Drone delivery really only seems practical for two things: take-out and organ transplants. Both are relatively light and also extremely time sensitive. Well, in a refrigerated box have yielded positive results — which also seems promising for getting your pad thai to you in good kit. The test flights were conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland there, led by surgeon Joseph Scalea. He has been frustrated in the past with the inflexibility of air delivery systems, and felt that drones represent an obvious solution to the last-mile problem. Scalea and his colleagues modified a DJI M600 drone to carry a refrigerated box payload, and also designed a wireless biosensor for monitoring the organ while in flight. After months of waiting, their study was assigned a kidney that was healthy enough for testing but not good enough for transplant. Once it landed in Baltimore, the team loaded it into the container and had it travel 14 separate missions of various distances and profiles. The longest of these was three miles, a realistic distance between hospitals in the area, and the top speed achieved was 67.6 km/h, or about 42 mph. Biopsies of the kidney were taken before and after the flights, and also after a reference flight on a small aircraft, which is another common way to transport organs medium distances. Image credit: Joseph Scalea The results are good: despite the potential threats of wind chill and heat from the motors of the drone (though this was mitigated by choosing a design with a distal motor-rotor setup), the temperature of the box remained at 2.5 degrees Celsius, just above freezing. And no damage appeared to have been done by the drones’ vibrations or maneuvers. Restrictions on drones and on how organs can be transported make it unlikely that this type of delivery will be taking place any time soon, but it’s studies like this that make it possible to challenge those restrictions. Once the risk has been quantified, then kidneys, livers, blood, and other tissues or important medical supplies may be transported this way — and in many cases, every minute counts. One can also imagine the usefulness of this type of thing in disaster situations, when not just ordinary aircraft but also land vehicles may have trouble getting around a city. Drones should be able to carry much-needed supplies — but before they do, they should definitely be studied to make sure they aren’t going to curdle the blood or anything. The specifics of the study are detailed in a paper published in the .
The is a new electric bike that weighs a mere 27 pounds and can pep up your morning commute. Created by the Montreal-based team that successfully shipped the , this crowdfunded electric bike can collapse for travel and can go 40 miles with pedal assist and 28 miles on full automatic. Early birds can get the single gear bike for $1,199 or upgrade to a seven gear bike for $100 more. The tema has already hit their $50,000 and they will ship in April 2019. I saw an early version of the Carbo and was impressed. Although it looked thin and flimsy – the entire frame looks like you can bend it on a bad curb – it was very resilient and withstood my urban abuse. There are multiple modes including Sport which takes you almost immediately up to about 20 miles an hour with pedal assist, a great feeling. The battery is hidden inside the seat post and can be swapped out. The bike seems like a good last-mile solution. Since you can collapse it almost completely it works as a portable mode of transport similar to a scooter but far more effective. As a fan of electric bikes, this thing really hits the sweet spot between price, portability, and power. While the price is a little high, it’s on par with other pedal assist bikes and it should be considered legal in the United States when it ships because it does not have a full throttle system. Ultimately, however, this thing is about convenience and portability versus true power so it’s worth looking into if you want a boost to work or school.
According to from Thurott, Microsoft has been working on a new console in the Xbox One family. This cheaper model could play regular Xbox One games, but there would be no Blu-Ray drive. This move would lower the price of the entry-level Xbox One. An Xbox One S officially starts at $299 but you can currently find it for around $250 on Amazon. The disc-less Xbox One could start at $199. If you already have an Xbox One and physical games, you could imagine going to an official retailer to trade your discs for a digital download code. Let’s hope that this new Xbox comes with a big hard drive for those who have a slow internet connection. Back when first unveiled the Xbox One in 2013, the company wanted to make a big push toward digital games. The original plan was that you would associate your physical games with your Xbox account. After that, you could play the game even without inserting the disc. Microsoft also planned a way to lend a digital game to a friend for 30 days. After some backlash, Microsoft gave up on this plan and switched back to a more traditional system. But it’s been five years, digital games are more popular than ever and internet connections are faster than ever. Microsoft also thinks the future of games is based on subscriptions. With the , you can access dozens of games for $10 per month. You can also subscribe to EA Access on the Xbox One. Eventually, you could imagine replacing the Xbox altogether with a subscription for a streaming service. But we’re not there yet. According to Thurott, Microsoft is also working on an updated Xbox One S that could be a bit cheaper. This one would have a traditional disc drive.
