AirPods

Amazon reportedly readying its Alexa-powered answer to AirPods

Posted by | AirPods, Alexa, Amazon, Apple, Gadgets, hardware, Mobile, virtual assistants, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Amazon is ready to challenge Apple with a cheaper, Alexa-powered set of wireless earbuds. If successful, it would carve out a space for the popular digital assistant, and its deep connections to the rest of Amazon’s ecosystem, in the mobile world Amazon has hitherto largely failed to penetrate. But that’s a big if.

A report from Bloomberg details the upcoming hardware, which sounds a lot like AirPods (and the handful of other wireless sets that have appeared): a pair of small wireless in-ear buds, a case that doubles as a charger and built-in controls and a mic so you can control your music, talk to friends and ask Alexa things on the go.

Of course, the obvious question is how exactly this will work, given that AirPods have special privileges as first-party Apple hardware that let them perform tasks others can’t yet do. If your phone is locked, non-AirPod headphones (for instance Galaxy Buds) can’t connect through their associated app to look stuff up or provide services. You can of course set up a “Hey Siri, OK Google” situation, but that’s a bit sad.

Bloomberg’s report says that the Alexa headphones let you “order goods, access music, weather and other information,” but it isn’t clear under what circumstances. If you have to have the phone unlocked and an app open for it to work, the whole thing is a non-starter. And it seems unlikely that Apple would grant Amazon some kind of clearance to do the kind of things only AirPods can do.

It’s conceivable that the headphones will, when possible, connect instead on detection of a command to a compatible Alexa device nearby with an internet connection — and there’s no shortage of those in many a tech-savvy home. But if you’re walking down the street and need to ask directions, you may have to pull the phone out, which rather negates the already somewhat limited convenience of owning a pair of wireless headphones.

These difficulties, plus those associated with simply making such a sophisticated piece of hardware for relatively cheap, explain why the headphones have reportedly had a bit of trouble getting shipped.

A cheaper price tag and potentially better audio quality may not be enough to make this particular endeavor a winner, but we’ll know more if and when Amazon goes official.

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The damage of defaults

Posted by | AirPods, algorithmic accountability, algorithmic bias, Apple, Apple earbuds, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Bluetooth, Diversity, Gadgets, headphones, hearables, iphone accessories, mobile computing, siri, smartphone, TC, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

Apple popped out a new pair of AirPods this week. The design looks exactly like the old pair of AirPods. Which means I’m never going to use them because Apple’s bulbous earbuds don’t fit my ears. Think square peg, round hole.

The only way I could rock AirPods would be to walk around with hands clamped to the sides of my head to stop them from falling out. Which might make a nice cut in a glossy Apple ad for the gizmo — suggesting a feeling of closeness to the music, such that you can’t help but cup; a suggestive visual metaphor for the aural intimacy Apple surely wants its technology to communicate.

But the reality of trying to use earbuds that don’t fit is not that at all. It’s just shit. They fall out at the slightest movement so you either sit and never turn your head or, yes, hold them in with your hands. Oh hai, hands-not-so-free-pods!

The obvious point here is that one size does not fit all — howsoever much Apple’s Jony Ive and his softly spoken design team believe they have devised a universal earbud that pops snugly in every ear and just works. Sorry, nope!

Hi @tim_cook, I fixed that sketch for you. Introducing #InPods — because one size doesn’t fit all 😉pic.twitter.com/jubagMnwjt

— Natasha (@riptari) March 20, 2019

A proportion of iOS users — perhaps other petite women like me, or indeed men with less capacious ear holes — are simply being removed from Apple’s sales equation where earbuds are concerned. Apple is pretending we don’t exist.

Sure we can just buy another brand of more appropriately sized earbuds. The in-ear, noise-canceling kind are my preference. Apple does not make ‘InPods’. But that’s not a huge deal. Well, not yet.

It’s true, the consumer tech giant did also delete the headphone jack from iPhones. Thereby depreciating my existing pair of wired in-ear headphones (if I ever upgrade to a 3.5mm-jack-less iPhone). But I could just shell out for Bluetooth wireless in-ear buds that fit my shell-like ears and carry on as normal.

Universal in-ear headphones have existed for years, of course. A delightful design concept. You get a selection of different sized rubber caps shipped with the product and choose the size that best fits.

