hardware

Google’s Pixel 3 Lite could bring back the headphone jack

Posted by | Google, hardware, Mobile, PIXEL | No Comments

Word about the next member of the Pixel family started leaking out just after Christmas. Now the rumored Pixel 3 Lite is getting some more time to shine, courtesy of a three-minute YouTube video that highlights what appears to be a budget addition to Google’s flagship hardware line.

Perhaps most interesting here (aside from the mere existence of a third Pixel 3 model) is the apparent return of the headphone jack. After making a stink about including the port on the first Pixel, the company quickly reversed course for its successor.

The addition of a mid-range handset would, however, be the ideal reason to bring back the port (likely for a limited time). After all, while Bluetooth headsets have become far more accessible in recent years, specialized headphones are still a big ask for folks looking to save a few (or few hundred) bucks.

There are some cost-cutting measures throughout, including a Snapdragon 670, plastic body and no second selfie-camera. In all, the device is a bit like Google’s take on the iPhone XR, though it notably appears to have roughly the same rear-facing camera configuration as its more expensive siblings. That could well owe to the fact that AI — not hardware — is doing most of the heavy imaging lifting on the new handsets.

Notably, Pixel devices generally already cost less than flagships from Apple and Samsung, but a new addition could be a nice opportunity for Google to show how Android can shine on lower-cost devices.

Update: Looks like the video was (unsurprisingly) pulled by its original poster, but has since surfaced from other uploaders.

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Robots learn to grab and scramble with new levels of agility

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Berkeley, ETHZ, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, robots, science, TC | No Comments

Robots are amazing things, but outside of their specific domains they are incredibly limited. So flexibility — not physical, but mental — is a constant area of research. A trio of new robotic setups demonstrate ways they can evolve to accommodate novel situations: using both “hands,” getting up after a fall, and understanding visual instructions they’ve never seen before.

The robots, all developed independently, are gathered together today in a special issue of the journal Science Robotics dedicated to learning. Each shows an interesting new way in which robots can improve their interactions with the real world.

On the other hand…

First there is the question of using the right tool for a job. As humans with multi-purpose grippers on the ends of our arms, we’re pretty experienced with this. We understand from a lifetime of touching stuff that we need to use this grip to pick this up, we need to use tools for that, this will be light, that heavy, and so on.

Robots, of course, have no inherent knowledge of this, which can make things difficult; it may not understand that it can’t pick up something of a given size, shape, or texture. A new system from Berkeley roboticists acts as a rudimentary decision-making process, classifying objects as able to be grabbed either by an ordinary pincer grip or with a suction cup grip.

A robot, wielding both simultaneously, decides on the fly (using depth-based imagery) what items to grab and with which tool; the result is extremely high reliability even on piles of objects it’s never seen before.

It’s done with a neural network that consumed millions of data points on items, arrangements, and attempts to grab them. If you attempted to pick up a teddy bear with a suction cup and it didn’t work the first ten thousand times, would you keep on trying? This system learned to make that kind of determination, and as you can imagine such a thing is potentially very important for tasks like warehouse picking for which robots are being groomed.

Interestingly, because of the “black box” nature of complex neural networks, it’s difficult to tell what exactly Dex-Net 4.0 is actually basing its choices on, although there are some obvious preferences, explained Berkeley’s  Ken Goldberg in an email.

“We can try to infer some intuition but the two networks are inscrutable in that we can’t extract understandable ‘policies,’ ” he wrote. “We empirically find that smooth planar surfaces away from edges generally score well on the suction model and pairs of antipodal points generally score well for the gripper.”

Now that reliability and versatility are high, the next step is speed; Goldberg said that the team is “working on an exciting new approach” to reduce computation time for the network, to be documented, no doubt, in a future paper.

ANYmal’s new tricks

Quadrupedal robots are already flexible in that they can handle all kinds of terrain confidently, even recovering from slips (and of course cruel kicks). But when they fall, they fall hard. And generally speaking they don’t get up.

The way these robots have their legs configured makes it difficult to do things in anything other than an upright position. But ANYmal, a robot developed by ETH Zurich (and which you may recall from its little trip to the sewer recently), has a more versatile setup that gives its legs extra degrees of freedom.

What could you do with that extra movement? All kinds of things. But it’s incredibly difficult to figure out the exact best way for the robot to move in order to maximize speed or stability. So why not use a simulation to test thousands of ANYmals trying different things at once, and use the results from that in the real world?

This simulation-based learning doesn’t always work, because it isn’t possible right now to accurately simulate all the physics involved. But it can produce extremely novel behaviors or streamline ones humans thought were already optimal.

