A Snapchat drone?! Here’s what we know

Snapchat is displayed on a smartphone on September 27, 2016 in Berlin, Germany
Snapchat is displayed on a smartphone on September 27, 2016 in Berlin, Germany

Image: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Snap Inc. has been playing with drones. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the company has worked on building its own drones, citing three people “briefed on the project who asked to remain anonymous because the details are confidential.”

The piece doesn’t get into details, but the premise is intriguing — and not at all surprising for a company that defines itself as a “camera company” in its own mission. 

“Snap is a camera company. We feel like we’re really at the beginning of what cameras can do, evolve from being just a piece of hardware to software connected to the internet,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said in a 35-minute video released about the company ahead of its initial public offering.

So far, Snap Inc. only has its video-camera equipped sunglasses, Spectacles, to offer as a “camera.” Snap will begin trading on the stock market Thursday, thereby opening itself up to scrutiny from investors for its future prospectives.

Beating copycats — like Facebook

In a world where Facebook is continuously copying its products and offering it to a larger user base, Snapchat is clearly looking for more unique paths to take. 

Details of Snapchat’s interest in drone technology specifically have been scattered in other projects and other media reports. For example, within a nearly five-minute video of a Snapchat-curated “Live Story,” now called “Our Stories” on the Battle of Mosul, Snapchat featured a 10-second video of drone footage:

The footage with the Mosul story was taken by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and not produced by Snapchat directly. But the editorial team’s decision to include the footage shows the potential for future storytelling on Snapchat.

Snapchat declined to comment on that matter or its other interest in drone technology.

Snap Labs and flying cameras

Snap Inc., based in Venice, California, has a division of its company called Snap Labs, which is dedicated to working on secretive projects, including wearable cameras, facial recognition and 3D scanning technology, Reuters reported

Snap has also been in conversations with drone companies. Snap was interested in an acquisition with Lily Robotics, Business Insider reported in December, citing sources familiar with the matter. 

Lily Robotics offers a drone that tracks and follows its owners and simultaneously shoots video, creating a hands-free recording experience similar to Spectacles. 

What takes place inside Snap Labs is unknown to most of the company, even top executives, according to a person familiar with the matter speaking to Mashable

But it’s clear that some type of gadgets are being built — or at least the knowledge for such endeavors are within the walls. 

Over the last year, Snapchat has hired dozens of hardware and mechanical engineers, who worked at Apple, Google, GoPro, Motorola and Qualcomm. Marketing firm Mediakix recently envisioned what a Snap Inc. smartphone might look like, given those new hires. 

February’s Best Gear: New Wireless Headphones and Fancy PCs

BeatsX Wireless Headphones

The new $150 BeatsX are the cheapest of the company’s options. They’re wireless, but not like the AirPods or even the Solo3 or Powerbeats3. They’re what you might call neckbuds: a band around your neck, connected to two tiny earbuds. When you’re not wearing them, they dangle like a chunky rubber necklace. The upside is the buds themselves are light and simple and nearly impossible to lose. The downside is that these wireless headphones don’t feel all that wireless. Read the full review.

Credit: Beats

The new $150 BeatsX are the cheapest of the company’s options. They’re wireless, but not like the AirPods or even the Solo3 or Powerbeats3. They’re what you might call neckbuds: a band around your neck, connected to two tiny earbuds. When you’re not wearing them, they dangle like a chunky rubber necklace. The upside is the buds themselves are light and simple and nearly impossible to lose. The downside is that these wireless headphones don’t feel all that wireless. Read the full review.

Microsoft Surface Studio

Microsoft is competing against its decades-old reputation as the company that makes stuff you hate but need, next to Apple as the creator of lustworthy hardware that inspires cult-like devotion. That’s hard to reverse in one device, especially when that device costs three grand. But a funny thing kept happening in the weeks we spent with a Surface Studio, Microsoft’s love letter to creative types: We learned to love itThe Surface Studio is a complicated, complex spin on a desktop computer. It’s not perfect, and it’s probably not for you. It’s not for us, either. We love it anyway. Read the full review.

Credit: MARIA LOKKE/WIRED

Microsoft is competing against its decades-old reputation as the company that makes stuff you hate but need, next to Apple as the creator of lustworthy hardware that inspires cult-like devotion. That’s hard to reverse in one device, especially when that device costs three grand. But a funny thing kept happening in the weeks we spent with a Surface Studio, Microsoft’s love letter to creative types: We learned to love itThe Surface Studio is a complicated, complex spin on a desktop computer. It’s not perfect, and it’s probably not for you. It’s not for us, either. We love it anyway. Read the full review.

Here One

Life’s a little quieter when you’re wearing the Here Ones, a new pair of earbuds from Doppler Labs. These $300 buds are headphones and then some. They put a volume knob on the real world, letting you control what you hear and what you tune out. The Here Ones are a terrific, if slightly hamstrung, set of headphones. They’re also pretty solid evidence that you might want computers in your ears. Soon. Read the full review.

Credit: Hear One

Life’s a little quieter when you’re wearing the Here Ones, a new pair of earbuds from Doppler Labs. These $300 buds are headphones and then some. They put a volume knob on the real world, letting you control what you hear and what you tune out. The Here Ones are a terrific, if slightly hamstrung, set of headphones. They’re also pretty solid evidence that you might want computers in your ears. Soon. Read the full review.

