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NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

17 August, by Darrell Etherington[ —]

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

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SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.


Voyage’s driverless future, ghost work, B2B growth strategies, and Black Hat takeaways

17 August, by Danny Crichton[ —]

Inside Voyage’s plan to deliver a driverless future

In the autonomous vehicle space, startups have taken radically different strategies to building our AV future. Some companies like Waymo have driven all across different types of environments in order to rack up the datasets that they believe will be needed to effectively maneuver without a human driver.

That’s the opposite strategy of Voyage, where CEO and founder Oliver Cameron and his team have focused on driving safety in the incredibly constrained context of two retirement communities.

Our transportation editor Kirsten Korosec talked with the company and analyzes their approach in a new profile for Extra Crunch, and also drops some news about a partnership the company has brewing with a major automotive manufacturer.

Cameron, who shies away from discussing timelines, describes the company as inching toward driverless service.

Its self-driving software has now reached maturation in the communities it is testing in, and Voyage is now focusing on validation, according to Cameron.

Voyage has developed a few systems that will help push it closer to a commercial driverless service while maintaining safety, such as a collision mitigation system that it calls Rango, an internal nickname inspired by the 2011 computer-animated Western action-comedy about a chameleon.

This collision mitigation system is designed to be extremely fast-reacting, like a reptile — hence the Rango name. Rango, which has an independent power source and compute system and uses a different approach to perception than the main self-driving system, is designed to react quickly. If needed, it will engage the full force of the brakes.

Startup ads are taking over the subway

Public transit is just swimming in startup ads. From complete Brex takeovers of the San Francisco Caltrain station to the sleep puzzles posted by Casper across the New York City subway, startups have been taking advantage of this unique out-of-home advertising space. What’s the full story though? Our reporter Anthony Ha takes a look at how the subway ad market came to be in the past few years, and what the future holds for other marketers.


Ikea doubles down on smart home tech with new business unit

17 August, by Darrell Etherington[ —]

Ikea’s smart home investments to date have been smart but scattered – now the Swedish home goods brand says it’s going to amp up its smart home bets with a brand new dedicated business unit.

The company’s smart home endeavors began in 2012, and focused on wireless charging and smart lighting. It’s iterated in both areas since, developing self-installed integrated wireless chargers for its furniture, as well as light/charger combos, and finally with a new partnership with Sonos that produced the Symfonisk line of wireless smart speakers.

Ikea also has its own ambitions in terms of being the hub for future smart home products, not only from a hardware perspective, but also via its Home smart app, which it rebranded from being more strictly focused on its Tradfri line of connected bulbs in June. During the Symfonisk launch, Ikea told me it has broader ambitions for the Home smart app as a central hub for connected home control for its customers.

“At IKEA we want to continue to offer products for a better life at home for the many people going forward. In order to do so we need to explore products and solutions beyond conventional home furnishing,” said Björn Block, Head of the new IKEA Home smart Business Unit at IKEA of Sweden, in a press release from the company.

Ikea also characterized this as its biggest new focus area in terms of the overall business and brand since it introduced its Children’s Ikea line.

The partnership between Sonos and Ikea that produced the Symfonisk line is a long-term one, and both companies told me to expect more products to come out of that team-up in future. But it sounds like Ikea intends to explore how smart home tech might touch all aspects of its business, so it’s fair to anticipate more partnerships and product categories to follow as a result of this new investment focus, too.


SoftBank reportedly plans to lend employees as much as $20 billion to invest in its VC fund

17 August, by Darrell Etherington[ —]

SoftBank has a plant to loan up to $20 billion to its employees, including CEO Masayoshi Son, for the purposes of having that capital re-invested in SoftBank’s own Vision venture fund, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. That’s a highly unusual move that could be risky in terms of how much exposure SoftBank Group has on the whole in terms of its startup bets, but the upside is that it can potentially fill out as much as a fifth of its newly announced second Vision Fund’s total target raise of $108 billion from a highly aligned investor pool.

SoftBank revealed its plans for its second Vision Fund last month, including $38 billion from SoftBank itself, as well as commitments from Apple, Microsoft and more. The company also took a similar approach to its original Vision Fund, WSJ reports, with stakes from employees provided with loans totalling $8 billion of that $100 billion commitment.

The potential pay-off is big, provided the fund has some solid winners that achieve liquidation events that provide big returns that employees can then use to pay off the original loans, walking away with profit. That’s definitely a risk, however, especially in the current global economic client. As WSJ notes, the Uber shares that Vision Fund I acquired are now worth less than what SoftBank originally paid for them according to sources, and SoftBank bet WeWork looks poised to be another company whose IPO might not make that much, if any, money for later stage investors.


