mobile devices

Nomad releases a stunning wireless charging pad with Apple Watch dock

Posted by | AirPower, Apple, apple inc, Apple Watch, base station, computing, Gadgets, inductive charging, mobile devices, qi, technology | No Comments

With Apple’s AirPower still missing in action, the Apple accessory ecosystem has been attempting to fill the need with similar products. Some of these third party products are better than others, and the new Base Station from Nomad looks to be the best of them all.

The Base Station does two things. One, it wireless charges up to three mobile devices. Two, it charges an Apple Watch through an integrated Apple MFi-certified Magnetic Apple Watch charger. More so, it looks great.

A padded leather surface covers three charging coils allowing the unit to recharge up to three devices — or one device laying horizontally across the pad. Each of the coils are Qi-certified and output at 7.5W. As for the Apple Watch, it can only be recharged using the included magnetic charger unless Apple activates Qi-compatibility through a software update.

The Nomad Base Station is available now for $120. Don’t have an Apple Watch? The same charging base is available for $20 less and still supports up to three devices.

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With a $10 million round, Nigeria’s Paga plans global expansion

Posted by | africa, alipay, Android, Bank, bank transfers, california, cellulant, ceo, Column, e-commerce, economy, ethiopia, Finance, kenya, M-Pesa, Mexico, mobile devices, mobile payment, money, Nigeria, Omidyar Network, online payments, p2p, PayPal, Philippines, Safaricom, San Francisco, Spotify, Sweden, Uber, vodafone, western union | No Comments
Jake Bright
Contributor

Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for an international expansion with $10 million in funding let by the Global Innovation Fund. 

The company is planning to release its payments product in Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines—CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga looks to go head to head with regional and global payment players, such as PayPal, Alipay, and Safaricom’s M-Pesa, according to Oviosu.

“We are not only in a position to compete with them, we’re going beyond them,” he  said of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money product. “Our goal is to build a global payment ecosystem across many emerging markets.”

Founded in 2012, Paga has created a multi-channel network and platform to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally that’s already serving 9 million customers in Nigeria—including 6000 businesses. All of whom can drop into one of Paga’s 17,167 agents or transfer funds from one of Paga’s mobile apps.

Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and Moneytrans and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Paga has also built out considerable scale in home market Nigeria—which boasts the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.

Since inception, the startup has processed 57 million transactions worth $3.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

That’s no small feat given the country straddles the challenges and opportunities of growing digital payments. Only recently did Nigeria’s mobile and internet penetration break 50 percent and 40 percent of the country’s 196 million remain unbanked.

To bring more of Nigeria’s masses onto digital commerce, Paga recently launched a new money transfer-app that further simplifies the P2P payment process from mobile devices.

For nearly a decade, Kenya’s M-Pesa—which has 20 million active users and operates abroad—has dominated discussions of mobile money in Africa.

Paga and a growing field of operators are diversifying the continent’s payment playing field.

Fintech company Cellulant raised $47 million in 2019 on its business of processing $350 million in payment transactions across 33 African countries.

In Nigeria, payment infrastructure company Interswitch has expanded across borders and is pursuing an IPO. And Nigerian payment gateway startups Paystack and Flutterwave have digitized volumes of B2B transactions while gaining global investment.

So why does Paga—a Nigerian payments company—believe it can expand its digital payments business abroad?

“Why not us?,” said CEO Oviosu. “People sit in California and listen to Spotify that was developed in Sweden. And Uber started somewhere before going to different countries and figuring out local markets,” he added.

“The team behind this business has worked globally for some of the top tech names. This platform can stand shoulder to shoulder with any payments company built somewhere else,” he said.

On that platform, Oviosu underscores it has positioned itself as a partner, not a rival, to traditional banks. “Our ecosystem is not built to compete with you, it’s actually complimentary to you,” he said of the company’s positioning to big banks—enabling Paga to partner with seven banks in Nigeria.

Paga also sees potential to adapt its model to other regulatory and consumer environments. “We’ve built an infrastructure that rides across all mobile networks,” said Oviosu. “We’re not trying to be a bank. Paga wants to work with the banks and financial institutions to enable a billion people to access and use money,” he said.

As part of the $10 million round (which brings Paga’s total funding up to $35 million), Global Innovation Partners will take a board seat. Other round participants include Goodwell, Adlevo Capital, Omidyar Network, and Unreasonable Capital.

Paga will use the Series B2 to grow its core development team of 25 engineers across countries and continents. It will also continue its due diligence on global expansion—though no hard dates have been announced.

On revenues, Paga makes money on merchant payments, bank to bank transfers, and selling airtime and data. “As we roll out other services, we will build a model where we will make money on savings and lending,” said the company’s CEO.

As for profitability, Paga does not release financials, but reached profitability in 2018, according to Oviosu—something that was confirmed in the due diligence process with round investors.

On the possibility of beating Interswitch (or another venerable startup) to become Africa’s first big tech IPO, Oviosu plays that down. “For the next 3-5 years I see us staying private,” he said.

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Sales of PCs just grew for the first time in six years

Posted by | Acer, Apple, chromebook, Computer Hardware, computing, Dell, fujitsu, Gadgets, gartner, HP, lenovo, mobile devices, technology | No Comments

Don’t look now, but the PC might not be dead. According to Gartner, collector of marketshare and industry metrics, worldwide shipments of personal computers just experienced the first year-over-year growth since 2012. Shipments totaled 62.1 million units, which is a 1.4 percent increase from the same time period in 2017. The report states “experienced some growth compared with a year ago” but goes on to caution declaring the PC industry as in recovery just yet.