Gita by Piaggio Fast Forward

The Gita is a round rolling robot that can carry up to 40 pounds of cargo for miles at a time. Rather than get you from A to B as fast as possible, it’s meant to get you there more easily. More than that, Gita is a way to begin to explore what the world looks like when humans and robots share the sidewalk. And, hopefully, to make that idea seem a little less scary. Read the full story.

Credit: INGO MECKMANN/PIAGGIO FAST FORWARD

The Gita is a round rolling robot that can carry up to 40 pounds of cargo for miles at a time. Rather than get you from A to B as fast as possible, it’s meant to get you there more easily. More than that, Gita is a way to begin to explore what the world looks like when humans and robots share the sidewalk. And, hopefully, to make that idea seem a little less scary. Read the full story.

Caavo

What you need is a Rosetta stone for TV. Caavo says it has one. Caavo and rhymes with Cabo, your favorite spring break locale. It sports eight HDMI ports, and its software automatically recognizes and configures virtually any device you plug in. You can use the lovely wooden Caavo controller to control almost anything: the robust universal remote features a touchscreen and multi-functional buttons. Caavo works with Alexa, too. Read the full story.

Credit: Caavo

What you need is a Rosetta stone for TV. Caavo says it has one. Caavo and rhymes with Cabo, your favorite spring break locale. It sports eight HDMI ports, and its software automatically recognizes and configures virtually any device you plug in. You can use the lovely wooden Caavo controller to control almost anything: the robust universal remote features a touchscreen and multi-functional buttons. Caavo works with Alexa, too. Read the full story.

New Cheap 3-D Printers from XYZprinting

For less than $300, you can now buy a capable and beginner-friendly 3-D printer. There are solid models from Monoprice that cost even less, but XYZprinting has 3-D printers for kids and beginners that will look better in your workspace. The cheapest and smallest of the lot is the Da Vinci Nano, a $230 box slated to ship by the middle of the year. Read the full story.

Credit: XYZPrinting

For less than $300, you can now buy a capable and beginner-friendly 3-D printer. There are solid models from Monoprice that cost even less, but XYZprinting has 3-D printers for kids and beginners that will look better in your workspace. The cheapest and smallest of the lot is the Da Vinci Nano, a $230 box slated to ship by the middle of the year. Read the full story.

Samsung Chromebook Pro

Samsung’s Chromebook Plus and Pro are, on paper, the most well-rounded Chrome OS devices ever. The Plus starts at $450 and is available now, and the Pro will be $550 when it ships in March. Both fit right into the normal-person laptop budget. They do all the Chrome OS things, have great and flippy touchscreens, and they run all of the millions of apps in Google’s Play Store. Like we said, it sounds great… on paper. In reality, this brilliantly polymorphic computer still feels more like a science experiment. Read the full review.

Credit: Samsung

Samsung’s Chromebook Plus and Pro are, on paper, the most well-rounded Chrome OS devices ever. The Plus starts at $450 and is available now, and the Pro will be $550 when it ships in March. Both fit right into the normal-person laptop budget. They do all the Chrome OS things, have great and flippy touchscreens, and they run all of the millions of apps in Google’s Play Store. Like we said, it sounds great… on paper. In reality, this brilliantly polymorphic computer still feels more like a science experiment. Read the full review.

LG Watch Style and Sport

Android Wear 2.0, Google’s first big update to its smartwatch platform since it launched in 2014, is all about milliseconds. The new software, coming to watches new and old, big and small, round and square, ugly and uglier, makes everything faster. To coincide with the launch, Google worked with LG on two new smartwatches, the Watch Sport and Watch Style. The Sport costs $349 and does all the smartwatch things and then some. The Style runs $249, does next to nothing, and looks good doing it. Read the full review.

Credit: LG

Android Wear 2.0, Google’s first big update to its smartwatch platform since it launched in 2014, is all about milliseconds. The new software, coming to watches new and old, big and small, round and square, ugly and uglier, makes everything faster. To coincide with the launch, Google worked with LG on two new smartwatches, the Watch Sport and Watch Style. The Sport costs $349 and does all the smartwatch things and then some. The Style runs $249, does next to nothing, and looks good doing it. Read the full review.

Moment Battery Photo Case

The newest smartphone accessory from Moment pulls double duty. It’s a high-capacity battery case, and it’s built to accept the company’s excellent lens attachments (and there’s a new wide-angle lens to snap into the case). The coolest part though? The thing’s got a new physical shutter button on it—one that uses the Lightning connector, making it much faster than the older Moment case’s Bluetooth button. You also get DSLR-type actions with the button when you take photos within Moment’s app: A half press resets focus and exposure, a full press snaps a photo, and a press-and-hold action fires a burst. Read the full story.

Credit: Moment

The newest smartphone accessory from Moment pulls double duty. It’s a high-capacity battery case, and it’s built to accept the company’s excellent lens attachments (and there’s a new wide-angle lens to snap into the case). The coolest part though? The thing’s got a new physical shutter button on it—one that uses the Lightning connector, making it much faster than the older Moment case’s Bluetooth button. You also get DSLR-type actions with the button when you take photos within Moment’s app: A half press resets focus and exposure, a full press snaps a photo, and a press-and-hold action fires a burst. Read the full story.

