All posts in “Innovations”

Google built a digital Etch-A-Sketch that’s just as hard to use as the real thing

My most successful Web-A-Skeb piece, in which I attempted to write "MASH."
My most successful Web-A-Skeb piece, in which I attempted to write “MASH.”

Image: screenshot: rachel kraus/mashable

Want to relive a frustrating yet addictive childhood experience? Now you can!

A Google Chrome Labs developer has built a web version of the classic Etch-A-Sketch. It’s called Web-A-Skeb, which is a name that rocks. And I am happy to report that attempting to create anything with it is just as maddening as the original.

Google Chrome Labs is a group of “experimental projects” from the Chrome team created to showcase creativity in coding for Chrome. Earlier this year, the Chrome Music Lab debuted Song Maker, an application that lets anyone compose songs with a few clicks of your mouse.

The digital Etch-A-Sketch comes from developer Rowan Merewood, who introduced the project on Twitter (h/t Ars Technica).

Web-A-Skeb lets you do everything an original Etch-A-Sketch would. You turn the dials on the side to draw, and shake your device to erase. You can enter full screen mode (though that didn’t work for me on my iPhone). And you can even go into ~Fancy~ mode, which lets you draw with colors.

It works best with a touchscreen. You can use it on a browser but your mouse really only lets you toggle one knob at a time. So, no curved lines for you.

My attempts to write and draw in Web-A-Skeb were… not successful. But it was also strangely fun and addictive. Which is to say, it mirrored the experience of using the real thing.

Here was my attempt to write something. I started with the word “The,” which then tapered off as I was like, OK, I’ll just try to make a heart. Sad.

Hard fail.

Hard fail.

Image: screenshot: Rachel kraus/mashable

Then I decided to simplify and just go for the heart. Better, but still heinous. The hubris of going for curved edges…

Just ugly.

Just ugly.

Image: screenshot: Rachel kraus/mashable

Wow, the internet can still be fun guys! Faith = restored.

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14 innovations that helped make the world a better place in 2018

People across the world may face a variety of challenges, but innovators, activists, and organizations worked together in 2018 to find impressive solutions.

In no particular order, here are 14 innovations that made the world a more inclusive, safe, and all-around better place this year. To learn about other ingenious innovations, check out this list from 2017.

1. Starbucks signing store in U.S. 

You can get these mugs at Starbucks' first U.S. Signing Store in Washington D.C.

You can get these mugs at Starbucks’ first U.S. Signing Store in Washington D.C.

Image: Joshua Trujillo / Starbucks

Starbucks opened its first U.S. store for Deaf and hard-of-hearing customers in Washington, D.C. The cafe’s employees are proficient in American Sign Language and wear aprons with fingerspelling. The store also teaches non-ASL speakers fingerspelling through digital notepads and chalkboard messages. Starbucks’ first-ever “signing” store opened in Malaysia a few years ago, but the D.C. location introduces the concept to American consumers. It also draws attention to how many public spaces are not accessible to people with disabilities while simultaneously demonstrating how they can be reimagined to serve everyone. — Victoria Rodriguez

2. A benefits platform for domestic workers

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People who clean homes for a living typically don’t have any job benefits. Alia promises to change that for millions of people, most of whom are women. The platform, launched this year by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, makes it possible for workers to request and receive contributions from their clients. Benefit options include accident insurance, paid time off, and life insurance. Clients can contribute as little as $5 per cleaning to help their cleaner get benefits. — Rebecca Ruiz

3. An armband that helps diagnose malnutrition

The IRC's armband, adapted for use by low-literate community health workers, in action.

The IRC’s armband, adapted for use by low-literate community health workers, in action.

Image: Elburg van Boetzelaer / International Rescue Committee

Humanitarian workers have long relied on simple armbands to measure malnutrition in remote parts of the world. The typical armband is tri-colored and includes numbers that allow workers to gauge whether a child is experiencing significant weight loss related to malnutrition. Those children are then referred to far-off treatment centers that they may not be able to reach. This year, the International Rescue Committee completed research on a new version of this tool. The design included removing the numbers and adding two additional colors so that low-literate community health workers can visually monitor progress of treatment and weight gain. That means local providers can diagnose and treat malnutrition without help from humanitarian workers. Promising results from the pilot in South Sudan saw higher numbers of severely malnourished children treated than at a health facility. — Rebecca Ruiz

4. An expo for sanitation technology 

Bill Gates gives a speech during the "reinvented toilet expo" in Beijing on November 6, 2018.

