If we want drones to do our dirty work for us, they’re going to need to get pretty good at hauling stuff around. But due to the pesky yet unavoidable restraints of physics, it’s hard for them to muster the forces necessary to do so while airborne — so these drones brace themselves against the ground to get the requisite torque. The drones, created by engineers at Stanford and , were inspired by wasps and spiders that need to drag prey from place to place but can’t actually lift it, so they drag it instead. Grippy feet and strong threads or jaws let them pull objects many times their weight along the ground, just as you might slide a dresser along rather than pick it up and put it down again. So I guess it could have also just been inspired by that. Whatever the inspiration, these “FlyCroTugs” (a combination of flying, micro and tug presumably) act like ordinary tiny drones while in the air, able to move freely about and land wherever they need to. But they’re equipped with three critical components: an anchor to attach to objects, a winch to pull on that anchor and sticky feet to provide sure grip while doing so. “By combining the aerodynamic forces of our vehicle and the interactive forces generated by the attachment mechanisms, we were able to come up with something that is very mobile, very strong and very small,” said Stanford grad student Matthew Estrada, lead author of . The idea is that one or several of these ~100-gram drones could attach their anchors to something they need to move, be it a lever or a piece of trash. Then they take off and land nearby, spooling out thread as they do so. Once they’re back on terra firma they activate their winches, pulling the object along the ground — or up over obstacles that would have been impossible to navigate with tiny wheels or feet. Using this technique — assuming they can get a solid grip on whatever surface they land on — the drones are capable of moving objects 40 times their weight — for a 100-gram drone like that shown, that would be about 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds. Not quickly, but that may not always be a necessity. What if a handful of these things flew around the house when you were gone, picking up bits of trash or moving mail into piles? They would have hours to do it. As you can see in the video below, they can even team up to do things like open doors. “People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world,” said co-author of the paper, EPFL’s Dario Floreano, in a news release. “But flying insects do many other things, such as walking, climbing, grasping and building. Social insects can even work together and combine their strength. Through our research, we show that small drones are capable of anchoring themselves to surfaces around them and cooperating with fellow drones. This enables them to perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.” Unless you’re prepared to wait for humanoid robots to take on tasks like this (and it may be a decade or two), .
“Yeah! Well of course we’re working on it” head of augmented reality Ficus Kirkpatrick told me when I asked him if Facebook was building an AR glasses at TechCrunch’s AR/VR event in LA. “We are building hardware products. We’re going forward on this . . . We want to see those glasses come into reality, and I think we want to play our part in helping to bring them there.” This is the clearest confirmation we’ve received yet from Facebook about its plans for AR glasses. The product could be Facebook’s opportunity to own a mainstream computing device on which its software could run after a decade of being beholden to smartphones built, controlled, and taxed by Apple and Google. Fresh off the heels of its first hardware launch, Facebook's Fiscus Kirkpatrick says the company is also working on an AR headset — TechCrunch (@TechCrunch) This month Facebook launched its first self-branded gadget out of its Building 8 lab, the , and now it’s revving up hardware efforts. For AR, Kirkpatrick told me “We have no product to announce right now. But we have a lot of very talented people doing really, really compelling cutting-edge research that we hope plays a part in the future of headsets.” There’s a war brewing here. AR startups like and are starting to release their first headsets and glasses. Microsoft is considered a leader thanks to its early Hololens product, while Google Glass is still being developed for the enterprise. And Apple has acquired AR hardware developers like and to accelerate development of its own headsets. Mark Zuckerberg said AR glasses were 5 to 7 years away at F8 2017 Technological progress and competition seems to have sped up Facebook’s timetable. Back in April 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “We all know where we want this to get eventually, we want glasses”, but explained that “we do not have the science or technology today to build the AR glasses that we want. We may in five years, or seven years”. He explained that “We can’t build the AR product that we want today, so building VR is the path to getting to those AR glasses.” The company’s division had talked extensively about the potential of AR glasses, yet similarly characterized them as far off. But a few months later, a Facebook for AR glasses was spotted by that detailed using “waveguide display with two-dimensional scanner” to project media onto the lenses. reports that Facebook is working on Project Sequoia that uses projectors to display AR experiences on top of physical objects like a chess board on a table or a person’s likeness on something for teleconferencing. These indicate Facebook was moving past AR research. Facebook AR glasses patent application Last month, spotted four Facebook job listings seeking engineers with experience building custom AR computer chips to join the Facebook Reality Lab (formerly known as Oculus research). And a week later, Oculus’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash briefly mentioned amidst at company’s VR conference that “No off the shelf display technology is good enough for AR, so we had no choice but to develop a new display system. And that system also has the potential to bring VR to a different level.” But Kirkpatrick clarified that he sees Facebook’s AR efforts not just as a mixed reality feature of VR headsets. “I don’t think we converge to one single device . . . I don’t think we’re going to end up in a Ready Player One future where everyone is just hanging out in VR all the time” he tells me. “I think we’re still going to have the lives that we have today where you stay at home and you have maybe an escapist, immersive experience or you use VR to transport yourself somewhere else. But I think those things like the people you connect with, the things you’re doing, the state of your apps and everything needs to be carried and portable on-the-go with you as well, and I think that’s going to look more like how we think about AR.” Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash makes predictions about the future of AR and VR at the Oculus Connect 5 conference Oculus virtual reality headsets and Facebook augmented reality glasses could share an underlying software layer, though, which might speed up engineering efforts while making the interface more familiar for users. “I think that all this stuff will converge in some way maybe at the software level” Kirkpatrick said. The problem for Facebook AR is that it may run into the same that people had about putting a Portal camera inside their homes. While VR headsets generate a fictional world, AR must collect data about your real-world surroundings. That could raise fears about Facebook surveiling not just our homes but everything we do, and using that data to power ad targeting and content recommendations. This brand tax haunts Facebook’s every move. Startups with a cleaner slate like Magic Leap and giants with a better track record on privacy like Apple could have an easier time getting users to put a camera on their heads. Facebook would likely need a best-in-class gadget that does much that others can’t in order to convince people it deserves to augment their reality. You can watch our full interview with Facebook’s director of camera and head of augmented reality engineering Ficus Kirkpatrick from our TechCrunch Sessions — AR/VR event in LA:
At Disrupt SF, CEO Brynn Putnam , a smart gadget that sits on your wall and offers virtual fitness classes. The can be paired with a monthly subscription to let the user browse fitness classes, mark their progress, and follow along with other Mirror users. The idea here is that people spend thousands of dollars on gym memberships and/or huge fitness machines like the Peloton, but that Mirror offers a way to get a similar experience at home without taking up all that space. We caught up with Putnam at the Mirror offices in NYC to check out the product and get more info. Enjoy the video!
A patent filed by Apple Inc. shows a new method to print 3D models using triangular tessellation. The patent office approved the , which breaks smooth surfaces into little triangles that approximate the shape of the original model, on October 23, 2018. The unique aspect of the patent involves the infill and surface. The infill are little patterns inside an object that help it retain rigidity. Most infill is usually fairly simple and involves drawing shapes or squiggles inside an object in a uniform way to keep the shape from collapsing. This means that the entire inside of the object is uniform, leading to cracking or brittleness in the finished product. Apple’s solution would change the shape of the internal infill to differently-sized triangles, depending on the print, ensuring that there is more infill on the edges of the object. The same system is used on the surface of the print to approximate smooth surfaces. Apple listed Michael R. Sweet, Senior Printing System Engineer at Apple Inc., Canada, as the sole inventor. Sweet has patented at least 13 other 3D printing inventions according to . “In one embodiment, the triangles making up the triangular tessellations are fixed-size triangles. In another embodiment, the triangles making up the triangular tessellations are dynamically sized triangles. By way of example, small triangles could be used to form an object’s edges or other regions in which strength/support is needed. Larger triangles could be used to build-up or construct areas where strength/support is not as critical,” wrote Sweet in the patent. The patent notes that this system can speed up printing considerably as the print head does not have to move back and forth and instead only moves forward to make the triangular shapes. As an example, Sweet points out that circular infill, as shown below, is inefficient. This obviously doesn’t meet Apple is making a 3D printer. It simply means that a printing researcher at Apple is looking into the problem and has created a slightly more efficient method for designing 3D printed parts.
With their loud noises and hard plastic flanges, breast pumps are the bane of many a new mother’s existence. Founded in 2013, is one of the most notable tech startups . But the and it’s stopped updating its social media accounts. In a report today, who said their pumps, which cost $1,000 and aren’t covered by insurance, had stopped working, and Naya Health had not provided them with adequate support or replacement parts. Several users have also complained on they ordered months ago. A , which raised more than $100,000, is also filled with complaints about orders not being fulfilled (the last response from co-founder and CEO Janica Alvarez was posted six months ago). Naya Health’s Facebook and accounts haven’t been updated since summer, even though users are still posting complaints, while its has been set to protected mode. An email sent to Alvarez, who co-founded the company with her husband Jeffery Alvarez, Naya Health’s CTO, received an auto-reply. TechCrunch has also contacted Naya Health investors Tandem Capital and Bojiang Capital, the co-leads of , for comment. The company has raised $4.6 million in angel and seed funding, . While the Naya Health breast pump’s price tag is significantly more than most competing devices, customers were willing to give it a chance because of its unique flange design, which used silicone and water instead of plastic cups to recreate a nursing baby’s mouth.
