hardware

Petcube’s Bites 2 and Play 2 amuse pets and humans alike with Alexa built-in

Posted by | albums, cameras, Gadgets, hardware, laser, pet, petcube, products, Reviews, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, TC | No Comments

Petcube’s original Bites smart treat dispenser and Play pet camera with a built-in laser pointer were great for pet parents who couldn’t always be around to hang out with their furry charges, but the new Bites 2 and Play 2 come with one big new upgrade that make them far more versatile than the original: They both double as Alexa-powered smart speaker devices.

Both the Bites 2 and Play 2 can hear and respond to Alexa requests, with a four-microphone array that in my limited testing actually outperforms the Alexa mics built into my Sonos One and Sonos Beam speakers, which is pretty impressive for devices whose main features are serving up treats and keeping an eye on your pets. That’s on top of the Bites 2 being able to remotely dispense treats for your pet, and the Play 2 providing playtime away from home with a built-in laser pointer you can direct from your phone.

The Bites 2 and Play 2 also feature other improvements, including new wider angle lenses that offer full 180-degree views of your home for more likelihood you’ll spot your pets wandering around, and better Wi-Fi connectivity support with additional 5GHz networking, plus night vision and full HD video. Currently, the field of view is limited to 160-degrees, with an update to follow that will unlock the full 180; for most users, the 160 FOV is going to show you an entire room and then some.

With the Bites 2, you can also initiate video calls and chat with your pet, though my dog Chelsea basically is just confused by this. It is handy if I need to ask my partner if there’s anything else I’m forgetting to pick up from the store, however. And the treat-flinging feature definitely does appeal to Chelsea, especially now that it’s Alexa-integrated so that I can easily issue a voice command to give her a well-earned reward.

This has actually proven more than just fun — Chelsea suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, so when we leave our condo she usually spends a few quick minutes complaining audibly with some rather loud barks. But since getting the Petcube Bites 2 to test, I’ve been reinforcing good behavior by reminding her to keep quiet, waiting outside the door and then flinging her a treat or two for her troubles. It’s pretty much done away with the bye-bye barking in just a short time.

The Play 2 doesn’t fling treats, but it does have a built-in laser pointer (which the company says is totally safe for your pet’s eyes). Chelsea straight up does not understand the laser or even really acknowledge it, so that’s a bit of a miss, but with a friend’s cat this proved an absolute show-stopping feature. I’ve also known dogs previously who loved this, so your mileage may vary, but if you’re unsure, it’s probably worth picking up a dollar-store laser pointer keychain first to ensure it’s their jam.

The $249 Bites 2 and $199 Play 2 offer a ton of value in just the image and build quality upgrades over their original incarnations, and their basic features are probably plenty enough for doting pet parents. But the addition of Alexa makes these both much more appealing in my opinion, since it essentially bundles an Echo in each device at no extra cost.

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Archinaut snags $73 million in NASA funding to 3D-print giant spacecraft parts in orbit

Posted by | 3d printing, Archinaut, Gadgets, hardware, Made In Space, Space, TC | No Comments

A project to 3D-print bulky components in space rather than bring them up there has collected a $73.7 million contract from NASA to demonstrate the technique in space. Archinaut, a mission now several years in development from Made In Space, could launch as soon as 2022.

The problem at hand is this: If you want a spacecraft to have solar arrays 60 feet long, you need to bring 60 feet of structure for those arrays to attach to — they can’t just flap around like ribbons. But where do you stash a 60-foot pole, or two 30-foot ones, or even 10 six-foot ones when you only have a few cubic feet of space to put them in? It gets real complicated real fast to take items with even a single large dimension into space.

Archinaut’s solution is simple. Why not just take the material for that long component into space and print it out on the spot? There’s no more compact way to keep the material than as a brick of solid matter.

