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Yesterday — July 8th 2020Your RSS feeds

The TourBox adds a touch of tactile control to your editing workflow in a portable package

By Darrell Etherington

Now is a great time to be dipping back into creative projects you’ve had on hold, including editing archives of photos you promised you’d get back to ‘later.’ There are a number of different gadgets designed to help make that process easier, but one of the more accessible is the TourBox, a $169 hardware controller that includes a number of different hardware buttons, dials and switches which can be customized via software to work with a variety of creative applications.

The basics

TourBox is a device that occupies roughly the desk space of an Apple Magic Trackpad, with a USB-C connection to plug into your computer. It’s equipped with a D-pad, two dials, a scroll wheel, and seven buttons. The TourBox software provides customizable controls for each of these, allowing you to assign keys to each.

Built-in profiles support popular photo editing applications including Photoshop, Lightroom and Capture One; video editing software like Final Cut Pro, Premiere and DaVinci Resolve; and drawing software including Clip Studio Paint. Each of the default configurations for these applications can also be customized depending on a user’s preferences and needs.

TourBox differs from other, more expensive devices in this category in a number of respects – it leans heavily on keyboard shortcuts, for instance, definitely simplifying software actions but not providing the same level of plug-in integration that competitors including the more premium Loupedeck+ and Loupedeck CT provide. Those are considerably more expensive, however, and what TourBox provides could suit the workflows of pros who are looking primarily to supplement, rather than replace their existing keyboard productivity workflows.

Design

The TourBox is compact, but feels sturdy. It’s heavier than I expected, which makes it more likely to stay put on the desk where you put it rather than shifting around during use. The exterior is a matte, rubberized plastic that has a nice aesthetic and a pleasant tactile feel, though it will pick up dust.

TourBox’s buttons and controls feature unique shapes and elements like raised spokes and ridges on the wheels to help you navigate the control surface entirely by feel. It produces a controller that looks very interesting because of its asymmetrical layout and exterior surface, but all of that actually makes it much easier to learn how to operate it entirely by feel after a little practice, which is key to long-term use in terms of actually ensuring the TourBox saves you time, by being something you can eventually basically commit to muscle memory.

While the design of the buttons and other controls makes a lot of sense, the actual feel of them isn’t all that great. There are some highlights, including clicky turning to help with fine-grained controls, but overall the buttons feel a bit mushy and generally don’t match up to the feel of the controls on other surfaces like the Loupedeck hardware mentioned above. Given the price difference, the lower-quality feel of the physical controls can be forgiven, and it doesn’t affect actual performance, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Performance

As with any new hardware controller, the TourBox takes some getting used to, and the software that the company provides, while it includes a basic tutorial, requires non-obvious user tweaks like manual switching of profiles to work with different applications. There’s a major 2.1 update in the works that will deliver auto-profile switching, among a number of other improvements.

Once you learn how to use the TourBox software and spend some time familiarizing yourself with the profiles for the applications you use, TourBox is indeed user-friendly, and can save you a lot of time and extra keystrokes on most common functions, including things like zooming and panning, adjusting brush size, undoing and redoing and much more.

As mentioned, the unique physical layout and button shapes appear initially odd, but ultimately mean that you can develop a very memorable workflow using the TourBox that becomes second nature. By default, some of the modifier key combinations that were shipped in the software profiles required a bit of unusual hand gymnastics for me, but all of these are customizable so it was easy to make changes that resulted in more ergonomically friendly usage.

Bottom line

While there are a growing number of options when it comes to hardware control surfaces to help you create an at-home editing suite, the TourBox at $169 is one of the most affordable out there. It’s also an extremely portable option, requiring just one cable, which you can easily pack in just about any bag.

More demanding and pro users would do well to look at Loupedeck’s offerings, and the Monogram Creative Console provides a lot more modular customizability for a system that can grow with your needs, but for on-the-road editing and for enthusiasts who are just looking for something to make their editing easier and faster but with minimal fuss, the TourBox is a solid option.

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Festo’s latest biomimetic robots are a flying feathered bird and ball-bottomed helper arm

By Devin Coldewey

You could be excused for thinking that German robotics company Festo does nothing but put together fabulous prototype robots built to resemble kangaroos, jellyfish, and other living things. They do in fact actually make real industrial robots, but it’s hard not to marvel at their biomimetic experiments; Case in point, the feathered BionicSwift and absurd BionicMobileAssistant motile arm.

Festo already has a flying bird robot — I wrote about it almost 10 years ago. They even made a flying bat as a follow-up. But the BionicSwift is more impressive than both because, in an effort to more closely resemble its avian inspiration, it flies using artificial feathers.

Image Credits: Festo

“The individual lamellae [i.e. feathers] are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model,” Festo writes in its description of the robot.

The articulating lamellae allow the wing to work like a bird’s, forming a powerful scoop on the downstroke to push against the air, but separating on the upstroke to produce less resistance. Everything is controlled on-board, including the indoor positioning system that the bird was ostensibly built to demonstrate. Flocks of BionicSwifts can fly in close quarters and avoid each other using an ultra wideband setup.

Festo’s BionicMobileAssistant seems like it would be more practical, and in a way it is, but not by much. The robot is basically an arm emerging from a wheeled base — or rather a balled one. The spherical bottom is driven by three “omniwheels,” letting it move easily in any direction while minimizing its footprint.

The hand is a showcase of modern robotic gripper design, with all kinds of state of the art tech packed in there — but the result is less than the sum of its parts. What makes a robotic hand good these days is less that it has a hundred sensors in the palm and fingers and huge motility for its thumb, but rather intelligence about what it is gripping. An unadorned pincer may be a better “hand” than one that looks like the real thing because of the software that backs it up.

Not to mention the spherical movement strategy makes for something of an unstable base. It’s telling that the robot is transporting scarves and not plates of food or parts.

Of course, it’s silly to criticize such a machine, which is aspirational rather than practical. But it’s important to understand that these fascinating creations from Festo are hints at a possible future more than anything.

With feature updates and new accessories, the RODECaster Pro is a podcaster’s dream come true

By Darrell Etherington

You might have been considering – or have already started – picking up a new hobby this year, particularly one you can do at home. Podcasting seems to be a popular option, and RODE is a company that has done more to cater specifically to this audience than just about any other audio company out there. The RODECaster Pro ($599) all-in-one podcast production studio that they released in 2018 is a fantastic tool for anyone looking to maximize their podcast potential, and with amazing new firmware updates released this year, along with a host of great new accessories, it’s stepped up even further.

The basics

The RODECaster Pro is a powerful production studio, but it’s not overwhelming for people who aren’t audio engineers by trade. The deck balances offering plenty of physical controls with keeping them relatively simple, giving you things like volume sliders and large pad-style buttons for top level controls, and then putting more advanced features and tweaks behind layers of menus accessible via the large, high-resolution touchscreen for users who desire more fine-tuned manipulation.

RODECaster Pro includes four XLR inputs, each of which can provide (individually selectable) phantom power for condenser mics, along with four 1/4″ headphone outputs for corresponding monitoring. That’s great because it means if you have guests used to recording podcasts and high-quality audio, they can listen to their own input, or you can opt to just have one producer keeping track of everything. There’s also a left and right 1/4″ audio out for a studio monitor speaker or other output, as well as a USB-C connector for plugging into a computer, and a 3.5mm in for connecting a smartphone or other external audio source. Smartphones can also be connected via Bluetooth, which is very handy for including a call-in guest via wireless.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The main surface of the RODECaster Pro includes volume sliders for each available input and pre-set sound effects; volume knobs for each headphone and speaker output; buttons to activate and deactivate inputs; large buttons for playing back pre-set audio files and a large record button. There’s also a touchscreen which gives you access to menus and settings, and which also acts as a visual levels editor while recording.

RODECaster Pro is designed so that you can use it completely independently of any computer or smartphone – it has a microSD slot for recording, and you can then upload those files via either directly connecting the deck through USB, or plugging the card in to a microSD card reader and transferring your files. You can also use multitrack-to-USB or stereo USB output modes on the RODECaster Pro to effectively turn the studio hardware into a USB audio interface for your Mac or PC, letting you record with whatever digital audio production software you’d like, including streaming software.

