computing

Reality Check: The marvel of computer vision technology in today’s camera-based AR systems

Posted by | animation, AR, ar/vr, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, Column, Computer Vision, computing, Developer, digital media, Gaming, gif, Global Positioning System, gps, mobile phones, neural network, starbucks, TC, Virtual reality, VR | No Comments
Alex Chuang
Contributor

Alex Chuang is the Managing Partner of Shape Immersive, a boutique studio that helps enterprise and brands transform their businesses by incorporating VR/AR solutions into their strategies.

British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.

AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.

  1. How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
  2. How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
  3. How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)

Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)

Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rover-curiosity-in-buckskin-selfie/

When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.

A VIO system is made out of two parts.

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Google makes travel planning easier

Posted by | airline, computing, gmail, Google, google china, google travel, Google-Talk, Google.com, Mobile, TC, world wide web | No Comments

Google today announced a major revamp of its travel planning tools on the web. After launching a similar set of tools on mobile last year, the company today announced that google.com/travel on the web will now let you see information about all of your previously reserved trips and easily switch between flight, hotel and package searches.

In many ways, this finally brings all of Google’s travel services under one hood — a process that has taken far longer than I would’ve anticipated after Google bought ITA nine years ago.

Google Trips is essentially the landing page for the new site and brings together your existing bookings and information about your destination. The service will then feed your travel information back into Google Search and Maps. To do this, Google.com/travel (which I think we can safely call Google Travel, even if Google itself doesn’t do so), will use the confirmation emails and receipts from your Gmail inbox to build the timeline of your trip.

Because both the web and mobile versions are now on feature parity, this also makes it easier to pick up your trip planning on any device. Like always, though, you won’t be able to make any reservations through Google’s systems. Instead, Google will send you to an airline’s or hotel’s reservation system to complete a booking.

The actual flight and hotel search engines are still the same, though if Google previously offered the ability to buy flight and hotel packages, it did a good job of hiding that. Now, this option gets first billing, together with the hotel and flight searches.

“Our goal is to simplify trip planning by helping you quickly find the most useful information and pick up where you left off on any device. We’ll continue to make planning and taking trips easier with Google Maps, Google Search and google.com/travel—so you can get out and enjoy the world.”

Sadly, Google hasn’t ported Inbox’s useful Trip Bundles over to Gmail yet, though, despite promises to do so before shutting down Inbox. For the time being, the new Google Travel site is a pretty good alternative.

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Google and Qualcomm launch a dev kit for building Assistant-enabled headphones

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Bluetooth, computing, Developer, Google, hardware, headphones, Headset, jaybird, Qualcomm, TC, technology | No Comments

Qualcomm today announced that it has partnered with Google to create a reference design and development kit for building Assistant-enabled Bluetooth headphones. Traditionally, building these headphones wasn’t exactly straightforward and involved building a lot of the hardware and software stack, something top-tier manufacturers could afford to do, but that kept second- or third-tier headphone developers from adding voice assistant capabilities to their devices.

“As wireless Bluetooth devices like headphones and earbuds become more popular, we need to make it easier to have the same great Assistant experience across many headsets,” Google’s Tomer Amarilio writes in today’s announcement.

The aptly named “Qualcomm Smart Headset Development Kit” is powered by a Qualcomm QCC5100-series Bluetooth audio chip and provides a full reference board for developing new headsets and interacting with the Assistant. What’s interesting — and somewhat unusual for Qualcomm — is that the company also built its own Bluetooth earbuds as a full reference design. These feature the ability to hold down a button to start an Assistant session, for example, as well as volume buttons. They are definitely not stylish headphones you’d want to use on your commute, given that they are bulky enough to feature a USB port. But they are meant to provide manufacturers with a design they can then use to build their own devices.

In addition to making it easier for developers to integrate the Assistant, the reference design also supports Google’s Fast Pair technology that makes connecting a new headset easier.

