You can now buy AWS’ $99 DeepComposer keyboard

AWS today announced that its DeepComposer keyboard is now available for purchase. And no, DeepComposer isn’t a mechanical keyboard for hackers but a small MIDI keyboard for working with the AWS DeepComposer service that uses AI to create songs based on your input.

First announced at AWS re:Invent 2019, the keyboard created a bit of confusion, in part because Amazon’s announcement almost made it seem like a consumer product. DeepComposer, which also works without the actual hardware keyboard, is more of a learning tool, though, and belongs to the same family of AWS hardware like DeepLens and DeepRacer. It’s meant to teach developers about generative adversarial networks, just like DeepLens and DeepRacer also focus on specific machine learning technologies.

Users play a short melody, either using the hardware keyboard or an on-screen one, and the service then automatically generates a backing track based on your choice of musical style. The results I heard at re:Invent last year were a bit uneven (or worse), but that may have improved by now. But this isn’t a tool for creating the next Top 40 song. It’s simply a learning tool. I’m not sure you need the keyboard to get that learning experience out of it, but if you do, you can now head over to Amazon and buy it.

Apple accidentally confirms the existence of an unreleased product, AirTags

Whoops! Apple inadvertently revealed the existence of an unreleased product, AirTags, in a support video uploaded to its YouTube account today. The video, “How to erase your iPhone,” offers a tutorial about resetting an iPhone to factory settings. Around the 1:43 mark, it instructs users to turn off “Find my iPhone” as part of the process. On the Settings page that then appears, another option for “Enable Offline Finding” is shown, and beneath that, the text references AirTags by name.

Specifically, it says: “Offline finding enables this device and AirTags to be found when not connected to Wi-Fi or cellular.”

The discovery was first spotted by the eagle-eyed blog Appleosophy.

Apple has since pulled the video. (A copy of the video is embedded below.)

AirTags, essentially Apple’s Tile competitor, were already known to be in the works. Based on details and assets found in Apple’s iOS code, AirTags are believed to be small tracking tiles with Bluetooth connectivity that can be used to find lost items — just like Tile.

The difference is that Apple’s AirTags will benefit from deeper integration with iOS, including within its “Find My” app. There, the tags will show up in a new “Items” tab allowing you to keep track of items that tend to get lost or stolen — like your keys, wallet or even your bike.

According to reports from MacRumors, the tags will feature a removable CR2032 coin cell battery, also similar to Tile.

Apple’s intention to copy Tile’s concept has not gone unnoticed by Tile.

The company on Wednesday told a congressional panel that Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has “gotten worse, not better.”

During the hearing, Tile referenced Apple’s plans to integrate its own product into the “Find My” app. Tile and other Bluetooth trackers won’t be able to do the same. They also have to ask for background location access repeatedly, while Apple’s AirTags, presumably, will not. That gives Apple’s own product an advantage as it owns the platform.

Apple has been asked for comment.

Image credits: Apple, via YouTube; MacRumors 

Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be colocated at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing – in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person – at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location-tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery, and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic, and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this – we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone – something that Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

This adorable tiny record maker lets you cut your own 5-inch vinyl singles

Vinyl has been coming back for the last few years, but unlike MP3s, CDs or even cassette tapes (also coming back), records aren’t easy to record on your own. This tiny toy record maker makes it easy, though you probably shouldn’t expect that famous vinyl sound quality.

The Easy Record Maker was created by designer Yuri Suzuki, who has been itching to do something like this for years.

“This idea has been my dream machine since I was teenager,” Suzuki told Dezeen. Digital media are easy to copy, but making your own vinyl has proven difficult. “Of course professional-use record cutting machines exist, but they are very expensive. As it’s a complicated process with records, there is no way to create them at home.”

