Apple CEO Tim Cook talks WWDC student program, coding initiatives and SAP

For the past few years, Apple has been inviting student developers to attend its WWDC conference, which centers on development topics and software. A few students from this year’s batch are getting some more personal attention from Apple as it tries to raise awareness of the program and coding literacy via its Swift Playgrounds and other resources for students and teachers.

Most of those students, though, won’t get a surprise personal visit from CEO Tim Cook, which is what happened this week when Lyman High School student Liam Rosenfeld got to the Millenia Mall Apple Store in Orlando, Florida. Liam was there to participate, he thought, in an interview with myself and a local journalist from the Orlando Sentinel about his admission to the program.

As a surprise, and fresh off an appearance at the SAP Sapphire conference to announce an expanded partnership, Cook came to visit the store to greet employees, and to spend some time with Liam and his teacher, Mary Acken.

I was on hand to spend some time of my own with Liam, to talk to him about his experiences coding in high school and shipping on a global App Store. I also spoke to Cook about coding literacy, the SAP partnership and some other interesting topics.

The confab was set for Wednesday afternoon, with the store making an ideal meeting place given its rough proximity to the conference and airport. Liam arrived earlier than expected and some interference had to be ran so that Cook’s appearance and the surprise, could be kept secret.

Apple cancels AirPower product, citing inability to meet its high standards for hardware

Apple has canceled the AirPower product completely, citing difficulty meeting its own standards.

“After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward,” said Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering in an emailed statement today.

After a delay of over a year since it was first announced in September of 2017, the AirPower charging mat has become something of a focal point for Apple’s recent habit of announcing envelope tickling products and not actually shipping them on time. The AirPods, famously, had a bit of a delay before becoming widely available, and were shipped in limited quantities before finally hitting their stride and becoming a genuine cultural moment.

AirPower, however, has had far more time to marinate in the soup of public opinion since it was announced. Along with recent MacBook keyboard troubles, this has functioned as a sort of flash point over discussion that something isn’t right with Apple’s hardware processes.

Everything I’ve personally heard (Apple is saying nothing officially) about the AirPower delay has been related to tough engineering problems related to the laws of physics. Specifically, I’ve heard that they ran too hot because the 3D charging coils in close proximity to one another required very, very cautious power management.

Obviously, it would do Apple very little good to release a charging mat that caused devices to overheat, perhaps even to the point of damage. So, it has canceled the project. If you know more about this, feel free to reach out, I’m fascinated.

There have been other scenarios where Apple has pushed the hardware envelope hard and managed to pull it off and ship them, the iPhone 7 Plus, its first with a twin-lens system, being one that jumps to mind. Apple had a fallback plan in a single-lens version but at some point had to commit and step off a ledge to get it done in time to ship — even though knowing they still had problems to solve. Apple has done this many times over the years, but has managed to ship a lot of them.

AirPower, however, was the other kind of case. The project was apparently canceled so recently that boxes of the new AirPod cases even have pictures of AirPower on them and the new AirPod sets have mentions of AirPower.

This is a very, very rare public mis-step for Apple. Never, throughout the discussion about when AirPower might be released, did the overall trend of the discussion lean toward “never.” That’s a testament to the ability of its hardware engineering teams to consistently pull of what seems to be nearly impossible over the years. In this case, it appears that the engineering issues have proven, at least at this point, insurmountable.

The fact of the matter is that hardware is, well, hard. The basic concepts of wireless charging are well known and established, but by promising the ability to place multiple devices anywhere on a pad, allowing them to charge simultaneously while communicating charge levels and rates Apple set its bar incredibly high for AirPower. Too high, in this case.

How Apple Card works

One of the most buzzy announcements on Apple’s stage this week was Apple Card, its in-house credit card powered by Goldman Sachs and Mastercard. Consumers, tech press, financial press and Wall Street were all intrigued for various reasons.

But there are still a ton of questions around the way it works mechanically, the terms involved for consumers and its overall benefits. Though I’m not a financial reporter, I did used to cover payments and I’m a huge points hound. Some of the benefits (and caveats) of Apple Card are worth examining a bit more.

In some ways, Apple getting into the credit card game was one of the tech world’s biggest finally’s. Once Apple launched Passbook, it became extremely clear that it was headed towards this end game, with stops along the way for loyalty cards, coupons, external credit cards and ticketing.

This week, we got to see what Apple thinks is a solid ‘version 1’ of its credit card offering. Yes, this is a V1, and Apple is going to be iterating on the concept with new features and benefits.

The basics

The basics of Apple Card are pretty straightforward. We’ve already posted the basics here so I won’t go over them at length. It’s a virtual card and physical card that can be used for both regular and Apple Pay purchases at any place Mastercard works. The app companion categorizes purchases automatically, shows you where they were made and has a design that makes it easy for you to see interest charges, spending and cash back. The physical card offers 1% cash back, the virtual card offers 2% cash back on Apple Pay purchases and 3% back on purchases of Apple products. The cash back is delivered daily to your Apple Cash balance or to the card monthly as a credit balance if you don’t have or want an Apple Cash account.

But beyond those basics, there are still a lot of questions about some aspects of the way the card works. Here are some interesting bits.

Activating a physical Apple Card will happen with a tap of the iPhone to the card. The activation takes place with a pop up view of the card and an activation button, similar to the pairing process of AirPods. You can see signs of this in the current beta.

There is no penalty interest rate on Apple Card. There have been some reports that Apple Card will charge penalty rates, largely due to some required regulatory legalese. Penalty rates are an increase of your interest rate if you fail to pay on time. That is not true. Apple Card has no late fees and no penalty rates. You will continue to pay your agreed upon interest rate on your outstanding balance, but that rate will not go up. It will impact your credit score, as Apple does do standard reporting, but neither Apple nor Goldman Sachs will increase your rate due to late payment.

Apple will place Apple Card users at the low end of their interest rate tier. While Apple Card’s interest rates fail to break the mold in any major way (they are roughly between 13-24%), Apple will place users who sign up at the lower end of the tier that they land in due to their credit score. This isn’t some incredible re-imagining of how to offer credit or an intensely low interest option, but it could shift you to the bottom of a tier when you qualify instead of paying a few points higher at your ‘exact’ score.

You can pay your balance via ACH from a bank account or via Apple Cash. Apple Cash is not required to pay your bill, though cash back earned or any other money you have in there can go towards your balance if you desire.

Apple Card does not require or display signatures. Neither the physical card nor the app will display a signature. A network change a few months ago means that signatures are not required at point of sale for any credit cards. Though some stores may still ask to see ID, lack of a signature anywhere within Apple Card’s system shouldn’t be a roadblock to using it.

Perhaps the biggest security feature of the offering is that Apple Card can generate virtual card numbers for online non-Apple Pay purchases. Though Apple said that the app would display your card info during the event, they weren’t specific on what that info would be so I got some more detail here.

  • The physical Apple Card, of course, has no number. The app displays the last 4 digits of the card number that is on the mag stripe of the card only, you never see the full card number.
  • Instead, Apple provides a virtual card number and virtual confirmation code (CVV) for the card in the app. You can use this for non-Apple Pay purchases online or over the phone. This number is semi-permanent, meaning that you can keep using it as long as you want.
  • But you can hit a button to regenerate the PAN (primary account number), providing you with a new credit card number at any time. This is great for situations where you are forced to tell someone your credit card number but do not necessarily completely trust the recipient.
  • Card numbers are manually regenerated only, and do not automatically rotate. There is, currently, no single-use number support or single-merchant number support.
  • Each purchase requires a confirmation code (CVV) that will refresh every transaction, a fantastic additional security feature outlined by Zack Whittaker earlier in the week. This makes it even harder for someone to use your card, even if skimmed or copied, to make online purchases.

I use a virtual card service called Privacy for transactions online where I don’t know the person or company that the number is going to well. Several banks and credit card companies like Bank of America and Citi also offer virtual card numbers currently. Apple Card, though, will doubtless be the largest body of consumers to ever have easy access to a virtual card number with an easy to use interface and will expose many more people to the concept.

