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Ring’s newest security camera is a $249 autonomous indoor drone shipping in 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Ring built its entire business on reinventing the doorbell — and now it’s taking a similar approach to the humble home security camera, with the Ring Always Home Cam, set to be available sometime next year. You might not guess from its name, but this security camera is actually mobile: It’s a drone that flies autonomously throughout your home, to provide you with the view you want of whatever room you want, without having to have video cameras installed in multiple locations throughout your house.

The Always Home Cam is a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which you lay out as a user. The drone can’t actually be manually flown, and it begins recording only once its in flight (the camera lens is actually physically blocked while it’s docked) — both features the company says will help ensure it operates strictly with privacy in mind. Always Home Cam is also designed intentionally to produce an audible hum while in use, to alert anyone present that it’s actually moving around and recording.

As you’d expect, the Always Home Cam doesn’t have the exposed rotors you’d see on a drone designed for use in outdoor open spaces. It has a plastic border and grills that enclose those for safety. It’s also small, at 5″x 7″x7″, which is useful for safety of both people and household objects.

I spoke to Ring founder and CEO Jamie Siminoff about why they decided to create such an ambitious, unorthodox home security camera — especially given their track record of relatively down-to-Earth, tech-enabled versions of tried-and-tested home hardware like doorbells and floodlights. He said that it actually came out of user feedback — something he still personally pays close attention to, even now that Ring is part of the larger corporate apparatus of Amazon . Siminoff said that a lot of the feedback he was seeing was from customers who wished they’d either been home or been able to see when some specific thing happened at a specific place in their house, or that they wanted a camera for a particular room, but only for certain times — and then a different camera in a different room for others.

“It’s not practical to have a camera at every angle in every room of the home,” he said. “Even if you had unlimited resources, I think it’s still not practical. What I love about the Always Home Cam is that it really does solve this problem of being one cam for all — it allows you to now see every angle of the home, in every part of the home.”

Drones are also not Ring’s main business, and yet the Always Home Cam will be available at the relatively low price of $249 when it becomes available, despite the technical challenges of creating a small aircraft able to operate indoors safely and fully autonomously. I asked Siminoff how Ring was able to achieve that price point in a category that’s outside its core expertise, with a design developed fully in-house.

“As the technology has kind of aged, a lot of these parts come down in price,” he said. “There’s also a lot of price compression happening because auto manufacturers are using a lot of these parts now at higher volumes, because to have an autonomous drone, you need some similar things to autonomous cars. Obviously, it’s not the same exact parts, but all of those costs have been coming down, and we were able to go with a fresh perspective to it. But I also challenged the team when we came up with this, that this has to be affordable.”

The Ring Always Home Cam will also work with Ring’s existing suite of products, including Ring Alarm, to automatically fly a pre-set path when an alarm is triggered. You’re able then to stream the video live to your mobile device via the Ring app. In many ways, it does seem like a natural extension of the Ring ecosystem of products and services, but at the same time, it also seems like something out of science fiction. I asked Siminoff if he thinks consumers are ready to take this kind of technology seriously as something that’s part of their daily lives.

“I think it is sort of something that is, in some ways, way out there,” he acknowledged. “What I love about it, though, is that it’s what happens when you just take the constraints away of this linear thinking. I love that we are doing stuff from really looking at the need backward, and then what technology exists, and ask what can we build? It’s really exciting for me to be able to do something and put our stamp on something that is an industry first.”

Ring to offer opt-in end-to-end encryption for videos beginning later this year

By Darrell Etherington

Ring will be stepping up its efforts to make its security products secure for users by enabling end-to-end video encryption later this year. The company will be providing this toggle in a new page in tits app’s Control Center, which will provide more information about Ring’s current encryption practices, and measures to keep user video secure, until the end-to-end encryption feature goes live. Ring is also taking the covers off a range of new devices todayincluding its first drone – but Ring CEO and founder Jamie Siminoff says that this new security measure could actually make the biggest difference to its customers.

“[End-to-end encryption] could be our most important product that we’re sort of putting out there, because security and privacy, and user control are foundational to Ring, and continuing to push those further than even the industry, and really even pushing the res of the industry, is something I think that we have a responsibility to do.”

Siminoff also points to Ring’s introduction of mandatory two-factor authentication earlier this year as something that’s above and beyond the standard across the industry. I asked him them why not make end-to-end encryption for video on by default, with an opt-out option instead if users feel strongly that they don’t want to take part.

“Privacy, as you know, is really individualized – we see people have different needs,” he said. Just one example for end-to-end, is thatwhen you enable it, you cannot use your Alexa to say ‘Show me who’s at the front door,’ because of the physics of locking down to an end-to-end key. As soon as you do something like that, it would actually break what you’re trying to achieve. So it really is something that is optional, because it doesn’t fit every user in terms of the way in which they want to use the product. But there are some users  that really do want this type of security – so I think what you’re going to see from us in the future, and I hope the industry as well, is just really allowing people to dial in the security that they want, and having transparency, which is also with the Video Control Center that we’ve launched today to provide you with the knowledge of what’s happening with your data, in this case with Ring videos.”

Overall, Siminoff said that the company hopes through all of its products, to be able to provide its users to build the system that they want to use, its the way that they want to use it. The Alway Home Cam drone, he points out, is another expression of that, since it provides the potential to monitor every room in your home – but also the ability to be selective about when and where.

“I think it’s just about building the options to allow people to use technology – but use it comfortably, understand it, and control it,” he said.

Ring gets into automotive security with three new car products, including one debuting first for Teslas

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon -owned Ring is expanding from home and neighborhood security to the automative world, with three new products it debuted today at Amazon’s expansive devices and services extravaganza. These include Ring Car Alarm, Ring Car Cam, and Ring Car Connect – two new devices and one API/hardware combo aimed at automotive manufacturers, respectively. Each of these will be available beginning sometime next year.

“Truly since we started Ring, and even back in Doorbot days, people were asking for automotive security,” explained Ring CEO and founder Jamie Siminoff in an interview. “It was something that we always kind of had top of mind, but obviously we had to get a lot of other things done first – it does take time to build a product, and to do them right. So while it did take us some time to get into it, our mission is making neighborhoods safer, and a lot of the stuff that happens to cars happens in the neighborhood.”

Siminoff said that he’s especially pleased to be able to launch not just one, but a full suite of car security products that he feels covers the needs of just about any customer out there. Ring Car Alarm is an OBD-II wireless device that can detect any bumps while the car’s unoccupied, or even break-ins and when the car’s begin towed. Ring Car Cam is a security camera, which can work either via wifi, or LTE available via an add-on plan, and check for incidents while parked, or offer emergency crash detection and traffic stop recording when on the road. Finally, Ring Car Connect is an API and aftermarket device for carmakers that allows them to integrate a vehicle’s built-in cameras, and lock/unlock state.

I asked Siminoff why start right out the gate with three separate products, especially in a new market that Ring’s entering for the first time.

“As we started looking into it more, we realized that really, it wasn’t a one-size-fits all kind of product line, even to start,” he said. “We realized that it really was about trying to build more of a suite of products around the car. At Ring. we try to – and I won’t say we hit this 100% of time – but we’ve certainly tried to only launch something when it’s truly inventive, differentiated for the market, fits our mission and can really make a customer’s life better.”

