the next millennium, you’ll pay a mere $4,195 for the privilege, making it considerably less than the M series but considerably more than the camera on your phone. The package a saves you a little over $800 if you purchased each item separately.

That said, it’s nice to see a bundle like this still exists for a solid, beautifully-wrought camera, a nice lens, and even a leather carrying strap. Besides, isn’t the creation of photographic art worth the price of admission? As noted Leica lover Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Au fond, ce n’est pas la photo en soi qui m’interesse. Ce que je veux c’est de capter une fraction de seconde du reel.” Preach, brother.

 


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This DIY Enigma machine fits inside a pocket watch

18:56 | 7 December

The year is 1940. Through the use of arcane atomic technologies, the Axis have brought back modern technology from the year 2018. Their main prize? This amazing Enigma Pocket Watch. This tiny watch, created by a maker calling himself asciimation, uses an Arduino Pro Micro and a small OLED screen to recreate the Enigma machine in pure code.

Asciimation previously built an Enigma wristwatch and he is working on an 3D-printed Enigma machine. The Enigma was a seemingly unbreakable encoding machine used by the Germans during World War II and was about the size of a small briefcase. Stuffing all of the logic into a tiny watch case – of WWII vintage – is an amazing feat.

Luckily the aforementioned time travel device was never built and this wild little pocket watch never made it into enemy hands but we can only imagine the havoc it would wreak if some Panzer captain somewhere had one of these on his belt. You can read all about the build on Asciimation’s site.

 


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Duet Display 2 uses hardware acceleration to catch up with Luna Display

01:11 | 6 December

Duet Display is an app that lets you turn your iPad into a second Mac monitor. And the team behind it just released a major update that makes it much more efficient — it consumes less CPU resources and is now recognized as a true external display.

If you’ve used Duet Display over the past few years, you may have seen a change that made it worse, not better. At some point, Apple updated macOS and broke Duet Display’s method.

Duet Display had to use AirPlay as a fallback method. It made the app much less versatile as you were restricted to a handful of 16:9 resolutions with black bars.

But this is a thing of the past as Duet Display found a way to leverage GPU acceleration. It means that your iPad now appears as a display in macOS settings. It also should be more energy efficient. In my experience, it’s now much closer to a normal external display. If you’re traveling and need a lot of screen real estate, it’s a good solution.

Luna Display has been able to do the same thing using a hardware dongle. Duet Display is now catching up with its competitor by releasing this update.

Version 2.0 is a free update. Make sure to download the latest version on your iPad and your Mac. For new users, Duet Display costs $10. You can optionally pay $20 or $25 per year for additional features, such as wireless connectivity and Apple Pencil support.

 


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Hit the trackless nuclear wastes with this Laco RAD-AUX watch

22:49 | 5 December

Laco is a small German watch company famous for its Flieger watches – pieces designed for pilots featuring big crowns and legible faces. Now brand has teamed up with ABlogToWatch on a Fallout-themed watch that looks like something pulled out of a deserted vault.

The $2,950 watch contains an ETA 2824.2 movement and features a massively distressed case and band along with a clever case that hearkens back to 1950s A-Bomb/military design. It’s limited to 143 pieces and you can pre-order it for shipment in March. The entire package looks like something out of the Fallout game. Bethesda is not involved in the product, incidentally, but the entire thing is an homage to the Fallout universe.

From the site:

On the outside of the heavily-worn tin box, we see a stamp showing that it was issued to the Overseer of Vault #43. Inside the box, you’ll find the Laco RAD-AUX, a user manual, and an accumulation of a few odds and ends. Presumably, the additional artifacts were collected by the owner of the Laco RAD-AUX before it was discovered. There are realistic Polaroid-style photos depicting abandoned landscapes, mutated plant-life, and a curious panther named Gloria. A bottle cap bearing the mark of a sunset, which has been turned into a pin. There is also a New California Republic ’protection postcard’ which instructs you to place it near the entrance of your domicile, and each item included looks realistically tattered and aged.

The most interesting thing about this watch is the partnership with ABlogToWatch, a popular watch blog run by Ariel Adams, and Laco. These sorts of partnerships usually result in a boring, branded watch with an ugly blog logo hidden somewhere on the case. This partnership is more about Laco and Adams’ imagination taking flight over a mushroom cloud. Regardless, this is a great piece for folks who haven’t yet picked up a 3D-printed Pip Boy. Good luck, Vault Dweller!