The top five PC vendors all experienced growth with Lenovo seeing the largest gains of 10.5% — though that could be from Lenovo completing a joint venture with Fujitsu. HP grew 6.1%, Dell 9.5%, Apple 3% and Acer 3.1%. All good signs for an industry long thought stagnate. This report excludes Chromebooks from its data. PC vendors experienced growth without the help of Chromebooks, which are the latest challenger to the notebook computer.

Gartner points to the business market as the source of the increased demand. The consumer market, it states, is still decreasing as consumers increasing use mobile devices. Yet growth in the business sector will not last, it says.

“In the business segment, PC momentum will weaken in two years when the replacement peak for Windows 10 passes.” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner said in the report. “PC vendors should look for ways to maintain growth in the business market as the Windows 10 upgrade cycle tails off.”

Consumers will likely continue, for the most part, to keep a computer around but since the web is the new desktop, the upgrade cycle for a causal user will keep getting longer. As long as a home has a computer that can run Chrome, that’s likely good enough for most people.

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InVision mobile app updates include studio features and desktop to mobile mirroring

Posted by | Adobe, adobe systems, Android, app-store, apple inc, Atlassian, ceo, clark valberg, designer, InVision, inVisionApp, mobile app, mobile device, mobile devices, Software, TC | No Comments

InVision, the software a service challenger to Adobe’s design dominance, has just released a new version of its mobile app for iOS and is beta-testing new features for Android users as it tries to bring additional functionality to designers on-the-go.

The new app tools feature “studio mirroring” for reviews of new designs directly on mobile devices, so that designers can see design changes to applications made on the desktop display on mobile in real time.

The mirroring feature works by scanning a QR code on a mobile device which lets users view design changes and test user experiences immediately.

The company is also bringing its Freehand support — which allows for collaborative commenting on design prototypes to tablets so teams can comment on the fly, the company said.

The tools will give InVision another arrow in its quiver as it tries to take on other design platforms (notably the 100 pound gorilla known as Adobe) and are a useful addition to a service that’s trying to woo the notoriously fickle design community with an entire toolkit.

As we wrote in May when the company launched its app store:

While collaboration is the bread and butter of InVision’s business, and the only revenue stream for the company, CEO and founder Clark Valberg feels that it isn’t enough to be complementary to the current design tool ecosystem. Which is why InVision launched Studio in late 2017, hoping to take on Adobe and Sketch head-on with its own design tool.

Studio differentiates itself by focusing on the designer’s real-life workflow, which often involves mocking up designs in one app, pulling assets from another, working on animations and transitions in another, and then stitching the whole thing together to share for collaboration across InVision Cloud. Studio aims to bring all those various services into a single product, and a critical piece of that mission is building out an app store and asset store with the services too sticky for InVision to rebuild from Scratch, such as Slack or Atlassian .

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Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

Posted by | Amazon, Android, app-store, Apple, apple inc, apple tv, Apple Watch, Apps, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Column, computing, Craig Federighi, Google, google now, iOS, iPad, iPhone, iTunes, mobile devices, operating system, screen time, siri, Software, virtual assistant | No Comments
Matthew Cassinelli
Contributor

Matthew Cassinelli is a former member of the Workflow team and works as an independent writer and consultant. He previously worked as a data analyst for VaynerMedia.

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

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Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, Apple Maps, artificial intelligence, california, ceo, Chevron, computing, driver, eddy cue, Google, gps, iPad, iPhone, Japan, journalist, location services, mac pro, machine learning, Mobile, mobile devices, OpenStreetMap, San Francisco, satellite imagery, smartphones, Software, TC, technology, TomTom, United States, vp | No Comments

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the launch of Apple Maps went poorly. After a rough first impression, an apology from the CEO, several years of patching holes with data partnerships and some glimmers of light with long-awaited transit directions and improvements in business, parking and place data, Apple Maps is still not where it needs to be to be considered a world-class service.

Maps needs fixing.

Apple, it turns out, is aware of this, so it’s re-building the maps part of Maps.

It’s doing this by using first-party data gathered by iPhones with a privacy-first methodology and its own fleet of cars packed with sensors and cameras. The new product will launch in San Francisco and the Bay Area with the next iOS 12 beta and will cover Northern California by fall.

Every version of iOS will get the updated maps eventually, and they will be more responsive to changes in roadways and construction, more visually rich depending on the specific context they’re viewed in and feature more detailed ground cover, foliage, pools, pedestrian pathways and more.

This is nothing less than a full re-set of Maps and it’s been four years in the making, which is when Apple began to develop its new data-gathering systems. Eventually, Apple will no longer rely on third-party data to provide the basis for its maps, which has been one of its major pitfalls from the beginning.

“Since we introduced this six years ago — we won’t rehash all the issues we’ve had when we introduced it — we’ve done a huge investment in getting the map up to par,” says Apple SVP Eddy Cue, who now owns Maps, in an interview last week. “When we launched, a lot of it was all about directions and getting to a certain place. Finding the place and getting directions to that place. We’ve done a huge investment of making millions of changes, adding millions of locations, updating the map and changing the map more frequently. All of those things over the past six years.”