“Demand for voice control and assistance on-the-go is rapidly gaining traction across the consumer landscape,” said Chris Havell, senior director, product marketing, voice and music at Qualcomm. “Combined with our Smart Headset Platform, this reference design offers flexibility for manufacturers wanting to deliver highly differentiated user experiences that take advantage of the power and popularity of Google cloud-based services.”

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Samsung spilled SmartThings app source code and secret keys

Posted by | Android, Apps, computing, data breach, Dubai, Gadgets, gitlab, Password, Samsung, Security, smartphones, smartthings, SMS, Software, spokesperson, Stratics Networks | No Comments

A development lab used by Samsung engineers was leaking highly sensitive source code, credentials and secret keys for several internal projects — including its SmartThings platform, a security researcher found.

The electronics giant left dozens of internal coding projects on a GitLab instance hosted on a Samsung-owned domain, Vandev Lab. The instance, used by staff to share and contribute code to various Samsung apps, services and projects, was spilling data because the projects were set to “public” and not properly protected with a password, allowing anyone to look inside at each project, access and download the source code.

Mossab Hussein, a security researcher at Dubai-based cybersecurity firm SpiderSilk who discovered the exposed files, said one project contained credentials that allowed access to the entire AWS account that was being used, including more than 100 S3 storage buckets that contained logs and analytics data.

Many of the folders, he said, contained logs and analytics data for Samsung’s SmartThings and Bixby services, but also several employees’ exposed private GitLab tokens stored in plaintext, which allowed him to gain additional access from 42 public projects to 135 projects, including many private projects.

Samsung told him some of the files were for testing but Hussein challenged the claim, saying source code found in the GitLab repository contained the same code as the Android app, published in Google Play on April 10.

The app, which has since been updated, has more than 100 million installs to date.

“I had the private token of a user who had full access to all 135 projects on that GitLab,” he said, which could have allowed him to make code changes using a staffer’s own account.

Hussein shared several screenshots and a video of his findings for TechCrunch to examine and verify.

The exposed GitLab instance also contained private certificates for Samsung’s SmartThings’ iOS and Android apps.

Hussein also found several internal documents and slideshows among the exposed files.

“The real threat lies in the possibility of someone acquiring this level of access to the application source code, and injecting it with malicious code without the company knowing,” he said.

Through exposed private keys and tokens, Hussein documented a vast amount of access that if obtained by a malicious actor could have been “disastrous,” he said.

A screenshot of the exposed AWS credentials, allowing access to buckets with GitLab private tokens (Image: supplied)

Hussein, a white-hat hacker and data breach discoverer, reported the findings to Samsung on April 10. In the days following, Samsung began revoking the AWS credentials, but it’s not known if the remaining secret keys and certificates were revoked.

Samsung still hasn’t closed the case on Hussein’s vulnerability report, close to a month after he first disclosed the issue.

“Recently, an individual security researcher reported a vulnerability through our security rewards program regarding one of our testing platforms,” Samsung spokesperson Zach Dugan told TechCrunch when reached prior to publication. “We quickly revoked all keys and certificates for the reported testing platform and while we have yet to find evidence that any external access occurred, we are currently investigating this further.”

Hussein said Samsung took until April 30 to revoke the GitLab private keys. Samsung also declined to answer specific questions we had and provided no evidence that the Samsung-owned development environment was for testing.

Hussein is no stranger to reporting security vulnerabilities. He recently disclosed a vulnerable back-end database at Blind, an anonymous social networking site popular among Silicon Valley employees — and found a server leaking a rolling list of user passwords for scientific journal giant Elsevier.

Samsung’s data leak, he said, was his biggest find to date.

“I haven’t seen a company this big handle their infrastructure using weird practices like that,” he said.

Read more:

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Android Q devices will get over-the-air security updates — but there’s a catch

Posted by | Android, computing, Google, Google I/O 2019, motorola droid, operating system, operating systems, Security, smartphones | No Comments

Devices shipping with Android Q will receive over-the-air security patches without having to go through device manufacturers.

