10 ways Apple could improve the MacBook Pro

I love my MacBook Pro, but I still think there are some ways Apple could make it better. In this piece, I share ten ways Apple could improve the MacBook Pro.

Apple’s MacBook Pro has been my personal computer of choice for almost a decade now, and while I’ve loved every upgrade along the way, I can’t help but feel like Apple could do better.

Given just how expensive a MacBook Pro becomes as you start pegging out the specs on Apple’s website, it seems like Apple could do more to help me justify the price point. With that in mind, I’ll discuss at least ten ways Apple could improve their flagship notebook in this piece.

... Read the rest of this post here


"10 ways Apple could improve the MacBook Pro" is an article by iDownloadBlog.com.
Make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Microsoft is calling an audible on smart speakers

The Harman Kardon Invoke was fine. But let’s be real — the first Cortana smart speaker was dead on arrival. Microsoft’s smart assistant has its strong suits, but thus far statement of purpose hasn’t been among them. CEO Satya Nadella appears to have acknowledged as much this week during a media event at the company’s […]

The Harman Kardon Invoke was fine. But let’s be real — the first Cortana smart speaker was dead on arrival. Microsoft’s smart assistant has its strong suits, but thus far statement of purpose hasn’t been among them. CEO Satya Nadella appears to have acknowledged as much this week during a media event at the company’s Redmond campus.

“Defeat” might be a strong word at this stage, but the executive is publicly acknowledging that the company needs to go back to the drawing board. In its current configuration, the best Microsoft can seemingly hope for with Cortana is a slow ramp up after a greatly delayed start. For all of the company’s recent successes, the gulf between its offering and Alexa, Assistant and (to a lesser degree) Siri must seem utterly insurmountable.

The new vision for Cortana is an AI offering that works in tandem with products that have previously been considered its chief competitors. That’s in line with recent moves. Over the summer, Microsoft and Amazon unveiled integration between the two assistants. Nadella used this week’s event to both reaffirm plans to work with Alexa and Google Assistant and note that past categories probably don’t make sense, going forward.

“We are very mindful of the categories we enter where we can do something unique,” he told the crowd. “A good one is speakers. To me the challenge is, exactly what would we be able to do in that category that is going to be unique?”

It’s a fair question. And the answer, thus far, is nothing. Like Samsung’s Bixby offerings, the primary distinguisher has been the devices on which it has chosen to roll out — appliances for Bixby and PCs for Microsoft. And while moves by Apple, Amazon and Google have all been acknowledgements that desktops and laptops may play an important role in the growth of smart assistants moving forward, they were hardly a major driver early on.

I suspect this will also mean the company will invest less in pushing Cortana as a consumer-facing product for the time being, instead focusing on the ways it can help other more popular assistants play nicely with the Microsoft ecosystem.

Nike’s auto-laced future

Why does the world need a self-lacing shoe? Haven’t you heard of Velcro? How will you tie your shoes when the Wi-Fi is down? That’s the gist of the instant response I got when I mentioned the new Adapt BB, a shoe from Nike with, yes, powered laces that tighten to a wearer’s foot automatically. […]

Why does the world need a self-lacing shoe?

Haven’t you heard of Velcro?

How will you tie your shoes when the Wi-Fi is down?

That’s the gist of the instant response I got when I mentioned the new Adapt BB, a shoe from Nike with, yes, powered laces that tighten to a wearer’s foot automatically. The shoe is an evolution of the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0, which is itself a commercialization of the Air Mag — a self-lacing vanity project that realized the self-lacing shoes mocked up for Back to the Future II.

When I tweeted about the Adapt and its companion smartphone app that allows for remote control of each shoe’s lace tightness, the immediate response was, in summary, “why?”

A sentiment followed up quickly with callouts to the Twitter account @internetofshit, which highlights devices that are unnecessarily burdened with wirelessly connected bloatware features. To be fair, this response is exactly the same one that Nike’s first self-lacing model received. But this time, the announcement also came right on the heels of CES, the natural home of needless electronic gadgets. People are so burned out by smart toilets that they were not ready to hear about shoes gaining a connected hardware component.

