Trump’s border wall threatens people and wildlife in the Sonora Desert — and no law can stop it

When Brendan Lenihan was in the Border Patrol between 2006 and 2011, he spent a lot of time in a mountainous basin and range landscape that envelops borderland communities in southern Arizona. On both sides of the border, twisted mounds of creosote and tall saguaro cactus dominate the flat, dusty expanses that stretch between the jagged lines of mountains that jut up dramatically against the sky. It’s dry, hot, and drab, and seemingly everything is covered in thorns. But the desert is always good for a surprise, like the bright green slashes of willow and cottonwood-lined creeks that cut across the landscape, or the amber pockets of grassland meadows that yield firework displays of orange and yellow wildflower blooms in the spring.

Once, while Lenihan was out on a patrol near Sasabe, Arizona, a tiny town next to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, “I walked across a four- or five-strand cattle fence that I thought was just from some ranch in the US,” he said. The fence was knocked down, as Lenihan recalled, “so I just kind of stepped over the wires laying on the ground, and I was in Mexico.” He didn’t realize it until his faulty GPS device rebooted, and he stepped back over the line.

Unlike in South Texas, where the international border follows the Rio Grande River, there’s no natural feature along Arizona’s 370-mile southern edge to define where the US ends and Mexico begins. Pedestrian and vehicle fencing built during the border-construction boom of the mid-2000s cuts through the scrub along some stretches. Currently, about 700 miles of the 2,000-mile-long border is marked with some kind of barrier.

That may change. With the executive order signed on January 25th, President Donald Trump took the first steps toward making good on his oft-repeated campaign promise to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile-long border. The Department of Homeland Security will first focus on about 100 miles of “high priority” stretches of the border that are near cities, including areas south of Tucson.

Lenihan’s accidental crossing into Mexico is understandable: The land on either side of the border is the Sonoran Desert. A biodiversity hot spot, the desert is indifferent to human divisions. So Trump’s proposed wall will cut across numerous mountain ranges, arroyos, rivers, and communities, including the Tohono O’odham Nation, which abuts 62 miles of US-Mexico border, and includes about 2,000 tribal members who live in Mexico.

All told, public and tribal lands comprise nearly 80 percent of the state’s border, and there are 4.3 million acres of designated wilderness in this part of the state. The area is home to a host of endangered species, from the handful of American jaguars living at the far northern end of the big cat’s range, to the diminutive cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. But even public land and animals protected by the federal government are not shielded from the wall.

In April, the Center for Biological Diversity and Arizona Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat, sued the Trump administration over the executive order. The suit argues that DHS hasn’t conducted the requisite environmental analysis for its enforcement activities required under the National Environmental Policy Act. But unlike other federal lawsuits brought against the administration over the president’s executive orders, like the travel ban, the CBD case is likely to fail.

Thanks to a 2005 law, the DHS has the authority to waive any and all laws, except for the Constitution, in the name of border barrier construction. The Trump administration can disturb human remains, desecrate sacred sites, destroy wildlife habitat, foul air and water, and bring new development to the second largest tract of wilderness in the lower 48 — and all with near complete impunity.

Before he joined the Border Patrol, Lenihan started his professional life in what is essentially the family business: the National Park Service. His archaeologist father, Daniel Lenihan, started NPS’s Submerged Resources Center, leading teams of scuba divers who map shipwrecks in national parks around the country; his mother also worked for NPS in Santa Fe before she had her two sons.

Lenihan grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but the family spent time bouncing around from park to park, staying in rangers’ houses or cabins around the country, playing with the kids of other Parks Service families. Later, both brothers spent time on their dad’s team, and Lenihan dove to the sunken hull of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, and the wreckage of one of the ferries that carried immigrants to and from Ellis Island. During the spring and summer of 2006, he served as a law enforcement ranger at Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, doing search and rescue operations in the backcountry and making sure no one was growing weed on public land.

Lenihan saw a recruiting ad for the Border Patrol, which went on a hiring spree in the mid-2000s. Between growing up in New Mexico and a love of Cormac McCarthy novels, Lenihan knew the draw of the desert, and he thought that serving in CBP would be a great adventure.

“Illegal immigration fascinated me,” Lenihan said, “and I wanted to know what was really going on in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and Texas. I wanted to see it for myself.”