A lack of steady security updates has been a major pain point for Android users over the years. Google finally has a fix for the problem. At its annual developer conference Tuesday, the tech giant said it’ll bypass mobile makers and push security updates directly to devices.

The benefit is that users won’t have to wait lengthy periods for device manufacturers to test and quality assure the patches for their devices for fixes to critical security vulnerabilities that put users at risk.

Better yet, the updates won’t require Android to restart.

Security updates for Android Q will be focused on 14 modules crucial to the operating system’s functioning — including media codecs, which have long plagued the Android software with a steady stream of security flaws.

There’s a catch — two, in fact.

Devices updating to Android Q will not work with over-the-air security updates and some manufacturers can opt-out altogether, according to The Verge, which first reported the news, rendering the feature effectively useless. The new feature will also not be backported to earlier versions of Android. According to distribution data, close to half of all Android users are still on Android 5.0 Lollipop and earlier, it could take years for Android Q to match the same usage share.

Still, Google has to start somewhere. Android Q is expected out later this year.

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The EU will reportedly investigate Apple following anti-competition complaint from Spotify

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple music, belgium, Brussels, ceo, computing, daniel ek, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, Google, Google Play Store, iPhone, lawsuit, Margrethe Vestager, Media, online marketplaces, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Search, smartphones, social network, Software, Spotify, United States | No Comments

The spat between Spotify and Apple is going to be the focus on a new investigation from the EU, according to a report from the FT.

The paper reported today that the European Commission (EC), the EU’s regulatory body, plans to launch a competition inquiry around Spotify’s claim that the iPhone-maker uses its position as the gatekeeper of the App Store to “deliberately disadvantage other app developers.”

In a complaint filed to the EC in March, Spotify said Apple has “tilted the playing field” by operating iOS, the platform, and the App Store for distribution, as well as its own Spotify rival, Apple Music.

In particular, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that Apple “locks” developers and their platform, which includes a 30 percent cut of in-app spending. Ek also claimed Apple Music has unfair advantages over rivals like Spotify, while he expressed concern that Apple controls communication between users and app publishers, “including placing unfair restrictions on marketing and promotions that benefit consumers.”

Spotify’s announcement was unprecedented — Ek claimed many other developers feel the same way, but do not want to upset Apple by speaking up. The EU is sure to tap into that silent base if the investigation does indeed go ahead as the FT claims.

Apple bit back at Spotify’s claims, but its response was more a rebuttal — or alternative angle — on those complaints. Apple did not directly address any of the demands that Spotify put forward, and those include alternative payment options (as offered in the Google Play store) and equal treatment for Apple apps and those from third-parties like Spotify.

The EU is gaining a reputation as a tough opponent that’s reining in U.S. tech giants.

Aside from its GDPR initiative, it has a history of taking action on apparent monopolies in tech.

Google fined €1.49 billion ($1.67 billion) in March of this year over antitrust violations in search ad brokering, for example. Google was fined a record $5 billion last year over Android abuses and there have been calls to look into breaking the search company up. Inevitably, Facebook has come under the spotlight for a series of privacy concerns, particularly around elections.

Pressure from the EU has already led to the social network introduce clear terms and conditions around its use of data for advertising, while it may also change its rules limiting overseas ad spending around EU elections following concern from Brussels.

Despite what some in the U.S. may think, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has said publicly that she is against breaking companies up. Instead, Vestager has pledged to regulate data access.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far-reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools. We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” she said in an interview at SXSW earlier this year.

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Google’s Wear OS gets tiles

Posted by | Android, Assistant, computing, Gadgets, Google, hardware, operating systems, smartphones, smartwatches, Swipe, TC, wear os, Wearables | No Comments

Google announced an interesting new Wear OS feature today that makes a number of highly used features more easily available. Google calls this feature ’tiles’ and it makes information, like the local weather forecast, headlines, your next calendar event, goals and your heart rate, as well as tools, like the Wear OS built-in timer, available with just a few swipes to the left.