Design

The RODECaster Pro’s design is a perfect blend of studio-quality hardware controls and simplicity, making the device accessible to amateurs and pros alike. I was up and running with the deck out of the box in just a few minutes, and without making any adjustments at all to the sound profile or settings, I had great-sounding recordings using the RODE PodMic, a $99 microphone that is optimized by RODE to work with the RODECaster Pro out of the box.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

All the controls are easy and intuitive to manage, and you shouldn’t need to read any instruction manuals or guides to get started. The eight button sound effects grid is likely the most complicated part of the entire physical interface, but even the default sounds that RODE includes can be useful, and you can easily set your own via the RODECaster companion app for Mac and PC, and in the box you’ll find guides that you can use to overlay the buttons and label them to keep track of which is which.

The sliders are smooth and great to use, making it easy to do even, manual fade-ins and fade-outs for intro and outro or pre-recorded soundbites. Backlit keys for active/inactive inputs, mute status and the large record button mean you can tell with a quick glance what is and isn’t currently active on the track.

RODE has smartly included a locking power adapter in the box, so that you won’t find the cord accidentally yanked out in the middle of a recording. Each of the XLR inputs also includes a quick release latch for secure connections. And while the RODECaster Pro definitely takes up a lot of space with roughly the footprint of a 13-inch MacBook Pro, it’s light enough to be perfectly portable in a backpack for on-location recordings.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The touchscreen display is another design highlight, since it’s high-resolution, with a matte cover that makes it viewable in a wide range of light, and very responsive touch input, It’s a great way to extend the functionality of the deck through software, while still ensuring nothing feels fiddly or hard to navigate, which can be the case with hardware jog controllers like you’d find on a Zoom recorder, for instance.

Features

Balancing simplicity and power is the real reason RODECaster Pro works so well. If you’re just starting out, you can basically just begin using it out of the box without changing anything at all about how it’s set up to work. That’s especially true if you’re using any of RODE’s microphones, each of which has built-in profiles included for optimizing sound settings instantly.

I mentioned above that the RODE PodMic is optimized for use with the RODECaster Pro in this way, and the results are fantastic. If the price tag on the RODECaster Pro is a deterrent, it’s worth considering that the PodMic is a fantastically affordable dynamic podcasting mic, which produces sound way above its class when paired with the deck. so the overall cost of a RODE podcasting setup using both of these would actually be relatively reasonable vs. other solutions.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

If you’re ready to dive in and customize sound, you can toggle features like built-in compressor, de-esser and other audio effects. You can also manually adjust each of these effects since the release of Firmware 2.1 earlier this month – letting you adjust the processing of each included sound effect through the RODECaster Pro companion app for a totally custom, unique finally sound.

The ability to pre-load and call up sound effects and other audio tracks on demand on the RODECaster Pro is another killer feature. It’s true that you could achieve a lot of this in editing post-recording, but having it all to-hand for use in live recording scenarios just feels better, and it also enables genuine interactions with your guests that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. That 2.1 firmware update also brought the ability to loop clips indefinitely, which could be great if you want to place a subtle backing track throughout your recording.

One final feature I’ll highlight because it’s fantastic especially in a world where it might be hard to consistently get guests in-studio is the smartphone connectivity. You can either plug in via cable, or connect via low-latency Bluetooth for terrific call-in interactivity, using whatever software you want on your smartphone.

Accessories

RODE has done a great job building out an ecosystem of accessories to further extend the capabilities of the RODECaster Pro, and enhance the overall user experience. Among its recent releases, there’s the Rode PodMic, mentioned above, as well as colored cable clips that correspond to each input backlight color for easily keeping track of which hardware is which, 1/4″ to 3.5mm stereo jack adapters for using standard headphones as monitors, a TRRS-to-TRRS 3.5mm audio aux cable for smartphone connections, and a USB power cable to replace the adapter for easier plug-in power on the go.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

The small plastic cuffs for your XLR cables are simple but smart ways of keeping track of gear, especially when everyone’s using the same mic (as they likely should be for sound consistency) – and it helps that they enhance the look of your overall setup, too. And the USB power cable in particular is a great addition to any RODECaster Pro kit that you’re intending to use outside of your own recording studio/home, since you can use it with any USB charger you have to hand – so long as it can provide 5V/2.5A output.

The real must-have accessory for the RODECaster Pro, however, is the RODE PodMic. It’s a no-fuss, well-built and durable microphone that transports well and that can work flexibly with a wide range of mounting options, and in a wide variety of settings including open air and in-studio. Yes, you can get better sound with more expensive mics, but with the PodMic, you can afford a set of four to complement the RODECaster Pro for the same price you’d pay for one higher-end microphone, and most people won’t notice the audio quality difference for their podcasting needs.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Bottom line

The RODECaster Pro is a fantastic way to upgrade your at-home podcasting game – and a perfect way to take the show on the road once you’re able to do so. Its high-quality hardware controls, combined with smart, sophisticated software that has improved with consistent RODE firmware updates to address user feedback over time, are a winning combo for amateurs, pros, and anyone along the spectrum in between.

The Loupedeck CT is a fantastic, flexible editing console for Mac and PC

By Darrell Etherington

For photographers and videographers spending a lot less time on location and a lot more time at the desk right now, one great use of time is going back through archives and backlogs to find hidden gems, and honing those edit skills. One recently released device called the Loupedeck CT can make that an even more enjoyable experience, with customizable controls and profiles that work with just about all your favorite editing apps — and that can even make just using your computer generally easier and more convenient.

The basics

Loupedeck’s entire focus is on creating dedicated hardware control surfaces for creatives, and the Loupedeck CT is its latest, top-of-the-line editing panel. It’s essentially a square block, which is surprisingly thin and light given how many hardware control options it provides. On the surface itself, you’ll find six knobs with tactile, clicky turning action, as well as 12 square buttons and eight round buttons, each of which features color-coded backlighting. There’s also a large central control dial, with a touch-sensitive display in-set, and a 4×3 grid of touch-sensitive display buttons up top — each of which also includes optional vibration feedback when pressed.

Loupedeck CT connects via an included USB-C cable (though you’ll need an adapter or your own USB-C to USB-C cable if you’re using a modern MacBook) and it draws all the power it needs to operate from that connection. Small, rubberized pads on the back ensure that it won’t slip around on your desktop or table surface.

When you first set up the Loupedeck, you’ll need to download software from the company’s website. Once that’s installed, the setup wizard should see your Loupedeck CT hardware when it’s connected, and present you with configuration options that mirror what will show up on your device. By default, Loupedeck has a number of profiles for popular editing software pre-installed and ready to use, and it’ll switch to use that profile automatically upon opening those applications.

The list is fantastic, with one notable (and somewhat painful) exception — Lightroom CC. This isn’t Loupdeck’s fault: Adobe has changed the way that Lighroom is architected with the CC version such that it no longer offers as much interoperability with plugins like the ones that make Loupedeck work with such high integration. Loupedeck offers a Lightroom Classic profile, and one of the reasons Classic is still available is its rich support for these plugins, so you can still access and edit your library with Loupedeck CT. Plus, you can still use it to control Lightroom CC — but you’ll have to download a profile that essentially replicates keystrokes and keyboard shortcuts, or create your own, and it won’t be nearly as flexible as the profiles that exist for Photoshop, Photoshop Camera Raw and Lightroom Classic.

That one exception aside, there are profiles for just about any creative software a creative pro would want to use. And the default system software settings are also very handy for when you’re not using your computer for doing anything with image, video or audio editing. For instance, I set up basic workflows for capturing screenshots, which I do often for work, and one for managing audio playback during transcription.

Design

I mentioned it briefly above, but the Loupedeck CT’s design is at first glance very interesting because it’s actually far smaller than I was expecting based on the company’s own marketing and imagery. It’s just a little taller than your average keyboard, and about the same width across, and it takes up not much more space on your desk than a small mousepad, or a large piece of toast. Despite its small footprint, it has a lot of physical controls, each of which is actually potentially many more controls through software.