Naturally this extends (so to speak) to more than simply rods and poles — sheets of large materials for things like light sails, complex interlocking structures on which other components could be mounted… there are plenty of things too big to take into space in one piece, but which could be made of smaller ones if necessary. Here’s one made for attaching instruments at a large fixed distance from a central craft:

optimast3Made in Space already has contracts in place with NASA, and has demonstrated 3D printing of parts aboard the International Space Station. It has also shown that it can print stuff in an artificial vacuum more or less equivalent to a space environment.

The demonstrator mission, Archinaut One, would launch aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle no earlier than 2022, and after achieving a stable orbit, begin extruding a pair of beams that will eventually extend out 32 feet. Attached to these beams will be flexible solar arrays that unfurl at the same rate, attached to the rigid structures of the beams. When they’re finished, a robotic arm will lock them in place and do other housekeeping.

You can see it all happen in this unfortunately not particularly exciting video:

Once finished, this pair of 32-foot solar arrays would theoretically generate some five times the power that a spacecraft that size would normally pull in. Because spacecraft are almost without exception power-starved systems, having more watts to use or store for the orbital equivalent of a rainy day would certainly be welcome.

In another print, the robot arm could rearrange parts, snap on connectors and perform other tasks to create more complex structures like the ones in the concept art up top. That’s still well in the future, however — the current demonstrator mission will focus on the beam-and-array thing, though the team will certainly learn a lot about how to accomplish other builds in the process.

Naturally in-space manufacturing is a big concern for a country that plans to establish a permanent presence on and around the Moon. It’s a lot easier to make something there than make a quarter-million-mile delivery. You can keep up with Archinaut and Made In Space’s other projects along the space-printing line at the company’s blog.

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These robo-ants can work together in swarms to navigate tricky terrain

Posted by | artificial intelligence, EPFL, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science, TC | No Comments

While the agility of a Spot or Atlas robot is something to behold, there’s a special merit reserved for tiny, simple robots that work not as a versatile individual but as an adaptable group. These “tribots” are built on the model of ants, and like them can work together to overcome obstacles with teamwork.

Developed by EPFL and Osaka University, tribots are tiny, light and simple, moving more like inchworms than ants, but able to fling themselves up and forward if necessary. The bots themselves and the system they make up are modeled on trap-jaw ants, which alternate between crawling and jumping, and work (as do most other ants) in fluid roles like explorer, worker and leader. Each robot is not itself very intelligent, but they are controlled as a collective that deploys their abilities intelligently.

In this case a team of tribots might be expected to get from one end of a piece of complex terrain to another. An explorer could move ahead, sensing obstacles and relaying their locations and dimensions to the rest of the team. The leader can then assign worker units to head over to try to push the obstacles out of the way. If that doesn’t work, an explorer can try hopping over it — and if successful, it can relay its telemetry to the others so they can do the same thing.

fly tribot fly

Fly, tribot, fly!

It’s all done quite slowly at this point — you’ll notice that in the video, much of the action is happening at 16x speed. But rapidity isn’t the idea here; similar to Squishy Robotics’ creations, it’s more about adaptability and simplicity of deployment.

The little bots weigh only 10 grams each, and are easily mass-produced, as they’re basically PCBs with some mechanical bits and grip points attached — “a quasi-two-dimensional metamaterial sandwich,” according to the paper. If they only cost (say) a buck each, you could drop dozens or hundreds on a target area and over an hour or two they could characterize it, take measurements and look for radiation or heat hot spots, and so on.

If they moved a little faster, the same logic and a modified design could let a set of robots emerge in a kitchen or dining room to find and collect crumbs or scoot plates into place. (Ray Bradbury called them “electric mice” or something in “There will come soft rains,” one of my favorite stories of his. I’m always on the lookout for them.)

Swarm-based bots have the advantage of not failing catastrophically when something goes wrong — when a robot fails, the collective persists, and it can be replaced as easily as a part.