Next Apple Watch could include new ceramic and titanium models

17 August, by Darrell Etherington[ —]

Apple’s next Apple Watch revision could include new materials for the case, including titanium and ceramic. That’s according to new assets pulled form the latest watchOS beta release, as uncovered by Brazilian site iHelp.br (via 9to5Mac). The new screens discovered in the beta show graphics used to pair the Apple Watch during setup, and list “Titanium Case” and “Ceramic Case” alongside model size identification info.

Apple has previously offered a ceramic Apple Watch, alongside its Series 2 and Series 3 models, with a premium price and white and black case options. The company hasn’t previously used titanium, but the lightweight, durable metal is popular among traditional watchmakers because it can really significantly reduce the heft of a watch case, while still providing a premium look and feel.

apple watch titanium ceramci

Last year’s Apple Watch Series 4 was the first significant change in body design for the wearable since its introduction in 2015, so it seems unlikely that Apple will change that this year again. The new physical design includes larger case sizes (40mm and 44mm, respectively, vs. 38mm and 42mm for previous generations), a thinner profile and a display with rounded corners and slimmer bezels.

Offering new materials is a way for Apple to deliver new hardware that is observably new on the outside, in addition to whatever processor and component improvements they make on the inside. Apple will likely also offer these alongside their stainless steel and aluminum models, should they actually be released this fall, and would probably charge a premium for these material options, too.

The Series 4 Apple Watch proved a serious improvement in terms of performance, and added features like the onboard ECG. Splashy new looks likely won’t be the extent of what Apple has planned for Series 5, however, especially since the company is revamping watchOS to be much more independent of the phone, which would benefit from more capable processors.


Privacy researchers devise a noise-exploitation attack that defeats dynamic anonymity

17 August, by Natasha Lomas[ —]

Privacy researchers in Europe believe they have the first proof that a long-theorised vulnerability in systems designed to protect privacy by aggregating and adding noise to data to mask individual identities is no longer just a theory.

The research has implications for the immediate field of differential privacy and beyond — raising wide-ranging questions about how privacy is regulated if anonymization only works until a determined attacker figures out how to reverse the method that’s being used to dynamically fuzz the data.

Current EU law doesn’t recognise anonymous data as personal data. Although it does treat pseudoanonymized data as personal data because of the risk of re-identification.

Yet a growing body of research suggests the risk of de-anonymization on high dimension data sets is persistent. Even — per this latest research — when a database system has been very carefully designed with privacy protection in mind.

It suggests the entire business of protecting privacy needs to get a whole lot more dynamic to respond to the risk of perpetually evolving attacks.

Academics from Imperial College London and Université Catholique de Louvain are behind the new research.

This week, at the 28th USENIX Security Symposium, they presented a paper detailing a new class of noise-exploitation attacks on a query-based database that uses aggregation and noise injection to dynamically mask personal data.

The product they were looking at is a database querying framework, called Diffix — jointly developed by a German startup called Aircloak and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems.

On its website Aircloak bills the technology as “the first GDPR-grade anonymization” — aka Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which began being applied last year, raising the bar for privacy compliance by introducing a data protection regime that includes fines that can scale up to 4% of a data processor’s global annual turnover.

What Aircloak is essentially offering is to manage GDPR risk by providing anonymity as a commercial service — allowing queries to be run on a data-set that let analysts gain valuable insights without accessing the data itself. The promise being it’s privacy (and GDPR) ‘safe’ because it’s designed to mask individual identities by returning anonymized results.

The problem is personal data that’s re-identifiable isn’t anonymous data. And the researchers were able to craft attacks that undo Diffix’s dynamic anonymity.

“What we did here is we studied the system and we showed that actually there is a vulnerability that exists in their system that allows us to use their system and to send carefully created queries that allow us to extract — to exfiltrate — information from the data-set that the system is supposed to protect,” explains Imperial College’s Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, one of five co-authors of the paper.

“Differential privacy really shows that every time you answer one of my questions you’re giving me information and at some point — to the extreme — if you keep answering every single one of my questions I will ask you so many questions that at some point I will have figured out every single thing that exists in the database because every time you give me a bit more information,” he says of the premise behind the attack. “Something didn’t feel right… It was a bit too good to be true. That’s where we started.”

The researchers chose to focus on Diffix as they were responding to a bug bounty attack challenge put out by Aircloak.