Volta V

You know what gaming PCs look like, right? Big, LED-lit cubes that look ready to hatch tiny evil cyborgs. Lesser Doctor Who villains. Mean but tidy igneous rocks. You get the idea. The Volta V, from Computer Direct Outlet, disagrees. It thinks a gaming PC looks like a beautiful, handcrafted wooden box. Thank goodness. Read the full story.

Credit: Computer Direct Outlet

You know what gaming PCs look like, right? Big, LED-lit cubes that look ready to hatch tiny evil cyborgs. Lesser Doctor Who villains. Mean but tidy igneous rocks. You get the idea. The Volta V, from Computer Direct Outlet, disagrees. It thinks a gaming PC looks like a beautiful, handcrafted wooden box. Thank goodness. Read the full story.

Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer

Dyson, the brand behind those pricey, highly engineered vacuums and fans, has taken a stab at this essential post-shower tool. The Supersonic hair dryer reinvigorates an underserved category with a masterpiece of efficiency that blows away the competition. Read the full review.

Credit: JOSEPH SHIN FOR WIRED

Dyson, the brand behind those pricey, highly engineered vacuums and fans, has taken a stab at this essential post-shower tool. The Supersonic hair dryer reinvigorates an underserved category with a masterpiece of efficiency that blows away the competition. Read the full review.

Beoplay H4 Wireless Headphones

A couple of years ago, the luxurious leather-wrapped Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H7s were named our favorite Bluetooth headphones. The problem, if anything, was the price. At $400, the H7s weren’t the cheapest options by any means. And while the new $300 Beoplay H4s aren’t exactly bargain-bin cans either, they offer nearly the same roster of specs as the H7s for $100 less. Read the full story.

Credit: BANG & OLUFSEN

A couple of years ago, the luxurious leather-wrapped Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H7s were named our favorite Bluetooth headphones. The problem, if anything, was the price. At $400, the H7s weren’t the cheapest options by any means. And while the new $300 Beoplay H4s aren’t exactly bargain-bin cans either, they offer nearly the same roster of specs as the H7s for $100 less. Read the full story.

Hello Barbie Hologram

Mattel introduced the first Barbie doll way back in 1959, and she’s found herself at the center of culture (and cultural controversy) ever since. To her credit, she keeps adapting to the times. Her latest incarnation is Hello Barbie Hologram, a small box containing an animated projection of Barbie that responds to voice commands. It combines motion-capture animation with Amazon Echo-style voice interactions, and it arrives in stores later this year. Read the full story.

Credit: Mattel

Mattel introduced the first Barbie doll way back in 1959, and she’s found herself at the center of culture (and cultural controversy) ever since. To her credit, she keeps adapting to the times. Her latest incarnation is Hello Barbie Hologram, a small box containing an animated projection of Barbie that responds to voice commands. It combines motion-capture animation with Amazon Echo-style voice interactions, and it arrives in stores later this year. Read the full story.

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FCC chairman tells MWC crowd that net neutrality blocks tech development

Why it matters to you

New FCC head says dumping regulations — including net neutrality — will bring you faster internet sooner.

Speaking at the 2017 Mobile World World in Barcelona, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the growth of online business is the major factor in his decision to cut internet regulations, most notably net neutrality. Wider access to broadband internet and 5G wireless will continue what Pai described as “the democratization of the internet.” But that process will slow down or even stop with heavy-handed regulation, in his view.

“5G could transform the wireless world,” Pai said. “We stand on the cusp of new advancements, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll achieve this potential. 5G will require a lot of infrastructure.”

Net neutrality limits internet deployment in Pai’s opinion, according to Tech Crunch.

Pai referred to the net neutrality regulations implemented by the Obama administration as “1930’s-style regulation.” He said those regulations “disincentivized” broadband providers from making infrastructure investments to support both current and future technologies.

“Last year, the United States experienced the first decline in broadband investment outside of a recession,” said Pai. He believes the answer is a free market with only “light-touch regulation.” An example of Pai’s pullback from regulation was dropping FCC investigations into zero-rating, which is when mobile carriers don’t count media streaming in monthly data plans. Those who argue in favor of net neutrality believe zero-rating practices favor large, existing companies and make it harder for newcomers.

Senator Al Franken, D-Minnesota, a strong proponent of net neutrality, wrote to Pai after his appointment, exhorting him to keep net neutrality intact: “Allowing giant corporations to pick and choose the content available to everyday Americans would threaten the basic principles of our democracy,” Franken wrote. “I urge you to protect freedom of speech by maintaining and enforcing the Open Internet Order.”

More: Net neutrality critic Ajit Pai elevated to FCC chairman, reports say

Following his presentation, Pai spoke with European mobile executives and CNBC anchor Karen Tso. He pointed out that he sees the new unlimited data plans recently introduced by the four major U.S. carriers as an immediate positive result of his taking office and making his decision on net neutrality. Previously, there was a “climate of uncertainty” from events such as Brexit and President Donald Trump’s election, but now his view is that the market is already responding positively.

“The truth is that consumers like getting something for free,” Pai said. “Preemptive regulation did not deliver those benefits. The free market did.”

UK’s long-delayed digital strategy looks to AI but is locked to Brexit


The UK government is due to publish its long awaited Digital Strategy later today, about a year later than originally slated. Existing delays having been compounded by the shock of Brexit.

Drafts of the strategy framework seen by TechCrunch suggest its scope and ambition vis-a-vis digital technologies has been pared back and repositioned vs earlier formulations of the plan, dating from December 2015 and June 2016, as the government recalibrated to factor in last summer’s referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union.

