Gadgets

Facebook Portal needs more. At least it just added YouTube

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo Show, Apps, Facebook, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Home Hub, hardware, Media, Social, TC, YouTube | No Comments

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week.

Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Amazon Alexa inside. And now, Google’s YouTube is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, YouTube.com is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice.

The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Google Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access.

Read our comparison of the top smart display gadgets

YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube.

But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.”

The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when testing the Portal with my 72-year-old mother, not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.

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SpaceX’s Starlink aims to put over a thousand of its communications satellites in super-low orbit

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Satellites, Space, SpaceX, starlink | No Comments

SpaceX’s planned communication satellite constellation, known as Starlink, will now be targeting a much lower orbit than originally planned, at least for over a thousand of the satellites, the company revealed in an FCC filing. The move should help mitigate orbital debris and provide better signal for the company’s terrestrial users as well.

Starlink plans to put 1,584 satellites — about a third of the 4,409 the company aims to launch — in an orbit just 550 kilometers about the surface of the Earth. For comparison, many communications satellites are in orbits more than twice as high, and geosynchronous orbits are more than 20 times farther out (around 36,000 miles).

At that distance orbits decay quickly, falling into the atmosphere and burning up after a handful of years. But SpaceX isn’t daunted; in fact, it writes in its application, lower orbits offer “several attractive features both during nominal operation and in the unlikely event something goes wrong.”

In the first place, orbital debris problems are naturally mitigated by the fact that anything in that low orbit will fall to Earth quickly instead of cluttering up the orbit. Second, it should shorten the amount of time it takes to send and receive a signal from the satellites — ping time could be as low as 15 milliseconds, the company estimated. And 500 fewer kilometers means there will be less spreading for beam-based communications, as well.

The satellites will have to do more work to stay at their optimal altitude, as atmospheric drag will be higher, and each one will be able to see and serve less of the planet. But with thousands working together, that should be manageable.

The decision was informed by experimental data from the “Tintin” test satellites the company launched earlier this year. “SpaceX has learned to mitigate the disadvantages of operating at a lower altitude and still reap the well-known and significant benefits discussed above,” it wrote.

This change could lead to competitive advantages when satellite communications are more widely used, but it will also likely lead to a more intensive upkeep operation as Starlink birds keep dropping out of the air. Fortunately a third benefit of the lower orbit is that it’s easier to reach, though probably not so much easier that the company breaks even.

Starlink is aiming for the first real launches of its systems early next year, though that timeline may be a little too ambitious. But SpaceX can do ambitious.

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Gift Guide: 11 picture perfect gifts for your photographer friends

Posted by | Gadgets, gift guide, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Photography, TC | No Comments

Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots 10 times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate.

Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive

Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required.

They’ve been around for years, but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed.

The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity) costs $400. A comparable WD device costs about half that. If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing.


Microfiber wipes

On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there — and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. I’ve been buying these and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from.


SD cards and hard cases

Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s a name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or 10 of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hard case for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin, another brand is fine.


Moment smartphone lens case

The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on and so on lens sets, but Moment’s solution seems the most practical. You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount.

The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out which model phone your friend is using.



Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really)

Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. I’m partial to waxed canvas, and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the ONA Union Street is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said, everyone is into these Peak design ones, as well.


Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera

Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an Automat since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed.

If, on the other hand, you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure.


Circular polarizer filter

Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these, but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right.

The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get.



Wireless shutter release

If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10-second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance, a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on.

Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the Hama DCCSystem. These can be a bit hard to find, so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead.


Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap)

Another pick from our video and photo team, Blackrapid’s cross-body straps take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera.

If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot.


Adobe subscription

Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately, you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing.


Print services

Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it.

I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However, I trust Wirecutter’s picks, Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix; $30-$40 will go a long way.


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There’s a new PS4 Pro and it’s much quieter than the original

Posted by | computing, Gadgets, Gaming, playstation, PlayStation 4, Sony, video gaming | No Comments

There’s a new Sony PS4 Pro and it’s much quieter than the original. Right now, it’s only available in a Red Dead Redemption bundle, but eventually, it will likely be available as a standalone product, too.

The new CUH-7200 version reportedly dropped the console’s noise from 50 decibels to 44 decibels, though, as EuroGamer notes, it can still top out at 48 decibels. The noise reduction is reportedly thanks to improved cooling, which in turn, reduces the strain on the cooling system within the PS4 Pro. The original PlayStation Pro came out two years ago, and at times, it can roar like a jet engine.