Unfortunately Apple isn’t in the ‘InPods’ business though. Possibly for aesthetic reasons. Most likely because — and there’s more than a little irony here — an in-ear design wouldn’t be naturally roomy enough to fit all the stuff Siri needs to, y’know, fake intelligence.

Which means people like me with small ears are being passed over in favor of Apple’s voice assistant. So that’s AI: 1, non-‘standard’-sized human: 0. Which also, unsurprisingly, feels like shit.

I say ‘yet’ because if voice computing does become the next major computing interaction paradigm, as some believe — given how Internet connectivity is set to get baked into everything (and sticking screens everywhere would be a visual and usability nightmare; albeit microphones everywhere is a privacy nightmare… ) — then the minority of humans with petite earholes will be at a disadvantage vs those who can just pop in their smart, sensor-packed earbud and get on with telling their Internet-enabled surroundings to do their bidding.

Will parents of future generations of designer babies select for adequately capacious earholes so their child can pop an AI in? Let’s hope not.

We’re also not at the voice computing singularity yet. Outside the usual tech bubbles it remains a bit of a novel gimmick. Amazon has drummed up some interest with in-home smart speakers housing its own voice AI Alexa (a brand choice that has, incidentally, caused a verbal headache for actual humans called Alexa). Though its Echo smart speakers appear to mostly get used as expensive weather checkers and egg timers. Or else for playing music — a function that a standard speaker or smartphone will happily perform.

Certainly a voice AI is not something you need with you 24/7 yet. Prodding at a touchscreen remains the standard way of tapping into the power and convenience of mobile computing for the majority of consumers in developed markets.

The thing is, though, it still grates to be ignored. To be told — even indirectly — by one of the world’s wealthiest consumer technology companies that it doesn’t believe your ears exist.

Or, well, that it’s weighed up the sales calculations and decided it’s okay to drop a petite-holed minority on the cutting room floor. So that’s ‘ear meet AirPod’. Not ‘AirPod meet ear’ then.

But the underlying issue is much bigger than Apple’s (in my case) oversized earbuds. Its latest shiny set of AirPods are just an ill-fitting reminder of how many technology defaults simply don’t ‘fit’ the world as claimed.

Because if cash-rich Apple’s okay with promoting a universal default (that isn’t), think of all the less well resourced technology firms chasing scale for other single-sized, ill-fitting solutions. And all the problems flowing from attempts to mash ill-mapped technology onto society at large.

When it comes to wrong-sized physical kit I’ve had similar issues with standard office computing equipment and furniture. Products that seems — surprise, surprise! — to have been default designed with a 6ft strapping guy in mind. Keyboards so long they end up gifting the smaller user RSI. Office chairs that deliver chronic back-pain as a service. Chunky mice that quickly wrack the hand with pain. (Apple is a historical offender there too I’m afraid.)

The fixes for such ergonomic design failures is simply not to use the kit. To find a better-sized (often DIY) alternative that does ‘fit’.

But a DIY fix may not be an option when discrepancy is embedded at the software level — and where a system is being applied to you, rather than you the human wanting to augment yourself with a bit of tech, such as a pair of smart earbuds.

With software, embedded flaws and system design failures may also be harder to spot because it’s not necessarily immediately obvious there’s a problem. Oftentimes algorithmic bias isn’t visible until damage has been done.

And there’s no shortage of stories already about how software defaults configured for a biased median have ended up causing real-world harm. (See for example: ProPublica’s analysis of the COMPAS recidividism tool — software it found incorrectly judging black defendants more likely to offend than white. So software amplifying existing racial prejudice.)

Of course AI makes this problem so much worse.

Which is why the emphasis must be on catching bias in the datasets — before there is a chance for prejudice or bias to be ‘systematized’ and get baked into algorithms that can do damage at scale.

The algorithms must also be explainable. And outcomes auditable. Transparency as disinfectant; not secret blackboxes stuffed with unknowable code.

Doing all this requires huge up-front thought and effort on system design, and an even bigger change of attitude. It also needs massive, massive attention to diversity. An industry-wide championing of humanity’s multifaceted and multi-sized reality — and to making sure that’s reflected in both data and design choices (and therefore the teams doing the design and dev work).

You could say what’s needed is a recognition there’s never, ever a one-sized-fits all plug.

Indeed, that all algorithmic ‘solutions’ are abstractions that make compromises on accuracy and utility. And that those trade-offs can become viciously cutting knives that exclude, deny, disadvantage, delete and damage people at scale.

