gadgets

Hands On With The Ubi, A Voice-Activated “Ubiquitous Computer”

Have you ever wanted to stand on the bridge of your very own spacecraft and, in a stentorian voice, proudly declaim “Computer? What is the weather in Brooklyn tomorrow?” The Ubi, announced a few years ago and successfully funded to the tune of $229,000, was supposed to offer us this Picardian Utopia of always-on computing and, to a degree, they’ve succeeded.

What does the Ubi do? You simply plug in the device and connect to your WiFi network. Then the Ubi sits quietly, listening to its surroundings, until you say “OK Ubi.” It then uses Android’s built-in voice recognition to perform a few basic searches and reply with the current weather, answers to math and unit problems, and, with a bit of futzing, you can send emails and SMS messages. Does it work? The short answer is “Yes.” The long answer is far more nuanced.

The promise of always-on computing is fascinating. And this device is a clever first step. It’s nicely designed, small enough to hide in an out-of-the-way corner, and, except for a few specific cases, it seems to work. Sadly, what most people want to do with this thing is launch rockets into outer space, ask it to call their parents for them, and control their Nest from the toilet by shouting into the air. These expectations make things considerably more problematic.

Voice activated hardware is difficult to get right – just ask the makers of the Xbox. Things that seem great in theory are ridiculous in practice and given the fact that there are far better ways to interact with a computer than via the difficult-to-understand human voice. Ubi reacts predictably 90% of the time, but it’s that 10% of the time that dumps us into the uncanny valley of frustration.

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But there is one difference between other ubiquitous computing solutions and Ubi – the Ubi is actually shipping. While customers are complaining they can’t launch nuclear strikes on Scranton from their living rooms, the fact that these guys are shipping a small computer that can recognize simple phrases, and, with a bit of work, begin interacting with the Internet in a very real way is exciting. The Ubi isn’t a bridge computer just yet, but it’s close enough.

The Toronto-based team building the Ubi is tackling a tough problem. Their efforts, while primitive, are limited right now by funding and time. I could see a day when I would ask Ubi to remind me to buy milk at the story (something you can do now) or change the track on my Sonos device (something that may come in the future) but if you open the box expecting Scarlet Johansson in Her you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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Ubi is a cool piece of hardware that is far ahead of its time. That it exists at all is a testament to the interest folks have in voice interfaces and, if you bought one and don’t want to use it as an Ubi, the team has made it easy to repurpose the board inside for your own DIY projects. We are all stumbling into the future and Ubi helps us get one step ahead.

Excerpt from: Hands On With The Ubi, A Voice-Activated “Ubiquitous Computer”

This Week On The TC Gadgets Podcast: Facebook Oculus, HTC One, And Microsoft’s Glass Clone

Are you ready for the future?

Facebook certainly is, considering the social giant just bought Oculus VR, which makes virtual reality gaming headsets, for a cool $2 billion. And Microsoft is joining in on the fun, with reports indicating that the company has purchased wearable computing technology similar to Google’s Glass.

And in less revolutionary news, HTC finally revealed the latest-generation HTC One smartphone, which had been leaked so hard in the weeks prior to the event that we weren’t even sure if we wanted to cover it anymore. Yet here we are, discussing it on the podcast.

This week’s episode of the TC Gadgets Podcast features John Biggs, Matt Burns, Jordan Crook, Natasha Lomas, and Darrell Etherington.

Have a good Friday, everybody!

We invite you to enjoy our weekly podcasts every Friday at 3 p.m. Eastern and noon Pacific. And feel free to check out the TechCrunch Gadgets Flipboard magazine right here.

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Intro Music by Mendhoan.

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Jawbone brings its UP24 activity tracker wristband to 29 new countries across Europe and Asia

Jawbone has announced that its UP24 activity tracker wristband is available to buy in 29 additional countries from today, following a four month period of being US-only.

The wristband wirlessly connects to an Android or iOS device via Bluetooth to track and provide continuous feedback designed to help you hit activity goals. As well as providing goals to keep you active, the wristband also tracks sleep – and provides reports on how your sleep and activity levels are related.