 


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Samsung fakes test photo by using a stock DSLR image

00:39 | 5 December

Samsung’s Malaysian arm has some explaining to do. The company, in an effort to show off the Galaxy A8 Star’s amazing photo retouching abilities, used a cleverly-shot portrait, modified it, and then ostensibly passed it off as one taken by the A8.

The trouble began when Serbian photographer Dunja Djudjic noticed someone had bought one of her photos from a service called EyeEm that supplies pictures to Getty Images, a renowned photo reseller. Djudjic, curious as to the buyer, did a quick reverse search and found her image – adulterated to within an inch of its life – on Samsung’s Malaysian product page.

Djudjic, for her part, was a good sport.

My first reaction was to burst out into laughter. Just look at the Photoshop job they did on my face and hair! I’ve always liked my natural hair color (even though it’s turning gray black and white), but I guess the creator of this franken-image prefers reddish tones. Except in the eyes though, where they removed all of the blood vessels.

Whoever created this image, they also cut me out of the original background and pasted me onto a random photo of a park. I mean, the original photo was taken at f/2.0 if I remember well, and they needed the “before” and “after” – a photo with a sharp background, and another one where the almighty “portrait mode” blurred it out. So Samsung’s Photoshop master resolved it by using a different background.

This move follows a decision by Huawei to pull the same stunt with a demo photo in August.

To be fair, Samsung warned us this would happen. “The contents within the screen are simulated images and are for demonstration purposes only,” they write in the fine print, way at the bottom of the page. Luckily for Djudjic, Samsung paid her for her photo.

 


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Xavier Niel unveils new Freebox with Alexa, Devialet, Sigfox, Netflix

15:16 | 4 December

Iliad, the telecom company behind Free, just unveiled a new Freebox at a press conference in its office. This is somewhat significant news for French startups as French billionaire Xavier Niel is also a startup investor through Kima Ventures, the owner of Station F and the creator of a school called 42.

When Free unveiled the first Freebox back in 2002, it was the first French internet service provider to offer a triple play service with DSL internet, unlimited calls to French landline phones and television for $34 per month (€29.99).

But things have changed drastically since then. OTT services, such as Netflix or Molotov, as well as multimedia players from Apple or running Android are competing directly with those boxes.

Free is now at a turning point. It has been relentlessly losing subscribers for the past year and its shares have been down around 40 percent in just a year.

In other words, Xavier Niel needs this Freebox to be a success to attract new subscribers, increase the average revenue per user and prove that you can compete with traditional telecom companies by leveraging technology.

The result is the Freebox Delta, a compilation of many different technologies into a single offering. It literally looks like a delta and features Devialet speakers, Sigfox connectivity, Amazon Alexa, ZigBee connectivity for connected objects and more.

“All of this would cost thousands of euros but we’re making it accessible,” Niel said.

By choosing a premium positioning, Free needs to prove that it cares about its network. You can now get as much as 10 Gbit/s using a fiber connection and the new Freebox — you’re then restricted to Gigabit Ethernet ports though.

“We think that optical fiber is the technology you need and the technology we need,” Niel said.

But if you live in the countryside, the Freebox now seamlessly aggregates DSL with a 4G LTE connection, which gives us a glimpse at the 5G future around the corner.

From a simple modem to a home hub

The modem part of the package comes with a 1TB hard drive. You can put up to 4 hard drives and use RAID to create a tiny little NAS with your Freebox. It comes with two powerline network adapters that you can plug to your modem using a single USB-C cable — the adapter acts as the power brick.

The set-top box part is a 4K HDR multimedia box with a homemade operating system. More importantly, it is also a Devialet speaker. Devialet has been working on high-end speakers with a simple goal — zero background noise, zero saturation and zero distorsion. Those speakers cost a tiny fortune.

Niel is an investor in the French startup, that’s why it makes sense to integrate Devialet’s algorithms and chipsets into the Freebox. There are 6 speakers and it should replace your TV sound bar quite easily.

You can stream music using WiFi (AirPlay), Bluetooth and Spotify Connect. If you want something else, there are Deezer, Qobuz, YouTube, Dailymotion and Twitch apps as well — but you’ll need to turn on the TV to access those.

The Freebox Delta also acts as a voice assistant. There’s a hardware switch to enable the microphones. You can then use a homemade assistant called “Ok Freebox” to control the device. And you can use Amazon Alexa for more complicated queries.

