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Friday, February 22, 2019


Home Gadgets

This robo-bug can improvise its walk like a real insect


There are plenty of projects out there attempting to replicate the locomotion of insects, but one thing that computers and logic aren’t so good at is improvising and adapting the way even the smallest, simplest bugs do. This project from Tokyo Tech is a step in that direction, producing gaits on the fly that the researchers never programmed in.

“Perhaps the most exciting moment in the research was when we observed the robot exhibit phenomena and gaits which we neither designed nor expected, and later found out also exist in biological insects,” enthused the lead researcher, Ludovico Minati, in a news release.

One could program an immensely complicated AI or pattern generator to respond instantly to any of a thousand situations. But if a bug with a brain the size of a grain of sand can adapt to new situations quickly and smoothly, there must be a simpler, more analog way.

Different gaits produced by different patterns — okay, they don’t look that different, but they definitely are.

That’s what Minati was looking into, and his hexapod robot is certainly a simpler approach. A central pattern generator produces a master signal, which is interpreted by analog arrays and sent to the oscillators that move the legs. All it takes is tweaking one of five basic parameters and the arrays reconfigure their circuits and produce a working gait.

“An important aspect of the controller is that it condenses so much complexity into only a small number of parameters. These can be considered high-level parameters, in that they explicitly set the gait, speed, posture, etc.,” said one of Minati’s colleagues, Yasaharu Koike.

Simplifying the hardware and software needed for adaptable, reliable locomotion could ease the creation of small robots and their deployment in unfamiliar terrain. The paper describing the project is published in IEEE Access.

Philips releases outdoor connected Hue lighting


Philips Hue products are going outside. Available for purchase this summer in the U.S., the lighting company has a range of new outdoor lighting products extending the world of Internet of Things to the great outdoors.

These products mark an important change for the Internet of Things world. As Wi-Fi range and consumer demand increases, products such as these will become more available. Soon, consumers will expect to talk to products outdoors as they would indoors. I do. Last summer, I retrofitted an Echo Dot for outdoor use and connected it to a small amp that powers some outdoor speakers. It made weeding the garden a lot more enjoyable.

Like their indoor counterparts, these Hue products are a tad on the pricey side, but offer a range of features not available on traditional lighting products. Once connected to a standard Philips Hue hub, the lights can be controlled through the Hue app or a voice assistant.

The new line includes a standard, weather-resistant bulb for $29.99, wall-mounted lights starting at $49 and several color-changing models, too. The spotlight Philips Hue Lily costs $270 and comes with three lights, while the Calla is $129 and is designed to illuminate pathways — both have access to 16 million different colors.

The Wave is a ring that controls sound as if by magic


Out in the desolate wastes of deepest Iceland, magic blooms. The Icelandic sagas tell of fairy houses to magical rings that control the world, and now one of those, the Wave, has landed on the internet.

The Wave is a ring that controls sound. It is essentially a wearable MIDI controller that lets you play and modify sounds as it’s made, allowing you to play music in thin air. It’s a clever little solution and is shipping next December.

The system works by setting a specific sound or function to a specific gesture. You can turn the audio sample up and down by waving your hand or trigger a sample by tapping your finger. It can work with keyboards and guitars and even can change music as you make it, allowing you to perform in multiple ways.

The wave costs $129 for early birds; it will sell for $200. They’ve already raised $43,000 and the prototype is working. The Wave works with multiple music apps, including Logic.

So whether you’re writing the score for a vibrant Icelandic elven love story or trying to lull the great sea dragon Hvítserkur back to sleep through song, the Icelandic Wave is the device for you.

Samsung turns to Harman to further SmartThings development


Harman and Samsung have entered into a strategic association that will have Harman taking up the SmartThings’ standard and carrying it forward against other Internet of Things products. Announced today, Samsung SmartThings R&D team and HARMAN Connected Services (HCS), a division of HARMAN International, will collaborate on the platform with HCS developing and supporting the SmartThings applications and device development.

Samsung purchased early Internet of Things darling SmartThings in 2014 for around $200 million. Since then Samsung has slowly expanded the product line and worked the services into several Samsung product. Yet from an outside vantage point, SmartThings has been treading water.

Harman, also a Samsung company, will take on key SmartThings development tasks including with developing and deploying the SmartThings app, work third party sensors into the SmartThings ecosystem, develop SmartThings Cloud and develop the SmartThings roadmap.

