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Thursday, October 17, 2019

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Google launches the $649 Pixelbook Go Chromebook

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At its annual hardware event, Google today announced the launch of the Pixelbook Go, the latest iteration of its first-party Chromebook lineup. Starting at $649, the Pixelbook Go marks a return to the standard laptop format after last year’s Pixelbook with a 180-degree hinge and the Pixel Slate 2-in-1.

The Go will come with a 16:9 13.3-inch touch screen and either an HD or 4K display, two USB-C ports, a built-in Titan-C security chip, up to 16GB of RAM and up to 256GB of storage. It’s powered by Intel Core CPUs, starting with an m3 chip at the low end and an i7 at the top end. Available colors are black and “not pink” and pre-orders start now, but only for the black version. “Not pink” is coming soon.

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It has a rippled bottom, “that’s easy to grip” and “Hush Keys,” which are supposedly quieter than the keys on previous Pixelbooks. Talking about quiet, the Go also has far-field microphones for all your “Hey Google” needs.

We wanted to create a thin and light laptop that was really fast, and also have it last all day. And of course, we wanted it to look and feel beautiful,” Google’s Ivy Ross said in today’s announcement. Ross also stressed that the Pixelbook Go has a larger battery, yet is still lighter, thanks to its magnesium body. 

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Unlike Microsoft, with its Surface line, Google’s laptops always seemed more like aspirational devices that defined the high end of the Chromebook spectrum. At $649, the Pixelbook Go is clearly more affordable than many of Google’s previous efforts in this area, and the company clearly hopes to sell a few more of them.

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Google launches the $649 Pixelbook Go Chromebook 1

Google’s Pixel 4 ships October 24, starting at $799

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The rumors and leaks have been pretty relentless. In fact, over the past three days, the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL have gone up for pre-order on at least two different sites. While it’s true that Google’s never been particularly great at keeping this stuff under wraps, this was pretty silly.

Anyway, the Pixel 4 is finally official, and it’s basically exactly what we were expecting from this year’s Google flagship. The device now features face unlock, another addition that brings Pixels in line with the competition, though Google claims it’s the fastest available. Using a new radar chip, the device is able to start the unlock when you reach for the phone and then fully unlock when it sees your face.

Radar also gives the device gesture recognition, via Motion Sense. The concept is similar to what you’ll find on other Android handsets, but it’s significantly more sophisticated, distinguishing accidental gestures from intentional ones. Using these, this can do things like skipping songs, turn the screen on and wave to your animated Pikachu wallpaper (actual example). All of the processing is done on-device and users can turn it off for privacy.

Google Pixel 4 Soli

The 4 maintains the familiar Active Edge squeeze, which launches a newly upgraded Google Assistant. As rumored, there’s a new recording app, which is capable of transcribing conversations in real time. From the demo, at least, the feature is pretty impressive, with a more accurate transcript than I’ve seen from most AI software. Interestingly, it all works on-device, meaning that you can use it in airplane mode — and  conversations aren’t automatically uploaded to the cloud.

The company is finally embracing a multi-camera setup on the back of the device. Google had been one of the few holdouts on that front, instead insisting that its AI/ML was perfectly capable of producing shots as good as any multi-camera setup.

Google Pixel 4 Camera

And while it’s true Google’s managed to get a pretty solid camera with this combo, the Pixel 4 gets a pair of cameras on the back, in the iPhone 11-esque square camera array. There’s a wide angle and telephoto 14 and 16-megapixel on the back. That, when coupled with the computational photography Google has been pushing for a number of years now, ought to make this a solid competitor. 

The camera utilizes a combination of optical and digital zoom (Super-res Zoom) to take some pretty impressive close-up shots. It also looks to be pretty impressive on low-light shots, improving on earlier Night Sight offerings. Live HDR+, meanwhile, is able to approximate final HDR shots in real time to give users a better idea of what the final photo will look like.

Google Pixel 4

Dual Exposure controls, meanwhile, give users more direct controls over brightness and shadow, and thus more control over HDR. White balance gets a bump using AI training. Learning-based light balance is adopted from Night Sight and is now available on all photos to get more realistic shots. Night Sight gets a bump as well, and is now capable of taking better shots of things like a starry sky using long exposure times.