But, Cue says, Apple has room to improve on the quality of Maps, something that most users would agree on, even with recent advancements.

“We wanted to take this to the next level,” says Cue. “We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world, taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up.”

In addition to Cue, I spoke to Apple VP Patrice Gautier and more than a dozen Apple Maps team members at its mapping headquarters in California this week about its efforts to re-build Maps, and to do it in a way that aligned with Apple’s very public stance on user privacy.

If, like me, you’re wondering whether Apple thought of building its own maps from scratch before it launched Maps, the answer is yes. At the time, there was a choice to be made about whether or not it wanted to be in the business of maps at all. Given that the future of mobile devices was becoming very clear, it knew that mapping would be at the core of nearly every aspect of its devices, from photos to directions to location services provided to apps. Decision made, Apple plowed ahead, building a product that relied on a patchwork of data from partners like TomTom, OpenStreetMap and other geo data brokers. The result was underwhelming.

Almost immediately after Apple launched Maps, it realized that it was going to need help and it signed on a bunch of additional data providers to fill the gaps in location, base map, point-of-interest and business data.

It wasn’t enough.

“We decided to do this just over four years ago. We said, ‘Where do we want to take Maps? What are the things that we want to do in Maps?’ We realized that, given what we wanted to do and where we wanted to take it, we needed to do this ourselves,” says Cue.

Because Maps are so core to so many functions, success wasn’t tied to just one function. Maps needed to be great at transit, driving and walking — but also as a utility used by apps for location services and other functions.

Cue says that Apple needed to own all of the data that goes into making a map, and to control it from a quality as well as a privacy perspective.

There’s also the matter of corrections, updates and changes entering a long loop of submission to validation to update when you’re dealing with external partners. The Maps team would have to be able to correct roads, pathways and other updating features in days or less, not months. Not to mention the potential competitive advantages it could gain from building and updating traffic data from hundreds of millions of iPhones, rather than relying on partner data.

Cue points to the proliferation of devices running iOS, now over a billion, as a deciding factor to shift its process.

“We felt like because the shift to devices had happened — building a map today in the way that we were traditionally doing it, the way that it was being done — we could improve things significantly, and improve them in different ways,” he says. “One is more accuracy. Two is being able to update the map faster based on the data and the things that we’re seeing, as opposed to driving again or getting the information where the customer’s proactively telling us. What if we could actually see it before all of those things?”

I query him on the rapidity of Maps updates, and whether this new map philosophy means faster changes for users.

“The truth is that Maps needs to be [updated more], and even are today,” says Cue. “We’ll be doing this even more with our new maps, [with] the ability to change the map in real time and often. We do that every day today. This is expanding us to allow us to do it across everything in the map. Today, there’s certain things that take longer to change.

“For example, a road network is something that takes a much longer time to change currently. In the new map infrastructure, we can change that relatively quickly. If a new road opens up, immediately we can see that and make that change very, very quickly around it. It’s much, much more rapid to do changes in the new map environment.”

So a new effort was created to begin generating its own base maps, the very lowest building block of any really good mapping system. After that, Apple would begin layering on living location data, high-resolution satellite imagery and brand new intensely high-resolution image data gathered from its ground cars until it had what it felt was a “best in class” mapping product.

There is only really one big company on earth that owns an entire map stack from the ground up: Google .

Apple knew it needed to be the other one. Enter the vans.

Apple vans spotted

Though the overall project started earlier, the first glimpse most folks had of Apple’s renewed efforts to build the best Maps product was the vans that started appearing on the roads in 2015 with “Apple Maps” signs on the side. Capped with sensors and cameras, these vans popped up in various cities and sparked rampant discussion and speculation.

The new Apple Maps will be the first time the data collected by these vans is actually used to construct and inform its maps. This is their coming out party.

Some people have commented that Apple’s rigs look more robust than the simple GPS + Camera arrangements on other mapping vehicles — going so far as to say they look more along the lines of something that could be used in autonomous vehicle training.

Apple isn’t commenting on autonomous vehicles, but there’s a reason the arrays look more advanced: they are.

Earlier this week I took a ride in one of the vans as it ran a sample route to gather the kind of data that would go into building the new maps. Here’s what’s inside.

In addition to a beefed-up GPS rig on the roof, four LiDAR arrays mounted at the corners and eight cameras shooting overlapping high-resolution images, there’s also the standard physical measuring tool attached to a rear wheel that allows for precise tracking of distance and image capture. In the rear there is a surprising lack of bulky equipment. Instead, it’s a straightforward Mac Pro bolted to the floor, attached to an array of solid state drives for storage. A single USB cable routes up to the dashboard where the actual mapping-capture software runs on an iPad.

While mapping, a driver…drives, while an operator takes care of the route, ensuring that a coverage area that has been assigned is fully driven, as well as monitoring image capture. Each drive captures thousands of images as well as a full point cloud (a 3D map of space defined by dots that represent surfaces) and GPS data. I later got to view the raw data presented in 3D and it absolutely looks like the quality of data you would need to begin training autonomous vehicles.

More on why Apple needs this level of data detail later.

When the images and data are captured, they are then encrypted on the fly and recorded on to the SSDs. Once full, the SSDs are pulled out, replaced and packed into a case, which is delivered to Apple’s data center, where a suite of software eliminates from the images private information like faces, license plates and other info. From the moment of capture to the moment they’re sanitized, they are encrypted with one key in the van and the other key in the data center. Technicians and software that are part of its mapping efforts down the pipeline from there never see unsanitized data.