The matte black, slightly rubberized finish is pleasing both to look at and to the touch, and the controls all feel like there was a lot of care put into the tactile experience of using them. The graduated clicks on the knobs let you know when you’ve increased something by a single increment, and the smooth action on the big dial feels delightfully analog. The buttons all have a satisfying, fairly deep click, and the slight buzz you get from the vibration feedback on the touchscreen buttons are a perfect bit of haptic response, which, combined with the raised rows that separate them, mean you can use the Loupedeck CT eyes-free once you get used to it. Each knob is also a clickable button, and the touchscreen circular display on the large central dial can be custom configured with a number of different software buttons or a scroll list.

Despite its small size, the Loupedeck CT doesn’t feel fragile, and it has a nice weight to it that feels reassuring of its manufacturing quality. It does feel like a bit of a compromise when it comes to layout to accommodate the square design versus the longer rectangle of the Loupedeck+, which more closely resembles a keyboard — but that has positives and negatives, since the CT is easier to use alongside a keyboard.

Ultimately, the design feels thoughtful and well-considered, giving you a very powerful set of physical controls for creative software that takes up much less space on the desk than even something like an equivalent modular system from Palette would require.

Features

The Loupedeck CT’s primary benefits are found in its profiles, which set you up out of the box to get editing quickly and effectively across your favorite software. Each feels like a sensible set of defaults for the software they’re designed to work with, and you can always customize and tweak to your heart’s content if you’ve already got a set of standard processes that doesn’t quite match up.

Loupedeck’s software makes customization and addition of your own sets of tools a drag-and-drop process, which helps a lot with the learning curve. It still took me a little while to figure out the logic of where to find things, and how they’re nested, but it does make sense once you experiment and play around a bit.

Similarly, Loupedeck uses a color-coding hierarchy system in its interface that takes some getting used to, but that eventually provides a handy visual shortcut for working with the Loupedeck CT. There are green buttons and lights that control overall workspaces, as well as purple actions that exist within those workspaces. You can set up multiple workspaces for each app, letting you store entire virtual toolboxes for carrying out specific tasks.

This allows the CT to be at once simple enough to not overwhelm, and also rich and complex enough to offer a satisfying range of control options for advanced pros. As mentioned, everything is customizable (minus a few buttons like the o-button that you can’t remap, for navigation reasons) and you can also export profiles for sharing or for use across machines, and import profiles, including those created by others, for quickly getting set up with a new workflow or piece of software.

The Loupedeck CT even has 8GB of built-in storage on board, and shows up as a removable disk on your computer, allowing you to easily take your profiles with you — as well a tidy little collection of working files.

Bottom line

At $549, the Loupedeck CT isn’t for everyone — even though the features it offers provide efficiency benefits for many more than just creatives. It’s like having an editing console that you can fit in the tablet pocket of most backpacks or briefcases — and it’s actually like having a whole bunch of those at once because of the flexibility and configurability of its software. Also, comparable tools like the Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Editor keyboard can cost more than twice as much.

If your job or your passion involves spending considerable time adjusting gradients, curves, degrees and sliders, then the Loupedeck CT is for you. Likewise, if you spend a lot of time transcribing or cleaning up audio, or you’re a keyboard warrior who regularly employs a whole host of keystroke combos even for working in something like a spreadsheet app, it could be great for you too.

I’ve tested out a lot of hardware aimed at improving the workflow of photographers and video editors, but none has proven sticky, especially across both home and travel use. The Loupedeck CT seems like the one that will stick, based on my experience with it so far.

Watch Apple’s WWDC keynote live right here

By Romain Dillet

Apple is holding a keynote today on the first day of its developer conference, and the company is expected to talk about a ton of software updates. WWDC is a virtual event this year, but you can expect the same amount of news, in a different format. At 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris), you’ll be able to watch the event as the company is streaming it live.

Rumor has it that the company plans to unveil new versions of its operating systems. Get ready for iOS 14 and its sibling iPadOS 14, a new version of macOS, some updates for watchOS and tvOS as well.

But the most interesting rumor of the year is that Apple could announce a major change for the Mac. The company could start using its own in-house ARM systems on a chip instead of Intel’s processors. It would have a ton of consequences for third-party apps running on your Mac as well as Mac hardware in general. Imagine a MacBook with a battery that lasts as long as what you get from an iPad. There could be some more hardware news, such as a new design for the iMac or some Tile-style hardware trackers.

You can watch the live stream directly on this page as Apple is streaming its conference on YouTube.

If you have an Apple TV, you can download the Apple Events app in the App Store. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old ones. The app icon was updated a few days ago for the event.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV and don’t want to use YouTube, the company also lets you live-stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

Of course, you also can read TechCrunch’s live blog if you don’t want to stop everything and watch a video.

Software will reshape our world in the next decade

By Walter Thompson
Alfred Chuang Contributor
Alfred Chuang is general partner at Race Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm.

As I was wrapping up a Zoom meeting with my business partners, I could hear my son joking with his classmates in his online chemistry class.

I have to say this is a very strange time for me: As much as I love my family, in normal times, we never spend this much time together. But these aren’t normal times.

In normal times, governments, businesses and schools would never agree to shut everything down. In normal times, my doctor wouldn’t agree to see me over video conferencing.

No one would stand outside a grocery store, looking down to make sure they were six feet apart from one another. In times like these, decisions that would normally take years are being made in a matter of hours. In short, the physical world — brick-and-mortar reality— has shut down. The world still functions, but now it is operating inside everyone’s own home.

This not-so-normal time reminds me of 2008, the depths of the financial crisis. I sold my company BEA Systems, which I co-founded, to Oracle for $8.6 billion in cash. This liquidity event was simultaneously the worst and most exhausting time of my career, and the best time of my career, thanks to the many inspiring entrepreneurs I was able to meet.

These were some of the brightest, hardworking, never-take-no-for-an-answer founders, and in this era, many CEOs showed their true colors. That was when Slack, Lyft, Uber, Credit Karma, Twilio, Square, Cloudera and many others got started. All of these companies now have multibillion dollar market caps. And I got to invest and partner with some of them.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder what our world will look like in 10 years. The way we live. The way we learn. The way we consume. The way we will interact with each other.

What will happen 10 years from now?

Welcome to 2030. It’s been more than two decades since the invention of the iPhone, the launch of cloud computing and one decade since the launch of widespread 5G networks. All of the technologies required to change the way we live, work, eat and play are finally here and can be distributed at an unprecedented speed.

The global population is 8.5 billion and everyone owns a smartphone with all of their daily apps running on it. That’s up from around 500 million two decades ago.

Robust internet access and communication platforms have created a new world.

The world’s largest school is a software company — its learning engine uses artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning materials anytime, anywhere, with no physical space necessary. Similar to how Apple upended the music industry with iTunes, all students can now download any information for a super-low price. Tuition fees have dropped significantly: There are no more student debts. Kids can finally focus on learning, not just getting an education. Access to a good education has been equalized.

The world’s largest bank is a software company and all financial transactions are digital. If you want to talk to a banker live, you’ll initiate a text or video conference. On top of that, embedded fintech software now powers all industries.

No more dirty physical money. All money flow is stored, traceable and secured on a blockchain ledger. The financial infrastructure platforms are able to handle customers across all geographies and jurisdictions, all exchanges of value, all types of use-cases (producers, distributors, consumers) and all from the start.

The world’s largest grocery store is a software and robotics company — groceries are delivered whenever and wherever we want as fast as possible. Food is delivered via robot or drones with no human involvement. Customers can track where, when and who is involved in growing and handling my food. Artificial intelligence tells us what we need based on past purchases and our calendars.

The world largest hospital is a software and robotics company — all initial diagnoses are performed via video conferencing. Combined with patient medical records all digitally stored, a doctor in San Francisco and her artificial intelligence assistant can provide personalized prescriptions to her patients in Hong Kong. All surgical procedures are performed by robots, with supervision by a doctor of course, we haven’t gone completely crazy. And even the doctors get to work from home.