Since the earlier drafts were penned there has also of course been a change of leadership (and direction) at the top of government. And Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a new cabinet, including digital minister, Matt Hancock, who replaced Ed Vaizey.

The incoming digital strategy includes what’s couched as a major a review of what AI means for the UK economy — which was trailed to the press by the government at the weekend. As the FT reported then, the review will be led by computer scientist Dame Wendy Hall and Jerome Pesenti, CEO of AI firm BenevolentAI, and will aim to identify areas of opportunity and commercialization for the UK’s growing AI research sector.

The government will also be committing £17.3M from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to fund research into robotics and AI at UK universities — so, to be clear, that’s existing funds being channeled into AI projects (rather than new money being found).

The draft strategy notes that one project, led by the University of Manchester, will develop robotics technologies “capable of operating autonomously and effectively within hazardous environments such as nuclear facilities”. Another, at Imperial College London, will aim to make “major advances in the field of surgical micro-robotics”.

But the document dedicates an awful lot of page space to detailing existing digital policies. And while reannouncements are a favorite spin tactic of politicians, the overall result is a Digital Strategy that feels heavy on the strategic filler. And heavily shaped by Brexit — while still lacking coherence for dealing with the short-term and longer term uncertainty triggered by the vote to the leave the EU.

As one disappointed industry source who we showed the draft to put it: “If you’re going to announce a digital strategy, and you’re taking in public input, why not be bold?” Perhaps because you don’t have the ministerial resources to be bold when you’re having to expend most of your government’s energy managing Brexit.

It’s the skills, stupid

Besides the government foregrounding artificial intelligence (via official press briefing) as a technology it views as promising for fueling future growth of the UK’s digital economy, the strategy puts marked emphasis on tackling digital inclusion in the coming years, via upskilling and reskilling.

Digital skills are the second of the seven “strands” the strategy focuses on, with digital connectivity being the first — a quite different structure vs the June 2016 version of the document that we reviewed (which bundled skills and connectivity into a single ‘digital foundations’ section — and expended more energy elsewhere, such as investigating the public sector potential of technologies like blockchain, and talking up putting the UK “at the heart of the European Digital Single Market”; an impossibility now, given Brexit).

A portion of the final strategy details a number of UK skills training partnerships, either new or which are being expanded, from companies such as Google, HP, Cisco, IBM and BT. Google, for example, is pledging to launch a Summer of Skills program in coastal towns across the UK.

And ahead of the strategy’s official publication the government is briefing these partnerships to press as “four million opportunities for learning” being created to ensure “no one is left behind” by the digital divide.

On the Google program the draft says: “It will develop bespoke training programmes and bring Google experts to coach communities, tourist centres and hospitality businesses across the British coasts. This will accelerate digitisation and help boost tourism and growth in UK seaside towns. This new initiative is part of a wider digital skills programme from Google that has already trained over 150,000 people.”

This again is digital strategy and spin driven by Brexit. The government has made it clear it will be prioritizing ‘control of Britain’s borders’ in its negotiations with the EU, and confirmed the UK will be leaving the Single Market, which means ending free movement of people from the EU. So UK businesses are faced with pressing questions about how they will source enough local talent quickly enough in future when there are restrictions on freedom of movement. The UK government’s answer to those worries appears to be ‘upskill for victory’ — which might be a long-term skills fix, but won’t plug any short term talent cliffs.

“As we leave the European Union, it will be even more important to ensure that we continue to develop our home-grown talent, up-skill our workforce and develop the specialist digital skills needed to maintain our world leading digital sector,” is all it has to say on that.

The focus on digital inclusion also looks to be a response to a wider framing of the Brexit vote as fueled by anger within certain segments of the population feeling left behind by globalization. (A sentiment that implicates technology as a contributing factor for a sense of exclusion caused by rapid change.) Tellingly, the strategy document is subtitled “a world-leading digital economy for everyone” (emphasis mine).

“We must also enable people in every part of society — irrespective of age, gender, physical ability, ethnicity, health conditions, or socio-economic status — to access the opportunities of the internet,” it further notes. “If we don’t do this, our citizens, businesses and public services cannot take full advantage of the transformational benefits of the digital revolution. And if we manage it, it will benefit society too.”

In terms of specific skills measures, the strategy pledges free “basic digital skills training” for adults (actually a reannouncement) — with the government saying it intends to mirror the approach taken for adult literacy and numeracy training.

It also says it intends to establish a “new Digital Skills Partnership” to bring together industry players and local stakeholders with a focus on plugging digital skills gaps locally, which sounds equally like a measure to tackle regional unemployment.

Another aim is to “develop the role of libraries in improving digital inclusion to make them the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities”.

To boost STEM skills – to help the UK workforce gain what the government dubs “specialist skills” — it says it will implement Nigel Shadbolt’s recommendations – following his 2016 report which called for universities to do more to teach skills employers need. (A need that will clearly be all the more pressing with tighter restrictions on UK borders.)

Interestingly, a 2015 draft of the strategy which we saw shows the government was kicking around various ideas for encouraging more digital talent to come into the country at that time — including creating new types of tech visas.