Being out on a patrol in the mountainous desert — where you might stumble upon massive golden eagles nesting in the craggy peaks, and herds of hog-like javelina regularly come rushing out from the scrub — “can be very quiet and very desolate, and it was a very nice place to commune with nature,” Lenihan said. But there’s no mistaking the Sonora of southern Arizona with the desert national parks Lenihan grew up visiting. Border Patrol has carved these public lands with 12,000 miles of illegal off-road tracks. (The roads are not permitted and located in wilderness areas, where development is restricted.) Both smugglers and migrants leave more than a trace, too, with an estimated 2,000 tons of trash pulled out of the parks every year. Looking out at the rugged mountains, Lenihan said you can sometimes see bits of broken glass shimmer like tinsel in the harsh light.

“We’ve always had a lot of appreciation for America’s best idea,” said Lenihan, who just finished his last semester of law school at the University of Arizona. He strongly believes in protecting public lands for future generations to enjoy. But when it comes to the border, his Parks Service and Border Patrol work has left Lenihan torn between their philosophies of conservation and enforcement.

Once, he was walking down a trail about 15 miles north of the border when he came across the starkest reminder of the harsh environment and the risk migrants take trying to cross it: a human skull, with the rest of the body sitting under a mesquite tree nearby. “I was just enjoying myself, and I was kicking rocks, and I almost went up to kick it — I thought it was just a white stone,” he said. Last year, there were 170 migrant deaths in the Arizona desert, according to Humane Borders. Many of the deceased are unidentified, and only skeletal remains were found.

“The border wall is fundamentally a human rights issue — it restricts the free flow of people,” said Tucson resident David Wilson, a Tohono O’odham tribal member. What makes the ecology of the desert so singular, with its host of plants and animals adapted to the heat and drought, can make that restriction lethal for humans. For nearly a decade, Wilson put water out for people trekking north from the border through the Baboquivari Valley — one of the deadliest areas in southern Arizona. Despite the risk, the route is frequented by migrants; there’s even a Mexican bottled water brand named for it. The label shows the craggy silhouette of the nearly 8,000-foot Baboquivari peak jutting up above the surrounding range, the granite mass a beacon guiding migrants toward the north.

The north–south valley, which runs along the reservation boundary and marks the western edge of the Tucson CBP’s patrol area, has its own pockets of natural water, where creeks run under the bent boughs of sycamores and live oaks. The cool shade of places like Brown Canyon, on the east side of the mountain range, are a respite for desert wildlife, attracting big cats like mountain lions and even the occasional jaguar. Both species range widely, and are among the many animals that regularly cross back and forth across the border — behavior that Trump’s wall would end. All told, border-wall construction threatens the habitat of 111 endangered species, according to a survey conducted by Outside last year.

“We don’t even really have the science to make sure what the overall impacts are from a biological perspective,” says Randy Serraglio, a southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. One study found that the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl — which bears a striking resemblance to The Sword in the Stone’s fussy cartoon owl, Archimedes — won’t fly up over the 30-foot wall. (The owl rarely flies higher than 4.5 feet.)

The wall also adds to the existing divisions of the landscape — which can trap animals in areas with little food or few mates. Mexico’s Highway 2, which runs just south of the border, already presents a significant barrier to Sonoran pronghorn, a diminutive antelope subspecies. The pronghorn were nearly wiped out a decade ago, and were preserved through a captive breeding program. The wall, while not as deadly for them as the road, will further isolate the Arizona herd from animals south of the border.

If the wall proves disastrous for native species, it’s worth remembering there are other ways of looking at the border. “The border should be treated as a zone to manage and steward — not seal,” Lenihan wrote in a legal paper published last year in The Arizona Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. “A well-managed, low-risk environment on the border is a realistic and respectable objective.” Managing the border differently would make it possible to bring some of the Park Service mentality to the area: “That goal leaves room for another American value that defines this country — the stewardship and preservation of our nation’s most precious natural treasures.”

“I think a lot of these land-management agencies understand that the border patrol isn’t intentionally trying to damage the natural environment,” Lenihan said, while acknowledging that CBP can’t help but leave a trace out in the desert. So for him, it’s about figuring ways to limit that impact — and the best way to do so, in Lenihan’s opinion, is through staffing and technology, not a wall.

Environmental and human rights organizations agree that a wall will only exacerbate the border’s problems, but they see an increased technological footprint along the border — a “virtual fence” approach built around surveillance towers, remote sensors, and other monitoring systems — as part of the larger problem of militarization. “People are part of the environment, so human rights problems on the border and environmental problems on the border have the same source,” said Dan Millis, the Sierra Club’s borderlands program coordinator: militarization, wall construction, and border patrol operations that are not sensitive to human rights or the environment.