Some Alexa users are currently having problems reaching the voice assistant. Instead of reacting to commands, Alexa simply says “sorry, something went wrong.” Amazon hasn’t commented publicly yet on the issue. Based on tweets and , users began having trouble reaching Alexa around 7AM PST. While some had their connection issues resolved quickly, many others are still waiting. ! Now I have to remember how to turn the lights on and off again! — Erin Boyle (@erinboyle05) what’s up with Alexa? She seems under the weather. — Holly Ross Tong (@USAHollyRT) I would like to apologize to users worldwide for the 80 times my 6 year old requested “what does the fox say” today which surely caused the outage. She was right to shut down. Enough is enough. I hope can fix her. — Amy Gail (@AmyGail8) This follows that mainly affected Echo devices in parts of the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, and Australia. According to Down Detector’s outage map, however, most of the users who currently can’t reach Alexa are in the United States. Alexa also after an Amazon Web Services networking issue. TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.
Repairing a phone is harder than it needs to be. With phone manufacturers spending the last decade chasing device slimness and building devices meant to last however long a phone contract lasts, user repairability just doesn’t seem to be something they care much about. Need a repair part? Good luck on eBay, friendo! In what might, maybe, hopefully be a sign of that tide changing, is now selling official repair kits in a partnership with . You probably know iFixit as the folks that somehow manage to rip apart nearly every new popular device within hours of its release. Their deep gadget teardowns show you how the clocks tick and the silicon hamster wheels turn, allowing a peek inside while your own hard-earned gear stays in one happily functioning piece. But they also sell a bunch of bits and bobs for when things stop working. They source tons of individual parts for repairing all sorts of devices, from aging iPods to console controllers. And now, for a handful of Motorola phones, they’re doing it with Motorola’s blessing. They’ve just started with replacement parts sourced straight from Motorola. At this point they’ve got kits for eight different phones (Moto Z, Moto X, Droid Turbo 2, Moto Z Play, Moto G5, Z Force, X Pure and G4 Plus). They’re focusing on the two biggest, most frequently replaced components — the battery and the screen — and each kit contains everything you need to get the phone apart, patched up and put back together. The battery replacement kits cost around $40, while the screen kits cost around $100-$200. Will other manufacturers follow suit? It’s hard to say. But I’d sure hope so. With each subsequent generation of smartphone getting less and less enticing (“The camera is slightly better! The screen is… brighter? Harder? Faster? Stronger?”), it’d be great to see more of them embrace repair. (Image source: )
, pronounced Gemini, is a new furniture-on-demand service from founder Sean Pathiratne. The company offers decidedly tech-forward furniture that comes in a single box and can be assembled by anyone in a few minutes. Pathiratne sees his company as a fashionable and agile furniture company that brings stylish stuff to your living room in the vein of Zara or H&M. “We can create and deliver on trends through our technology-led global supply chain with the agility and speed of ‘fast fashion.’ We are ‘fast furniture,'” said Pathiratne. [gallery ids="1735487,1735486"] “I live and work in Silicon Valley. I spend a lot of time in and other co-working places, in the offices of start-ups, and with tech friends,” said Pathiratne . “I observed how millennials live and work. They are a restless bunch physically – which mirrors their restlessness overall. They don’t like the status quo in business or with the objects in their lives. They are constantly shifting and fidgeting on their sofas. They just couldn’t find the right positions. After all, today we are checking our smart phones one minute, leaning back and contemplating the world another minute.” The result? A plugged-in couch for the plugged-in generation. “So the implications were obvious: create a multi-position couch for our multi-tasking world. A couch that meets people where they are, rather than the other way around. And also make sure that the next- gen couch had connectivity for the generation that is always plugged in,” he said. The Gjemeni flagship is a convertible couch that turns from stark seating system into a lie-flat futon. Both sides of the couch have power and USB ports and it has three resting positions. The company also sells a chair and an ottoman. Each product, from the $999 couch to the $299 leg rest, comes in a massive box that opens to reveal the furniture and a set of legs. To build the stuff you simply snap the legs into the holes on the bottom and flip the couch upright. I tested one of the couches and can report that it would make a great startup-office seat. The styling, the firmness, and the clever charging ports mean that you can easily make your visitors feel powered-up and comfortable. As a home couch, however, I would recommend trying before you buy. First, at 6.5 feet long, there isn’t much room on the couch for more than two people let alone a small family. Further, the two reclining options are not conducive to many traditional couch activities except, perhaps, for the aftermath of and chill. The two sides of the back of the couch move from upright to reclined. When upright it is set at almost at 90 degrees – a TV lounging nightmare – and when slightly reclined you fall into a napping position. There is no “just right” with this couch for the home user. That said this is furniture and your experience may differ. The company offers a 60-day money back guarantee as long as you keep the massive box and at $999 it makes perfect sense to take a flyer on this one. In fact, that’s the point. Like other furniture services, Gjemeni plans to disrupt the visit to Ikea or the furniture store. Because setup is so simple there is little harm in giving it a go and sending it back if you don’t like the size, the firmness, or the fit. After all, said Pathiratne, the company is all about self-awareness. “We are built to harness technology in pursuit of wellness. Gjemeni meets our ergonomic needs to relieve pressure on the back and spine, and to adjust so that we can take a power nap (we all know how important sleep is to wellness) or simply meditate and ground ourselves,” said Pathiratne.