“We start from one query and then we do a variation of it and by studying the differences between the queries we know that some of the noise will disappear, some of the noise will not disappear and by studying noise that does not disappear basically we figure out the sensitive information,” he explains.

“What a lot of people will do is try to cancel out the noise and recover the piece of information. What we’re doing with this attack is we’re taking it the other way round and we’re studying the noise… and by studying the noise we manage to infer the information that the noise was meant to protect.

“So instead of removing the noise we study statistically the noise sent back that we receive when we send carefully crafted queries — that’s how we attack the system.”

A vulnerability exists because the dynamically injected noise is data-dependent. Meaning it remains linked to the underlying information — and the researchers were able to show that carefully crafted queries can be devised to cross-reference responses that enable an attacker to reveal information the noise is intended to protect.

Or, to put it another way, a well designed attack can accurately infer personal data from fuzzy (‘anonymized’) responses.

This despite the system in question being “quite good,” as de Montjoye puts it of Diffix. “It’s well designed — they really put a lot of thought into this and what they do is they add quite a bit of noise to every answer that they send back to you to prevent attacks”.

“It’s what’s supposed to be protecting the system but it does leak information because the noise depends on the data that they’re trying to protect. And that’s really the property that we use to attack the system.”

The researchers were able to demonstrate the attack working with very high accuracy across four real-world data-sets. “We tried US censor data, we tried credit card data, we tried location,” he says. “What we showed for different data-sets is that this attack works very well.

“What we showed is our attack identified 93% of the people in the data-set to be at risk. And I think more importantly the method actually is very high accuracy — between 93% and 97% accuracy on a binary variable. So if it’s a true or false we would guess correctly between 93-97% of the time.”

They were also able to optimise the attack method so they could exfiltrate information with a relatively low level of queries per user — up to 32.

“Our goal was how low can we get that number so it would not look like abnormal behaviour,” he says. “We managed to decrease it in some cases up to 32 queries — which is very very little compared to what an analyst would do.”

After disclosing the attack to Aircloak, de Montjoye says it has developed a patch — and is describing the vulnerability as very low risk — but he points out it has yet to publish details of the patch so it’s not been possible to independently assess its effectiveness. 

“It’s a bit unfortunate,” he adds. “Basically they acknowledge the vulnerability [but] they don’t say it’s an issue. On the website they classify it as low risk. It’s a bit disappointing on that front. I think they felt attacked and that was really not our goal.”

For the researchers the key takeaway from the work is that a change of mindset is needed around privacy protection akin to the shift the security industry underwent in moving from sitting behind a firewall waiting to be attacked to adopting a pro-active, adversarial approach that’s intended to out-smart hackers.

“As a community to really move to something closer to adversarial privacy,” he tells TechCrunch. “We need to start adopting the red team, blue team penetration testing that have become standard in security.

“At this point it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find like a perfect system so I think what we need to do is how do we find ways to see those vulnerabilities, patch those systems and really try to test those systems that are being deployed — and how do we ensure that those systems are truly secure?”

“What we take from this is really — it’s on the one hand we need the security, what can we learn from security including open systems, verification mechanism, we need a lot of pen testing that happens in security — how do we bring some of that to privacy?”

“If your system releases aggregated data and you added some noise this is not sufficient to make it anonymous and attacks probably exist,” he adds.

“This is much better than what people are doing when you take the dataset and you try to add noise directly to the data. You can see why intuitively it’s already much better.  But even these systems are still are likely to have vulnerabilities. So the question is how do we find a balance, what is the role of the regulator, how do we move forward, and really how do we really learn from the security community?

“We need more than some ad hoc solutions and only limiting queries. Again limiting queries would be what differential privacy would do — but then in a practical setting it’s quite difficult.

“The last bit — again in security — is defence in depth. It’s basically a layered approach — it’s like we know the system is not perfect so on top of this we will add other protection.”

The research raises questions about the role of data protection authorities too.

During Diffix’s development, Aircloak writes on its website that it worked with France’s DPA, the CNIL, and a private company that certifies data protection products and services — saying: “In both cases we were successful in so far as we received essentially the strongest endorsement that each organization offers.”

Although it also says that experience “convinced us that no certification organization or DPA is really in a position to assert with high confidence that Diffix, or for that matter any complex anonymization technology, is anonymous”, adding: “These organizations either don’t have the expertise, or they don’t have the time and resources to devote to the problem.”

