Gadgets

Google’s new voice recognition system works instantly and offline (if you have a Pixel)

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, Gadgets, gboard, Google, Mobile, natural language processing, nlp, Speech Recognition | No Comments

Voice recognition is a standard part of the smartphone package these days, and a corresponding part is the delay while you wait for Siri, Alexa or Google to return your query, either correctly interpreted or horribly mangled. Google’s latest speech recognition works entirely offline, eliminating that delay altogether — though of course mangling is still an option.

The delay occurs because your voice, or some data derived from it anyway, has to travel from your phone to the servers of whoever operates the service, where it is analyzed and sent back a short time later. This can take anywhere from a handful of milliseconds to multiple entire seconds (what a nightmare!), or longer if your packets get lost in the ether.

Why not just do the voice recognition on the device? There’s nothing these companies would like more, but turning voice into text on the order of milliseconds takes quite a bit of computing power. It’s not just about hearing a sound and writing a word — understanding what someone is saying word by word involves a whole lot of context about language and intention.

Your phone could do it, for sure, but it wouldn’t be much faster than sending it off to the cloud, and it would eat up your battery. But steady advancements in the field have made it plausible to do so, and Google’s latest product makes it available to anyone with a Pixel.

Google’s work on the topic, documented in a paper here, built on previous advances to create a model small and efficient enough to fit on a phone (it’s 80 megabytes, if you’re curious), but capable of hearing and transcribing speech as you say it. No need to wait until you’ve finished a sentence to think whether you meant “their” or “there” — it figures it out on the fly.

So what’s the catch? Well, it only works in Gboard, Google’s keyboard app, and it only works on Pixels, and it only works in American English. So in a way this is just kind of a stress test for the real thing.

“Given the trends in the industry, with the convergence of specialized hardware and algorithmic improvements, we are hopeful that the techniques presented here can soon be adopted in more languages and across broader domains of application,” writes Google, as if it is the trends that need to do the hard work of localization.

Making speech recognition more responsive, and to have it work offline, is a nice development. But it’s sort of funny considering hardly any of Google’s other products work offline. Are you going to dictate into a shared document while you’re offline? Write an email? Ask for a conversion between liters and cups? You’re going to need a connection for that! Of course this will also be better on slow and spotty connections, but you have to admit it’s a little ironic.

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Niantic’s Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is a sorcerous smorgasbord for the Pokémon GO generation

Posted by | augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, Mobile, niantic, TC, Warner Bros, warner brothers, wizards unite | No Comments

Niantic’s follow-up to the absurdly popular Pokémon GO, the long-awaited Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, has one major drawback: unlike its predecessor, you can’t explain it in a single sentence. There’s so much to do in this game that it may repel some casual players — but while its depths of systems and collectibles may be nigh endless, don’t worry: you still basically just walk around doing wizard and witch stuff.

We first reported the news that this was coming back in 2017. Last week I got to spend a short time playing the game at Niantic’s office in San Francisco, and while they didn’t reveal all their secrets, I saw enough to convince me that HP:WU (I await a catchier nickname, like PoGO) will be a huge time sink for any Harry Potter fan and will probably convert or cannibalize many players from GO.

If you were worried this would be a slapdash cash-in effort like some of the HP tie-ins we’ve seen… don’t be. This is legit. Rowling isn’t involved, and the voice actors are sound-alikes, but still legit.

And just to get some of the major facts out of the way before we move on: it’s coming out sometime in 2019 (I’d guess before Summer but they wouldn’t say), in 17 languages (listed at bottom; actual countries where it’ll be offered unknown), there’s no wand accessory yet (I asked and they all looked nervous), minimum specs are reasonable and AR is optional, and it’s free but there are in-app purchases.

So what is this game? While it would be misleading to say it’s just HP:GO, the similarities are deep. But there’s a lot more going on. Perhaps I’d best summarize it in bullet point form before I embark on the many details. In HP:WU you:

  • Walk around a wizarding-themed version of the real world looking for locations at which to resupply and “foundables” to encounter
  • Dispel, battle, or otherwise deal with the “confoundable” associated with these
  • Earn reward items from encounters and for entering foundables in your registry
  • Use reward items to level up in various professions, brew potions, and battle alongside others at “fortresses”
  • Find rare foundables that advance the overall plot of why this is all happening anyway

So let’s take that piece by piece.