A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that nearly every household item could be hooked up to the internet. These days, it’s near impossible to avoid a non-smart home gadget, and they’re vacuuming up a ton of new data that we’d never normally think about. Thermostats know the temperature of your house, and smart cameras and sensors know when someone’s walking around your home. Smart assistants know what you’re asking for, and smart doorbells know who’s coming and going. And thanks to the cloud, that data is available to you from anywhere — you can check in on your pets from your phone or make sure your robot vacuum cleaned the house. Because the data is stored or accessible by the smart home tech makers, law enforcement and government agencies have increasingly sought data from the companies to solve crimes. And device makers won’t say if your smart home gadgets have been used to spy on you. For years, tech companies have — a semi-regular disclosure of the number of demands or requests a company gets from the government for user data. Google was first in 2010. Other tech companies followed in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government had enlisted tech companies’ aid in spying on their users. Even telcos, and turning , began to publish their figures to try to rebuild their reputations. As the smart home revolution began to thrive, police saw new opportunities to obtain data where they hadn’t before. Police to help solve a murder. Fitbit data a 90-year old man with the murder of his stepdaughter. And recently, Nest was that led to gang members pleading guilty to identity theft. Yet, Nest — a division of Google — is the only major smart home device maker that has published how many data demands it receives. As , Nest’s little-known transparency report doesn’t reveal much — only that it’s turned over user data since mid-2015 on over 500 Nest users. Nest also said it hasn’t to date received a secret order for user data on national security grounds, such as in cases of investigating terrorism or espionage. Nest’s transparency report is woefully vague compared to some of the more detailed reports by Apple, Google and Microsoft, which break out their data requests by lawful request, by region and often by the kind of data the government demands. As Forbes , “a smart home is a surveilled home.” But at what scale? We asked some of the most well-known smart home makers on the market if they plan to release a transparency report, or disclose the number of demands they receive for data from their smart home devices. For the most part, we received fairly dismal responses. What the big four tech giants said Amazon did not respond to requests for comment when asked if it will break out the number of demands it receives for Echo data, but a spokesperson told me that while its reports include Echo data, it would not break out those figures. Facebook said that its transparency report section will include “any requests related to Portal,” its new hardware screen with a camera and a microphone. Although the device is new, a spokesperson did not comment on if the company will break out the hardware figures separately. Google pointed us to Nest’s transparency report but did not comment on its own efforts in the hardware space — notably its Google Home products. And Apple said that there’s no need to break out its smart home figures — such as its HomePod — because there would be nothing to report. The company said user requests made to HomePod are given a random identifier that cannot be tied to a person. What the smaller but notable smart home players said August, a smart lock maker, said it “does not currently have a transparency report and we have never received any National Security Letters or orders for user content or non-content information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA),” but did not comment on the number of subpoenas, warrants and court orders it receives. “August does comply with all laws and when faced with a court order or warrant, we always analyze the request before responding,” a spokesperson said. Roomba maker iRobot said it “has not received any demands from governments for customer data,” but wouldn’t say if it planned to issue a transparency report in the future. Both Arlo, the former Netgear smart home division, and Signify, formerly Philips Lighting, said they do not have transparency reports. Arlo didn’t comment on its future plans, and Signify said it has no plans to publish one. Ring, a smart doorbell and security device maker, did not answer our questions on why it doesn’t have a transparency report, but said it “will not release user information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us” and that Ring “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” When pressed, a spokesperson said it plans to release a transparency report in the future, but did not say when. Spokespeople for Honeywell and Canary — both of which have smart home security products — did not comment by our deadline. And, Samsung, a maker of smart sensors, trackers and internet-connected televisions and other appliances, did not respond to a request for comment. Only Ecobee, a maker of smart switches and sensors, said it plans to publish its first transparency report “at the end of 2018.” A spokesperson confirmed that, “prior to 2018, Ecobee had not been requested nor required to disclose any data to government entities.” All in all, that paints a fairly dire picture for anyone thinking that when the gadgets in your home aren’t working for you, they could be helping the government. As helpful and useful as smart home gadgets can be, few fully understand the breadth of data that the devices collect — even when we’re not using them. Your smart TV may not have a camera to spy on you, but it knows what you’ve watched and when — which police of a sex offender. Even data from when a murder suspect was enough to help convict someone of murder. Two years ago, former U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper said the government was as a new foothold for intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance. And it’s only going to become more common as the number of internet-connected devices spread. Gartner said will be connected to the internet by 2020. As much as the chances are that the government is spying on you through your internet-connected camera in your living room or your thermostat are slim — it’s naive to think that it can’t. But the smart home makers wouldn’t want you to know that. At least, most of them.