The revised model looks the same as the original, so check the model number on the box to ensure you’re getting the quieter option.

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Samsung’s dual-screen folding phone is very strange and probably doomed

Posted by | foldable, Gadgets, hardware, Opinion, Samsung | No Comments

Let me just say that I love the idea of a folding phone/tablet device. I was a Courier fanboy when Microsoft floated that intriguing but abortive concept device, and I’m all for unique form factors and things that bend. But Samsung’s first real shot at a folding device is inexplicable and probably dead on arrival. I’d like to congratulate the company for trying something new, but this one needed a little more time in the oven.

I haven’t used it, of course, so this is just my uninformed opinion (provided for your edification). But this device is really weird, and not in a good way. It’s a really thick phone with big bezels around a small screen that opens up into a small tablet. No one wants that!

Think about it. Why do you want a big screen?

If it’s for media, like most people, consider that nearly all that media is widescreen now, either horizontal (YouTube and Netflix) or vertical (Instagram and Facebook). You can switch between these views at will extremely easily. Now consider that because of basic geometry, the “big” screen inside this device will likely not be able to show that media much, if any, larger than the screen on the front!

(Well, in this device’s case, maybe a little, but only because that front display’s bezel really is huge. Why do you think they turned the lights off? Look where the notification bar is!)

It’s like putting two of the tall screens next to each other. You end up with one twice as wide, but that’s pretty much what you get if you put the phone on its side. All you gain with the big screen is a whole lot of letterboxing or windowboxing. Oh, and probably about three quarters of an inch of thickness and half a pound of weight. This thing is going to be a beast.

Power users may also want a big screen for productivity: email and document handling and such is great on a big device like a Galaxy Note. Here then is opportunity for a folding tablet to excel (so to speak). You can just plain fit more words and charts and controls on there. Great! But if the phone is geared toward power users, why even have the small screen on the front anyway if any time that user wants to engage with the phone they will “open” it up? For quick responses or dismissing notifications, maybe, but who would really want that? That experience will always be inferior to the one the entire device is designed around.

I would welcome a phone that was only a book-style big internal screen, and I don’t think it would be a bother to flip it open when you want to use it. Lots of people with giant phones keep book-like covers on their devices anyway! It would be great to be able to use those square inches for the display rather than credit card slots or something.

The Courier had tons of great ideas on how to use two screens.

There are also creative ways to use the screen: left and right halves are different apps; top half is compose and bottom is keyboard; left half is inbox and right half is content; top half is media and bottom is controls and comments. Those sprang to mind faster than I could type them.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any way that a “front” display could meaningfully interact with or enhance a secondary (or is it primary?) display that will never be simultaneously visible. Presumably you’ll use one or the other at any given time, meaning you literally can’t engage the entire capability of the device.

You know what would be cool? A device like this that also used the bezel display we’ve seen on existing Galaxy devices. How cool would it be to have your phone closed like a book, but with an always-on notification strip (or two!) on the lip, telling you battery, messages and so on? And maybe if you tapped once the device would automatically pop open physically! That would be amazing! And Samsung is absolutely the company that I’d say would make it.

Instead, they made this thing.

It’s disappointing to me not just because I don’t like the device as they’ve designed it, but because I think the inevitable failure of the phone will cool industry ambition regarding unique devices like it. That’s wrong, though! People want cool new things. But they also want them to make sense.

I’m looking forward to how this technology plays out, and I fully expect to own a folding phone some time in the next few years. But this first device seems to me like a major misstep, and one that will set back that flexible future rather than advance it.

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TWIICE One Exoskeleton furthers the promise of robotic mobility aids

Posted by | EPFL, exoskeleton, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, Wearables | No Comments

Few things in the world of technology can really ever be said to be “done,” and certainly exoskeletons are not among their number. They exist, but they are all works in progress, expensive, heavy, and limited. So it’s great to see this team working continuously on their TWIICE robotic wearable, improving it immensely with the guidance of motivated users.

TWIICE made its debut in 2016, and like all exoskeletons it was more promise made than promise kept. It’s a lower-half exoskeleton that supports and moves the legs of someone with limited mobility, while they support themselves on crutches. It’s far from ideal, and the rigidity and weight of systems like this make them too risky to deploy at scale for now.