If you’re really dedicated to the sleep aspect, there’s also a dedicated iOS app called UP Coffee which tracks caffeine intake over time to demonstrate the effect on your sleep patterns.

UP24 Jawbone brings its UP24 activity tracker wristband to 29 new countries across Europe and Asia

Available in three sizes (small, medium, and large) and two colors (Onyx and Persimmon), the device is available in the UK for £125 directly from Jawbone’s website, or via John Lewis, Apple or Amazon too. While the device is available in 30 countries (new countries listed above) now including the US, the app supports only 12 languages – English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese.

Fitbit sprints past 1M Android app downloads, is now compatible with 44 Android and iOS devices

Excerpt from: Jawbone brings its UP24 activity tracker wristband to 29 new countries across Europe and Asia

Nvidia Shield Update To Add Remote Streaming, More To The Android Mobile Game Console

Nvidia’s Shield is the best Android gaming handheld currently available, and though the field isn’t that rich or deep, a new update coming to the device in April takes a solid offering and makes it even better. The new update offers Remote GameStream for playing full console-quality PC games on the road, notebook streaming, Bluetooth keyboard/mouse support, and a redesigned Tegra Zone store for finding optimized games. Plus, Nvidia is dropping the price by $40 through April, meaning you can get a Shield at $199.

That’s not all: The Shield Update brings the version of Android it’s running to 4.4 KitKat, plus it can now wake your remote streaming computer on LAN access and let you login if the host has gone to sleep and locked you out of your Windows installation. Plus, you can get news about Shield updates in the Tegra Zone app now, instead of having to track it down through social channels or news sites. GameStream, in addition to getting Remote play, which requires a recommended upstream/downstream rate of 5mbps to work properly (what Shield described as good home or LTE mobile connectivity), players can also now tweak the framerate and quality of streaming for optimal performance according to their needs.

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My favourite feature in the whole mess has to be the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse support though, for the simple reason that it makes it much easier to use the Shield as a portable console for playing classics like Diablo III, Civilization 5, World of Warcraft and other titles that don’t necessarily play well with joypad-style input. It’s not ideal to hook up those input devices and try to play these games on your small screen, but streaming from your gaming PC to your TV via the Shield should offer up a pretty rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Nvidia is also aggressively accelerating the pace at which new launch titles are ready for GameStream play; there are now over 100 titles on the service, compared to just two dozen at launch. Nvidia is optimizing key titles very soon after they hit the market, too, including multi-platform combat sim Titanfall. Plus, apps don’t have to be optimized to be streamed; GameStream will now work with any software, though your mileage may vary with custom control schemes. For those who are mapping gamepad controls, there are improvements for community sharing of mapping profiles.

The update goes live for Shield owners on April 2, which means you’ll still have to wait a little longer to get all the goodness listed above, but it’s definitely an update worth waiting for, if only because it now lets you play your favourite PC games on a portable device while away from home.

Visit link: Nvidia Shield Update To Add Remote Streaming, More To The Android Mobile Game Console

Facebook Stock Slides In After-Hours Trading Following Acquisition Of Oculus Rift

Wall Street doesn’t like what it sees. Facebook’s stock price (NASDAQ:FB) is dropping in after-hours trading after the company announced its purchase of virtual reality startup Oculus Rift. The stock, which closed up on the day, is now under its open price of $64.25, resulting in a loss of $1.5 – $1.8 billion market cap.

The stock price slid considerably more following Facebook’s announcement that it was buying WhatsApp.

About an hour-and-a-half after the stock market close today, Facebook took to the wire to announce plans to purchase Oculus Rift for $2 billion in cash and stock. Citing a goal to make the world more open and connected, Facebook notes that it is now in a position to start focusing on next-generation platforms. Oculus Rift is at the forefront of virtual reality, which could become the next generation.

Facebook was slow to adopt mobile technology. It doesn’t want to miss out on VR if it becomes a big thing.

Read more: Facebook Stock Slides In After-Hours Trading Following Acquisition Of Oculus Rift

HTC Goes “Blah Blah Blah” In The First HTC One M8 Ad

Frankly, the only way this ad could be more effective is if it was a “let me google that for you” link. HTC is right here. Dead right.