The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump. Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian, and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online. The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services. A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year. Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6S, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (.) When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile. The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister. If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.) Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that. Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you? It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening: If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up. She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals. Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.
The Pi Foundation just a brand new model. The Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ is basically a flagship Raspberry Pi on a smaller printed circuit board, with a few compromises. It costs $25, or $10 less than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. The lineup is getting slightly confusing but bear with me for a second. If you want the best Raspberry Pi, you should get the 3 Model B+. It comes with a 1.4GHz ARMv8 quad-core processor, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet (max 300 Mbps), USB 2.0 and HDMI. The new Pi 3 Model A+ is supposed to be a smaller model but with most of the advantages of the Model B+. It has similar specifications except that you get 512MB of RAM instead of 1GB, there’s only one USB 2.0 port and the Ethernet port is gone. But that’s about it. If you don’t need a ton of RAM or Ethernet, it’s a surprisingly decent mini-computer. Even if you played with a Raspberry Pi in the past, recent models have come a long way. The processor is now powerful enough to run demanding tasks. Sure, it’ll take longer to transcode a video, unzip a large file or launch an emulated game on a Raspberry Pi than on a laptop. But if you want a fanless computer that runs 24/7, it’s hard to find something cheaper. Docker works pretty well on it, which makes it even easier to maintain if you’re into containers. If you want to put a Raspberry Pi into a constrained location, the Raspberry Pi Zero models have a slim design and don’t require a ton of power. Those models are much slower though. The foundation still sells older models for those who need to replace old Raspberry Pis with the exact same models — but I wouldn’t recommend buying them.
As I write this, I’m somewhere in Asia, with a bag full of assorted cables and devices. I’ve gotten better at packing light, but I’ve still got a ways to go. Certainly there’s something to be said for those products that can pull double duty — take the new Huawei phone or most recent iPad Pro update, all of which double as device chargers. The Changer looks to be a clever take on the concept for the perpetually low on battery. The $89 yolked Bluetooth earbuds double as a charging cable. Snap the headphone bits off and you’ll find USB-C, microUSB and Lightning connectors. The headphones sport a 12-hour battery, according to the company, and can be plugged directly into the wall. The cable can also be used to plug a mobile device into a battery pack or plugged into two different devices to share a charge. I’ll admit I’m a bit skeptical about the efficacy of all this at this point, and the fact that its manufacturer, 49101, is opening up pre-orders through Indiegogo. The headphones are set to start shipping early next year.
Sad news for anyone into giant robots: is closing down Schaft, its secretive unit that develops bipedal robots aimed at helping out in disaster efforts and generally looking badass. , but Google confirmed to TechCrunch that the business will be shuttered. It said it is helping staff find new roles, most of which will likely be outside of Google and its Alphabet parent. Firstly up, many people — myself included — might have forgotten that Google owns . The company was scheduled to be sold to alongside — another of Google’s robotics ventures — through . Boston Dynamics made the transition but Schaft didn’t. Softbank never shouted that omission from the rooftops, but a source with knowledge of the deal told us that certain conditions agreed for the deal were not fulfilled, hence Schaft remained with Google. Our source explained that Google’s robotics focused shifted away from Schaft and instead to non-humanoid robots and industry-led solutions such as robotic arms. The departure of the controversial robotics evangelist who to leave amid sexual misconduct allegations, seemed to speed up its demise inside the organization. Google shopped the Schaft business fairly widely — since 2016 and after the SoftBank deal collapsed — but to no avail, we understand. That left closing it down as the last remaining option. Schaft was founded in 2012 by a group led by University of Tokyo professor Yuto Nakanishi. acquired Shaft and , the former was part , in undisclosed deals. There’s been plenty of attention on Boston Dynamics and its crazy, even scary, robots which can trek across all terrains and get up instantly when knocked over, but Schaft maintained a Indeed, its first major prototypes weren’t revealed until some after its acquisition.