In the most recent version of Wear OS, tiles also existed in some form, but the only available tile was Google Fit, which opened with a single swipe. Now, you’ll be able to swipe further and bring up these new tiles, too.

There is a default order to these tiles, but you’ll be able to customize them, too. All you have to do is touch and hold a given tile and then drag it to the left or right. Over time, Google will also add more tiles to this list.

The new tiles will start rolling out to all Wear OS smartwatches over the course of the next few months. Some features may not be available on all devices, though (if your watch doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor, you obviously won’t see that tile, for example).

Overall, this looks like a smart update to the Wear OS platform, which now features four clearly delineated quadrants. Swiping down brings up settings, swiping up brings up your notifications, swiping right brings up the Google Assistant and swiping left shows tiles. Using the left swipe only for Google Fit always felt oddly limited, but with this update, that decision makes more sense.

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The Google Assistant can now tell you a story on your phone

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Australia, Canada, computing, Disney, Google, india, operating systems, TC, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

For the last year or so, you could ask the Google Assistant on your Google Home device to read your kids a story. Today, just in time for National Tell a Story Day, Google is bringing this feature to Android and iOS phones, too. It’ll be available in English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India.

When you asked the Assistant on your phone to tell you a story before, you’d get a short inspirational quote or maybe a bad joke. Having two different experiences for the same command never really made much sense, so it’s good to see Google consolidate this.

The available stories range from tales about Blaze and the Monster Machines to more classic bedtime stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

That’s in addition to other story features like “read along,” which automatically plays sound effects as you read from a number of Disney Little Golden Books. That’s obviously the cooler feature overall, but the selection of supported books remains limited. For longer stories, there’s obviously audiobook support.

Or you could just sit down with your kids and read them a book. That’s also an option.

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The consumer version of BBM is shutting down on May 31

Posted by | Android, apple-app-store, BBM, BlackBerry, computing, emtek, encryption, Google Play Store, imessage, Instant Messaging, messaging apps, Messenger, microsoft windows, Mobile, operating systems, private, research-in-motion, smartphone, smartphones, SMS, technology, WhatsApp, Windows Live Messenger | No Comments

It might be time to move on from BBM. The consumer version of the BlackBerry Messenger will shut down on May 31. Emtek, the Indonesia-based company that partnered with BlackBerry in 2016, just announced the closure. It’s important to note, BBM will still exist and BlackBerry today revealed a plan to open its enterprise-version of BBM to general consumers.

Starting today, BBM Enterprise will be available through the Google Play Store and eventually from the Apple App Store. The service will be free for one year and after that, $2.49 for six months of service. This version of the software, like the consumer version, still features group chats, voice and video calls and the ability to edit and retract messages.

As explained by BlackBerry, BBMe features end-to-end encryption:

BBMe can be downloaded on any device that uses Android, iOS, Windows or MAC operating systems. The sender and recipient each have unique public/private encryption and signing keys. These keys are generated on the device by a FIPS 140-2 certified cryptographic library and are not controlled by BlackBerry. Each message uses a new symmetric key for message encryption. Additionally, TLS encryption between the device and BlackBerry’s infrastructure protects BBMe messages from eavesdropping or manipulation.

BBM is one of the oldest smartphone messaging services. Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s original name, released the messenger in 2005. It quickly became a selling point for BlackBerry devices. BBM wasn’t perfect and occasionally crashed, but it was a robust, feature-filled messaging app when most of the world was still using SMS. Eventually, with the downfall of RIM and eventually BlackBerry, BBM fell behind iMessage, WhatsApp and other independent messaging platforms. Emtek’s partnership with BlackBerry was supposed to bring the service into the current age, but some say the consumer version ended up bloated with games, channels and ads. BlackBerry’s BBMe lacks a lot of those extra features, so consumers might find it a better platform for communicating.

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Review: The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, amazon music unlimited, computing, echo, Echo Link, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, microsoft windows, operating systems, Pandora, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, streaming services | No Comments

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

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