If you use Apple Card for a subscription or ongoing service, by the way, it’s possible you’ll have to re-enter your info if you regenerate your card — though many, many retailers — especially if they have ‘Card on File’ systems already use account updater services. These services can pull the new number from Mastercard to make sure that recurring payments remain in place and Apple Card members will have nothing to do.

The physical card has a fixed number on the mag stripe, but you don’t know what it is. It’s important to note that the number you have in the app and the number that are on the mag stripe can be totally different and it doesn’t matter. You’ll only really know the last 4 digits of your PAN on the physical card. If your card gets lost or stolen you can get replacement cards for free, and you can easily freeze the card with the app in case of theft or fraud.

Because of the way it is set up, every purchase with Apple Card requires biometric identification aside from purchases with the physical card. That goes for Apple Pay and non-Apple Pay purchases online. I personally think it would be cool to optionally require a confirmation from your phone to let a charge go through, but that is likely a v2 situation.

Replacement cards are free. Some people were worried that the flashy titanium cards would be expensive to replace. There is no fee.

There is currently no provision for multiple users or shared cards. For now, it’s one card per person, per account.

The exchange rate for foreign transactions is determined by Mastercard. There are no foreign transaction fees, but the rate of exchange is network determined, not a fixed rate or foreign currency.

Apple Card users must have two factor authentication set up to sign up.

Using Apple Card on Android is useless. This is kind of silly but people asked me. You can’t sign up for or administrate most of Apple Card’s features on Android — but if you were to switch to Android you could continue using your physical card and paying your bill — but without the majority of the cash back or security benefits why would you?

Goldman Sachs will not sell data for marketing purposes. This was on the keynote slide but there were some additional questions about it. The data that they see can be used for internal reporting but cannot be used for external or internal marketing or advertising. That goes for third parties as well. Though some regulatory or operational partners will need to see or transmit some data, all of that must be related to operating Apple Card only, not marketing or advertising.

Why cash back? There were definitely some questions that I got as well about Apple going cash back only. My assumption, which has been backed up by those I’ve spoken to, is that Apple wanted the simplest, most universal benefit structure — and that is cash. Points are by nature relatively opaque and can vary from day-to-day in value on the dollar. For this initial offering, Apple wanted to offer a straight cash benefit that can be accessed nearly immediately, transferred to a bank or spent like cash. Though the cash back is relatively competitive, it is not the highest percentage in the industry.

Apple Pay stuff. This is more Apple Pay than Apple Card stuff but some quick notes on the transit offerings coming to Pay.

  • The number of vehicles and transit systems supported will vary by operator.
  • Portland will include subways and busses, as will Chicago.
  • Chicago will support open loop and Ventra Card systems. Portland is a closed loop system.
  • New York will pilot Apple Pay on a couple of lines in the spring and then roll out to additional lines throughout the rest of the year.

Overall the Apple Card has some relatively unique and interesting takes on data transparency for users, who are getting what appears to be an information rich but easy to interpret interface that rivals the best apps (like the AMEX app) out there for consumer cards. It’s also got a solid set of security features that are missing only a couple of small improvements like per-merchant or per-transaction numbers that would make them the best offering in the industry.

With what are bound to be record low customer acquisition costs and a self-selected group of higher end customers, Apple Card is probably going to be a fairly solid hit for Apple. I just hope they continue to iterate for additional versions of the program.

Review: Apple’s new iPad mini continues to be mini

The iPad mini is super enjoyable to use and is the best size tablet for everything but traditional laptop work. It’s very good and I’m glad Apple updated it.

Using Apple Pencil is aces on the smaller mini, don’t worry about the real estate being an issue if you like to scribble notes or make sketches. It’s going to fall behind a larger iPad for a full time artist but as a portable scratch pad it’s actually far less unwieldy or cumbersome than an iPad Pro or Air will be.

The only caveat? After using the brilliant new Pencil, the old one feels greasy and slippery by comparison, and lacks that flat edge that helps so much when registering against your finger for shading or sketching out curves.

The actual act of drawing is nice and zippy, and features the same latency and responsiveness as the other Pencil-capable models.

The reasoning behind using the old pencil here is likely a result of a combination of design and cost-saving decisions. No flat edge would require a rethink of the magnetic Pencil charging array from the iPad Pro and it is also apparently prohibitively expensive in a way similar to the smart connector. Hence its lack of inclusion on either Air or mini models.

Touch ID feels old and slow when compared to iPad Pro models, but it’s not that bad in a mini where you’re almost always going to be touching and holding it rather than setting it down to begin typing. It still feels like you’re being forced to take an awkward, arbitrary additional action to start using the iPad though. It really puts into perspective how fluidly Face ID and the new gestures work together.

The design of the casing remains nearly identical, making for broad compatibility with old cases and keyboards if you use those with it. The camera has changed positions and the buttons have been moved slightly though, so I would say your mileage may vary if you’re brining old stuff to the table.

The performance of the new mini is absolutely top notch. While it falls behind when compared to the iPad Pro it is exactly the same (I am told, I do not have one to test yet) as the iPad Air. It’s the same on paper though, so I believe it in general and there is apparently no ‘detuning’ or under-clocking happening. This makes the mini a hugely powerful tiny tablet, clearly obliterating anything else in its size class.

The screen is super solid, with great color, nearly no air gap and only lacking tap-to-wake.

That performance comes at a decently chunky price, $399. If you want the best you pay for it.

Last year I took the 12.9” iPad Pro on a business trip to Brazil, with no backup machine of any sort. I wanted to see if I could run TechCrunch from it — from planning to events to editorial and various other multi-disciplinary projects. It worked so well that I never went back and have not opened my MacBook in earnest since. I’ll write that experience up at some point because I think there’s some interesting things to talk about there.

I include that context here because, though the iPad Pro is a whole ass computer and really capable, it is not exactly ‘fun’ to use in non standard ways. That’s where the iPad mini has always shined and continues to do so.

It really is pocketable in a loose jacket or coat. Because the mini is not heavy, it exercises little of the constant torsion and strain on your wrist that a larger iPad does, making it one-handed.

I could go on, but in the end, all that can be said about the iPad mini being “the small iPad” has already been said ad nauseam over the years, beginning with the first round of reviews back in 2012. This really is one of the most obvious choices Apple has in its current iPad lineup. If you want the cheap one, get the cheap one (excuse me, “most affordable” one). And if you want the small one, get the iPad mini.

The rest of the iPads in Apple’s lineup have much more complicated purchasing flow charts — the mini does indeed sell itself.

Back even before we knew for sure that a mini iPad was coming, I wrote about how Apple could define the then very young small tablet market. It did. No other small tablet model has ever made a huge dent on the market, unless you count the swarm of super super crappy Android tablets that people buy in blister packs expecting them to eventually implode as a single hive-mind model.

Here’s how I saw it in 2012:

“To put it bluntly, there is no small tablet market…Two years ago we were talking about the tablet market as a contiguous whole. There was talk about whether anyone would buy the iPad and that others had tried to make consumer tablets and failed. Now, the iPad is a massive success that has yet to be duplicated by any other manufacturer or platform.

But the tablet market isn’t a single ocean, it’s a set of interlocking bodies of water that we’re just beginning to see take shape. And the iPad mini isn’t about competing with the wriggling tadpoles already in the ‘small tablet’ pond, it’s about a big fish extending its dominion.”

Yeah, that’s about right, still.

One huge difference, of course, is that the iPad mini now has the benefit of an enormous amount of additional apps that have been built for iPad in the interim. Apps that provide real, genuine access to content and services on a tablet — something that was absolutely not guaranteed in 2012. How quickly we forget.

In addition to the consumer segment, the iPad mini is also extremely popular in industrial, commercial and medical applications. From charts and patient records to point-of-sale and job site reference, the mini is the perfect size for these kinds of customers. These uses were a major factor in Apple deciding to update the mini.

Though still just as pricey (in comparison) as it was when it was introduced, the iPad mini remains a standout device. It’s small, sleek, now incredibly fast and well provisioned with storage. The smallness is a real advantage in my opinion. It allows the mini to exist as it does without having to take part in the ‘iPad as a replacement for laptops’ debate. It is very clearly not that, while at the same time still feeling more multipurpose and useful than ever. I’m falling in real strong like all over again with the mini, and the addition of Pencil support is the sweetener on top.