isn’t just for your MacBook. It turns out that you can take advantage of that tiny little red dongle to turn your iPad into your one and only Mac Mini display. The Luna Display was designed to extend your laptop display. Many desktop users who travel tend to feel limited with a 13-inch or 15-inch display. That’s why the Luna Display turns any iPad into a second monitor. It works wirelessly and . But the team behind the device tried a fun experiment. Many Mac Mini users tend to use the Mac Mini as a headless server. It sits below your TV, near your router or in a closet. In that case, there’s no display connected to your Mac Mini. You can control it using screen sharing or a VNC client. And, of course, you can also enable SSH access to control it using the command line or even an SSH app on your phone. But it also works as expected with the Luna Display. After plugging the dongle into a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can launch the Luna app on your iPad and see what’s happening on your Mac. If your Mac Mini is connected to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you’ll see your actions on the screen. And because Luna’s dongle works over Wi-Fi, you can even control your Mac Mini from your couch. It’ll feel like you’re running macOS on an iPad. The Luna adapter was first released on Kickstarter and is for $80. This isn’t the ideal setup if you plan to use your Mac Mini for multiple hours per day. But if you just need to quickly fix something, that could be enough.
Robert Sabuda makes mechanical books – pop up books with mechanical features that make them move and change while you read them – and he’s made it to the top of the New York Times best seller list multiple times. Now he’s taking on a new challenge: rebuilding and selling a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing robot. The robot, called the , uses geared wheels to move a robotic hand across a piece of paper. Like a very skilled Etch-a-sketch artist, the robot is able to draw pictures without raising its pen, creating wild and beautiful designs in a manner that hasn’t been truly recreated since the Renaissance. “About a year ago the Leonardo da Vinci Robot Society, a loose group of enthusiasts of da vinci’s robotic work reached out to me with a special project,” said Sabuda. “It had long been rumored that the Robot Knight was able to perform more tasks other than standing, sitting, shaking hands and playing the drums. One of these tasks was that the robot could draw. The Society asked if I’d be interested in trying to reverse engineer this skill of the Robot. After carefully researching da Vinci’s work in the Codex Atlanticus, a kind of note book/sketch book combo of his robotic thoughts, I was able (after much sweat and tears) able to reproduce this skill in a robotic arm.” Sabuda is and is selling it for $99 for early birds. It’s made of wood – Sabuda cam from three generations of carpenters – but it is also as meticulously designed and decorated as one of his pop-up books. [gallery ids="1746497,1746495"] Interestingly, Sabuda equates the project to a sort of analog computer. The system is programmable thanks to a set of wooden disks that drive the arm to perform its actions. “One kilobye of information is stored on a pair of wooden discs that da Vinci called ‘Petalos’ because he though they resembled the petals of a flower,” he said. “When the Petalos are rotated they send information down to the robot’s arm and hand and it draws a picture. Since all of da Vinci’s robots are made only of wood and a few small pieces of metal, reverse engineering all of this was quite challenging!” The project is halfway to its funding point and should ship in June. It’s a fascinating little piece of Da Vinci arcana that could be a nice way to introduce mechanics and robotics to grade schoolers and/or baffled Florentine princes.
This may not look like much but it’s a fascinating exploration of how machines “think.” The list, compiled by , describes various situations in which robots followed the spirit and the letter of the law at the same time. For example, in the video below a machine learning algorithm learned that it could rack up points not by taking part in a boat race but by flipping around in a circle to get points. In another simulation “where survival required energy but giving birth had no energy cost, one species evolved a sedentary lifestyle that consisted mostly of mating in order to produce new children which could be eaten (or used as mates to produce more edible children).” This led to what Krakovna called “indolent cannibals.” It’s obvious that these machines aren’t “thinking” in any real sense but when given parameters and a the ability to evolve an answer, it’s also obvious that these robots will come up with some fun ideas. In other test, a robot learned to move a block by smacking the table with its arm and still another “genetic algorithm [was] supposed to configure a circuit into an oscillator, but instead [made] a radio to pick up signals from neighboring computers.” Another cancer-detecting system found that pictures of malignant tumors usually contained rulers and so gave plenty of false positives. Each of these examples shows the unintended consequences of trusting machines to learn. They will learn but they will also confound us. Machine learning is just that – learning that is understandable only by machines. One final example: in a game of Tetris in which a robot was required to “not lose” the program pauses “the game indefinitely to avoid losing.” Now it just needs to throw a tantrum and we’d have a clever three-year-old on our hands.