But two years of refinement have made a world of difference. The exoskeleton weighs the same (which doesn’t matter since it carries its own weight), but supports heavier users while imparting more force with its motors, which have been integrated into the body itself to make it far less bulky.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the whole apparatus can now be donned and activated by the user all by herself, as Swiss former acrobat and now handcycling champion Silke Pan demonstrated in a video. She levers herself from her wheelchair into the sitting exoskeleton, attaches the fasteners on her legs and trunk, then activates the device and stands right up.

She then proceeds to climb more stairs than I’d rather attempt. She is an athlete, after all.

That kind of independence is often crucially important for the physically disabled for a multitude of reasons, and clearly achieving the capability has been a focus for the TWIICE team.

Although the exoskeleton has been worked on as a research project within the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), the plan is to spin off a startup to commercialize the tech as it approaches viability. The more they make and the more people use these devices — despite their limitations — the better future versions will be.

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Jaquet Droz’s “Sports Watch” is a high-end, heavy-duty chrono

Posted by | Gadgets, TC | No Comments

Watchmaker Jaquet Droz makes luxury watches that cost more than some San Francisco apartments. Now, however, they’ve decided to go “downmarket” with their Sports Watch chronograph, a handmade watch that is designed for both work and play.

The watch is a standard chronograph with big date, a complication that displays the date as two digits instead of on a rotating dial. The resulting piece looks like a haute couture Speedmaster and should cost around $15,000, an acceptable sum for a manufacture watch with Droz’s provenance given that other Droz watches can run into the $100,000s, a price that might be less appetizing to the illiquid entrepreneur.

More from the release:

True to watchmaking tradition, the hour markers are 18-carat white gold appliques. Wide Roman numerals indicate 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock. At 12 o’clock, Jaquet Droz features a big date, a complication traditional in fine watchmaking but rarely associated with a chronograph. Although more complex to produce than a simple date aperture, the large date offers superior readability. Again, to provide optimal readability, the latest versions of the SW Chrono feature a 45 mm dial, and a rail track over the motion work in fine watchmaking tradition.

The strap is made of “rolled-edge hand-made dark-blue fabric,” a unique addition to the luxury watch world that has thus far used rubber or metal for bands. It is water resistant to 50 meters, if you think you’re going to get wet with this thing on your wrist, and it should be on sale before the end of the year.

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The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

Posted by | adafruit industries, Anki, artificial intelligence, Asia, BBC Micro, Disney, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Kano, littlebits, makeblock, mattel, robotics, TC | No Comments

The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts.
Age: 6+


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Subterranean drone mapping startup Emesent raises $2.5M to autonomously delve the deep

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Australia, Automation, csiro, drones, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science, Startups, TC | No Comments

Seemingly every industry is finding ways to use drones in some way or another, but deep underground it’s a different story. In the confines of a mine or pipeline, with no GPS and little or no light, off-the-shelf drones are helpless — but an Australian startup called Emesent is giving them the spatial awareness and intelligence to navigate and map those spaces autonomously.

Drones that work underground or in areas otherwise inaccessible by GPS and other common navigation techniques are being made possible by a confluence of technology and computing power, explained Emesent CEO and co-founder Stefan Hrabar. The work they would take over from people is the epitome of “dull, dirty, and dangerous” — the trifecta for automation.

The mining industry is undoubtedly the most interested in this sort of thing; mining is necessarily a very systematic process and one that involves repeated measurements of areas being blasted, cleared, and so on. Frequently these measurements must be made manually and painstakingly in dangerous circumstances.

One mining technique has ore being blasted from the vertical space between two tunnels; the resulting cavities, called “stopes,” have to be inspected regularly to watch for problems and note progress.

“The way they scan these stopes is pretty archaic,” said Hrabar. “These voids can be huge, like 40-50 meters horizontally. They have to go to the edge of this dangerous underground cliff and sort of poke this stick out into it and try to get a scan. It’s very sparse information and from only one point of view, there’s a lot of missing data.”

Emesent’s solution, Hovermap, involves equipping a standard DJI drone with a powerful lidar sensor and a powerful onboard computing rig that performs simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) work fast enough that the craft can fly using it. You put it down near the stope and it takes off and does its thing.

“The surveyors aren’t at risk and the data is orders of magnitude better. Everything is running onboard the drone in real time for path planning — that’s our core IP,” Hrabar said. “The dev team’s background is in drone autonomy, collision avoidance, terrain following — basically the drone sensing its environment and doing the right thing.”

