google home

Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable ‘parasite’

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alexa, artificial intelligence, connected devices, Europe, Gadgets, GitHub, Google, google home, hardware, Home Automation, Internet of Things, IoT, neural network, privacy, Security, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speaker | No Comments

What do you get when you put one internet-connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Amazon Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open-source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye,” or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers.” Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write-up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa-disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

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The best and worst gadgets of 2018

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Amazon, Facebook, fujitsu, Gadgets, Google, google home, Mavic, osmo, smartphones, TC, technology, Virtual reality | No Comments

There were countless gadgets released in 2018. It’s the end of the year, so Brian and I rounded up the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

Some where great! Like the Oculus Go. Or the Google Home Hub. But some were junk, like the revived Palm or PlayStation Classic.

CES 2019 is a few weeks away, where manufacturers will roll out most of their wares for the upcoming year. But most products will not be available for purchase for months. What follows is a list of the best and worst gadgets available going into 2019.

The Best

Google Home Hub

Google took its sweet time bringing an Echo Show competitor to market. When the Home Hub did finally arrive, however, the company lapped the competition. The smart screen splits the size difference between the Echo Spot and Show, with a form factor that fits in much more comfortably in most home decor.

Assistant still sports a much deeper knowledge base than Alexa, and the Hub offers one not so secret weapon: YouTube. Google’s video service is light years ahead of anything Amazon (or anyone, really) currently offers, and the competition shows no sign of catching up.

DJI Osmo Pocket

I wanted to dislike the Osmo Pocket. I mean, $349 for a gimbal with a built-in screen is pretty steep by any measure — especially given the fact that the drone maker has much cheaper and more professional options. After an afternoon with the Pocket, however, I was hooked.

The software takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you’re off to the races, using many of the same tricks you’ll find on the Mavic line. Time-lapse, FaceTrack and the 10 Story Mode templates are all impressive and can help novices capture compelling video from even the most mundane subject matter.

Oculus Go

The most recent wave of VR headsets has been split between two distinct categories. There are the high-end Rift and Vives on one side and the super-low-cost Daydreams and Gear VRs on the other. That leaves consumers in the unenviable position of choosing between emptying the bank account or opting for a sub-par experience.

Oculus’ Go headset arrived this year to split the difference. In a time when virtual reality seems at the tail end of its hype cycle, the $199 device offers the most compelling case for mainstreaming yet.

It’s a solid and financially accessible take on VR that shows that the category may still have a little life left in it yet.

Timbuk2 Never Check Expandable Backpack

Granted, it’s not a gadget per se, but the Never Check is the best backpack I’ve ever owned. I initially picked it up as part of a Gift Guide feature I was writing, and I’ve since totally fallen for the thing.

As someone who spends nearly half of his time on the road these days, the bag’s big volume and surprisingly slim profile have been a life saver. It’s followed me to a Hong Kong hostel and a Nigerian hotel, jammed full of all the tech I need to do my job.

It’s also unassuming enough to be your day to day bag. Just zip up one of those waterproof zippers to compress its footprint.

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2

Like most nerds, I have more keyboards than friends. In 2018 I gave mechanical keyboards a chance. Now, at the end of the year, I’m typing on a Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2. It’s lovely.

This keyboard features Topre capacitive 45G switches. What does that mean? When typing, these switches provide a nice balance of smooth action and tactile feel. There are a handful of mechanical switches available, and after trying most of them, this switch feels the best to me. The Topre capacitive switch is available in a handful of keyboards, but I like the Happy Hacking Keyboard the best.

The HHK has been around in various forms since 1996, and this latest version retains a lot of the charm, including dip switches. Everyone loves dip switches. This version works well with Macs, has two USB ports and is compact enough someone could throw it into a bag. Starting just last month, the keyboard is available in the U.S. through Fujitsu, so buyers don’t have to deal with potentially shady importers.

The Worst

Palm

The Palm is the kind of device you really want to like. And I tried. Hell, I took the thing to Africa with me in hopes that I’d be able to give it some second life as an MP3 player. But it fell short even on that front.

This secondary smartphone is a device in search of a problem, appealing to an impossibly thin slice of consumer demographics. It’s definitely adorable, but the ideal consumer has to have the need and money for a second display, no smartwatch and an existing Verizon contract. Even then, the product has some glaring flaws, from more complex user issues to simple stupid things, like a lack of volume buttons.

It’s easy to forgive a lot with a fairly well-designed first-generation product, but it’s hard to see where the newly reborn company goes from here. Palm, meet face.