[gallery ids="2051119,2051116"]

The products definitely span a range of price points – Ring Car Alarm will retail for $59.99, while Car Cam and Car Connect will both be $199.99. Ring Car Alarm is obviously aimed at the broadest swath of customers, and provides a fundamental feature set that can work in concert with the Ring app to hopefully provide deterrents to potential criminal activity around a user’s vehicle. The device sends alerts to the Ring app, and they can then trigger aa series if they want. Car Alarm can also be linked up to other Ring devices, or Amazon Alexa hardware, and Alexa will provide audible alerts of any bumps, break-ins or other events. Ring Car Alarm will require connectivity via Amazon Sidewalk, the low-bandwidth, and free wireless network protocol that Ring’s parent company is set to take live sometime later this year.

Ring Car Cam goes the extra mile of actually letting a user check in on their vehicle via video – provided they’re either within range of a wifi network, or connected via the optional built-in LTE with a companion plan. It also provides additional security features when the car in which it’s installed is actually in use. Ring’s Emergency Crash Assist feature will alert first responders to the car’s location whenever it detects what it determines to be a serious crash. Also, you can use the voice command “Alexa, I’m being pulled over” to trigger an automatic recording in case of a traffic stop, which is automatically uploaded to the cloud (again, provided you’ve got active connectivity.). On the privacy side, there’s a physical shutter on the camera itself for when you don’t want it in use, which also stops the mic from recording.

Finally, Ring Car Connect consists of an API that car manufacturers use to provide Ring customers access to mobile alerts for any detected events around their vehicle, or to watch footage recorded from their onboard cameras. This also allows access to information that wouldn’t be available with a strictly aftermarket setup – like whether the car is locked or unlocked, for instance. Ring’s first automaker partner for this is Tesla, which is enabling Ring Car Connect across the 3, X, S and Y models. Users will install an aftermarket device coming in 2021 for $199.99, but then they’ll be able to watch Tesla Sentry Mode footage, as well as video recorded while driving, directly in the Ring app.

Image Credits: Ring

Ring’s security ecosystem has grown from the humble doorbell, to whole-home (now, much more now) and exterior, to a full-fledged alarm service, and now to the car. It’s definitely not resting on its laurels. And it’s also releasing a $29.99 mailbox sensor, which will quite literally tell you when “You’ve got mail,” which is Iike a delightful little cherry on top.

MIT engineers develop a totally flat fisheye lens that could make wide-angle cameras easier to produce

By Darrell Etherington

Engineers at MIT, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, have devised a way to build a camera lens that avoids the typical spherical curve of ultra-wide-angle glass, while still providing true optical fisheye distortion. The fisheye lens is relatively specialist, producing images that can cover as wide an area as 180 degrees or more, but they can be very costly to produce, and are typically heavy, large lenses that aren’t ideal for use on small cameras like those found on smartphones.

This is the first time that a flat lens has been able to product clear, 180-degree images that cover a true panoramic spread. The engineers were able to make it work by patterning a thin wafer of glass on one side with microscopic, three-dimensional structures that are positioned very precisely in order to scatter any inbound light in precisely the same way that a curved piece of glass would.

The version created by the researchers in this case is actually designed to work specifically with the infrared portion of the light spectrum, but they could also adapt the design to work with visible light, they say. Whether IR or visible light, there are a range of potential uses of this technology, since capturing a 180-degree panorama is useful not only in some types of photography, but also for practical applications like medical imaging and in computer vision applications where range is important to interpreting imaging data.

This design is just one example of what’s called a “Metalens” — lenses that make use of microscopic features to change their optical characteristics in ways that would traditionally have been accomplished through macro design changes — like building a lens with an outward curve, for instance, or stacking multiple pieces of glass with different curvatures to achieve a desired field of view.

What’s unusual here is that the ability to accomplish a clear, detailed and accurate 180-degree panoramic image with a perfectly flat metalens design came as a surprise even to the engineers who worked on the project. It’s definitely an advancement of the science that goes beyond what many assumed was the state of the art.

Boston Dynamics delivers plan for logistics robots as early as next year

By Devin Coldewey

Boston Dynamics is just months away from announcing their approach to logistics, the first real vertical it aims to enter, after proving their ability to build robots at scale with the quadrupedal Spot. The company’s new CEO, Robert Playter, sees the company coming into its own after decades of experimentation.

Playter, interviewed on the virtual main stage of Disrupt 2020, only recently ascended from COO to that role after many years of working there, after longtime CEO and founder Marc Raibert stepped aside to focus on R&D. This is Playter’s first public speaking engagement since taking on the new responsibility, and it’s clear he has big plans for Boston Robotics.

The recent commercialization of Spot, the versatile quadrupedal robot that is a distant descendant of the famous Big Dog, showed Playter and the company that there is a huge demand for what they’re offering, even if they’re not completely sure where that demand is.

“We weren’t sure exactly what the target verticals would be,” he admitted, and seemingly neither did the customers, who have collectively bought about 260 of the $75,000 robots and are now actively building their own add-ons and industry-specific tools for the platform. And the price hasn’t been a deterrent, he said: “As an industrial tool this is actually quite affordable. But we’ve been very aggressive, spending a lot of money to try to build an affordable way to produce this, and we’re already working on ways to continue to reduce costs.”

boston dynamics spot

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The global pandemic has also helped create a sense of urgency around robots as an alternative to or augmentation of manual labor.

“People are realizing that having a physical proxy for themselves, to be able to be present remotely, might be more important than we imagined before,” Playter said. “We’ve always thought of robots as being able to go into dangerous places, but now danger has been redefined a little bit because of COVID. The pandemic is accelerating the sense of urgency and, I think, probably opening up the kinds of applications that we will explore with this technology.”

Among the COVID-specific applications, the company has fielded requests for collaboration on remote monitoring of patients, and automatic disinfection using Spot to carry aerosol spray through a facility. “I don’t know whether that’ll be a big market going forward, but we thought it was important to respond at the time,” he said. “Partly out of a sense of obligation to the community and society that we do the right thing here.”

The “Dr Spot” remote vitals measurement program at MIT.

One of the earliest applications to scale successfully was, of course, logistics, where companies like Amazon have embraced robotics as a way to increase productivity and lower labor costs. Boston Dynamics is poised to jump into the market with a very different robot — or rather robots — meant to help move boxes and other box-like items around in a very different way from the currently practical “autonomous pallet” method.

“We have big plans in logistics,” Playter said. “we’re going to have some exciting new logistics products coming out in the next two years. We have customers now doing proof of concept tests. We’ll announce something in 2021, exactly what we’re doing, and we’ll have product available in 2022.”

The company already offers Pick, a more traditional, stationary item-picking system, and they’re working on the next version of Handle, a birdlike mobile robot that can grab boxes and move them around while taking up comparatively little space — no more than a person or two standing up. This mobility allows it to unload things like shipping containers, trucks and other confined or less predictable spaces.