Expensive earbuds that won’t stay put is just a handy visual metaphor.

And while discussion about the risks and challenges of algorithmic bias has stepped up in recent years, as AI technologies have proliferated — with mainstream tech conferences actively debating how to “democratize AI” and bake diversity and ethics into system design via a development focus on principles like transparency, explainability, accountability and fairness — the industry has not even begun to fix its diversity problem.

It’s barely moved the needle on diversity. And its products continue to reflect that fundamental flaw.

Stanford just launched their Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (@StanfordHAI) with great fanfare. The mission: “The creators and designers of AI must be broadly representative of humanity.”

121 faculty members listed.

Not a single faculty member is Black. pic.twitter.com/znCU6zAxui

— Chad Loder ❁ (@chadloder) March 21, 2019

Many — if not most — of the tech industry’s problems can be traced back to the fact that inadequately diverse teams are chasing scale while lacking the perspective to realize their system design is repurposing human harm as a de facto performance measure. (Although ‘lack of perspective’ is the charitable interpretation in certain cases; moral vacuum may be closer to the mark.)

As WWW creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has pointed out, system design is now society design. That means engineers, coders, AI technologists are all working at the frontline of ethics. The design choices they make have the potential to impact, influence and shape the lives of millions and even billions of people.

And when you’re designing society a median mindset and limited perspective cannot ever be an acceptable foundation. It’s also a recipe for product failure down the line.

The current backlash against big tech shows that the stakes and the damage are very real when poorly designed technologies get dumped thoughtlessly on people.

Life is messy and complex. People won’t fit a platform that oversimplifies and overlooks. And if your excuse for scaling harm is ‘we just didn’t think of that’ you’ve failed at your job and should really be headed out the door.

Because the consequences for being excluded by flawed system design are also scaling and stepping up as platforms proliferate and more life-impacting decisions get automated. Harm is being squared. Even as the underlying industry drum hasn’t skipped a beat in its prediction that everything will be digitized.

Which means that horribly biased parole systems are just the tip of the ethical iceberg. Think of healthcare, social welfare, law enforcement, education, recruitment, transportation, construction, urban environments, farming, the military, the list of what will be digitized — and of manual or human overseen processes that will get systematized and automated — goes on.

Software — runs the industry mantra — is eating the world. That means badly designed technology products will harm more and more people.

But responsibility for sociotechnical misfit can’t just be scaled away as so much ‘collateral damage’.

So while an ‘elite’ design team led by a famous white guy might be able to craft a pleasingly curved earbud, such an approach cannot and does not automagically translate into AirPods with perfect, universal fit.

It’s someone’s standard. It’s certainly not mine.

We can posit that a more diverse Apple design team might have been able to rethink the AirPod design so as not to exclude those with smaller ears. Or make a case to convince the powers that be in Cupertino to add another size choice. We can but speculate.

What’s clear is the future of technology design can’t be so stubborn.

It must be radically inclusive and incredibly sensitive. Human-centric. Not locked to damaging defaults in its haste to impose a limited set of ideas.

Above all, it needs a listening ear on the world.

Indifference to difference and a blindspot for diversity will find no future here.

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Apple announces new AirPods

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, Gadgets, TC | No Comments

Apple has just announced the second-generation AirPods.

The new AirPods are fitted with the H1 chip, which is meant to offer performance efficiencies, faster connect times between the pods and your devices and the ability to ask for Siri hands-free with the “Hey Siri” command.

Because of its performance efficiency, the H1 chip also allows for the AirPods to offer 50 percent more talk time using the headphones. Switching between devices is 2x faster than the previous-generation AirPods, according to Apple.

Here’s what Phil Schiller had to say in the press release:

AirPods delivered a magical wireless experience and have become one of the most beloved products we’ve ever made. They connect easily with all of your devices, and provide crystal clear sound and intuitive, innovative control of your music and audio. The world’s best wireless headphones just got even better with the new AirPods. They are powered by the new Apple-designed H1 chip which brings an extra hour of talk time, faster connections, hands-free ‘Hey Siri’ and the convenience of a new wireless battery case.

The second-gen AirPods are available with the standard wired charging case ($159), or a new Wireless Charging Case ($199). A standalone wireless charging case is also available for purchase ($79). We’ve reached out to Apple to ask if the wireless case is backward compatible with first-gen AirPods and will update the post once we know more.