The researchers’ noise exploitation attack demonstrates how even a level of regulatory “endorsement” can look problematic. Even well designed, complex privacy systems can contain vulnerabilities and cannot offer perfect protection. 

“It raises a tonne of questions,” says de Montjoye. “It is difficult. It fundamentally asks even the question of what is the role of the regulator here?

When you look at security my feeling is it’s kind of the regulator is setting standards and then really the role of the company is to ensure that you meet those standards. That’s kind of what happens in data breaches.

“At some point it’s really a question of — when something [bad] happens — whether or not this was sufficient or not as a [privacy] defence, what is the industry standard? It is a very difficult one.”

“Anonymization is baked in the law — it is not personal data anymore so there are really a lot of implications,” he adds. “Again from security we learn a lot of things on transparency. Good security and good encryption relies on open protocol and mechanisms that everyone can go and look and try to attack so there’s really a lot at this moment we need to learn from security.

“There’s no going to be any perfect system. Vulnerability will keep being discovered so the question is how do we make sure things are still ok moving forward and really learning from security — how do we quickly patch them, how do we make sure there is a lot of research around the system to limit the risk, to make sure vulnerabilities are discovered by the good guys, these are patched and really [what is] the role of the regulator?

“Data can have bad applications and a lot of really good applications so I think to me it’s really about how to try to get as much of the good while limiting as much as possible the privacy risk.”


Startups Weekly: The mad dash to the public markets

17 August, by Kate Clark[ —]

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about the differences between raising cash from angels and traditional venture capitalists. Before that, I summarized DoorDash’s acquisition of Caviar.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.


It’s Friday morning and I don’t want to dig into another IPO prospectus. The startups don’t care though, they’re in a mad dash to get to the public markets, reporters be damned.

This week, three billion-dollar venture-backed “unicorns” unveiled S-1 filings, the paperwork necessary to complete an IPO. First came WeWork, the $47 billion co-working giant beloved by SoftBank. Then came Cloudflare, a business that provides web security and denial-of-service protection for websites. Then this morning, after we all thought it was time for a breather, “teledentistry” company SmileDirectClub made its filing public.

There’s plenty to read on each of these high-profile IPOs; here’s a quick reading list:

WeWork

WeWork reveals IPO filing
WeWork’s S-1 misses these three key points
Making sense of WeWork’s S-1 (or trying to)

Cloudflare

Cloudflare files for initial public offering
Cloudflare says cutting off customers like 8chan is an IPO ‘risk factor’
In its IPO filing, Cloudflare thanks a third co-founder: Lee Holloway

SmileDirectClub
SmileDirectClub files to go public amid concerns from dental associations

On to other things…

Meet the startups in Y Combinator’s summer batch
As you may know, YC summer demo days are next week. A whopping 176 companies are expected to present and we’ll be there reporting live, as usual. In preparation, we’ve been cherry-picking companies in the latest batch that interest us. Here’s a look at our latest — more to come:

Equity Podcast
This was a very special week for Equity. We taped two great episodes, one in which we hung out with Axios’ Dan Primack in Boston, the other featuring me recording out of a New York City Blue Bottle Coffee shortly after WeWork dropped its S-1 filing. You can listen to our latest episodes here and here. Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Extra Crunch
In our latest installment of EC-1, in which go deep on an up-and-coming startup, TechCrunch’s Eric Peckham tells the founding story of Kobalt, the world’s next music tech unicorn. Here’s a passage from Peckham’s extensive piece: “You may not have heard of Kobalt before, but you probably engage with the music it oversees every day, if not almost every hour. Combining a technology platform to better track ownership rights and royalties of songs with a new approach to representing musicians in their careers, Kobalt has risen from the ashes of the 2000 dot-com bubble to become a major player in the streaming music era. It is the leading alternative to incumbent music publishers (who represent songwriters) and is building a new model record label for the growing ‘middle class’ of musicians around the world who are stars within niche audiences.”


Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ review

17 August, by Brian Heater[ —]

It’s true, you’ve got the Galaxy Note to thank for your big phone. When the device hit the scene at IFA 2011, large screens were still a punchline. That same year, Steve Jobs famously joked about phones with screens larger than four inches, telling a crowd of reporters, “nobody’s going to buy that.”

In 2019, the average screen size hovers around 5.5 inches. That’s a touch larger than the original Note’s 5.3 inches — a size that was pretty widely mocked by much of the industry press at the time. Of course, much of the mainstreaming of larger phones comes courtesy of a much improved screen to body ratio, another place where Samsung has continued to lead the way.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

In some sense, the Note has been doomed by its own success. As the rest of the industry caught up, the line blended into the background. Samsung didn’t do the product any favors by dropping the pretense of distinction between the Note and its Galaxy S line.