In a video shown during the interview (which you can watch above), Handle is also shown working in concert with an off-the-shelf pallet robot, and Playter emphasized the need for this kind of cooperation, and not just between robots from a single creator.

“We’ll be offering software that lets robots work together,” he said. “Now, we don’t have to create them all. But ultimately it will take teams of robots to do some of these tasks, and we anticipate being able to work with a heterogeneous fleet.”

This kinder, gentler, more industry-friendly Boston Dynamics is almost certainly a product of nudging from SoftBank, which acquired the company in 2018, but also the simple reality that you can’t run a world-leading robotics R&D outfit for nothing. But Playter was keen to note that the Japanese tech giant understands that “we’re only in the position we’re in now because of the previous work we’ve done in the last two decades, developing these advanced capabilities, so we have to keep doing that.”

One thing you won’t likely see doing real work any time soon is Atlas, the company’s astonishingly agile humanoid robot. It’s just not practical for anything just yet, but instead acts as a kind of prestige project, forcing the company to constantly adjust its sights upward.

atlas gymnastics boston dynamics

“It’s such a complex robot, and it can do so much it forces us to create tools we would not otherwise. And people love it — it’s aspirational, it attracts talent,” said Playter.

And he himself is no exception. Once a gymnast, he recalled “a nostalgic moment” watching Atlas vault around. “A lot of the people in the company, including Marc, have inspiration from the athletic performance of people and animals,” Playter said. “That DNA is deeply embedded in our company.”

JAWS architect Glen Gordon is joining Sight Tech Global, a virtual event Dec. 2-3

By Ned Desmond

For people who are blind or visually impaired, JAWS is synonymous with freedom to operate Windows PCs with a remarkable degree of control and precision with output in speech and Braille. The keyboard-driven application makes it possible to navigate GUI-based interfaces of web sites and Windows programs. Anyone who has ever listened to someone proficient in JAWS (the acronym for “Job Access With Speech”) navigate a PC can’t help but marvel at the speed of the operator and the rapid fire machine-voice responses from JAWS itself.

For nearly 25 years, JAWS has dominated the field of screen readers, and is in use by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. It is inarguably one of the greatest achievements in modern assistive technology. We are delighted to announce that Glen Gordon, the architect of JAWS for over 25 years, is joining the agenda at Sight Tech Global, which is a virtual event (December 2-3) focused on how AI-related technologies will influence assistive technology and accessibility in the years ahead. Attendance is free and registration is open.

Blind since birth, Gordon’s interest in accessibility developed out of what he calls “a selfish desire to use Windows at a time when it was not at all clear that graphical user interfaces could be made accessible.” He has an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School, and he learned software development through “the school of hard knocks and lots of frustration trying to use inaccessible software.” He is an audio and broadcasting buff and host of FSCast, the podcast from Freedom Scientific.

The latest public beta release of JAWS contains a glimpse of the future for the storied software: It now works with certain user voice commands — “Voice Assist” — and provides more streamlined access to image descriptions, both thanks to AI technologies that the JAWS team at Freedom Scientific is using in JAWS as well as FUSION (which combines JAWS and ZoomText, a screen magnifier). Those updates address two of JAWS’ challenges — the complexity of the available keyboard command set that intimidates some users and “alt tags” on images that don’t always adequately describe the image.

“The upcoming versions of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion use natural language processing to allow many screen reader commands to be performed verbally,” says Gordon. “You probably wouldn’t want to speak every command, but for the less common ones Voice assist offers a way to minimize the key combinations that you need to learn.”

“Broadly speaking, we’re looking to make it easier for people to use a smaller command set to work efficiently. This fundamentally means making our products smarter, and being able to anticipate what a user wants and needs based on their prior actions. Getting there is an imprecise process and we’ll continue to rely on user feedback to help guide us towards what works best.”

The next generation of screen readers will take advantage of AI, among other technologies, and that will be a major topic at Sight Tech Global on December 2-3. Get your free pass now.

Sight Tech Global welcomes sponsors. Current sponsors include Verizon Media, Google, Waymo, Mojo Vision and Wells Fargo. The event is organized by volunteers and all proceeds from the event benefit The Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Silicon Valley.

Pictured above: JAWS Architect Glen Gordon in his home audio studio. 

iOS 14 is now available to download

By Romain Dillet

Apple has just released the final version of iOS 14, the next major version of the operating system for the iPhone. It is a free download and it works with the iPhone 6s or later, both generations of iPhone SE and the most recent iPod touch model. If your device runs iOS 13, it supports iOS 14. The update may or may not be immediately available, but keep checking because people are now receiving the update.

The company is also releasing major updates for the iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV today. So you can expect some new features with iPadOS 14, tvOS 14 and watchOS 7 as well.

The release of those updates caught many developers by surprise. Apple announced yesterday that iOS 14 would be ready for prime time today. Usually, the company announces the release date a week or two in advance. This way, developers have enough time to fix the last remaining bugs and submit updates to the App Store.

If you update your iPhone today, don’t be surprised if you encounter a few bugs here and there from third-party apps. There are some major changes under the hood and nobody expected such a short turnaround.

The update is currently rolling out and is available both over-the-air in the Settings app, and by plugging your device into iTunes for a wired update. But first, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can also plug your iOS device into your computer to do a manual backup in iTunes (or do both, really).

Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.

Once this is done, you should go to the Settings app, then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ Then you should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.

The biggest change of iOS 14 is the introduction of widgets on the home screen, a new App Library to browse all your apps and the ability to run App Clips — those are mini apps that feature a small part of an app and that you can run without installing anything.

There are also many refinements across the board, such as new features for Messages, with a big focus on groups with @-mentions and replies, a new Translate app that works on your device, cycling directions in Apple Maps in some cities and various improvements in Notes, Reminders, Weather, Home and more.

If you want to learn more about iOS 14, I looked at some of the features in the new version earlier this summer:

TouchWood puts versatile, unobtrusive interfaces inside your desk, table and walls

By Devin Coldewey

Everything we do seems to have an associated app these days, and all day they vie for your attention, pinging and lighting up in their needy ways. TouchWood wants to tone down this exhausting non-stop competition with a quiet, simplified interface built right into the natural material of your desk or wall.

Co-founders Matthew Dworman and Gaurav Asthana were fed up with the idea that making your home or workplace smarter usually meant adding even more stuff: a smart speaker that sits on your desk, a smart watch constantly telling you your step count, a smart fridge that slips advertisements into your morning routine. Not only that but these devices and apps are constantly drawing you away from what you want to do, whether that’s work or trying not to work.

They wanted (they told me) something like the enchanted sword Sting from Lord of the Rings: It’s just a sword 99 percent of the time, but it’s also an orc radar if and when you need it, and even then it just glows. Why doesn’t the digital world similarly only appear when you need it, and in the least obtrusive fashion possible?

Dworman previously worked in high-end furniture design, and with Asthana developed the idea of interacting with tech via “a slab of wood instead of an app,” as the latter put it.

Image Credits: TouchWood

“What we’ve created is a modular tech platform that uses high-intensity LEDs with capacitive touch sensing. This allows us to embed it in essentially opaque material,” Dworman explained. “The wall, countertop, desk, in the home, the office, retail, transportation, we see so many ways to provide information and completely invisible controls.”

