Gadgets

E3 slouches towards irrelevance again as Sony announces it’s skipping the show

Posted by | e3, Gadgets, Gaming, Sony | No Comments

I like E3 . I really do. But it’s also monumentally dumb: game companies spending millions to show off essentially faked content to an increasingly jaded audience. And it’s increasingly out of step with how the gaming industry works. So it should come as no surprise that Sony will be skipping the show more or less altogether this year, joining Nintendo in taking a step back from spectacle.

Sony has been a part of CES for 20 years and this will be the first one it’s ever missed. I’ve gone to their events every time I’ve attended; I was there for their historic putdown of Microsoft after the latter announced some hugely unpopular restrictions on used games. I think you can actually see me near the front in the broadcast of that one. (You can! I’m at 1:29.)

And E3 has been a part of Sony’s yearly cadence as well. Like other companies, for years Sony hoarded information to debut at E3, TGS and Gamescom, but E3 was generally where you saw new consoles and flagship titles debut. But as even E3’s organizers have admitted over and over again, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Too often we have seen half-finished games onstage at E3 that end up cancelled before the year is out, or commitments made to dates the companies can’t possibly keep. Assigning a complex, creative industry to a yearly schedule of major announcements is a great way to burn them out, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Variety first noticed Sony’s absence from ESA communications. In a statement issued to multiple outlets, Sony said:

As the industry evolves, Sony Interactive Entertainment continues to look for inventive opportunities to engage the community. PlayStation fans mean the world to us and we always want to innovate, think differently and experiment with new ways to delight gamers. As a result, we have decided not to participate in E3 in 2019. We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can’t wait to share our plans with you.

They won’t be alone. Nintendo hasn’t had a real proper E3 press conference in years. Instead, they host a live stream around the event and have a big booth where people mainly just play games. Their Nintendo Direct videos come out throughout the year, when the titles and developers are good and ready.

Microsoft is still there, and still puts on quite a show. I remember the original announcement of the Kinect, probably one of the weirdest and dumbest things I’ve ever taken part in. It was memorable, at least.

But Microsoft is also doing its own thing, announcing throughout the year and on its own terms. The Xbox One X was only hinted at during E3, and announced in full much later. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft also announced they were taking it easy this year at E3 — though this might also be a good opportunity for them to double down. With the schedules these huge shows go on, they might already be committed to one course or another.

Sony actually has its own PlayStation Experience event where it announces things and lets gamers and press play the latest, but even that was cancelled ahead of its expected December date. Is Sony just getting shy?

More likely they are leveraging their dominance in the console market to be a market leader and “decider,” as they say. They have no shortage of amazing games coming out, including lots of hot-looking exclusives. What have they got to prove? Although Sony itself is not participating in E3, the developers it backs will almost certainly be there. What better way to school the competition than to not show up and still have everyone talking about you?

With the PS4 Pro out there and a solid line-up already confirmed, Sony is sitting pretty for 2019, and the company probably feels this is a safe time to experiment with “inventive opportunities to engage the community,” as the statement put it. E3 will still be big, and it will still be fun. But the trend is clear: it just won’t be necessary.

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FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

Posted by | FCC, Gadgets, galileo, Government, gps, Mobile, Satellites, Space | No Comments

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6s, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

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No display for your Mac Mini? No problem.

Posted by | Apps, Astropad, Gadgets, luna, Luna Display | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MacBook Pro with updated GPU is now available

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, macbook pro, vega | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Mozilla, Security | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Self-flying camera drone Hover 2 hits Kickstarter

Posted by | camera drone, drone, Gadgets, hardware, Kickstarter, zero zero robotics | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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Google Assistant picks up a few new tricks

Posted by | Android, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, TC | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by | black friday, Gadgets, Gaming, PlayStation 4, PS4, Sony | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These antique phones are precious, private Alexa vessels

Posted by | Alexa, artificial intelligence, DIY, Gadgets, hardware, retro, TC, vintage | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sony filed a patent for a touchscreen-equipped PlayStation controller

Posted by | Gadgets, Gaming, playstation, Sony, TC | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[via DualShockers]

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