Our entire workforce works from home: Don’t forget the main purpose of an office is to support companies’ workers in performing their jobs efficiently. Since 2020, all companies, and especially their CEOs, realized it was more efficient to let their workers work from home. Not only can they save hours of commute time, all companies get to save money on office space and shift resources toward employee benefits. I’m looking back 10 years and saying to myself, “I still remember those days when office space was a thing.”

The world’s largest entertainment company is a software company, and all the content we love is digital. All blockbuster movies are released direct-to-video. We can ask Alexa to deliver popcorn to the house and even watch the film with friends who are far away. If you see something you like in the movie, you can buy it immediately — clothing, objects, whatever you see — and have it delivered right to your house. No more standing in line. No transport time. Reduced pollution. Better planet!

These are just a few industries that have been completely transformed by 2030, but these changes will apply universally to almost anything. We were told software was eating the world.

The saying goes you are what you eat. In 2030, software is the world.

Security and protection no longer just applies to things we can touch and see. What’s valuable for each and every one of us is all stored digitally — our email account, chat history, browsing data and social media accounts. It goes on and on. We don’t need a house alarm, we need a digital alarm.

Even though this crisis makes the near future seem bleak, I am optimistic about the new world and the new companies of tomorrow. I am even more excited about our ability to change as a human race and how this crisis and technology are speeding up the way we live.

This storm shall pass. However the choices we make now will change our lives forever.

My team and I are proud to build and invest in companies that will help shape the new world; new and impactful technologies that are important for many generations to come, companies that matter to humanity, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about.

I am hopeful.

Drone-deployed sterile mosquitoes could check spread of insect-borne illnesses

By Devin Coldewey

Drone deployment of sterile mosquitoes could accelerate efforts to control their populations and reduce insect-borne disease, according to a proof of concept experiment by a multi-institutional research team. The improved technique could save thousands of lives.

Mosquitoes are a public health hazard around the world, spreading infections like malaria to millions and causing countless deaths and health crises. Although traps and netting offer some protection, the proactive approach of reducing the number of insects has also proven effective. This is accomplished by sterilizing male mosquitoes and releasing them into the wild, where they compete with the other males for food and mates but produce no offspring.

The problem with this approach is it is fairly hands-on, requiring people to travel through mosquito-infested areas to make regular releases of treated males. Some aerial and other dispersal methods have been attempted, but this project from French, Swiss, British, Brazilian, Senegalese and other researchers seems to be the most effective and practical yet.

Mosquitoes grown in bulk and sterilized by radiation are packed at low temperatures (“chilled” mosquitoes don’t fly or bite) into cartridges. These cartridges are kept refrigerated until they can be brought to a target site, where they’re loaded onto a drone.

Thousands of chilled, marked mosquitoes ready for deployment. Image Credit: Bouyer et al.

This drone ascends to a set altitude and travels over the target area, steadily releasing thousands of sterile males as it goes. By staging at the center of a town, the drone operators can reload the craft with new cartridges and send it in more directions, accomplishing dispersal over a huge and perhaps difficult to navigate space more quickly and easily than manual techniques.

The experiment used mosquitoes marked with fluorescent dyes that let the researchers track the effectiveness of their air-dropped mosquitoes, and the new technique shows great improvement over manual methods (on the order of 50% better) — without even getting into the reductions in time and labor. New methods for sterilizing, packing and meting out the insects further gild the results.

The researchers point out that while there are of course plenty of applications for this technique in ordinary times, the extraordinary times of this pandemic present new dangers and opportunities. Comorbidity of COVID-19 and mosquito-borne illnesses is practically unstudied, and disruptions to supply chains and normal insect suppression efforts is likely to lead to spikes in the likes of malaria and dengue fever.

Work like this could lead to improved general health for billions. The researchers’ work appeared in the journal Science Robotics.

Lidar helps uncover an ancient, kilometer-long Mayan structure

By Devin Coldewey

Lidar is fast becoming one of the most influential tools in archaeology, revealing things in a few hours what might have taken months of machete wielding and manual measurements otherwise. The latest such discovery is an enormous Mayan structure, more than a kilometer long, 3,000 years old, and seemingly used for astronomical observations.

Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona is the lead author of the paper describing the monumental artificial plateau, published in the journal Nature. This unprecedented structure — by far the largest and oldest of its type — may remind you of another such discovery, the “Mayan megalopolis” found in Guatemala two years ago.

Such huge structures, groups of foundations, and other evidence of human activity may strike you as obvious. But when you’re on the ground they’re not nearly as obvious as you’d think — usually because they’re covered by both a canopy of trees and thick undergrowth.

“I have spent thousands of hours of fieldwork walking behind a local machete-wielding man who would cut straight lines through the forest,” wrote anthropologist Patricia McAnany, who was not involved in the research, for an commentary that also appeared in Nature. “This time-consuming process has required years, often decades, of fieldwork to map a large ancient Maya city such as Tikal in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize.”

You can see an aerial view of the site below. If you didn’t know there was something there, you might not notice anything more than some slightly geometric hills.

Lidar detects the distance to objects and surfaces by bouncing lasers off them. Empowered by powerful computational techniques, it can see through the canopy and find the level of the ground beneath, producing a detailed height map of the surface.

In this case the researchers picked a large area of the Tabasco region of Mexico, on the Guatemalan border, known to have been occupied by early Mayan civilization. A large-scale, low-resolution lidar scan of the area produced some leads, and smaller areas were then scanned at higher resolution, producing the images you see here.

What emerged was an enormous ceremonial center now called Aguada Fénix, the largest feature of which is an artificial plateau more than 10 meters tall and 1.4 kilometers in length. It is theorized that these huge plateaus, of which Aguada Fénix is the oldest and largest, were used to track the movement of the sun through the seasons and perform various rites.

The high-resolution lidar map also helped accelerate other findings, such as that, owing to the lack of statues or sculptures in honor of contemporary leaders, the community that built Aguada Fénix “probably did not have marked social inequality” comparable to others in the 1,000-800 B.C. timeframe (calculated from carbon dating). That such an enormous project could have been accomplished without the backing and orders of a rich central authority — and at a time when Mayan communities were supposed to be small and not yet stationary — could upend existing doctrine regarding the development of Mayan culture.

All because of advances in laser scanning technology that most think of as a way for self-driving cars to avoid pedestrians. You can read more about Aguada Fénix in Nature and this National Geographic article.

Aukey introduces an extremely compact 100w charger

By Brian Heater

Let’s talk about chargers. They are, quite possibly, the least exciting thing about a computer. Don’t get me wrong. They’re necessary, obviously. But when was the last time you got really psyched about one?

And yet, here I am, tech blogger guy telling you that today is the first day of the rest of your charger-loving life. Why? Because of three alternately cased letters: GaN. Back at CES, I wrote a piece titled “GaN chargers are still worth getting excited about.” I stand by it. And you, too, will stand by GaN.

That’s short for Gallium Nitride, by the way. The main thing you need to know about it is that it has allowed accessory manufactures to jam a lot of wattage into a surprisingly compact footprint. I’ve been pretty smitten with them since picking up Anker’s 30w PowerPort Atom the CES prior. The thing wasn’t the world’s fastest charger, but it did the trick for a 13-inch MacBook with a footprint just slightly larger than the charger that ships with the iPhone.

These days, however, I lug around a 15-inch laptop, so 30 watts really isn’t going to do much. In fact, you’ll actually watch the battery drain while plugged in. I tried out a couple of new adapters at this year’s CES, as well, but none really scratched the itch. Aukey’s $55 OMNIA 100W PD Charger, on the other hand is pretty close to my sweet spot.

It’s half the size of Apple’s proprietary charger, sharing roughly the same footprint as the Google Pixelbook adapter I’ve been carrying around for a couple of years. But that one’s just a modest 45w. Heck, it’s even more powerful than the 96w model Apple sells for the 15 and 17-inch models.