And, honestly, I get it. It’s a hard sell to say that the solution to a laceless design is to add about half of the hardware that goes into your smartphone and the ability to talk to your shoes with your phone.

But the Adapt BB is really working on two levels, and to tease out whether there is a there there when it comes to connected shoes, you have to consider the context.

Laceless

For a while now, the Holy Grail of shoe design has been the hunt for a truly “laceless lockdown” shoe for basketball applications. Not just a lack of laces, but enhanced lockdown — a fit that borders on custom-molded, preventing a player’s foot from moving around inside a shoe even in extreme cut or stop-short situations. Think cornering ability in a car coupled with adjustable seats — it doesn’t matter how hard the car can turn if it throws you all around the cabin.

Nike’s approach to this effectively uses a single cord and a motor to replace a traditional set of laces.

Nike rival Adidas is pursuing the goal in a different way, using interwoven textiles and self-tightening weaves in its N3XT L3V3L basketball shoe.

Regardless of approach, there are genuine, real benefits to trying to eliminate or evolve laces. The casual observer crapping on auto lacing may not realize that lacing and lockdown are actually an enormous problem for many pro players. The typical player has their shoes laced in the locker room and then leaves them laced that way the whole game unless they come off the court for some reason and have them adjusted. At times, they even have a coach take care of lacing for them, because it’s impossible to get enough torsion on their own to achieve full lockdown in their game shoes.

Then, that level of tightness is kept for hours as they play the game, allowing for no relief even on the sidelines. Not the best for players that already have bone weakness, and, honestly, not good for anyone, as blood flow aids recovery and prevents injury.

Nike says it commissioned an independent university study on the effectiveness of the Adapt BB system on lockdown that showed a 40 percent improvement and has testimonials from a host of (admittedly Nike-solicited or sponsored) athletes who have had a chance to try them. They all say the same thing: These shoes really do help achieve better lockdown, and the convenience of being able to set one or many pre-set lacing tightnesses and then choose to engage or disengage at will is a real benefit.

We’ll get into the long-term plans, but it’s important to remember that the market for this first model of Adapt is professional and semi-pro athletes. Though many consumers will buy them, Nike’s plans for casual shoes on the Adapt platform are down the road and these aren’t it, chief.

Still, those long-term plans are what make the whole thing more exciting than, hey, here’s a new pro tool for pros.

First, though, let’s talk about the hardware.

Hardware

The core of the Adapt BB and the device that makes Nike’s use of the much-maligned platform buzzword possible is a plastic rectangle that sits under the arch of the foot inside the shoes. Branded with the traditional swoosh, it contains a worm drive engine with back stop protection that coils the laces to the desired tightness then locks them mechanically to prevent slippage during play.

This, and the single wire that tracks through a maze of anchors over and up the foot falls under the umbrella of what Nike is calling FitAdapt tech. It’s the auto-fit component of the smart shoe stuff that Adapt BB can do.

There is, of course, a battery as well and a coil to enable induction charging from the shoe’s charging plate. And yes, a Bluetooth module to allow it to communicate with your phone.

The other stuff inside this box is fascinating, though, and is completely un-used at the shoe’s launch. But let’s dance around that for a minute.

The midsole is made of Nike’s Cushlon foam, a denser foam that doesn’t compress as much as some of its newer offerings like Zoom. This allows the module to sit under foot, recessed a few millimeters under the sole insert and invisible to a wearer’s foot. The insole is also made of a new sockliner foam, which focuses on impact distribution, spreading any point impacts from the box in the midsole over the surface of the foot.

Simply put: you can’t feel the motor.

Narissa Chang, Lead Mechanical Engineer and Jordan Rice, Senior Director of Smart Systems Engineering at Nike, explained that they conducted a massive amount of testing to make sure that the module continued to work in damp, high-impact conditions. The spec I was given was that the motor should easily outlast the shoe, so it shouldn’t be the point of failure.