(By the way: The few images I have here were provided by Niantic and Portkey Games, the studio under WB Games who co-developed the game; I actually saw much more than what the shots show, so if something I describe isn’t illustrated directly, don’t worry — it’s in there.)

Walkable Wizarding World

Yes, this was the only image of the map we got.

“For Harry Potter fans, the line between the real world and the wizarding world is paper thin,” said WB Games’s Jonathan Knight. So they wanted to make it seem like, as with the pervasive hidden nooks and secrets of the HP world, “magic is all around you.”

The plot that enables all this is that, in a post-Deathly Hallows HP world, a macguffin event has caused magical items and creatures to appear all over the muggle world, threatening to expose the existence of magic; Witches and wizards are being recruited to track these things down and deal with them.

Conveniently, the event snatched these things and people from all throughout history and the world, laying them down willy-nilly — so you’re just as likely to find Fleur Delacoeur as Hermione Granger, or a young Dumbledore as an old one.

As a member of the SOS squad (enforcing the “Statute Of Secrecy” mandating separation between the magic and muggle worlds, you know), you’re tasked with tracking down these various things wherever they appear and reporting back to the ministry.

The map is, like in Pokémon GO, where you’ll be spending most of your time.

As before, it reflects the streets and features nearby: streets, parks, landmarks, and so on. It’s decidedly busier this time, however, both with gameplay elements and set dressing. Brooms and owls zip overhead, potion ingredients clutter the ground around you, and locations to visit sprinkle every block. (Although I’d hoped they’d use the Marauder’s Map aesthetic, they were probably right not to: it would probably get old fast.)

You interact with these locations as you would spin Pokéstops in GO, with “inns” and “greenhouses” giving you a semi-randomized reward every time (and starting a 5-minute cooldown). Encounters and ingredients pop up like Pokémon did, appearing semi-randomly but with some tendencies or affinities — for example, you’re more likely to find school-related foundables by actual schools, and so on. These places are helpfully noted by a little flag that highlights the affected area, such as: “Golden Gate Park – you’ll encounter more magical creatures here.”

The equivalent to lures are “dark detectors,” which will cause encounters to pop up with more frequency around the location you attach it to — and you can stack them! These will no doubt be a popular purchase.

One nice touch: when you move quickly, your character flies on a broom. No more “running” along the highway. That always did bug me.

Of course you’ll also be able to customize your appearance, and you even get to make a (non-public) “wizarding passport” complete with a moving photo you can outfit with various AR props. Your Hogwarts house is just something you select and which has no gameplay effect — for now.

Swish and flick

When you tap an encounter, you enter an AR minigame where you may, for instance, have to cast a spell to free Buckbeak the gryphon from a magical ball and chain, or defeat a monster threatening a character from the books.

You do this generally by tracing a shape with your finger on the screen to cast a spell. You don’t get to choose the spell, unfortunately, it’s built into the encounter. The more accurate and quick your trace is, the better the power of the spell — a bit like throw quality in Pokémon.

It’s similar in combat except you’ll also have to quickly cast protego when the enemy attacks you. That’s right, there are hostiles in this game! And although you can’t “die,” running out of stamina will fail the encounter or mission. More combat options open up later, though, as you’ll see. Encounters also vary in difficulty, which can be determined from the map or within the encounter — you may find some foes or rescues are beyond your power until you pump up a bit (or quaff a potion).

There are other little twists on the formula, though — the team said they have over 100 unique encounters, all fully realized in AR. And although you can only interact with them from a sweet spot that appears on the ground in AR, you can take your time to walk around or closely inspect the scene.

Foundables and confoundables and the other 20 things

There are a ton of these little pages.

Everything you’ll encounter is a foundable, and falls under one of numerous categories: magic zoology, dark arts, oddities, magical games and sports, Hogwarts, and so on.

And every foundable is listed in a sort of sticker book you’ll fill in bit by bit as you encounter them. Free Buckbeak however many times and it’ll be fully filled in, giving you various bonuses and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to take AR photos with the creature or character in question.