Security researchers have found flaws in four popular connected storage drives that they say could let hackers access a user’s private and sensitive data. The researchers Paulos Yibelo and Daniel Eshetu said the software running on three of the devices they tested — NetGear Stora, Seagate Home and Medion LifeCloud — can allow an attacker to remotely read, change and delete data without requiring a password. Yibelo, who shared the research with TechCrunch this week and the findings Friday, said that many other devices may be at risk. The software, , built by tech company Axentra, was largely to blame for three of the four flaws they found. Hipserv is Linux-based, and uses several web technologies — including PHP — to power the web interface. But the researchers found that bugs could let them read files on the drive without any authentication. It also meant they could run any command they wanted as “root” — the built-in user account with the highest level of access — making the data on the device vulnerable to prying eyes or destruction. We contacted Axentra for comment on Thursday but did not hear back by the time of writing. Neither Netgear nor Seagate commented by our deadline, but we’ll update if that changes. Lenovo, which now owns Medion, did not respond to a request for comment. The researchers also reported a separate bug affecting WD My Book Live drives, which can allow an attacker to remotely gain root access. A spokesperson for WD said that the vulnerability report affects devices originally introduced in 2010 and discontinued in 2014, and “no longer covered under our device software support lifecycle.” WD added: “We encourage users who wish to continue operating these legacy products to configure their firewall to prevent remote access to these devices, and to take measures to ensure that only trusted devices on the local network have access to the device.” In all four vulnerabilities, the researchers said that an attacker only needs to know the IP address of an affected drive. That isn’t so difficult in this day and age, thanks to sites like Shodan, a search engine for publicly available devices and databases, and similar search and indexing services. Depending on where you look, the number of affected devices varies. puts the number at 311,705, but puts the figure at closer to 1.8 million devices. Although the researchers described the bugs in moderate detail, they said they have no plans to release any exploit code to prevent attackers taking advantage of the flaws. Their advice: If you’re running a cloud drive, “make sure to remove your device from the internet.”
Researchers at the University at have found that 3D printers have fingerprints, essentially slight differences in design that can be used to identify prints. This means investigators can examine the layers of a 3D printed object and pinpoint exactly which machine produced the parts. “3D printing has many wonderful uses, but it’s also a counterfeiter’s dream. Even more concerning, it has the potential to make firearms more readily available to people who are not allowed to possess them,” said Wenyao Xu, lead author of the study. The researchers found that tiny wrinkles in each layer of plastic can be used to identify a “printer’s model type, filament, nozzle size and other factors cause slight imperfections in the patterns.” They call their technology PrinTracker. “Like a fingerprint to a person, these patterns are unique and repeatable. As a result, they can be traced back to the 3D printer,” the researchers. This process works primarily with FDM printers like the which use long spools of filament to deposit layers of plastic onto a build plate. Because the printers used in 3D printed guns are usually more complex and more expensive there could be less variation in the individual layers and, more importantly, the layers might be harder to discern. However, for some simpler plastic parts could exhibit variations. “3D printers are built to be the same. But there are slight variations in their hardware created during the manufacturing process that lead to unique, inevitable and unchangeable patterns in every object they print,” said Xu.