That’s not quite true — last year the Phonocut record maker hit Kickstarter and more than doubled its goal, but the large (think turntable plus hi-fi), $1,000+ machine is a bit more than many are ready to commit to. The tiny Easy Record Maker is meant to be a simpler, smaller option for people who want, for instance, to let their kids create their own records for fun. (This was done in the past when records were more common, but this is surely a more serious effort.)

The device cuts and plays five-inch records, of which it comes with 10, at both 33 and 45 RPM. Operating it is as simple as plugging a sound source — your phone, a mic, whatever — into the 1/8″ headphone jack and playing the content while the cutting head is in the groove. Put down the other head to play it back, or put the record in any other turntable.

The resulting records have a “nice low-fi sound,” Suzuki said, which is as much as admitting they don’t sound particularly good — but that’s not the point.

He’s hoping that the device will make the idea and process of creating vinyl records familiar to a new generation, helping them appreciate the physical side of the medium and the value of a permanent object associated with music rather than a fleeting stream.

There’s no price yet, and no definite retailers, but expect the Easy Record Maker to be available later this year (certainly before the holidays) online and in a few stores in the U.S. and EU.

Researchers to study if startup’s wrist-worn wearable can detect early COVID-19 respiratory issues

It’s highly unlikely that the current coronavirus crisis will neatly and fully “solved” by any one endeavor or solution, which makes news studies like one involving startup WHOOP’s wrist-worn fitness and health tracking wearable all the more important. The study, conducted by the Central Queensland University Australia (CQUniversity), in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, will employ data collected WHOOP’s hardware with hundreds of volunteers who have self-identified as having contracted COVID-19 to study changes in their respiratory behavior over time.

The data to be used for this study has been collected from WHOOP’s 3.0 hardware, which has also recently been validated by a University of Arizona external study conducted specifically to determine the accuracy of its measurement of respiratory rates during sleep, which the device uses to provide quality of sleep scores to its users. That study showed it to be among the most accurate measurement tools for respiratory rate short of invasive procedures, which is what has led researchers behind this new study to hypothesize that it could be valuable as a sort of early-warning system for detecting signs of abnormal respiratory behavior in COVID-19 patients before those symptoms are detectable by other means.

The WHOOP team says that the respiratory rate its hardware reports very rarely deviates from an established individual baseline, and that when it does so, it’s usually due to either one of two causes: environmental factors, like unusually high temperatures or significant differences in oxygen concentration, or something happening within the body, like a lower-respiratory tract infection.

COVID-19 is specifically a lower-respiratory tract infection, unlike the flue or the cold, which are upper-respiratory issues. That means there’s a strong correlation between rate changes due to lower-respiratory tract issues not accounted by environmental problems (which are relatively easy to cancel out) and instances of COVID-19. And since the WHOOP wearable is designed to look for deviations as a sign of distress, among the other sings it monitors, it could notice changes to respiratory rates relative to baselines before an individual becomes aware of any significant shortness of breath themselves.

This is a study, so at this point that’s just a hypothesis, and will need to be backed up by data. The team behind it says it should take around six weeks, and there are an “initial several hundred self-reported COVID-19 cases” already present in the app from which it will begin, with a target of enrolling at least 500 individuals with positive COVID-19 test results. There are also other investigations underway to see if wearables that monitor a user’s health and fitness can provide early warning systems for potential COVID-19 cases, including a study being conducted by UCSF using the Oura Ring.

Unlike with previous pandemics, the current coronavirus crisis comes at a time when we’re increasingly used to taking data-driven approaches to solving challenges, and when we also have a lot of self-quantifying health devices in circulation. Those could help us get a better grip on assessing the spread, as well as trends related to how it circulates and ebbs/grows within a population.

We’ve come full rectangle: Polaroid is reborn out of The Impossible Project

More than a decade after announcing that it would keep Polaroid’s abandoned instant film alive, The Impossible Project has done the… improbable: It has officially become the brand it set out to save. And to commemorate the occasion there’s a new camera, the Polaroid Now.