The outsole is grippy, with great traction behavior and sharp cornering. I was able to wear test the shoe on two consecutive days and played a pickup game with other media folks on day two in them. The details of my performance will remain undisclosed, but the shoes performed admirably.

Here’s how the system works. You slip your foot into the shoe. If you’ve already set up a lace tightness, a new magnetic system (no longer pressure-based like the first Adapt) senses your foot’s presence and tightens them. That’s it.

If it’s your first run, you pair the shoes to the Adapt BB app, which will be on the App Store and Google Play Store. When you pair, you’re linking your shoes directly to your Nike+ account, so there is no chance of anyone either connecting to or controlling your shoes. No log-in, no control via the app.

Once the app is paired you’re able to choose a color to identify your shoes, which will appear in the LEDs that back the control buttons on the lateral side of the midsole, just aft of the mild outrigger.

The LEDs serve to ID your shoes and offer customizability but also to identify which of your lacing profiles are set. The app, in a feature that is launching in a couple of weeks, allows you to set up multiple tightness levels that you can switch between with a tap.

If, however, you want to use the shoes free of the app you can. If your foot is in the shoe you can single tap to jump to desired tightness or tap and hold a button to bump them back to “wide open.” You can also make micro adjustments by tapping the buttons. If your foot remains in the shoe it will eventually tighten back down due to the auto-lacing mechanic sensing your foot is still inside, but I’m hoping you can change that behavior for rest periods.

This means that if an athlete is on the court, they can adjust their shoes by button on the go.

This is one of those fundamental things that a lot of the Twitter Snark brigade was missing — this was essentially an impossibility for players up until this point. Precisely adjusting the lacing all the way up to full lockdown was something that typically required a coach to do. This isn’t hurriedly re-lacing to finish out a period, it’s getting the exact fit for right now on the court.

Players, for example, will tell you that after about a half hour on the court, their feet will swell, sometimes up to a half size. This changes their comfort level significantly. So they have a choice: either play with their shoes too loose for 30 minutes or tighten them enough to be painful by halftime. Not with an adjustable shoe.

The buttons, it should be noted, are pretty much mandatory in the NBA where phones are outlawed on the bench.

The shoe and tech, however, is approved for court play and Jason Tatum debuted them last night in the Celtics/Raptors game.

But outside of the immediate benefits for athletes, the hardware also telegraphs an interesting future for Nike’s connected future. The other components of the lace engine include things that you’re probably already carrying including a 3D gyroscope and accelerometers that measure multiple axes. This shoe can, if it chooses, determine things like gait, foot strike pressure, pace and even in-air motion of your feet.

Imagine, if you will, a coach that tells you you’re putting a foot too far forward or back during a layup or launching too late, or leaning back too far. This is possible with the hardware Nike already has on board.

And it is telling that none of it is enabled up front. Though it can do all of these things, it’s not doing them now. Nike feels that the solid benefit to pros of an adjustable lacing system that can achieve industry-standard-or-better lockdown is enough to launch this.

Everything else it can do is gravy and scene-setting for Nike’s future plans. Though they are predictably pretty reluctant to state future plans, plenty of hints are dropped at more connected shoes, clothing that connects to them and devices like smart watches and headphones that can work in concert to give you feedback about how your body is performing.

“When we think of it as a platform, we started with fit,” says Nike VP of Design Innovation, Eric Avar. “We quoted Bill Bowerman — he believed fit was the foundation of all of it. If you don’t have fit then other performance attributes of the product could be compromised.”

One other core component that Avar notes could become a focus of Adapt is cushioning.

“You can imagine adaptive cushioning in the future, obviously. So when we say platform we’re thinking holistically about the performance attributes of footwear and also starting to think about apparel.

Some brief notes that you might be wondering about:

  • Nike says battery life clocks in at between 10-14 days with multiple adjustments per day.
  • The shoe always reserves 5 percent battery to unlace the shoes to get you out.
  • Charging takes under three hours with the wireless charging mat to full.
  • There is currently no Apple Watch app, but Nike says they’ve been thinking about it.

