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Main article: Gadgets

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Humans sow seeds of destruction by abusing poor robot just trying to walk through a door

03:36 | 21 February

You may remember last week that Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, a trim and yellow Spot Mini, has learned to open doors. Seems like at this point you don’t want to anger them. They will find you. Or rather, they’ll find the company’s designated robot abuser and punish him for stopping poor robots from doing what they have been told to do. Soon Spot Mini will not be the one on a leash.

Of course this is necessary testing for when the robot actually has to navigate a busy environment and this kind of interference comes up, deliberate or accidental. A robot has to be able to bounce back, of course; if it freaks out when anything unexpected happens, it won’t be able to accomplish much.

All the same, it’s excruciating to watch, at least for me. It’s just trying so hard and it doesn’t get angry at the man, even when its piece falls off!

Perhaps robots will be superhuman in patience as well as door-opening ability. Let’s hope so. I kicked a Spot Mini once at its creator’s invitation and if any machines are reading this, I’m sorry.

Featured Image: Boston Dynamics

 


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Mozilla and NSF awards $380K to small projects connecting the unconnected

03:18 | 21 February

The FCC may be hard at work at “bridging the digital divide,” as Chairman Pai so frequently puts it, and the Connect America Fund II will help. But while the big players are setting up, people all over the U.S. are going without reliable internet. Mozilla and the National Science Foundation are awarding cash to projects that aim to connect those still waiting on the bandwidth we take for granted.

There were two Wireless Innovation for a Networks Society challenges: one to use wireless tech to keep people connected during disasters and other emergencies, and another to connect communities to existing wireless infrastructure for normal use.

First place took home $60,000, second $40,000, and third $30,000. These initial awards are the first round of a larger project, meant to convert design concepts into prototypes for live demonstration this summer; winners will be chosen in the fall.

For the first, “off-the-grid” challenge, first place went to Lantern, a pocket-sized device that uses off-the-shelf components to create a sort of offline Wi-Fi that others can connect to. Regional data loaded onto an SD card is made available wirelessly to nearby users via an app or web interface.

Updates and messages from other users or someone carrying new info from a working internet connection are downloaded, and the locations of resources are added to its offline map.

Second and Third went to portable network infrastructure devices that connect a wide area with basic calling and messaging to each other or, if available, connection to an LTE network.

The challenge to connect communities to existing networks had first place go to the Equitable Internet Initiative. This project was born in Detroit from frustration that some parts of the city were going to get gigabit fiber while others had yet to have any broadband at all. Diana Nucera of the Detroit Community Technology Project began setting it up in 2016, installing wireless repeaters and access points to spread its own gigabit connection and intranet resources to those in need.

The team plans to fortify the network with its $60,000 grant, adding solar-based backup power and establish both emergency and long-term plans for keeping the network up.

Second went to NoogaNet, which is looking to use utility poles to establish a mesh network, and the Southern Connected Communities Network, which hopes to blast broadband wirelessly over underserved swaths of Appalachia and the South.

There’s also a dozen honorable mentions receiving $10,000 each — check out the winners section of the WINS website and see if there’s one in your area you can help out with.

 


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Ultrasound could waken a sleeping smart home

21:09 | 20 February

The home of the future, we are assured, will be swarming with tiny sensors: security cameras, carbon monoxide detectors, speakers, and everything else. Few need to be running all the time — but how do you wake them up when they’re needed if they’re off in the first place? Ultrasound.

That’s the idea being pursued by Angad Rekhi and Amin Arbabian at Stanford, anyway. Their approach to the problem of devices that can’t stay on, yet can’t be all the way off, is to minimize the amount of energy necessary to send and receive a “wake” signal. That way the internet of things really only consumes power when they’re actively in use.

Radio, which of course all these tiny sensors use to transmit and receive information, is actually pretty expensive in terms of power and space. Keeping the antenna and signal processor ready and listening uses more energy than these devices have to spare if they’re to last for years on a charge.

Ultrasonic sensors, on the other hand, are incredibly power-efficient and require very little space. Ultrasound — soundwaves above the human range of hearing, 22KHz or so — is a much more physical phenomenon, and detecting it is easier in many ways than detecting radio frequency waves. It’s a bit like the difference between a sensor that’s sensitive to nearly intangible x-rays versus one that detects ordinary visible light.

Rekhi (left) and Arbabian looking natural in the lab.

Rekhi, a grad student in electrical engineering working under Arbabian, describes their approach in a paper just presented at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. It’s a simple idea in a way — a small switch that hits a bigger switch — but the results are impressive.