Red Hydrogen One

Where to start? How about the price? Red’s first foray into the smartphone space starts at $1,293 (or $1,595 if you want to upgrade your aluminum to titanium). That price will get you a middling phone with an admittedly fascinating gimmick.

After what seemed like years of teasers, the Hydrogen One finally appeared in October, sporting a big, metal design and Rambo-style serrated edges. The display’s the thing here, sporting a “nano-photonic” design that looks a bit like a moving version of those holographic baseball cards we had as kids.

I showed it to a number of folks during my testing period, and all found it initially interesting, then invariably asked “why?” I’m still having trouble coming up with the answer on that one. Oh, and a few told me they became a touch nauseous looking at it. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

Facebook Portal

“Why?” is really the overarching question in all of these worst devices. It’s not as if the Portal was a bad product. The design of the thing is actually pretty solid — certainly it looks a lot nicer than the Echo Show. And while it was initially lacking in features, Facebook has made up for that a bit with a recent software update.

The heart of the question is more about what Portal brings to the table that the Echo Show or Google Home Hub don’t. It would have to be something pretty massive to justify bringing a Facebook-branded piece of hardware into one’s living room, especially in light of all of the privacy concerns the social media site has dealt with this year. There’s never been a great time for Facebook to launch a product like this, but somehow, now feels like the worst.

Portal delivers some neat tricks, including impressive camera tracking and AR stories, but it mostly feels like a tone-deaf PR nightmare.

PlayStation Classic

1: Half the games are PAL ports and do not run well on U.S. TVs
2: Missing classics like Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider
3: Doesn’t include a power adapter
4: Only one suspend point
5: This product makes me angry

 

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Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal

Posted by | Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo Show, artificial intelligence, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Hardware Event 2018, google home, hardware, JBL Link View, smart displays, Social, TC | No Comments

The war for the countertop has begun. Google, Amazon and Facebook all revealed their new smart displays this month. Each hopes to become the center of your Internet of Things-equipped home and a window to your loved ones. The $149 Google Home Hub is a cheap and privacy-safe smart home controller. The $229 Amazon Echo Show 2 gives Alexa a visual complement. And the $199 Facebook Portal and $349 Portal+ offer a Smart Lens that automatically zooms in and out to keep you in frame while you video chat.

For consumers, the biggest questions to consider are how much you care about privacy, whether you really video chat, which smart home ecosystem you’re building around and how much you want to spend.

  • For the privacy obsessed, Google’s Home Hub is the only one without a camera and it’s dirt cheap at $149.
  • For the privacy agnostic, Facebook’s Portal+ offers the best screen and video chat functionality.
  • For the chatty, Amazon Echo Show 2 can do message and video chat over Alexa, call phone numbers and is adding Skype.

If you want to go off-brand, there’s also the Lenovo Smart Display, with stylish hardware in a $249 10-inch 1080p version and a $199 8-inch 720p version. And for the audiophile, there’s the $199 JBL Link View. While those hit the market earlier than the platform-owned versions we’re reviewing here, they’re not likely to benefit from the constant iteration Google, Amazon and Facebook are working on for their tabletop screens.

Here’s a comparison of the top smart displays, including their hardware specs, unique software, killer features and pros and cons:

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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The Google Assistant gets more visual

Posted by | Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Google, Google Assistant, google home, Mobile, smart home devices, TC | No Comments

Google today is launching a major visual redesign of its Assistant experience on phones. While the original vision of the Assistant focused mostly on voice, half of all interactions with the Assistant actually include touch. So with this redesign, Google acknowledges that and brings more and larger visuals to the Assistant experience.

If you’ve used one of the recent crop of Assistant-enabled smart displays, then some of what’s new here may look familiar. You now get controls and sliders to manage your smart home devices, for example. Those include sliders to dim your lights and buttons to turn them on or off. There also are controls for managing the volume of your speakers. Update: Google tells me that update will roll out over the course of the next few weeks, with the iOS release depending on Apple’s app store review process.Even in cases where the Assistant already offered visual feedback — say when you ask for the weather — the team has now also redesigned those results and brought them more in line with what users are already seeing on smart displays from the likes of Lenovo and LG. On the phone, though, that experience still feels a bit more pared down than on those larger displays.

With this redesign, which is going live on both Android and in the iOS app today, Google is also bringing a little bit more of the much-missed Google Now experience back to the phone. While you could already bring up a list of upcoming appointments, commute info, recent orders and other information about your day from the Assistant, that feature was hidden behind a rather odd icon that many users surely ignored. Now, after you’ve long-pressed the home button on your Android phone, you can swipe up to get that same experience. I’m not sure that’s more discoverable than previously, but Google is saving you a tap.