This is just one element of Apple’s focus on the privacy of the data it is utilizing in New Maps.

Probe data and privacy

Throughout every conversation I have with any member of the team throughout the day, privacy is brought up, emphasized. This is obviously by design, as Apple wants to impress upon me as a journalist that it’s taking this very seriously indeed, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s evidently built in from the ground up and I could not find a false note in any of the technical claims or the conversations I had.

Indeed, from the data security folks to the people whose job it is to actually make the maps work well, the constant refrain is that Apple does not feel that it is being held back in any way by not hoovering every piece of customer-rich data it can, storing and parsing it.

The consistent message is that the team feels it can deliver a high-quality navigation, location and mapping product without the directly personal data used by other platforms.

“We specifically don’t collect data, even from point A to point B,” notes Cue. “We collect data — when we do it — in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn’t even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B. We’re collecting the segments of it. As you can imagine, that’s always been a key part of doing this. Honestly, we don’t think it buys us anything [to collect more]. We’re not losing any features or capabilities by doing this.”

The segments that he is referring to are sliced out of any given person’s navigation session. Neither the beginning or the end of any trip is ever transmitted to Apple. Rotating identifiers, not personal information, are assigned to any data or requests sent to Apple and it augments the “ground truth” data provided by its own mapping vehicles with this “probe data” sent back from iPhones.

Because only random segments of any person’s drive is ever sent and that data is completely anonymized, there is never a way to tell if any trip was ever a single individual. The local system signs the IDs and only it knows to whom that ID refers. Apple is working very hard here to not know anything about its users. This kind of privacy can’t be added on at the end, it has to be woven in at the ground level.

Because Apple’s business model does not rely on it serving to you, say, an ad for a Chevron on your route, it doesn’t need to even tie advertising identifiers to users.

Any personalization or Siri requests are all handled on-board by the iOS device’s processor. So if you get a drive notification that tells you it’s time to leave for your commute, that’s learned, remembered and delivered locally, not from Apple’s servers.

That’s not new, but it’s important to note given the new thing to take away here: Apple is flipping on the power of having millions of iPhones passively and actively improving their mapping data in real time.

In short: Traffic, real-time road conditions, road systems, new construction and changes in pedestrian walkways are about to get a lot better in Apple Maps.

The secret sauce here is what Apple calls probe data. Essentially little slices of vector data that represent direction and speed transmitted back to Apple completely anonymized with no way to tie it to a specific user or even any given trip. It’s reaching in and sipping a tiny amount of data from millions of users instead, giving it a holistic, real-time picture without compromising user privacy.

If you’re driving, walking or cycling, your iPhone can already tell this. Now if it knows you’re driving, it also can send relevant traffic and routing data in these anonymous slivers to improve the entire service. This only happens if your Maps app has been active, say you check the map, look for directions, etc. If you’re actively using your GPS for walking or driving, then the updates are more precise and can help with walking improvements like charting new pedestrian paths through parks — building out the map’s overall quality.

All of this, of course, is governed by whether you opted into location services, and can be toggled off using the maps location toggle in the Privacy section of settings.

Apple says that this will have a near zero effect on battery life or data usage, because you’re already using the ‘maps’ features when any probe data is shared and it’s a fraction of what power is being drawn by those activities.

From the point cloud on up

But maps cannot live on ground truth and mobile data alone. Apple is also gathering new high-resolution satellite data to combine with its ground truth data for a solid base map. It’s then layering satellite imagery on top of that to better determine foliage, pathways, sports facilities, building shapes and pathways.

After the downstream data has been cleaned up of license plates and faces, it gets run through a bunch of computer vision programming to pull out addresses, street signs and other points of interest. These are cross referenced to publicly available data like addresses held by the city and new construction of neighborhoods or roadways that comes from city planning departments.

But one of the special sauce bits that Apple is adding to the mix of mapping tools is a full-on point cloud that maps in 3D the world around the mapping van. This allows them all kinds of opportunities to better understand what items are street signs (retro-reflective rectangular object about 15 feet off the ground? Probably a street sign) or stop signs or speed limit signs.

It seems like it also could enable positioning of navigation arrows in 3D space for AR navigation, but Apple declined to comment on “any future plans” for such things.

Apple also uses semantic segmentation and Deep Lambertian Networks to analyze the point cloud coupled with the image data captured by the car and from high-resolution satellites in sync. This allows 3D identification of objects, signs, lanes of traffic and buildings and separation into categories that can be highlighted for easy discovery.

The coupling of high-resolution image data from car and satellite, plus a 3D point cloud, results in Apple now being able to produce full orthogonal reconstructions of city streets with textures in place. This is massively higher-resolution and easier to see, visually. And it’s synchronized with the “panoramic” images from the car, the satellite view and the raw data. These techniques are used in self-driving applications because they provide a really holistic view of what’s going on around the car. But the ortho view can do even more for human viewers of the data by allowing them to “see” through brush or tree cover that would normally obscure roads, buildings and addresses.

This is hugely important when it comes to the next step in Apple’s battle for supremely accurate and useful Maps: human editors.