I miss the old MacBook Pro. Remember when the MacBook Pro had a good keyboard? Or an SD Card slot? Or an escape key? I miss the time when the MacBook Pro was 2mm thicker than the current version but had a full-size USB port. Remember the wonder of MagSafe? Or the glory that was using a MacBook Pro outside because of the matte screen? Remember when the power adapter for laptops had little fold-out tabs to hold the cord? There was also a time that a random brush of the keyboard wouldn’t trigger Siri. There was a time when Apple made great laptops and there is now. Yesterday where the company will likely release new laptops and iPads. These are some of the features TechCrunch writers hope return to Apple’s notebook computers. Escape Key The Touch Bar is clever. I like it most of the time. But I like the escape key more. Right now, on Macs equipped with the TouchBar, the escape key is a temporary button on the TouchBar. It’s positioned off-center, too, which forces users to relearn its location. It’s silly. The escape key has been with PCs for generations and is critical across applications and use cases. Everyone from causal gamers to coders use the escape key on a regular basis. Keep the TouchBar, but make it a bit smaller and position it between an escape key and a real power button. Just give me my escape key back. And make Siri optional. I’ve had a TouchBar-equipped MacBook Pro for nearly two years and have yet to find a reason to use Siri. USB Ports I’m over living the dongle life. From everything from charging a phone to connecting a camera, standard USB ports need to return to the MacBook Pro. Since we’re dreaming here, I would love to have one per side. The PC industry has been slow to jump on USB-C. Even Apple hasn’t gone all-in and that’s the issue here. Think about it: If a person buys a MacBook Pro and iPhone, that person cannot connect their iPhone to their new MacBook Pro without buying an adapter or cable. Same goes for an iPad. If a person wants to buy a new iPad and new MacBook Pro, the two products cannot connect out of the box. Apple launched the USB-C equipped MacBook Pro in 2016. It’s 2018. For a company that understands ecosystems, Apple has done a poor job ensuring all of its products are compatible out of the box. The first USB-C Apple Watch cable was released today. SD Card Slot The MacBook Pro is billed as a laptop for the mobile professional yet it doesn’t allow some mobile professionals to connect their gear without adapters. The SD Card is the overwhelming standard of photographers and videographers — a key audience for the MacBook Pro — and yet these folks now have to use adapters to connect their gear. Until the latest MacBook Pro redesign, there was a built-in SD Card reader, and Apple should (but won’t) build one into the next version. External battery level indicator A few generations ago, the MacBook and MacBook Pro had tiny button on the side that, when pressed, illuminated little lights to give the user an approximation of the remaining battery life. It was lovely. You know the drill: You’re running out the door and need to know if you should bring your large power adapter. You don’t need to know exactly how much time until your laptop dies. You need an idea. And that’s what these lights provided. With just a press of a button, the user would know if the laptop would last 20 minutes or 2 hours. Clever Power Adapter For generations, Apple laptop chargers had little tabs that folded out and gave the owner a place to wrap the cable. It’s a simple and effective design. Steve Jobs is even . Those tabs disappeared when Apple went USB-C in 2016. The latest charger is the same shape as the previous version but lacks the tabs, forcing owners to store the USB-C cable apart from the charging block. It’s a little thing but little things was what made Apple products delightful. MagSafe The elimination of MagSafe is nearly too painful to talk about. It was magical. Now it’s dead. Here’s how it worked: The power cable was magnetic. Instead of sticking into the laptop, it connected to the side of it. If someone tripped over the cable, the cable would harmlessly disconnect from the laptop. When Apple first launched MagSafe, the company loudly proclaimed they did so because customers kept breaking the connectors that plugged into the laptop. You know, like what’s in the current MacBook. A good keyboard I could forego all of the above if Apple could fix the keyboard in the latest MacBook Pro. It’s terrible. Our Natasha Lomas said it best in her excellent piece called “,” The redesigned mechanism has resulted in keys that not only feel different when pressed vs the prior MacBook keyboard — which was more spongy for sure but that meant keys were at reduced risk of generating accidental strikes vs their barely there trigger-sensitive replacements (which feel like they have a 40% smaller margin for keystrike error) — but have also turned out to be fail prone, as particles of dust can find their way in between the keys, as dust is wont to do, and mess with the smooth functioning of key presses — requiring an official Apple repair. Yes, just a bit of dust! Move over ‘the princess and the pea’: Apple and the dust mote is here! ‘Just use it in a vacuum’ shouldn’t be an acceptable usability requirement for a very expensive laptop. Seriously. The keyboard is the worst part of the latest generation of the MacBook. Alternatives For the first time in 15 years I’m considering switching back to a Windows laptop. Microsoft’s Surface Book is not without flaws, but it’s a solid machine in my limited experience. I would be willing to try the less-powerful Surface Laptop 2, too. They’re just missing one thing: iMessage.
Everyone knows about the space pen. spent millions on R&D to create the ultimate pen that would work in zero gravity and the result was this incredible machine. Well, no. In fact it was made by a pen manufacturer in 1966 — but it wasn’t until October of 1968 that it went into orbit and fulfilled its space pen destiny. The pen was created by pen maker (naturally) Paul Fisher, who used $1 million of his own money to create the AG-7 anti-gravity pen. As you may or may not know, the innovation was a pressurized ink cartridge and gel ink that would deploy reliably regardless of orientation, temperature or indeed the presence of gravity. He sent it to NASA, which was of course the only organization reliably worried about making things work in microgravity, and they loved it. In fact, the Russians started using it shortly afterwards, as well. Walt Cunningham, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele took the pens aboard with them for the Apollo 7 mission, which launched on October 11, 1968, and they served them well over the next 11 days in orbit. to people who have a lot of money and love gold stuff. It’s $500, a limited edition of 500, and made of “gold titanium nitride plated brass,” and it comes with a case and commemorative plaque with a quote from Cunningham: “Fifty years ago, I flew with the first flown Space Pen on Apollo 7. I relied on it then, and it’s still the only pen I rely on here on Earth.” Okay, that’s pretty cool. Presumably astronauts get a lifetime supply of these things, though. Here’s to the Fisher space pen, an example of American ingenuity and simple, reliable good design that’s persisted in use and pop culture for half a century.