The convergence of the two brands has been in the works for years, and in fact Impossible Project products were already Polaroid-branded. But this marks a final and satisfying shift in one of the stranger relationships in startups or photography.

I first wrote about The Impossible Project in early 2009 (and apparently thought it was a good idea to Photoshop a Bionic Commando screenshot as the lead image) when the company announced its acquisition of some Polaroid instant film manufacturing assets.

Polaroid at the time was little more than a shell. Having declined since the ’80s and more or less shuttered in 2001, the company was relaunched as a digital brand and film sales were phased out. This was unsuccessful, and in 2008 Polaroid was filing for bankruptcy again.

This time, however, it was getting rid of its film production factories, and a handful of Dutch entrepreneurs and Polaroid experts took over the lease as The Impossible Project. But although the machinery was there, the patents and other IP for the famed Polaroid instant film were not. So they basically had to reinvent the process from scratch — and the early results were pretty rough.

But they persevered, aided by a passionate community of Polaroid owners, continuously augmented by the film-curious who want something more than a Fujifilm Instax but less than a 35mm SLR. In time the process matured and Impossible developed new films and distribution partners, growing more successful even as Polaroid continued applying its brand to random, never particularly good photography-adjacent products. They even hired Lady Gaga as “Creative Director,” but the devices she hyped at CES never really materialized.

Gaga was extremely late to the announcement, but seeing the GL30 prototype was worth it.

In 2017, the student became the master as Impossible’s CEO purchased the Polaroid brand name and IP. They relaunched Impossible as “Polaroid Originals” and released the OneStep 2 camera using a new “i-Type” film process that more closely resembled old Polaroids (while avoiding the expensive cartridge battery).

Polaroid continued releasing new products in the meantime — presumably projects that were under contract or in development under the brand before its acquisition. While the quality has increased from the early days of rebranded point-and-shoots, none of the products has ever really caught on, and digital instant printing (Polaroid’s last redoubt) has been eclipsed by a wave of nostalgia for real film, Instax Mini in particular.

But at last the merger dance is complete and Polaroid, Polaroid Originals, and The Impossible Project are finally one and the same. All devices and film will be released under the Polaroid name, though there may be new sub-brands like i-Type and the new Polaroid Now camera.

Speaking of which, the Now is not a complete reinvention of the camera by far — it’s a “friendlier” redesign that takes after the popular OneStep but adds improved autofocus, a flash-adjusting light sensor, better battery, and a few other nips and tucks. At $100 it’s not too hard on the wallet, but remember that film is going to run you about $2 per shot. That’s how they get you.

It’s been a long, strange trip to watch but ultimately a satisfying one: Impossible made a bet on the fundamental value of instant film photography, while a series of owners bet on the Polaroid brand name to sell anything they put it on. The riskier long-term play won out in the end (though many got rich running Polaroid into the ground over and over) and now with a little luck the brand that started it all will continue its success.

NYU makes face shield design for healthcare workers that can be built in under a minute available to all

New York University is among the many academic, private and public institutions doing what it can to address the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers across the world. The school worked quickly to develop an open-source face-shield design, and is now offering that design freely to any and all in order to help scale manufacturing to meet needs.

Face shields are a key piece of equipment for front-line healthcare workers operating in close contact with COVID-19 patients. They’re essentially plastic, transparent masks that extend fully to cover a wearer’s face. These are to be used in tandem with N95 and surgical masks, and can protect a healthcare professional from exposure to droplets containing the virus expelled by patients when they cough or sneeze.

The NYU project is one of many attempts to scale production of face masks, but many others rely on 3D printing. This has the advantage of allowing even very small commercial 3D-print operations and individuals to contribute, but 3D printing takes a lot of time — roughly 30 minutes to an hour per print. NYU’s design requires only basic materials, including two pieces of clear, flexible plastic and an elastic band, and it can be manufactured in less than a minute by essentially any production facility that includes equipment for producing flat products (whole punches, laser cutters, etc.).