Among the ideas on the long-list then, i.e. under PM David Cameron and minister Vaizey, were to:

  • Offer e-residency for entrepreneurs — offer some form of limited residency in the UK but require IP of business is vested in UK
  • Offer Digital Corporate Citizenship — to encourage companies to vest IP in UK
  • Create a new class of exceptional talent visa for those with experience of scaling up tech companies
  • Create a post-study Tech Visa for applicants with degrees in computing, ICT and management who set up a tech business

Later versions of the framework drop these ideas — with the government now only saying it has asked the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee to review whether the Tier 1 visa is “appropriate to deliver significant economic benefits for the UK”.

“We recognise the importance which the technology sector attaches to being able to recruit highly skilled staff from the EU and around the world. As one part of this, we have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consider whether the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route is appropriate to deliver significant economic benefits for the UK, and will say more about our response to their recommendations soon,” it writes, noting that digital sector companies employ around 80,000 people from other European Union countries, out of the total 1.4 million people working in the UK’s digital sectors.

A further section of the document references ongoing concern about the future status of EU workers currently employed in the UK, without offering businesses any certainty on that front — just reiterating a hope for early clarity during Brexit negotiations. But again, no certainty.

The two-year Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU are due to start by the end of next month, so for the foreseeable future government ministers will be bound up with process of delivering Brexit. Which in turn means less time to devote to digital experiments to “stay at the forefront of digital change”, as one of the earlier digital strategy drafts put it.

“We also recognise that digital businesses are concerned about the future status of their current staff who are EU nationals. Securing the status of, and providing certainty to, EU nationals already in the UK and to UK nationals in the EU is one of this Government’s early priorities for the forthcoming negotiations,” the government writes now.

The original intention for the digital strategy was to look ahead five years to guide the parliamentary agenda on the digital economy. Formulating the strategy took longer than billed, and even before the Brexit vote in June 2016 its release had been delayed six-months after Vaizey opted to run a public consultation to widen the pool of ideas being considered.

“Challenge us — push us to do more,” he wrote at the time.

It’s unclear exactly why the strategy did not appear in “early 2016” (a parliamentary committee was still wondering that in July). And perhaps if it had May’s government would have felt compelled to retain more of those challenging ideas — or be accused of seeking to U-turn on the digital economy.

But, as things turned out, Vaizey’s delay overran into the looming prospect of the Brexit vote — at which point the government decided it would wait until afterwards to publish. Clearly not expecting all its best laid plans to be entirely derailed.

Since June, the wait for the strategy has stretched a further eight months –- unsurprisingly, at this point, given the shock of Brexit and the change of leadership triggered by Cameron’s resignation.

And while the process of formulating any strategic policy document is likely to involve plenty of ‘blue-sky thinking’ — thinking that never, ultimately, makes the cut as a bona fide policy pledge — it’s nonetheless interesting to see how a very long-list of digital ideas has been whittled down and reshuffled into this set of “seven strands”.

Here’s a condensed overview of May/Hancock’s digital priority areas:

  • Digital connectivity — on this the government mainly appears to be touting existing policies, such as a universal service obligation for broadband (with a floor of 10Mbps connection); free wi-fi on trains; and £1BN for fiber and 5G. The government also says it intends to “ensure adverts for broadband accurately reflect the speeds and technology actually on offer for the majority of customers” — something Vaizey had criticized when in post
  • Digital skills — another section padded out with a lot of policy reannouncements, but which generally puts a lot of emphasis on longer term digital upskilling of the local population, as noted above, including flagging up corporate training partnerships
  • Making the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business — this section reiterates the previously announced extra £4.7BN in R&D funding from the Autumn Statement; on top of that there’s the AI review; and a commitment to put expert teams in UK embassies in five developing countries “tasked with driving UK economic growth by partnering British companies with innovative local start-ups”. (This will be based on an existing ‘UK Tech Hub’ in Israel, with the focus being on driving collaboration on R&D, skills, innovation and tech and “forging a deeper, more strategic commercial and research relationship” between countries — yet doing so remotely, on their soil.) Also here the government talks about wanting to balance regulation so it’s friendly to “disruptive digital innovations” yet also “continues to protect the public”. So there’s no clarity on that. It also says it wants a “flexible and dynamic” IP regime. When it comes to commercializing research, it says it’s asking BEIS’s Chief Entrepreneurial Advisor, Professor Tim Dafforn, to lead a review to “take stock of the support currently available to entrepreneurs”.  “The review will examine the entire entrepreneurial journey, focusing on the motivations and opportunities for those embarking on business ventures, from education to business development and growth.”
  • Helping all British businesses to embrace digital — this section includes another reannouncement from the Autumn Statement of £13M to create a private-sector led productivity council to encourage “appropriate use of digital technologies”. Otherwise the government says that it will “work to focus existing initiatives, and plug gaps where there are specific challenges”. And, for the manufacturing sector, Juergen Maier, CEO of Siemens UK, will lead a review of industrial digitalisation, due to report findings in the summer. The report also touches on the concept of a common identity framework, with the government saying it will work with industry/relevant stakeholders/interest groups on adopting open standards, especially for validating identity
  • Making the UK the safest place in the world to be online — a section that feels like a repackaging of the prior government’s prioritizing of cyber security, with the strategy flagging up the role of the already established National Cyber Security Centre, along with a reiteration of certain sections of the Digital Economy Bill (specifically those aiming to use age verification checks online to try to ensure children do not access adult content). Though a pledge to establish a national after-school program “for the most talented students, cyber apprenticeships, and adult retraining” may be a new measure
  • Maintaining the UK Government as the world’s leader in serving its citizens online — this references the Government Transformation Strategy, which was published on February 9, and says the plan is to continue to develop single cross-government platform services — working towards 25M GOV.UK Verify users by 2020 (plus some new services on other gov.uk platforms). There’s also a stated intent for government to consume “commodity hardware or cloud based software” instead of building something it dubs as “needlessly government specific”. So probably good news for Amazon, Google et al
  • Unlocking the power of data and improving public confidence in its use — here the government reconfirms the UK will be implementing the incoming new EU data protection regulation, the GDPR, by May 2018. And talks generally about wanting to encourage “innovative uses of data” while also providing “robust protection for people’s privacy rights” and the ability for users to access their data. So again, it’s rather cake-and-eat it (apt given Brexit). It says it will work with organisations such as the Open Data Institute to encourage use of APIs, flagging up work having already started on developing an Open Banking API for UK consumers using banking services. It also underscores a “shortage of data talent” as having “direct and serious economic implications” — so says addressing that shortfall is a strategic priority. (And on that it says it will work to implement “key elements” of the Analytic Britain report produced by Nesta and Universities UK.) On government data, it says it will appoint a new chief data officer to lead efforts to streamline data infrastructure. It also reiterates its intent, again via the Digital Economy Bill, to “share data across organizational boundaries within the public sector” to power “better targeted services” and to tackle fraud. But there’s no mention of the privacy controversy raging over these proposals — with the only check on what could be very wide-ranging powers for the public sector to more closely track citizens via joined up data-sharing being the caveat: “where appropriate”