SmartThings launched as one of the early companies that offered a complete, turnkey Internet of Things ecosystem. The company raised a $3 million seed round in 2012 and demoed its wears at CES 2013 by retrofitting a rented house in Vegas. Samsung purchased the company in 2014 when the IoT wars were heating up. Since then, SmartThings has largely been left behind as Alexa and Google Home have grown in popularity. It will now be up to Harman to make SmartThings live up to its early promises.

Ecobee’s new voice-powered light switch moves closer to whole-home Alexa


Alexa is already everywhere in a lot of homes, thanks to the affordability and ease of installation/setup of the Echo Dot. But Alexa could become even more seamlessly integrated into your home, if you think about it. And Canadian smart home tech maker ecobee did think about it, which is how they came up with the ecobee Switch+.

Ecobee is probably most known for their connected thermostats, which are one of the strongest competitors out there for Nest. The company’s been building other products, too, however, and developing closer ties with Amazon and its Alexa virtual assistant. The Switch+ has the closest ties yet, since it includes Alexa Voice Service and far-field voice detection microphone arrays to essential put an Echo in your wall wherever you have a light switch handy.

The ecobee Switch+ is still a connected light switch that works like similar offerings from Belkin’s Wemo, too, and offers full compatibility with Alexa, HomeKit and Assistant for remote voice control. But it goes a step further with Alexa, acting not only as the connected home smart device, but also the command center, too.

The Switch+ is now available for pre-order from ecobee and select retail partners including, unsurprisingly, Amazon, in both the U.S. and Canada for a retail price of $99 U.S. or $119 Canadian. It should work with most standard light switches, although not 2-way switches where multiple switches control the same light or lights. In-store availability and shipping starts on March 26.

Dyson’s new Pure Cool fans are better at both purifying and communicating


Dyson has a few new products it’s revealing today, including the latest Pure Cool line of purifying fans. These fans have built-in air purifying technology, which can detect and weed out pollutants, particulate matter and more of the nasty stuff we sometimes breathe in that we probably should not be breathing in.

The new fans have a new built-in LCD display that actually shows you a graph of what’s going on with your air directly on the device: Basically, if you’re familiar with Dyson’s previously purifiers, they took the elements from the connected Dyson Link app and put them right on the screen so you no longer need to pull your phone out of your pocket to see the effect your purifier is having.

The info on the display updates in near real-time, too – during a demo, a Dyson engineer actually simulated a pollen explosion with a particulate dust and I watched the display spike to show it recognizing the new material, and then abate as it pumped up its purifying game to eliminate the new problem matter.

The new purifier also features a new filter design that’s meant to be easier to replace and more effective at trapping material from the air. There’s three times as much activated carbon in the new filter design, and greater overall surface area of the microfiber filter component that captures tiny particles pollutants.

Dyson says that they’ve also reinvented the testing process, working in China to introduce their testing method as a new standard that moves away from measuring the purifier’s efficacy in a small closed space, and towards showing how it’ll work in a more open room like it would encounter in the real world in someone’s home or apartment. It’s relatively easy to purify a small, closed box, Dyson says, since you can recirculate air that’s already been purified, cleaning it more each time. It hopes to introduce its more stringent testing method in North American and other markets, too, and is working with consumer good standards bodies there, too.

Dyson has also modified the design by introducing a new mode that will push air backwards instead of forwards, which was designed specifically to address customer concerns that using the existing purifier during the winter still resulted in cooler temperatures just by moving air around. Customers were actually turning their fans towards the wall, and sharing this tip on social media, which led Dyson to decide to integrate it directly into the product themselves instead.

The Dyson machines will show you how your house rates in terms of both larger particles and VOCs, too, giving you an easy way to identify what might be the cause of your ultimate problem with air quality.

Dyson’s new Pure Cool Tower is on sale for $549.99 US ($649.99 Canadian) and the desk version goes for $449.99 US ($549.99 Canadian).

Dyson’s Cyclone V10 cordless vacuum spells the end for corded cleaning


The Dyson Cyclone V10 cord-free vacuum that Dyson unveiled today at an event in New York is a new milestone for the company’s strong line of battery-powered vacuums. In fact, it spells the end for plug-in models, even for holdouts who’ve been reluctant to ditch their big bulky continuous power versions.

Dyson’s Cyclone V10 has Dyson’s most advanced digital motor yet. In a briefing, Dyson showed me the motor and how it compares to its previous generation version. I’m no electric motor engineer, but I can say that it’s significantly smaller and lighter (made possible using some ceramic in place of metal in its construction) and it’s a something that will blow away the existing models in terms of performance.

Performance is obviously what matters most to end users, and while the enabling technology underneath is interesting to gadget and tech-lovers like me and our beloved audience here, the vacuum’s use in day-to-day cleaning is what makes it a real step change in terms of Dyson’s vacuum advancements.