“Since they can be manufactured and deployed in large numbers, having some ‘casualties’ would not affect the success of the mission,” noted EPFL’s Jamie Paik, who co-designed the robots. “With their unique collective intelligence, our tiny robots can demonstrate better adaptability to unknown environments; therefore, for certain missions, they would outperform larger, more powerful robots.”

It raises the question, in fact, of whether the sub-robots themselves constitute a sort of uber-robot? (This is more of a philosophical question, raised first in the case of the Constructicons and Devastator. Transformers was ahead of its time in many ways.)

The robots are still in prototype form, but even as they are, constitute a major advance over other “collective” type robot systems. The team documents their advances in a paper published in the journal Nature.

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Amazon reportedly ramps development on Alexa-powered home robot on wheels

Posted by | Amazon, Gadgets, hardware, Mayfield Robotics, robot, TC | No Comments

Bloomberg reported last April that Amazon was working on a home robot codenamed “Vesta” (after the Roman goddess of the hearth and home), and now the publication says that development on the project continues. Plus, the report includes new details about the specifics of the robot, including that it will indeed support Alexa and have wheels to help it move around. My terrible artist’s rendering of what that could look like is above.

The plan for Vesta was apparently to release it this year, but it’s not yet quite ready for mass production, according to Bloomberg’s sources. And while it could end up mothballed and never see the light of day, as with any project being developed ahead of launch, the company is said to be putting more engineering and development resources into the team working on its release.

Current prototypes of the robot are said to be about waist-high, per the report, and make their way through the world aided by sensor-fed computer vision. It’ll come when you call thanks to the Alexa integration, per an internal demo described by Bloomberg, and should ostensibly offer all the same kind of functionality you’d get with an Echo device, including calling, timers and music playback.

For other clues as to what Vesta could look like, if and when it ever launches, a good model might be Kuri, the robot developed by Bosch internal startup Mayfield Robotics which was shuttered a year ago and never made it to market. Kuri could also record video and take photos, play games and generally interact with the household.

Meanwhile, Amazon is also apparently readying a Sonos-competing high-quality Echo speaker to debut next year.

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Amazon said to be launching new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Posted by | Amazon, apple inc, Companies, computing, Gadgets, hardware, HomePod, ikea, industries, Invoke, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, TC, tweeter | No Comments

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of devices or Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the sound quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, as it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up with Ikea to launch speakers powered by its technology, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

If high-quality sound isn’t all that important to you, Amazon is also apparently working on a home robot equipped with Alexa on board.

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Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

Posted by | artificial intelligence, automotive, autonomous vehicles, funding, Gadgets, hardware, Lidar, Luminar, robotics, self-driving cars, Transportation | No Comments

Luminar is one of the major players in the new crop of lidar companies that have sprung up all over the world, and it’s moving fast to outpace its peers. Today the company announced a new $100 million funding round, bringing its total raised to more than $250 million — as well as a perception platform and a new, compact lidar unit aimed at inclusion in actual cars. Big day!

The new hardware, called Iris, looks to be about a third of the size of the test unit Luminar has been sticking on vehicles thus far. That one was about the size of a couple hardbacks stacked up, and Iris is more like a really thick sandwich.

Size is very important, of course, as few cars just have caverns of unused space hidden away in prime surfaces like the corners and windshield area. Other lidar makers have lowered the profiles of their hardware in various ways; Luminar seems to have compactified in a fairly straightforward fashion, getting everything into a package smaller in every dimension.

Luminar IRIS AND TEST FLEET LiDARS

Test model, left, Iris on the right.

Photos of Iris put it in various positions: below the headlights on one car, attached to the rear-view mirror in another and high up atop the cabin on a semi truck. It’s small enough that it won’t have to displace other components too much, although of course competitors are aiming to make theirs even more easy to integrate. That won’t matter, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told me recently, if they can’t get it out of the lab.