At any rate that’s what the researchers did here, and not only did they arrive at a faster trot for the bot (above), but taught it an amazing new trick: getting up from a fall. Any fall. Watch this:

It’s extraordinary that the robot has come up with essentially a single technique to get on its feet from nearly any likely fall position, as long as it has room and the use of all its legs. Remember, people didn’t design this — the simulation and evolutionary algorithms came up with it by trying thousands of different behaviors over and over and keeping the ones that worked.

Ikea assembly is the killer app

Let’s say you were given three bowls, with red and green balls in the center one. Then you’re given this on a sheet of paper:

As a human with a brain, you take this paper for instructions, and you understand that the green and red circles represent balls of those colors, and that red ones need to go to the left, while green ones go to the right.

This is one of those things where humans apply vast amounts of knowledge and intuitive understanding without even realizing it. How did you choose to decide the circles represent the balls? Because of the shape? Then why don’t the arrows refer to “real” arrows? How do you know how far to go to the right or left? How do you know the paper even refers to these items at all? All questions you would resolve in a fraction of a second, and any of which might stump a robot.

Researchers have taken some baby steps towards being able to connect abstract representations like the above with the real world, a task that involves a significant amount of what amounts to a sort of machine creativity or imagination.

Making the connection between a green dot on a white background in a diagram and a greenish roundish thing on a black background in the real world isn’t obvious, but the “visual cognitive computer” created by Miguel Lázaro-Gredilla and his colleagues at Vicarious AI seems to be doing pretty well at it.

It’s still very primitive, of course, but in theory it’s the same toolset that one uses to, for example, assemble a piece of Ikea furniture: look at an abstract representation, connect it to real-world objects, then manipulate those objects according to the instructions. We’re years away from that, but it wasn’t long ago that we were years away from a robot getting up from a fall or deciding a suction cup or pincer would work better to pick something up.

The papers and videos demonstrating all the concepts above should be available at the Science Robotics site.

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The Motorola Razr could return as a $1,500 foldable smartphone

Posted by | hardware, lenovo, Mobile, morotola, razr, smartphones | No Comments

Motorola has revived the Razr name a few times over the years, but the once-mighty brand has failed to regain the heights of its early days as an ultra-slim flip phone. But what better time for the phone maker’s parent Lenovo to bring back the brand in earnest as the mobile world is readying itself for a wave of foldable smartphones?

Nostalgia’s a bit of a mixed bag in consumer electronics. Take the recent returns of Nokia (good), BlackBerry (okay) and Palm (yikes). Slapping a familiar brand on a new product is a fast track to prominence, but not necessarily success. What ultimately may hinder Razr’s rumored return, however, is price.

All of this stems from a new Wall Street Journal report noting Lenovo’s plan to revive the Razr as a foldable smartphone. The price point puts the handset north of even Apple and Samsung’s flagships, at $1,500. Of course, there isn’t really a standardized price point for the emerging foldables category yet.

The Royole FlexPai starts at around $1,300 — not cheap, especially for a product from a relative unknown. And Samsung, the next on the list to embrace the foldable, has never been afraid to hit a premium price point. Ultimately, $1,500 could well be standard for these sorts of products. Whether or not consumers are willing to pay that, however, is another question entirely.

The new Razr is apparently destined for Verizon this year. The carrier (which, as it happens, also owns TechCrunch) has had a longstanding relationship with Motorola. Success, however, is going to hinge on more than name recognition alone.

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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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Doogee is launching a rugged modular smartphone

Posted by | doogee, hardware, Kickstarter, Mobile, smartphones | No Comments

The week following CES is probably as good a time as any to launch a Kickstarter campaign for your strange new smartphone. After all, a company like Doogee is going to have difficulty rising above the din during a CES or MWC, even with an idea as interesting as the rugged, modular S90.

The Chinese manufacturer has no shortage of interesting concepts, of course. And while the S90 appears to be a bit of a niche, it’s already surpassed its (admittedly modest) goal several times over.

The product’s modular concept is pretty in line with Motorola’s Moto Z offerings, with a series of plates that snap onto the back of the handset, delivering different hardware features through a multi-pin connector.

Many of the mods should prove familiar, too, including an extra battery (5,000mAh) and a game pad. Though, in addition to the rugged handset, you’ve also got some add-ons specifically tailored to those looking for a device to use in the field. Among those listed are a night-vision camera and a walkie-talkie, which extends the handset’s communication abilities where cellular networks don’t reach.

Doogee is shooting for a February delivery for the new handset.

