North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, and then return once they’re ready for a pick-up and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.
This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later – essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.
The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.
Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.
Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.
India’s government has announced an immediate ban on e-cigarettes — citing youth-focused public health concerns.
In a news statement following a cabinet meeting today finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the ban covers production, manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertising of e-cigarettes.
Sitharaman suggested India’s youth are viewing e-cigarettes as a “style statement”, implying it’s encouraging them to get hooked on nicotine — whereas she noted that companies behind the vaping trend have pitched their products as a way to ween existing smokers off cigarettes.
“This decision is taken keeping in mind the impact that [e-cigarettes are] having on the youth of today,” she said of the ban order. “The data that we have largely is derived from the US’ experience and it the US the latest stats that I have before me states that there has been a 77.8% growth among school students who are at the 10th and 12th level.”
She also pointed to “surprising” growth in e-cigarette use among US middle school students — up 48.5%, per stats she cited.
India has some 106M adult smokers, making it a major market for cigarette companies of all stripes. But with the e-cigarette ban, vaping startups like Juul are set to be shut out entirely — even as traditional tobacco giants are allowed to continue to operate.
According to the World Health Organization the use of tobacco in Indian, which includes both smoked and smokeless products, kills close to 1M people per year.
The ban on e-cigarettes will need formal approval when India’s parliament returns this fall, though this step is typically considered a formality.
Penalties for breaching the ban order include up to one year in jail and a fine of 100,000 rupees ($1,405) for first-time offenders, per Reuters. Repeat violation risks up to three years and a penalty of up to 500,000 rupees. It’s not clear whether users of e-cigarettes will risk any penalties for the act of vaping itself.
India’s ban comes at a time when the US is also preparing to tighten regulation in response to concerns around youth vaping. This month the Trump administration said it’s working on a compliance policy for flavored e-cigarettes that are especially appealing to children.
The US’ CDC public health agency also recently warned against using e-cigarettes — as it investigates a lung condition associated with vaping, following hundreds of cases and a suspected death in August.
Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming, and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV let you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room where unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.
Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat, and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls to smaller form factors.
The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat smart screen. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop for $199 to $179. Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.
“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device” says Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”
The new Portals all go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in the US and Canada plus new markets like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, and France (though the Hey Portal assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.
The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to compete where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.
“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.
Battling The Creepiness
The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive”, we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.
To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removeable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off, and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”
One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”
But if Portal if battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the call from the perspective of accessibility. “We say ‘oh they’re good enough” but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impedentment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.
Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel – ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why’.”
Hands-On With The New Portals
If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room.
The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel, they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram, or Camera roll photos.
Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation, first spotted as “Codename: Ripley” by Jane Manchun Wong and reported by Alex Heath for Cheddar a year ago. It has an integrated stand for placing on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8 mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room. TechCrunch.
Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users piece of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control felt a tad sluggish but passable.
Portal’s software is largely the same as before with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp, and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame as zoomed in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.
The Portal app platform that features Spotify and Pandora is gaining Amazon’s suite of apps, starting with Prime Video while Ring doorbell and smart home controls are on the way. Beyond Messenger calls and AR Storytime where you don related AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there are new AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.
WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages which would be exceedingly helpful.
Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the potential of Portal: passive hang out time.
“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling, I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pre-text, to have an excuse to go be together.”
This is Portal’s true purpose. Facebook has always been about time spent, getting deeper into your life, and learning more about you. While other companies’ products might feel less creepy or be more entertaining, none have the ubiquitous social connection of Facebook and Portal. When your friends are on screen to, a mediocre game or silly video is elevated into a memorable experience. With Portal TV, Facebook finally has something unique enough to offset its brand tax and earn it a place in your home.
Automating agriculture is a complex proposition given the number and variety of tasks involved, but a number of robotics and autonomy companies are giving it their best shot. FarmWise seems to have impressed someone — it just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle.
Currently in the prototype stage, these vehicles look like giant lumbering personnel carriers or the like, but are in fact precision instruments which scan the ground for invasive weeds among the crop and carefully pluck them out.