Amazon’s Alexa may be in ten thousand different devices now, but they all have one other thing in common: they’re new. So for those of us that prefer old things but still want to be able to set timers and do metric-imperial conversions without pulling out our phones, to provide Alexa access with no other hints of modernity. There’s even a privacy angle! The phones themselves (spotted by a ) are genuine antiques, and not even the mass-produced Bell sets you see so often. I personally love the copper-plated model, though I certainly wouldn’t say no to the candlestick. Dick Whitney, who runs the company, modifies the hardware to make room for an Echo Dot inside. Pick up the phone and speak, and Alexa answers, just like the operators of yore! Except you can ask Alexa anything and it won’t be irritated. Some of the Alexaphones, as he calls them, will include the original audio hardware so you can experience the cognitive dissonance of talking to a virtual assistant and having them answer using a century-old speaker. (I bet it sounds terrible and brilliant.) I’m also delighted to say that the microphone physically disconnects when the phone is on the hook, though — so Amazon won’t be . “The Echo microphones have their connections severed or are removed completely, and the microphone in the handset is connected via the original switches in the base, so it’s only in contact when the handset is picked up,” explained Whitney in an email. The modifications to the phones don’t end there: in the rear of each will be a 1/8″ audio port so you can plug in a real speaker. No one wants to sit at their telephone table (remember those?) and listen to a few songs in mono through vintage hardware. Although having written that sentence I do have to say I’d try it once. Right now all the audio would have to go out that way, but Whitney says he may have a trick to switch it back and forth in the future (you can always just unplug the audio for privacy). There’s also an LED hidden on the front so you have that basic feedback of whether the device is on, listening and such. The rotary dial isn’t used, unfortunately, though more because it’s hard to apply its principles to a voice-operated device. “It’s funny,” he wrote when I asked about the latter, “I’d actually built an installation for Android at MWC [Mobile World Congress] a few years ago that used a rotary dialer, so I know how to do it and have the hardware around (it’s very simple), but both couldn’t figure out a function that seemed interesting enough (dial 1 to increase the volume? Certainly open to suggestions) and didn’t want to add more complexity inside the telephones. Maybe in the future!” No soldering or weird old tech stuff required on your part — the device will run on USB power and set up just like any other Alexa gadget. Of course, these things also cost $1,500. Yeah, kind of out of my price range, too. Still, they’re lovely and a great subversion of the “smart home” idea.
Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth. When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features. Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass. Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants. Over the past two years, has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens. Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”. “It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible. Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba “We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.” Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims. Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through. At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps. But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback. “Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process. There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are , as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out. One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.) Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores. Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact. “The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.
To offset the creepiness of having camera and microphone in your house, its needs best-in-class software. Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the . Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Alexa inside. And now, Google’s is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice. The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access. YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube. But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me “We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.” The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.
planned communication satellite constellation, known as Starlink, will now be targeting a much lower orbit than originally planned, at least for over a thousand of the satellites, the company revealed . The move should help mitigate orbital debris and provide better signal for the company’s terrestrial users as well. Starlink plans to put 1,584 satellites — — in an orbit just 550 kilometers about the surface of the Earth. For comparison, many communications satellites are in orbits more than twice as high, and geosynchronous orbits are more than 20 times farther out (around 36,000 miles). At that distance orbits decay quickly, falling into the atmosphere and burning up after a handful of years. But SpaceX isn’t daunted; in fact, it writes in its application, lower orbits offer “several attractive features both during nominal operation and in the unlikely event something goes wrong.” In the first place, orbital debris problems are naturally mitigated by the fact that anything in that low orbit will fall to Earth quickly instead of cluttering up the orbit. Second, it should shorten the amount of time it takes to send and receive a signal from the satellites — ping time could be as low as 15 milliseconds, the company estimated. And 500 fewer kilometers means there will be less spreading for beam-based communications, as well. The satellites will have to do more work to stay at their optimal altitude, as atmospheric drag will be higher, and each one will be able to see and serve less of the planet. But with thousands working together, that should be manageable. The decision was informed by experimental data from the “Tintin” test satellites the company launched earlier this year. “SpaceX has learned to mitigate the disadvantages of operating at a lower altitude and still reap the well-known and significant benefits discussed above,” it wrote. This change could lead to competitive advantages when satellite communications are more widely used, but it will also likely lead to a more intensive upkeep operation as Starlink birds keep dropping out of the air. Fortunately a third benefit of the lower orbit is that it’s easier to reach, though probably not so much easier that the company breaks even. Starlink is aiming for the first real launches of its systems early next year, though that timeline . But SpaceX can do ambitious.