Apple ad focuses on iPhone’s most marketable feature — privacy

Apple is airing a new ad spot in primetime today. Focused on privacy, the spot is visually cued, with no dialog and a simple tagline: Privacy. That’s iPhone.

In a series of humorous vignettes, the message is driven home that sometimes you just want a little privacy. The spot has only one line of text otherwise, and it’s in keeping with Apple’s messaging on privacy over the long and short term. “If privacy matters in your life, it should matter to the phone your life is on.”

The spot will air tonight in primetime in the U.S. and extend through March Madness. It will then air in select other countries.

You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to have noticed Apple positioning privacy as a differentiating factor between itself and other companies. Beginning a few years ago, CEO Tim Cook began taking more and more public stances on what the company felt to be your “rights” to privacy on their platform and how that differed from other companies. The undercurrent being that Apple was able to take this stance because its first-party business relies on a relatively direct relationship with customers who purchase its hardware and, increasingly, its services.

This stands in contrast to the model of other tech giants like Google or Facebook that insert an interstitial layer of monetization strategy on top of that relationship in the forms of application of personal information about you (in somewhat anonymized fashion) to sell their platform to advertisers that in turn can sell to you better.

Turning the ethical high ground into a marketing strategy is not without its pitfalls, though, as Apple has discovered recently with a (now patched) high-profile FaceTime bug that allowed people to turn your phone into a listening device, Facebook’s manipulation of App Store permissions and the revelation that there was some long overdue house cleaning needed in its Enterprise Certificate program.

I did find it interesting that the iconography of the “Private Side” spot very, very closely associates the concepts of privacy and security. They are separate, but interrelated, obviously. This spot says these are one and the same. It’s hard to enforce privacy without security, of course, but in the mind of the public I think there is very little difference between the two.

The App Store itself, of course, still hosts apps from Google and Facebook among thousands of others that use personal data of yours in one form or another. Apple’s argument is that it protects the data you give to your phone aggressively by processing on the device, collecting minimal data, disconnecting that data from the user as much as possible and giving users as transparent a control interface as possible. All true. All far, far better efforts than the competition.

Still, there is room to run, I feel, when it comes to Apple adjudicating what should be considered a societal norm when it comes to the use of personal data on its platform. If it’s going to be the absolute arbiter of what flies on the world’s most profitable application marketplace, it might as well use that power to get a little more feisty with the bigcos (and littlecos) that make their living on our data.

I mention the issues Apple has had above not as a dig, though some might be inclined to view Apple integrating privacy with marketing as boldness bordering on hubris. I, personally, think there’s still a major difference between a company that has situational loss of privacy while having a systemic dedication to privacy and, well, most of the rest of the ecosystem which exists because they operate an “invasion of privacy as a service” business.

Basically, I think stating privacy is your mission is still supportable, even if you have bugs. But attempting to ignore that you host the data platforms that thrive on it is a tasty bit of prestidigitation.

But that might be a little too verbose as a tagline.

How Disney Built Star Wars, in real life

From the moment that Disney announced its acquisition of LucasFilm, the question on every fan’s mind was “when will they build Star Wars in real life?”

While most assumed that they would do it eventually, they probably weren’t aware that in 2013 even as work began on the first movie of the ‘final’ trilogy, work also commenced on the early planning of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. That initial team fo a handful of people would eventually grow to over 4,000.

Over the course of the past 5 years, Walt Disney Imagineering has been hard at work making the world of Star Wars a reality on Earth. In two locations, California and Florida, Black Spire outpost on the planet of Batuu is now under construction. It’s an enormous several-billion-dollar bet that people will want to visit a place very similar to the ones that they’ve seen on the screen for decades.

In some ways, this project seems like the safest bet ever. The confluence of rabid fans of Star Wars and disciples of Disney’s particular flavor of amusement park alone feels like it could fuel the demand for the two park additions for years. But the ambitions of Walt Disney Imagineering staff and Parks management are stratospherically high for what is the largest single land expansion ever in a US Disney park. And the financial results required from these additions will require Disney to draw not just the loyalist crowd, but to convince a wide and deep array of park visitors to spend the day in a hyper-faithful reconstruction of a fictional far away galaxy.

To do this, Disney’s Imagineers have spent over five years planning and two years building the outposts that will open this year in its two US parks.

Last week, I got to spend three days talking to those Imagineers, partners from Lucasfilm and management about the inspiration, planning, tools, design and construction efforts. I also visited the construction site of Star Wars Land in Disneyland, California to take in the size, scale and environment of Batuu and its two major attractions.

“We’re really being very ambitious with what we do with Star Wars,” says Disney Portfolio Executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, Scott Trowbridge. “This location is over 14 acres. It is basically a small city in our parks. All the amazing architecture…the ships, the aliens, the droids, the creatures, everything that makes Star Wars Star Wars, all coming together so that our guests can have an opportunity to live that dream of living their Star Wars story.”

At risk of being too agreeable to marketing speak, I’d have to agree with this particular statement. What is being built here has little parallel in terms of immersion and ambition in an amusement park or out. And it’s going to blow Star Wars fans, casual and involved, away.

The nuts and bolts

If you’re familiar with what Disney has said about its “Star Wars lands” so far, then some of the following might be a refresher, but I think that some context about what they’re trying to build is important before we talk about the how.

Covering 14 acres individually at both Disneyland, Anaheim and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, the lands are pieces of the planet Batuu, and they host Black Spire Outpost, a village with shops, eateries, villagers and a First Order advance post. Outside of the village, you can also find the Resistance encampment with its ad-hoc infrastructure, rag-tag starfighters and equipment. The lands house two major attractions — Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run.

The entire land has been designed from the ground up to be immersive. The Disney cast members that inhabit Batuu will dress in authentic costumes and can pick and choose their own garments and accessories from a selection. They will be encouraged to have an understanding of the village, the various factions at play from the resistance to the First Order to the underbelly of smugglers operating there. The food is completely new, and it all has backstory as well. You won’t have pork ribs, you’ll have Kaadu ribs — the non-famous creature famously ridden by famously hated Jar Jar Binks. You’ll drink blue (and green) milk and cocktails at the seedy cantina (yes, with alcohol). The signage is all in-universe as much as possible, the products for sale have been created from scratch just for Batuu and will be sold nowhere else — and they all have a ‘found’ or ‘crafted’ vibe with minimal packaging.

The name of the game is transportive.

Transportation to Batuu

One of the over-arching themes throughout the discussions over the course of several days was the concept of transportation. How do you convey the feeling of being transported from the worlds of Disneyland and Earth to the world of Star Wars.

That begins with the decision to make the location for the lands a new planet.

“Why not make a place that is very familiar from the classic Star Wars films, a Tatooine, a Hoth, or one of those places? The answer really is we know those places, we know those stories that happen there, and we know that we’re not in them,” said Trowbridge. “This place, Black Spire Outpost, is an opportunity. It’s designed from the very get‑go to be a place that invites exploration and discovery, a place that invites us to become a character in the world of Star Wars, and, to the extent that we want to, to participate in the stories of Star Wars.”

A multi-purpose transport shuttle docked on top of a large hangar (left) will beckon guests into Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo

One of the primary drivers for the decision was also to create some sense of equanimity between hardcore fans and casual attendees.

“I want to talk into this land and be in the same level as everyone else, from the really hardcore Star Wars fan to someone who knows nothing about Star Wars,” Managing Story Editor at WDI Margaret Kerrison recalls saying in the first pitch meeting she attended for Star Wars land. “I want to have that urgency to explore, to discover, to run around every corner, and to meet every single droid and alien in this land. I want to not feel like I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t know all the nitty‑gritty details as a hardcore Star Wars fan would know.”