Design and comfort

I was able to wear test the Adapt BB over two days in New York, including doing some warmup and playing a pickup game with media at the National Basketball Player’s Association court. The comfort level, I’m pleased to say, is well within bounds for a performance shoe. I’ve worn easily north of 1,000 different pairs of sneakers in just the past couple of years and I would have no problem wearing these off the court as well as on. It’s absolutely a ‘pro fit’, with a grippy, enclosed feel that facilitates cutting and cornering.

This shoe does not have the comfort level of a casual or lifestyle sneaker, by design, but Nike says it is bringing Adapt to those categories in 2019 as well. I’m happy to say that these shoes are just wearable, period, even for someone with a wide foot and high instep. The Adapt 1.0, by comparison, were heavy, stiff and rough to wear for feet outside the norm.

Aside from the Cushlon we mentioned and the crispy clear outsole, there are a few interesting design details worth mentioning. To me, the shoe is designed to evoke designs of Nike basketball past. The overall silhouette evokes the Kobe AD, which makes sense given Nike vice president and creative director of innovation Eric Avar’s work with Kobe and his line of shoes.

I also notice a shiny heel segment that throws off hints of the Jordan 11’s patent leather support band.

Avar also calls out the swoosh within a swoosh, saying that it’s meant to evoke the human within the shoe, being enhanced by the Adapt system.

It’s a good looking shoe. Intentionally designed to give off Nike basketball vibes, while still holding appeal for a set of early adopter enthusiasts that will likely wear them on and off the court.

Enabling technology

One of the most exciting ancillary effects of a self-lacing shoe is assistance that it can give people with fine motor skills or mobility issues. Having a shoe that can tie itself goes right from a first-world problem to a genuinely life-enhancing feature when you look at it through the lens of accessibility.

First up, no, I don’t think that the entire Adapt project is some sort of accessibility Trojan horse and that they’re doing all of this to let people who can’t tie their shoes for reasons out of their control wear dope kicks. But it’s absolutely bound to be a result of the platform, including its self-lacing feature, trickling down through the lifestyle and casual categories. Yes, this first pair is $350, but that’s already down from $750 from the Adapt 1.0. That’s quite the curve and it will continue to bottom out with scale.

I asked Chang and Rice specifically about whether accessibility was a part of their design and engineering conversation. They said that the Adapt 1.0 was just an experiment to see if they could commercialize this laceless design but that the moment it hit the public they got tons of feedback about how great this could be for accessibility. And the engineering team works directly next to the department inside Nike that works on athletes of all levels of ability and enablement.

So, while this is not the purpose of Adapt, I’m hoping that it will be an awesome effect of it succeeding. Provided it does, of course.

Pitfalls and potentialities

Performance benefits of a connected suite of Nike and Nike-compatible devices are, frankly, a safe bet. Nike is in the envied position of being an established purveyor of performance gear and sees a future in being able to offer some value here that will sell a lot of product.

But I think even this unrealized future of a connected performance suite is too narrow. I’ve written before about Apple’s position in the market and the potential it has to turn its devices into biometric enablers of identity.

Imagine a shoe that automatically pays as you cross the boundary of a toll booth or bus door. A bike that locks unless your cleats are in it. A shirt that can have an opt-in chat with your health app of choice and give a real window into hydration.

Nike is billing the Adapt BB as the first shoe that’s software upgradeable. Though there have been other electronically enabled shoes in the past, this is the first time that you could conceivably see one of these being able to get better before the natural course of time and wear makes them get worse. Pro athletes change their shoes sometimes as quick as one pair per game. The pro-am category though, could conceivably see a shoe they wear for a year or more gain features and abilities over time.

Seeing a shoe get the benefits of a piece of upgradeable software defines, I believe, is a major shift in the way that we think about clothing as a consumable and “degrade only” category. Buying a piece of clothing that gets better with time isn’t new, obviously, as leather boots and other animal skin clothing tends to take some time to break in before it even fits right. But outside of animal products, it’s rare — and a first, as far as I’m concerned, in performance wear.