I wasn’t impressed by the integration of two voice assistants. It’s going to confuse a lot of people who are going to say “Alexa, turn on Arte” instead of “Ok Freebox, turn on Arte”. The TV interface has also been redesigned and now looks a lot like Molotov.

Subscribers get the cheapest Netflix subscription tier for free and can upgrade for an extra €3 or €6 per month. Basic Canal channels are included. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are included through LeKiosk.

Freebox of things

With the new device, Free is betting on connected objects. The Freebox Delta is connected to the Sigfox network and can control ZigBee objects, such as Philips Hue lights and Somfy blinds.

New subscribers get a bunch of sensors to get started. You get a connected camera, a door sensor, a motion detector and a tiny remote. You can buy more accessories in the future. Your Freebox can then alert you if there’s anything wrong in the Freebox app.

More interestingly, the Freebox comes with two remotes — a classic remote and a remote with a touchscreen. The interface of the smart remote changes depending on what you do, which reminds me a lot of Prizm. And it turns out that the team behind Prizm joined the company, according to a source. But they haven’t had time to work much on that yet.

Going premium

Free has suffered a lot from competition. After undercutting everyone, competitors have caught up and now offer similar services for around the same price.

In order to differentiate its offering, Free is going premium.

Orange has always attracted premium subscribers thanks to heavy network investments and premium pricing. Free wants to join Orange on this segment and leave Bouygues Telecom and SFR behind.

Free is also launching a new, cheaper Freebox today, the Freebox One. But it’s clear that the company wants to talk about its flagship offering. It costs €50 per month to subscribe to the top tier, and the company wants you to pay for the device.

Instead of lending you a Freebox Delta, it costs €10 per month over 48 months. You can then keep it forever. Niel hinted at bigger ambitions. Eventually, the company wants to sell the Freebox Delta to consumers in other countries, even if they can’t subscribe to Free.

Overall, the new Freebox feels like a melting pot of technologies (a bowl of Chocapic, as French readers would say). Only Free knows the startup ecosystem so well to put all of those technologies together.

Now, let’s see if Free has what it takes to become a full-fledged consumer electronics company. It’s an ambitious bet.

 


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Qualcomm announces the Snapdragon 855 and its new under-display fingerprint sensor

00:00 | 4 December

This week, Qualcomm is hosting press and analysts on Maui for its annual Snapdragon Summit. Sadly, we’re not there, but a couple of weeks ago, Qualcomm gave us a preview of the news. There’ll be three days of news and the company decided to start with a focus on 5G, as well as a preview of its new Snapdragon 855 mobile platform. In addition, the company announced its new ultrasonic fingerprint solution for sensors that can sit under the display.

It’ll probably still be a while before there’ll be a 5G tower in your neighbourhood, but after years of buzz, it’s fair to say that we’re now getting to the point where 5G is becoming real. Indeed, AT&T and Verizon are showing off live 5G networks on Maui this week. Qualcomm described its event as the “coming out party for 5G,” though I’m sure we’ll hear from plenty of other players who will claim the same in the coming months.

In the short term, what’s maybe more interesting is that Qualcomm also announced its new flagship 855 mobile platform today. While the company didn’t release all of the details yet, it stressed that the 855 is “the world’s first commercial mobile platform supporting multi-gigabit 5G.”

The 855 also features a new multi-core AI engine that promises up to 3x better AI performance compared to its previous mobile platform, as well as specialized computer vision silicon for enhances computational photography (think something akin to Google’s Night Light) and video capture.

The company also briefly noted that the new platform has been optimized for gaming. The product name for this is “Snapdragon Elite Gaming,” but details remain sparse. Qualcomm also continues to bet on AR (or ‘extended reality’ as the company brands it).

The last piece of news is likely the most interesting here. Fingerprint sensors are now standard, even on mid-market phones. With its new 3D Sonic Sensors, Qualcomm promises an enhanced ultrasonic fingerprint solution that can sit under the display. In part, this is a rebranding of Qualcomm’s existing under-display sensor, but there’s some new technology here, too. The promise here is that the scanner will work, even if the display is very dirty or if the user installs a screen protector. Chances are, we’ll see quite a few new flagship phones in the next few months (Mobile World Congress is coming up quickly, after all) that will feature these new fingerprint scanners.