The size is ideal, though, in part owing to the fact that Aukey didn’t attempt to stick another port on it. This is a one-device-at-a-time charger, which is perfectly fine for most of my needs, and it’s going to have a permanent spot in my bag in that far off time when I’m able to start traveling again.

I will say that it’s surprisingly heavy for its size. This is a dense little charger. It stays put in all of my wall outlets, but it’s going to be a test to see if it stays in place in Delta’s notoriously loose seat chargers. My suspicion is that it most likely won’t — making that a fairly big strike against it for my own once-frequent traveling. The good news is that these companies seem to have an even smaller model every four to six months.

In the meantime, it’s an otherwise great option if you’re looking for a lot of charge in a small footprint, at $24 less than Apple’s 96w model.

Cowboy releases updated e-bike with new carbon belt

By Romain Dillet

Electric-bike maker Cowboy has released a new iteration of its bike, the Cowboy 3. It’s a relatively small update that should make the experience better for newcomers. The first orders will be delivered at the end of July and the Cowboy 3 is now slightly more expensive at €2,290 or £1,990 ($2,500).

The bike still looks a lot like the Cowboy 2 that I reviewed last year. It has a triangle-shaped aluminum frame with integrated pill-shaped lights. The handlebar is still perfectly straight like on a mountain bike.

Compared to the previous generation, the company has replaced the rubber and fiberglass belt with a carbon belt. It should be good to go for 30,000km.

Like on the previous bike, there are no gears or buttons to control motor assistance. As soon as you start pedaling, motor assistance kicks in automatically.

But the gear ratio has been tweaked on this version. It’s now a bit lower, which means it’ll be easier to start pedaling at a traffic light. It’s going to have an impact on your top speed though as electric-bikes assist you up to a certain speed and you have to rely on your good old feet above that legal limit.

The wheels and tires have been slightly tweaked as well. Instead of off-the-shelf Panaracer tires, Cowboy is now using custom-made tires with a puncture protection layer. Rims are larger as well.

The saddle, hydraulic brakes and brake pads remain unchanged. The Cowboy 3 still features a detachable battery, something that is still missing from VanMoof’s e-bikes and the newly announced Gogoro Eeyo e-bikes.

Overall, the bike weighs 16.9kg. It now comes in three colors — black and two shades of grey.

New and existing Cowboy customers will be able to download a new version of the app with a handful of new features. You’ll be able to turn on auto-unlock to… automatically unlock your bike when you approach without having to open the app on your phone.

With theft detection, users will receive a notification as soon as your bike is moving. There will be a new crash detection feature that notifies an emergency contact and an air quality indicator in the app.

The Sonos Arc is an outstanding soundbar, on its own or with friends

By Darrell Etherington

Sonos has been releasing new hardware at a remarkably consistent and frequent pace the past couple of years, and what’s even more impressive is that these new releases are consistently excellent performers. The new Sonos Arc soundbar definitely fits that pattern, delivering the company’s best ever home theater sound device with performance that should convert even diehard 5.1 traditionalists.

Basics

The Sonos Arc is a soundbar that’s designed to integrate wirelessly with your Sonos home audio system, as well as accepting audio from your TV or A/V receiver via HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). Just about every modern TV should have at least one HDMI ARC port, and basically that just means that in addition to acting as a standard HDMI input for video sources, it can also offer audio output to a connected speaker or stereo system.

The Arc also comes with an HDMI to optical digital audio adapter in case your setup lacks ARC support (if a TV doesn’t have that, it almost surely has a TOSLINK digital audio output port) to cover all the bases. It also works as a wireless speaker that connects via Sonos’ dedicated mesh networking tech to other Sonos speakers you may have, so that it’s one more addressable multi-room speaker in a whole home wireless audio setup.

Arc can also be combined with other Sonos speakers, including the Sonos Sub, as well as Sonos One, One SL, Play:1 and others for setting up a more complete wireless 5.1 setup with a subwoofer and two rears. That’s an optional enhancement, however, and not necessary to take advantage of the Sonos Arc’s excellent virtual surround rendering, which with this new hardware also includes Dolby Atmos surround sound encoding for the first time on a Sonos soundbar.

Design

The Sonos Arc really comes from the modern design pedigree that Sonos has put into its hardware releases since the debut of the Sonos One, which means monoblock coloring (in either black or white), smooth lines and rounded hole grill designs that look a lot more contemporary than the contrast color grills on the Play:1 for example.

Arc looks like a spiritual successor to the Sonos Beam, the first Sonos soundbar to feature a built-in mic and support for virtual voice assistants including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But it’s also a lot larger than the Sonos Beam at 45″ long – much more like the Sonos Playbar and Playable that marked the company’s entry into the category.

For a sense of how long it is, it runs almost the full length of my LG 65″ C7 OLED TV. It’s also a bit taller than the Sonos Beam, coming in at 3.4″. For my use, that was still short enough that it doesn’t obscure any of the TV’s display when it’s sitting on a TV bench in front of the television from my regular viewing angle, but your mileage may vary, and if you had a similar setup with the Beam, just note that you’ll need a bit more clearance with the Arc.

The larger size isn’t just for show – it helps Sonos delivery much better sound vs. the lower-priced Beam. Inside the Arc, there are 11 drivers, including two upwards-facing ones, and two that face out either end of the long cylindrical soundbar. The end effect of all of these drivers, and the true distance separation that’s made possible by its long profile, is much more effective left/right/rear sound separation.

On the back, there’s a vent bar that provides additional sound quality improvements and holds the mounting outlets for attaching the Arc to a compatible wall mount. Either wall-mounted or resting atop furniture, the Arc is an attractive piece of hardware, and with just two cables required to run to power and the TV, it’s a minimal solution to home theater clutter that should mesh well with most home decor.

Performance

I mentioned this briefly above, but it’s amazing what the Sonos Arc can accomplish in terms of sound separation and virtual surround immersion with just a single speaker. It’s easily the best sound rendering I’ve experienced from a Sonos soundbar, and likely the best audio quality from a soundbar I’ve heard, period.

Stereo sound field testing shows that audio tracks really well left-to-right, and the Dolby Atmos support really shows its benefits when you have content that offers it. Speech intelligibility is also really fantastic on the soundbar alone, whereas with the Beam, I’ve found that it can suffer in some situations unless you have a Sonos Sub added to your system to take care of the low end frequencies and allow the soundbar to produce better clarity on the high end.

The Arc definitely benefits from pairing it with a Sonos Sub and other Sonos speakers acting as rears, but the soundbar on its own is a much better performer than anything Sonos has previously offered, in case you’re looking to save some money or you just want to focus on the most minimal sound setup possible that isn’t just terrible built-in TV speakers.

Sonos has also included a microphone on the Arc, which allows you to use it with either Alexa or Google Assistant to play music, turn on the TV, and do plenty more. It’s a great feature that’s optional, if you’d rather leave the mic off or not connect any assistants, and for me it’s perfectly suited to a device that essentially sits at the center of the living room experience. The mic seems very able to pick up commands even in a large room when you’re quite far away from it, so it could be the only voice-enabled smart speaker you require in even a large open-concept living/dining/kitchen space.

The Arc also acts as an Apple AirPlay 2 speaker out of the box, which means you can use it wireless. For minimalists, this is yet another selling point, since it means you can use it wirelessly with an Apple TV mounted to the back of your TV for instance – ridding yourself of one more wire if you want. It’s also super easy to stream any music or audio from your phone to the Arc as a result, even without opening up the Sonos app.

The updated Sonos app

Speaking of that app, the Sonos Arc is exclusively compatible with Sonos’ new, forthcoming mobile app, which arrives on June 8. This app will live alongside the existing one, which will continue to be available in order to support older, legacy Sonos hardware that won’t work with the more modern version.

This new Sonos app, which I used as a beta during the testing period for the Sonos Arc, is not as dramatic a change as I was expecting. The app definitely offers a better, cleaner and more modern interface, but everything is still located pretty much where you’d expect it to be if you were a user of the existing version. Most of the changes are probably happening under the hood, where the app is presumably designed to work with the more modern chipsets, higher memory and updated wireless technology of more recently-released Sonos speakers and accessories.