The surface would appear completely normal when the display is off, and indeed it is. Mui Labs, which demonstrated at CES its own natural material display, requires a specially perforated wood surface that you probably wouldn’t want to spill coffee on. A TouchWood display is just that: wood — or many other common surface materials.

A TouchWood surface in action. (The lines are an artifact of the camera’s framerate.)

It’s not meant to be a second display, but a friendly overflow for the information avalanche presented to us via our desktops, laptops, and phones… and speakers, watches, coffee makers, robot dogs, and so on.

“We’re not trying to put a computer in a surface — we want to provide you with a better touchpoint for your existing devices, to enhance their capabilities by taking away some of the information pressure that’s put on them,” said Asthana.

Image Credits: TouchWood

Perhaps you, like me, constantly flick your eyes towards the tabs in your browsers, or the apps arrayed on the bottom of your screen, to see if there’s any change — a new email, a message on Slack, a calendar item. A TouchWood desk would let those notifications take alternative routes, like a glowing circle off where you put your coffee or mouse. Tap it there and get a summary, or go to the content, or swipe it away — but you never have to switch tabs, or go to a different app, or unlock your phone. And when it’s done, the desk is just a piece of wood again.

Dworman sees the transition as natural. “Touchscreens the way we know them have really only been around for 10 or 11 years. But because they’re so ubiquitous we kind of take them for granted,” he said. “When you watch sci-fi films, this tech is still being used 500 years in the future! But it shouldn’t be. In car terms, the iPhone as it is now is like the Model T.”

TouchWood aims to be a platform eventually, but needs to launch a product of its own first. It plans to have a nice sit/stand desk with two large display areas available next year for somewhere in the $2,000 region. Expensive, yes — but you may be surprised what people will happily spend on new furniture, especially something like a major component of a newly important home office.

After proving out the concept with a flagship product, they can start working their way into other niches and working with partners. Embedding an invisible display in a countertop, wall, or of course a restaurant table leads to all kinds of use cases. Here’s hoping TouchWood’s tech leads to a future with slightly fewer screens in it — at least ones we can see.

Four perspectives on Apple’s new service bundle

By Devin Coldewey

Apple’s hardware event yesterday wasn’t particularly eventful for its most popular devices, bringing only iterative changes to Apple Watch and the iPad. But the company tipped its hand as to a new, aggressive approach to services with a fitness product and new unified subscription called Apple One. What are the implications of this shift?

For one thing, Cupertino is engaging in a form of future-proofing to offset slowing hardware sales and potentially a loss of App Store income.

And yet some of the services may not survive the next few years. What happens when no one wants to pay for Apple Arcade or TV+? Will its newest service, Fitness+, impact self-employed fitness workers who are building their own brands by undercutting them and offering exclusive watchOS integration?

Lastly, the whole deal may look different depending on what country you live in — and no one likes to feel left out.

TC staff dilate on these possibilities below:

  • Brian Heater: This is Apple’s new bread and butter.
  • Kirsten Korosec: If you’re a self-employed fitness pro, Apple just ate your lunch.
  • Lucas Matney: Apple One is doomed from the start.
  • Devin Coldewey: Apple’s increasingly complex global ecosystem.

This is Apple’s new bread and butter

Brian Heater

Image Credits: Apple

Of course Apple’s not at any risk of losing money on the hardware front. It still sells a ton of iPhones, a lot of computers and more smartwatches than anyone else. But certain categories are seeing a slow down. The iPhone in particular — the long-time tentpole product of Apple’s hardware offering — has been impacted as smartphone sales have plateaued and slowed down nearly across the board.

Accordingly, services have become an increasingly important piece of Apple’s quarterly revenue. Earlier this year, the company noted a year-over-year sales increase of 17%, due in no small part to recent additions like Arcade and TV+. Today’s addition of Fitness+ will no doubt juice the numbers even further, arriving at a perfect moment for in-home workouts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the new iPad Air, with Touch ID built into the power button

By Devin Coldewey

At Apple’s (virtual) hardware event today, the company announced a significantly redesigned iPad Air with a new look and tiny bezels. In a move portentous for other Apple products, Touch ID has returned — inside the power button on the top of the tablet.

For the 10th anniversary of the iPad, the new 4th-generation Air is the biggest change to the device in a while. “This is a big year for iPad,” said CEO Tim Cook, before introducing changes to the non-Pro tablets in the lineup. “And today, we’re thrilled to introduce an all new completely redesigned iPad Air.”

The biggest change has to be the next-generation touch ID sensor built into the power button. Time will tell whether this is truly more convenient than having it in the “home” button, but it’s clear now that Apple has seen that demand for the fingerprint-based unlocking method has not abated.

Image Credits: Apple

Could the new Touch ID power button show up on the iPhone 12, or at the very least on the iPad Pro later? It seems likely, as while Face ID has become more reliable over time, sometimes people just prefer the hands-on approach.

The look is new to the iPad Air series, but mainly just resembles the Pro, with flat sides, rounded corners on the screen, and a prominent camera bump. There are also a bunch of hot new colors.

Image Credits: Apple

There’s a new display, with a 2360×1640 resolution, a little higher than the last generation. You probably won’t notice the difference unless they’re side by side, but Apple has always pushed to make sure its devices have among the highest quality screens out there, and the new Air is no exception.

The connector has graduated from Lightning to USB-C like its big brother the iPad Pro, so while on one hand you might need to throw away your cables… again… the new cables aren’t special Apple ones sprinkled with fairy dust, so you’ll be able to use $5 ones from Monoprice instead.

There’s an improved front camera, and the back one gets the iPad Pro’s 12-megapixel, 4K-capable shooter. But no lidar, unfortunately. Speakers also get a boost, with stereo audio in landscape mode.

You’ll be able to pick up the new iPad Air starting next month at $599 for the cheapest version (wi-fi only, with the least amount of storage, exact amount TBD). It may be hard to justify spending the extra money for the Pro at this point.

The vanilla iPad, now in its 8th generation, also got a computing power bump to the A12 series of chips, but no big design changes. With 500 million iPad devices sold, the traditional design is proven to be just fine. It’ll set you back $329.

Apple introduces the Apple Watch SE, a cheaper Apple Watch

By Romain Dillet

In addition to keeping old generation devices at an entry-level price, Apple is introducing a brand new Apple Watch at a cheaper price point. The new Apple Watch SE features the same design as the newly announced Apple Watch Series 6. But it costs $279.

“The second thing we're doing to make Apple Watch available to even more people is to create a new model that combines elements of Series 6 design with the most essential features of Apple Watch, all at a more affordable price,” Apple COO Jeff Williams said.

The Apple Watch SE uses the S5 system-on-a-chip, which was first released for the Apple Watch Series 5. However, it has the same, big display as the one on the Series 6. It also has the same accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and altimeter as the ones in the Series 6.

And because the Apple Watch SE shares the same design as the Apple Watch Series 6, you can use the most recent complications and watch faces that are going to be introduced with watchOS 7.