Walking through one of the entrances to Batuu, guests should feel a bit of compression and then decompression, says Executive Creative Director, WDI Chris Beatty. Coming in from Frontierland, Critter Country or just outside Fantasyland, you’re presented with ‘laser cut’ rock tunnel that creates a blank slate that then opens up into a cinematically framed vista that varies depending on your entrance. For the middle tunnel, you get a peek at some of the architecture, for instance and then boom, you’re presented with ships in the foreground, buildings, tall ancient spires, ships perched atop the buildings, canopies sawing in the wind. Shot established, you’re in Black Spire Outpost.

There are several of these ‘reveal’ moments throughout the land. The first time you see the resistance encampment, your first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon. Photographic moments, but also establishing moments, grounding you in the place you’re in.

Having stood in that vantage, even with construction going on all around, I can tell you it’s incredibly effective. There is no hint or trace of the rest of the park here. The vegetation, the meticulous weathering and rockscapes and the eerily familiar yet newly remixed shapes of Star Wars buildings and accessories make you feel like this is another place that you know.

The land is constructed using a blend of familiar techniques and newly minted ones. In some ways, Disney’s Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World and its in-theme dining, open spaces and rides feels like a test run for how far it could push themed worlds. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge feels like an additive result of learnings from a land that has ‘native’ merchandise and foods and tries to keep as much as possible ‘in story’.

Before they could begin to build, though, Imagineers had to build the tools to do so.

Building Star Wars

Headquartered in the compound of low beige and salmon colored buildings making up Grand Central Business Park in Glendale, California, Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) is a wonderland of mad tinkers, costumers, roboticists, simulations engineers and historians. The only Disney design and development organization founded by Walt Disney himself as WED Enterprises (and later sold to the Disney company in a somewhat controversial move for the time). Since then, it has proven to be so influential around the world through its application of theming and robotics that the term Imagineering is synonymous with the basic concept of world building.

Dok-OndarÕs Den of Antiquities in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will feature rare items from across the galaxy for sale, all part of Dok-Ondar’s collection.

One of the things that you have to understand about the way that Imagineering works is that they waste as little effort as possible. The imagination is always a hundred times more creative, complex and ambitious than the reality, and to even get a tiny chunk of that in front of guests Imagineers have to constantly find ways to work within constraints of time, space, money and, yes, the laws of physics.

In order to get the job done, they often build their own tools or cobble together solutions for problems out of a combination of off-the-shelf hardware and custom built components. It feels a bit odd to describe it this way, because there is certainly pride involved, but building for Imagineering is remarkably ego free. It’s not ‘our way or no way’ it’s ‘whatever works’. This commitment to making the illusion complete for the viewer no matter what the source of the solution is has led to some really fascinating advances from Disney R&D and Imagineering.

You only have to look at the procession from a couple of metal slugs attached to a servo through to full on humanoid stunt doubles to see what the kind of teasing out of technical applications to storytelling problems happen inside Imagineering.

For the Galaxy’s Edge project, one of the first problems to be solved was how to manage such a complex undertaking inside WDI and in partnership with LucasFilm.

This was largely due to the major difference between this project and any that Disney has undertaken in the past: the intimate involvement of all departments from the beginning. People from props, set dressing, construction, merchandising, food, ride systems and technical departments all worked together from ideation onwards. On a normal production, they are typically brought in at various phases — but for Batuu, everyone had to be on the same page from the very beginning.

If Disney wanted this to be a truly immersive experience it had to feel organically integrated and the conversation had to be lengthy and continuous so that set design served vending and vending served story and story served ride systems and engineering. They all had to be in lock step.

One of the major tools Imagineering used to keep everyone on the same project page is their BIM (building information modeling) tool. The tool takes a combination of 2D plans, 3D models, infrastructure and set dressing information and combines them into one massive interlocking source of truth for all departments to pull from. Teams were able to drill down from an overview of the land in 3D to the design plans for a specific doorway control panel.

Basically, it’s foundational geometry from across the project that’s then fed into the Unreal engine and presented in 3D. Like a 3D world from a game, but it’s a real place with real plumbing, architecture and technology underneath.

“When we saw the level of complexity that we were faced with when we started this project, we understood that we would need to use all the tools at our disposal. What the plan was is that we would essentially build a digital replica of the entire project. We built the planet before we actually built the planet,” said Sanne Worthing, Manager of BIM & VDC Technology, WDI. “It allows the creative designers to make decisions. It allows our contractors and the guys actually out in the field to make decisions before they actually have to go through and do these things. It gives you a lot of planning time. It helps avoid some of the more complicated and costly problems out in the field.”

BIM allowed the teams to do everything from testing how things would interlock in 3D to seeing where cranes could be placed during construction. The BIM reconstruction also fed into a system that WDI built in virtual reality to simulate the park.

“Using Unreal, we were able to take from all different parts of our attraction and put the moving pieces together. That means putting in our media that we would get from ILM, our partners there, getting our animation for our animated figures. Every piece of our puzzle to create our attraction, we put into a virtual reality simulation,” says April Warren, Show Programmer for WDI. “We’re able to look at it and make quick iterations with our creative team to be able to find things that we wouldn’t find normally until we were in the field and solve those problems early, or to be able to find out something just wasn’t working for us creatively and we wanted to change that.”

WDI has been using its own VR simulation system for a while, I first saw it a couple of years ago when it was being fleshed out. It feels very similar to flying around inside a simulator. It allows the Imagineers to look at the land from all sides, swooping through projects and highlighting elements of various types from infrastructure to set dressing. More importantly, it allows them to get as clear a picture as possible of what it will look like to a guest on the ground. This includes sight lines that play to maximum effect, with forced perspective and seamless presentation while hiding things like heating and cooling units, conduits and ducts and regular Earth buildings.

“We do do a lot of work with sight lines, making sure that when you’re out in the land, where guests are moving through, that the experience is what we intend it to be. That we’re not looking at some ugly AC unit,” says Worthing. “Immersion, and making sure that people feel like they are immersed in this world is super important. BIM is one of the ways that we are able to do that.”

“There’s things from the BIM that have been super [helpful],” says Warren. “We’ve had some back and forth I would say trying to run a vehicle through an area and I go, “oh, there’s a piece of conduit there that I didn’t realize what going to be there, because I got from…BIM.” I can say, “Hey, can we remove that piece of conduit?”

“If we were in the field and we had planned this without that step, we could have been in trouble because we might have hit it.”

A saying that the Imagineers have, says Bei Yang, Technology Studio Exec, WDI, is that it’s “easier to move bits than it is to move Atoms.”

There is a daily review of packages added to BIM, which allows the ride and animatronics team to ‘walk’ inside the attraction regularly before it’s built.

“While we’re only building one building, I promise there are a hundred designs of that building that nobody will ever see,” says Jacqueline King, Producer on Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run. “We get to go into them, and be able to make the best decisions, so that when we start putting rebar into the ground, you’re putting it in the right place. They talk about discovering those walls once you get out in the field later, but for the most part, we’re able to work out a lot of those early on, and completely change layouts to get the best results.”

In addition to using VR simulations driven by BIM, WDI has also begun using it for simulation of the actual rides, but more on that a bit later.

Once the construction pipeline was in place, it was time to start fleshing out the physical world of Batuu, including the architecture, set dressing, props, merchandise, food and inhabitants.

Anima-lectric

As you’d imagine with any high profile Disney Parks property, Batuu will be home to a variety of animated robots, Animatronics, in Imagineering parlance. From droids to shop proprietors to ride pre-show characters, there are a lot of animated figures in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Since the 80’s, the hydraulics-based animatronics in Disney parks were based on the A-100 chassis. A sort of basic humanoid template. The animatronics on Batuu are all based on a new A-1000 series chassis, which can be configured in a variety of ways at a variety of sizes — with one major difference: electric motors.

Electric motors were pioneered in 2009 with the head of Mr. Lincoln. They’ve since been used in Enchanted Tales with Belle, Frozen Ever After and the Na’ve River Journey attractions. Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout is also an electric figure.

 At Savi’s Workshop Ð Handbuilt Lightsabers, guests will have the opportunity to customize and craft their own lightsabers.