“The development stage is a huge undertaking — to actually move it towards real-world adoption and into true series production vehicles,” he said (among many other things). The company that gets there first will lead the industry, and naturally he plans to make Luminar that company.

Part of that is of course the production process, which has been vastly improved over the last couple of years. These units can be made quickly enough that they can be supplied by the thousands rather than dozens, and the cost has dropped precipitously — by design.

Iris will cost less than $1,000 per unit for production vehicles seeking serious autonomy, and for $500 you can get a more limited version for more limited purposes like driver assistance, or ADAS. Luminar says Iris is “slated to launch commercially on production vehicles beginning in 2022,” but that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re shipping to customers right now. The company is negotiating more than a billion dollars in contracts at present, a representative told me, and 2022 would be the earliest that vehicles with Iris could be made available.

LUMINAR IRIS TRAFFIC JAM PILOT

The Iris units are about a foot below the center of the headlight units here. Note that this is not a production vehicle, just a test one.

Another part of integration is software. The signal from the sensor has to go somewhere, and while some lidar companies have indicated they plan to let the carmaker or whoever deal with it their own way, others have opted to build up the tech stack and create “perception” software on top of the lidar. Perception software can be a range of things: something as simple as drawing boxes around objects identified as people would count, as would a much richer process that flags intentions, gaze directions, characterizes motions and suspected next actions and so on.

Luminar has opted to build into perception, or rather has revealed that it has been working on it for some time. It now has 60 people on the task split between Palo Alto and Orlando, and hired a new VP of Software, former robo-taxi head at Daimler, Christoph Schroder.

What exactly will be the nature and limitations of Luminar’s perception stack? There are dangers waiting if you decide to take it too far, because at some point you begin to compete with your customers, carmakers that have their own perception and control stacks that may or may not overlap with yours. The company gave very few details as to what specifically would be covered by its platform, but no doubt that will become clearer as the product itself matures.

Last and certainly not least is the matter of the $100 million in additional funding. This brings Luminar to a total of over a quarter of a billion dollars in the last few years, matching its competitor Innoviz, which has made similar decisions regarding commercialization and development.

The list of investors has gotten quite long, so I’ll just quote Luminar here:

G2VP, Moore Strategic Ventures, LLC, Nick Woodman, The Westly Group, 1517 Fund / Peter Thiel, Canvas Ventures, along with strategic investors Corning Inc, Cornes, and Volvo Cars Tech Fund.

The board has also grown, with former Broadcom exec Scott McGregor and G2VP’s Ben Kortlang joining the table.

We may have already passed “peak lidar” as far as sheer number of deals and startups in the space, but that doesn’t mean things are going to cool down. If anything, the opposite, as established companies battle over lucrative partnerships and begin eating one another to stay competitive. Seems like Luminar has no plans on becoming a meal.

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‘World’s first Bluetooth hair straighteners’ can be easily hacked

Posted by | Apps, Bluetooth, Gadgets, hardware, pen test partners, Security, technology, telecommunications, United Kingdom, wireless | No Comments

Here’s a thing that should have never been a thing: Bluetooth-connected hair straighteners.

Glamoriser, a U.K. firm that bills itself as the maker of the “world’s first Bluetooth hair straighteners,” allows users to link the device to an app, which lets the owner set certain heat and style settings. The app can also be used to remotely switch off the straighteners within Bluetooth range.

Big problem, though. These straighteners can be hacked.

Security researchers at Pen Test Partners bought a pair and tested them out. They found that it was easy to send malicious Bluetooth commands within range to remotely control an owner’s straighteners.

The researchers demonstrated that they could send one of several commands over Bluetooth, such as the upper and lower temperature limit of the device — 122°F and 455°F respectively — as well as the shut-down time. Because the straighteners have no authentication, an attacker can remotely alter and override the temperature of the straighteners and how long they stay on — up to a limit of 20 minutes.