The creatures and characters range from common to very rare, of course, and you’ll need to get dozens of the former to fill in the book, but only one or a handful for certain plot-related items. They only shared the bare bones of the story, which will be revealed through in-game text and events, but a “deep, multi-year narrative arc” is promised. You can probably expect new foundables and ingredients and such to be added regularly.

One detail I found highly compelling was that weather, time of day, and even astral phenomena like moon phase will affect what you encounter. So for instance, werewolves may only come out on the full moon, while certain potion ingredients only appear (or appear more) when it’s raining, or in the evening. This kind of real-world involvement is something I’ve always appreciated and one that Niantic’s games are uniquely suited to take advantage of.

Potions will be necessary for healing and buffing yourself and others, so you’ll want to collect ingredients all the time; you mix them in a sub-screen, and can follow recipes or try your luck making something new.

One very cool thing they showed off that doesn’t really show well in images is a Portkey — you know, the objects in HP that transport you from here to there. It’s not exactly a canon treatment in the game, as they create portals instead, but it makes for a great AR experience. You put the portal down and literally step through it, then look around at a new scene (for instance, Ollivander’s shop or Dumbledore’s office) in which you can find items or presumably encounter monsters and other stuff. Portkey “Portmanteaus” are a bit like egg incubators in that you charge them up by walking, and can find or buy more powerful ones.

Min-maxing managed

What perhaps surprised me most in the team’s presentation of the various systems of the game was the extent of the stats and professions. There are three “professions,” they explained: auror, magical zoologist, and professor (“if you’re a bit of a goody-goody” — I resent that).

I figured these would be a bit like a play style bonus — one gives you more combat prowess, another is better for taming creatures, and so on. Boy, is there a lot more to it than that!

First of all, you should know that you have stats in this game. And not weird hidden ones or a relatively meaningless one like your trainer level in Pokémon GO. No, you have a straight-up stat screen filled with all kinds of stuff.

And your profession isn’t just a bonus or special ability — it’s a whole skill tree, and one to rival those of many a “serious” RPG.

As in many other games, some nodes are simple things like an increase in stamina or spell power — some you can even upgrade several times to increase the effect. But others are entirely new abilities you’ll be able to use in various circumstances. I probed through a bunch in my limited time and found things that, for instance, healed allies, debuffed enemies, improved potion effectiveness, etc. These are definitely going to have a significant effect on gameplay.

You can advance in any of the professions you want, however you want, though of course the further you progress down a tree, the more powerful abilities you unlock. You do this with tokens you earn from encounters, leveling, and challenges, so you get a steady trickle. It should take a good while to fill these out, though no doubt we’ll have some real tiresome types who’ll do it in a week.

Fortress of Jollitude

(It’s a portmanteau of solitude and jolly cooperation, because this is the teamplay part… let me have my fun.)

The last major aspect of the game is Fortresses. These are a bit like Gyms from Pokémon GO, in that they are multiplayer focused, but for now they’re strictly player vs enemy.

Fortresses are large, obvious locations on the map where you and up to four other players can join battle against a host of enemies in order to receive rare foundables and other rewards. How it works is that you and whoever else wants to play get within range of the Fortress and tap it. (They didn’t provide any images of one, inside or out, but you can see the roof of one just at the top left of the paw circle in the map image above.)

You’ll then have a chance to join up with others by presenting a special item called a runestone. You’ll be getting these from normal encounters now and then or a few other sources, and there are 10 different kinds with multiple rarities — and depending on which you use, or which combination your team presents, the Fortress will have any of a variety of challenges and encounter types. (I only saw combat.)

This is where the combat complexity comes in, because all the enemies are presented to all the players at once, and you can take on whichever you choose. Have you leveled your magical creature taming? You better take on that hippogriff. Do extra damage against human foes? You’re on Death Eater duty. Stocked up on spells that hinder opponents or heal allies? You can use them from the select screen in real time, for instance if your friend is about to be knocked flat by a high-level Dementor and needs a hand.

I only got to test a small amount of this, but the possibilities for actual strategy and team synergy were very exciting, especially compared to the extended slugfests of Pokémon GO raids.

“Your forever Harry Potter game”

That’s how the team described Wizards Unite, and although a small-screen experience will never equal the immersion or magic (so to speak) of the cinema or the richness of the books, this does look like a dandy game and it will certainly be a heck of a time sink for countless players worldwide.