So we’ll have to look at the tech specs in details because the Apple Watch SE looks like a good deal when you compare it with the Apple Watch Series 6 that costs $399. You might not get blood oxygen data like on the Series 6, but it’s a good watch for users who just want a watch to track their workouts, for instance.

Apple is still keeping the Apple Watch Series 3 at the same price ($199). This device is a few years old now and it features the older screen design. So the Apple Watch Series 3 is not compatible with the most recent watch faces and complications.

The company is also positioning the Apple Watch SE as a way to offer an Apple Watch to your kid. There’s a cellular model, which means you can communicate with your kid without handing them a smartphone.

N95 masks could soon be rechargeable instead of disposable

By Devin Coldewey

The pandemic has led to N95 masks quickly becoming one of the world’s most sought-after resources as essential workers burned through billions of them. New research could lead to an N95 that you can recharge rather than throw away — or even one that continuously tops itself up for maximum effectiveness.

The proposed system, from researchers at Technion-IIT in Israel and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, is not one of decontamination, as you might expect. Instead, it focuses on another aspect of N95 masks that renders them less effective over time.

N95s use both mechanical filtering, in which particles are caught in a matrix of microscopic fibers, and electrostatic filtering, in which particles are attracted to surfaces that carry a static charge. It’s like the old trick where you rub a balloon on your head and it sticks — but at the scale of microns.

The combination of these two methods makes N95 masks very effective, but the electrostatic charge, like any charge, dissipates after a time as air and moisture pass over it. While decontamination via UV or high temperature may help keep the mechanical filter from becoming a tiny petri dish, they do nothing to restore the electrostatic charge that acted as a second barrier to entry.

In a paper published in the journal Phsyics of Fluids, Dov Levine and Shankar Ghosh (from Technion and Tata respectively) show that it’s possible to recharge an N95’s filter to the point where it was close to off-the-shelf levels of efficacy. All that’s needed is to place the filter between two plate electrodes and apply a strong electric field.

“We find that the total charge deposited on the masks depends strongly on the charging time… with the pristine value almost reattained after a 60 min charge at 1000 V,” write the researchers in their paper.

A self-charging N95 mask prototype

It’s unlikely that health care workers are going to be disassembling their masks after every shift, though. While a service and special mask type could (and if it’s effective, should) be established to do this, the team also explored the possibility of a mask with a built-in battery that recharges itself constantly:

A solution that can help replenish the lost charge on the masks in real time would be desirable. In this section, we provide a proof-of-concept method of keeping the masks charged, which comes as a logical extension of our recharging method.

We tested a technique by which the filter material maintains its charge and thus its filtration efficiency… Since the currents required are extremely small, a large battery is not required, and it is possible that a small compact and practical solution may be feasible.

The image above shows a prototype, which the team found to work quite well.

Of course it’s not quite ready for deployment; IEEE Spectrum asked Peter Tsai, the creator of the N95 mask, for his opinion on it. He suggested that the team’s method for testing filtration efficacy is “likely questionable” but didn’t take issue with the rest of the study.

Though it won’t be in hospitals tomorrow or next week, the team notes that “crucially, our method can be performed using readily available equipment and materials and so can be employed both in urban and rural settings.” So once it’s thoroughly tested it’s possible these rechargeable masks could start showing up everywhere. Let’s hope so.

Voice assistants don’t work for kids: The problem with speech recognition in the classroom

By Walter Thompson
Dr. Patricia Scanlon Contributor
Dr. Patricia Scanlon is founder and CEO of SoapBox Labs, a Dublin-based developer of safe and secure speech-recognition technology designed specifically for children. She was named one of Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech in 2018.

Before the pandemic, more than 40% of new internet users were children. Estimates now suggest that children’s screen time has surged by 60% or more with children 12 and under spending upward of five hours per day on screens (with all of the associated benefits and perils).

Although it’s easy to marvel at the technological prowess of digital natives, educators (and parents) are painfully aware that young “remote learners” often struggle to navigate the keyboards, menus and interfaces required to make good on the promise of education technology.

Against that backdrop, voice-enabled digital assistants hold out hope of a more frictionless interaction with technology. But while kids are fond of asking Alexa or Siri to beatbox, tell jokes or make animal sounds, parents and teachers know that these systems have trouble comprehending their youngest users once they deviate from predictable requests.

The challenge stems from the fact that the speech recognition software that powers popular voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google was never designed for use with children, whose voices, language and behavior are far more complex than that of adults.

It is not just that kid’s voices are squeakier, their vocal tracts are thinner and shorter, their vocal folds smaller and their larynx has not yet fully developed. This results in very different speech patterns than that of an older child or an adult.

From the graphic below it is easy to see that simply changing the pitch of adult voices used to train speech recognition fails to reproduce the complexity of information required to comprehend a child’s speech. Children’s language structures and patterns vary greatly. They make leaps in syntax, pronunciation and grammar that need to be taken into account by the natural language processing component of speech recognition systems. That complexity is compounded by interspeaker variability among children at a wide range of different developmental stages that need not be accounted for with adult speech.

vocal pitch changes with age

Changing the pitch of adult voices used to train speech recognition fails to reproduce the complexity of information required to comprehend a child’s speech. Image Credits: SoapBox Labs

A child’s speech behavior is not just more variable than adults, it is wildly erratic. Children over-enunciate words, elongate certain syllables, punctuate each word as they think aloud or skip some words entirely. Their speech patterns are not beholden to common cadences familiar to systems built for adult users. As adults, we have learned how to best interact with these devices, how to elicit the best response. We straighten ourselves up, we formulate the request in our heads, modify it based on learned behavior and we speak our requests out loud, inhale a deep breath … “Alexa … ” Kids simply blurt out their unthought out requests as if Siri or Alexa were human, and more often than not get an erroneous or canned response.

In an educational setting, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that speech recognition must grapple with not just ambient noise and the unpredictability of the classroom, but changes in a child’s speech throughout the year, and the multiplicity of accents and dialects in a typical elementary school. Physical, language and behavioral differences between kids and adults also increase dramatically the younger the child. That means that young learners, who stand to benefit most from speech recognition, are the most difficult for developers to build for.

To account for and understand the highly varied quirks of children’s language requires speech recognition systems built to intentionally learn from the ways kids speak. Children’s speech cannot be treated simply as just another accent or dialect for speech recognition to accommodate; it’s fundamentally and practically different, and it changes as children grow and develop physically as well as in language skills.

Unlike most consumer contexts, accuracy has profound implications for children. A system that tells a kid they are wrong when they are right (false negative) damages their confidence; that tells them they are right when they are wrong (false positive) risks socioemotional (and psychometric) harm. In an entertainment setting, in apps, gaming, robotics and smart toys, these false negatives or positives lead to frustrating experiences. In schools, errors, misunderstanding or canned responses can have far more profound educational — and equity — implications.

Well-documented bias in speech recognition can, for example, have pernicious effects with children. It is not acceptable for a product to work with poorer accuracy — delivering false positives and negatives — for kids of a certain demographic or socioeconomic background. A growing body of research suggests that voice can be an extremely valuable interface for kids but we cannot allow or ignore the potential for it to magnify already endemic biases and inequities in our schools.