Bill Gates gives a speech during the “reinvented toilet expo” in Beijing on November 6, 2018.

Image: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing, China, to showcase cutting-edge sanitation products from around the world. An estimated 801,000 children younger than 5 years old die from diarrhea each year, which in part, can be prevented with safe drinking water and access to hygiene and sanitation. Toilets featured at the expo eliminate pathogens and turn waste into clean water and fertilizer. They can do so without sewer or water lines, which is crucial for countries that don’t have adequate sewer systems. — Victoria Rodriguez

5. Xbox adaptive controller 

An Xbox controller that can be adapted for someone with limited mobility.

An Xbox controller that can be adapted for someone with limited mobility.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI / MASHABLE

This Xbox controller was designed to meet the needs of gamers who have limited mobility. Gamers can customize the controller by attaching switches, joysticks, and other external devices. It also features larger buttons and rubberized stabilizers, making it easier to put the controller on a person’s lap or table. — Victoria Rodriguez

6. Code for America clears marijuana convictions

Code for America teamed up with the San Francisco district attorney's office to clear felony marijuana convictions.

Image: code for america

A year after California legalized recreational marijuana in November 2016, the nonprofit organization Code for America decided to use its Clear My Record program to help people expunge marijuana-related criminal offenses from their record. In May 2018, it partnered with the San Francisco district attorney’s office to clear felony marijuana convictions from people’s records. Code for America, which helps the government connect with communities through technology, hopes to clear 250,000 marijuana convictions by 2019.— Victoria Rodriguez

7. A new taxonomy for language about sexual violence at work 

Image: NSVRC/ the Urban Institute / uber

Image: NSVRC/ THE URBAN INSTITUTE / UBER

This white paper from National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Urban Institute created improved ways of categorizing reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault that happen at work. In a big move for a company notoriously plagued with sexual misconduct in the workplace, Uber provided NSVRC and the Urban Institute with internal reports and data to inform the taxonomy. Though the white paper is specific to Uber, the overarching goal is to better categorize and organize reports so companies can eventually prevent workplace harassment or worse. Sasha Lekach

8. Using Alexa to donate to charity

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Although Amazon’s Alexa has raised concerns about privacy and hackers, the device can be used for good. With a voice command, you can donate between $5 and $5,000 to select charities. — Victoria Rodriguez

9. New emoji for people with disabilities

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Apple worked with disability organizations, including American Council of the Blind, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and the National Association of the Deaf, to propose 13 new emoji to Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit organization that green-lights new emoji. The designs promote inclusion and represent people with disabilities. They include a person in mechanized wheelchair, an ear with hearing aid, a service dog with vest and leash, and more. Unicode Consortium is currently considering the emoji for approval. — Victoria Rodriguez

10. An initiative to collect data to help refugees

Displaced Syrian children at  the camp "Hope" in the Syrian village of Kafr Lusein on September 13, 2018.

Displaced Syrian children at  the camp “Hope” in the Syrian village of Kafr Lusein on September 13, 2018.

Image: OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP / Getty Images

In response to the refugee crisis, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Bank Group established the Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement, a new center to collect, analyze, and share data about refugees, regarding gender, age, income, and other socioeconomic information. The information will help host countries, aid organizations, and policymakers better assist refugees and meet their specific needs. — Victoria Rodriguez

11. Gender-neutral shopping floor 

A display rack for any gender.

A display rack for any gender.

Image: © Svante Gullichsen Photography

The large Finnish department store Stockmann built a new floor between the men’s and women’s clothing sections: a gender-neutral shopping floor on the 1.5th floor called One Way. While just a concept, it pushes the norms of the traditional shopping mall experience. The floor offers clothing from various brands like Calvin Klein and Marimekko, and items aren’t intended for a specific gender but can be worn by anyone. Sasha Lekach 

12. Massive 3D printer that can construct a house

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New Story, a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley, partnered with the construction technology company ICON to create a 3D printer that can produce a home in one day. The printer can manufacture at least 1,000 homes over its lifetime. The nonprofit hopes to support families living in extreme poverty, and it plans to build the first 3D-printed homes in El Salvador in 2019 . A home with bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom costs only $4,000 to make. — Victoria Rodriguez

13. 3D “organ on a chip” 

This is what a 3D "organ on a chip" looks like.

This is what a 3D “organ on a chip” looks like.