If jaguars and bighorn sheep and mountain lions and pronghorn likely won’t cross the wall, it’s clear to Lenihan who will. “The people who I have met, who I have arrested, when I see the willpower that they have to want to reunite with family members, or when I see the willpower to find a job or to escape something horrible in their home country — that kind of willpower isn’t going to be…” Lenihan paused. “A wall isn’t going to stop that.”

Bring out your dead: What to do with your old iPhone

Update: Added a section on how to use an old iPhone as a security camera or baby monitor, and revised copy throught to account for new devices.

Does the iPhone 7 make older iPhone models obsolete? Maybe, maybe not. The answer varies from person to person and what they expect (and need) from their smartphones. One thing is for sure, however: A ton of people who rushed out to buy the iPhone 7 have an older iPhone, such as an iPhone 5 or 6S, suddenly sitting idle.

But an old iPhone doesn’t have to be a techno-albatross hanging over your shoulders. There are plenty of great ways to put an older iPhone to use even if it’s not your carry-everywhere device anymore. And if you truly don’t need or want it around, there are solid options for putting it in good hands — or getting some cold hard cash for your device. Read on to find out more.

Keeping your old iPhone

For many people, keeping an old iPhone around makes plenty of sense. After all, every iPhone beginning with the iPhone 5 can run Apple’s latest iteration of iOS 10, so the devices aren’t exactly useless.

Use it as a backup phone

Keeping an old iPhone as a backup device can be helpful if you’re the sort of person who tends to leave their smartphone at work, in the car, or on that table next to the door where there’s no way you could possibly miss it on your way out in the morning. This option is particularly helpful for frequent travelers. Often, it makes sense to use an entirely different phone when you’re overseas to avoid ghastly roaming charges.

Once an iPhone is off contact, the most common approach is to unlock the device and purchase a new SIM card that works with another carrier. To unlock an iPhone, we suggest that you follow our guide on how to unlock any iPhone from your wireless carrier. Of course, you can also keep an iPhone on contract with shared voice and data plans with many carriers, and just keep using it as you always have.

Where can you take an unlocked iPhone?

Well, this depends on the iPhone model you have. You have to keep in mind that AT&T, T-Mobile, and most carriers around the world use the GSM standard. Verizon and Sprint are different because they use CDMA. If your iPhone is a GSM phone, this means it will not work on Verizon or Sprint. Many phones, such as the iPhone, have the capability to work with both standards.

Smartphones like the iPhone 7 have two different versions. If you bought your iPhone 7 from Verizon or Sprint, then your iPhone will also work with GSM carriers such as AT&T or T-Mobile. However, if you bought your iPhone 7 from AT&T and T-Mobile, then these phones are only GSM phones, so you can’t use them on Verizon or Sprint. We suggest you look into your particular model if you plan to take the older phone to another carrier.

Outside the United States, the process is similar, only more common. GSM networks are the standard, and most operators will be happy to sell folks a SIM card to use on their network. When you come back to the states, there’s no need to keep paying for service — just reactivate it when (and if) you return to that country.

Use it like an iPod touch

An iPhone without phone service is essentially a spiffy iPod touch — and plenty of people find an iPod touch is all the iOS experience they need. Your old iPhone can get good use as a standalone camera, and when you’re near Wi-Fi, you can publish images to your iCloud Camera Roll and have them automatically synced across all your iOS and MacOS devices. Need an alternative? Pop your aging device into a speaker dock — or an audio system with an iPod option — and turn it into a home stereo. With iTunes Sharing, you can stream your iTunes library wirelessly to your stereo. Similarly, services such as Spotify, Pandora, SoundCloud, and TunedIn will provide you with a steady supply of new music.

iOS Cameras

Use it as a security camera or baby monitor

One of the most popular uses of an old iPhone is to keep it as a security camera or baby monitor. The reason why we talk about these together is that they both work the same way. Download the app to your old iPhone, pair the old iPhone with the new iPhone, and voila! You have a security camera. You can find many apps in the App Store by just searching for “baby monitor” or “security camera.” You can try an app like Presence if your looking for a security solution, or something like Cloud Baby Monitor, which is also compatible with the Apple Watch.

We suggest that you read through our guide on how to turn your old iPhone into a smart home gadget for a more in-depth look at different apps.

WittyThumbs will help you decipher what your date’s messages really mean

Online and mobile-based dating has always had one major issue – it’s really hard to figure out what your match’s messages mean.