Update: Turns out, the wireless charging case works “with all generations of AirPods,” according to the Apple website listing.

Two times faster switching and 50 percent more talk time might sound like small perks for a relatively expensive accessory, but I’ve found that one of my biggest pain points with the AirPods are the lack of voice control and the time it takes to switch devices. The introduction of “Hey Siri” alongside the new H1 chip, as well as much faster switching between devices, should noticeably elevate the user experience with these new AirPods.

After a search through the Apple website, it appears that old AirPods are no longer available for sale.

The new AirPods are available to order today from Apple.com and the Apple Store app, with in-store availability beginning next week.

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Samsung is preparing to launch a sports smartwatch and AirPods-like earbuds

Posted by | AirPods, computing, Gadgets, galaxy, Samsung, samsung galaxy, smartwatch, TC, technology, ubiquitous computing, wearable devices, wearable technology, wireless earbuds | No Comments

Samsung’s newest product launch happens next week, but already the Korean tech giant has revealed its entire upcoming range of wearable devices that will seemingly be unveiled alongside the Galaxy S10.

That’s because the company’s Galaxy Wearable’s app was uploaded today with support for a range of unreleased products, which include wireless earbuds, a sports-focused smartwatch and a new fitness band.

First reported by The Verge — and originally noticed by @SamCentralTech on Twitter — the new wearables include a Galaxy Sport smartwatch, fitness bands Galaxy Fit and Galaxy Fit e and Galaxy Buds, Samsung’s take on Apple’s AirPods. The devices have all been teased in various leaks in recent weeks, but this confirmation from the Samsung app, deliberate or inadvertent, appears to all but confirm their impending arrival.

That said, we really can’t tell too much about the respective devices based on the app, which just shows basic renders of each device.

Still, that might just be enough of a tease to general a little more interest in what promises to be Samsung’s biggest consumer launch event of the year.

The Samsung unveiling comes days before Mobile World Congress, the mobile industry’s biggest event of the year — so expect to see new product launches coming thick and fast over the coming weeks.

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Hidden screen in iOS 12.2 beta hints at AirPods that can handle ‘Hey Siri’

Posted by | AirPods, Gadgets, TC | No Comments

It’s a weird quirk of the current generation of AirPods: they support Siri, but only if you double-tap one of the earbuds first. Unlike with iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches and HomePods, you can’t just say “Hey Siri” and babble out your request.

Rumors have been floating around for a while suggesting that a new iteration of AirPods — AirPods 2, the rumor mill is calling them — would bring “Hey Siri” functionality. Now a screen hiding in the latest iOS beta seems to suggest the same.

While it’s not a publicly accessible screen, Guilherme Rambo of 9to5mac managed to trigger the following prompt in the just-released iOS 12.2 beta:

(Image Credit: 9to5Mac)

“Talk to Siri with your AirPods or iPhone by saying ‘Hey Siri’,” it reads.

Its absence from the current generation of AirPods presumably boils down to a matter of battery life. Apple figured out how to make “Hey Siri” work with minimal impact on battery life with the iPhone 6s, then broke down how it all works in a post on its Machine Learning Journal in April of 2018. But to pull off the same trick in a tiny earbud — each having a battery capacity of 93 milliwatt hours, or roughly 1 percent of that of an iPhone — is an entirely new challenge. For the first gen, it was just easier to let the headphones wait for that double-tap, queueing it up as a new selling point whenever Apple figured out how to pull it off.

Rumors have also hinted at other features for the eventual AirPods sequel, from waterproofing to sensors that help track health data. Alas, no sneaky hidden prompts hinting at any of that have been found yet.

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Apple ditches the headphone jack on latest iPad Pro models

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, Apple earbuds, Apple Fall Event 2018, apple inc, computing, Gadgets, Google, iOS, iPad, iPhone, lightning, mobile device, tablet computers, technology | No Comments

The headphone jack is missing from the latest versions of the iPad Pro. It’s gone. Dead. Worse yet, the headphones that come with the iPhone will not work either. Apple ditched Lightning for USB-C. Instead, Apple is selling a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle for $9.