The system’s ultrasound receiver is efficient even for an efficient class of sensors; the tiny, super-sensitive microphone was developed at Stanford as well, by the Khuri-Yakub Group. The receiver is always on, but draws an amazingly small 4 nanowatts of power, and is sensitive enough to detect a signal with a single nanowatt’s strength. That puts it well ahead of most radio receivers in terms of power consumption and sensitivity.

There’s one from a study last year that has it beat on both… but it’s also more than 50 times bigger. The ultrasonic sensor only takes up 14.5 square millimeters to the radio chip’s 900. That’s valuable real estate on an embedded device.

You wouldn’t be able to activate it from across town, of course — ultrasonic signals don’t travel through walls. But they do bounce around them, and the wake-up system’s sensitivity means even the smallest fragment of an ultrasonic signal will be sufficient to activate it.

It’s just a prototype right now, but don’t be surprised if this sort of mega-efficient tech gets snatched up or duplicated by companies trying to squeeze every ounce of life out of a watt-hour.

Featured Image: mrtom-uk/Getty Images

 


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Sonos One is the speaker to beat for those that want great sound and smarts

20:34 | 20 February

The connected speaker wars are upon us, and one day they will be detailed in history books for all to remember. But here now, it can be hard to cut through the various narratives surrounding the options out there and pick a winner. Now that the cards are on the table in terms of offerings from the major players, however, it’s pretty clear that Sonos has the best option available for most people.

Sonos One, the connected speaker that the company released last year, is a terrific sounding Wi-Fi-enabled speaker that also has built-in support for Amazon’s Alexa, which is if not the best smart assistant out there, then at least tied for first with Google’s Assistant.

On the sound front, Sonos has the most experience of any of the top three companies making smart speakers worth your consideration, too. The Sonos One is, in many ways, just an updated version of the Sonos Play:1 that’s acoustically very similar – but that’s actually a really good thing. The Sonos One, like the Play:1, is a terrific sounding audio device, especially given its size and physical footprint.

I’ve been using a pair of Sonos Ones for the past couple of weeks, and it’s clear that they do a great job of filling a room with sound, thanks in part to Sonos’ sound shaping tech that uses a two-minute setup process involving waving your phone around to properly model the audio they put out for your space.

Individually, a Sonos One is already a strong contender even against the Google Home Max and HomePod for sound quality for most people (who don’t need the additional power or won’t notice the auditory improvements afforded by the larger speakers) but the Sonos One has a another neat trick up its sleeve, since it can form a stereo pair with a second Sonos One. This provides true sound separation, meaning left and right channels reproduced as they were actually meant to be, instead of via some simulated stereo separation effect (which can be pretty cool, as HomePod reviews show, but which ultimately can’t match true stereo separation).

Another huge benefit of Sonos vs. the competition: the Sonos One integrates out of the box with the rest of your Sonos setup, should you have one. You can control all speakers via voice, and group them together for whole home/room-by-room playback. Google’s Home Max can work together with Chromecast-enabled speakers for similar multi-room streaming setups, and HomePod is set to get an update that will add multi-room and stereo syncing, but Sonos One offers both of these now, and using a method that’s proven to work.

There’s also pricing to consider. Sonos One, in a bundle with two, is available for $349 right now, which is the same price as a single HomePod. It’s an unbeatable deal, given the other advantages listed above, especially since it means you can see if you like it alone, or equip multiple rooms with Alexa smarts and quality connected sound in one go.

There are reasons to consider other options, to be sure, especially if you’re 100 percent committed to the Apple ecosystem of device and services, but in general for most people, for most use cases, Sonos One is the far better choice.

 


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Spotify job listing hints the company’s ‘first physical products’ are coming

16:59 | 20 February

Spotify so far has been content to partner far and wide on hardware, via its Spotify Connect platform, which allows anyone building a connected speaker, mobile device or piece of AV equipment to turn their gadget into a Spotify speaker. But a new job listing suggests it will soon build hardware of its own, and it’s looking for people to help make that happen.

The job listing, spotted by The Guardian, seeks an ops manager for “hardware product,” and the first line of the description says outright that “Spotify is on its way to creating its first physical products,” though it doesn’t go into detail bout what those products might be. Chances are good that these will be smart, connected speakers of some kind, however, since it seems like a logical first step into the hardware world for software-focused Spotify.

A dedicated Spotify smart speaker could be a very good thing, especially if it integrates some kind of assistant tech, and could help the streaming leader translate its software success into an ecosystem of products with a bit more range in terms of diversifying their business. The question would be what Spotify could offer that devices from existing partners cannot, and whether Spotify would continue its strategy of embracing such an open ecosystem of hardware partners if it’s also making its own.