Sure, they may think they are being direct and to the point, but if you’ve ever actually tried a dating app you know this isn’t the case.

Enter WittyThumbs. Launching today, the website is the first product from Hermes, a YC-based startup that wants to help people improve their dating lives via educational content and expert help.

WittyThumbs is essentially RapGenius for dating conversations. You take a screenshot of your text messages, upload it to the site, and users can annotate and give feedback. 

The startup was founded by Liron Shapira and Lior Gotesman, who started the company with the thesis that thanks to apps like Tinder and Bumble finding someone to date is no longer the hard part – now it’s all about knowing what to say to get their attention.

Plus, before these apps most of us would date someone we were set up with or had something in common with. Now with so many matches being strangers, it’s more likely that you’ll be stuck trying to figure out what they are trying to say – even if your match isn’t trying to be elusive or confusing.

WittyThumb’s customers range in age and sex – the startup explained that it’s common to find someone in their early 20s who needs help starting to date, or someone in their 50s who is recently divorced and has never had to navigate chat-based dating.

There’s also a premium option to instantly chat with a dating expert for one on one feedback – this is billed by the minute, and starts at $30 for 30 minutes of advice. The founders explained that they have about 15 experts around the world, meaning you should be able to get live relationship help at any time of the day.

But of course all chat uploads are anonymous – users create new usernames for the site and blurs any identifying information in the screenshots, like profile pictures or real names and numbers.

While Hermes is starting with chat advice and analysis, eventually they plan on expanding their product line to help users during all parts of the dating process.

Featured Image: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

Sony on PS4 Pro: ‘We see 4K as being the next HD’

In late 2016, the focus of Sony’s PlayStation division was on hardware. During a span of around 60 days, the company launched three new devices: a slimmer base PS4, the more powerful PS4 Pro, and the PlayStation VR headset. The surge appears to have been largely a success; the PSVR has topped 1 million units sold, while Sony says the PS4 is “close to” hitting the 60 million mark.

The question mark is the PS4 Pro. The company isn’t releasing specific sales data for the upgraded hardware, but it says that since the debut in November, one in five new PS4s sold has been the Pro model. (Sony says the actual number “runs into the millions.”) Nonetheless, Sony is committed to the Pro and the shift its added power represents.

“We see 4K as being the next HD,” says Shawn Layden, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America, “and PlayStation 4 Pro is our answer to that opportunity.”

For many consumers, some confusion remains around the PS4 Pro. While the hardware features an enhanced GPU and the ability to play games and other media in 4K, it’s not always clear which games or developers are actually supporting the device, or what features are only available on the pricier console.

When Prey launched on May 8th, for instance, it purportedly supported PS4 Pro. But it wasn’t until last week that a patch was released, adding in a large number of Pro-specific improvements.

In comparison to Microsoft’s upcoming Project Scorpio — which the company says will offer 4K support and performance improvements for all Xbox One games — the advantages of upgrading to PS4 Pro aren’t as immediately clear.

According to Jim Ryan, president and CEO and Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe, the responsibility to support the hardware lies with game developers. That is to say, each developer must spend time and resources to tweak and patch their games to take advantage of the PS4’s added power.

“It’s one of those things where we very much leave it to the content creator to make what they will of the power of the machine,” he says. “I think the proof of the pudding is in the tasting; when you look at something like Horizon Zero Dawn, which is just gorgeous on PS4 Pro, you can see firsthand what the device delivers. Now there are other games where the benefits of Pro are less apparent, and frankly in some cases less necessary. So it’s down to the individual developer.”

Shawn Layden.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Project Scorpio is expected to launch later this year, but at Microsoft’s E3 Keynote on June 11th the company will be revealing more details about the console. According to Ryan, the relative mystery around Scorpio, along with PS4 Pro’s one-year head start, has been advantageous for Sony. “We were able to get out and lay out our agenda before anybody else,” he says. “We don’t know yet when Microsoft will come with Scorpio, there’s much that’s yet to be known about that product. We don’t know the date, we don’t know the price, we don’t know the quantities. So we’re able to get out there and do our thing, and we’re very happy about that.”

The entire concept of mid-cycle upgrades like PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio — consoles that are more powerful than their predecessors, but not an entirely new generation of hardware — is still largely unproven territory, and recent studies suggest that a majority of consumers are unaware of the new devices and the advantages they offer.

Historically, raw power has had little impact on the success of a console; just look at the meteoric sales of the original Wii compared to the more powerful PS3 and Xbox 360. That said, Ryan believes updates like the PS4 Pro will help Sony appeal to early adopters and those consumers who don’t even know what a PS4 Pro is.