Speech recognition has the potential to be a powerful tool for kids at home and in the classroom. It can fill critical gaps in supporting children through the stages of literacy and language learning, helping kids better understand — and be understood by — the world around them. It can pave the way for a new era of  “invisible” observational measures that work reliably, even in a remote setting. But most of today’s speech recognition tools are ill-suited to this goal. The technologies found in Siri, Alexa and other voice assistants have a job to do — to understand adults who speak clearly and predictably — and, for the most part, they do that job well. If speech recognition is to work for kids, it has to be modeled for, and respond to, their unique voices, language and behaviors.

AT&T customers can now make and receive calls via Alexa

By Sarah Perez

Amazon this morning announced it’s teaming up with AT&T on a new feature that will allow some AT&T customers to make and receive phone calls through their Alexa-enabled devices, like an Amazon Echo smart speaker. Once enabled, customers with supported devices will be able to speak to the Alexa digital assistant to start a phone call or answer an incoming call, even if their phone is out of reach, turned off or out of battery.

The feature, “AT&T calling with Alexa,” has to first be set up under the user’s Alexa account.

To do so, users who want to enable the option will need to go to the “Communication” section in their Alexa app’s Settings. From there, you’ll select “AT&T” and then follow the on-screen instructions to link your mobile number.

Once linked, AT&T customers will be able to say things like “Alexa, call Jessica,” or “Alexa, dial XXX-XXX-XXXX” (where the Xes represent someone’s phone number).

When a call is coming in, Alexa will announce the call by saying, “Incoming call from James,” or whomever is ringing you. You can respond, “Alexa, answer,” to pick up, then speak to the caller via your Alexa device.

There are a few different ways to control when you want to receive incoming calls.

You can create an Alexa Routine that specifies you’ll only receive your calls through Alexa during workday hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for example. You could also make a routine that allowed you to disable AT&T calls on your device when you said a trigger phrase, like “Alexa, I’m leaving home.” Plus, you can manually turn off the feature when you’re leaving the house by switching on the “Away Mode” setting in the Alexa app.

The new feature is made possible by AT&T’s NumberSync service that allows users to make and receive phone calls on smartwatches, tablets, computers and, now, Alexa devices. There’s no cost associated with using the feature, which is included with all eligible AT&T mobile plans.

Amazon says AT&T Calling with Alexa is available on post-paid plans for those customers who have a compatible HD-voice mobile phone, like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy device, among many others.

While only AT&T customers in the U.S. can take advantage of the feature, they’re able to place outgoing calls to numbers across Mexico, Canada and the U.K., as well as the U.S.

Amazon declined to say if it plans to offer a similar feature to customers with other carriers, but says it will respond to user feedback to evolve the feature over time.

This is not the first feature designed to make Alexa devices a tool for communication.

Amazon has already tried to make its Alexa devices work like a cross between a home intercom and a phone. With features like Drop-In, users can check in on family members in other parts of the home. Or they could use Announcements to broadcast messages, like “Dinner’s ready!” Meanwhile, calling features like Alexa-to-Alexa Calling or Alexa Outbound Calling have allowed users to make free phone calls to both other Alexa users and most mobile and landline numbers in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Mexico through Alexa devices or the Alexa app.

However, these features didn’t support incoming calls or calls to emergency services, like 911, so they weren’t full phone replacements.

Arguably, it may also be hard to get users to change their habit of using their cell phone in favor of an Alexa device, given that many people tend to keep phones nearby at all times, even when at home.

By offering a way to tie an Alexa device to a real phone number, however, users may be more inclined to try calling through Alexa.

The feature could also benefit the elderly, who couldn’t get to their phone in time, in the event of an emergency, or those with other special needs or disabilities that make walking over to a cell phone to answer a call more difficult.

Unfortunately, there’s still a major roadblock to using this service: spam calls. So many calls today are unwanted robocalls and spam. Having them announced over Alexa could become more of an annoyance than a help, unless users already subscribe to an advanced call blocker service.

Amazon says the new feature is live today across the U.S.

Sennheiser’s MKE 200 on-camera microphone is the perfect home videoconferencing upgrade

By Darrell Etherington

Sennheiser has just released a new on-camera, directional microphone. The compact MKE 200 ($99.95) puts a lot of convenience and performance into a small, portable package – one that’s great for go-anywhere vlogging once that’s a reasonable option again, and one that provides a fantastic, but affordable upgrade for your at-home video conferencing setup in the meantime.

The basics

The MKE 200 is a super-cardioid microphone that mounts directly to a camera’s hot shoe sleeve. Unlike most on-camera shotgun mics, it’s a short, stubby affair that’s just under three inches long, rather than being a long tube. It’s light, and small, and it features both a built-in windscreen and shockmount for ultimate portability.

On the front of the MKE 200, you’ll find a threaded 3.5mm audio port that makes for secure connections to your camera’s mic input. In the box, Sennheiser has thoughtfully included both TRS and TRRS cables, which means it’ll work great with just about every DSLR, mirrorless camera or even smartphone out there on the market without the need for additional cables.

The MKE 200 draws all the power it needs from that single cable connection, meaning you won’t need to worry about batteries or recharging. It also includes a fuzzy windscreen sleeve, for minimizing wind noise when shooting outdoors, and a soft carrying pouch for transportation.

Design and performance

The design of the MKE 200 is simple, and in this case simple is very good. Its compact profile and sturdy construction means that it’s both lightweight, but also feels very durable. That, combined with its relatively low cost, means this is a great mic for throwing into a bag without much thought – perfect kit for hitting the road with a lightweight rig, or for topping even the lightest of cameras if you’re using a better camera than your built-in webcam for your at-home Zoom and video setup.

The single cable, battery-free nature of the MKE 200 also means you really don’t have to worry about anything else than fixing it on the cold shoe mount and plugging it in. Sennheiser has also done a good job of extending this simplicity to its performance – out of the box, it sounds pretty great on my Sony A6400, with the default audio settings on the camera.

As for the threaded 3.5mm stereo connector, it’s definitely not strictly necessary – but it’s the kind of quality detail that has earned Sennheiser its stellar reputation. The locking thread means you have one less point of failure to contend with – yes, the cable might still accidentally snag on something and pop out of the camera side, but it won’t budge from the mic.

Sennheiser’s included fuzzy windscreen is another useful addition. It’s sort of like a sock that goes over the entire mic body, and it does a good job of eliminating wind noise. This is something that you might see other mic makers offer as a sold-separate accessory, so it’s great to have it included in the sub-$100 price tag.

Bottom line

The Sennheiser MKE 200 is a great example of a company reading the room and delivering a product that’s perfectly suited to the needs of a broad category of its customers. At under $100, it’s a great and almost impulse-buy level addition to just about every amateur creator’s toolkit. It might not have the range or maximum audio quality of a more expensive dedicated on-camera shotgun mic, but it’s got plenty of power for any vlogging or close-range interview applications, and it’s particularly well-timed for launch since it makes the perfect companion to any compact mirrorless or DSLR camera you might be using as a webcam for your remote videoconferencing, education and event needs.