Apple has had a team of tool builders working specifically on a toolkit that can be used by human editors to vet and parse data, street by street. The editor’s suite includes tools that allow human editors to assign specific geometries to flyover buildings (think Salesforce tower’s unique ridged dome) that allow them to be instantly recognizable. It lets editors look at real images of street signs shot by the car right next to 3D reconstructions of the scene and computer vision detection of the same signs, instantly recognizing them as accurate or not.

Another tool corrects addresses, letting an editor quickly move an address to the center of a building, determine whether they’re misplaced and shift them around. It also allows for access points to be set, making Apple Maps smarter about the “last 50 feet” of your journey. You’ve made it to the building, but what street is the entrance actually on? And how do you get into the driveway? With a couple of clicks, an editor can make that permanently visible.

“When we take you to a business and that business exists, we think the precision of where we’re taking you to, from being in the right building,” says Cue. “When you look at places like San Francisco or big cities from that standpoint, you have addresses where the address name is a certain street, but really, the entrance in the building is on another street. They’ve done that because they want the better street name. Those are the kinds of things that our new Maps really is going to shine on. We’re going to make sure that we’re taking you to exactly the right place, not a place that might be really close by.”

Water, swimming pools (new to Maps entirely), sporting areas and vegetation are now more prominent and fleshed out thanks to new computer vision and satellite imagery applications. So Apple had to build editing tools for those, as well.

Many hundreds of editors will be using these tools, in addition to the thousands of employees Apple already has working on maps, but the tools had to be built first, now that Apple is no longer relying on third parties to vet and correct issues.

And the team also had to build computer vision and machine learning tools that allow it to determine whether there are issues to be found at all.

Anonymous probe data from iPhones, visualized, looks like thousands of dots, ebbing and flowing across a web of streets and walkways, like a luminescent web of color. At first, chaos. Then, patterns emerge. A street opens for business, and nearby vessels pump orange blood into the new artery. A flag is triggered and an editor looks to see if a new road needs a name assigned.

A new intersection is added to the web and an editor is flagged to make sure that the left turn lanes connect correctly across the overlapping layers of directional traffic. This has the added benefit of massively improved lane guidance in the new Apple Maps.

Apple is counting on this combination of human and AI flagging to allow editors to first craft base maps and then also maintain them as the ever-changing biomass wreaks havoc on roadways, addresses and the occasional park.

Here there be Helvetica

Apple’s new Maps, like many other digital maps, display vastly differently depending on scale. If you’re zoomed out, you get less detail. If you zoom in, you get more. But Apple has a team of cartographers on staff that work on more cultural, regional and artistic levels to ensure that its Maps are readable, recognizable and useful.

These teams have goals that are at once concrete and a bit out there — in the best traditions of Apple pursuits that intersect the technical with the artistic.

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

This is the department of details. They’ve reconstructed replicas of hundreds of actual road signs to make sure that the shield on your navigation screen matches the one you’re seeing on the highway road sign. When it comes to public transport, Apple licensed all of the type faces that you see on your favorite subway systems, like Helvetica for NYC. And the line numbers are in the exact same order that you’re going to see them on the platform signs.

It’s all about reducing the cognitive load that it takes to translate the physical world you have to navigate into the digital world represented by Maps.

Bottom line

The new version of Apple Maps will be in preview next week with just the Bay Area of California going live. It will be stitched seamlessly into the “current” version of Maps, but the difference in quality level should be immediately visible based on what I’ve seen so far.

Better road networks, more pedestrian information, sports areas like baseball diamonds and basketball courts, more land cover, including grass and trees, represented on the map, as well as buildings, building shapes and sizes that are more accurate. A map that feels more like the real world you’re actually traveling through.

Search is also being revamped to make sure that you get more relevant results (on the correct continents) than ever before. Navigation, especially pedestrian guidance, also gets a big boost. Parking areas and building details to get you the last few feet to your destination are included, as well.

What you won’t see, for now, is a full visual redesign.

“You’re not going to see huge design changes on the maps,” says Cue. “We don’t want to combine those two things at the same time because it would cause a lot of confusion.”

Apple Maps is getting the long-awaited attention it really deserves. By taking ownership of the project fully, Apple is committing itself to actually creating the map that users expected of it from the beginning. It’s been a lingering shadow on iPhones, especially, where alternatives like Google Maps have offered more robust feature sets that are so easy to compare against the native app but impossible to access at the deep system level.

The argument has been made ad nauseam, but it’s worth saying again that if Apple thinks that mapping is important enough to own, it should own it. And that’s what it’s trying to do now.

“We don’t think there’s anybody doing this level of work that we’re doing,” adds Cue. “We haven’t announced this. We haven’t told anybody about this. It’s one of those things that we’ve been able to keep pretty much a secret. Nobody really knows about it. We’re excited to get it out there. Over the next year, we’ll be rolling it out, section by section in the U.S.”

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New Harry Potter game, launching today, lets players enroll in Hogwarts

Posted by | animation, app-store, Chris DeWolfe, Gaming, harry potter, jam city, Kim Kardashian, literature, mobile devices, player, TC, Warner Bros | No Comments

In the first step of what could be an endless exploration of the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the Los Angeles mobile games studio Jam City is releasing its Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery game on the App Store and Google Play.

Developed in partnership with Warner Bros., the game will launch under Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s Portkey Games — a label dedicated to creating first-person gaming experiences for mobile devices and consoles based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

No one could accuse me of being a gamer, but as a fan of both the books and the movies, I was intrigued by the prospect that the Hogwarts Mystery game presents. The animation (from the demo I’d seen) is well done and the plot was compelling.