In the first video ad for the new HTC One, Gary Oldman advises viewers to turn to the Internet to learn about the new phone. It simply doesn’t matter what Gary or Robert Downey Jr. tells viewers about the phone. It’s all marketing speak. Worthless. But great SEO is priceless.

HTC’s new flagship phone is the predecessor to the universally adored HTC One. It’s hard to find a bad review of the original One, which is seemingly the case of the new One as well. Google it as HTC suggests and the results will be filled with articles praising the phone. Everything else is “blah”.

HTC, quietly clever.

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Meet the Nymi authentication wristband, the first wearable device I’m actually excited about

The onslaught of wearable devices is hit or miss right now. Most of the ones I’ve seen are of dubious value, but Bionym’s upcoming Nymi wristband has enormous potential to improve our lives.

The Nymi works by using your unique electrocardiogram (ECG) signals to act as a biometric authentication layer for other devices, applications and services. Put another way, Nymi uses your heartbeat like a password to confirm that you are, in fact, you. According to Bionym CEO Karl Martin, ECG is significantly more reliable than face recognition and only slightly less secure than a fingerprint.

When it arrives later this year, Nymi will offer three-factor authentication: the wristband itself, your unique cardiac rhythm and a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet. The Nymi hardware acts as a secure token that ties into the biometric, and your wristband will need to check-in with your smartphone or tablet at the beginning of the day.

To activate the wristband, you’ll need to place the fingers from your other hand on top of the wristband to provide two points of contact. The resulting ECG isn’t medical-grade, but it should be enough to identify you accurately.

Bionym Nymi hand authenticated 730x486 Meet the Nymi authentication wristband, the first wearable device I’m actually excited about

“This is a vehicle to put persistent identity on someone’s body,” Martin explained. “It’s privacy-protected and opt-in.”

Because wearing a device requires a deeper level of invasiveness than other gadgets, all wearables have to answer the question, “What do I get out of this that makes it worth wearing?” Nymi believes that its value proposition comes through the persistence of its authentication. The fingerprint sensors in the iPhone 5s and the Galaxy S5 offer strong biometrics, but they can’t continuously verify your identity.

At SXSW this year, Nymi ran an experiment to let users try out the technology at a series of pop-up events. For instance, when I registered for a demo wristband, I listed my favorite drink. When I tapped the wristband on a reader at the bar, the bartender made the drink and called me by name. At another event, users could use the Nymi to request their favorite songs from a DJ. Drinks and tunes may seem like superficial use cases, but it’s easy to imagine the implications for payment, device management, the connected home and personalization.

The thing that excites me most about Nymi is its potential to eliminate the password. The modern password, with its mix of capital letters, numbers and punctuation, is a terrible user experience. Password managers try to mitigate the issue, but they’re hardly an elegant solution.

“[Killing the password] is one of our goals,” Martin said, noting that the Nymi will be compatible with the FIDO Alliance.

FIDO, which stands for Fast IDentity Online, was created by PayPal and Lenovo and now counts Google and Microsoft among its members. The alliance has set out to create the next-generation standard for identity verification. When I asked PayPal CTO James Barrese about the future of payment and the role of the FIDO Alliance during a separate interview earlier this month, he noted:

I think the password’s going to die [in the next five years]. It’s going to be replaced with biometrics. Wearable computing will take off and the payment experience will be integrated with that.

Martin posed Bionym’s mission as answering the following question: “If you were to reengineer the human body for the modern world, what are the capabilities you would give this human?” In his view, one of the features we would add is the ability to “seamlessly send their identity securely.”

“We never claim that [Nymi] is 100% bulletproof. It’s about how much effort do you make your attacker go through? That’s a lot of effort.”

Beyond the identity piece of the Nymi, the wearable will also offer several other features, such as a heart rate monitor and gesture recognition through its accelerometer and gyroscope.

The first batch of 25,000 Nymi pre-orders cost $79, but the price will rise to $99 afterward. Bionym’s plan, however, is not to rely solely on money from the hardware, as it believes it can build a strong business around providing identity management for service providers. Bionym plans to sync up with the cloud eventually, but it wants to first build confidence in the system, independent of the online component.