“For us, it’s about trying to strike a balance between having a platform have a certain lifespan that will allow developers to become familiar, and to exploit the platform, but at the same time, to allow those who wish to upgrade mid-cycle to have something that’s new and shiny and more powerful,” he says. “I think we’ve struck really an elegant balance between those two factors.”

Sony’s Shawn Layden: ‘Vita is still a viable platform’

Unless you follow events like E3 closely, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sony’s portable Vita platform is all but dead. After all, the handheld is rarely mentioned by the company anymore, and that’s unlikely to change at this year’s PlayStation E3 keynote on June 12th. But just because the Vita won’t have much of a presence at gaming’s biggest spectacle, that doesn’t necessarily mean the platform is dead — especially if you ask Sony Interactive Entertainment America president and CEO Shawn Layden.

“Vita is still a viable platform,” Layden says, “chiefly in the Japanese and Asian markets. We still have developers in Japan who are building for that platform. But it just didn’t get over the hump in Europe and America. It’s hard to know exactly why, but it didn’t garner a large enough audience here for us to continue to build for it.”

That said, the spirit of the Vita still lives on in a way through the Nintendo Switch. The portable / console provides a more seamless way to play games both at home and on the go. It has also become an increasingly popular destination for indie games, much as the Vita used to be. Whatever happens with the Vita in the future, though, know it has at least one big fan inside Sony. “It’s still my favorite portable,” says Layden. “It travels with me all the time, and I play Hot Shots Golf consistently.”

PlayStation VR surpasses 1 million units sold

Sony has now sold more than 1 million PlayStation VR headsets, the company announced today. The news follows a reveal back in February that the PSVR had topped 915,000 units sold since its debut last October. It puts PSVR ahead of direct competitors like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift — according to research firm SuperData, the two sold 420,000 and 243,000 units respectively by the end of 2016 — but still well back of Samsung’s Gear VR, which has sold more than 5 million units globally. Shawn Layden, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment America, admits there’s still plenty of work to be done, especially given the large install base of PS4 owners, which is approaching 60 million. “It’s still just a million units,” he says.

Layden expects sales to pick up this year in large part because of availability. “We’ll have freer supply in the marketplace,” he says of 2017. “We got to a point around Christmas where you would be hard-pressed to find VR anywhere. So we dialed back some of our promotional activity at that time because we didn’t want to be promoting a platform for people to find out they couldn’t get it. I didn’t want to create more unhappy customers.”

Software will be a big focus. When PSVR launched, it was released alongside a surprisingly robust lineup of virtual reality experiences, including well-received titles like Thumper and Rez Infinite. Since then, however, the release schedule has died down significantly, with few notable highlights outside of the VR mode for Resident Evil 7.

PlayStation VR Aim Controller.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Last month, however, saw the release of sci-fi shooter Farpoint and the Aim Controller peripheral, which Layden believes is the start of a “second wave” of games hitting the platform. “When a new console or a new platform launches, there’s a lot of activity driving launch day,” he says. “And then there’s the inevitable lull between that and the next launch of titles. I think we’re seeing that happening now. Farpoint is the lead of that, and we’ll be talking about a number of other titles at E3.” According to Sony, PSVR owners have purchased 5.25 million VR games to date, and play an average of 25 minutes per session.

Outside of games, Sony is also looking to expand the platform with different types of experiences. To that end, Sony Pictures is bringing an upcoming experience based on Breaking Bad to PSVR, which will be helmed by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan. “For PSVR, we came to it from a gaming context,” Layden says. “But we knew at the time when we were developing it that a lot of people will have interest in this.”

One big question that remains is the life cycle of a platform like PSVR. New consoles come out on average around every 5 to 6 years, while smartphones are often refreshed on an annual basis. It’s not clear yet where virtual reality hardware like PSVR fits on that spectrum.

“With VR, it’s a totally brave new world,” says Layden. “We’re still trying to understand exactly what people are going to want to do in that medium. It’s hard to make predictions about it. People will want it to be smaller, lighter, wireless — these are all things we’re looking at from a conventional iteration process. But I don’t presume to be able to tell you what VR is going to look like in the year 2018 or 2019. We’re going to find out together as we go along.”

Apple’s healthcare ambitions look to take a step forward

Working with Apple every day, as Apple sees it, could help keep the doctor away—or at least well informed. 