Set in the 1980s, the game follows the player as they develop a character, enroll in Hogwarts, select one of the school’s four houses and begin to navigate the world of Hogwarts. Players can create personalized characters and customize their avatars by learning magical skills and developing relationships with other students.

Certain choices in the game will change the trajectory of the story, and, over time, the game developers envision expanding the world well-beyond Hogwarts to track characters as they navigate life in the Harry Potter universe.

But it all starts with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the mystery at the heart of game’s plot. The player’s avatar had an older sibling who attended Hogwarts but vanished mysteriously. Part of the narrative that propels the game will be investigating what happened, and why.

Within the game, players can expect to see some familiar faces (and hear some familiar voices). Dame Maggie Smith is reprising her role as Professor McGonagall and Michael Gambon is back voicing Professor Dumbledore. Other actors from the movies include Warwick Davis as Professor Flitwick, Gemma Jones as Madam Pomrey and Zoe Wanamaker as Madam Hooch.

“Our goal with Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is to make players really feel for the first time like they’re attending Hogwarts,” said Chris DeWolfe, co-founder and CEO of Jam City, in a statement. “By including these iconic and incredibly talented actors in the game, we come one step closer to truly giving fans their own Hogwarts experience.”

Players will also meet original game characters like Penny, a popular Hufflepuff potions expert; Tulip, a rebellious Ravenclaw prankster; and Merula, a Slytherin with a dark past.

As for the gameplay itself, users can duel with characters, learn spells and interact with students to gain different points that correspond to certain skills and attributes.

Mechanisms for interaction are similar to those developers have been using since Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, and some reviewers have wondered (rightly) whether the dream of a wizarding world that’s mostly open for exploration will be perverted by a cash grab.

The developers of the game seem to be just as excited as the players they want to attract, and will ideally acknowledge the not-so-fine line between commercial viability and opportunistically extortionate in-game economics.

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Mobile gaming is having a moment, and Apple has the reins

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, computing, game developer, Game Developers Conference, Gaming, Google, iOS, iOS 10, ios devices, iPad, iPhone, Mobile, mobile devices, mobile game, monument valley, online marketplaces, player, smartphones, Software, TC, Twitch, vp | No Comments

It’s moved beyond tradition and into the realm of meme that Apple manages to dominate the news cycle around major industry events, all while not actually participating in said events. CES rolls around and every story is about HomeKit or its competitors; another tech giant has a conference and the news is that Apple updated some random subsystem of its ever-larger ecosystem of devices and software .

This is, undoubtedly, planned by Apple in many instances. And why not? Why shouldn’t it own the cycle when it can — it’s only strategically sound.

This week, the 2018 Game Developers Conference is going on and there’s a bunch of news coverage about various aspects of the show. There are all of the pre-written embargo bits about big titles and high-profile indies, there are the trend pieces and, of course, there’s the traditional ennui-laden “who is this event even for” post that accompanies any industry event that achieves critical mass.

But the absolute biggest story of the event wasn’t even at the event. It was the launch of Fortnite and, shortly thereafter, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on mobile devices. Specifically, both were launched on iOS, and PUBG hit Android simultaneously.

The launch of Fortnite, especially, resonates across the larger gaming spectrum in several unique ways. It’s the full and complete game as present on consoles, it’s iOS-first and it supports cross-platform play with console and PC players.

This has, essentially, never happened before. There have been stabs at one or more of those conditions on experimental levels, but it really marks a watershed in the games industry that could serve to change the psychology around the platform discussion in major ways. 

For one, though the shape of GDC has changed over the years as it relates to mobile gaming, it’s only recently that the conference has become dominated by indie titles that are mobile centric. The big players and triple-A console titles still take up a lot of air, but the long tail is very long and mobile is not synonymous with “casual gamers” as it once was.

I remember the GDC before we launched Monument Valley,” says Dan Gray of Monument Valley 2 studio ustwo. “We were fortunate enough that Unity offered us a place on their stand. Nobody had heard of us or our game and we were begging journalists to come say hello, it’s crazy how things have changed in four years. We’ve now got three speakers at the conference this year, people stop you in the street (within a two-block radius) and we’re asked to be part of interviews like this about the future of mobile.”

Zach Gage, the creator of SpellTower, and my wife’s favorite game of all time, Flipflop Solitaire, says that things feel like they have calmed down a bit. “It seems like that might be boring, but actually I think it’s quite exciting, because a consequence of it is that playing games has become just a normal thing that everyone does… which frankly, is wild. Games have never had the cultural reach that they do now, and it’s largely because of the App Store and these magical devices that are in everyone’s pockets.”

Alto’s Odyssey is the followup to Snowman’s 2015 endless boarder Alto’s Adventure. If you look at these two titles, three years apart, you can see the encapsulation of the growth and maturity of gaming on iOS. The original game was fun, but the newer title is beyond fun and into a realm where you can see the form being elevated into art. And it’s happening blazingly fast.

“There’s a real and continually growing sense that mobile is a platform to launch compelling, artful experiences,” says Snowman’s Ryan Cash. “This has always been the sentiment among the really amazing community of developers we’ve been lucky enough to meet. What’s most exciting to me, now, though, is hearing this acknowledged by representatives of major console platforms. Having conversations with people about their favorite games from the past year, and seeing that many of them are titles tailor-made for mobile platforms, is really gratifying. I definitely don’t want to paint the picture that mobile gaming has ever been some sort of pariah, but there’s a definite sense that more people are realizing how unique an experience it is to play games on these deeply personal devices.”