The latest iPad Pro models follows the trend lines set by the iPhone. Just like on the iPhone, the Home Button is missing, and the headphone jack is gone. It’s a concession some users might find surprising. On the iPhone, there’s obviously less real estate to integrate a large port but that’s, in theory, less of an issue in a large device like a tablet. But it makes sense. Apple tends to maximize margins by ensuring different products use a similar set of hardware. And since the iPhone hasn’t had a headphone port since 2016, it’s about time the trend hits Apple’s other mobile device.

Headphone users are not the only users left in the dark. The iPad has long been a great device for a stationary audio controller. Now, instead of simply connecting the tablet to a stereo with a 3.5mm cable, a $9 dongle is required. Want to use headphones? Apple would obviously prefer if owners use $159 AirPods though there are a handful of USB-C headphones including these from Google.

Apple Fall Event 2018

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How to watch the live stream for Apple’s iPad and Mac keynote

Posted by | AirPods, AirPower, Apple, Apple Fall Event 2018, Apps, Developer, Gadgets, imac, iPad, iPad Pro, macbook, macbook air, Mobile | No Comments

Apple is holding a keynote today at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, and the company is expected to unveil a brand new iPad Pro as well as updated Mac computers. The event starts at 10 AM in New York (7 AM in San Francisco, 2 PM in London, 3 PM in Paris), you’ll be able to watch the event as the company is streaming it live.

If you live in Europe and already put a note in your calendar, make sure you got the time right as daylight saving time has yet to happen in the U.S. New York is currently 4 hours behind London, 5 hours behind Paris, etc.

Apple is likely to unveil a new iPad Pro to replace the 10.5-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Rumor has it that it’ll look nothing like your current iPad. The device should get rounded corners, thinner bezels and a Face ID sensor. Apple could also switch to USB-C instead of Lightning and refresh the Apple Pencil.

On the Mac front, the MacBook Air could get a refresh. This could be Apple’s new entry-level laptop. But it should sport a retina display for the first time. There could also be a new Mac Mini of some sort after all those years without an update.

Finally, maybe Apple will tell us why the AirPower charging mat is still not available. Apple might also update the AirPods. But maybe it’ll happen later.

If you have a recent Apple TV, you can download the Apple Events app in the App Store. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old events. Users with pre-App Store Apple TVs can simply turn on their devices. Apple is pushing out the “Apple Events” channel so that you can watch the event.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV, the company also lets you live-stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge.

So to recap, here’s how you can watch today’s Apple event:

  • On iOS: Safari.
  • On the Mac: Safari, Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
  • On Windows: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Microsoft Edge.
  • An Apple TV with the Apple Events app in the App Store.

Of course, you also can read TechCrunch’s live blog if you’re stuck at work and really need our entertaining commentary track to help you get through your day. We have a big team in the room this year.

Apple Fall Event 2018

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Apple’s over-the-ear headphones could feature noise-canceling

Posted by | AirPods, Apple, Beats, Gadgets, TC | No Comments

 The plot thickens. Last week, KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported that Apple has been working on over-the-ear headphones in addition to new AirPods. Today, Bloomberg confirms this information and adds that these new headphones could also feature noise-canceling capabilities.
KGI said that this new product should be available at some point in Q4 2018, just in time for the holiday season. But… Read More

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Apple said to debut voice-activated Siri AirPods in 2018, water-resistant model in 2019

Posted by | AirPods, apple inc, Apple Watch, computing, Gadgets, hardware, iOS, iPhone, iphone 4s, iphone accessories, Mobile, siri, Steve Jobs, TC, technology | No Comments

 Apple is preparing a couple of updating models of AirPods, according to Bloomberg. The popular fully wireless earbud-style headphones that Apple introduced last year are currently on track for a refresh in 2018 with the addition of a new version of the “W” line of chips that Apple created specifically to manage and improve Bluetooth-based connections between gadgets. The 2018… Read More

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Jaybird’s Run totally wireless earbuds are wire-free wonders for everyone

Posted by | AirPods, Bluetooth, Computer Hardware, computing, Gadgets, hardware, headphones, Headset, iphone accessories, jaybird, Logitech, Reviews, TC, technology | No Comments

 The market for totally wireless earbuds is really maturing fast, with many entries from both new and established companies. Jaybird recently joined the crowd, with its own Run earbuds. The Logitech-owned company has long been a really solid competitor when it comes to Bluetooth headphones, and its Freedom and X-line, and in fact made some of the very first wireless sport earbuds that proved… Read More

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