Ultimately, the two products served as an opportunity to have a six-month refresh cycle for its flagships. Samsung, of course, has been hit with the same sort of malaise as the rest of the industry. The smartphone market isn’t the unstoppable machine it appeared to be two or three years back.

Like the rest of the industry, the company painted itself into a corner with the smartphone race, creating flagships good enough to convince users to hold onto them for an extra year or two, greatly slowing the upgrade cycle in the process. Ever-inflating prices have also been a part of smartphone sales stagnation — something Samsung and the Note are as guilty of as any.

So what’s a poor smartphone manufacturer to do? The Note 10 represents baby steps. As it did with the S line recently, Samsung is now offering two models. The base Note 10 represents a rare step backward in terms of screen size, shrinking down slightly from 6.4 to 6.3 inches, while reducing resolution from Quad HD to Full HD.

The seemingly regressive step lets Samsung come in a bit under last year’s jaw dropping $1,000. The new Note is only $50 cheaper, but moving from four to three figures may have a positive psychological effect for wary buyers. While the slightly smaller screen coupled with a better screen to body ratio means a device that’s surprisingly slim.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

If anything, the Note 10+ feels like the true successor to the Note line. The baseline device could have just as well been labeled the Note 10 Lite. That’s something Samsung is keenly aware of, as it targets first-time Note users with the 10 and true believers with the 10+. In both cases, Samsung is faced with the same task as the rest of the industry: offering a compelling reason for users to upgrade.

Earlier this week, a Note 9 owner asked me whether the new device warrants an upgrade. The answer is, of course, no. The pace of smartphone innovation has slowed, even as prices have risen. Honestly, the 10 doesn’t really offer that many compelling reasons to upgrade from the Note 8.

That’s not a slight against Samsung or the Note, per se. If anything, it’s a reflection on the fact that these phones are quite good — and have been for a while. Anecdotally, industry excitement around these devices has been tapering for a while now, and the device’s launch in the midst of the doldrums of August likely didn’t help much.

[gallery ids="1865978,1865980,1865979,1865983,1865982,1865990,1866000,1866005,1866004"]

The past few years have seen smartphones transform from coveted, bleeding-edge luxury to necessity. The good news to that end, however, is that the Note continues to be among the best devices out there.

The common refrain in the earliest days of the phablet was the inability to wrap one’s fingers around the device. It’s a pragmatic issue. Certainly you don’t want to use a phone day to day that’s impossible to hold. But Samsung’s remarkable job of improving screen to body ratio continues here. In fact, the 6.8-inch Note 10+ has roughly the same footprint as the 6.4-inch Note 9.

The issue will still persist for those with smaller hands — though thankfully Samsung’s got a solution for them in the Note 10. For the rest of us, the Note 10+ is easily held in one hand and slipped in and out of pants pockets. I realize these seem like weird things to say at this point, but I assure you they were legitimate concerns in the earliest days of the phablet, when these things were giant hunks of plastic and glass.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung’s curved display once again does much of the heavy lifting here, allowing the screen to stretch nearly from side to side with only a little bezel at the edge. Up top is a hole-punch camera — that’s “Infinity O” to you. Those with keen eyes no doubt immediately noticed that Samsung has dropped the dual selfie camera here, moving toward the more popular hole-punch camera.

The company’s reasoning for this was both aesthetic and, apparently, practical. The company moved back down to a single camera for the front (10 megapixel), using similar reasoning as Google’s single rear-facing camera on the Pixel: software has greatly improved what companies can do with a single lens. That’s certainly the case to a degree, and a strong case can be made for the selfie camera, which we generally require less of than the rear-facing array.

The company’s gone increasingly minimalist with the design language — something I appreciate. Over the years, as the smartphone has increasingly become a day to day utility, the product’s design has increasingly gotten out of its own way. The front and back are both made of a curved Gorilla Glass that butts up against a thin metal form with a total thickness of 7.9 millimeters.

On certain smooth surfaces like glass, you’ll occasionally find the device gliding slightly. I’d say the chances of dropping it are pretty decent with its frictionless design language, so you’re going to want to get a case for your $1,000 phone. Before you do, admire that color scheme on the back. There are four choices in all. Like the rest of the press, we ended up with Aura Glow.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

It features a lovely, prismatic effect when light hits it. It’s proven a bit tricky to photograph, honestly. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, but these are the prices we pay to have the prettiest phone on the block.