The has showcased one of the coolest research projects I’ve seen this month: virtual smells. By stimulating your olfactory nerve with a system that looks like one of those old-fashioned kids electronics kits, they’ve been able to simulate smells. The project is pretty gross. To simulate a smell, the researchers are sticking leads far up into the nose and connecting them directly to the nerves. Senior research fellow at the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia, Kasun Karunanayaka, wanted to create a “multisensory Internet” with his Ph.D. student, Adrian Cheok. Cheok is Internet famous for sending electronic hugs to chickens and creating the first digital kisses. The researchers brought in dozens of subjects and stuck long tubes up their noses in an effort to stimulate the olfactory bulb. By changing the intensity and frequency of the signals, they got some interesting results. The subjects most often perceived odors they described as fragrant or chemical. Some people also reported smells that they described as fruity, sweet, toasted minty, or woody. The biggest question, however, is whether he can find a way to produce these ghostly aromas without sticking a tube up people’s noses. The experiments were very uncomfortable for most of the volunteers, Karunanayaka admits: “A lot of people wanted to participate, but after one trial they left, because they couldn’t bear it.” While I doubt we’ll all be wearing smell-o-vision tubes up our noses any time soon, this idea is fascinating. It could, for example, help people with paralyzed senses smell again, a proposition that definitely doesn’t stink.
There are some gadgets that are nice to have – iPhones, sous vide wands – and some gadgets that you must have. Proxxi fits in the latter camp. is an always-on sensor that buzzes when it gets too close to high voltage electricity. It’s worn by mechanics and electricians and alerts them when they’re approaching something dangerous. The Vancouver-based company just sold out of its initial commercial evaluation units and they’re building a huge business supplying these clever little bracelets to GE, Con Edison, Exelon, Baker Hughes, Schneider Electric and ABB. The bracelet connects to an app that lets workers silence warnings if they’re working on something that is energized and it also tracks the number of potentially harmful interactions wirelessly. This lets management know exactly where the trouble spots are before they happen. If, for example, it senses many close brushes with highly charged gear it lets management investigate and take care of the problem. Founded by Richard Sim and Campbell Macdonald, the company has orders for thousands of units, a testament to the must-have nature of their product. They raised $700,000 in angel funding. “All of this is critical to enterprises looking to mitigate risk from catastrophic injuries: operational disruption, PR nightmare, stock analyst markdowns and insurance premiums,” said Macdonald. “This represents a whole new class of hardware protection for industrial workers who are used to protection being process driven or protective gear like gloves and masks.” The company began when British Columbia Hydro tasked Sim to research a product that would protect workers from electricity. Macdonald, whose background is in hardware and programming, instead built a prototype and showed it around. “We initially found that all utilities and electricians wanted this,” he said. “The most exciting thing we have discovered in the last year is that the opportunity is much larger covering manufacturing, oil and gas, and construction.” “It’s a $40 billion problem,” he said. The goal is to create something that can be used all day. Unlike other sensors that are used only in dangerous situations, Proxxi is designed to be put on in the morning and taken off at night, after work. “There are other induction sensors out there, but they are focused on high risk scenarios, ie, people use them when they think they are at risk. The trouble is you can’t tell when you are at risk. You can’t sense that you have made a mistake in the safety process,” said Macdonald. The goal, he said, is to prevent human error and, ultimately, death. Not bad for a wearable.
Prosthetic limbs have come a long way from the heavy, solid hands and legs of yesteryear, but it’s still difficult to pack a range of motion into them without complex or bulky machinery. But new research out of Cornell uses a cleverly designed 3D-printed mechanism to achieve speed and strength with simple construction — and it costs a lot less, too. “Developing prosthetic limbs requires designers to make difficult trade-offs among size, weight, force, speed, and cost of the actuation system,” the researchers say in their paper. For example, they point out, state of the art mechanical prosthetic hands can cost well over $10,000, with the high-end motors inside alone costing hundreds each. Cheaper hands use cheaper components, of course, which might mean that the hand can grip hard but not quickly, or vice versa. This is partly because a mechanical hand needs to be able to adjust the force it’s applying very quickly on the fly, and this usually involves some kind of variable transmission or dynamic gear ratio. But Kevin O’Brien and his colleagues developed a new way to have the motor adjust its speed and force without using hundreds of finely machined components. In fact, it and the hand it actuates can be almost entirely 3D-printed. It works like this: The fingers of the hand are controlled, like many other such hands and indeed our own, by flexible cords that run along their lengths. These cords can be tightened or slackened to make the fingers take different positions, and that’s often done by having a spool take up the slack or deal it out. It’s this spool that must move precisely and is the end point of the complex gearing mentioned above in other hands. But in the ADEPT hand (adaptively driven via elastomeric passive transmissions — we’ll stick with the acronym) these spools have in their centers a flexible cylindrical core, the shape of which can be modified by tightening a separate “tendon” around it. When the tendon is loose, the core is wider and spins quickly, producing fast, responsive movement. When the tendon is tightened, the core is reduced in radius and correspondingly increases in torque while decreasing in speed. There’s no switching of gears, no meshing of teeth — if the hand determines that it needs just a little bit more torque to hold something, it can get it by tightening the tendon just that little bit. And as soon as it needs to quickly release or catch something, the tendon can loosen up and the fingers move quickly and lightly. This simplicity and the ease of manufacturing make this much cheaper than other options, while it still provides a great deal of versatility and responsiveness. “The benefits of elastomeric transmission systems are that they can be 3D printed quickly (50 per hour), cheaply (
A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden besides new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.” That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors. The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year that Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in its house. Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control, and a third-party app platform including video content from outside developers. While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple, and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now. Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.