This was designed in collaboration with clinicians, and over 100 of them have already been distributed to emergency rooms. NYU’s team plans to ramp production of up to 300,000 of these once they have materials in hand at the factories of production partners they’re working with, which include Daedalus Design and Production, PRG Scenic Technologies and Showman Fabricators.

Now, the team is putting the design out there for pubic use, including a downloadable tool kit so that other organizations can hopefully replicate what they’ve done and get more into circulation. They’re also welcoming inbound contact from manufacturers who can help scale additional production capacity.

Other initiatives are working on different aspects of the PPE shortage, including efforts to build ventilators and extend their use to as many patients as possible. It’s a great example of what’s possible when smart people and organizations collaborate and make their efforts available to the community, and there are bound to be plenty more examples like this as the COVID-19 crisis deepens.

Prisma Health develops FDA-authorized 3D-printed device that lets a single ventilator treat four patients

The impending shortage of ventilators for U.S. hospitals is likely already a crisis, but will become even more dire as the number grows of patients with COVID-19 that are suffering from severe symptoms and require hospitalization. That’s why a simple piece of hardware newly approved by the FDA for emergency use — and available free via source code and 3D printing for hospitals — might be a key ingredient in helping minimize the strain on front-line response efforts.

The Prisma Health VESper is a deceptively simple-looking three-way connector that expands use of one ventilator to treat up to four patients simultaneously. The device is made for use with ventilators that comply to existing ISO standard ventilator hardware and tubing, and allows use of filtering equipment to block any possible transmission of viruses and bacteria.

VESper works in device pairs, with one attached to the intake of the ventilator, and another attached to the return. They also can be stacked to allow for treatment of up to four patients at once — provided the patients require the same clinical treatment in terms of oxygenation, including the oxygen mix as well as the air pressure and other factors.

This was devised by Dr. Sarah Farris, an emergency room doctor, who shared the concept with her husband Ryan Farris, a software engineer who developed the initial prototype design for 3D printing. Prisma Health is making the VESper available upon request via its printing specifications, but it should be noted that the emergency use authorization under which the FDA approved its use means that this is only intended effectively as a last-resort measure — for institutions where ventilators approved under established FDA rules have already been exhausted, and no other supply or alternative is available in order to preserve the life of patients.

Devices cleared under FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) like this one are fully understood to be prototypes, and the conditions of their use includes a duty to report the results of how they perform in practice. This data contributes to the ongoing investigation of their effectiveness, and to further development and refinement of their design in order to maximize their safety and efficacy.

In addition to offering the plans for in-house 3D printing, Prisma Health has sourced donations to help print units for healthcare facilities that don’t have access to their own 3D printers. The first batch of these will be funded by a donation from the Sargent Foundation of South Carolina, but Prisma Health is seeking additional donations to fund continued research as well as additional production.

Huawei announces the P40 and tries to stay relevant without Google

Huawei has unveiled new flagship phones today, the P40, P40 Pro and P40 Pro+. These are beautiful phones with great specs. But it would only take you a few minutes to realize that there’s something odd with them. There is no Gmail, no Google Maps and no Google Play Store.

Last year, the U.S. government restricted U.S. firms from maintaining a business relationship with Huawei. Even though Huawei can only release Google-free phones, the company isn’t standing still. It is still releasing flagship phones at a normal pace. Some day, Huawei might be able to leverage Google’s services again, after all.

Huawei uses the open-source version of Android without all of the core features that are tied to Google services. The company has its own store of apps and tries to compensate the lack of Google apps with Huawei-branded apps.

In China, Google services are blocked by the Great Firewall anyway. But if you don’t live in China, I wouldn’t recommend buying a P40 phone. A phone without Android or iOS leads to a ton of limitations.

But let’s talk about the new phones anyway as Huawei has released some interesting phones in the past. Like previous devices in the P series, Huawei has packed some impressive camera sensors in the device.