Photographers are tricky to get gifts for because every one of them has preferences they may already have spent years indulging. But we have blind spots, we photographers. We will spend thousands on lenses but never buy a proper camera bag, or properly back up our shots, or splurge for a gadget that makes certain shots ten times easier. Scroll on for gift recommendations that any photographer can appreciate. Gnarbox or Western Digital backup drive Okay, these are definitely expensive, so keep scrolling if you’re on a budget, but they can also totally change how someone shoots. If your photographer/loved one tends to travel or go out into the wilderness when they shoot, a backup solution is a must. These drives act as self-contained rugged backup solutions, letting you offload your SD card at the end of a shoot and preview the contents, no laptop required. They’ve been around for years but early ones were pretty janky and “professional” ones cost thousands. The latest generation, typified by the Gnarbox and Western Digital’s devices, strike a balance and have been pretty well-reviewed. The Gnarbox is the better device (faster, much better interface and tools), but it’s more expensive — the latest version with 256 GB of space onboard (probably the sweet spot in terms of capacity). A comparable WD device costs . If you and a couple friends want to throw down together, I’d recommend getting the former, but both do more or less the same thing. Microfiber wipes On the other end of the price spectrum, but no less important, are lens and screen wipes. One of the best things I ever did for myself was order a big pack of these things and stash them in every jacket, coin pocket, and bag I own. Now when anyone needs their glasses, lens, phone, laptop screen, or camera LCD cleaned, I’m right there and sometimes even give them the cloth to keep. and they’re good, but there are lots more sizes and packs to choose from. SD cards and hard cases Most cameras use SD cards these days, and photographers can never have too many of them. Anything larger than 16 GB is useful — just make sure it’s name brand. A nice touch would be to buy an SD card case that holds eight or ten of the things. Too many photographers (myself included) keep their cards in little piles, drawers, pockets and so on. A nice hardcase for cards is always welcome — Pelican is the big brand for these, but as long as it isn’t from the bargain bin another brand is fine. Moment smartphone lens case The best camera is the one you have with you, and more often than not, even for photographers, that’s a phone. There are lots of stick-on, magnet-on, and so on lens sets but . You use their cases — mostly tasteful, fortunately — and pick serious lenses to pop into the built-in mount. The optics are pretty good and the lenses are big but not so big they’ll weigh down a purse or jacket pocket. Be sure to snoop and figure out what model phone your friend is using. Waxed canvas camera bag (or any good one really) Every photographer should have a padded, stylish bag for their gear. , and of the ones I recently reviewed I think the is the best one out there as far as combination camera/day trip bags go. That said everyone is into as well. Lomo’Instant Automat or Fujifilm SQ6 instant film camera Everyone shoots digital these days, but if it’s a party or road trip you’re going on and capturing memories is the goal, an instant film camera might be the best bet. I’ve been using an since they raised money on Kickstarter and I’ve loved this thing: the mini film isn’t too expensive, the shooting process is pleasantly analog but not too difficult, and the camera itself is compact and well designed. If on the other hand you’d like something a little closer to the Polaroids of yore (without spending the cash on a retro one and Impossible film) then the Fujifilm SQ6 is probably your best bet. It’s got autofocus rather than zone focus, meaning it’s dead simple to operate, but it has lots of options if you want to tweak the exposure. Circular polarizer filter Our own photo team loves these filters, which pop onto the end of a lens and change the way light comes through it. This one in particular lets the camera see more detail in clouds and otherwise change the way a scene with a top and bottom half looks. Everyone can use one, and even if they already have one, it’s good to have spares. Polaroid is a good brand for these but again, any household name with decent reviews should be all right. The only issue here is that you need to get the right size. Next time you see your friend’s camera lying around, look at the lens that’s on it. Inside the front of it, right next to the glass, there should be a millimeter measurement — NOT the one on the side of the lens, that’s the focal length. The number on the end of the lens tells you the diameter of filter to get. Wireless shutter release If you’re taking a group photo or selfie, you can always do the classic 10 second timer hustle, but if you don’t want to leave anything to chance a wireless remote is clutch. These things basically just hit the shutter button for you, though some have