As you can see in the video below, the drone can pilot itself through horizontal tunnels (imagine cave systems or transportation infrastructure) or vertical ones (stopes and sinkholes), slowly working its way along and returning minutes later with the data necessary to build a highly detailed map. I don’t know about you, but if I could send a drone ahead into the inky darkness to check for pits and other scary features, I wouldn’t think twice.

The idea is to sell the whole stack to mining companies as a plug-and-play solution, but work on commercializing the SLAM software separately for those who want to license and customize it. A data play is also in the works, naturally:

“At the end of the day, mining companies don’t want a point cloud, they want a report. So it’s not just collecting the data but doing the analytics as well,” said Hrabar.

Emesent emerged from Data61, the tech arm of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, an Australian agency not unlike our national lab system. Hrabar worked there for over a decade on various autonomy projects, and three years ago started on what would become this company, eventually passing through the agency’s “ON” internal business accelerator.

Data collected from a pass through a cave system.

“Just last week, actually, is when we left the building,” Hrabar noted. “We’ve raised the funding we need for 18 months of runway with no revenue. We really are already generating revenue, though.”

The $3.5 million (Australian) round comes largely from a new $200M CSIRO Innovation fund managed by Main Sequence Ventures. Hrabar suggested that another round might be warranted in a year or two when the company decides to scale and expand into other verticals.

DARPA will be making its own contribution after a fashion through its Subterranean Challenge, should (as seemly likely) Emesent achieve success in it (they’re already an approved participant). Hrabar was confident. “It’s pretty fortuitous,” he said. “We’ve been doing underground autonomy for years, and then DARPA announces this challenge on exactly what we’re doing.”

We’ll be covering the challenge and its participants separately. You can read more about Emesent at its website.

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Security researchers have busted the encryption in several popular Crucial and Samsung SSDs

Posted by | cryptography, disk encryption, encryption, Gadgets, hardware, open source software, Samsung Electronics, Security, solid state drive | No Comments

Researchers at Radboud University have found critical security flaws in several popular Crucial and Samsung solid state drives (SSDs), which they say can be easily exploited to recover encrypted data without knowing the password.

The researchers, who detailed their findings in a new paper out Monday, reverse engineered the firmware of several drives to find a “pattern of critical issues” across the device makers.

In the case of one drive, the master password used to decrypt the drive’s data was just an empty string and could be easily exploiting by flipping a single bit in the drive’s memory. Another drive could be unlocked with “any password” by crippling the drive’s password validation checks.

That wouldn’t be much of a problem if an affected drive also used software encryption to secure its data. But the researchers found that in the case of Windows computers, often the default policy for BitLocker’s software-based drive encryption is to trust the drive — and therefore rely entirely on a device’s hardware encryption to protect the data. Yet, as the researchers found, if the hardware encryption is buggy, BitLocker isn’t doing much to prevent data theft.

In other words, users “should not rely solely on hardware encryption as offered by SSDs for confidentiality,” the researchers said.

Alan Woodward, a professor at the University of Surrey, said that the greatest risk to users is the drive’s security “failing silently.”

“You might think you’ve done the right thing enabling BitLocker but then a third-party fault undermines your security, but you never know and never would know,” he said.

Matthew Green, a cryptography professor at Johns Hopkins, described the BitLocker flaw in a tweet as “like jumping out of a plane with an umbrella instead of a parachute.”

The researchers said that their findings are not yet finalized — pending a peer review. But the research was made public after disclosing the bugs to the drive makers in April.

Crucial’s MX100, MX200 and MX300 drives, Samsung’s T3 and T5 USB external disks and Samsung 840 EVO and 850 EVO internal hard disks are known to be affected, but the researchers warned that many other drives may also be at risk.

The researchers criticized the device makers’ proprietary and closed-source cryptography that they said — and proved — is “often shown to be much weaker in practice” than their open-source and auditable cryptographic libraries. “Manufacturers that take security seriously should publish their crypto schemes and corresponding code so that security claims can be independently verified,” they wrote.

The researchers recommend using software-based encryption, like the open-source software VeraCrypt.

In an advisory, Samsung also recommended that users install encryption software to prevent any “potential breach of self-encrypting SSDs.” Crucial’s owner Micron is said to have a fix on the way, according to an advisory by the Netherlands’ National Cyber Security Center, but did not say when.

Micron did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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