“As there is no pairing or bonding established over [Bluetooth] when connecting a phone, anyone in range with the app can take control of the straighteners,” said Stuart Kennedy in his blog post, shared first with TechCrunch.

There is a caveat, said Kennedy. The straighteners only allow one concurrent connection. If the owner hasn’t connected their phone or they go out of range, only then can an attacker target the device.

Here at TechCrunch we’re all for setting things on fire “for journalism,” but in this case the numbers speak for themselves. If, per the researchers’ findings, the straighteners could be overridden to the maximum temperature of 455°F at the timeout of 20 minutes, that’s setting up a prime condition for a fire — or at very least burn damage.

It’s estimated that as many as 650,000 house fires in the U.K. are caused by hair straighteners and curling irons left on. In some cases it can take more than a half-hour for these heated devices to cool down to safe levels. U.K. fire and rescue services have called on owners to physically pull the plug on their devices to prevent fires and damage.

Glamoriser did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication. The app hasn’t been updated since June 2018, suggesting a fix has yet to be put in place.

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Nintendo Switch Lite’s trade-off of whimsy for practicality is a good one

Posted by | controller, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Joy-Con, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, TC | No Comments

Nintendo today revealed a new Switch Lite version of its current-generation console, which attaches the controllers permanently, shrinks the hardware a bit and adds a touch more battery life — but it also takes away the “Switch” part of the equation, because you can only use it handheld, instead of attached to a TV or as a unique tabletop gaming experience.

The changes mostly seem in service of bringing the price down, as it will retail for $199 when it goes on sale in September. That’s $100 less than the original Switch, which is a big price cut and could open up the market for Nintendo to a whole new group of players. But it’s also a change that seems to take away a lot of what made the Switch special, including the ability to plug it into a TV for a big-screen experience, or quickly detach the Joy-Con controllers for motion-control gaming with rumble feedback.

Switch Lite makes some crucial changes that I suspect Nintendo knows are reflective of how a lot of people actually use the Switch, regardless of what the aspirational, idealized Switch customer does in Nintendo’s ads and promo materials. As mentioned, it should bump your battery life during actual gameplay — it could add an extra hour when playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for instance. And the size savings mean it’s much easier to slip in a bag when you head out on a trip.

NSwitchLiteImageWallImg04 image950w

The new redesigned, permanently attached controllers also include a proper D-pad on the left instead of the individual circle buttons used on the Joy-Pad, and the smaller screen still outputs at the same resolution, which means things will look crisper in play.

For me, and probably for a lot of Switch users, the trade-offs made here are actually improvements that reflect 90% of my use of the console. I almost never play plugged into a TV, for instance — and could easily do without, since mostly I do that for one-off party-game use that isn’t really all that necessary. The controller design with a D-pad is much more practical, and I have never used motion controls with my Switch for any game. Battery life means that you probably don’t need to recharge mid-trip on most short and medium-length trips, and the size savings means that when I’m packing and push comes to shove, I’m that much more likely to take the Switch Lite rather than leave it at home.

Already, some critics are decrying how this model makes the Switch “worse” in almost every way, but actually I think it’s just the opposite — Nintendo may have traded away some of its trademark quirk with this version, but the result is something much more akin to how most people actually want to use a console most of the time.

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Apple stops selling the 12-inch MacBook, a computer you either loved or were confused by

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, apple keyboard, Boot Camp, computers, computing, energy, Gadgets, hardware, iPad, Laptop, macbook, macbook pro, macintosh, smartphone, Steve Jobs, TC | No Comments

Apple officially stopped selling the 12-inch MacBook today, a computer that hasn’t had an update since June 2017 and that is also maybe one of the most contentious Macs in Apple’s lineup. The 12-inch MacBook at one time seemed like Apple’s path forward (plenty of Apple fans and analysts saw it as a sign of things to come when it launched in 2015), but ultimately ended up representing some of Apple’s biggest challenges with its Macs in general.