The caveats abound, of course. There is a lot of ground between here and there, and Nike could stumble at many points on execution, scale or just plain convincing people that more devices that collect and utilize data are what people want or “need.”

It’s imperative that they tell the story carefully, following the strategy of providing solid, real-world benefits that feel not just as good but better than the analogue alternative. It’s also mandatory that Nike takes its stewardship of user data seriously. It’s a good sign that they mentioned responsible data use a lot during formal presentations and my informal chats across the design, digital and engineering teams.

Apple’s philosophy toward data handling was mentioned — and it makes sense as Nike has a similar arrangement with customers. You may give them data but they’re providing you a product for profit. It does not benefit them to misuse or misrepresent the way they might use future data that they read from your shoes or clothing. Examining incentives is important in a world where we’re getting closer to a high-fidelity, portable, digital profile without having yet decided who owns that profile — us or the companies that gather data on it.

But you have to walk the walk. As Nike rolls out the Adapt platform, it will be important to keep an eye on whether they are good stewards of user data.

Culture

One advantage Nike could and should leverage in its pursuit of creating actually useful smart clothing is its conduit into culture. This conduit takes many shapes but includes sneakerheads, basketball fans, hip hop culture and art/fashion collaborators. There are dozens of examples of failed attempts to make wearable smart clothing cool, functional and adopted at scale. In most of those cases, however, the efforts have come from companies without the ability to connect culture and tech with a strong organic link.

The Culture, as an organism, has an incredibly strong BS detector. It doesn’t matter how good the tech is or how disruptive a company’s business model — if it’s trying to create a true shift in consumer behavior (that’s exactly what  Nike is attempting) then it has to partner with culture. That can be via communities like the sneaker enthusiast early adopters or through institutions with rabid in-tune fan bases like the NBA or collaborators like fashion upstarts and artists who lend authenticity and a feeling of nowness to the product.

It’s one of the cardinal blind spots that remains in Silicon Valley, which views culture through the lens of engineering rather than art or fashion. It’s a huge reason why there are so many corpses of companies that have attempted this before. That and many of them did not have the advantage of a mature-to-the-point-of-saturation smartphone supply chain to take advantage of.

Positive and negative futures

Any time I write about passive connectivity I get a polarized response, not unlike the one people have had so far for the Adapt BB. It’s either a sign that we’re getting lazy, complacent or not paranoid enough, or it’s an amazing feat that points toward utopia. Neither one is likely to be totally true, though I would argue that we need to look at these things in a way that attempts to engage, discuss and influence them toward the positive end of the spectrum.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that the future is going to happen, and if we don’t have the belief that it can be good, backed up with active participation in making it happen, then we’re doomed to more of the same.

In the near term, Nike has what it seems could be a lucrative opportunity to provide solid value for customers based on a portfolio of devices that enhance active lifestyles. In the long term, the company has a tougher but potentially much more impactful chance to outline a connected, wearable framework that rests on an honest relationship with customers and strong data stewardship.

There are only a handful of companies on earth that have the scale, execution ability and incentive structure to make this happen. Nike is one of them. This will be interesting.

Facebook says it will ask employees to take down glowing Portal reviews on Amazon

The reception to Facebook Portal has been, at best, a mixed bag. Between the company’s ongoing privacy woes and a lackluster response, Facebook likely didn’t get the response it was anticipating for its first in-house hardware creation. Still, both the Portal and Portal Plus are floating around the four-star mark over on Amazon. Not too […]

The reception to Facebook Portal has been, at best, a mixed bag. Between the company’s ongoing privacy woes and a lackluster response, Facebook likely didn’t get the response it was anticipating for its first in-house hardware creation. Still, both the Portal and Portal Plus are floating around the four-star mark over on Amazon. Not too shabby.

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose noticed something fishy in all of this, noting on Twitter that many of the verified reviewers on the site bore the same names as Facebook employees. “Reviewing your employer’s products is definitely against Amazon’s rules,” he wrote today. “It’s also not exactly an indicator of confidence in how well they’re selling organically!”