Unlike hydraulics, electric motors enable far more precise movements. They can start and stop nearly instantly, have less wind up and wind down times and make for more fluid transitions between directional movements. Plus, you cut the amount of cabling going to the figure in half by eliminating hydraulic lines. This cuts down on figure installation size and control cabinet size, allowing for more interesting placements in scenes that don’t have to allow for covering all of that stuff up and for easier maintenance.

The new figures are smooth, capable and really fun to watch in action.

Here are some of the major AA characters that will inhabit Star Wars land:

Hondo Ohnaka — A Weequay pirate introduced in Clone Wars, Hondo is now the proprietor of Ohnaka Transport Solutions and has been loaned the Millennium Falcon by Chewie for some “deliveries”. The animatronic figure itself is around 7 feet tall and uses the latest in electric motors instead of hydraulics. Hondo’s figure includes around 50 functions (movement points) total and is the second most complicated animatronic in Disney parks. The most complicated, for the record, is the Na’vi Shaman, mentioned above, which has 40 functions in its face alone, not to mention the rest of the body. We had the Shaman at our robotics event a couple of years ago, it’s incredible to watch. Hondo isn’t far behind, with fluid movements, smooth facial contortions and believable interactions between himself and his R5 droid.

DJ R-3X — You know him previously classified as RX-24, or Captain Rex, the pilot over at Star Tours. Now, he’s a DJ at Oga’s Cantina on Batuu. He plays music composed by the Imagineering team and a variety of artists from around the world. All of it is poppy and synth-ey and a bit 80’s, with some classic mixes of Cantina tunes gone by. His torso and arms move to work the controls and dance and he has a three hour cycle of music and dialog to keep patrons entertained. Fun fact, Lucasfilm Creative Executive Matt Martin says he has many, many pages of backstory about how Rex ended up on Batuu.

Dok-Ondar — An Ithorian trader, Don is renowned for his Jedi and Sith artifact collection. I was able to see Dok fully active in the Imagineering animation building and he looks incredible. The figure towers several feet above guests heads as he sits behind his counter and interacts with shop employees. The detail is lovely here, with a rich, smooth set of animations for hands and neck, his whole body rising up and down. The lips along his two mouths ripple as he speaks in a resonant stereophonic voice.

Nien Nunb — A Sullustun pilot famous for copiloting the Millennium Falcon on its mission to destroy the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. On Batuu he will pilot the transport ship that you board during the Rise of the Resistance attraction.

One of the more minor but no less intriguing characters includes a Dianoga beast which will cameo inside of a water fountain, popping up out of the very murky looking (for show) water intermittently to surprise guests. You’ll also see a ton of animated creatures inside the Creature Stall including fan favorites like the Loth-cat and a Worrt. The Droid Shop is also set to be full of animated droids of all kinds, and its exterior will have droids interacting with guests via the PLAY Disney app and getting a refreshing lubricant bath.

Interestingly, I’m aware of some droid projects that Disney is working on that have not yet appeared in any official reveals. There is a lot more to come in the interactive figure department and Imagineering already has plans to expand Batuu with new experiences. I was also unable to get them to tell me whether the Loth-cat and other small creatures that will be featured here are part of the interactive semi-autonomous Tiny Life project I’ve written about previously.

Black Spire Outpost

The process of animating the figures has also been updated along with the chassis.

“One of the things that went so well on this project is that some of our software partners have developed tools that allow us to import and export data from design software into modeling and animation software,” says Associate Show Mechanical Engineer Victoria Thomas. “We’re able to give them a 3D representation of exactly what the figure is, exactly where the pivots are. They’re able to take that and animate in exactly how fast they want those joints to move. We’re able to get a lot of great feedback like, “Oh, well the shoulder pivot’s kind of off. Is it possible for you to adjust that?”

“Getting that feedback early in the process allows us to change, improvise and adapt and overcome anything that’s going on with the figures.”

The animations, like all of the other data that makes up the land, are hosted inside of BIM. That pre-visualization work saves a lot of heartache and physical fudging on the back end.

“Doing things early allows us to solve problems before they become serious problems. With the Hondo figure specifically, we were able to determine, “Oh, based on his show set and where he is, there’s not enough room for audio in his scene. He needs an onboard speaker,” says Thomas.

“In another scene, we were able to determine, “Oh, there’s large speakers in the scene where we expected a maintenance person to be able to access the figures. If those speakers are there, then you can’t maintenance the base frame.”

Because of BIM and pre‑visualization, we were allowed to do a lot of that. One of the other cool things is that we were able to get motion‑capture data on these figures initially as a way to prove out, how would a human move? How would this look natural? How can we make this look as organic as possible in order to improve the guest experience?”

The resulting figures are some of the best looking creations Disney can currently make, and they’re at the forefront of this pre-visualization work with electric-driven figures. It’s as absolutely close to a real-life Star Wars alien as you’re ever likely to meet.

But the denizens, though cool, aren’t the biggest attraction in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. That would be, well, the attractions.

The Rides

There are two attractions inside the land. Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run (Falcon from here on out) and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (Rise). The Falcon is a simulator type ride that reads like a very, very advanced version of Star Tours that you can actually control in real time with a crew of 6 people. Rise is much harder to explain, and consists of multiple stages of ‘ride’ that, taken together, are best described as an “experiential” attraction.

Developing those rides involves some wild new technology, some known tech applied in new ways, and some really sky high difficulty levels to pull off correctly.

Rise and Simulate

For a while now, Disney has been using VR and augmented reality in various ways to help it design and test rides. At Imagineering in Glendale it has a big simulator room called The Dish to paraphrase myself from my earlier visits, This is a curved chamber that houses multiple high resolution projectors that functions, most simply, as a holodeck. Disney uses it to “see” rides and attractions as a group to make decisions about look and feel.

Millennium Falcon pictured under development 

Users wear a ‘Bowler Hat’ that tracks their movements and walk around inside a space that changes and shifts to match perspectives. We flew through and around Batuu, getting to see, virtually, the vistas we would see the next day when we were at the land physically.

But Disney has also been using VR in more radical ways to simulate their rides. Specifically, they’ve built a full ride-on vehicle that sits inside a warehouse on the Imagineering lot. It’s surrounded in a wide 100 foot long ring by traffic dividers and operates just like the trackless vehicles in Rise.

“We were able to test all of our vehicle motion early using VR,” says April Warren. “Imagine you’re on a vehicle, you’ve got your VR headset, and you are able to see what this attraction is going to look like in the future. We could do that all in real‑time. It was very exciting. I don’t think we could’ve made this attraction without this workflow. We broke the attraction to pieces and could ride it in the facility to really prove out that what we thought we were getting with our vehicle is what we were going to get in the attraction.”

“The great thing was when we got to the actual building things were all installed. We hadn’t been down there before, at least I hadn’t. To walk through that building knowing what we’d seen in VR and go, “Oh, my gosh. I know exactly where I am. I know how to get around this place because I have seen all of this before, and it looks exactly like what I thought it would look like.” It’s been super exciting.”

The rig itself is pretty wild. It’s built out to match the seat layout of the Rise of the Resistance vehicle itself. On board it has enough compute power to push out the visuals to headsets of everyone on board and a motor to run the vehicle around the floor perfectly in sync with those visuals. This gives you the illusion of the ride mixed with the real physicality of moving through space and feeling the pull — a process the imagineers who show us the rig call “Visceralization”. It’s the most bad ass VR sim rig ever.

Disney is clear to note throughout our visit to the sim center that they are not using it to develop VR rides. Rather they are developing physical rides using VR. An important distinction these days with VR becoming more prevalent in the parks.

The Rise of the Resistance ‘experience’ itself is much harder to categorize. On our site tour we got to go through what we are later told is about 1/3 of the total ride (a figure which boggled me). You approach through the Resistance area of Batuu, outside of the village gates. There are star fighters (an X-Wing, an A-Wing, both perfectly replicated from the films) which will be being actively worked on and primed at intervals throughout the day by Resistance members. you enter the queue and walk through chambers which advance from scrubland with railings made out of the ubiquitous Star Wars cabling through to ancient ruins that have been co-opted by the scrappy rebels.