In this fun video the dances, wiggles, and shimmies right into our hearts. This little four-legged robot – a smaller sibling to the massive – is surprisingly agile and the team at Boston Robotics have taught the little robot to dance to Bruno Mars which means that robots could soon replace us on the factory floor and on the dance floor. Good luck, meatbags! As one YouTube commenter noted: if you think Spot is happy now just imagine how it will dance when we’re all gone!
released the first G-Shock watch in 1983. The original set the bar for tough watches with incredible shock resistance to protect the quartz module. It’s a classic and still available for purchase in several forms in 2018. Recently, Casio released an all-metal version of the watch that features the iconic design but with modern technology like Bluetooth connectivity. This isn’t a smartwatch, but simply a watch that’s a bit smarter than most. The Bluetooth function is simple and worth a look. It gives owners an easy way to access settings. Instead of navigating through the menus on the watch, owners can use a smartphone app to sync the watch to the phone’s time, adjust settings and set alarms and reminders. It takes just one button press on the watch and for the owner to launch the app. The watch does not have to be connected through the phone’s Bluetooth menu; the app takes care of it all. I found the experience a refreshing update. I don’t need a smartwatch all the time but there are advantages to connecting a watch to a phone. If this is a glimpse at the future of timekeeping, I’m all in. I enjoy a complicated complication as much as the next guy, but sometimes it’s overwhelming to set the primary timezone let alone the alarm. I don’t mind when an app can do it for me.
I hate STEM toys. I have three kids and ultimately every “educational” toy they’ve used – from LittleBits to Labo – has ended up in a corner somewhere, ignored for more exciting fare. This happens for a few reasons but the primary one is that the toys require too much attention and have no lasting play value. Given this fact, I thought our species (or at least my kids) would be doomed to Idoicracy-style techno illiteracy. Luckily, a set of toys from the optimistically-named organization , has changed my mind. TWSU toys are nice in that they are at once rugged toys that withstand constant play and electronic devices that can be programmed by a clever eight year old. For example, the $60 Creative Coder is basically a with a USB interface and a block-based programming language that lets you program it. The TWSU website features a number of little programs you can upload to the board including a Pokemon sensor that starts out red and white until you shake the board, activating the sensor and causing the lights to blink. My son loved it and he slept in it, strapping the wearable to his wrist like an Apple Watch. Programming the Creative Coder is very simple. It uses a -like interface to set colors and activate timers and in a few minutes I was able to make a Ghost Detector that “hunted” for ghosts and then blinked when it found one. I based the idea on an old toy I had in the 1980s called that beeped when it got close to “invisible aliens.” I still remember the excitement I felt walking around in my Grandma’s basement looking for monsters. I think he felt the same excitement. The other toys – including a simple game machine that uses an Arduino and a 9×9 LED display – were similarly interesting. The game machine, for example, included a primitive version of Flappy Bird that my son played for hours and he was excited to get the LED to spell his name on command. It did, however, require knowledge of Arduino programming which limited the usability. However, because it comes preloaded with a simple game the device felt complete right out of the box. How are these toys different from all the other STEM junk I’ve tried? Again, they worked out of the box. The Creative Coder could double as a bike light as soon as you assembled it and it came inside of a plastic case that made it a wearable instead of a science project. The other toys were just that – toys – and the programming was an afterthought. Ultimately I’m sure this stuff will end up under the couch, dead and forgotten, but until that happens they’ve supplied a great deal of fun. STEM toys often focus on the STEM. I suspect this is because engineers are building them and not toymakers. Further, toymakers create things like and hide all of the technology deep behind layers of plastic. Finding the right balance in so-called STEM toys is incredibly difficult but its doable and, as Tech Will Save Us have proved, these toys don’t have to be too boring or too complex for the kids (and parents) who might buy them.