I only got to see a few minutes of the game in person, so there are parts I missed and parts that weren’t being shown; for instance, your Hogwarts house will likely figure later in multiplayer games, and more abilities are on the way.

I worry a bit that the simplicity and casual serendipity that defined Pokémon GO have been abandoned for a level of complexity that may be daunting for some. Yet at the same time I worry that the grind of collecting however many Buckbeaks you need to complete a page of the registry isn’t as satisfying as catching (and grinding up) a dozen Charmanders to power up your favorite ‘mon. And the AR experiences so far exhibit much visual variety but (that I saw) didn’t differ much from one another except in the trace you had to draw.

But there’s a great deal here and a great deal to like. It’s new, it’s fun, and it’s HP. I know I’m going to be playing.

(Lastly, the game will be released in the following languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Brazilian and European Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, Turkish, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Japenese, Korean, and Latin American Spanish.)

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Over a quarter of US adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, HomePod, smart speaker, smart speakers, smartphone, smartphones, Sonos, Speaker, TC, United States, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million — or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population — according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year — well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead, with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ, the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018, while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built-in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend toward voice computing and smart voice assistants — like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant — which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms — now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

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SpaceX makes history by completing first private crew capsule mission

Posted by | commercial crew, Gadgets, Government, hardware, international space station, ISS, NASA, Space, SpaceX | No Comments

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has safely splashed down in the Atlantic, making it the first privately built crew-capable spacecraft ever to complete a mission to the International Space Station. It’s one of several firsts SpaceX plans this year, but Boeing is hot on its heels with a crew demonstrator of its own — and of course the real test is doing the same thing with astronauts aboard.

This mission, Demo-1, had SpaceX showing that its Crew Dragon capsule, an evolution of the cargo-bearing Dragon that has made numerous ISS deliveries, was complete and ready to take on its eponymous crew.

It took off early in the morning of March 2 (still March 1 on the West coast), circled the Earth 18 times, and eventually came to a stop (relatively speaking, of course) adjacent to the ISS, after which it approached and docked with the new International Docking Adapter. The 400 pounds of supplies were emptied, but the “anthropomorphic test device” known as Ripley — basically a space crash test dummy — stayed in her seat on board.

(It’s also worth noting that the Falcon 9 first stage that took the capsule to the edge of the atmosphere landed autonomously on a drone ship.)

Five days later — very early this morning — the craft disengaged from the ISS and began the process of deorbiting. It landed on schedule at about 8:45 in the morning Eastern time.

It’s a huge validation of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and of course a triumph for SpaceX, which not only made and launched a functioning crew spacecraft, but did so before its rival Boeing. That said, it isn’t winner take all — the two spacecraft could very well exist in healthy competition as crewed missions to space become more and more common.

Expect to see a report on the mission soon after SpaceX and NASA have had time to debrief and examine the craft (and Ripley).

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Apple could launch augmented reality headset in 2020

Posted by | Apple, AR, augmented reality, augmented reality headset, Gadgets, ming-chi kuo, rumor, TC | No Comments

According to a new report from Ming-Chi Kuo (via 9to5mac), a reliable analyst on all things Apple, the company has been working on an augmented reality headset and is about to launch the device. This pair of glasses could go into mass production as early as Q4 2019 and should be available at some point during the first half of 2020.

It’s still unclear what you’ll be able to do with this mysterious headset. Kuo says that it’ll work more or less like an Apple Watch. You won’t be able to use the AR headset without an iPhone as it’ll rely heavily on your iPhone.

The glasses will act as a deported display to give you information right in front of your eyes. Your iPhone will do the heavy lifting when it comes to internet connectivity, location services and computing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the AR headset relies on Bluetooth to communicate with your iPhone.

Kuo’s report doesn’t say what you’ll find in the headset. Apple could embed displays and sensors so that the AR headset is aware of your surroundings. An AR device only makes sense if Apple puts sensors to detect things around you.

Apple has already experimented with augmented reality with its ARKit framework on iOS. Developers have been able to build apps that integrate digital elements in the real world, as viewed through your phone cameras.

While many apps have added AR features, most of them feel gimmicky and don’t add any real value. There hasn’t been a ton of AR-native apps either.