Disney guests will traverse the corridors of a Star Destroyer 

The rooms advance to sections that are ‘laser cut’ through rock as they would be by an army trying to make due in natural and unnatural caverns. Rooms are piled high with equipment of medical, utilitarian and military origin. There is an armory with blasters and pilots uniforms in cages. A room merges the Fast Pass and Standby lines in a communications hub. The entire effect is wildly effective, giving you the feel of walking the cramped halls of a base from the movies.

This queue, by the way, features a low stone bench cut into a big section of the middle of it, allowing a place for families and kids to rest. A personal victory, Executive Creative Director John Larena jokes, as a dad with kids who knows what it’s like to wait in long lines.

From there, we’re led into a briefing room that will feature an animatronic BB-8 on a high cabinet that interacts with a video element of Poe Dameron, your escort on the mission. Other appearances will be made by a hologram of Rey and a message from Finn.

From there, you make your way across a landing pad as Poe’s X-Wing warms up to your right. You walk towards and board a U-Wing transport ship with a group of fellow passengers. A simulated takeoff and flight, facilitated by your Nien Nunb and Poe, commence with everyone standing troop transport style. You are quickly captured and pulled aboard a Star Destroyer.

Then, through some ride magic I won’t disclose here, your door opens to what is one of the most stunning ride reveals I can ever remember: a full size Star Destroyer hangar bay, complete with expansive black floor, Tie Fighters on loading racks and, yes, an absolutely enormous window opening up onto space outside with (eventually) a view of the First Order fleet.

Disney guests will traverse the corridors of a Star Destroyer

After your moment of awe, you are split up into groups by First Order officers — played by real cast members in uniform by the way — and led down perfectly rendered corridors to a holding cell the spitting image of the one Poe Dameron was held in. At this point, you have an encounter with a nearby Kylo Ren and your adventure continues.

This is where we left off on our tour, and we hadn’t even made it to the vehicle portion yet, which features encounters with more First Order troops, AT-ATs and more that they have yet to reveal.

It’s an enormous attraction, with a sense of scale that goes beyond anything I’ve seen Disney do. And it’s only one of the two major attractions.

Flying the Falcon

The other, of course, is the Falcon ride. There have been tons of questions about this one, so I’ll try to sate some appetites.

Approaching the Falcon from one of the entrances to Batuu for the first time is a surreal experience. This is a full-size 110-foot version of the ship as you’ve seen it in the movies. It’s meticulously detailed and acts as a center-piece for the area. The ship will periodically vent out gas and Hondo’s tinkerers are constantly working on its engines. It’s a living thing inside the land, a character.

Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run 

As you enter the maintenance bay, you pass into the queue inside Ohnaka’s Transport Solutions. Climbing gantries through a working shipping and machine shop, getting views of the Falcon from every angle. Until, finally, you burst out into the oh-so-familiar weathered ‘chiclet’ corridors of the Falcon herself. The holding area is the very well known common area of the ship with the chess board (not currently holographically active) and communications console. Everything in this space is meticulously accurate down to the bolts. Break out your magnifying glasses and soak it in, you’re on the Millennium Falcon.

From here, you’re handed boarding cards in groups of six and wait to be ushered down the corridor to your waiting cockpit.

The famous chess room

The Falcon, as previously mentioned, is a simulator ride that puts you in the cockpit of the most famous starship in the galaxy. The cockpits (there are multiple that can be loaded at a time, but they won’t say how many) fit six people. Two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. You’re all responsible for how smoothly the Falcon completes its mission, but it always completes, one way or another.

The simulation is run on the Unreal engine and the mechanics are a much upgraded version of what powers Star Tours. Each cockpit has its own real‑time rendering system for a multi‑projection feedback hub across five screens that completely surround the cockpit seamlessly. Any decision you make as a member of the crew has to result in an action on screen, and it’s all real-time, so none of the major stuff is pre-rendered. While Disney itself was fairly cagey about what powers the ‘magic’ behind this system, Nvidia talked a bit about it last year.

Black Spire Outpost is the name of the village

“Walt Disney Imagineering teamed with NVIDIA and Epic Games to develop new technology to drive its attraction. When it launches, riders will enter a cockpit powered with a single BOXX chassis packed with eight high-end NVIDIA Quadro P6000 GPUs, connected via Quadro SLI.

Quadro Sync synchronizes five projectors for the creation of dazzling ultra-high resolution, perfectly timed displays to fully immerse the riders in the world of planet Batuu.

Working with NVIDIA and Epic Games, the Imagineering team created a custom multi-GPU implementation for Unreal Engine. This new code was returned to the Epic Games team and will help influence how multi-GPUs function for their engine.

“We worked with NVIDIA engineers to use Quadro-specific features like Mosaic and cross-GPU reads to develop a renderer that had performance characteristics we needed,” says Bei Yang, technology studio executive at Disney Imagineering. “Using the eight connected GPUs allowed us to achieve performance unlike anything before.””

The effect in person is wild, though we only saw a static-ish scene of the hangar bay.

Entering the cockpit was an out-of-body situation for me, I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s wild how right it feels. The six seats all feature belts and the familiar weathered look. More importantly, each of them has a wide array of buttons either to the side or in front of them if you’re one of the pilots. Every square or rectangular button has a light up ring around it which will indicate which of them you need to press for the best result during your moments to act during the ride. The toggles have small LED indicators built into one end that do the same indicating job. I am happy to report that the large, satisfyingly chunky toggle switches and satisfyingly clicks buttons have been very well chosen and require enough force to push without stress but with satisfaction. They’re the right switches.

And yes, one of the right-hand pilot’s jobs is to pull back the lever to jump to hyperspace, and that pull is very satisfying.

This is how you will ‘control’ the falcon. Left and right or throttles for the pilots, depending on seats, and buttons to push to shoot down Tie Fighters or put out fires if those Tie Fighters get missed.

Though every flight will have its own permutations, you cannot ‘fail’ a flight on the Falcon. You just come through either pristine or more battered, depending on your efficiency. And the people of Black Spire Outpost will react to your team’s performance flying the Falcon — either you all do well or you all don’t.

“If our guests so choose, and they opt in, we will be able to have some level of persistent interaction with them, not only throughout their day as they accumulate experiences, but on the attractions or as they meet certain characters,” says Bob Chapek, Chairman of Parks, Experiences and Products. “Not only will we be able to remember that and then interact with the guest accordingly, but over the course of several visits, we’ll remember what they did the previous visit. As a result, we’ll have much more of a close, tight interaction.”

One big question mark that still remains undisclosed despite my inquiries, is how, exactly the proprietors or characters will remember this. They seemed to indicate that it was not the PLAY Disney app that would do this, so more yet to be revealed. Perhaps a system like the Magic Bands out in the Florida parks that has yet to be discussed.

The land is a ride

The way that Imagineering thinks of Galaxy’s Edge is that there are three main attractions. The 2 rides and the land itself. In addition to the 5 restaurants and 5 shops, there are two distinct biomes and the land is embedded with activities that are accessed through the PLAY Disney app. When you enter the land, it switches over to a Star Wars mode, allowing you access to several tools including Scan, Translate, Tune and Jobs. Through these, and dozens of bluetooth beacons located throughout Batuu, you can activate droids, download schematics from hacking ships, download secret messages from door panels and listen to transmissions from three factions inclined the First Order, the Resistance and the Smugglers. You can also translate some of the alien languages that are spoken or written throughout the land.

You can choose to complete jobs for these factions, and there is an over-arching meta game that allows you to use scannable to try to tilt the balance from the Resistance to the First Order throughout your visit — rewarding you with digital collectibles. There are even missions to complete in the app during ride queues. 1 in Smuggler’s Run and 2 in the Rise queue for both sides of the conflict.

The vision is that if you become aligned, for instance, with the Smuggler’s faction, you could even be called out by name by Hondo while in the queue for the ride. “Hey, is Matthew there?”

This is an absolutely enormous undertaking. And walking through the village of Black Spire or the outskirts showed us construction still very much underway. Disney is pushing hard day and night to finish what is going to be a massively big risk for it on the storytelling and immersion front. While the world of Star Wars seems like a gimme from a fan point of view, that attention also means that Disney has to get everything so right from the beginning. It’s telling that even on our tour, workers continued to cut, paint and plaster. Summer isn’t very far away and there’s a long way to go to Batuu.