Peloton launches new Bike+ and Tread smart home gym equipment, both at $2,495

By Darrell Etherington

Peloton has launched two new products for its home smart gym lineup, the Bike+ ($2,495) and the Tread ($2,495). While both carry the same price tag, the new exercise bike joins as the premium version of Peloton’s original stationary cycle, which will remain on sale at $1,895, and the Tread is the new entry-level Peloton treadmill product, with the original becoming the Tread+ at $4,295. Both products were leaked by Bloomberg last week prior to their official unveiling on Tuesday.

The new Peloton Bike+ includes a 23.8″ rotating, HD resolution touchscreen display. It can move 180 degrees in either direction, which is meant to allow at-home exercisers to use the screen (and Peloton’s range of remote workout instruction and classes) while they’re off the bike. There’s also a built-in four-speaker sound system, a one-tap contactless integration with Apple Gymkit that allows you to sync workouts to your Apple Watch, and an Auto-Follow resistance system that scales the resistance of the bike depending on your own target metrics for heart rate and breathing.

As mentioned, the Bike+ retails for $2,495, which is around $600 more than the newly repriced entry-level Bike. It’s going on sale in the U.S., Canada and Germany starting on September 9, and will be available on a financing plan for instalment payments. Peloton will also make it available on a 30-day home trial basis, as it does on its existing equipment.

Likewise the new Tread will be able to be bought over a financing period with instalment payments, and comes with the trial period. It’s set to launch in early 2021 in both the U.S. and Canada, but will go on sale a bit earlier in the UK on December 26, 2020. Germany will also get the new treadmill, but that’ll be later in 2021, according o the company.

Image Credits: Peloton

As for what the Tread provides, it also has a 23.8″ HD touchscreen, but it doesn’t rotate – it does tilt up and down 50 degrees for floor-based workouts, however. The new Tread is “smaller than most couches” according to the company, at 68″ L x 33″ W x 62″ H. It looks like a much more traditional treadmill belt assembly than the one found on the more premium Tread+, but the company points out that it doesn’t have any kind of front shroud housing like you’d find on most treadmills, which does lighten the look of the whole thing.

Peloton also announced a new kind of class called ‘Bike Bootcamp’ that includes strength training to provide a more comprehensive total body workout, alongside cardio exercises. Sounds like the perfect complement to that rotating display on the Bike+, in case it wasn’t clear that the company wants to be the one-stop shop for a holistic home exercise program.

In case any recent Peloton purchasers were feeling buyer’s remorse about the new gear, Peloton says that’ it’s automatically refunding anyone who are still in their 30-day home trial period, or who are still waiting for the Bike to be delivered, in order to instantly provide them the $350 price drop that they’ve instituted for the original exercise bike. Anyone who falls in that group and wants to swap for the upgraded model will also be able to do that while paying the difference.

Image Credits: Peloton

Meanwhile, if you’re not a recent purchaser but still would like some new gear, Peloton is extending a trade-in offer to current Bike owners that will provide them a $700 rebate, along with a Yoga & Training accessory equipment set, and free pick-up of your old bike when they deliver your new one. Not a bad upgrade incentive.

Microsoft confirms compact, $299 Xbox Series S next-gen game console

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft has confirmed via its official Xbox Twitter account that a discless, tiny Xbox called the Series S will be released alongside its forthcoming Xbox Series X. The Series S was initially leaked late Monday, first by Brad Sams on Twitter, and also by Walking Cat. The Xbox account tweeted an image fo the same small design dominated by a large, round vent grill, and said that the estimated retail price at launch for the new version of the console will be $299.

The original leak from Sams also includes the $299 price, and Walking Cat’s leaked trailer video inlaid more details – including noting that the console is 60% smaller than the forthcoming Series X, but that it includes a high-speed 512GB  NVMe SSD, with performance offering up to 1440p resolution at 120FPS, along with 4K upscaling. It’ll also support DirectX ray tracing.

no point holding this back now I guess pic.twitter.com/SgOAjm3BuP

— WalkingCat (@_h0x0d_) September 8, 2020

There have been rumors about the Series S landing along with the Series X, which Microsoft made official first all the way back in December 2019 (what even was 2019, was it real?). While Microsoft didn’t confirm any of the leaked specs or performance from the trailer, that definitely looks like an official Xbox teaser Walking Cat came across, so I wouldn’t anticipate any surprises there.

Microsoft also didn’t share anything about Series S availability or pre-orders. The launches of both the next-gen Xbox and the PS5 from Sony have been extremely drawn out across massive drip campaigns, and pre-order and availability specifics are still being held close to the chest, much to the frustration of gaming fans. Hopefully this leak and subsequent confirmation means we’re getting close.

Peloton said to be launching new, cheaper treadmill and higher-end stationary smart bike

By Darrell Etherington

Peloton is reportedly getting ready to add to its product lineup with two new products at either end of its pricing spectrum, according to Bloomberg. The workout tech company is planning both a cheaper, entry-level smart treadmill, and a higher-end version of its stationary exercise bike, with an announcement set to take place as early as sometime next week in time for its quarterly financial earnings.

The new products would come alongside a price drop for its existing exercise bike, to a price point under $1,900 according to the report. While the new ‘Bike+’ will retail for more than the current price of the existing model, the price drop will help Peloton stoke the high demand for its products resulting from the closure of gyms and social distancing measures instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peloton’s new ‘Tread’ treadmill will retail for under $3,000, according to Bloomberg’s sources, which is a considerable discount vs. the $4,295 asking price for the existing model. That one will remain on sale as a premium offering, and the new version will reportedly more closely resemble a traditional home treadmill in terms of materials and construction, allowing for the cheaper asking price.

The new, upscale Bike+ model will also reportedly feature a repositionable smart display, which will help it serve as the centerpiece of a more comprehensive home gym that includes strength training and other kinds of guided workouts. Peloton’s hardware products are what helped distinguish it in the exercise market, but it has built another strong business on subscription plans and app-guided workouts, which are available with or without its home gym equipment.

The new treadmill will likely go to market before the upgraded smart bike, in terms of availability, according to the report. Peloton’s main blocker for customer base expansion is probably its relatively high point of entry, in terms of its in-house hardware, so that makes a lot of sense if the company is looking to capitalize on general consumer appetite for at-home fitness solutions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Qualcomm-powered Chinese XR startup Nreal raises $40 million

By Rita Liao

Nreal, one of the most-watched mixed reality startups in China, just secured $40 million from a group of high-profile investors in a Series B round that could potentially bring more adoption to its portable augmented headsets.

Kuaishou, the archrival to TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin, led the round, marking yet another video platform to establish links with Nreal, following existing investor iQiyi, China’s own Netflix. Like other major video streaming sites around the world, Kuaishou and iQiyi have dabbled in making augmented reality content, and securing a hardware partner will no doubt be instrumental to their early experiments.

Other backers in the round with plentiful industry resources include GP Capital, which counts state-owned financial holding group Shanghai International Group and major Chinese movie studio Hengdian Group as investors; CCEIF Fund, set up by state-owned telecom equipment maker China Electronics Corporation and state-backed investment bank China International Capital Corporation; GL Ventures, the early-stage fund set up by prominent private equity firm Hillhouse Capital; and Sequoia Capital China.