One interested use case for augmented reality is mapping. Google recently unveiled an augmented reality mode for Google Maps. You can hold your phone in front of your face to see arrows indicating where you’re supposed to go.

Apple has also been rebuilding Apple Maps with its own data. The company isn’t just drawing maps. It is collecting a ton of real-world data using LiDAR sensors and eight cameras attached to a car roof. Let’s see if Apple Maps will play an important part in Apple’s rumored AR headset.

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Leica’s Q2 is a beautiful camera that I want and will never have

Posted by | cameras, Gadgets, hardware, leica, leica q2, Photography | No Comments

Leica is a brand I respect and appreciate but don’t support. Or rather, can’t, because I’m not fabulously rich. But if I did have $5,000 to spend on a fixed-lens camera, I’d probably get the new Q2, a significant improvement over 2015’s Q — which tempted me back then.

The Q2 keeps much of what made the Q great: a full-frame sensor, a fabulous 28mm F/1.7 Summilux lens, and straightforward operation focused on getting the shot. But it also makes some major changes that make the Q2 a far more competitive camera.

The sensor has jumped from 24 to 47 megapixels, and while we’re well out of the megapixel race, that creates the opportunity for a very useful cropped shooting mode that lets you shoot at 35, 50, and 75mm equivalents while still capturing huge pixel counts. It keeps the full frame exposure as well so you can tweak the crop later. The new sensor also has a super low native ISO of 50, which should help with dynamic range and in certain exposure conditions.

Autofocus has been redone as well (as you might expect with a new sensor) and it should be quicker and more accurate now. Ther’s also an optical stabilization mode that kicks in when you are shooting at under 1/60s. Both features that need a little testing to verify they’re as good as they sound, but I don’t expect they’re fraudulent or anything.

The body, already a handsome minimal design in keeping with Leica’s impeccable (if expensive) taste, is now weather sealed, making this a viable walk-around camera in all conditions. Imagine paying five grand for a camera and being afraid to take it out in the rain! Well, many people did that and perhaps will feel foolish now that the Q2 has arrived.

Inside is an electronic viewfinder, but the 2015 Q had a sequential-field display — meaning it flashes rapidly through the red, green, and blue components of the image — which made it prone to color artifacts in high-motion scenes or when panning. The Q2, however, has a shiny new OLED display with the same resolution but better performance. OLEDs are great for EVFs for a lot of reasons, but I like that you get really nice blacks, like in an optical viewfinder.

The button layout has been simplified as well (or rather synchronized with the CL, another Leica model), with a new customizable button on the top plate, reflecting the trend of personalization we’ve seen in high-end cameras. A considerably larger battery and redesigned battery and card door rounds out the new features.

As DPReview points out in its hands-on preview of the camera, the Q2 is significantly heavier than the high-end fixed-lens competition (namely the Sony RX1R II and Fuji X100F, both excellent cameras), and also significantly more expensive. But unlike many Leica offerings, it actually outperforms them in important ways: the lens, the weather sealing, the burst speed — it may be expensive, but you actually get something for your money. That can’t always be said of this brand.

The Leica Q2 typifies the type of camera I’d like to own: no real accessories, nothing to swap in or out, great image quality and straightforward operation. I’m far more likely to get an X100F (and even then it’d be a huge splurge) but all that time I’ll be looking at the Q2 with envious eyes. Maybe I’ll get to touch one some day.

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Sonos refreshes Sonos One with better components

Posted by | Gadgets, Sonos, sonos one | No Comments

Sonos is launching the most minor of minor updates. The company is launching a revision to its flagship speaker, the Sonos One. Sonos is calling this new speaker the Sonos One Gen 2, and it is nearly identical to the existing Sonos One.

When it comes to sound and design, the second generation looks just like the first one. You’ll have to tear down the speaker to spot the differences.

Sonos is upgrading the internals of the device with a more powerful processor and increased memory. It should perform slightly better, especially with big files on slow networks. But if you’re mostly using Sonos with a streaming service on a good Wi-Fi network, you likely won’t notice the difference.

Interestingly, Sonos is also adding Bluetooth Low Energy to the device. The company doesn’t plan to use Bluetooth Low Energy to stream music. But it should make the pairing process with your Wi-Fi network much easier. After that, Sonos speakers rely on your Wi-Fi network just like before.