We asked UK entrepreneur, Tom Adeyoola, co-founder and CEO of London-based startup Metail to review the strategy draft, and here’s his first-take response: “I don’t really see a strategy. It’s very disappointing that it doesn’t explicitly talk about the shock that is coming [i.e. Brexit] and how the government intends to counteract it. That’s what I want from a strategy: Here is what we are going to do to prevent brain drain. Here is what we are going to do to fill the gap from European money and here is how we are going to keep our research institutions great and prevent against the likes of Oxford thinking about setting up campuses abroad to enable and prevent loss of potential talent for research.”

He dubbed Brexit the “elephant in the report”.

Some of the more blue-sky-y tech ideas that were being entertained on the strategy long-list in 2015, back when Brexit was but a twinkle in Cameron’s eye, which never made the cut and/or fell down the political cracks include: encouraging as much as a third of public transport to be on-demand by 2020 and driveless cars to make up 10 per cent of traffic; reducing peak hour congestion by use of smarter, sensor-based urban traffic control systems; launching a couple of universal smart grids in UK towns; establishing a fully digitized courts system to support out-of-court settlements; building the first drone air traffic control system; and establishing a “clear ethical framework or regulatory body” for AI and synthetic biology.

And while the final strategy draft does mention the societal implications of AI as an area in need of “careful consideration”, there are — yet again — no concrete policy proposal at this point. Despite calls for the government to be exact that: proactive. But apparently it’s hard to be politically proactive on too many emerging technologies with the vast task of Brexit standing in your way.

Last word: a note on “diplomacy” in the 2015 strategy draft suggests the government “advocate for free movement of data inside EU”. UK-EU diplomacy in 2017 is clearly going to cut from very different cloth.

Thirsting for the new Nokia 3310? Just make sure it works where you live

The 3310 made us long for our youth, but sadly, it might not even work depending on where you live.
The 3310 made us long for our youth, but sadly, it might not even work depending on where you live.

Image: stan schroeder/mashable

Nostalgia is cheap, but it gets us every damn time.

Nokia’s reboot of the classic 3310 sent people in an unprecedented fervour when it debuted at Mobile World Congress on the weekend. Turns out people want durable dumbphones that’ll last longer than a year. Even if they don’t offer much except for Snake.

The bad news though is that it might not even work: The Nokia 3310 relies on 2.5G connectivity, which requires 2G networks.

Depending on where you live, your local 2G network may be decommissioned at some point in the future, or already has been. Australia’s phasing it out as we speak, with Telstra having decommissioned its 2G network in 2016 and Optus’ switch-off set for April 2017.

Vodafone will begin to decommission its 2G service in September, but we’re yet to hear back if it’ll be offering the 3310. Naturally, Telstra will not be stocking the phone.

If you’re living in Singapore, M1, Singtel and StarHub will cease their 2G service by April. Switzerland’s Swisscom is aiming to shut off 2G in 2020, to help it upgrade to future network technologies. In the U.S., AT&T stopped supporting 2G at the end of 2016.

So, who’s the 3310 for? Well, the phone’s low price of 49 Euros ($52) makes it appear that it’ll be targeted at developing markets. 

But let’s face it, rebooting the 3310 moniker is perhaps a clever marketing tactic for the new owners of Nokia, HMD. If you hadn’t noticed (and fair enough), Nokia also released three fairly meh Android smartphones. What better way to get attention for the brand by pulling at those nostalgic consumer heartstrings?

By reusing the 3310’s name and borrowing elements of the old phone’s design, it’s no wonder we can’t help but get misty-eyed about the whole endeavour.

Camera companies have been banking on nostalgia for some time, coming up with retro-styled digital cameras that make us gush. Or in the case of gaming, the oft-sold out NES Classic. At least these are products that are still functional wherever you go, though. 

In the case of the rebooted Nokia 3310, you might just have to move nations to live out your teenage mobile phone dreams.