Another possibility is that Spotify explore dedicated streaming devices (a low-cost, Spotify-specific iPod-type media player seems like an idea with legs, for instance). But based on this listing, it seems like it’s still early days for any gadget strategy from the streaming music provider.

Featured Image: Denys Prykhodov/Shutterstock

 


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Update for iOS and Macs negates text bomb that crashed devices

00:32 | 20 February

Last week we reported a major bug in Apple operating systems that would cause them to crash from mere exposure to either of two specific Unicode symbols. Today Apple fixes this major text-handling issue with iOS version 11.2.6 and macOS version 10.13.3, both now available for download.

The issue, discovered by Aloha Browser in the course of normal development, has to do with poor handling of certain non-English characters. We replicated the behavior, basically an immediate hard crash, in a variety of apps on both iOS and macOS. The vulnerability is listed on MITRE under CVE-2018-4124. If you were curious.

Apple was informed of the bug and told TechCrunch last week that a fix was forthcoming — and the patches just dropped in the last few minutes (iOS; macOS). Apple calls the magical characters a “maliciously crafted string” that led to “heap corruption.” It seems that macOS versions before 10.13.3 aren’t affected, so if you’re running an older OS, no worries.

The iOS patch also fixes “an issue where some third-party apps could fail to connect to external accessories,” which is welcome but unrelated to the text bomb.

You should be able to download both updates right now, and you should, or you’ll probably get pranked in the near future.

 


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RightEye’s portable eye-tracking test catches concussions and reading problems in five minutes

21:02 | 17 February

 They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but physiologically speaking, they’re windows to the brain. RightEye is a startup that looks through that window to detect common but often subtle vision issues resulting from concussions and other brain troubles. Its quick, portable eye-tracking station can tell in minutes whether you should see a doctor — or look into becoming a pro… Read More

 


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Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon

20:09 | 16 February

The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

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I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.

 


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This autonomous 3D scanner figures out where it needs to look

03:09 | 16 February

If you need to make a 3D model of an object, there are plenty of ways to do so, but most of them are only automated to the extent that they know how to spin in circles around that object and put together a mesh. This new system from Fraunhofer does it more intelligently, getting a basic idea of the object to be scanned and planning out what motions will let it do so efficiently and comprehensively.

It takes what can be a time-consuming step out of the process in which a scan is complete and the user has to inspect it, find where it falls short (an overhanging part occluding another, for instance, or an area of greater complexity that requires closer scrutiny), and customize a new scan to make up for these lacks. Alternatively, the scanner might already have to have a 3D model loaded in order to recognize what it’s looking at and know where to focus.

Fraunhofer’s project, led by Pedro Santos at the Institute for Computer Graphics Research, aims to get it right the first time by having the system evaluate its own imagery as it goes and plan its next move.

The special thing about our system is that it scans components autonomously and in real time,” he said in a news release. It’s able to “measure any component, irrespective of its design — and you don’t have to teach it.”

This could help in creating one-off duplicates of parts the system has never seen before, like a custom-made lamp or container, or an replacement for a vintage car’s door or engine.

If you happen to be in Hanover in April, drop by Hannover Messe and try it out for yourself.

Featured Image: Fraunhofer

 


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Essential Phone arriving in three new limited edition colors

20:49 | 15 February

The Essential Phone, still among the best deals you can find in smartphones today, is now set to be available in three new colors, including “Ocean Depths,” “Copper Black” and “Stellar Gray.” These include two previously announced colours, the aquamarine-ish Ocean Depths and the dark matte “Stellar Gray,” but also the surprising third options, which adopts the shiny black back of the current all-black Essential, but with the copper titanium antenna band of the Ocean Depths colorway.

These new-look models all have the same internal specs and capabilities of the original versions, but offer some nice variety in terms of aesthetics. A few weeks ago, I had the the chance to peek at these in person briefly, and they really do provide some stunning visual impact. The matte black on the Stellar Gray is a good fit if you found the piano-like surface of the standard Essential’s ceramic a tad flashy, for instance, and the Ocean Depths hue is unique in the smartphone world, and a very captivating color when seen in the flesh – or the metal and ceramic, so to speak.

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The new color options are limited editions – Essential tells me that means when they’re gone, they are indeed gone. They’re sold through Essential’s own website exclusively, and they’ll each run for the full, $599 price of the original release devices, starting at 12 PM PT today with Ocean Depths, and then with a staggered drop schedule with Stellar Gray coming online on February 20, and Copper Black landing on February 22, so you have time to plan and decide whether a bold new look is worth your cash. It’s still a deal compared to the price of other leading flagships.

 


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