One of the interesting footnotes here is how much the design of the 10 will be defined by what the device lost. There are two missing pieces here — both of which are a kind of concession from Samsung for different reasons. And for different reasons, both feel inevitable.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The headphone jack is, of course, the biggie. Samsung kicked and screamed on that one, holding onto the 3.5mm with dear life and roundly mocking the competition (read: Apple) at every turn. The company must have known it was a matter of time, even before the iPhone dropped the port three years ago.

Courage.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung glossed over the end of the jack (and apparently unlisted its Apple-mocking ads in the process) during the Note’s launch event. It was a stark contrast from a briefing we got around the device’s announcement, where the company’s reps spent significantly more time justifying the move. They know us well enough to know that we’d spend a little time taking the piss out of the company after three years of it making the once ubiquitous port a feature. All’s fair in love and port. And honestly, it was mostly just some good-natured ribbing. Welcome to the club, Samsung.

As for why Samsung did it now, the answer seems to be two-fold. The first is a kind of critical mass in Bluetooth headset usage. Allow me to quote myself from a few weeks back:

The tipping point, it says, came when its internal metrics showed that a majority of users on its flagship devices (the S and Note lines) moved to Bluetooth streaming. The company says the number is now in excess of 70% of users.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Also, as we’re all abundantly aware, the company put its big battery ambitions on hold for a bit, as it dealt with…more burning problems. A couple of recalls, a humble press release and an eight-point battery check later, and batteries are getting bigger again. There’s a 3,500mAh on the Note 10 and a 4,300mAh on the 10+. I’m happy to report that the latter got me through a full day plus three hours on a charge. Not bad, given all of the music and videos I subjected it to in that time.

There’s no USB-C dongle in-box. The rumors got that one wrong. You can pick up a Samsung-branded adapter for $15, or get one for much cheaper elsewhere. There is, however, a pair of AKG USB-C headphones in-box. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Samsung doesn’t get enough credit for its free headphones. I’ve been known to use the pairs with other devices. They’re not the greatest the world, but they’re better sounding and more comfortable than what a lot of other companies offer in-box.

Obviously the standard no headphone jack things apply here. You can’t use the wired headphones and charge at the same time (unless you go wireless). You know the deal.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The other missing piece here is the Bixby button. I’m sure there are a handful of folks out there who will bemoan its loss, but that’s almost certainly a minority of the minority here. Since the button was first introduced, folks were asking for the ability to remap it. Samsung finally relented on that front, and with the Note 10, it drops the button altogether.

Thus far the smart assistant has been a disappointment. That’s due in no small part to a late launch compared to the likes of Siri, Alexa and Assistant, coupled with a general lack of capability at launch. In Samsung’s defense, the company’s been working to fix that with some pretty massive investment and a big push to court developers. There’s hope for Bixby yet, but a majority of users weren’t eager to have the assistant thrust upon them.

Instead, the power button has been shifted to the left of the device, just under the volume rocker. I preferred having it on the other side, especially for certain functions like screenshotting (something, granted, I do much more than the average user when reviewing a phone). That’s a pretty small quibble, of course.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Bixby can now be quickly accessed by holding down the power button. Handily, Samsung still lets you reassign the function there, if you really want Bixby out of your life. You can also hold down to get the power off menu or double press to launch Bixby or a third-party app (I opted for Spotify, probably my most used these days), though not a different assistant.

Imaging, meanwhile, is something Samsung’s been doing for a long time. The past several generations of S and Note devices have had great camera systems, and it continues to be the main point of improvement. It’s also one of few points of distinction between the 10 and 10+, aside from size.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

The Note 10+ has four, count ’em, four rear-facing cameras. They are as follows:

  • Ultra Wide: 16 megapixel
  • Wide: 12 megapixel
  • Telephoto: 12 megapixel
  • DepthVision

Samsung Galaxy Note10

That last one is only on the plus. It’s comprised of two little circles to the right of the primary camera array and just below the flash. We’ll get to that in a second.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

The main camera array continues to be one of the best in mobile. The inclusion of telephoto and ultra-wide lenses allow for a wide range of different shots, and the hardware coupled with machine learning makes it a lot more difficult to take a bad photo (though believe me, it’s still possible).