Apple’s push into healthcare is readying its second gear, and this week’s Worldwide Developers Conference is just the start. 

Apple started its push into healthcare when it introduced the Apple Watch in 2015. The wearable device made fitness, and then health software, and then medical research, more central to Apple’s mission. 

Since then, Apple introduced ResearchKit in 2015 and CareKit in 2016. The two open-sourced platforms, both included under Apple’s HealthKit category, let nontraditional developers without total coding expertise build apps for both medical research and consumer health. Projects so far have included an app from Penn Medicine for the rare disease Sarcoidosis, an app from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study postpartum depression, and even end-to-end encryption tools available to health apps on the platform. 

This year, more of them than ever could be developers working in healthcare, helping to build Apple’s tools—and its growing reputation—as a platform for medical research, health management, and caregiving. 

There could also be something big in store for this year’s WWDC. Last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook was spotted wearing a wearable device that tracked blood sugar — a sign of Apple’s continued interested in the healthcare space. 

Apple likes to talk up its developer community. The tech giant claimed last month that it had created 2 million jobs—1.5 million of which were jobs in the “App Store ecosystem,” aka not exactly working for Apple. A few days ago, Apple touted that developers had earned $70 billion through the App Store.

Apple won’t provide those kinds of numbers just for its HealthKit apps just yet. The company says that “millions of people” have used “hundreds of ResearchKit apps.”  

But moving into healthcare certainly has an upside for Apple. Wearables and health apps give the company a foothold on a $2.8 trillion industry—and access to more data from millions of consumers. It also helps Apple sell more of Apple’s core products. 

“Their participation in the market is still fringe. It’s mostly about trying to make devices more attractive to people,” said Andy Hargreaves, an Apple analyst at Pacific Crest Securities. 

Penn Medicine’s Sarcoidosis app represents exactly how Apple hopes its platform will work. Dan O’Connor, a medical student at Penn at the time, developed the app in partnership with Misha Rosenbach, an assistant professor of dermatology at Penn Medicine. O’Connor had taught himself a few programming languages and developed apps in the healthcare space before using ResearchKit for this project. 

The app has had about 900 downloads and drawn about 500 consented participants for a study. Those numbers might sound miniscule compared to the reach of Apple, but it’s already one of the largest studies ever for the rare disease, O’Connor said. Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory condition that affects the lungs, skin, eyes, heart, and brain, and is diagnosed in 11 to 36 of every 100,000 Americans each year. 

Through the app, researchers are studying both whether a digital study of a rare disease— with patients spread throughout the country and the world—can even work, as well as the disease itself. The app provides its users information about Sarcoidosis that their local doctors might not be able to give them and then asks them to take surveys about their condition and general health. 

“ResearchKit, compared to what we were envisioning initially, enabled us to do more than we ever imagined we could do,” O’Connor said (in what is probably Apple’s dream blurb for the ResearchKit website). “Our initial vision of the app was very simple—to do mostly mobile and web-type programming, simple pages with information and a survey or two. ResearchKit enabled us to tap into data.” 

Apple hasn’t revealed any of its specific healthcare plans before WWDC starts on Monday. Most of the conference probably won’t focus on medical research… unless it convinces more people watching to buy a new Apple Watch. 

“The data is important, but it’s not important in the way it would be to Google, Facebook, or Amazon,” Hargreaves said. “The Apple business is built around making devices and software.” 0e79 67cb%2fthumb%2f00001

Feds look to experimental light-field cameras to ID drivers at the border

Facial recognition systems have made huge technological leaps in recent years — offering definitive identification in seconds, from as far as 350 meters away — but there’s one scenario where they still fall short: the car. Modern systems still struggle to identify faces through glass, particularly the slanted windshield of an automobile. Current systems at land borders in Hong Kong perform facial recognition through rolled-down windows, simply to avoid the confounding effect of the glass.

But over the past few months, a new system has emerged to solve that problem, developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the request of US Customs and Border Patrol. Still largely secret, the system draws on light-field sensor arrays to mitigate the glass barrier, allowing cameras to focus past the reflections on the windshield to the faces of the drivers and passengers. If effective, it could pave the way for far more aggressive deployment of facial recognition at automotive crossings.

The system arose out of an initiative called biometric exit, which mandates a face or fingerprint verification of every US visitor as they exit the country. At airports, that has meant a massive push for facial recognition cameras at departure gates and elsewhere — but land borders present unique challenges. Most land visitors arrive in cars, and windshields make it difficult to reliably capture facial images. According to a GAO report released in February, the available technologies “would require all passengers to stop and exit their vehicle to be photographed or scanned.” The result would create unworkable delays at some of America’s busiest crossing points, particularly at the Mexican border.