Machine learning is also being used to calculate depth in real time, so users can get a broader depth of field with subjects at different distances. Oh, and Annie Leibovitz is a fan, apparently. Arguably the world’s most famous photographer has been taking the phone for a spin, shooting an impressive series of portraits on the new handset. The results are pretty stunning — and very iconically hers.

“What’s great about the camera phone,” Leibovitz said, “it’s a brand new language, and it’s really great this is for everyone to use.”

As with its predecessors, the Pixel 4 comes in both a standard and XL version, at 5.7 (full HD+) and 6.3 inches (Quad HD+), respectively. The Pixel 4 XL got an A+ from Display Mate, according to the company, thanks in part to the addition of a 90MHZ refresh rate.

The handset is up for pre-order, starting at $799. It starts shipping October 24 in Just Black, Clearly White and the new/limited-edition Oh So Orange.

Google’s Pixel 4 ships October 24, starting at $799 2

Google launches Nest Wifi mesh router and extender with built-in Google Assistant

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Today at its Google hardware event, Google introduced new mesh routers called Nest Wifi. This is a successor to the Google Wifi product it introduced a couple of years ago, but with a number of improvements. The new Nest Wifi consists of two types of devices: one is a router that plugs into your modem, and one “point” amplifies the signal and extends the network; it’s more powerful so you only need these two things.

It’s available to pre-order, and will ship on November 4. It comes in a two-pack or three-pack variant, for $249 or $349 respectively, and will be available in eight countries at launch.

Google says that Nest Wifi offers 2x better speed than Google Wifi, with up to 25% better coverage. That’s from the two-piece system, which Google says is probably enough to cover the same space as the three-puck Google Wifi original system.

The hardware is designed to be placed out in the open — Google paid attention to design here to make sure it looks good enough to keep it where it’ll work best to provide a signal. And the “point” has a built-in speaker and microphone array, with onboard Google Assistant support, making it double as a smart speaker — which really does add to the overall value in terms of what you’re getting for the money.

Like Google Wifi, it offers simple setup, parental and guest controls, as well as “seamless setup” for smart home devices from within the Google Home app.

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Interestingly, Google said that Google Wifi has been the top-selling mesh Wifi system in both the U.S. and Canada since its launch, so it’s clearly seeing a lot of success in this category. The company was also quick to point out that it has provided 15 updates to the original hardware since its launch, adding new features and improving performance, so expect a similar slew of post-purchase updates for Nest Wifi, too.

Google launches Nest Wifi mesh router and extender with built-in Google Assistant 3

Google overhauls Nest Aware cloud recording plan

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Google is updating the Nest Mini today, the device formerly known as Google Home Mini. And the company used this opportunity to announce an update to its home awareness product, Nest Aware.

If you have Nest security cameras, you can subscribe to a Nest Aware plan. It currently costs $5 a month for five-day video history, $10 per month for 10-day history and $30 per month for 30-day history. All plans include continuous recording, intelligence alerts, clips and more.

But it can get complicated when you have multiple cameras. Additional cameras require their own subscription plan, but those additional plans are a bit cheaper.

Google is going to simplify all that with plans that cover your whole home. New plans will cost $6 per month for 30-day event history and $12 per month for 60-day event history as well as 10-day 24/7 video history.

As you can see, you now have to pay $12 per month for continuous recording as the basic plan doesn’t include continuous recording anymore. But if you have eight cameras, you’ll only have to pay for a single subscription.

New plans will roll out in early 2020 with the option to switch to the new plans.

And now, Nest Mini and Nest Hubs integrate with Nest Aware. For instance, when your non-connected smoke detector is triggered by a fire, your Nest Mini will notice the alarm and send you a push notification.

You can listen live to confirm that it is a smoke alarm. You can confirm the alarm and the Home app then calls 911 or your local emergency service directly.

Google overhauls Nest Aware cloud recording plan 4

Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL not launching in India

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Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL not launching in India 5

The Pixel 4 and Pixel XL smartphones that Google just unveiled at a press conference in New York won’t launch in India, one of the company’s key overseas markets, the Android-maker said on Tuesday.