In early 2019, Nreal brought onboard Xiaomi founder’s venture fund Shunwei Capital for its $15 million Series A funding. As I wrote at the time, AR, VR, MR, XR — whichever marketing coinage you prefer — will certainly be a key piece in Xiaomi’s Internet of Things empire. It’s not hard to see the phone titan sourcing smart glasses from Nreal down the road.

The other key partner of Nreal, a three-year-old company, is Qualcomm . The chipmaker has played an active part in China’s 5G rollout, powering major Chinese phone makers’ next-gen handsets. It supplies Nreal with its Snapdragon processors, allowing the startup’s lightweight mixed reality glasses to easily plug into an Android phone.

“Its closer partnership with Qualcomm will allow it to access Qualcomm’s network of customers, including telecoms companies,” Seewan Toong, an industry consultant on AR and VR, told TechCrunch.

Indeed, the mixed reality developer has already signed a deal with Japanese telco KDDI and in Korea, it’s working with LG’s cellular carrier LG Uplus Corp.

The latest round brings Nreal’s total raise to more than $70 million and will accelerate mass adoption of its mixed reality technology in the 5G era, the company said.

It remains to be seen how Nreal will live up to its promise, secure users at scale and move beyond being a mere poster child for tech giants’ mixed reality ambitions. So far its deals with big telcos are in a way reminiscent of that of Magic Leap, which has been in a legal spat with Nreal, though the Chinese company appears to burn through less cash so far. The troubled American company is currently pivoting to relying on enterprise customers after failing to crack the consumer market.

“Nreal is patient and not in a rush to show they can start selling high volume. It’s trying to prove that there’s a user scenario for its technology,” said Toong.

Nintendo rips the seal off the next generation of nostalgia, but fans fret

By Devin Coldewey

It has always been considered a matter of if, and not when, Nintendo would begin capitalizing in earnest on content from beyond the SNES generation. The company has finally showing its intent to do so today — but with an uneven approach that leaves some fans worried about its intentions for other all-time gaming classics from the 64-bit era and beyond.

In a celebratory video of 35 years of Super Mario Bros. history, Nintendo announced a litter of new and old games starring its iconic plumber protagonist.

Some of its announcements were very Nintendo in a good way. Making a Mario Kart that, like the Labo DIY projects, bridges the gap between reality and game is a brilliant idea and very unlike what others in console gaming are doing. And the retro-style “Game & Watch” handheld pre-loaded with Super Mario Bros. and the Lost Levels will no doubt be a popular gift this holiday season.

Nintendo also demonstrated a willingness to experiment with its oldest and in some ways most conservative franchise with Super Mario Bros. 35, a sort of battle royale version of the original game where 35 players compete on the same level, sending hazards to one another and attempting to finish with a variety of win conditions. A logical sequel to Tetris 99, which applied a similar transformation to everyone’s favorite block-based puzzler, and potentially a lot of fun.

But when it came to bringing fan favorites from the N64 and Gamecube to the Switch, the company left much to be desired.

Nintendo’s approach to resurrecting its back catalog has been haphazard: Giving away NES and SNES games for free to Nintendo Online subscribers is a nice bonus in a way, but many players have already paid for those games on previous consoles, perhaps multiple times. Why, players have asked, can’t someone just bring their purchase of Kid Icarus over from the Wii’s Virtual Console to the Switch and play it without a subscription? Nintendo has never provided a good answer to this; In the SNES Mini it has provided an excellent alternative — though of course it means buying the game yet again.

The question on countless players’ minds was: Will Nintendo add N64 titles to the library of past-generation games for anyone to access, or gussy them up and sell them separately? With both Mario and Zelda’s 35th anniversaries approaching, this was a very material concern.

As it turns out, Nintendo has somehow threaded the needle with a solution seemingly made to leave everyone wanting something more.

Image Credits: Ninendo

The Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection includes Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy, from the N64, Gamecube, and Wii respectively, and has a full-size $60 price tag. These are all great games, obviously. But being classics doesn’t mean there’s no way to update them for modern audiences.

Take Mario 64. Universally beloved and hugely influential, it is nevertheless a bit long in tooth in some ways. But the Mario 64 in All-Stars is only brought up to the barest standard of playability on modern consoles: It works with current Switch controllers and runs at an updated resolution. They didn’t even bother changing the original 4:3 aspect ratio!

Amazingly, Nintendo didn’t even include the substantial upgrades it made itself for the DS re-release of the game. As with the original All-Stars for SNES, which included re-drawn sprites and other improvements, this was an opportunity to show the quality of these games while also doing right by fans who have for years had to resort to emulators and mods to make the games suitable for 21st-century consumption.

Instead Nintendo has opted to do the absolute minimum while charging the absolute maximum. What’s more, there seems to be some kind of limited availability that the company hasn’t quite made clear — what goes on sale in a couple weeks will only be available until March of next year. Then what? Nintendo hasn’t said. (I’ve asked for clarification and will update this article if I hear back.)

Image Credits: Nintendo

Long-time customers will not be surprised by Nintendo’s oblique strategy and seeming lack of ambition here. The company has institutionalized a unique combination of extreme conservatism and eye-popping risk-taking. Overdeliver with one hand and underdeliver with the other is Nintendo’s approach, and it was hoped by many players that the former hand would be the one with the Mario anniversary content in it.

It’s troubling not simply because there’s one game that doesn’t justify its price tag good value, but because it signals an underwhelming approach to the entire library of Nintendo classics. With the 35th anniversary of other beloved franchises on the horizon — Zelda and Metroid, for a start — it is a legitimate worry that Nintendo may likewise let down the fan base.

Sure, it may sound a bit like the notorious entitlement expressed by gamers over things like microtransactions, exclusivity agreements, and so on. But with Nintendo and these very important titles from its vault, expectations are justifiably different.

With almost no releases on third party platforms and an aggressive approach to shutting down what it views as IP offenses, Nintendo exercises an iron grip over its content, especially its crown jewels, Mario and Zelda. If we are ever to receive an improved version of Mario 64, or Sunshine, or for that matter Ocarina of Time, not to speak of dozens of other classics, Nintendo is the only one that can provide it.

Sometimes that means a beautiful total redo of a game like Link’s Awakening. But at other times it means we must make do with scraps from the table, as with the arbitrary trickle of NES and SNES games coming to Nintendo Switch Online (itself a bundle of scraps compared with other console subscriptions, it must be said). Everyone right now is thinking that the inevitable Zelda collection will be equally barebones (and expensive).

The dream players have for decades cherished for example, a multiplayer Mario 64, will never emerge in the wilds of the internet because Nintendo will swoop in with a cease and desist in record time. So they must rely on the company to make those dreams come true, and it is remarkably inconsistent in doing so.

The treasure chest of games Nintendo has just opened the lid on is potentially a source for years of content and will partly define the company’s overarching strategy going forward. But it makes gamers nervous to see Nintendo aiming at their wallets instead of their hearts. Usually it’s at least both.

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