Facebook’s AR/VR VP Andrew Bosworth was quick to respond, tweeting, “[N]either coordinated nor directed from the company. From an internal post at the launch: ‘We, unequivocally, DO NOT want Facebook employees to engage in leaving reviews for the products that we sell to Amazon.’ We will ask them to take down.”

This is just the latest controversy in the product’s short life. At launch, Bosworth felt it necessary to clarify concerns about whether Facebook was using the product to listen to calls and collect data. And while apparently not a calculated effort on Facebook’s part, it does leave one wondering about internal fallout surrounding the product’s negative response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robots learn to grab and scramble with new levels of agility

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

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

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

On the other hand…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANYmal’s new tricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikea assembly is the killer app

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable “parasite”

What do you get when you put one Internet connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen. The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to […]

What do you get when you put one Internet connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite'” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye”, or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers”. Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

The Square Off chess board melds the classical with the robotic

CES crowds can be tough — especially toward the end of the week. You’re physically and emotionally drained, and you’re pretty sure you’ve seen everything the consumer electronics world has to offer. And then something comes along to knock your socks off. Square Off was one such product, impressing the crowd at our meetup and […]

CES crowds can be tough — especially toward the end of the week. You’re physically and emotionally drained, and you’re pretty sure you’ve seen everything the consumer electronics world has to offer. And then something comes along to knock your socks off. Square Off was one such product, impressing the crowd at our meetup and walking away the winner of our hardware pitch-off.

The company’s first product looks like your run of the mill wooden chess board. And that’s part of the charm. Turn it on with the single button, and the system goes to work, tapping into chess AI software built by Stockfish and moving opposing pieces accordingly with an electromagnet attached to a robotic arm hidden under the board.

It’s an overused word in this space, but the effect is downright magical. It’s like playing chess against a ghost — and who hasn’t wanted to do that at some point? Players can challenge the board using 20 different difficulty levels or can play against opponents remotely, via chess.com.

Bhavya Gohil, the co-founder and CEO of Square Off creator InfiVention, told TechCrunch that the product started life as a college project aimed at creating a chess board for people with visual impairment. After a trip to Maker Faire Rome, however, its inventors recognized that the product had the potential for broader appeal.

One Kickstarter and another Indiegogo campaign later, the company had raised in excess of $600,000 for the project. After a year learning the manufacturing ropes in China, the company began shipping retail products in March of last year, launching a website the following month. In October, the product landed on Amazon, tripling sales for the holiday. All told, the company has sold 9,000 units — not bad for a chess startup charging $369 a pop. A majority of those (80 percent) have been sold in the U.S., with the remainder being sold in Europe.

In November, the company scored a seed round of $1.1 million. InfiVention is planning version 2.0 for a mid-2020 launch. That one will be more versatile, covering additional classic table-top games like checkers and backgammon. That version will be even more versatile when it’s opened up to table-top game developers looking to build their own titles into the platform via the app.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

Apple’s battery cases return for the iPhone XS and XR

There’s no shortage of iPhone cases out there, of course. But for those who absolutely must have Apple’s stamp on their accessories, the company just dropped a couple of official charging cases for its latest round of handsets — the XS,  XS Max and XR. The cases, first spotted by MacRumors, maintain a similar design […]

There’s no shortage of iPhone cases out there, of course. But for those who absolutely must have Apple’s stamp on their accessories, the company just dropped a couple of official charging cases for its latest round of handsets — the XS,  XS Max and XR.

The cases, first spotted by MacRumors, maintain a similar design language as their predecessor, marking its return for the first time since the iPhone 7. The familiar battery bump is back, but it now encompasses the whole of the rear, which should make holding it a little less awkward — and at the very least is a bit better looking.

This time out, the silicone covers are available in black and white and will work with Qi chargers, without having to pull the case off. 

The new smart charging cases are priced at $129, regardless of model, and should add between 33 (for the XS) and 39 (for the XR) hours of additional talk time. As Apple notes, there are some marked advantages with going first party on this one, including intelligent battery status, which is displayed in the notification center and on the phone’s lock screen.