Long story short, the new app is a pleasant, fresh take on a familiar control system that seems both more performant and aesthetically better suited to modern Sonos speakers like the Arc. Even in beta, it didn’t give me any problems during my two weeks testing the Arc, and worked perfectly with all my services and voice assistants.

Bottom line

The Sonos Arc is definitely a premium soundbar, with a $799 price tag and great audio quality to match. It’s a fantastic successor to the Playbar and Playbase that exceeds both of those in every regard, and a great companion to the Beam that means Sonos’ home theater lineup now offers excellent options for a range of budgets.

If you want the best, most versatile and well-designed wireless soundbar available, the Sonos Arc is the speaker for you.

TinyML is giving hardware new life

By Walter Thompson
Adam Benzion Contributor
A serial entrepreneur, writer, and tech investor, Adam Benzion is the co-founder of Hackster.io, the world's largest community for hardware developers.

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

How to upgrade your at-home videoconference setup: Lighting edition

By Darrell Etherington

In this installment of our ongoing series around making the most of your at-home video setup, we’re going to focus on one of the most important, but least well-understood or implemented parts of the equation: Lighting. While it isn’t actually something that requires a lot of training, expertise or even equipment to get right, it’s probably the number-one culprit for subpar video quality on most conference calls — and it can mean the difference between looking like someone who knows what they talk about, and someone who might not inspire too much confidence on seminars, speaking gigs and remote broadcast appearances.

Basics

You can make a very big improvement in your lighting with just a little work, and without spending any money. The secret is all in being aware of your surroundings and optimizing your camera placement relative to any light sources that might be present. Consider not only any ceiling lights or lamps in your room, but also natural light sources like windows.

Ideally, you should position yourself so that the source of brightest light is positioned behind your camera (and above it, if possible). You should also make sure that there aren’t any strong competing light sources behind you that might blow out the image. If you have a large window and it’s daytime, face the window with your back to a wall, for instance. And if you have a movable light or an overhead lamp, either move it so it’s behind and above your computer facing you, or move yourself if possible to achieve the same effect with a fixed-position light fixture, like a ceiling pendant.

Ideally, any bright light source should be positioned behind and slightly above your camera for best results.

Even if the light seems aggressively bright to you, it should make for an even, clear image on your webcam. Even though most webcams have auto-balancing software features that attempt to produce the best results regardless of lighting, they can only do so much, and especially lower-end camera hardware like the webcam built into MacBooks will benefit greatly from some physical lighting position optimization.

This is an example of what not to do: Having a bright light source behind you will make your face hard to see, and the background blown out.

Simple ways to level-up

The best way to step up beyond the basics is to learn some of the fundamentals of good video lighting. Again, this doesn’t necessarily require any purchases – it could be as simple as taking what you already have and using it in creative ways.

Beyond just the above advice about putting your strongest light source behind your camera pointed towards your face, you can get a little more sophisticated by adopting the principles of two- and three-point lighting. You don’t need special lights to make this work – you just need to use what you have available and place them for optimal effect.

  • Two-point lighting

A very basic, but effective video lighting setup involves positioning not just one, but two lights pointed towards your face behind, or parallel with your camera. Instead of putting them directly in line with your face, however, for maximum effect you can place them to either side, and angle them in towards you.

A simple representation of how to position lights for a proper two-point video lighting setup.

Note that if you can, it’s best to make one of these two lights brighter than the other. This will provide a subtle bit of shadow and depth to the lighting on your face, resulting in a more pleasing and professional look. As mentioned, it doesn’t really matter what kind of light you use, but it’s best to try to make sure that both are the same temperature (for ordinary household bulbs, how ‘soft,’ ‘bright’ or ‘warm’ they are) and if your lights are less powerful, try to position them closer in.

  • Three-point lighting

Similar to two-point lighting, but with a third light added positioned somewhere behind you. This extra light is used in broadcast interview lighting setups to provide a slight halo effect on the subject, which further helps separate you from the background, and provides a bit more depth and professional look. Ideally, you’d place this out of frame of your camera (you don’t want a big, bright light shining right into the lens) and off to the side, as indicated in the diagram below.

In a three-point lighting setup, you add a third light behind you to provide a bit more subject separation and pop.

If you’re looking to improve the flexibility of this kind of setup, a simple way to do that is by using light sources with Philips Hue bulbs. They can let you tune the temperature and brightness of your lights, together or individually, to get the most out of this kind of arrangement. Modern Hue bulbs might produce some weird flickering effects on your video depending on what framerate you’re using, but if you output your video at 30fps, that should address any problems there.

Go pro

All lights can be used to improve your video lighting setup, but dedicated video lights will provide the best results. If you really plan on doing a bunch of video calls, virtual talks and streaming, you should consider investing in some purpose-built hardware to get even better results.

At the entry level, there are plenty of offerings on Amazon that work well and offer good value for money, including full lighting kits like this one from Neewer that offers everything you need for a two-point lighting setup in one package. These might seem intimidating if you’re new to lighting, but they’re extremely easy to set up, and really only require that you learn a bit about light temperature (as measured in kelvins) and how that affects the image output on your video capture device.

If you’re willing to invest a bit more money, you can get some better quality lights that include additional features including wifi connectivity and remote control. The best all-around video lights for home studio use that I’ve found are Elgato’s Key Lights. These come in two variants, Key Light and Key Light Air, which retail for $199.99 and $129.99 respectively. The Key Light is larger, offers brighter maximum output, and comes with a sturdier, heavy-duty clamp mount for attaching to tables and desks. The Key Light Air is smaller, more portable, puts out less light at max settings and comes with a tabletop stand with a weighted base.

Both versions of the Key Light offer light that you can tune form very warm white (2900K) to bright white (7000K) and connect to your wifi network for remote control, either from your computer or your mobile device. They easily work together with Elgato’s Stream Deck for hardware controls, too, and have highly adjustable brightness and plenty of mounting options – especially with extra accessories like the Multi-Mount extension kit.

With plenty of standard tripod mounts on each Key Light, high-quality durable construction and connected control features, these lights are the easiest to make work in whatever space you have available. The quality of the light they put out is also excellent, and they’re great for lighting pros and newbies alike since it’s very easy to tune them as needed to produce the effect you want.

Accent your space

Beyond subject lighting, you can look at different kinds of accent lighting to make your overall home studio more visually interesting or appealing. Again, there are a number of options here, but if you’re looking for something that also complements your home furnishings and won’t make your house look too much like a studio set, check out some of the more advanced versions of Hue’s connected lighting system.

The Hue Play light bar is a great accent light, for instance. You can pick up a two pack, which includes two of the full-color connected RGB lights. You’ll need a Hue hub for these to work, but you can also get a starter pack that includes two lights and the hub if you don’t have one yet. I like these because you can easily hide them behind cushions, chairs, or other furniture. They provide awesome uplight effects on light-colored walls, especially if you get rid of other ambient light (beyond your main video lights).

To really amplify the effect, consider pairing these up with something one the Philips Hue Signe floor or table lamps. The Signe series is a long LED light mounted to a weighted base that provide strong, even accent light with any color you choose. You can sync these with other Hue lights for a consistent look, or mix and max colors for different dynamic effects.

On video, this helps with subject/background separation, and just looks a lot more polished than a standard background, especially when paired with defocused effects when you’re using better quality cameras. As a side benefit, these lights can be synced to movie and video playback for when you’re consuming video, instead of producing it, for really cool home theater effects.

If you’re satisfied with your lighting setup but are still looking for other pointers, check out our original guide, as well as our deep dive on microphones for better audio quality.

BeeHero smartens up hives to provide ‘pollination as a service’ with $4M seed round

By Devin Coldewey

Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.

Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.

Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.

So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.

“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them?”

Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.

“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”

All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.

The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle and cost.

The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.

“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35% in soybeans, 70-100% in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.

The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.

“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25%,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”

That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”

Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly 20,000. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.

“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”

The $4 million seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.

BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.