On the P40 Pro and P40 Pro+, the display is curved around all four edges, including the top and bottom edges of the device. Last year’s P30 featured a teardrop notch at the center of the device. This year, Huawei relies on a new hole-punch design in the top left corner. In some ways, it reminds me of recent Samsung phones.

There are three different devices — the P40, the P40 Pro and the P40 Pro+. Huawei has yet to talk about pricing and availability. The P40 has a 6.1-inch display while the two “pro” models have a 6.58-inch display. That display has a 90 Hz refresh rate.

As always, Huawei offers plenty of colorful options for the back of the device. Some finishes are matte just like on the iPhone 11 Pro. You can also get a black or white matte ceramic back on the P40 Pro+.

It is powered by Huawei’s own system on a chip, the Kirin 990, and it works on 5G networks. Compared to last year, the CPU is 23% faster and the GPU is 39% on that new system on a chip.

When it comes to cameras, the P40 Pro+ has four different camera modules and a time-of-flight sensor — an ultra-wide lens (18mm), a normal lens (23mm), a 3x lens (80mm) and a super periscope lens with a 10x optical zoom. That last camera is the equivalent of a 240mm lens.

The Huawei P40 Pro has three different camera modules and a time-of-flight sensor. In addition to the ultra-wide and normal lens, there’s a 5x camera lens (125mm equivalent).

The Huawei P40 has three camera modules — ultra-wide (17mm), normal (23mm) and 3x zoom (80mm). The main camera sensor produces 50-megapixel photos.

Smartphone cameras also require a ton of software processing to produce good shots. While I haven’t been able to play with the P40 devices due to the lockdown in Europe, Huawei is usually a bit too heavy-handed with post-processing. If you use your camera with the Master AI setting, colors are too saturated.

But Huawei says that you can expect improvements across the board when it comes to image processing — better HDR processing, better night mode, better hardware and software image stabilization, better portrait photography, etc. The P40 also tries to eliminate reflection from windows in post-processing.

The company has also added a new mode called AI Best Moment. Your phone automatically recognizes when it should capture a photo — it can be when everybody is jumping at the same time or when a basketball player is going for the slam dunk.

As you can see, Huawei has a long list of big numbers to prove that the P40 Pro+ is faster and better than the P30 Pro. Just like Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, it feels a bit like excesses. Sure, it’s good to see that smartphone manufacturers can always pack more powerful components year after year.

But the smartphone industry is at a turning point. It is no longer a race for better specs. Manufacturers have to prove that there are new use cases to justify buying new models. Manufacturers with a clear focus and vision will stand out of the crowd.

Mesa Biotech gains emergency FDA approval for rapid, point-of-care COVID-19 test

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is making use of its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) powers to expand the pool of available COVID-19 testing resources in the U.S., and now you can add another rapid test that delivers results in just 30 minutes to the list. Mesa’s test is also small enough to be able to be used right at the frontline of care, including in clinics and hospitals, with multiple tests able to be run in parallel.

Mesa’s rapid test follows one from Cepheid that was approved on Monday. Both are PCR-based molecular tests, which identify the presence of virus DNA in a sample of a patient’s mucus. Both these tests prevent an important expansion of the technologies available to those looking to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, since they can provide lab-quality results, but can do so much faster, and without requiring transportation of the samples from the point of collection to off-site testing facilities.

On-site testing not only has advantages in terms of convenience and speedy return of results, but also in limiting the potential exposure of medical personnel to the virus itself. Testing on-site means you don’t need to worry about possible exposure to the virus for more people in the chain, including logistics and delivery people, as well as lab technicians and dedicated diagnostics people.

These tests will require that facilities are equipped with Mesa’s Accula testing system, but its equipment is already in use for testing flu, as well as other less serious equipment, and it was originally designed specifically to address use on the frontlines of efforts to combat global pandemics, including SARS before this.