The bottleneck lies in the headline feature Project Soli, a radar-based motion-sensing chip baked into the new Pixel smartphones that relies on using a certain frequency band — 60GHz mmWave. The company failed to secure permission from the local authority in India to use this frequency band, which the nation has yet to open for commercial usage, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. You may remember that in the U.S., the FCC approved the commercial usage of Soli earlier this year.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said, “Google has a wide range of products that we make available in different regions around the world. We determine availability based on a variety of factors, including local trends, and product features. We decided not to make Pixel 4 available in India. We remain committed to our current Pixel phones and look forward to bringing future Pixel devices to India.”

The radar sensors on the new Pixel smartphones enable support for a number of human interactions, Sabrina Ellis, VP of Product Management at Google, said at the event today. “For instance, Pixel 4 has the fastest secure face unlock on a smartphone, because the process starts before you have even picked up the smartphone,” she claimed. “Motion sense prepares the camera when you reach for your Pixel 4, so you don’t need to tap the screen,” she added.

The radar sensor also enables other applications such as rejecting a call by just gesturing at the phone, Ellis said.

This is the first time Google has had to skip the launch of a phone in India, the second largest smartphone market and where all the Nexus and Pixel smartphones have launched a few days after their global unveiling.

Not launching the new Pixel smartphones won’t really hurt the company… at least financially speaking. The Pixel smartphones have failed to receive any substantial acceptance in the Indian market, especially as their prices increased over the years.

Even as 99% of smartphones shipped in India last year ran the Android mobile operating system, the vast majority of handsets carried a price tag of $200 or lower, research firm Counterpoint told TechCrunch.

Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL not launching in India 6

Google aims to change the definition of good photography with Pixel 4’s software-defined camera

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Google’s new Pixel 4 camera offers a ton of new tricks to improve its photographic chops, and to emphasize the point, it had Professor Mark Levoy, who leads camera technology development at Google Research, up onstage to talk about the Pixel 4’s many improvements, including its new telephoto lens, updated Super Res Zoom technology and Live HDR+ preview.

Subject, lighting, lens, software

Levoy started by addressing the oft-cited saying among photographers that what’s most important to a good photo is first subject, then lighting and followed after that by your hardware: i.e. your lens and camera body. He said that he and his team believe that there’s a different equation at play now, which replaces that camera body component with something else: software.

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Lens is still important in the equation, he said, and the Pixel 4 represents that with the addition of a telephoto lens to the existing wide-angle hardware lens it offers. Levoy also offered the opinion that a telephoto is more useful generally than a wide angle, clearly a dig at Apple’s addition of an ultra-wide-angle hardware lens to its latest iPhone 11 Pro models.

Google Pixel 4 Camera

In this context, that means Google’s celebrated “computational photography” approach to its Pixel camera tech, which handles a lot of the heavy lifting involved when it takes a photo from a small sensor, which tend to be bad, and turns that into something pretty amazing.

Levoy said that he calls their approach a “software-defined camera,” which most of the time just means capturing multiple photos, and combining data from each in order to produce a better, single, final picture.

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What’s new for Pixel 4

There are four new features for the Pixel 4 phone powered by computational photography, which include Live HDR with dual-exposure controls, which shows you a real-time image of what the final photo will look like with the HDR treatment applied, instead of just giving you a very different-looking final shot. It also bakes in exposure controls that allow you to adjust the highlights and shadows in the image on the fly, which is useful if you want bolder highlights or silhouettes from shadows, for instance.

Also new is “learning-based white balance,” which addresses the tricky issue of getting your white balance correct. Levoy said that Google has been using this approach in white-balancing night-sight photos since the introduction of that feature with Pixel 3, but now it’s bringing it to all photo modes. The result is cooler colors, and particularly in tricky lighting situations when whites tend to be incorrectly exposed as orange or yellow.

The new wide-range portrait mode makes use of info from both the dual-pixel imaging sensors that Pixel 4 uses, as well as the new second lens to derive more depth data and provide an expanded, more accurate portrait mode to separate the subject from the background. It now works on large objects and portraits where the person in focus is standing farther back, and it provides better bokeh shape (the shape of the defocused elements in the background) and better definition of strands of hair and fur, which has always been tricky for software background blur.

Lastly, Night Sight mode gets overall improvements, as well as a new astral photography mode specifically for capturing the night sky and star fields. The astral mode provides great-looking night sky images with exposure times that run multiple minutes, but all with automatic settings and computational algorithms that sort out issues like stars moving during that time.