KnowRoaming’s virtual SIM makes global roaming a breeze with ZTE Blade V8

Why it matters to you

For smartphone users, roaming internationally is a challenge, but KnowRoaming’s virtual SIM technology makes it easier.

If you’re an international traveler, you know that finding a cheap, reliable mobile network can be a challenge. First, there’s the matter of finding a plan that won’t nickel-and-dime you on international calls and texts.Then you have to switch your phone’s SIM for a compatible card. The lucky owners of ZTE’s Blade V8 won’t have to deal with those problems much longer, however.

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, KnowRoaming, a tech firm that “delivers end-to-end solutions for global connectivity,” announced the launch of the KnowRoaming SoftSIM in the new ZTE Blade V8. Thanks to KnowRoaming’s virtual SIM technology, roaming with the ZTE Blade V8 is a cinch: Users can get unlimited data in 61 countries worldwide without the need for additional SIMs or hardware. (In the U.S., that excludes Verizon and Sprint.)

More: Xiaomi Redmi Pro review

“We’re proud to partner with ZTE to relieve Blade V8 users of the burden of high roaming fees, and provide the freedom and flexibility to stay connected no matter where they travel,” KnowRoaming CEO Gregory Gundelfinger said in a press release.

Managing the SoftSIM is easy. The Blade V8’s native Roam Now app lets users manage real-time usage, choose the country, select the data package, top up their account with prepaid credit, and automatically connect to unlimited data in the aforementioned countries.

KnowRoaming’s announcement comes on the heels of tech firm uCloudlink’s CloudSIM. It, like KnowRoamin’s SoftSIM, tricks your the phone into thinking a card has been inserted. But CloudSIM’s services are restricted to the Xiaomi’s Mi Max phone. And uCloudlink must regularly send a signal to a central server in order to detect which local network is the strongest at any given time.

More: ZTE Blade V8 Pro: Our first take

There’s also the matter of compatibility. Xiaomi phones aren’t sold in the U.S. and don’t support U.S. carrier bands, while the Alcatel and ZTE phones supported by KnowRoaming’s technology are confirmed to work for U.S. GSM carriers.

The $240 Blade V8, for the uninitiated, is an affordable phone with uncompromising hardware. It sports a 5.5-inch 1,920 x 1,080 pixel screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 624 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage. Its dual-camera lens combines images from two adjacent 13-megapixel lenses to create a blurred background (bokeh) effect similar to that on the iPhone 7 Plus, and the 3,140mAh battery compatible with quick charging technology supplies about a day’s worth of juice.

KnowRoaming’s Roam Now app will launch worldwide in the second quarter of this year, a company spokesperson said.

This crazy audio software can make your smartphone sound like a Hi-Fi system

Why it matters to you

With Dirac Research’s algorithms, you can listen to an album as though the band’s right in front of you.

If you’re like us, you probably aren’t familiar with Dirac Research. The Swedish audio company prefers to operate under the radar, partnering with smartphone makers like Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, and OnePlus, high-end auto manufacturers like Rolls Royce and Volvo, and home theater brands to enhance their products’ speakers with algorithms. But at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it stepped into the limelight with three demos that left us speechless.

In a sequestered room off the bustling Mobile World Congress convention center floor in Barcelona, Dirac walked us through the firm’s first audio software product: Dynamic 3D Audio. “It enables transparent sound reproduction,” Dirac Research CEO Dr. Mathias Johansson said. “For example, if in a VR environment a helicopter is hovering 10 yards in front of me, regardless of which way I turn my head, that helicopter [stays] perfectly fixed.”

We put on a pair of Sennheiser open-ear headphones that’d been jury-rigged with a bundle of sensors. Once they were resting comfortable on our ears, a Dirac rep flipped a switch and the demo began.

More: Sonos’ smart speakers could one day integrate with all digital assistants

Dynamic 3D Audio is startlingly realistic. Imagine playing your favorite album and hearing the instruments in front of you, as if on stage. Or picture a virtual surround sound system that simulates a real one: When you point your head in the direction of one “speaker,” it becomes louder, clearer, and more distinctive than the rest.

We heard a firework whiz from the left-back corner of the tiny demo room to the front-right. And we nearly jumped at the sound of a booming voice behind us.

Dynamic 3D Audio’s secret sauce, so to speak, is head-related transfer functions, or HRTFs. As a company spokesperson explained it, they’re a function of how the human ear perceives a particular sound from a fixed point in space — like how a subwoofer sounds from across the room. Dirac Research’s Dynamic 3D Audio platform considers height, cranial proportions, and ear dimensions in each individualized HRTF, ensuring the most accurate reproduction of sound possible.

Those calculations feed a reverberation engine and a head-tracker — the aformentioned bundle of wires.

More: Apple patent describes headphones that flip upward to double as speakers

Dyrac’s second demo, Panorama Sound, was perhaps more impressive than Dynamic 3D Audio. A rep handed us a Huawei Nexus 6P smartphone outfitted with modified software, and had us compare between “Panorama Sound”-enabled stereo and standard stereo.

The difference was revelatory.

With the effect enabled and the Nexus 6P held about six inches from our ears — the sweet spot for Panorama Sound, a Dirac rep told us — it was just like wearing a pair of high-end headphones, but without the headphones. We heard the strings of a guitar plucked to the far right of us. And during a clip of space disaster movie Gravity, a NASA transmission to an astronaut sounded as though coming from a source inches away.