It sounds like Sonos wanted to quietly warn geeks that there will be different versions of the Sonos One starting tomorrow. The Sonos One Gen 2 will cost $199 and some retailers will keep selling the first generation for $179 (a $20 discount).

Sonos plans to support both generations of the Sonos One with software updates.

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IDC: Apple led wearables market in 2018, with 46.2M of the total 172.2M devices shipped

Posted by | apple inc, Gadgets, Samsung, smart assistant, smartphones, smartwatch, wearable devices, Wearables, wireless headphones | No Comments

Apple devices continue to lead the wearables market, according to a new report from IDC out today, which claimed the Cupertino-based company shipped a total of 46.2 million wearables for the year. The firm also reported the worldwide market for wearable devices grew 31.4 percent during the fourth quarter of 2018, to reach 59.3 million units shipped, while shipments for the year grew 27.5 percent for a total of 172.2 million. Apple retained its No. 1 position in wearables again in Q4, with 16.2 million wearables shipped — 10.4 million of which were Apple Watches, the report said.

Smartwatches together grew 54.3 percent in 2018, and accounted for 29.8 percent of all wearables. Apple Watches accounted for nearly half that market, the report said.

IDC forecasts that Apple’s growth in wearables will continue, thanks to a strong start for the newer Apple Watch Series 4.

In addition, IDC noted it recently revised its “ear-worn” category of wearables to include wireless headphones that allow users to call upon a smart assistant through either a touch of a button or hot-word detection. That means devices like Apple’s AirPods, Google’s Pixel Buds, Bose’s QC35II and others are now being counted among the wearables category.

Much of the growth in wearables was also attributed to the increasing number of these sorts of ear-worn devices, like Apple AirPods.

In Q4, for example, ear-worn devices grew 66.4 percent from the year-ago quarter to capture at 21.9 percent market share.

The firm said the growth was due to a combination of factors, including the increasing popularity of smart assistants and the ditching of the smartphone’s headphone jack, led by Apple.

“The market for ear-worn wearables has grown substantially this past year and we expect this to continue in the years to come,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Mobile Device Trackers, in a statement. “It is the next battleground for companies as these types of headphones become a necessity for many given the exclusion of headphone jacks from modern devices. Add to that the rise of smart assistants and in-ear biometrics and companies have the perfect formula to sell consumers on a device that’s complimentary to the device ecosystem that lives on their wrist and in their pocket,” he added.

Meanwhile, smartwatches grew 55.2 percent to capture a 34.3 percent share. Wristbands reached a 30 percent market share, thanks to launches from Xiaomi, Huawei and Fitbit.

Xiaomi was in second place for the quarter, behind Apple, with a 12.6 percent market share compared with Apple’s 27.4 percent. The company remains strong in its home country of China, but sales of its Mi Band 3 have also done well. Of note, its Mi Band 3 accounted for more than 30 percent of all wristbands shipped during Q4.

Behind Xiaomi was Huawei, which grew by a sizable 248.5 percent thanks to Huawei and Honor phones being bundled with wearables, along with other product launches. Fitbit and Samsung rounded out the top 5, with the former returning to growth thanks to the Charge 3 and promotions around its Versa, and the latter also by bundling wearables with its smartphones.

Samsung shipped 4 million wearables in Q4, compared with Apple’s 16.2 million.

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You can now ask Alexa to control your Roku devices

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, artificial intelligence, echo, Gadgets, Media, roku, Streaming Media, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice search | No Comments

Roku this morning announced its devices will now be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. Through a new Roku skill for Alexa, Roku owners will be able to control their devices in order to do things like launch a channel, play or pause a show, search for entertainment options and more. Roku TV owners will additionally be able to control various functions related to their television, like adjusting the volume, turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and changing channels if there is an over-the-air antenna attached.

The added support for Amazon Alexa will be available to devices running Roku OS 8.1 or higher, and will require that customers enable the new Roku skill, which will link their account to Amazon.

Roku has developed its own voice assistant designed specifically for its platform, which is available with a touch of a button on its voice remote as well as through optional accessories like its voice-powered wireless speakers, tabletop Roku Touch remote or TCL’s Roku-branded Smart Soundbar. However, it hasn’t ignored the needs of those who have invested in other voice platforms.