Still more to come

Google wanted to emphasize the point that this is a camera that can overcome a lot of the problems faced typically by small sensors, and it brought out heavyweight photography legend Annie Lebowitz to do just that. She showed some of the photos she’s been capturing both with Pixel 3 and Pixel 4, and they did indeed look great, although the view from the feed doesn’t say quite as much as would print versions of the final photos.

Levoy also said that they plan to improve the camera over time via software updates, so this is just the start for Pixel 4. Based on what we saw onstage, it definitely looks like a step-up from the already excellent Pixel 3, but we’ll need more time hands-on to see what it does compared to Apple’s much-improved iPhone 11 camera.

Google aims to change the definition of good photography with Pixel 4’s software-defined camera 7

Kabuto is building smart suitcases for geeks

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French company Kabuto is launching a Kickstarter campaign today for the second generation of its smart carry-on suitcase. The company was previously known as Xtend.

If you think about smart suitcases, chances are you picture a suitcase with a battery pack in it and that’s it. In other words, they are not that smart. Kabuto is packing a bunch of electronics to add some more features.

At the top of the suitcase, you’ll find a fingerprint reader. You can unlock the suitcase with your fingerprint or use a key in case your suitcase battery is dead — yes, a smart suitcase means you have one more thing to charge in your life.

The suitcase comes with a 10,000 mAh battery that you plug to various USB-A and USB-C cables. This way, you can charge a device using a USB-A or USB-C cable from the top of the suitcase.

The pocket at the back of the suitcase is removable. For instance, you can store a laptop and a book in it in order to take it with you on a flight. The company uses a magnetic connection between the pocket and the suitcase, which means that you can plug the included USB-C cable to your laptop and then attach the pocket to the suitcase to charge your laptop when you’re not using it.

charging connection

The suitcase features an expandable structure, four wheels with metallic bearings and tires and a strap to attach another bag to the large handle on top of your suitcase. It costs $435 on Kickstarter and it will cost $595 after the Kickstarter campaign.

People who like to pack things exactly the right way will think the Kabuto suitcase offers a lot of options. It’s not a suitcase for everyone, but it’s an interesting take. The company promises to ship all suitcases by the end of the year. The startup has previously raised $1 million (€900,000) from Frédéric Mazzella, Michel & Augustin, Bpifrance, Fabien Pierlot and others.

Leo Labs and its high-fidelity space radar track orbital debris better than ever — from New Zealand

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Ask anyone in the space business and they’ll tell you that orbital debris is a serious problem that will only get worse, but dealing with it is as much an opportunity as it is a problem. Leo Labs is building a global network of radar arrays that can track smaller debris than we can today, and with better precision — and the first of its new installations is about to start operations in New Zealand.

There are some 12,000 known debris objects in low Earth orbit, many of which are tracked by the U.S. Air Force and partners. But they only track debris down to 10 centimeters across — meaning in reality there may be hundreds of thousands of objects up there, just as potentially destructive to a satellite but totally unknown.

“Everyone’s flying blind and no one’s really talking about it,” said Leo Labs CEO Dan Ceperley. But his company hopes to change that with a set of advanced radars dedicated to the purpose, for which the company raised $13 million last year.

“We’re extremely excited to show this New Zealand radar, because it’s the first instance of our next generation technology. We launched the company on the strength of this radar,” Ceperley said.

The installation uses what’s called a phased array radar, very different from the traditional big dishes one generally thinks of. The beam is electronically steered, letting it change targets in milliseconds or sweep the sky faster than any physically controlled dish could.

radar halfpipe

The phased array radar has no moving parts, the beam is steered from many identical small antennas electronically.

Not only that, but it can detect and track objects down to 2 centimeters across. They’re small, yes, but moving at thousands of miles per hour. Something the size of an M&M still hits hard enough to take out a satellite at that speed.

The ability to see objects of that size in orbit could increase the number tracked to a quarter of a million, Ceperley estimated. And with other radars able to track about a thousand objects per hour, they couldn’t possibly do the job even if they could draw a bead on them.