“Each day, one FarmWise robot can weed crops to feed a medium-sized city of approximately 400,000 inhabitants,” said FarmWise CEO Sebastien Boyer in a press release announcing the latest funding round. “We are now enhancing the scale and depth of our proprietary plant-detection technology to help growers with more of their processes and on more of their crops.”
Presumably the robot was developed and demonstrated with something of a specialty in one crop or another, more as a proof of concept than anything.
Well, it seems to have proved the concept. The new $14.5 million round, led by Calibrate Ventures, is likely due to the success of these early trials. This is far from an easy problem, so going from idea to nearly market-ready in under three years is pretty impressive. Farmers love tech — if it works. And tiny issues or error rates can lead to enormous problems with the vast monoculture fields that make up the majority of U.S. farms.
Hopefully the cash infusion will help propel FarmWise from prototype to commercialization, though it’s hard to imagine they could build more than a handful of the machines with that kind of money. Perhaps they’ll line up a couple big orders and build on that future revenue.
Meanwhile they’ll continue to develop the AI that powers the chunky, endearing vehicles.
“Looking ahead, our robots will increasingly act as specialized doctors for crops, monitoring individual health and adjusting targeted interventions according to a crop’s individual needs,” said Boyer. So not only will these lumbering platforms delicately remove weeds, but they’ll inspect for aphids and fungus and apply the necessary remedies.
With that kind of inspection they can make a data play later — what farmer wouldn’t want to be able to digitally inspect every plant in their fields?
Bharat Vasan is no longer the Chief Executive Officer at Pax Labs, the consumer tech company that makes cannabis vaporizers. A source familiar with the situation said that the board of directors made the decision to remove Vasan from the CEO role. His last day was Friday.
We’ve reached out to Vasan for comment. Pax is declining to elaborate on what drove its decision.
Certainly, it’s a surprising move, given that Vasan was appointed the CEO of Pax not so long ago — in February of 2018. Before that, he served as President and COO of August Home, which was acquired by Swedish lock maker Assa Abloy in 2017. Previous to that, Vasan was the cofounder of Basis, a fitness-based wearable company that was acquired by Intel in 2014 for $100 million.
Vasan also led the company in its most recent round this past April, in which it secured $420 million from Tiger Global Management, Tao Capital, and Prescott General Partners, among others. The post-money valuation for the company at the time was $1.7 billion.
Vasan is a veteran of consumer electronics, but Pax may be looking for a CEO that has more operational experience in cannabis.
After all, Pax is at an interesting intersection in its path, navigating an oft-changing regulatory landscape around cannabis. Moreover, the entire cannabis industry — and vaporizer industry — is under a microscope in the wake of hundreds of reports of vape-related lung illness. The CDC says that there have been 380 cases of lung illness reported across 36 states, with six deaths. Most patients reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC.
Pax is currently on the hunt for a new chief executive. In the meantime, its general counsel, Lisa Sergi, who joined the company at the end of July, will be its interim CEO and president.
Sergi had this to say in a prepared statement:
PAX is uniquely positioned as a leader in the burgeoning cannabis industry, with a talented team, an iconic brand, quality products and the balance sheet to achieve our ambitious goals and continued growth trajectory. I am extremely excited and honored to have been entrusted to lead this extraordinary company.
As part of Apple’s Advanced Manufacturing Fund, Apple is investing $250 million in Corning, a supplier that has been working on glass for the iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad. Apple had previously invested $200 million in May 2017.
The company says that the new investment will support research and development for precision glass processes. While Corning has supplied glass to Apple for every generation of iPhone and iPad, Apple says that glass in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro is even tougher than before. Apple also uses glass for the back of the device in order to enable wireless charging.
As Apple mentioned before, the company has spent $60 billion with 9,000 American suppliers in 2018. It represents 450,000 jobs.
Today’s investment is part of a commitment to spend billions of dollars in U.S.-based companies with its Advanced Manufacturing Fund in order to build new facilities and help manufacturers. Apple originally planned to invest $1 billion, but it has deployed the entire initial fund.