 


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Researchers use AI and 3D printing to recreate paintings from photographs

12:31 | 30 November

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have created a system that can reproduce paintings from a single photo, allowing museums and art lovers to snap their favorite pictures and print new copies complete with paint textures.

Called RePaint, the project uses machine learning to recreate the exact colors of each painting and then prints it using a high-end 3D printer that can output thousands of colors using half-toning.

The researchers, however, found a better way to capture a fuller spectrum of Degas and Dali. They used a special technique they developed called “color-contoning”, which involves using a 3-D printer and 10 different transparent inks stacked in very thin layers, much like the wafers and chocolate in a Kit-Kat bar. They combined their method with a decades-old technique called “halftoning”, where an image is created by tons of little ink dots, rather than continuous tones. Combining these, the team says, better captured the nuances of the colors.

“If you just reproduce the color of a painting as it looks in the gallery, it might look different in your home,” said researcher Changil Kim. “Our system works under any lighting condition, which shows a far greater color reproduction capability than almost any other previous work.”

Sadly the prints are only about as big as a business card. The system also can’t yet support matte finishes and detailed surface textures but the team is working on improving the algorithms and the 3D printing tech so you’ll finally be able to recreate that picture of dogs playing poker in 3D plastic.

 


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Rolling, hopping robots explore Earthly analogs of distant planets

17:40 | 29 November

Before we send any planet-trotting robot to explore the landscape of Mars or Venus, we need to test it here on Earth. Two such robotic platforms being developed for future missions are undergoing testing at European Space Agency facilities: one that rolls, and one that hops.

The rolling one is actually on the books to head to the Red Planet as part of the ESA’s Mars 2020 program. It’s just wrapped a week of testing in the Spanish desert, just one of many Mars analogs space programs use. It looks nice. The gravity’s a little different, of course, and there’s a bit more atmosphere, but it’s close enough to test a few things.

The team controlling Charlie, which is what they named the prototype, was doing so from hundreds of miles away, in the U.K. — not quite an interplanetary distance, but they did of course think to simulate the delay operators would encounter if the rover were actually on Mars. It would also have a ton more instruments on board.

Exploration and navigation was still done entirely using information collected by the rover via radar and cameras, and the rover’s drill was also put to work. It rained one day, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen on Mars, but the operators presumably pretended it was a dust storm and rolled with it.

Another Earth-analog test is scheduled for February in Chile’s Atacama desert. You can learn more about the ExoMars rover and the Mars 2020 mission here.

The other robot that the ESA publicized this week isn’t theirs but was developed by ETH Zurich: the SpaceBok —  you know, like springbok. The researchers there think that hopping around like that well-known ungulate could be a good way to get around on other planets.

It’s nice to roll around on stable wheels, sure, but it’s no use when you want to get to the far side of some boulder or descend into a ravine to check out an interesting mineral deposit. SpaceBok is mean to be a highly stable jumping machine that can traverse rough terrain or walk with a normal quadrupedal gait as needed (well, normal for robots).

“This is not particularly useful on Earth,” admits SpaceBok team member Elias Hampp, but “it could reach a height of four meters on the Moon. This would allow for a fast and efficient way of moving forward.”

It was doing some testing at the ESA’s “Mars Yard sandbox,” a little pen filled with Mars-like soil and rocks. The team is looking into improving autonomy with better vision — the better it can see where it lands, the better SpaceBok can stick that landing.

Interplanetary missions are very much in vogue now, and we may soon even see some private trips to the Moon and Mars. So even if NASA or the ESA doesn’t decide to take SpaceBok (or some similarly creative robot) out into the solar system, perhaps a generous sponsor will.

 


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Check out Prague’s Old Town in this 405 gigapixel photo

15:53 | 29 November

Jeffrey Martin takes massive panoramic photographs of the world and his photos let you go from from the panoramic to the intimate in a single mouse swipe. Now he’s truly outdone himself with a 900,000 pixel wide photo of Prague’s Old Town that took six months to build.

The photo, viewable here, has a total spherical resolution of 405 gigapixels and amazing. Martin used a 600mm lens and 50MP DSLR to take photos of nearly everything in the Old Town. You can see the Cathedral, Castle Hill, and even spot street signs, building signs, and pigeons. It’s a fascinating view of a beautiful city.

Martin said it took him over six months to post-process the picture and it required thousands of photos and tweaks. He said the files are six times bigger than anything Photoshop can manage so he found himself working with delicate fixes as he stitched this amazing photo together.

 


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