“A lot of these new satellites maneuver pretty frequently — so you want to be able to track them closely,” he said. “But if you have one radar, you can measure its orbit at one point, maybe every day or two, and of course on the far side of the Earth your coverage isn’t any good. With our radar network you’ll be able to check 10 times a day.”

The increasingly common phenomenon of shared-ride launches with dozens of satellites on board presents a new opportunity. Ground-based radars just aren’t designed to track 40 or 50 new objects in the sky all scooting off in different directions from the same spot. You might wait a week or more to be be able to ground-truth your satellite’s telemetry. Leo’s quick-acquisition, high-precision arrays are designed with this in mind, meaning trajectories and orbits can be verified in hours instead of days. That can be the difference between saving and losing a multimillion-dollar investment.

The biggest player in this market is the U.S. Air Force, which has been the main tracking provider for years. But it relies on a hodgepodge of Cold War and newer tech, and because it’s military it’s limited in the type of information it can provide. Powerful radars are out there, but they’re often restricted by government contracts and cost hundreds of millions or more. And there are no good tracking stations in the Southern hemisphere. Leo Labs aims to pick up where the competition leaves off.

“We’re happy to announce that construction is complete on the New Zealand radar and we’re getting data out of it,” Ceperley said.

This first array will soon (after some testing but before the end o the year) join another in Texas and soon others around the world in producing data for Leo Labs’ SaaS platform — yes, it’s orbital debris tracking as a service, with a web portal and everything.

“All that intel goes into the second part of the company, a bunch of software in the cloud where the data gets analyzed,” Ceperley said. “We look for risky situations like satellites starting to tumble, potential collisions, etc. We send out alerts through a RESTful API, we have a dashboard with 3D visualizations, tables and maps, all that stuff. In the past there were no SaaS services for tracking satellites in flight. Governments can spend a decade and a billion dollars building a radar, but these new space companies can’t — so we thought that was a huge opportunity for us.”

leo gif

You can see a visualization of what it all looks like here — obviously it’s not to scale, but space is getting crowded, isn’t it?

Already they have plenty of supporters and subscribers: Planet, Digital Globe, Black Sky and the Air Force Research Lab are all sold. Swarm Technologies, whose satellites are so small that existing radar solutions barely cut it, was a natural customer. In fact Swarm founder Sara Spangelo just recently emphasized the importance of tracking space debris in a panel I moderated at Disrupt SF.

The company was spun out of SRI in 2016, its founding team experienced in building radars and doing debris tracking, and apparently just in time. The orbital economy is heating up and the infrastructure to support it is starting to creak.

Nomad’s new Base Station Pro offers a taste of what Apple’s AirPower had promised

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Accessory maker Nomad already offers a couple of excellent wireless chargers that work great with Apple and other Qi-compatible devices, but they’re introducing a new one that could be their most versatile yet. Using technology provided by partner Aira, called “FreePower,” the new Nomad Base Station Pro will be able to charge up to three devices at once placed in any orientation on its surface — cool both because of the three-device simultaneous support and the fact that you don’t have to make sure the gadget you’re charging is lined up exactly right on the charger, as is typically the case.

This is pretty similar to what Apple’s AirPower promised, before its unfortunate demise. The hardware similarly makes use of a matrix of multiple charging coils, which interlink to offer charging capabilities across the surface of the Base Station Pro. Perhaps intentionally, Aira’s website URL is “airapower.com,” one letter off from Apple’s shelved first-party accessory.

Nomad’s charger inherits the same aesthetics of the company’s existing chargers, which means you get a black soft leather surface for putting your devices on top of, and the surrounding frame is made of slate-gray aluminum. The charger should look and feel very premium, if Nomad’s other Base Stations are any indication.

The Base Station Pro supports charging speeds of up to 5W each, which is not the max supported by the iPhone or other devices — but according to Aira co-founder Jake Slatnick, that’s not actually much of a limitation at all.

“An interesting detail that we’ve learned through benchmarking is that our 5W output charge time is comparable to other 10W advertised chargers,” Slatnick explained via email. “It turns out, as soon as the phone starts to heat up, the charge speed slows down significantly, usually below 5W. The 7.5W+ chargers seem to only last at those speeds for a few minutes. We think the performance right now is on par with everything else and that it shouldn’t be noticeable to most users.”