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The live focus feature (Portrait mode, essentially) comes to video, with four different filters, including Color Point, which makes everything but the subject black and white.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Samsung’s also brought a very simple video editor into the mix here, which is nice on the fly. You can edit the length of clips, splice in other clips, add subtitles and captions and add filters and music. It’s pretty beefy for something baked directly into the camera app, and one of the better uses I’ve found for the S Pen.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Note 10+ with Super Steady (left), iPhone XS (right)

Ditto for the improved Super Steady offering, which smooths out shaky video, including Hyperlapse mode, where handshakes are a big issue. It works well, but you do lose access to other features, including zoom. For that reason, it’s off by default and should be used relatively sparingly.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

Note 10+ (left), iPhone XS (right)

Zoom-on Mic is a clever addition, as well. While shooting video, pinch-zooming on something will amplify the noise from that area. I’ve been playing around with it in this cafe. It’s interesting, but less than perfect.

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Zooming into something doesn’t exactly cancel out ambient noise from outside of the frame. Everything still gets amplified in the process and, like digital picture zoom, a lot of noise gets added in the process. Those hoping for a kind of spy microphone, I’m sorry/happy to report that this definitely is not that.

Screen Shot 2019 08 16 at 5.43.43 PM 2

The DepthVision Camera is also pretty limited as I write this. If anything, it’s Samsung’s attempt to brace for a future when things like augmented reality will (theoretically) play a much larger role in our mobile computing. In a conversation I had with the company ahead of launch, they suggested that a lot of the camera’s AR functions will fall in the hands of developers.

For now, Quick Measure is the one practical use. The app is a lot like Apple’s more simply titled Measure. Fire it up, move the camera around to get a lay of the land and it will measure nearby objects for you. An interesting showcase for AR potential? Sure. Earth shattering? Naw. It also seems to be a bit of a battery drain, sucking up the last few bits of juice as I was running it down.

3D Scanner, on the other hand, got by far the biggest applause line of the Note event. And, indeed, it’s impressive. In the stage demo, a Samsung employee scanned a stuffed pink beaver (I’m not making this up), created a 3D image and animated it using an associate’ movements. Practical? Not really. Cool? Definitely.

It was, however, not available at press time. Hopefully it proves to be more than vaporware, especially if that demo helped push some viewers over to the 10+. Without it, there’s just not a lot of use for the depth camera at the moment.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10

There’s also AR Doodle, which fills a similar spot as much of the company’s AR offerings. It’s kind of fun, but again, not particularly useful. You’ll likely end up playing with it for a few minutes and forget about it entirely. Such is life.

The feature is built into the camera app, using depth sensing to orient live drawings. With the stylus you can draw in space or doodle on people’s faces. It’s neat, the AR works okay and I was bored with it in about three minutes. Like Quick Measure, the feature is as much a proof of concept as anything. But that’s always been a part of Samsung’s kitchen-sink approach — some combination of useful and silly.

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That said, points to Samsung for continuing to de-creepify AR Emojis. Those have moved firmly away from the uncanny valley into something more cartoony/adorable. Less ironic usage will surely follow.

Asked about the key differences between the S and Note lines, Samsung’s response was simple: the S Pen. Otherwise, the lines are relatively interchangeable.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Samsung’s return of the stylus didn’t catch on for handsets quite like the phablet form factor. They’ve made a pretty significant comeback for tablets, but the Note remains fairly singular when it comes to the S Pen. I’ve never been a big user myself, but those who like it swear by it. It’s one of those things like the ThinkPad pointing stick or BlackBerry scroll wheel.

Like the phone itself, the peripheral has been streamlined with a unibody design. Samsung also continues to add capabilities. It can be used to control music, advance slideshows and snap photos. None of that is likely to convince S Pen skeptics (I prefer using the buttons on the included headphones for music control, for example), but more versatility is generally a good thing.

If anything is going to convince people to pick up the S Pen this time out, it’s the improved handwriting recognition. That’s pretty impressive. It was even able to decipher my awful chicken scratch.

Note 10

You get the same sort of bleeding-edge specs here you’ve come to expect from Samsung’s flagships. The 10+ gets you a baseline 256GB of storage (upgradable to 512), coupled with a beefy 12GB of RAM (the regular Note is a still good 8GB/256GB). The 5G version sports the same numbers and battery (likely making its total life a bit shorter per charge). That’s a shift from the S10, whose 5G version was specced out like crazy. Likely Samsung is bracing for 5G to become less of a novelty in the next year or so.

The new Note also benefits from other recent additions, like the in-display fingerprint reader and wireless power sharing. Both are nice additions, but neither is likely enough to warrant an immediate upgrade.