Bionym Nymi colors stacked 730x335 Meet the Nymi authentication wristband, the first wearable device I’m actually excited about

“We’re launching [Nymi] specifically without a cloud service because it doesn’t need a cloud service to operate,” Martin said. “We’re not shuttling your data up into the cloud. It’s direct communication between the Nymi and the devices.”

Wearing a Bluetooth identity bracelet introduces a number of privacy concerns, but Martin says the team built the Nymi with security at the forefront using a system called Privacy by Design.

“We designed this so that you cannot be tracked,” Martin said. “[When] you get your Nymi and activate it for the first time, even we don’t know who you are,” he said.

All activations between the device and a service are opt-in, so passive Bluetooth beacons won’t be able to just pick up where you are. The device will allow you to completely silo your identity for each application and revoke your identity from specific providers.

“The way we put it is we’re putting you in control of your identity,” Martin said.

While Bionym could certainly make loads of money selling user information to advertisers, the company built its platform so it doesn’t have access to your data.

“We decided for this to be successful, users need to trust us,” Martin said. “In the end, we don’t really know what’s inside. We can’t violate the trust.”

On the off chance that you’re worried about the Nymi becoming the “Mark of the Beast,” a Biblical reference often used by conspiracy theorists to decry new authentication technologies, Martin confirmed that the company decided from the outset to never build a chip that would embed within your skin because it would remove the sense of control.

“The nice thing about a wristband is I can take it off. I can stop using it,” he said. “This technology is not about controlling you, we want you to control it. We will always make products that put user control first. Some people believe that [privacy is] about keeping everything secret, but for me personally, there’s actually a European concept about privacy that means control, control over your personal information. That’s the one we follow.”

The Nymi isn’t the only bright star on the wearable horizon. Google’s Android Wear initiative, for instance, is just getting started. However, Bionym’s efforts represent a technology that enables a valuable new functionality that can only be achieved through a wearable form factor.

There’s no guarantee that the Nymi will accomplish its goals when it launches in mid-late 2014. After all, its success relies heavily on widespread adoption among developers and merchants. Still, that doesn’t stop me from getting excited about the possibility for wearables to solve the identity problem and get rid of the annoyingly antiquated password.

Follow this link: Meet the Nymi authentication wristband, the first wearable device I’m actually excited about

Droplet Is A Robotic Sprinkler That Knows Your Soil Inside And Out

Because your home can always be smarter, allow me to introduce Droplet, the smart robotic gardener.

Effectively replacing your sprinkler system, the Droplet tries to save you money and the world’s water resources by watering only the area where there are plants.

Through a cloud software system, you can configure your Roomba-style Droplet to water the grass, the trees and the areas where you have flowers planted without indiscriminately watering the whole yard.

But it goes further than that. The Droplet actually knows about the soil, the type of plants it’s watering, and other data to help ensure each plant gets just the right amount of water to be healthy.

You can give it a number of commands, including to water potted plants, fill up the doggy water bowl, or the usual trees and lawn task.

Because it has a cloud connection, the Droplet system also tracks weather in your area. That way, it knows if you’ve had a good rain recently, and it can hold off, or if your plants desperately need some water.

The IoT/Smart Home phenomenon is only starting to heat up. Not only will you have an entirely connected home, but it seems that you may just have a connected lawn, too.

After all, there are now robotic litter boxes to self-clean cat poo. And a robot to help you clean out the gutters. No, not just the one from Modern Family. It’s real.

Add the Droplet to the list, for $300 on Amazon, and you’ll have a whole posse of outdoor robotic creatures.

[via Cnet]

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Apple’s iPhone 5c Sales Story Is A Complex One

For years, pundits and analysts have been suggesting that the only way for Apple to compete against cheap Android phones, especially in China and throughout Asia, was to produce a cheap iPhone. Well, Apple finally relented (sort of) when it released the cheapish iPhone 5c –only data suggests that the Chinese prefer the higher-end iPhone.