I’ve used a lot of cordless Dyson machines, but the Cyclone V10 is the first that I’ve come across that has me truly eager and able to ditch my canister vacuum for whole home cleaning purposes. The suction, which is improved around 20 percent compared to the V8 it replaces, is way better, and the bigger bin that’s fit in line with the vacuum’s shaft instead of perpendicular not only holds 40 percent more dirt and dust, but also enables better air flow because air doesn’t have to travel anywhere but in a straight line right down the machine.

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The thing’s light, too – it looks like it’s going to be heavier and bulkier than previous versions, but it really doesn’t seem it, and it’s easy to operate for lifting up to ceiling corners and other hard to reach areas.

Battery life is really the killer feature on this vacuum, however – it can operate for up to 60 minutes on a single charge (which takes only 3.5 hours plugged in to achieve). That’s a full hour of cleaning, which h is more than most people need to vacuum their entire place thoroughly. There’s also a super suction mode that’ll delete your charge in under 10 minutes, but that really does the job when you have ground in dirt, for instance. And new to this model, there’s an intermediary stage for when you want to balance power and time.

Dyson’s also done something terrific with the user interface on this machine, putting more info on the battery via simple LEDs. You’ll now see when there’s a blockage, for instance, and also be alerted when the vacuum detects that its single filter needs washing to restore full suction power. It seems like a small detail, but based on my past experience with Dyson’s vacuums, having a clear sign of when you should be cleaning those filters is actually a huge help.

In the box with the Cyclone V10 are a variety of cleaning head options, including two cleaner heads, with one designed for hard floors and the other geared towards carpets. Both feature built-in motors to boost their cleaning power, and the carpet brush also features adjustable ‘gate’-type things that can be raised and lowered to allow larger debris to get sucked up rather than be pushed around.

Dyson’s focused on its portable vacuums with a clarity of purpose that it takes from having basically wound down its attention to plug-in models (also useful since motor and battery tech could apply to its car plans, too, so there’s a unification of purpose), and the advantages of that are clear in the Cyclone V10. It’s proven a terrific vacuum for my two-floor apartment, which has about 1300 square feet, and I’m happy to report the plug-in model I was using hasn’t left the closet since I got it.

The Cyclone V10 is on sale staring at $499 U.S. ($599 in Canada) via Dyson’s website beginning today and will be available in retail starting in April.

Alexa calling and messaging comes to tablet devices


Alexa calling, the feature that lets users place voice and video calls from Alexa devices, like the Echo, is now coming to tablets. Amazon announced this morning added support for calling as well as messaging features on tablets, including iPads, Android tablets and, of course, its own Fire tablets.

On the Fire HD 10, Alexa calling and voice messages will be available hands-free — you can just ask Alexa to take action. Meanwhile, on the Fire 7 and Fire HD 8 or older generation Fire tablets, you’ll instead press the Home button to place a call or send a message. The devices will also support Drop In — the feature that lets you use Alexa devices as an intercom system of sorts, where you can instantly connect with other devices around the home, or in friends’ and families’ homes, if you choose to enable it.

To use the calling and messaging features, you’ll need the latest version of the Alexa app and will need to verify your phone number and import your contacts.

The expanded support for voice calls and messaging is the latest example of how Amazon’s Alexa app is becoming more than a utility for managing the settings on Echo devices or Alexa’s smart home integrations.

Amazon had announced in January that the app would also be expanded to include voice integration, meaning users could speak to Alexa in a dedicated app instead of only through Alexa devices (or oddly, the Amazon shopping app, which got Alexa integration first.)

With support for calling, messaging and voice commands, Amazon has a way to establish a presence on mobile, where it had earlier failed with its own Amazon-branded Fire Phone smartphones. It gives Amazon a chance to dive into social and messaging, too, where it had never directly competed before.

The new calling support is available in the latest version of the Alexa iOS and Android application, says Amazon.

Apple acquires digital newsstand Texture as it doubles down on content ‘from trusted sources’


As the debate continues over fake news and the role that aggregators like Facebook have played in spreading it, Apple is making an acquisition that could help it lay out a position as a purveyor of trusted information. The iPhone maker is buying Texture, a magazine virtual newsstand that’s known as the “Netflix of magazine publishing” that gives readers access to around 200 magazines for a monthly fee of $9.99.

“We’re excited Texture will join Apple, along with an impressive catalog of magazines from many of the world’s leading publishers,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software & Services, in a statement. “We are committed to quality journalism from trusted sources and allowing magazines to keep producing beautifully designed and engaging stories for users.”