Apple has now spent $1 billion out of its $5 billion subsequent fund. For instance, Apple has invested $390 million in Finsar, the maker of the TrueDepth camera and $10 million in Elysis, an aluminum maker.
Google said on Tuesday it is bringing a set of new features to Android TVs to improve the experience of users who rely on mobile hotspots to connect their giant devices to the internet. The features, developed by Google’s Next Billion Users team, will be first rolled out to users in India and then in other countries, the company said.
Ahead of its yearly event in New Delhi on Thursday, where the company is expected to make a number of announcements, Google said it has identified and addressed a problem faced by millions of users: Their TVs are not connected to the internet through Wi-Fi or wired/ethernet line.
Instead these users rely on hotspots (local network) created through their smartphones or tablets. “But that presents problems,” wrote Joris van Mens, Product Manager at Google’s Next Billion Users team, in a blog post. “Watching HD TV on a mobile data connection can quickly drain your daily data plan.”
To address this, Google says it is introducing a feature called ‘data saver’ to Android TVs that would reduce the data usage on mobile connections by up to three times, thereby allowing users to consume more content on their TVs. It is also introducing a ‘data alerts’ feature to help users better monitor how much data they have consumed watching TV.
The data saver feature will be optional to users
Another feature dubbed ‘hotspot guide’ will allow users to set up their TV with their mobile hotspot. And last, Google is introducing the ability in its Files app to allow users to cast video files locally stored on their phones to the TV without using internet data. Files app, which Google launched two years ago, allows users to easily free up content on their phones. The company said last month that Files app had amassed over 100 million users.
These four features will roll-out to Android TV devices starting with those manufactured by Xiaomi, TCL, and Marq by Flipkart, Google said. The company expects to rollout the features globally soon.
At an event in Bangalore on Tuesday, Xiaomi unveiled a new lineup of TVs that will support Netflix and Prime Video. The Chinese electronics giant, which is the top smartphone vendor in India, confirmed that its new TV models will support Google’s ‘data saver’ feature.
Later this week, Google is expected to make a number of announcements around its payments app and other services in its yearly Google for India event. Indian newspaper Economic Timesreported this week that one of those announcements could be the launch of Kormo, a job discovery app that is currently available in select developing markets, in India.
Google will reveal the next Pixel in greater detail at an event happening October 15 in New York, the company confirmed via invites sent to media today. We already know the Pixel 4 will be revealed at this event, because Google has already dropped some official images and feature details for the new Android smartphone, but we’ll probably see more besides given that the invite promises “a few new things Made by Google.”
Here’s what we know so far about the Pixel 4: Everything. Well okay, not everything, but most things. Like it’ll use Google’s cool Soli radar-based gesture recognition technology, for both its updated face unlock and some motion controls. Infinite leaks have show that it’ll have a body design that includes a single color/texuture back, what looks like a three-camera rear cluster (wide angle, standard and zoom lens lily), a 6.23-inch OLED display can the XL with image resolution of 3040×1440, with a 90Hz mode that will make animations and scrolling smoother.
The animation Google sent out with the invites for its 2019 hardware event.
It also has rather large top and bottom bezels, a rarity for smartphones these days, but something that Google apparently felt was better than going with a notch again. Plus, it has that Soli tech and dot projectors for doing the new face unlock which might require more space up top.
In terms of other hardware, there’s less in terms of solid info to go on, but there are rumours of a new ChromeOS-based Pixelbook plus new Google Home smart speakers, and we could also see more of Stadia, Google’s cloud gaming service which launches in November. Google could also show off additional surprises, including maybe Chromecast updates, or an update to Google Wifi to take advantage of the newly certified Wifi 6 standard.
Basically, there could be a lot of surprises on hand even if the Pixel 4 is more or less a known quantity, and we’ll be there to bring you all the news October 15 as it happens.
Prosthetic limbs are getting better every year, but the strength and precision they gain doesn’t always translate to easier or more effective use, since amputees have only a basic level of control over them. One promising avenue being investigated by Swiss researchers is having an AI take over where manual control leaves off.