Researchers use biometrics, including data from the Oura Ring, to predict COVID-19 symptoms in advance

By Darrell Etherington

A team of researchers from the West Virginia University (WVU) Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI), along with WVU’s Medicine department and staff from Oura Health have developed a platform they say can be used to anticipate the onset of COVID-19 symptoms in otherwise healthy people up to three days in advance. This can help with screening of pre-symptomatic individuals, the researchers suggest, enabling earlier testing and potentially reducing the exposure risk among frontline healthcare and essential workers.

The sudsy involved using biometric data gathered by the Oura Ring, a consumer wearable that looks like a normal metallic ring, but that includes sensors to monitor a number of physiological metrics, including body temperature, sleep patterns, activity, heart rate and more. RNI and WVU Medical researchers combined this data with physiological, cognitive and behaviroral biometric info from around 600 healthcare workers and first responders.

Participants in the study wore the Oura Ring, and provided additional data that was then used to develop AI-based models to anticipate the onset of symptoms before they physically manifested. While these are early results from a phase one study, and yet to be peer-reviewed, the researchers say that their results showed a 90 percent accuracy rate on predicting the occurrence of symptoms including fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue and more, all of which could indicate that someone has contracted COVID-19. While that doesn’t mean that individuals have the disease, a flag from the platform could mean they seek testing up to three days before symptoms appear, which in turn would mean three fewer days potentially exposing others around them to infection.

Next up, the study hopes to expand to cover as many as 10,000 participants across a number of different institutions in multiple states, with other academic partners on board to support the expansion. The study was fully funded by the RNI and their supporters, with Oura joining strictly in a facilitating capacity and to assist with hardware for deployment.

Many projects have been undertaken to see whether predictive models could help anticipate COVID-19 onset prior to the expression of symptoms, or in individuals who present as mostly or entirely asymptomatic based on general observation. This early result from RNI suggests that it is indeed possible, and that hardware already available to the general public could play an important role in making it possible.

Audient’s EVO 4 is a sleek, modern USB audio interface with useful smart features

By Darrell Etherington

The USB audio interface is a fairly standardized device – for those who might not know, that’s the hardware you use to take a microphone or instrument that uses an XLR or 1/4″ output and get that into your computer via a USB connection for recording or streaming. There are a lot of choices in USB audio interfaces, from a wide range of brands, but a relatively new entrant from Audient is the EVO 4, a modern take on the device that includes some smarter tech tweaks to make using one even easier.

Basics

The EVO 4 is a 2in / 2out audio interface, which means that it supports input from up to two microphones or instruments, and can output to speakers and/or headphones, as well as your computer. Audient has made the EVO 4 even more flexible on the input front with a dedicated 1/4″ input for plugging in your guitar, in addition to the combo XLR+1/4″ connectors on the back. This is a great feature for anyone looking to use this as a recording method for instruments, and goes above and beyond most of its competitors in terms of flexibility.

Audient has also helpfully used USB-C as the primary connector for linking up the EVO 4 to your computer. This means it’s likely to work with cables you already have or that are easy to find no matter where you happen to want to use it. The USB-C connection also not only routes audio to your computer, but also provides all the power the EVO 4 needs to operate, including what it requires to provide 48V phantom power to microphones that require that to operate. The fact that it’s powered via USB makes it super handy for portable use, and its overall small size helps with this as well, making it the perfect audio interface for creating a lightweight, very packable podcast interview kit.

On top of the EVO 4, you’ll find all the physical controls. There’s a single large volume dial, two buttons to select the XLR inputs, a 48v phantom power toggle, a monitor mix and pan button and a volume button that applies to both headphones and any attached speakers. There’s also a dedicated, large green button that’s specifically for Smartgain, a unique feature Audient has included with the EVO 4 that really boosts its convenience – more on that later.

The EVO 4’s control interfaces are a bit of a mixed bag – on the one hand, they help keep the hardware minimalist and sleek. On the other, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to adjust input volume levels, control interfaces, switch between different outputs and adjust the mix to each, and more. It’s definitely a more modern interpretation of an audio control surface (many other USB interfaces still just primarily user dedicated hardware switches and dials for most of these things), and so it’s going to have a learning curve for anyone used to the older way of doing things. That said, once you do figure out what everything does and what to press, in what order, it’s all relatively intuitive and easy to remember from that point on.

Features

Where the EVO 4 really shines is in the features that Audient has added to make it more convenient and flexible than your average USB audio interface. Two in particular, Smartgain and Audio Loop-back, are immensely useful and make using the EVO 4 incredibly easy and convenient even for people inexperienced in any kind of audio recording or editing.

Smartgain, which as mentioned has a dedicated button on the top of the EVO 4, lets you automatically set the gain (essentially the input volume) level of any instrument or mic you plug into the interface for the best possible results. Typically, setting gain levels on a USB audio interface is a fully manual affair, and involves a lot of listening back to yourself either via monitors or through recordings. With Smartgain, you simply tap the button, tap the input you want to set (you can select both), and start speaking, singing or playing – after a few seconds, the button will flash green to indicate that it has set the gain level based on the volume of your input.

If you’re doing a recording where you’re both singing and playing guitar, for instance, you can set Smartgain to determine the best level for each input, which makes it super simple to record a balanced multitrack recording of both. It’s hard to understate how much time and frustration this can save in the recording process.

As for Audio Loop-back, it similarly makes it easier to record audio – but by allowing you to capture the sound coming from your computer, as well as the inputs from whatever mics or sources you have plugged into the EVO 4 itself. This is a super handy feature for something like an advanced game streaming setup, since you can use it to route the sound from any game you’re playing along with your commentary via your mic plugged into the interface to the same output source.

Audient accomplishes this without the need for any additional hardware or connections from the EVO 4 to your computer, but you will need to makes some adjustments in either the streaming or recording software you’re using, or in your computer’s audio devices settings. Luckily, the company provides clear and easy-to-follow instructions about how to do that depending on your specific needs.

Often, this kind of thing requires an additional dedicated capture device, and a much more complicated and roundabout setup in software, too. Audient building it into the EVO 4 shows that they recognize the needs of the modern market for USB audio interfaces, and it’s a great competitive advantage for the gadget over the rest of the field.

Bottom Line

At $129, Audient’s EVO 4 is a remarkable value for a USB audio interface with these capabilities. One of the most popular devices in the same category, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, retails for $30 more, is larger and doesn’t come with any features similar to Smartgain or Audio Loop-back.

EVO 4 is compatible with PC, Mac, and iOS devices, and it’s small enough to be perfect for a portable setup, as well as taking up very little desk space. It has a matte black, lightly textured surface that looks great, and the large volume dial has graduated, clicky tactile response that makes it simple to use.

For podcasters and at-home recording artists, this is a fantastic option that packs a lot of value and quality into a sleek, feature-rich package.

Raspberry Pi Foundation announces Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM

By Romain Dillet

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has released a new version of its flagship model, the Raspberry Pi 4. In addition to the models that come with 2GB and 4GB of RAM, there’s a new 8GB model. This model costs $75, which makes it the most expensive Raspberry Pi out there.

As always, you get a single-board computer that is the size of a deck of cards. It has an ARM-based CPU, many ports, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a big community of computer enthusiasts. You’ll be able to run applications that require more RAM, whether you use the Raspberry Pi to run a server or as a desktop computer.

All the different versions of the Raspberry Pi 4 have the exact same specifications, except for RAM. Some components have moved on the board, but it’s just a minor adjustment. Earlier this year, the Raspberry Pi Foundation replaced the 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 with the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 while keeping the same price point.

So here’s the current lineup for the Raspberry Pi 4:

  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 2GB of RAM for $35
  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GB of RAM for $55
  • Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM for $75

The foundation says that it has been working on an 8GB variant for a while, but it took longer than expected as an LPDDR4 RAM package with 8GB had to be specifically designed for the Raspberry Pi.

On the software front, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has started working on a 64-bit version of Raspbian, the operating system designed to run on a Raspberry Pi. Raspbian still uses a 32-bit kernel and needs to make the switch to 64-bit to take advantage of the 8GB of RAM. In the mean time, you can install Ubuntu or Gentoo on a Raspberry Pi now.