Image: Roisin Owens

In October, researchers announced in the journal Science Advances that they’d created a 3D “organ on a chip.” The bioelectronic device makes it possible for cells to grow in three dimensions. Scientists have long used petri dishes to culture cells for experiments and testing. But that two-dimensional environment doesn’t sufficiently mimic the human cell environment and has yielded misinformation as well as drug failure in clinical trials. The researchers plan to use their device to create a “gut on a chip” device and attach it to a “brain on a chip” to study the relationship between the gut microbiome and brain functioning. — Rebecca Ruiz

14. Dual-purpose car mat that provides sidewalk accessibility

A mat to get you there.

Image: Ford Brazil / GTB Brazil / Code Studio

Most cars have trunk and floor mats that we take for granted. But in Brazil, the Ford EcoSport was redesigned this year to include a multi-functional trunk mat. It can be used as an accessibility mat for drivers who use a wheelchair or other mobility vehicles outside their car. The mat can be pulled from the trunk and folded away into the wheelchair to make it up curbs and other difficult terrain. The mat is also “smart” and includes a sensor that maps an area’s accessibility. Every time the mat is deployed, it sends a signal to the user’s phone, eventually gathering enough widespread data that is aggregated to inform cities and advocacy groups about public places that need improved access. Sasha Lekach 

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How future forward are you?

You have a reputation among your friends as the first person to snatch up the latest tech. You’re a digital native, or you’ve made yourself into one: your online life runs as smoothly as your real one, and you love going digital whenever you can. Truly, you’re living in the future while the rest of us play catch-up. You’re the digital vanguard.

And you’re not alone. According to a recent report on Consumer Mobility from Bank of America, more people are becoming like you every day—living their best digital life.

For instance, you’re ready for cutting-edge tech, even for simple things like unlocking your smartphone. Future tech like facial recognition? Bring it on, an opinion shared by half of the report’s respondents. And once you unlock that (no doubt newest model) smartphone, you’re doing more with it than most people. Like most of us, you use your phone’s GPS for directions, you listen to music on your favorite streaming service, you shop online. But further, you feel comfortable making digital payments via apps.

Plus, that friend you just sent some birthday cash to—58% say they’d use peer-to-peer (P2P) payments to do so. And you may not have even met her “IRL.” You, like a majority of respondents, feel just as comfortable being friends with someone you’ve only met virtually as you do with a person you know face-to-face.

As the digital vanguard, you also love banking digitally. You use your bank’s mobile app, just like 70% of respondents. While a majority of respondents across all generations say they use their bank’s mobile app, Gen Z and millennials are the highest adopters: 78% of Gen Z and 77% of millennials, compared to 67% of Gen X and 59% of baby boomers.

You’re also ahead of the curve when it comes to the next digital banking revolution: going totally cashless. You, like 19% of respondents, say you could go a full year without ever using cash. With mobile banking, you’re ready to go.

Got WiFi dead spots? Consider a mesh network system

Router problems solved, smart home enthusiasts can further optimize their experience through accessories and smart devices letting them set rules and schedules, easily sync their wireless infrastructure to voice assistants, smart thermostats, and home security systems, all accessed through a smartphone. The Wemo Mini Smart Plug, for example, lets users control lamps and appliances with their voice, set timers and schedules in the app and remotely control devices from anywhere, without an additional hub or subscription.

Call them the final touches for people looking to create the ultimate smart home experience. Because the smart house is like any other: if it’s built on a solid foundation, it’s just a matter of turning it into a home. 

I tried Verizon’s 5G and, yeah, it’s fast

I’d heard about 5G. But I didn’t know just how fast it would be until I was watching myself miss free throws in real time.

On Monday, Verizon opened the doors to its 5G Experience pop-up shop in downtown Los Angeles. In the space, visitors tested out Verizon’s 5G Home network. 

Internet service providers say 5G will be hundreds of times faster than 4G, and at least four and a half times faster than wireless broadband. Last year, average download speeds for broadband were around 65 Mbps. Verizon promises its “5G Ultra Wideband” — despite sounding like a pair of maternity pants — will deliver speeds between 300 Mbps and up to 1 GB per second.

Those numbers are exciting. But they’re just numbers. To showcase what that actually means, Verizon filled its pop-up demo with devices that streamed and multi-tasked without a hitch. Now, the “experience” was clearly an optimized version of the network — perfectly constructed to deliver the best possible version of 5G. But if it bears any resemblance to reality, the promise of 5G could be the real deal. 

Verizon launched its first commercial 5G broadband network in October in four cities: Houston, LA, Sacramento and Indianapolis. 

The welcome wagon.

The welcome wagon.