Samsung Galaxy Note10

Once again, that’s not an indictment of Samsung, so much as a reflection of where we are in the life cycle of a mature smartphone industry. The Note 10+ is another good addition to one of the leading smartphone lines. It succeeds as both a productivity device (thanks to additions like DeX and added cross-platform functionality with Windows 10) and an everyday handset.

There’s not enough on-board to really recommend an upgrade from the Note 8 or 9 — especially at that $1,099 price. People are holding onto their devices for longer, and for good reason (as detailed above). But if you need a new phone, are looking for something big and flashy and are willing to splurge, the Note continues to be the one to beat.

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Flexible stick-on sensors could wirelessly monitor your sweat and pulse

17 August, by Devin Coldewey[ —]

As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of physiological data.

Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.

The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smartwatches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.

Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.

The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.

bodynet sticker and receiver

The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. Although they managed to create a unit that’s light enough to be clipped to clothes, it’s still not the kind of thing you’d want to wear to the gym.

The good news is that’s an engineering and design limitation, not a theoretical one — so a couple years of work and progress on the electronics front and they could have a much more attractive system.

“We think one day it will be possible to create a full-body skin-sensor array to collect physiological data without interfering with a person’s normal behavior,” Stanford professor Zhenan Bao said in a news release.

Over at Cal is a project in a similar domain that’s working to get from prototype to production. Researchers there have been working on a sweat monitor for a few years that could detect a number of physiological factors.

SensorOnForehead BN

Normally you’d just collect sweat every 15 minutes or so and analyze each batch separately. But that doesn’t really give you very good temporal resolution — what if you want to know how the sweat changes minute by minute or less? By putting the sweat collection and analysis systems together right on the skin, you can do just that.

While the sensor has been in the works for a while, it’s only recently that the team has started moving toward user testing at scale to see what exactly sweat measurements have to offer.

RollToRoll BN 768x960“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us — I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition. For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” explained Ali Javey, Berkeley professor and head of the project.

As anyone who’s working in hardware will tell you, going from a hand-built prototype to a mass-produced model is a huge challenge. So the Berkeley team tapped their Finnish friends at VTT Technical Research Center, who make a specialty of roll-to-roll printing.

For flat, relatively simple electronics, roll-to-roll is a great technique, essentially printing the sensors right onto a flexible plastic substrate that can then simply be cut to size. This way they can make hundreds or thousands of the sensors quickly and cheaply, making them much simpler to deploy at arbitrary scales.

These are far from the only flexible or skin-mounted electronics projects out there, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the point when they begin to leave the lab and head out to hospitals, gyms and homes.

The paper describing Stanford’s flexible sensor appeared this week in the journal Nature Electronics, while Berkeley’s sweat tracker was in Science Advances.


ClearBrain launches analytics tools focused on connecting cause and effect

16 August, by Anthony Ha[ —]

Businesses need to understand cause and effect: Someone did X and it increased sales, or they did Y and it hurt sales. That’s why many of them turn to analytics — but Bilal Mahmood, co-founder and CEO of ClearBrain, said existing analytics platforms can’t answer that question accurately.

“Every analytics platform today is still based on a fundamental correlation model,” Mahmood said. It’s the classic correlation-versus-causation problem — you can use the data to suggest that an action and a result are related, but you can’t draw a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

That’s the problem that ClearBrain is trying to solve with its new “causal analytics” tool. As the company put it in a blog post, “Our goal was to automate this process [of running statistical studies] and build the first large-scale causal inference engine to allow growth teams to measure the causal effect of every action.”

You can read the post for (many) more details, but the gist is that Mahmood and his team claim they can draw accurate causal relationships where others can’t.

ClearBrain analytics screenshot

The idea is to use this in conjunction with A/B testing — customers look at the data to prioritize what to test next, and to make estimates about the impact of things that can’t be tested. Otherwise, Mahmood said, “If you wanted to measure the actual impact of every variable on your website and your app — the actual impact it has on conversation — it could take you years.”

When I wrote about ClearBrain last year, it was using artificial intelligence to improve ad targeting, but Mahmood said the company built the new analytics technology in response to customer demand: “People didn’t just want to know who was going to convert, they wanted to know why, and what caused them to do so.”

The causal analytics tool is currently available to early access users, with plans for a full launch in October. Mahmood said there will be a number of pricing tiers, but they’ll be structured to make the product free for many startups.

In addition to launching the analytics tool in early access, ClearBrain also announced this week that it’s raised an additional $2 million in funding from Harrison Metal and Menlo Ventures.


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