things like mode switches and so on. Unfortunately, a bit like filters, shutter release devices are often model-specific. The big camera companies have their own, but if you want to be smart about it go for a cross-platform device like the . These can be a bit hard to find so don’t feel bad about getting the camera-specific kind instead. Blackrapid strap (or any nice custom strap) Another pick from our video and photo team, take a little time to get used to, but make a lot of sense. The camera hangs upside-down and you grab it with one hand and bring it to shooting position with one movement. When you’re done, it sits out of the way instead of bumping into your chest. And because it attaches to the bottom plate of your camera, you don’t have the straps in the way pretty much from any angle you want to hold the camera in. If you feel confident your photographer friend isn’t into this unorthodox style of shooting, don’t worry — a nice “normal” strap is also a great gift. Having a couple to choose from, especially ones that can be swapped out quickly, is always nice in case one is damaged or unsuitable for a certain shoot. Adobe subscription Most photographers use Adobe software, usually Lightroom or Photoshop, and unlike back in the day you don’t just buy a copy of these any more — it’s a subscription. Fortunately you can still buy a year of it for someone in what amounts to gift card form. Unfortunately you can’t buy half a year or whatever fits your budget — it’s the $120 yearly photography bundle or nothing. Print services Too many digital photos end up sitting on hard drives, only to be skimmed now and then or uploaded to places like Facebook in much-degraded form. But given the chance (and a gift certificate from you) they’ll print giant versions of their favorite shots and be glad they did it. I bought a nice printer a long while back and print my own shots now, so I haven’t used these services. However I trust , Nations Photo Lab and AdoramaPix. $30-$40 will go a long way.
There’s a new PS4 Pro and it’s much quieter than the original. Right now, it’s only available in a Red Dead Redemption bundle but eventually, it will likely be available as a standalone product, too. The new CUH-7200 version reportedly dropped the console’s noise from 50 decibles to 44 decibels , it can still top out at 48 decibels. The noise reduction is reportedly thanks to improved cooling, which in turn, reduces the strain on the cooling system within the PS4 Pro. The original Playstation Pro came out two years ago, and at times, it can roar like a jet engine. The revised model looks the same as the original so check the model number on the box to ensure you’re getting the quieter option.
Let me just say that I love the idea of a folding phone/tablet device. when Microsoft floated that intriguing but abortive concept device, and I’m all for unique form factors and things that bend. is inexplicable and probably dead on arrival. I’d like to congratulate the company for trying something new, but this one needed a little more time in the oven. I haven’t used it, of course, so this is just my uninformed opinion (provided for your edification). But this device is really weird, and not in a good way. It’s a really thick phone with big bezels around a small screen that opens up into a small tablet. No one wants that! Think about it. Why do you want a big screen? If it’s for media, like most people, consider that nearly all that media is widescreen now, either horizontal (YouTube and Netflix) or vertical (Instagram and Facebook). You can switch between these views at will extremely easily. Now consider that because of basic geometry, the “big” screen inside this device will likely not be able to show that media much, if any, larger than the screen on the front! (Well, in this device’s case, maybe a little, but only because that front display’s bezel really is huge. Why do you think they turned the lights off? Look where the notification bar is!) It’s like putting two of the tall screens next to each other. You end up with one twice as wide, but that’s pretty much what you get if you put the phone on its side. All you gain with the big screen is a whole lot of letterboxing or windowboxing. Oh, and probably about three quarters of an inch of thickness and half a pound of weight. This thing is going to be a beast. Power users may also want a big screen for productivity: email and document handling and such is great on a big device like a Galaxy Note. Here then is opportunity for a folding tablet to excel (so to speak). You can just plain fit more words and charts and controls on there. Great! But if the phone is geared toward power users, why even have the small screen on the front anyway if any time that user wants to engage with the phone they will “open” it up? For quick responses or dismissing notifications, maybe, but who would really want that? That experience will always be inferior to the one the entire device is designed around. I would welcome a phone that was only a book-style big internal screen, and I don’t think it would be a bother to flip it open when you want to