Image: rachel kraus/mashable

The entirety of the four Chosen Cities aren’t wired with 5G … yet. For example, my home on the Westside of Los Angeles doesn’t have the option.

We’re not talking about mobile 5G. That may take awhile, though Verizon and Samsung announced Monday they’re unveiling a phone that will be able to connect to 5G in the first half of 2019. 5G-connected enabled iPhones, on the other hand, likely won’t arrive until 2020.

Ready 2 experience.

Ready 2 experience.

Image: rachel kraus/mashable

Still, Verizon’s 5G home network might be about to make life for streamers, gamers, and other people who consume a whole lot of content online a lot less annoying.

The pop-up had three experiences to demonstrate what 5G can do. The space was connected to 5G via a node on a telephone pole across the street, which beamed the signal to the receiver in a corner of the room. None of the devices used for the demos were hardwired to the internet.

The 5G "node" is in the middle.

The 5G “node” is in the middle.

Image: rachel kraus/mashable

Verizon first showcased the power of 5G to stream a high-quality virtual reality experience. I sat in a circle swivel chair, put a VR headset and headphones on, and was told by a very well-trained employee that I would be taking a trip to the moon.

A VR video promoting the new Neil Armstrong movie, First Man, played. It was a little cheesy, but getting to sit in the spacecraft, and swivel around to see Earth out the window, was affecting. And, most importantly, those millions of dynamic pixels in 3D were all coming through a wireless connection — without any lag.

BRB going to the moon.

BRB going to the moon.

Image: rachel kraus/mashable

My WiFi sometimes gets cranky just streaming Hulu shows. The moon VR experience was in a different league in terms of data consumption, and 5G seemed to handle it no problem.

Next, a Verizon employee tried to get me to play Rocket League, which was stressful, since gaming is not something I do. He explained to me that we were playing a graphics-intensive game — one you can normally only play on a PC or game console — on a phone connected to the 5G network. A gaming handset connected to the phone via Bluetooth, and the phone wirelessly broadcast its screen to a high-definition TV above. Two other gamers on TV-connected phones played along, all of us connected to Steam via the 5G network. 

I get it, it's fast.

I get it, it’s fast.

Image: rachel kraus/mashable

I got the picture that this was a feature that someone like my partner — who ran an impossibly long ethernet cable through our attic so that he could hard-wire his gaming computer to our router — would definitely appreciate. And no more hearing a swear word plus “I’m lagging out!” from the other room while I watch Netflix.

Finally, I shuffled over to a tiny basketball court, where two employees held basketballs in their hands. I put on a VR headset that had a camera attached to it. The camera livestreamed its feed to the VR headset, without any discernible lag. As an employee talked to me, standing in front of me IRL, I watched his lips move through the livestreamed image of him, perfectly in time to the words I was hearing with my own analog ears. When I watched him hand me the ball through my headset, I knew just where to reach out and grab it.

Please don't make me shoot the hoops.

Please don’t make me shoot the hoops.

Image: rachel kraus/mashable

Then came the embarrassing part. The basketball demo was meant to show the livestream’s speed and accuracy. So, ostensibly, I would be able to shoot hoops, just as I would in real life. I held the ball, bent my knees, released, and watched the basketball fly past my eyes into the air … and way to the left of the basket.

I am happy to report that I was just as terrible at shooting hoops in livestreamed VR as I was in real life. But I got the point: livestreaming with 5G was apparently no different to my weak human brain than seeing something with my own eyeballs.

Verizon set up a showcased living room, demonstrating the router and receiver set-up for 5G, which looked a lot like what most people are probably used to. The difference was that the receiver wasn’t hardwired to the internet — only the nodes outside were. 

Despite the literal hoops Verizon made its 5G network jump through, it’s impossible to say for sure whether 5G will be the Prince That Was Promised by the ISPs. The experience lab had a special set of large receivers power the internet in the room; ordinarily, a home would just have one considerably smaller one. Plus, the node the receivers were connecting to was just across the street. That sort of proximity won’t be guaranteed for every home, or device, in the future. Which is all to say that at the “5G experience,” everything was optimized to work perfectly.

However, I have been to enough conferences, concerts, meetings, and public events where WiFi and sometimes even the hardwired internet fails. At the Verizon experience, I didn’t notice any load time for anything — not even the VR moon landing. I kid you not when I say that not a single frame was out of place, including during the gaming showcase and my basketball #fail. So even knowing that this event was staged to show off Verizon’s shiny new toy, I still walked away impressed, and ready to live in the 5G future, where we can do away with that silly concept: patience.

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