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A Pong table managed to wow CES 2019

Posted by | CES 2019, Gaming, hardware, Pong | No Comments

That’s not the kind of headline one expects to write going into the week. But here we are. Universal Space’s analog Pong table is a mindblower in a whole unexpected way. The tabletop machine goes more retro than retro by bring pong into the real world through the magic of magnets (some day, perhaps, we’ll discover how they work).

There’s a square “ball” and a pair of rectangular paddles on either side, moved back and forth by spinning a wheel. Like the classic game, spinning faster and hitting corners puts a little English on it, as they say in billiards. Players score by striking the opposite side the ball. From there, you tap an orange arcade button to fire it back.

It’s really a thing to behold — even more so in single player mode, where the machine controls the other panel. You’ve got easy, medium and hard options for that. I’d start off slow, because there’s a bit of a noticeable lag that takes some getting used to.

It’s a neat parlor trick, and one that will almost certainly get party guests excited. It’ll cost you, though — $3,000 to be precise. The arcade model is an additional $1,500. It’s a lot to pay for what feels like a kind of one trick pony. Like the original Pong, it’s hard to imagine it holding one’s attention long enough to justify the price.

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Daily Crunch: How the government shutdown is damaging cybersecurity and future IPOs

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, Finance, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Government, hardware, payments, Policy, Startups, Venture Capital | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. How Trump’s government shutdown is harming cyber and national security
The government has been shut down for nearly three weeks, and there’s no end in sight. While most of the core government departments — State, Treasury, Justice and Defense — are still operational, others like Homeland Security, which takes the bulk of the government’s cybersecurity responsibilities, are suffering the most.

2. With SEC workers offline, the government shutdown could screw IPO-ready companies
The SEC has been shut down since December 27 and only has 285 of its 4,436 employees on the clock for emergency situations. While tech’s most buzz-worthy unicorns like Uber and Lyft won’t suffer too much from the shutdown, smaller businesses, particularly those in need of an infusion of capital to continue operating, will bear the brunt of any IPO delays.

3. The state of seed 

In 2018, seed activity as a percentage of all deals shrank from 31 percent to 25 percent — a decade low — while the share and size of late-stage deals swelled to record highs.

4. Banking startup N26 raises $300 million at $2.7 billion valuation

N26 is building a retail bank from scratch. The company prides itself on the speed and simplicity of setting up an account and managing assets. In the past year, N26’s valuation has exploded as its user base has tripled, with nearly a third of customers paying for a premium account.

5. E-scooter startup Bird is raising another $300M 

Bird is reportedly nearing a deal to extend its Series C round with a $300 million infusion led by Fidelity. The funding, however, comes at a time when scooter companies are losing steam and struggling to prove that its product is the clear solution to last-mile transportation.

6. AWS gives open source the middle finger 

It’s no secret that AWS has long been accused of taking the best open-source projects and re-using and re-branding them without always giving back to those communities.

7. The Galaxy S10 is coming on February 20 

Looks like Samsung is giving Mobile World Congress the cold shoulder and has decided to announce its latest flagship phone a week earlier in San Francisco.

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Samsung will unveil the Galaxy S10 February 20 in San Francisco

Posted by | CES 2019, galaxy s10, hardware, Mobile, Samsung | No Comments

CES has never been much of a mobile show for Samsung — not with Mobile World Congress a little over a month away. But the company did use its big platform this week to announce the announcement of its next flagship smartphone.

Turns out Samsung’s not unveiling the Galaxy S10 in Barcelona, either. In fact, the handset will actually make its debut a week before Barcelona’s big mobile show at a standalone Unpacked event in San Francisco. So thanks, Samsung, for those extra frequent flier miles.

We’ve already caught a few glimpses of the handset via a number of leaks, as has become a bit of a tradition for the company. But this gives us another month and a half or so to see the rest of what the premium handset has to offer.

Most notably so far is the company’s decision to forgo the notch, in favor of the camera cutout design Huawei’s helped pioneer. Also reportedly on tap for the handset is the ability to wirelessly charge compatible devices on contact. 

As the invite notes, this is the 10th anniversary of the Galaxy line. Between that and the company’s insistence on holding a standalone event this time out, it seems likely that we’ll be seeing more than just the S10. Perhaps we’ll get more insight into the forthcoming foldable handset and some more news on the 5G front.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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This extra-large handheld Nintendo works (and feels) like the real thing

Posted by | CES 2019, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, NES, Nintendo, retro | No Comments

Handheld retro gaming machines come and go, but few go so simply and effectively to the point as My Arcade’s Retro Champ. You stick in your NES cartridge, hit the power button and, assuming you blew on it beforehand, it powers up. This one sets itself apart with a big ol’ screen, Famicom compatibility and a whopping 35-hour battery life. Update: Nope! It’s 3 to 5 hours, not 35 as the company originally stated. I thought that was suspiciously high.

