E3 slouches towards irrelevance again as Sony announces it’s skipping the show

I like E3 . I really do. But it’s also monumentally dumb: game companies spending millions to show off essentially faked content to an increasingly jaded audience. And it’s increasingly out of step with how the gaming industry works. So it should come as no surprise that Sony will be skipping the show more or less altogether this year, joining Nintendo in taking a step back from spectacle.

Sony has been a part of CES for 20 years and this will be the first one it’s ever missed. I’ve gone to their events every time I’ve attended; I was there for their historic putdown of Microsoft after the latter announced some hugely unpopular restrictions on used games. I think you can actually see me near the front in the broadcast of that one. (You can! I’m at 1:29.)

And E3 has been a part of Sony’s yearly cadence as well. Like other companies, for years Sony hoarded information to debut at E3, TGS and Gamescom, but E3 was generally where you saw new consoles and flagship titles debut. But as even E3’s organizers have admitted over and over again, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Too often we have seen half-finished games onstage at E3 that end up cancelled before the year is out, or commitments made to dates the companies can’t possibly keep. Assigning a complex, creative industry to a yearly schedule of major announcements is a great way to burn them out, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Variety first noticed Sony’s absence from ESA communications. In a statement issued to multiple outlets, Sony said:

As the industry evolves, Sony Interactive Entertainment continues to look for inventive opportunities to engage the community. PlayStation fans mean the world to us and we always want to innovate, think differently and experiment with new ways to delight gamers. As a result, we have decided not to participate in E3 in 2019. We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can’t wait to share our plans with you.

They won’t be alone. Nintendo hasn’t had a real proper E3 press conference in years. Instead, they host a live stream around the event and have a big booth where people mainly just play games. Their Nintendo Direct videos come out throughout the year, when the titles and developers are good and ready.

Microsoft is still there, and still puts on quite a show. I remember the original announcement of the Kinect, probably one of the weirdest and dumbest things I’ve ever taken part in. It was memorable, at least.

But Microsoft is also doing its own thing, announcing throughout the year and on its own terms. The Xbox One X was only hinted at during E3, and announced in full much later. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft also announced they were taking it easy this year at E3 — though this might also be a good opportunity for them to double down. With the schedules these huge shows go on, they might already be committed to one course or another.

Sony actually has its own PlayStation Experience event where it announces things and lets gamers and press play the latest, but even that was cancelled ahead of its expected December date. Is Sony just getting shy?

More likely they are leveraging their dominance in the console market to be a market leader and “decider,” as they say. They have no shortage of amazing games coming out, including lots of hot-looking exclusives. What have they got to prove? Although Sony itself is not participating in E3, the developers it backs will almost certainly be there. What better way to school the competition than to not show up and still have everyone talking about you?

With the PS4 Pro out there and a solid line-up already confirmed, Sony is sitting pretty for 2019, and the company probably feels this is a safe time to experiment with “inventive opportunities to engage the community,” as the statement put it. E3 will still be big, and it will still be fun. But the trend is clear: it just won’t be necessary.

Cassette decks from Crosley take aim at tape-hoarding nostalgia-seekers

Crosley, makers of the “good enough” record players you see in Urban Outfitters and Target, have turned their retro novelty eye on the next obvious format: cassettes. These two new decks from the company have all the latest features from 1985, but also a handful of modern conveniences.

Let’s get one thing clear at the outset: these are certainly ridiculous. And yes, you can buy a boom box with a cassette deck right now, new, for $30 or so. But having browsed the stock I can tell you that most of them are pretty ugly. There are vintage ones too, but not all have aged well and may have unfixable issues like corrosion or motor problems.

And believe it or not, tapes are still around. People are manufacturing and recording on them because they’re fun and retro and analog. I’ve bought a few myself at shows in the last year.

So there is actually a market for a new, decent-looking, portable cassette player and radio.

The Crosley devices are pretty straightforward. There are two models; Each has a big mono speaker, a single-direction deck (meaning you’ll have to flip the tape), an AM/FM radio, and a built-in mic. The $60 CT100 model (top) has shortwave radio bands as well, and the capability to play music from an SD card or USB drive, while the $70 CT200 has treble and bass dials and a VU meter for easier recording of cassette-based podcasts. Both have handles.

Of the two I’d definitely go with the CT100, since presumably you can use the SD/USB player to record mixtapes of stuff you’ve downloaded. Record a little intro with the mic or pretend you’re the DJ between songs, and boom, it’s like you’re me in 1994. Plus you never know when shortwave will come in handy.

It’s silly, but it’s a silly world we live in. Silly and horrible. Maybe bringing back cassettes will help. Keep an eye out for these players wherever fake Ray-Bans plaid scarves are sold.

Google is closing its Schaft robotics unit after failing to find a buyer

Sad news for anyone into giant robots: Google is closing down Schaft, its secretive unit that develops bipedal robots aimed at helping out in disaster efforts and generally looking badass.

The news was first reported by Nikkei, but Google confirmed to TechCrunch that the business will be shuttered. It said it is helping staff find new roles, most of which will likely be outside of Google and its Alphabet parent.