Nike’s auto-laced future

Why does the world need a self-lacing shoe?

Haven’t you heard of Velcro?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laceless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardware

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

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

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

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

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

Simply put: you can’t feel the motor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some brief notes that you might be wondering about:

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

Design and comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enabling technology

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

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

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

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

Pitfalls and potentialities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture

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

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

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

Positive and negative futures

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

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

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

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

Review: Apple’s iPhone XR is a fine young cannibal

This iPhone is great. It is most like the last iPhone — but not the last “best” iPhone — more like the last not as good iPhone. It’s better than that one though, just not as good as the newest best iPhone or the older best iPhone.

If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8, you’re gonna love it and likely won’t miss any current features while also getting a nice update to a gesture-driven phone with Face ID. But don’t buy it if you’re coming from an iPhone X, you’ll be disappointed as there are some compromises from the incredibly high level of performance and quality in Apple’s last flagship, which really was pushing the envelope at the time.

From a consumer perspective, this is offering a bit of choice that targets the same kind of customer who bought the iPhone 8 instead of the iPhone X last year. They want a great phone with a solid feature set and good performance but are not obsessed with ‘the best’ and likely won’t notice any of the things that would bug an iPhone X user about the iPhone XR.

On the business side, Apple is offering the iPhone XR to make sure there is no pricing umbrella underneath the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, and to make sure that the pricing curve is smooth across the iPhone line. It’s not so much a bulwark against low-end Android, that’s why the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7S are sticking around at those low prices.

Instead it’s offering an ‘affordable’ option that’s similar in philosophy to the iPhone 8’s role last year but with some additional benefits in terms of uniformity. Apple gets to move more of its user base to a fully gesture-oriented interface, as well as giving them Face ID. It benefits from more of its pipeline being dedicated to devices that share a lot of components like the A12 and True Depth camera system. It’s also recognizing the overall move towards larger screens in the market.

If Apple was trying to cannibalize sales of the iPhone XS, it couldn’t have created a better roasting spit than the iPhone XR.

Screen

Apple says that the iPhone XR has ‘the most advanced LCD ever in a smartphone’ — their words.

The iPhone XR’s screen is an LCD, not an OLED. This is one of the biggest differences between the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS models, and while the screen is one of the best LCDs I’ve ever seen, it’s not as good as the other models. Specifically, I believe that the OLED’s ability to display true black and display deeper color (especially in images that are taken on the new XR cameras in HDR) set it apart easily.

That said, I have a massive advantage in that I am able to hold the screens side by side to compare images. Simply put, if you don’t run them next to one another, this is a great screen. Given that the iPhone XS models have perhaps the best displays ever made for a smartphone, coming in a very close second isn’t a bad place to be.

A lot of nice advancements have been made here over earlier iPhone LCDs. You get True Tone, faster 120hz touch response and wide color support. All on a 326 psi stage that’s larger than the iPhone 8 Plus in a smaller body. You also now get tap-to-wake, another way Apple is working hard to unify the design and interaction language of its phones across the lineup.

All of these advancements don’t come for free to an LCD. There was a lot of time, energy and money spent getting the older technology to work as absolutely closely as possible to the flagship models. It’s rare to the point of non-existence that companies care at all to put in the work to make the lower end devices feel as well worked as the higher end ones. For as much crap as Apple gets about withholding features to get people to upsell, there is very little of that happening with the iPhone XR, quite the opposite really.

There are a few caveats here. First, 3D touch is gone, replaced by ‘Haptic Touch’ which Apple says works similarly to the MacBook’s track pad. It provides feedback from the iPhone’s Taptic vibration engine to simulate a ‘button press’ or trigger. In practice, the reality of the situation is that it is a very prosaic ‘long press to activate’ more than anything else. It’s used to trigger the camera on the home screen and the flashlight, and Apple says it’s coming to other places throughout the system as it sees it appropriate and figures out how to make it feel right.

I’m not a fan. I know 3D touch has its detractors, even among the people I’ve talked to who helped build it, I think it’s a clever utility that has a nice snap to it when activating quick actions like the camera. In contrast, on the iPhone XR you must tap and hold the camera button for about a second and a half — no pressure sensitivity here obviously — as the system figures out that this is an intentional press by determining duration, touch shape and spread etc and then triggers the action. You get the feedback still, which is nice, but it feels disconnected and slow. It’s the best case scenario without the additional 3D touch layer, but it’s not ideal.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the edges of the iPhone XR screen have a slight dimming effect that is best described as a ‘drop shadow’. It’s wildly hard to photograph but imagine a very thin line of shadow around the edge of the phone that gets more pronounced as you tilt it and look at the edges. It’s likely an effect of the way Apple was able to get a nice sharp black drop-off at the edges that gets that to-the-edges look of the iPhone XR’s screen.

Apple is already doing a ton of work rounding  the corners of the LCD screen to make them look smoothly curved (this works great and is nearly seamless unless you bust out the magnifying loupe) and it’s doing some additional stuff around the edge to keep it looking tidy. They’ve doubled the amount of LEDs in the screen to make that dithering and the edging possible.

Frankly, I don’t think most people will ever notice this slight shading of dark around the edge — it is very slight — but when the screen is displaying mostly white and it’s next to the iPhone XS it’s visible.

Oh, the bezels are bigger. It makes the front look slightly less elegant and screenful than the iPhone XS, but it’s not a big deal.

Camera

Yes, the portrait mode works. No, it’s not as good as the iPhone XS. Yes, I miss having a zoom lens.

All of those things are true and easily the biggest reason I won’t be buying an iPhone XR. However, in the theme of Apple working its hardest to make even its ‘lower end’ devices work and feel as much like its best, it’s really impressive what has been done here.

The iPhone XR’s front-facing camera array is identical to what you’ll find in the iPhone XS. Which is to say it’s very good.

The rear facing camera is where it gets interesting, and different.

The rear camera is a single lens and sensor that is both functionally and actually identical to the wide angle lens in the iPhone XS. It’s the same sensor, the same optics, the same 27mm wide-angle frame. You’re going to get great ‘standard’ pictures out of this. No compromises.

However, I found myself missing the zoom lens a lot. This is absolutely a your mileage may vary scenario, but I take the vast majority of my pictures with the telephoto lens. Looking back at my year with the iPhone X I’d say north of 80% of my pictures were shot with the telephoto, even if they were close ups. I simply prefer the “52mm” equivalent with its nice compression and tight crop. It’s just a better way to shoot than a wide angle — as any photographer or camera company will tell you because that’s the standard (equivalent) lens that all cameras have shipped with for decades.

Wide angle lenses were always a kludge in smartphones and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started getting decent telephotos. If I had my choice, I’d default to the tele and have a button to zoom out to the wide angle, that would be much nicer.

But with the iPhone XR you’re stuck with the wide — and it’s a single lens at that, without the two different perspectives Apple normally uses to gather its depth data to apply the portrait effect.

So they got clever. iPhone XR portrait images still contain a depth map that determines foreground, subject and background, as well as the new segmentation map that handles fine detail like hair. While the segmentation maps are roughly identical, the depth maps from the iPhone XR are nowhere as detailed or information rich as the ones that are generated by the iPhone XS.

See the two maps compared here, the iPhone XR’s depth map is far less aware of the scene depth and separation between the ‘slices’ of distance. It means that the overall portrait effect, while effective, is not as nuanced or aggressive.

In addition, the iPhone XR’s portrait mode only works on people.You’re also limited to just a couple of the portrait lighting modes: studio and contour.

In order to accomplish portrait mode without the twin lens perspective, Apple is doing facial landmark mapping and image recognition work to determine that the subject you’re shooting is a person. It’s doing depth acquisition by acquiring the map using a continuous real-time buffer of information coming from the focus pixels embedded in the iPhone XR’s sensor that it is passing to the A12 Bionic’s Neural Engine. Multiple neural nets analyze the data and reproduce the depth effect right in the viewfinder.