Mobile gaming as a whole has fought since the beginning against the depiction that it was for wasting time only, not making “true art,” which was reserved for consoles or dedicated gaming platforms. Aside from the “casual” versus “hardcore” debate, which is more about mechanics, there was a general stigma that mobile gaming was a sidecar bet to the main functions of these devices, and that their depth would always reflect that. But the narratives and themes being tackled on the platform beyond just clever mechanics are really incredible.

Playing Monument Valley 2 together with my daughter really just blew my doors off, and I think it changed a lot of people’s minds in this regard. The interplay between the characters and environment and a surprisingly emotional undercurrent for a puzzle game made it a breakout that was also a breakthrough of sorts.

“There’s so many things about games that are so awesome that the average person on the street doesn’t even know about,” says Gray. “As small developers right now we have the chance to make somebody feel a range of emotions about a video game for the first time, it’s not often you’re in the right place at the right time for this and to do it with the most personal device that sits in your pocket is the perfect opportunity.”

The fact that so many of the highest-profile titles are launching on iOS first is a constant source of consternation for Android users, but it’s largely a function of addressable audience.

I spoke to Apple VP Greg Joswiak about Apple’s place in the industry. “Gaming has always been one of the most popular categories on the App Store,” he says. A recent relaunch of the App Store put gaming into its own section and introduced a Today tab that tells stories about the games and about their developers.

That redesign, he says, has been effective. “Traffic to the App Store is up significantly, and with higher traffic, of course, comes higher sales.”

“One thing I think smaller developers appreciate from this is the ability to show the people behind the games,” says ustwo’s Gray about the new gaming and Today sections in the App Store. “Previously customers would just see an icon and assume a corporation of 200 made the game, but now it’s great we can show this really is a labor of love for a small group of people who’re trying to make something special. Hopefully this leads to players seeing the value in paying up front for games in the future once they can see the craft that goes into something.”

Snowman’s Cash agrees. “It’s often hard to communicate the why behind the games you’re making — not just what your game is and does, but how much went into making it, and what it could mean to your players. The stories that now sit on the Today tab are a really exciting way to do this; as an example, when Alto’s Odyssey released for pre-order, we saw a really positive player response to the discussion of the game’s development. I think the variety that the new App Store encourages as well, through rotational stories and regularly refreshed sections, infuses a sense of variety that’s great for both players and developers. There’s a real sense I’m hearing that this setup is equipped to help apps and games surface, and stayed surfaced, in a longer term and more sustainable way.”

In addition, there are some technical advantages that keep Apple ahead of Android in this arena. Plenty of Android devices are very performant and capable in individual ways, but Apple has a deep holistic grasp of its hardware that allows it to push platform advantages in introducing new frameworks like ARKit. Google’s efforts in the area with ARCore are just getting started with the first batch of 1.0 apps coming online now, but Google will always be hamstrung by the platform fragmentation that forces developers to target a huge array of possible software and hardware limitations that their apps and games will run up against.

This makes shipping technically ambitious projects like Fortnite on Android as well as iOS a daunting task. “There’s a very wide range of Android devices that we want to support,” Epic Games’ Nick Chester told Forbes. “We want to make sure Android players have a great experience, so we’re taking more time to get it right.“

That wide range of devices includes an insane differential in GPU capability, processing power, Android version and update status.

“We bring a very homogenous customer base to developers where 90 percent of [devices] are on the current versions of iOS,” says Joswiak. Apple’s customers embrace those changes and updates quickly, he says, and this allows developers to target new features and the full capabilities of the devices more quickly.

Ryan Cash sees these launches on iOS of “full games” as they exist elsewhere as a touchstone of sorts that could legitimize the idea of mobile as a parity platform.

“We have a few die-hard Fortnite players on the team, and the mobile version has them extremely excited,” says Cash. “I think more than the completeness of these games (which is in and of itself a technical feat worth celebrating!), things like Epic’s dedication to cross-platform play are massive. Creating these linked ecosystems where players who prefer gaming on their iPhones can enjoy huge cultural touchstone titles like Fortnite alongside console players is massive. That brings us one step closer to an industry attitude which focuses more on accessibility, and less on siloing off experiences and separating them into tiers of perceived quality.”

“I think what is happening is people are starting to recognize that iOS devices are everywhere, and they are the primary computers of many people,” says Zach Gage. “When people watch a game on Twitch, they take their iPhone out of their pocket and download it. Not because they want to know if there’s a mobile version, but because they just want the game. It’s natural to assume that these games available for a computer or a PlayStation, and it’s now natural to assume that it would be available for your phone.”

Ustwo’s Gray says that it’s great that the big games are transitioning, but also cautions that there needs to be a sustainable environment for mid-priced games on iOS that specifically use the new capabilities of these devices.

“It’s great that such huge games are transitioning this way, but for me I’d really like to see more $30+ titles designed and developed specifically for iPhone and iPad as new IP, really taking advantage of how these devices are used,” he says. “It’s definitely going to benefit the App Store as a whole, but It does need to be acknowledged, however, that the way players interact with console/PC platforms and mobile are inherently different and should be designed accordingly. Session lengths and the interaction vocabulary of players are two of the main things to consider, but if a game manages to somehow satisfy the benefits of all those platforms then great, but I think it’s hard.”