Raspbian, a portmanteau word of Raspberry and Debian, is now called Raspberry Pi OS. Nothing else is changing other than the name.

Sony’s ZV-1 compact camera zooms in on vloggers

By Devin Coldewey

Sony has taken aim at the suddenly enormous market of people who want to self-produce high-quality video with a minimum of setup. Its ZV-1 mutates the versatile RX100 series into a selfie video machine, and it could be the all-in-one solution many a vlogger has been searching for.

The new camera is very much based on the highly successful and acclaimed RX100, which over the years has grown in both price and capabilities but remains something the user is behind, rather than in front of. The ZV-1 rethinks the camera for people who need to work the other way round.

The 1″, 20-megapixel sensor and 24-70mm equivalent, F/1.8-2.8 lens are borrowed from the RX100, meaning image quality should be excellent (though vloggers may want a wider-angle lens). But the camera has been customized with an eye to selfie-style operation.

That means the electronic viewfinder is gone, but there’s now a fully articulating touchscreen display. A powerful new microphone array takes up a large portion of the camera’s top plate, and the ZV-1 comes with a wind baffle or deadcat that attaches to the top hot shoe, giving the camera a flamboyant look.

Image Credits: Sony

A huge new dedicated record button is placed for perfect operation by a left hand holding the camera from the front, and the zoom dial should be thumbable from there, as well. A new “background defocus mode” uses the widest possible aperture, naturally narrowing the depth of field with no need for all the AI rigmarole found on smartphones — and it’s smart enough to switch focus to the product a vlogger is being paid to promote when they hold it up close.

All told, this could be a convincing works-out-of-the-box solution for people who may be juggling a panoply of hardware from multiple generations to get the same thing done. The proven RX100 image quality and reliability, combined with ergonomic tweaks to make it more selfie-friendly, might entice people thinking of putting together more complex setups.

At $800, or $750 if you order in the next month, it’s certainly more expensive than an entry-level setup, but probably cheaper (and definitely easier) than getting a mirrorless, lens, mic and other accessories you might need to match it.

Jabra’s Elite Active 75t earbuds offer great value and sound for both workouts and workdays

By Darrell Etherington

Technology improvements over the past few years mean that most fully wireless earbuds are a lot better than they used to be. That has led to something of a narrowing of the field among competitors in this arena, but some of the players still stand out – and Jabra have definitely delivered a standout performer with its newest Elite Active 75t fully wireless earbuds.

Basics

Jabra’s Elite Active 75t is a successor to its very popular 65t line, with added moisture resistance designed specifically for exercise use, as indicated by the ‘Active’ in the name. At $199.99, these are definitely premium-priced – but they’re a lot more affordable than many of the other offerings in the category, especially with their IP57-water and sweat resistance rating.

The Elite Active 75t also feature an esteemed 7.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, and their compact charging case carries backup power that adds up to a total of 28 hours potential run time across a single charge for both. The case charges via USB-C and also offers a fast-charge capability that provides 60 minutes of use from just 15 minutes of charging.

While they don’t offer active noise cancellation, they do have passive noise blocking, and an adjustable passthrough mode so that you can tune how much of the sound of the world around you you want to let in – a great safety feature for running or other activities.

They use Bluetooth 5.0 for low power consumption and extended connection range, have an auto-pause and resume feature for when you take out one earbud, and include a 4-mic array to optimize audio quality during calls.

Design

Jabra has accomplished a lot on the design front with the Elite Active 75t. Their predecessor was already among the most compact and low-profile in-ear wireless buds on the market, and the Elite Active 75t is even smaller. These are extremely lightweight and comfortable, too, and their design ensures that they stay put even during running or other active pursuits. In my testing, they didn’t even require adjustment once during a 30-minute outdoor run.

Their comfort makes them a great choice for both active use and for all-day wear at the desk – and the 7.5 hours of battery life doesn’t seem to be a boast, either, based on my use, which is also good for workday wear.

Another key design feature that Jabra included on the Elite Active 75t is that both earbuds feature a large, physical button for controls. This is much better and easier to use than the touch-based controls found on a lot of other headsets, and makes learning the various on-device control features a lot easier.

Finally in terms of design, the charging case for the Elite Active 75t is also among the most svelte on the market. It’s about the size of two stacked matchboxes, and easily slides into any available pockets. Like the earbuds themselves, the case features a very slightly rubberized outer texture, which is great for grip but, as you can see from the photos, is also a dust magnet. That doesn’t really matter unless you happen to be tasked with photographing them, however.

One final note on the case design – magnetic snaps in the earbud pockets mean you can be sure that your headset buds are seated correctly for charging when you put them back, which is a great bit of user experience thoughtfulness.

Performance

It’s easy to see why the Jabra Elite Active 75t is already a favorite among users – they provide a rich, pleasant sound profile that’s also easily tuned through the Jabra Sound+ mobile app. Especially for a pair of earbuds designed specifically for active use, these provide sound quality that goes above and beyond.

Their battery life appears to line up with manufacturer estimates, which also makes them class-leading in terms of single charge battery life. That’s a big advantage when using these for longer outdoor activities, or, as mentioned, when relying on them for all-day desk work. Their built-in mic is also clear and easy to understand for people on the other side of voice and video calls, and the built-in voice isolation seems to work very well according to my testing.

In my experience, their fit is also fantastic. Jabra really seems to have figured out how to build a bud that stays in place, regardless of how much you’re moving around or sweating. It’s really refreshing to find a pair of fully wireless buds that you never have to even think about readjusting them during a workout.

Bottom Line

Jabra has done an excellent job setting their offering apart from an increasingly crowded fully wireless earbud market, and the Elite Active 75t is another distinctive success. Size, comfort and battery life all help put this above its peers, and it also boasts great sound quality as well as excellent call quality. You can get better sounding fully wireless earbuds, but not without spending quite a bit more money and sacrificing some of those other advantages.

This Week in Apps: Facebook takes on Shopify, Tinder considers its future, contact-tracing tech goes live

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications. Notably, we saw the launch of the Apple/Google exposure-notification API with the latest version of iOS out this week. The pandemic is also inspiring other new apps and features, including upcoming additions to Apple’s Schoolwork, which focus on distance learning, as well as Facebook’s new Shops feature designed to help small business shift their operations online in the wake of physical retail closures.

Tinder, meanwhile, seems to be toying with the idea of pivoting to a global friend finder and online hangout in the wake of social distancing, with its test of a feature that allows users to match with others worldwide — meaning, with no intention of in-person dating.

Headlines

COVID-19 apps in the news

  • Fitbit app: The fitness tracker app launched a COVID-19 early detection study aimed at determining whether wearables can help detect COVID-19 or the flu. The study will ask volunteers questions about their health, including whether they had COVID-19, then pair that with activity data to see if there are any clues that could be used to build an early warning algorithm of sorts.
  • U.K. contact-tracing app: The app won’t be ready in mid-May as promised, as the government mulls the use of the Apple/Google API. In testing, the existing app drains the phone battery too quickly. In addition, researchers have recently identified seven security flaws in the app, which is currently being trialed on the Isle of Wight.

Apple launches iOS/iPadOS 13.5 with Face ID tweak and contact-tracing API

Apple this week released the latest version of iOS/iPadOS with two new features related to the pandemic. The first is an update to Face ID which will now be able to tell when the user is wearing a mask. In those cases, Face ID will instead switch to the Passcode field so you can type in your code to unlock your phone, or authenticate with apps like the App Store, Apple Books, Apple Pay, iTunes and others.

Technology can help health officials rapidly tell someone they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Today the Exposure Notification API we created with @Google is available to help public health agencies make their COVID-19 apps effective while protecting user privacy.

— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) May 20, 2020

The other new feature is the launch of the exposure-notification API jointly developed by Apple and Google. The API allows for the development of apps from public health organizations and governments that can help determine if someone has been exposed by COVID-19. The apps that support the API have yet to launch, but some 22 countries have requested API access.

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