I played with the Retro Champ at CES, where they had one under lock and key — it’s not the production version, but that’s coming in the Spring. But it works just like you’d expect, and I was pleased to find it responsive, comfortable and pleasantly ridiculous. It’s really quite big, but not nearly as heavy as it looks.

The 7-inch screen is bright and the color looked good; it was responsive and the device felt well-balanced. The controls are where you’d expect, with big scoops in the back of the case to help you grip it. NES cartridges go in the top (and stick out as you see) and Famicom cartridges tuck in the bottom.

There’s a stand so you can prop it up and use wireless controllers with it (not included; they’re trying to keep the price low), and you can also plug it straight into your TV via HDMI, which basically makes this thing a spare NES home console. (I’m waiting to hear back on the screen and output resolutions and some other technical details.)

Lastly (and hilariously), there’s a hidden cleaning kit with space for a few Q-tips and a small bottle of solvent, for getting those really grimed-up games working.

My questions went to the usual pain points for scrupulous retro-loving gamers like myself:

Yes, it’s a 16:9 screen, and of course NES games were 4:3. So yes, you’ll be able to change that.

And no, it’s not just loading the ROM data into an emulator. This is the common way of doing it, and it produces artifacts and incompatibility with some games, not to mention control lag and other issues. Things have gotten better, but it’s definitely corner-cutting.

I chatted with Amir David, the creative director and one of the developers of the device. Though he couldn’t get into the technical details (patents pending), he said that they had developed their own chip that runs the game the same way an actual NES would.

So any cartridge that works on the NES, including homebrew and hacked games, will load right up no problem. That means you can also use a cartridge with an SD card loader, like an Everdrive, for those hard-to-get and hacked titles.

Some features are up in the air, for instance save states. It’s possible, but because this is in effect just a small Nintendo and not a virtual one, it’s also tricky. We’ll see.

I was also curious why there were four round buttons instead of the traditional NES D-pad. David said they were still waiting on feedback from players about which worked best; for an actual controller, the original D-pad might be good, but perhaps not for the handheld style. So they’re considering a few configurations; likewise the buttons on the right — they could get some tweaking before release.

The device goes for $80, which seems fair to me. If you want absolute fidelity for a home console, you can spend five to 10 times that amount, while for handhelds there are cheaper and smaller devices out there, most of which use emulators. They’re aiming for enthusiasts who want an easy but uncompromised way of playing their cartridges — lots of us have consoles sitting in boxes, but it’s a pain to get them set up. The Retro Champ could be one of the easiest ways to get back in the game. It ships in June.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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Daily Crunch: Well Facebook, you did it again

Posted by | Apps, Daily Crunch, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Hack, hardware, Mobile, Security, Social, Startups, WeWork | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Facebook is the new crapware 

Well Facebook, you did it again. Fresh off its latest privacy scandal, the troubled social media giant has inked a deal with Android to pre-install its app on an undisclosed number of phones and make the software permanent. This means you won’t be able to delete Facebook from those phones. Thanks, Facebook.

2. The world’s first foldable phone is real 

Chinese company Royole has beaten Samsung to the market and has been showing off a foldable phone/tablet this week at CES. While it’s not the most fluid experience, the device definitely works at adapting to your needs.

3. CES revokes award from female-founded sex tech company
Outcries of a double-standard are pouring out of CES after the Consumer Tech Association revoked an award from a company geared toward women’s sexual health.

4. Everything Google announced at CES 2019 

Google went all in on the Assistant this year at CES. The company boasted that the voice-enabled AI will make its way onto a billion devices by the end of the month — up from 400 million last year. But what’s most exciting is the expanded capabilities of Google’s Assistant. Soon you’ll be able to check into flights and translate conversations on the fly with a simple “Hey Google.”

5. Rebranding WeWork won’t work 

The company formerly known as WeWork has rebranded to the We Company, but its new strategy has the potential to plunge the company further into debt.

6. Despite promises to stop, US cell carriers are still selling your real-time phone location data

Last year a little-known company called LocationSmart came under fire after leaking location data from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint users to shady customers. LocationSmart quickly buckled under public scrutiny and promised to stop selling user data, but few focused on another big player in the location tracking business: Zumigo.

7. The best and worst of CES 2019 

From monster displays to VR in cars, we’re breaking down the good, the bad and the ugly from CES 2019.

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