In June, Customs reached out to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for a solution, and recent statements indicate that they’ve found one. The lab still hasn’t publicly discussed its findings (a representative declined to comment for this piece), but at a conference in April, CBP executive director Colleen Manaher said the lab had made progress with a system called a plenoptic camera.

“The camera they have developed can go into a vehicle through tint and glare,” Manaher told the crowd. “I’m looking at it through the naked eye and I can’t see in, but there on that screen are two people, the passenger and the driver, in facial recognition quality.” The camera is still in the prototype phase, but for Manaher and others at Customs, it presents a unique chance to break the technological stalemate.

The biggest problem for in-car facial recognition is the glass barrier, which adds reflections that confuse many algorithms, and also cuts down on the total amount of available light. The details of Oak Ridge’s plenoptic camera are still largely undisclosed, but the general technology could address both problems. Also called light-field cameras, plenoptic systems use an array of sensors to capture as much light information as possible, far more than would be necessary to construct a single static photograph. That means more light overall, but also enough information to perceive depth, a crucial element in distinguishing glass reflections from the features of the face behind it.

While the technology is relatively new to government agencies, it’s been available to consumers for years. The Lytro camera, first released in 2012, uses a similar system to let consumers tweak the focus and perspective of a photo in post-processing. Colvin Pitts, a senior architect at Lytro, says the camera’s depth-sensing capability could be particularly useful when cleaning up an image for facial recognition. “Because it lets you separate objects in space, you can imagine focusing one image on the tinted windshield and another image where you expect the driver to be,” Pitts says. “With some clever image processing, you could remove some portion of what you get from the windshield.”

It’s still unclear how reliable those techniques would be in the field, and Pitts cautioned that showing early success might be easier than developing a reliable system. “Solving some of the cases is a lot easier than solving all of the cases,” he told The Verge. That’s consistent with Manaher’s early assessment, which described the system as “very prototypey.”

As the technology develops, it could enable ambitious new facial recognition projects, particularly when combined with automatic license plate recognition or ALPR technology. Last Year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan called New York Crossings that would install facial recognition cameras alongside ALPR systems at every bridge and tunnel leading into Manhattan, although experts say there are still significant logistical challenges to such a system. If implemented, New York Crossings would give officials identifying information on hundreds of thousands of individuals as they enter and exit New York City, the vast majority of which would not be suspected of any crime.

While it may be years before the systems are deployed, the issue is already raising privacy concerns. Clare Garvie, an associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, says on-road systems like New York Crossings raise serious user consent issues. “It doesn’t matter how much notice is given the the public in advance,” Garvie says. “If these cameras are installed on gantries over main arteries, there is very little practical way to opt out of this system.”

Optoma announces a 4k projector for $1,999

4k projectors are finally becoming affordable. Optoma today announced the pricing for its first line of 4k projectors. The UHD60 is $1,999 and the UHD65 is $2,499, making these two models the least expensive 4k projectors available. You can send thank you notes to Texas Instruments.

Optoma unveiled this line of 4k projectors earlier this year at CES. These projectors use a new 4k UHD DLP chip from Texas Instruments. Video nerds will be quick to point out that this DLP chip uses a bit of trickery to display the 4k UHD picture. And they’re not wrong. This 0.67 DLP chip employs 4 million mirrors, yet displays 8 million pixels thanks to the mirror’s ability to create two distinct and unique pixels by switching over 9,000 times a second.

This system is different from other low-cost 4K-enhanced projectors. In projectors that use 3LCD technology a 4k resolution is achieved through taking a 1080p chip and displaying two 1080p images in rapid succession, with the second slightly off-shifted to double the resolution. The result is good, but not great.

Early reports state that DLP’s new system produces impressive results. Apparently the eye cannot discern differences between this type of 4k image and a projector using a full resolution 4k system. Projector Central goes as far as saying this DLP can produce a clean 1-pixel line test pattern, saying “no native 4k projector can do better.”

The Optoma UHD60 and UHD65 are similar but aimed at different markets. The UHD60 sports a brightness of 3,000 lumens and a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. This model will cost $1,999 and be sold through consumer home cinema retailers like Amazon and Best Buy. The UHD65 has a brightness of 2,200 lumens and a contrast ratio of 1,200,000:1 and features an enhanced RGBRGB color wheel. This model will be sold through dedicated home theater dealers.