In addition to the visual redesign of the Assistant, Google also today announced a number of new features for developers. Unsurprisingly, one part of this announcement focuses on allowing developers to build their own visual Assistant experiences. Google calls these “rich responses” and provides developers with a set of pre-made visual components that they can easily use to extend their Assistant actions. And because nothing is complete with GIFs, they can now use GIFs in their Assistant apps, too.

But in addition to these new options for creating more visual experiences, Google is also making it a bit easier for developers to take their users money.

While they could already sell physical goods through their Assistant actions, starting today, they’ll also be able to sell digital goods. Those can be one-time purchases for a new level in a game or recurring subscriptions. Headspace, which has long offered a very basic Assistant experience, now lets you sign up for subscriptions right from the Assistant on your phone, for example.

Selling digital goods directly in the Assistant is one thing, but that sale has to sync across different applications, too, so Google today is also launching a new sign-in service for the Assistant that allows developers to log in and link their accounts.

“In the past, account linking could be a frustrating experience for your users; having to manually type a username and password — or worse, create a new account — breaks the natural conversational flow,” the company explains. “With Google Sign-In, users can now create a new account with just a tap or confirmation through their voice. Most users can even link to their existing accounts with your service using their verified email address.”

Starbucks has already integrated this feature into its Assistant experience to give users access to their rewards account. Adding the new Sign-In for the Assistant has almost doubled its conversion rate.

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The Google Assistant is now bilingual 

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, google home, google search, hardware, Roomba, smart speaker | No Comments

The Google Assistant just got more useful for multilingual families. Starting today, you’ll be able to set up two languages in the Google Home app and the Assistant on your phone and Google Home will then happily react to your commands in both English and Spanish, for example.

Today’s announcement doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, given that Google announced at its I/O developer conference earlier this year that it was working on this feature. It’s nice to see that this year, Google is rolling out its I/O announcements well before next year’s event. That hasn’t always been the case in the past.

Currently, the Assistant is only bilingual and it still has a few languages to learn. But for the time being, you’ll be able to set up any language pair that includes English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. More pairs are coming in the future and Google also says it is working on trilingual support, too.

Google tells me this feature will work with all Assistant surfaces that support the languages you have selected. That’s basically all phones and smart speakers with the Assistant, but not the new smart displays, as they only support English right now.

While this may sound like an easy feature to implement, Google notes this was a multi-year effort. To build a system like this, you have to be able to identify multiple languages, understand them and then make sure you present the right experience to the user. And you have to do all of this within a few seconds.

Google says its language identification model (LangID) can now distinguish between 2,000 language pairs. With that in place, the company’s researchers then had to build a system that could turn spoken queries into actionable results in all supported languages. “When the user stops speaking, the model has not only determined what language was being spoken, but also what was said,” Google’s VP Johan Schalkwyk and Google Speech engineer Lopez Moreno write in today’s announcement. “Of course, this process requires a sophisticated architecture that comes with an increased processing cost and the possibility of introducing unnecessary latency.”

If you are in Germany, France or the U.K., you’ll now also be able to use the bilingual assistant on a Google Home Max. That high-end version of the Google Home family is going on sale in those countries today.

In addition, Google also today announced that a number of new devices will soon support the Assistant, including the tado° thermostats, a number of new security and smart home hubs (though not, of course, Amazon’s own Ring Alarm), smart bulbs and appliances, including the iRobot Roomba 980, 896 and 676 vacuums. Who wants to have to push a button on a vacuum, after all.

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Google Home and Google Home Mini smart speakers go on sale in India

Posted by | Asia, Gadgets, Google, google home, Google Home Mini, india | No Comments

Google’s two smart speaker products — the Google Home and Google Home Mini — and its Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones are now available in India following a launch event in the country.

The devices are priced at Rs 9,999 ($154), and Rs 4,499 ($69), respectively, and Google confirmed that they are available for purchase online via Flipkart and offline through over 750 retailer stores, including Reliance Digital, Croma and Bajaj Electronics.

The Google smart speakers don’t cater to India’s multitude of local languages at this point, but the U.S. company said that they do understand “distinctly” India voices and “will respond to you with uniquely Indian contexts,” such as answering questions about local sport, cooking or TV shows.

For a limited time, Google is incentivizing early customers who will get six months of Google Play Music alongside offers for local streaming services Saavn and Gaana when they buy the Home or Home Mini.