Apple may not be an official sponsor of GDC, but it is hosting two sessions at the show, including an introduction to Metal 2, its rendering pipeline, and ARKit, its hope for the future of gaming on mobile. This presence is exciting for a number of reasons, as it shows a greater willingness by Apple to engage the community that has grown around its platforms, but also that the industry is becoming truly integrated, with mobile taking its rightful place alongside console and portable gaming as a viable target for the industry’s most capable and interesting talent.

“They’re bringing the current generation of console games to iOS,” Joswiak says, of launches like Fortnite and PUBG, and notes that he believes we’re at a tipping point when it comes to mobile gaming, because mobile platforms like the iPhone and iOS offer completely unique combinations of hardware and software features that are iterated on quickly.

“Every year we are able to amp up the tech that we bring to developers,” he says, comparing it to the 4-5 year cycle in console gaming hardware. “Before the industry knew it, we were blowing people away [with the tech]. The full gameplay of these titles has woken a lot of people up.”

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Rylo’s shoot first, frame later camera is ideal for casual adventure-seekers

Posted by | 360 degree video, 3D imaging, action camera, Android, Camcorders, Computer Hardware, computing, Gadgets, GoPro, hardware, mobile device, mobile devices, oled, Reviews, TC, usb, xbox 360 | No Comments

Action cameras are a gadget that mostly cater to a person’s wish to see themselves in a certain way: Most people aren’t skiing off mountains or cliff diving most of the time, but they aspire to. The issue with most action cameras, though, is that even when you actually do something cool, you still have to shoot the right angle to capture the moment, which is itself a skill. That’s the beauty of Rylo, a tiny 360 camera that minimizes the skill required and makes it easy to get the shots you want.

Rylo is compact enough to have roughly the footprint of a GoPro, but with dual lenses for 4K, 360-degree video capture. It has a removable battery pack good for an hour of continuous video recording, and a micro USB port for charging. In the box, you’ll get either a micro USB to Lightning, or micro USB to micro USB and USB C cables, depending on whether you pick up the Android or the iOS version, and you handle all editing on the mobile device you already have with you always.

The device itself feels solid, and has stood up to a lot of travel and various conditions over the course of my usage. The anodized aluminum exterior can take some lumps, and the OLED screen on the device provides just enough info when you’re shooting, without overwhelming. There’s no viewfinder, but the point of the Rylo is that you don’t need one – it’s capturing a full 360-degree image all the time, and you position your shot after the fact in editing.

Rylo includes a 16GB microSD card in the box, too, but you can use up to 256GB versions for more storage. A single button on top controls both power functions and recording, and the simplicity is nice when you’re in the moment and just want to start shooting without worrying about settings.

The basic functionality of Rylo is more than most people will need out of a device like this: Using the app, you can select out an HD, flat frame of video to export, and easily trim the length plus make adjustments to picture, including basic edits like highlights, color and contrast. Rylo’s built-in stabilization keeps things surprisingly smooth, even when you’re driving very fast along a bumpy road with what amounts to nearly race-tuned tires and suspension.

Then, if you want to get really fancy, you can do things like add motion to your clips, including being able to make dead-simple smooth pans from one focus point to another. The end result looks like you’re using a gimbal or other stabilized film camera, but all the equipment you need is the Rylo itself, plus any mount, including the handle/tripod mount that comes in the box, or anything that works with a GoPro.

You can even set a specific follow point, allowing you to track a specific object or person throughout the clip. This works well, though sometimes it’ll lose track of the person or thing if there’s low light or the thing it’s following gets blocked. The app will let you know it’s lost its target, however, and in practice it works well enough to create good-looking videos for things like bicycling and riding ATVs, for instance.

Other companies are trying to do similar things with their own hardware, including GoPro with the Fusion and Insta360 with its Insta360 One. But Rylo’s solution has the advantage of being dead simple to use, with easily portable hardware that’s durable and compatible with existing GoPro mount accessories. The included micro USB to Lightning cable isn’t easily replaced, except for from Rylo itself, and it’s also small and easy to lose, so that’s my main complaint when it comes to the system as a whole.

In the end, the Rylo does what it’s designed to do: Takes the sting out of creating cool action clips and compelling short movies for people working mostly from their mobile devices. It’s not as flexible for pros looking for a way to integrate more interesting camera angles into their desktop workflow because of how tied content captured on the Rylo is to the Rylo app itself, but it seems clearly designed for a consumer enthusiast market anyway.

At $499, the Rylo isn’t all that much more expensive than the GoPro Hero 6. It’s still a significant investment, and the image quality isn’t up to the 4K video output by the GoPro, but for users who just want to make cool videos to share among friends using social tools, Rylo’s ease of use and incredibly low bar in terms of filming expertise required is hard to beat.

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Monetizing Mobile Gaming

Posted by | Column, Mobile, mobile devices, mobile gaming, TC | No Comments

vainglory The mobile gaming industry made $29 billion in 2015 — and it is only set to continue growing (with estimates as high as $49 billion by 2018). But the mobile gaming industry is in the “wild west” phase of its history right now, with the constant improvement of mobile devices and so many variables to successful monetization. Though it’s difficult to know exactly what… Read More

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