use it. Lots of people with giant phones keep book-like covers on their devices anyway! It would be great to be able to use those square inches for the display rather than credit card slots or something. The Courier had tons of great ideas on how to use two screens. There are also creative ways to use the screen: left and right halves are different apps; top half is compose and bottom is keyboard; left half is inbox and right half is content; top half is media and bottom is controls and comments. Those sprang to mind faster than I could type them. On the other hand, I can’t think of any way that a “front” display could meaningfully interact with or enhance a secondary (or is it primary?) display that will never be simultaneously visible. Presumably you’ll use one or the other at any given time, meaning you literally can’t engage the entire capability of the device. You know what would be cool? A device like this that also used the bezel display we’ve seen on existing Galaxy devices. How cool would it be to have your phone closed like a book, but with an always-on notification strip (or two!) on the lip, telling you battery, messages and so on? And maybe if you tapped once the device would automatically pop open physically! That would be amazing! And Samsung is absolutely the company that I’d say would make it. Instead, they made this thing. It’s disappointing to me not just because I don’t like the device as they’ve designed it, but because I think the inevitable failure of the phone will cool industry ambition regarding unique devices like it. That’s wrong, though! People want cool new things. But they also want them to make sense. I’m looking forward to how this technology plays out, and I fully expect to own a folding phone some time in the next few years. But this first device seems to me like a major misstep, and one that will set back that flexible future rather than advance it.
Few things in the world of technology can really ever be said to be “done,” and certainly exoskeletons are not among their number. They exist, but they are all works in progress, expensive, heavy, and limited. So it’s great to see this team working continuously on their TWIICE robotic wearable, with the guidance of motivated users. made its debut in 2016, and like all exoskeletons it was more promise made than promise kept. It’s a lower-half exoskeleton that supports and moves the legs of someone with limited mobility, while they support themselves on crutches. It’s far from ideal, and the rigidity and weight of systems like this make them too risky to deploy at scale for now. But two years of refinement have made a world of difference. The exoskeleton weighs the same (which doesn’t matter since it carries its own weight), but supports heavier users while imparting more force with its motors, which have been integrated into the body itself to make it far less bulky. Perhaps most importantly, however, the whole apparatus can now be donned and activated by the user all by herself, as Swiss former acrobat and now handcycling champion Silke Pan demonstrated in a video. She levers herself from her wheelchair into the sitting exoskeleton, attaches the fasteners on her legs and trunk, then activates the device and stands right up. She then proceeds to climb more stairs than I’d rather attempt. She is an athlete, after all. That kind of independence is often crucially important for the physically disabled for a multitude of reasons, and clearly achieving the capability has been a focus for the TWIICE team. Although the exoskeleton has been worked on as a research project within the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne ( the plan is to spin off a startup to commercialize the tech as it approaches viability. The more they make and the more people use these devices — despite their limitations — the better future versions will be.
Like a kid shooting spitballs, designer Beer Holthuis has figured out that sopping wet paper is the best material for making mischief. His 3D printer, a primitive RepRap clone that literally squirts out huge lines of paper pulp, is designed to allow artists and designers to create more sustainable 3D objects. According to 3DPrint.com, was searching for material that wouldn’t create waste or increase plastic pollution. He settled on ground-up paper. By extruding the wet paper he is able to create a thick bead of pulp that he can then build up to create decorative objects. “The design of the printed objects are using the possibilities and beauty of this technique,” said Holthuis. “The tactile experience, bold lines and print speed results in distinctive shapes. The objects are also durable: Printed paper is surprisingly strong.” The interesting thing is that he uses natural binder to stick the layers together, ensuring that the entire system is recyclable. You could even feed paper into the machine and let it product the pulp automatically, thereby creating a self-feeding recycling system. Best of all, however, the objects look like something a super intelligent wasp colony would produce to trade with other cultures. Fascinating stuff.