Google Home and Home Mini were first announced at Google I/O in 2016. The company said recently that it has sold “tens of millions” of speakers, with more than seven million sales between October 2017 and January 18.

Still, it’s been a long time coming to India, which has allowed others to get into the market first. Amazon, which is pouring considerable resources into its India-based business to battle Flipkart, brought its rival Echo smart devices to India last October.

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Volley’s voice games for smart speakers have amassed over half a million monthly users

Posted by | alexa skills, Apps, games, Gaming, google home, Startups, voice apps, voice computing, Volley | No Comments

The rapid consumer adoption of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home has opened opportunities for developers creating voice apps, too. At least that’s true in the case of Volley, a young company building voice-controlled entertainment experiences for Amazon Alexa and Google Home. In less than a year, Volley has amassed an audience north of 500,000 monthly active users across its suite of voice apps, and has been growing that active base of users at 50 to 70 percent month-over-month.

The company was co-founded by former Harvard roommates and longtime friends, Max Child and James Wilsterman, and had originally operated as an iOS consultancy. But around a year and a half ago, Volley shifted its focus to voice instead.

“When we were running the iOS business, we were always sort of hacking around on games and some stuff on the side for fun,” explains Child. “We made a trivia game for iOS. And we made a Facebook Messenger chatbot virtual pet,” he says. The trivia game they built let users play just by swiping on push notifications — a very lightweight form of gameplay they thought was intriguing. “Voice was sort of the obvious next step,” says Child.

Not all their voice games have been successful, however. The first to launch was a game called Spelling Bee that users struggled with because of Alexa’s difficulties in identifying single letters — it would confuse a “B,” “C,” “D” and “E,” for example. But later titles have taken off.

Volley’s name-that-tune trivia game “Song Quiz” was its first breakout hit, and has grown to become the No. 1 game by reviews. The game today has a five-star rating across 8,842 reviews.

Another big hit is Volley’s “Yes Sire,” a choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling game that’s also at the top of Alexa’s charts. It also has a five-star rating, across 1,031 reviews.

The company says it has more than a dozen live titles, with the majority on the Alexa Skill Store and a few for Google Assistant/Google Home. But it only has seven or eight in what you would consider “active development.”

Unlike some indie developers who are struggling to generate revenue from their voice applications, Volley has been moderately successful thanks to Amazon’s developer rewards program — the program that doles out cash payments to top performing skills. While the startup didn’t want to disclose exact numbers, it says it’s earning in the five-figure range monthly from Amazon’s program.

In addition, Volley is preparing to roll out its own monetization features, including subscriptions and in-app purchases of add-on packs that will extend gameplay.

The company’s games have been well-received for a variety of reasons, but one is that they allow people to play together at the same time — like a modern-day replacement for family game night, perhaps.

“I think a live multiplayer experience with your family or people you’re good friends with, where you can have a fun time together in a room is fairly unusual. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t crowd around my iPhone and play games with my friends. And even with consoles there are significant barriers in understanding how to play,” says Child.

“I think that voice enables the live social experience in a way that anyone from five years old to 85 years old can pick up immediately. I think that’s really special. And I think we’re just at the beginning. I’m not going to say we’ve got it all figured out — but I think that’s powerful and unique to these platforms,” he adds.

Volley raised more than a million in seed funding ahead of joining Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 class, in a round led by Advancit Capital. Other investors include Amplify.LA, Rainfall, Y Combinator, MTGx, NFX and angels Hany Nada, Mika Salmi and Richard Wolpert.

The startup is currently a team of six in San Francisco.

 

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Samsung turns to Harman to further SmartThings development

Posted by | computing, Consumer Electronics Show, Gadgets, Google, google home, Harman International Industries, Home Automation, Samsung, smart speakers, smartthings, technology | No Comments

Harman and Samsung have entered into a strategic association that will have Harman taking up the SmartThings’ standard and carrying it forward against other Internet of Things products. Announced today, Samsung SmartThings R&D team and HARMAN Connected Services (HCS), a division of HARMAN International, will collaborate on the platform with HCS developing and supporting the […]

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Google launches smart displays with JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony

Posted by | artificial intelligence, CES 2018, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Assistant at CES 2018, google home, hardware, JBL, lenovo, smart display, Sony, TC | No Comments

 We’ve been waiting for Google to bring its Assistant to devices with a screen. After all, voice assistants are great — until you need some visual information to go with their answers. But Google is not launching a Google Home with a screen. Instead, the company today announced it is working with JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony to launch new smart displays later this year. Read More

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