The biggest indicator that Apple felt the MacBook was a showcase and crucial product was the name — it was just THE MacBook, without any additional epithets or qualifiers like “Air” or “Pro” (both of which predated its existence). And when it debuted, it brought a number of firsts for Apple’s laptop lineup, including USB-C for both data and power, a keyboard with butterfly mechanisms, a Force Touch trackpad and a new way of “terracing” batteries that allowed Apple to maximize the power available to the diminutive notebook without making any compromises on size.

For sheer portability and screen-to-size ratio, the MacBook was an absolute feat. But this computer was one of Apple’s boldest statements yet when it came to a separation from current standards and opinions about what users did and didn’t need in a laptop. It only came with a single USB-C port (“just one!” people gasped, and that’s for power, too!); the butterfly keyboard was strange and different. This last thing would later prove possibly Apple’s biggest technical gaffe in terms of fundamental component design, which has impact even today in that the company released brand new computers using butterfly keyboards and immediately added them to an extended keyboard replacement program.

The MacBook also always lagged significantly behind its Pro and Air companions in terms of processor power, thanks to the energy-sipping Intel chips required in its construction to minimize heat. As a former MacBook owner myself, it was enough that you noticed the chug when you were doing stuff that wasn’t necessarily heavy-duty, and painfully apparent if you used the little notebook simultaneously with a home desktop, for instance.

But the MacBook was also excellent in its own way. It was so portable as to be almost forgotten as an addition to a bag. It was maybe the ultimate pure writing notebook, because that’s not something that ever felt the lack of processor power under the hood. And as often maligned as it was for being a single-port machine (besides the headphone jack, which is now a luxury in the smartphone world), there was a certain amount of focus necessitated by this monk-like approach to I/O.

Ultimately, the MacBook resembles the original MacBook Air more than anything — an oddball that had both lovers and haters, but that didn’t meet the needs or expectations of the masses. Like the Air, the MacBook could rise from the ashes with a future incarnation, too — perhaps one made possible by the much-speculated future Apple transition to ARM processor architecture. Or maybe it’ll just make way for an ever-evolving iPad powered by the more sophisticated iPadOS coming this fall.

Regardless, the MacBook was an eccentric machine that I enjoyed using (and was potentially considering using again pending an update), so here’s hoping it’s not gone forever.

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This solar array expands itself at the right temperature

Posted by | CalTech, ETHZ, Gadgets, hardware, science, solar, solar cells, Solar Power | No Comments

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a solar panel that’s only there when the sun shines on it? That’s the idea behind this research project, which uses shape-shifting materials to make a solar panel grow from a compressed state to an expanded one with nothing more than a change in temperature.

The flower-like prototype device is made of what’s called a “shape-memory polymer,” a material that can be shaped when cool to one form, then when heated will attempt to return to its original, natural configuration. In this case the cool form is a compressed disc, and the warm one is a much wider one.

The transition (demonstrated here in warm water for simplicity) takes less than a minute. It’s guided by a network of hinged joints, the structure of which was inspired by the children’s toy known as a Hoberman sphere, which changes from a small, spiky ball to a larger spherical one when thrown.

circle1

The cooled-down material would stay rigid during, say, deployment on a satellite. Then when the satellite enters the sun, the mechanism would bloom into the full-sized array, no power necessary. That would potentially save space on a satellite that can’t quite fit a battery or spare solar array to kick-start a larger one.

For now the transformation is one-way; the larger disc must be manually folded back into the smaller configuration — but one can imagine how once powered up, a separate mechanism could accomplish that, stowing itself away until the next chance to absorb some sunlight appears.

Don’t expect to see this on any spacecraft next year, but it’s definitely a cool (and warm) idea that could prove more than a little useful for small satellites and the like in the future. And who knows? Maybe you’ll have a garden of these little blooming arrays on your roof before that.

The research, from Caltech and ETHZ, is documented in the journal Physics Review Applied.

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