The Nomad Base Station Pro supports up to three devices, all at 5W; you could use it to charge say, two iPhones and AirPods with Apple’s wireless charging case all at once.

Nomad also includes a 27W USB-C charger with Power Delivery in the box with the Base Station Pro, and a USB-C cable to connect to the charger. This probably will be a fairly premium-priced piece of hardware, but we’ll find out for sure when pre-orders begin in November.

The one significant way this differs from what Apple was building, at least for Apple fans, is that it doesn’t provide charging for the Apple Watch. Nomad has a Base Station model that offers an integrated Apple Watch charger, but of course with that you’re not getting the “place anywhere” overlapping coil design built for this new model.

NASA’s new Moon-bound spacesuit is safer, smarter and much more comfortable

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The next Americans to set foot on the Moon will do so in a brand new spacesuit that’s based on, but hugely improved from, the original Apollo suits that last went up there in the ’70s. With easier entry, better mobility and improved communications, these won’t be nearly as clumsy or restrictive — though you still wouldn’t want to wear one around the house.

The new spacesuit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit or xEMU, is still deep in development, but its features have been more or less finalized. It’s already being tested underwater, and orbital testing is scheduled for 2023.

Rather than build something completely new from the ground up, NASA engineers decided to address the (sometimes literal) pain points of a previous, proven design. As such, the new suit superficially resembles the ones in which we saw moonwalkers bunny-hopping around the lunar surface. But that’s because the basic design for a suit that protects you from hard vacuum and cosmic radiation is relatively straightforward.

In NASA’s words, a spacesuit is “a personalized spaceship that mimics all of the protections from the harsh environment of space and the basic resources that Earth and its atmosphere provide.” There’s only so much wiggle room there.

But while some parts may not have changed much since the old days, others are getting major improvements. First and foremost, both for safety and mission purposes, maneuverability has been upgraded in tons of ways.

xemu suit info

Infographic showing new and updated features of NASA’s new xEMU spacesuit

For one thing, there are altogether new joints and better ranges of motion for existing ones. The standard “astronaut stance” indicative of the inflexibility of the Apollo suits should be all but eliminated with the new freedoms afforded xEMU users. Not only will the normal range of motion be easier, but astronauts will be able to reach across their own torso or lift something clear over their head.

More flexible knees and “hiking-style” boots with flexible soles will make crouching and getting up much easier as well. It’s hard to believe we got this far without those basic capabilities.

xemu digitial fit check

A 3D scan of the body (indicated by the dots) shows how various suits and parts would fit

The fit of the suits will be vastly better as well; NASA is using anthropometry, or 3D scanning of the body, to determine exactly which pieces and fits will be best for a given astronaut.

Speaking of which, much of the suit will be made from easily swappable, modular parts. The lower half can be switched out when doing an orbital EVA versus a surface EVA, for instance. And the helmet’s visor has a “sacrificial” protective layer that can easily be replaced with a new one if it gets damaged.

Inside the helmet, the familiar but apparently widely disliked “Snoopy caps” that housed microphones and such are gone, replaced by modern voice-activated mics and headphones that will produce much better audio quality and much less sweat.

For that matter, the entire communications stack has been replaced with a new HD camera and lights, connected by a high-speed wireless data link. Live video from the Moon may be old hat, but it’s going to be a bit different from that grainy black-and-white business in 1969.

One of the most important new features is rear entry. The awkward process of donning an old-style EVA suit requires a good deal of space and help. The new ones are entered via a hatch on the back, allowing more natural placement of arm hinges and other features, and possibly changing how the suits are mounted. One can easily imagine a suit acting as a sort of airlock: you climb in the back, it seals you in, and you walk right out into space. Well, there’d probably be more to it than that, but the rear-entry hatch could facilitate some cool stuff along those lines.

Although NASA is designing and certifying these suits, it may not actually make them itself. The agency called last week for input on how it might best source spacesuits from the commercial space industry.

That’s part of NASA’s decision to rely increasingly on contractors and private industry to support its 2024 Moon ambitions. Of course, contractors were an essential part of the Apollo program as well, but NASA is now giving them much more leeway and may even use private launch services.

You can keep up with the latest NASA spacesuit news here, of course, or at the agency’s SuitUp tag.

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