When you snap the shutter it combines the depth data, the segmentation map and the image data into a portrait shot instantaneously. You’re able to see the effect immediately. It’s wild to see this happen in real time and it boggles thinking about the horsepower needed to do this. By comparison, the Pixel 3 does not do real time preview and takes a couple of seconds to even show you the completed portrait shot once it’s snapped.

It’s a bravura performance in terms of silicon. But how do the pictures look?

I have to say, I really like the portraits that come out of the iPhone XR. I was ready to hate on the software-driven solution they’d come up with for the single lens portrait but it’s pretty damn good. The depth map is not as ‘deep’ and the transitions between out of focus and in focus areas are not as wide or smooth as they are on iPhone XS, but it’s passable. You’re going to get more funny blurring of the hair, more obvious hard transitions between foreground and background and that sort of thing.

And the wide angle portraits are completely incorrect from an optical compression perspective (nose too large, ears too small). Still, they are kind of fun in an exaggerated way. Think the way your face looks when you get to close to your front camera.

If you take a ton of portraits with your iPhone, the iPhone XS is going to give you a better chance of getting a great shot with a ton of depth that you can play with to get the exact look that you want. But as a solution that leans hard on the software and the Neural Engine, the iPhone XR’s portrait mode isn’t bad.

Performance

Unsurprisingly, given that it has the same exact A12 Bionic processor, but the iPhone XR performs almost identically to the iPhone XS in tests. Even though it features 3GB of RAM to the iPhone XS’ 4GB, the overall situation here is that you’re getting a phone that is damn near identical as far as speed and capability. If you care most about core features and not the camera or screen quirks, the iPhone XR does not offer many, if any, compromises here.

Size

The iPhone XR is the perfect size. If Apple were to make only one phone next year, they could just make it XR-sized and call it good. Though I am now used to the size of the iPhone X, a bit of extra screen real-estate is much appreciated when you do a lot of reading and email. Unfortunately, the iPhone XS Max is a two-handed phone, period. The increase in vertical size is lovely for reading and viewing movies, but it’s hell on reachability. Stretching to the corners with your thumb is darn near impossible and to complete even simple actions like closing a modal view inside an app it’s often easiest (and most habitual) to just default to two hands to perform those actions.

For those users that are ‘Plus’ addicts, the XS Max is an exercise in excess. It’s great as a command center for someone who does most of their work on their iPhones or in scenarios where it’s their only computer. My wife, for instance, has never owned her own computer and hasn’t really needed a permanent one in 15 years. For the last 10 years, she’s been all iPhone, with a bit of iPad thrown in. I myself am now on a XS Max because I also do a huge amount of my work on my iPhone and the extra screen size is great for big email threads and more general context.

But I don’t think Apple has done enough to capitalize on the larger screen iPhones in terms of software — certainly not enough to justify two-handed operation. It’s about time iOS was customized thoroughly for larger phones beyond a couple of concessions to split-view apps like Mail.

That’s why the iPhone XR’s size comes across as such a nice compromise. It’s absolutely a one-handed phone, but you still get some extra real-estate over the iPhone XS and the exact same amount of information appears on the iPhone XR’s screen as on the iPhone XS Max in a phone that is shorter enough to be thumb friendly.

Color

Apple’s industrial design chops continue to shine with the iPhone XR’s color finishes. My tester iPhone was the new Coral color and it is absolutely gorgeous.

The way Apple is doing colors is like nobody else. There’s no comparison to holding a Pixel 3, for instance. The Pixel 3 is fun and photographs well, but super “cheap and cheerful” in its look and feel. Even though the XR is Apple’s mid-range iPhone, the feel is very much that of a piece of nicely crafted jewelry. It’s weighty, with a gorgeous 7-layer color process laminating the back of the rear glass, giving it a depth and sparkle that’s just unmatched in consumer electronics.

The various textures of the blasted aluminum and glass are complimentary and it’s a nice melding of the iPhone 8 and iPhone X design ethos. It’s massively unfortunate that most people will be covering the color with cases, and I expect clear cases to explode in popularity when these phone start getting delivered.

It remains very curious that Apple is not shipping any first-party cases for the iPhone XR — not even the rumored clear case. I’m guessing that they just weren’t ready or that Apple was having issues with some odd quirk of clear cases like yellowing or cracking or something. But whatever it is, they’re leaving a bunch of cash on the table.

Apple’s ID does a lot of heavy lifting here, as usual. It often goes un-analyzed just how well the construction of the device works in conjunction with marketing and market placement to help customers both justify and enjoy their purchase. It transmits to the buyer that this is a piece of quality kit that has had a lot of thought put into it and makes them feel good about paying a hefty price for a chunk of silicon and glass. No one takes materials science anywhere as seriously at Apple and it continues to be on display here.

Should you buy it?

As I said above, it’s not that complicated of a question. I honestly wouldn’t overthink this one too much. The iPhone XR is made to serve a certain segment of customers that want the new iPhone but don’t necessarily need every new feature. It works great, has a few small compromises that probably won’t faze the kind of folks that would consider not buying the best and is really well built and executed.

“Apple’s pricing lineup is easily its strongest yet competitively,” creative Strategies’ Ben Bajarin puts it here in a subscriber piece. “The [iPhone] XR in particular is well lined up against the competition. I spoke to a few of my carrier contacts after Apple’s iPhone launch event and they seemed to believe the XR was going to stack up well against the competition and when you look at it priced against the Google Pixel ($799) and Samsung Galaxy 9 ($719). Some of my contacts even going so far to suggest the XR could end up being more disruptive to competitions portfolios than any iPhone since the 6/6 Plus launch.”

Apple wants to fill the umbrella, leaving less room than ever for competitors. Launching a phone that’s competitive in price and features an enormous amount of research and execution that attempt to make it as close a competitor as possible to its own flagship line, Apple has set itself up for a really diverse and interesting fiscal Q4.

Whether you help Apple boost its average selling price by buying one of the maxed out XS models or you help it block another Android purchase with an iPhone XR, I think it will probably be happy having you, raw or cooked.

Disney‘s John Snoddy will talk imagineering augmented worlds at TC Sessions: AR/VR in LA this week

At our one-day TC Sessions: AR/VR event in LA on October 18, we’ll be joined by Walt Disney Imagineering’s R&D Studio Executive Jon Snoddy.

We’re going to talk about how Disney is using augmented and virtual reality in their parks and other projects and how they’re coupling those technologies with physical spaces and robotics in ways that no other company is attempting. Disney has shipped a bunch of ambitious projects lately, like their robotic acrobats, a series of autonomous robots to add life to queues and attractions and a variety of different applications of AR.


Here’s some more info on Snoddy via Disney:

Jon Snoddy has lived on the leading edge of entertainment technology his entire career. Prior to leading Research & Development for Walt Disney Imagineering, Jon worked at NPR, Lucasfilm, started his own companies, and pulled a previous stint at Imagineering developing ride concepts such as Indiana Jones as well as founding the original Disney VR Studio. 

Jon’s work spans industries as well as continents. Starting off as a recording engineer for NPR, he went on to help launch the THX system at Lucasfilm, install Captain EO at Disneyland, and spearheaded GameWorks LLC with DreamWorks, Sega, and Universal Studios. Additionally, he’s led redevelopment projects like Centum City in Pusan, Kr.; created movie theater games with TimePlay Entertainment; and enabled personalized video sharing with Big Stage Entertainment. 

Jon Snoddy is currently the SVP of Disney Research and Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development Studio Executive. He oversees a cross-disciplinary group of scientists, artists, and engineers inventing the future of entertainment. His teams work across robotics, AI, displays, visual computing, materials, and interactive storytelling to create the next generation of Disney characters, rides, experiences, and more.


Final tickets are now on sale — book yours here and you’ll save 35 percent on general admission tickets. Student tickets are $45.

 

 

New, new, new TechCrunch

 In the beginning, there was TechCrunch. Then there was new TechCrunch. And, if you’ve been reading TechCrunch for the last five years or so, you’re used to seeing new, new TechCrunch. Our last redesign, launched in 2013, was conceived when iOS was still Skeuomorphic and responsive web design was forward thinking. It’s served us well, but the internet never stands still and… Read More