Panorama Sound is made especially convincing thanks to patented algorithms that fine-tune the audio’s frequency, impulse response, and phase. The end result is a perfectly coordinated speakers that deliver an ultra-wide sound stage, rich bass, and unbelievable crispness.

All the more impressive, it works with virtually any audio array that consists of more than two speakers. A Dirac audio rep said that regardless of the two speaker’s proximity to the listener, Panorama can tune them to sound like a perfectly balanced pair of headphones.

More: Transform your desktop into a concert hall with these computer speakers

Panorama Sound, like Dynamic 3D Audio, remains a demo for now. But Dirac’s in talks with Google, which develops the Android smartphone operating system, about potential implementations of Panorama Sound. And it’s partnering with a headphone maker to build Dynamic 3D Audio’s sensors into a Hi-Fi audio product.

Dirac won’t commit to a firm launch date for either product, but here’s hoping they make it to market.

What to do when internet outages ruin your cool smart home

Image: vicky leta/mashable

Your lights automatically flipping on when you walk in the door. Checking who’s at the front door without getting up off the couch. Starting your coffee before you get out of bed. 

There’s a reason the smart home industry is forecasted to become a multibillion-dollar industry over the next several years. Sheer convenience aside, smart home gadgets make us feel like we’re living in the future. Until they don’t. 

Amazon’s lengthy AWS outage Tuesday was a stark reminder of just how much farther we have to go to realize the seamless Jetsons-esque future gadget-makers so desperately want us to buy into. The hours-long disruption took down much of the internet, crippling day-to-day activities for many who rely on AWS-backed services, like Slack and Trello, to do their jobs.

But for smart home enthusiasts, the outage also exposed the fact that our lights and doorbells and other gadgets have (yet another) major weakness. By relying on AWS and other cloud services for core functionality, the devices that are supposed to make our lives easier can all too easily be rendered useless. 

As people flooded Twitter to complain about Slack and other services going down, others began to notice that their connected devices were also failing in the wake of the AWS disruption. One service affected by the AWS outage was automation site IFTTT, whose “recipes” power a huge number of connected devices. 

With IFTTT down, some users were left unable to operate their smart lights and other gadgets. (IFTTT, which stands for “if this, then that, allows you to connect Wi-Fi-enabled lights to other apps and services so you can schedule your lights to turn on and off automatically based on different “triggers,” like walking in the door, or the sun going down.)

The issue wasn’t limited to IFTTT-connected light bulbs, either. Security camera makers Canary and Ring, which sells both app-enabled doorbells and security cameras, also experienced disruptions as a result of the AWS issues. 

Both companies reported issues that prevented users from accessing camera recordings and other parts of their service, which users pay for. Ring’s customer service support phone line even went down for a time as a result of the outage.

While not being able to use your “smart” doorbell, security camera or light bulbs is the epitome of a #firstworldproblem, the issue underscores a larger obstacle for with  smart home industry. Having so many interconnected devices that rely on the same third-party providers for critical infrastructure puts all those gadgets at risk when one link in the chain stops functioning. 

That should be worrying for an industry that is still relatively young and still trying to convince people who aren’t early adopters to take them seriously

Just how many times will people put up with server outages half a continent away knocking their lights and doorbell offline before they decide that they don’t really need the tech to begin with? If companies can’t promise that their tech is reliable, they’ll never be able to persuade the masses to buy in. 

Because home automation is only cool when it works.

DT Daily MWC 2017: A 20-minute phone charge, Gear VR controller, Android One phone

Mobile World Congress continued today, and while the major announcements have all been made, there’s lots of exciting new tech to discover out on the show floor. Here’s what we found on day two of MWC 2017.

Meizu Super mCharge

Even the fastest mobile phone charging systems still take at least 80 minutes to fully charge a battery, but Chinese smartphone brand Meizu has the cure for the impatient, power-hungry person. It’s called Super mCharge, and it’s a new battery charging technology that can take a 3,000mAh battery from zero to fully charged in just under 20 minutes. It’s clever, too, and generates little heat, ensuring it remains safe. Meizu intends to incorporate the tech into a phone later this year.

Gear VR Controller

Google’s Daydream VR has its own remote, and it’s great, so now Samsung has come up with its own remote for the popular Gear VR headset. It’s shaped to fit in your hand and mimic the d-pad controller on the Gear VR. It comes with a trigger button, a back button, and a volume control. It uses Bluetooth to connect the to phone and several sensors to navigate around in virtual reality. We’re still waiting for a price and a release date, but it’s coming soon.

Elliptic Labs

Using speakers and a microphone, Elliptic Labs Inner Peace technology uses ultrasonics to detect presence. This means if it’s used in a space like a living room, it could spot unexpected movements like those of an intruder. It can also monitor elderly relatives in case of a fall. Inner Peace will be integrated into smart home products next year.

General Mobile GM 6

The latest Android One phone, the General Mobile GM 6, is destined for launch in 22 markets around the world, where it introduces people to the joy of low-cost Android smartphone ownership. Like other Android One phones, it comes with Android 7.0 Nougat installed, and gets all the updates in a timely manner. The GM 6, which is coming out in May, has a 5-inch screen, a 3,000mAh battery, an 8-megapixel selfie cam, and a 13-megapixel rear camera.

We’ll be back again tomorrow with more show-floor finds from Mobile World Congress 2017.