To visualize the problem, imagine a person with their arm amputated above the elbow controlling a smart prosthetic limb. With sensors placed on their remaining muscles and other signals, they may fairly easily be able to lift their arm and direct it to a position where they can grab an object on a table.
But what happens next? The many muscles and tendons that would have controlled the fingers are gone, and with them the ability to sense exactly how the user wants to flex or extend their artificial digits. If all the user can do is signal a generic “grip” or “release,” that loses a huge amount of what a hand is actually good for.
Here’s where researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) take over. Being limited to telling the hand to grip or release isn’t a problem if the hand knows what to do next — sort of like how our natural hands “automatically” find the best grip for an object without our needing to think about it. Robotics researchers have been working on automatic detection of grip methods for a long time, and it’s a perfect match for this situation.
Prosthesis users train a machine learning model by having it observe their muscle signals while attempting various motions and grips as best they can without the actual hand to do it with. With that basic information the robotic hand knows what type of grasp it should be attempting, and by monitoring and maximizing the area of contact with the target object, the hand improvises the best grip for it in real time. It also provides drop resistance, being able to adjust its grip in less than half a second should it start to slip.
The result is that the object is grasped strongly but gently for as long as the user continues gripping it with, essentially, their will. When they’re done with the object, having taken a sip of coffee or moved a piece of fruit from a bowl to a plate, they “release” the object and the system senses this change in their muscles’ signals and does the same.
It’s reminiscent of another approach, by students in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, in which the arm is equipped with a camera in the palm that gives it feedback on the object and how it ought to grip it.
It’s all still very experimental, and done with a third-party robotic arm and not particularly optimized software. But this “shared control” technique is promising and could very well be foundational to the next generation of smart prostheses. The team’s paper is published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.
UK police have arrested a number of environmental activists affiliated with a group which announced last month that it would use drones to try to ground flights at the country’s busiest airport.
The group, which calls itself Heathrow Pause, is protesting against the government decision to green light a third runway at the airport.
In a press release published today about an operation at Heathrow Airport, London’s Met Police said it has arrested nine people since yesterday in relation to the planned drone protest which had been due to commence early this morning.
Heathrow Pause suggested it had up to 200 people willing to volunteer to fly toy drones a few feet off the ground within a 5km drone ‘no fly’ zone around the airport — an act that would technically be in breach of UK laws on drone flights, although the group said it would only use small drones, flown at head height and not within flight paths. It also clearly communicated its intentions to the police and airport well in advance of the protest.
“Three women and six men aged between their 20s and the 60s have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” the Met Police said today.
“Four of the men and the three women were arrested yesterday, Thursday, 12 September, in Bethnal Green, Haringey and Wandsworth, in response to proposed plans for illegal drone use near Heathrow Airport.
“They were taken into custody at a London police station.”
The statement says a further two men were arrested this morning within the perimeter of Heathrow Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance — though it’s not clear whether they are affiliated with Heathrow Pause.
Videos of confirmed members of the group being arrested by police prior to the planned Heathrow Pause action have been circulating on social media.
Roger Hallem , our brave drone pilot being arrested preemptively . We will not give up and we urge all right minded people to rise up with us . Don't sleep walk into oblivion . Protect your children as if their lives depended on it . It does @ExtinctionR@GretaThunbergpic.twitter.com/10gpVtVVEF
A spokeswoman for Heathrow told us there has been no disruption to flights so far today.
In a statement the airport said: “Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby. We will continue to work with the authorities to carry out dynamic risk assessment programmes and keep our passengers flying safely on their journeys today.”
“We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer. The answer to climate change is in constructive engagement and working together to address the issue, something that Heathrow remains strongly committed to do,” it added.
We’ve asked the airport to confirm whether signal jamming counter-drone technology is being used to try to prevent the protest.
The Met Police said a dispersal order under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been implemented in the area surrounding Heathrow Airport today.
“It will be in place for approximately 48 hours, commencing at 04:30hrs on Friday, 13 September,” it writes. “The order has been implemented to prevent criminal activity which poses a significant safety and security risk to the airport.”