Firstly up, many people — myself included — might have forgotten that Google owns Schaft .

The company was scheduled to be sold to SoftBank alongside Boston Dynamics — another of Google’s robotics ventures — through a deal that was announced last year. Boston Dynamics made the transition but Schaft didn’t. Softbank never shouted that omission from the rooftops, but a source with knowledge of the deal told us that certain conditions agreed for the deal were not fulfilled, hence Schaft remained with Google.

Our source explained that Google’s robotics focused shifted away from Schaft and instead to non-humanoid robots and industry-led solutions such as robotic arms. The departure of Andy Rubin, the controversial robotics evangelist who reportedly got a $90 million payout to leave amid sexual misconduct allegations, seemed to speed up its demise inside the organization.

Google shopped the Schaft business fairly widely — since 2016 and after the SoftBank deal collapsed — but to no avail, we understand. That left closing it down as the last remaining option.

Schaft was founded in 2012 by a group led by University of Tokyo professor Yuto Nakanishi.

Alphabet acquired Shaft and Boston Dynamics in 2013, the former was part of a group of seven acquisitions, in undisclosed deals.

There’s been plenty of attention on Boston Dynamics and its crazy, even scary, robots which can trek across all terrains and get up instantly when knocked over, but Schaft maintained a fairly quiet presence. Indeed, its first major prototypes weren’t revealed until some two years after its acquisition.

No display for your Mac Mini? No problem.

Astropad’s Luna Display isn’t just for your MacBook. It turns out that you can take advantage of that tiny little red dongle to turn your iPad into your one and only Mac Mini display.

The Luna Display was designed to extend your laptop display. Many desktop users who travel tend to feel limited with a 13-inch or 15-inch display. That’s why the Luna Display turns any iPad into a second monitor. It works wirelessly and pretty well.

But the team behind the device tried a fun experiment. Many Mac Mini users tend to use the Mac Mini as a headless server. It sits below your TV, near your router or in a closet. In that case, there’s no display connected to your Mac Mini.

You can control it using screen sharing or a VNC client. And of course, you can also enable SSH access to control it using the command line or even an SSH app on your phone.

But it also works as expected with the Luna Display. After plugging the dongle into a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can launch the Luna app on your iPad and see what’s happening on your Mac. If your Mac Mini is connected to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you’ll see your actions on the screen.

And because Luna’s dongle works over Wi-Fi, you can even control your Mac Mini from your couch. It’ll feel like you’re running macOS on an iPad. The Luna adapter was first released on Kickstarter and is now available for $80.

This isn’t the ideal setup if you plan on using your Mac Mini for multiple hours per day. But if you just need to quickly fix something, that could be enough.

These antique phones are precious, private Alexa vessels

Amazon’s Alexa may be in ten thousand different devices now, but they all have one other thing in common: they’re new. So for those of us that prefer old things but still want to be able to set timers and do metric-imperial conversions without pulling out our phones, Grain Design is retrofitting these fabulous old telephones to provide Alexa access with no other hints of modernity. There’s even a privacy angle!

The phones themselves (spotted by a BoingBoing tipster) are genuine antiques, and not even the mass-produced Bell sets you see so often. I personally love the copper-plated model, though I certainly wouldn’t say no to the candlestick.

Dick Whitney, who runs the company, modifies the hardware to make room for an Echo Dot inside. Pick up the phone and speak, and Alexa answers, just like the operators of yore! Except you can ask Alexa anything and it won’t be irritated. Some of the Alexaphones, as he calls them, will include the original audio hardware so you can experience the cognitive dissonance of talking to a virtual assistant and having them answer using a century-old speaker. (I bet it sounds terrible and brilliant.)

I’m also delighted to say that the microphone physically disconnects when the phone is on the hook, though — so Amazon won’t be listening in to your conversations and emailing them to random people.

“The Echo microphones have their connections severed or are removed completely, and the microphone in the handset is connected via the original switches in the base, so it’s only in contact when the handset is picked up,” explained Whitney in an email.

The modifications to the phones don’t end there: in the rear of each will be a 1/8″ audio port so you can plug in a real speaker. No one wants to sit at their telephone table (remember those?) and listen to a few songs in mono through vintage hardware. Although having written that sentence I do have to say I’d try it once. Right now all the audio would have to go out that way, but Whitney says he may have a trick to switch it back and forth in the future (you can always just unplug the audio for privacy).

There’s also an LED hidden on the front so you have that basic feedback of whether the device is on, listening and such. The rotary dial isn’t used, unfortunately, though more because it’s hard to apply its principles to a voice-operated device.

“It’s funny,” he wrote when I asked about the latter, “I’d actually built an installation for Android at MWC [Mobile World Congress] a few years ago that used a rotary dialer, so I know how to do it and have the hardware around (it’s very simple), but both couldn’t figure out a function that seemed interesting enough (dial 1 to increase the volume? Certainly open to suggestions) and didn’t want to add more complexity inside the telephones. Maybe in the future!”

No soldering or weird old tech stuff required on your part — the device will run on USB power and set up just like any other Alexa gadget. Of course, these things also cost $1,500. Yeah, kind of out of my price range, too. Still, they’re lovely and a great subversion of the “smart home” idea.

Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing

Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba blind smartphone feature

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

Facebook Portal needs more. At least it just added YouTube

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week.

Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Amazon Alexa inside. And now, Google’s YouTube is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, YouTube.com is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice.

The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Google Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access.

Read our comparison of the top smart display gadgets

YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube.

But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.”

The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when testing the Portal with my 72-year-old mother, not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.

SpaceX’s Starlink aims to put over a thousand of its communications satellites in super-low orbit

SpaceX’s planned communication satellite constellation, known as Starlink, will now be targeting a much lower orbit than originally planned, at least for over a thousand of the satellites, the company revealed in an FCC filing. The move should help mitigate orbital debris and provide better signal for the company’s terrestrial users as well.

Starlink plans to put 1,584 satellites — about a third of the 4,409 the company aims to launch — in an orbit just 550 kilometers about the surface of the Earth. For comparison, many communications satellites are in orbits more than twice as high, and geosynchronous orbits are more than 20 times farther out (around 36,000 miles).

At that distance orbits decay quickly, falling into the atmosphere and burning up after a handful of years. But SpaceX isn’t daunted; in fact, it writes in its application, lower orbits offer “several attractive features both during nominal operation and in the unlikely event something goes wrong.”

In the first place, orbital debris problems are naturally mitigated by the fact that anything in that low orbit will fall to Earth quickly instead of cluttering up the orbit. Second, it should shorten the amount of time it takes to send and receive a signal from the satellites — ping time could be as low as 15 milliseconds, the company estimated. And 500 fewer kilometers means there will be less spreading for beam-based communications, as well.

The satellites will have to do more work to stay at their optimal altitude, as atmospheric drag will be higher, and each one will be able to see and serve less of the planet. But with thousands working together, that should be manageable.

The decision was informed by experimental data from the “Tintin” test satellites the company launched earlier this year. “SpaceX has learned to mitigate the disadvantages of operating at a lower altitude and still reap the well-known and significant benefits discussed above,” it wrote.

This change could lead to competitive advantages when satellite communications are more widely used, but it will also likely lead to a more intensive upkeep operation as Starlink birds keep dropping out of the air. Fortunately a third benefit of the lower orbit is that it’s easier to reach, though probably not so much easier that the company breaks even.

Starlink is aiming for the first real launches of its systems early next year, though that timeline may be a little too ambitious. But SpaceX can do ambitious.

Gift Guide: 11 picture perfect gifts for your photographer friends

Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots ten times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate.

Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive

Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required.

They’ve been around for years but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed.

The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity) costs $400. A comparable WD device costs about half that. If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing.


Microfiber wipes

On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen, or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. I’ve been buying these and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from.


SD cards and hard cases

Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or ten of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hardcase for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin another brand is fine.


Moment smartphone lens case

The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on, and so on lens sets but Moment’s solution seems the most practical. You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount.

The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out what model phone your friend is using.



Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really)

Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. I’m partial to waxed canvas, and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the ONA Union Street is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said everyone is into these Peak design ones as well.


Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera

Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an Automat since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed.

If on the other hand you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure.


Circular polarizer filter

Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right.

The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get.



Wireless shutter release

If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10 second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on.

Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the Hama DCCSystem. These can be a bit hard to find so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead.


Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap)

Another pick from our video and photo team, Blackrapid’s cross-body straps take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera in.

If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot.


Adobe subscription

Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing.


Print services

Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it.

I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However I trust Wirecutter’s picks, Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix. $30-$40 will go a long way.


TWIICE One Exoskeleton furthers the promise of robotic mobility aids

Few things in the world of technology can really ever be said to be “done,” and certainly exoskeletons are not among their number. They exist, but they are all works in progress, expensive, heavy, and limited. So it’s great to see this team working continuously on their TWIICE robotic wearable, improving it immensely with the guidance of motivated users.

TWIICE made its debut in 2016, and like all exoskeletons it was more promise made than promise kept. It’s a lower-half exoskeleton that supports and moves the legs of someone with limited mobility, while they support themselves on crutches. It’s far from ideal, and the rigidity and weight of systems like this make them too risky to deploy at scale for now.

But two years of refinement have made a world of difference. The exoskeleton weighs the same (which doesn’t matter since it carries its own weight), but supports heavier users while imparting more force with its motors, which have been integrated into the body itself to make it far less bulky.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the whole apparatus can now be donned and activated by the user all by herself, as Swiss former acrobat and now handcycling champion Silke Pan demonstrated in a video. She levers herself from her wheelchair into the sitting exoskeleton, attaches the fasteners on her legs and trunk, then activates the device and stands right up.

She then proceeds to climb more stairs than I’d rather attempt. She is an athlete, after all.

That kind of independence is often crucially important for the physically disabled for a multitude of reasons, and clearly achieving the capability has been a focus for the TWIICE team.

Although the exoskeleton has been worked on as a research project within the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), the plan is to spin off a startup to commercialize the tech as it approaches viability. The more they make and the more people use these devices — despite their limitations — the better future versions will be.