From what we understand, Texture — formerly known as Next Issue — will continue to operate as is with no changes — meaning that it will continue to offer apps for iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle Fire and Windows 8 and 10. Apple is acquiring the full company, including employees, and the deal is expected to close very soon.

“I’m thrilled that Next Issue Media, and its award-winning Texture app, are being acquired by Apple,” said John Loughlin, CEO of Next Issue Media / Texture, in a statement. “The Texture team and its current owners, Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, Rogers Media and KKR, could not be more pleased or excited with this development. We could not imagine a better home or future for the service.”

Apple has made a number of acquisitions that are adjacent to the area of publishing and media that Texture focusses on — they include Spotify/Pandora competitor Beats for Apple Music, and BookLamp, which we described as the ‘Pandora for books’ when we broke news of that acquisition. Texture, it seems, is the first that it has made directly in the area of magazine publishing.

Financial terms of this deal are not being revealed, and Texture has never disclosed its valuation.

Before it rebranded in 2015, Texture (then known as Next Issue Media) was a joint venture between Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., Rogers Communications, and Time Inc. The company, it appears, has raised at least $90 million — $40 million from the publishers, and an additional $50 million from KKR and other investors that include BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Imgur.

Texture, and before it Next Issue, has been around since 2010. It was launched at a time when a number of other digital newsstands were hitting the market.

Tapping into the new popularity of apps and the belief that these would become the primary way that consumers would read newspapers and magazines, publishers also believed that this could be a key way for them to better monetise their content, after missing the boat both on paywalls for online content and reaping large benefits from online ads, areas where large aggregators like Google largely reaped the rewards.

It’s not clear how many users Texture had. An article from 2014 estimated the number at 150,000, while this story from 2016 noted it was in the “several hundreds of thousands” with 50 percent growth expected in the coming years. The company had also struck deals with a number of third parties like Sprint to bundle the service with subscriptions as a sweetener for consumers to opt for their service over that of other mobile carriers.

Nor is it clear what Apple intends to do with Texture longer term.

One area where we could see the product end up is Apple News, where Apple already provides access to a variety of third-party content. More generally, the company has been focusing on a larger premium content play across other mediums, putting a lot of investment into music, video and podcasts. Texture fills out the scope of that vision with reading material.

Apple, of course, once had a “Newsstand” of its own — specifically its own native app that went by that name. The service never really took off, and Apple eventually killed that product and folded it into Apple News.

One reason that this is different is that it will essentially bring lots of magazines into a single format rather than offering a marketplace of essentially different magazine and newspaper apps, which seems to have been one of the pain points of the original Newsstand from the perspective of users and publisher developers.

(I have to say, it was never really clear who mandated that format at the time: it could easily have been Apple and the technical limits of the time when Newsstand first emerged in 2011, although there were other apps that also worked around that. It could easily have been publishers who thought building from the ground up, similar to their own vertically-integrated printing organisations, was the way ahead.)

But in another sense, this acquisition is also simply table stakes for companies like Apple. Amazon launched its own subscription services last year, and Google of course also offers a newsstand of sorts via Google Play, so this is also about keeping up and making sure that it, too, continues to provide what all device owners increasingly want and expect.

Apple’s Cue also took to the stage at SXSW in Austin today, whee he talked a bit about Texture’s place in Apple’s news efforts and the company’s wider media and content strategy.

YouTube TV pricing goes up by $5/month starting tomorrow


YouTube TV has grown quite a bit since its launch in April of last year. The service now has more than 300,000 users, according to a report, and is available in nearly 100 markets.

That said, the service is raising prices tomorrow. Which means today is the last day you can subscribe to YouTube TV for $35/month.

The price hike was announced last month, as the company plans to add more channels to the live streaming service. And, as a result, YouTube TV is going from $35/month to $40/month.

YouTube TV launched with a wide variety of programming from networks such as ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CW, ESPN, AMC, FX, FXX, Disney Channel (plus Disney Jr. and XD), E!, USA, Bravo, Syfy, MSNBC, Telemundo, Sprout, Freeform, NatGeo and more. In February, the service added Turner-owned networks, including TNT, TBS, CNN, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, HLN, truTV and Turner Classic Movies, along with NBA TV and MLB Network.

Folks who have already subscribed to YouTube TV or do so today will be grandfathered in to the $35/month pricing.

While YouTube TV continues to grow, the service faces steep competition by VOD streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, as well as Hulu with Live TV, which is said to have 450,000 pay subscribers.

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