Both models were announced at CES with a higher price.

This is the first projector line that uses TI’s 0.67 DLP chip but it likely will not be the last. Like with 1080p projectors, more manufacturers will start to implement the technology and drive down the prices.

Apple’s next move: Siri needs to move out

Siri is lousy at its job.

That’s the conventional wisdom surrounding Apple’s digital assistant, which has counted the iPhone as a primary residence since its 2011 debut on the iPhone 4S (really second debut, if you count Siri’s previous life as a third-party app).

Siri has trouble hearing you, gets a lot of things wrong, and is really only good at telling you the weather. Just ask any iPhone user — whether it’s your stepmom, your roommate, or your Lyft driver, the feature they like to complain about most is almost invariably Siri.

The truth is more complicated, of course. Siri has steadily improved over the almost six years of its existence. It can launch apps and control some functionality in them. It speaks 21 languages, including Norwegian. Not to mention that huge “brain transplant” to integrate machine learning so its answers get progressively better at a faster rate.

So Siri gets a bit of bad rap. While everyone with experience with today’s crop of digital assistants has their preferences, there is no definitive study that points to Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, or any of the rest as being markedly better than its counterparts.

Hardware hindrance

Where Siri fails — and where Apple has an opportunity to course-correct at Monday’s keynote to kick off its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) — is on the hardware side. That isn’t to say Apple has built poor devices (it hasn’t), just that none of them have been an ideal home for its voice assistant.

The reaction Siri provokes in Apple customers is most often one of annoyance.

Let’s start with the iPhone. For starters, Siri is built into the Home button, which has many functions, meaning, for many, the most common interaction is when they activate Siri by mistake. Think about that: The reaction Siri provokes in Apple customers is most often one of annoyance. While it’s nothing Siri has done specifically, the more it happens, the more a psychological connection is made. It’s simply not a good look.

Then there’s the need to pull your iPhone out of your pocket before you can say anything. Yes, I realize Siri went hands-free some time ago, but speaking to a phone that’s still in your pocket or handbag is impractical for multiple reasons. And if you already have your phone in your hand anyway, it’s often quicker to just do the thing you want to do by hand, rather than gambling that Siri will get it right the first time.

The Apple Watch seemingly improves things by giving Siri a place where it’s more at the ready: Just lift your wrist, say its name, and it’s there. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch’s relatively weak processor means lags are the norm. Siri also suffers from the lack of Apple Watch apps, and more often than not will simply kick you to your phone in response to a query.

Apple made a big deal about bringing Siri to the Apple TV, but you don’t hear much about it anymore. That’s probably because the interaction is driven from the remote, which is universally panned as horribly designed. In any case, using Siri on the Apple TV offers a pretty limited use case.

As for Siri on the Mac, you just need to look at Microsoft’s experience with Cortana — which has been on the PC since Windows 10 — to get a sense of how that’s going.

Siri hears an Echo

Where this is all obviously leading is a Siri-powered “smart speaker” similar to the Amazon Echo, and the rumor mill predicts Apple will unveil one — if not at WWDC then at an event later this year. The move makes sense; it’s even overdue. From its slow start in late 2014, the Echo has proven that a standalone, always-on gateway is what’s needed to elevate voice AI into what some call “ambient computing.” Since then, Google’s Assistant and Cortana both got their own speaker hubs; all the cool assistants are doing it.

However, if you’re thinking the Siri speaker will follow the usual Apple MO of swooping into a new or sleepy category with a better product, you’re probably in for a disappointment. Amazon’s Echo products are satisfying mostly because of the company’s impressive microphone technology. Even if Apple gets that part right, it’s not like Siri is going to suddenly get smarter because it got a new home.

Siri’s also hobbled by the way Apple handles privacy. If you’ve ever noticed that Siri sometimes gives wildly different answers to queries depending on whether you make them on your Mac, iPad or iPhone, you’re far from alone. That’s because some parts of the Siri experience are purposely kept on the device to ensure they’re kept private. That has benefits in the abstract, but it sometimes means Siri feels dumber than it should.

Despite all this, a Siri speaker is a good move for Apple and its customers. By creating a Siri-specific product, where it can succeed or fail on its own terms — and not limited by form factors that were never designed specifically for an AI — Apple has put all the pieces in place for us to start seeing its digital assistant in a better light. After all, Alexa can be pretty ditzy, too, but when you literally don’t have to lift a finger to get something done, it’s a whole other level of delight.

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