Already, Roku devices work with Google Assistant-powered devices, like Google Home and Google Home Mini, through a similar voice app launched last fall.

Support for the dominant streaming media platform — Amazon Alexa — was bound to be next. EMarketer said Amazon took two-thirds of smart speaker sales last year, and CIRP said Echo has a 70 percent U.S. market share.

The Roku app will work with any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, Echo Spot and Echo Plus, as well as those powered by Alexa from third parties, the company confirmed to TechCrunch.

Once enabled, you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, pause Roku,” or “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku,” or “Alexa, find comedies on Roku,” and more. The key will be starting the command with “Alexa,” as usual, then specify “Roku” is where the action should take place (e.g. “on Roku”).

One change with the launch of voice support via Alexa is that the commands are a bit more natural, in some cases. Whereas Google Assistant required users to say “Hey Google, pause on Roku,” the company today says the same command for Alexa users is “Alexa, pause Roku.” That’s a lot easier to remember and say. However, most of the other commands are fairly consistent between the two platforms.

“Consumers often have multiple voice ecosystems in their homes,” said Ilya Asnis, senior vice president of Roku OS at Roku, in a statement about the launch. “By allowing our customers to choose Alexa, in addition to Roku voice search and controls, and other popular voice assistants, we are strengthening the value Roku offers as a neutral platform in home entertainment.”

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Galaxy S10 takes the ‘best smartphone display’ crown

Posted by | Gadgets, galaxy s10, hardware, Mobile, Samsung, smartphones | No Comments

As you may have gathered from our review of Samsung’s Galaxy S10, it’s a very solid phone with lots of advanced features. But one thing that’s especially difficult to test is the absolute quality of the display — which is why we leave that part to the experts. And this expert says the S10’s screen is the best ever on a smartphone.

Ray Soneira has tested every major phone, tablet and laptop series for many a year, using all the cool color calibration, reflectance and brightness measurement and other gear that goes with the job. So when he says the S10’s display is “absolutely stunning and Beautiful,” with a capital B at that, it’s worth taking note.

OLED technology has advanced a great deal since the first one I encountered, on the Zune HD — which still works and looks great, by the way, thank you. But originally it had quite a few trade-offs compared with LCD panels, such as weird color casts or pixel layout issues. Samsung has progressed well beyond that and OLED has come into its own with a vengeance. As Ray puts it:

The Absolute Color Accuracy on the Galaxy S10 is the Most Color Accurate Display we have ever measured. It is Visually Indistinguishable From Perfect, and almost certainly considerably better than your existing Smartphone, living room HDTV, Tablet, Laptop, and computer monitor, as demonstrated in our extensive Absolute Color Accuracy Lab Measurements.

The very challenging set of DisplayMate Test and Calibration Photos that we use to evaluate picture quality looked absolutely stunning and Beautiful, even to my experienced hyper-critical eyes.

Make sure you switch the phone’s display to “natural mode,” which makes subtle changes to the color space depending on the content and ambient light.

And although he has enthused many times before about the quality of various displays and the advances they made over their predecessors, the above is certainly very different language from, for example, how he described the reigning champ until today — the iPhone X:

Apple has produced an impressive Smartphone display with excellent performance and accuracy, which we cover in extensive detail below. What makes the iPhone X the Best Smartphone Display is the impressive Precision Display Calibration Apple developed, which transforms the OLED hardware into a superbly accurate, high performance, and gorgeous display, with close to Text Book Perfect Calibration and Performance!!

High praise, but not quite falling all over himself, as he did with the S10. As you can see, I rate smartphone displays chiefly by the emotional response they evoke from Ray Soneira.

At this point, naturally, the gains from improving displays are fairly few, because, to be honest, not many people care or can even tell today’s flagship displays apart. But little touches like front and back sensors for ambient light detection, automatic calibration and brightness that take user preferences into account — these also improve the experience, and phone makers have been adding them at a good clip, as well.

No matter which flagship phone you buy today, it’s going to have a fantastic camera and screen — but if you like to see it all in black and white, read through the review and you’ll find your hopes justified.

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