It’s worth noting, however, that the data doesn’t actually tell a clear story about the 5c, and it’s difficult to draw clear conclusions about how it’s doing worldwide, mostly because Apple hasn’t released a break-down of iPhone sales by type, which leaves us to speculate and look at a variety of analyses to figure it out.

The good news for Apple is that a recent study by Umeng found that 8 out of 10 high-end smartphones in China, defined as those costing $500 or more, were in fact iPhones of one sort or another, so Apple is controlling the high end of the Chinese market just as it has controlled the high end of the U.S. market.

According to comScore, for the period ending January, 2014, the latest figures available, Apple was at the top of the U.S. subscriber heap with a 41.6 percent market share.

We know the iPhone is selling well, but we are left to parse various sources to figure out how it breaks down.

According to the data from Umeng, iPhone 5c sales in China at least have been dismal. According to a chart posted on Andreessen Horowitz analyst Benedict Evan’s blog, iPhone 5c sales in China are in the 2 percent range compared to the 5s, which is at around 12 percent and the iPhone 5, which is around 15 percent. The odd part of this equation of course, is that the 5c is basically the 5 in a colorful plastic shell, but it’s that design that people appear to be rejecting.

It seems when people buy an iPhone, they want the full iPhone look and feel, and colored plastic is not what they are looking for in a smartphone. Part of the problem is that even though the phones have been highly discounted by carriers, at least here in the U.S., it’s not clear the discounts are driving sales. Consider that Walmart was offering the 5c for just $45 with a two-year contract last fall, and that was after Best Buy had dropped the price to $50 with a two-year contract.

Last week, Apple, in what would seem to be a tacit admission that sales weren’t going as well as they’d hoped, introduced an even cheaper version of the 5c with 8GB of storage for £429 in England without a discount. That’s $729 U.S. for what amounts to last year’s iPhone in a colorful plastic case with a small onboard hard drive. No wonder they aren’t flying off the shelves.

Benjamin Robbins, principal at Seattle-based mobile consulting firm Palador, told me that maybe the 5c is doing poorly across markets because people buy Apple for the prestige factor, and nobody really wants to get a cheaper one. He said this has always been true of Apple because cheap simply isn’t in its DNA, no matter what the pundits might suggest.

“Apple’s brand always has been exclusive in nature,” Robbins told me. “Apple’s marketing team excels at portraying an elite experience and lifestyle that one would have through ownership of their products. Apple can’t have it both ways. It can’t be the penultimate tech product to own and the low-budget leader at the same time. Just as Android struggles to do cool, Apple struggles to do cheap.”

If Robbins is right, and what he says makes sense in the context of the data, then offering an even lower-end 5c in overseas markets is probably going to produce the same bad results. If people didn’t want a 5c with 16GB of storage, it’s hard to figure how they are going to want a 5c with half the memory.

But is that the whole story? Do we simply go for the high end because that’s what we expect from Apple? Not so fast. A couple of stories put this theory into question. First, citing data from a variety of sources, AppleInsider reports that the iPhone 5c, for all its reported issues, actually outsold every other flagship smartphone out there last quarter with an estimated 12 million 5c’s sold to date. Compare that to 9 million Samsung Galaxy 4S’s, 8.2 million Nokia Windows smartphones and 2.3 million LG G2′s, according to data provided in the AppleInsider article.

And a Wall Street Journal story (registration required) says that the main 5c manufacturer in China, Pegatron, posted a 22 percent earnings jump — due in large part to its relationship with Apple.

All of that data tells a different story and suggest that perhaps the 5c is doing better than we thought – at least in terms of overall volume.

One thing is clear, though, Apple is not built for the low end of the market and it never has been. If it was looking for pure numbers, there are ways to build market share. Nokia is trying to do it by offering the highly competitive Nokia X line, which starts at €89 and tops out at €109 for the highest-end model. These phones, which were announced at Mobile World Congress last month, run a special version of Android, but instead of running Google services, they run Microsoft. The idea behind these phones would seem to be to build market share at the low end of the market to boost their overall numbers (and boost Microsoft service usage).

Microsoft, Nokia and BlackBerry all see the market share handwriting on the wall. They all know that if you can’t get to at least 10 percent share, it’s going to be hard to attract developers. So they try to get market share anyway they can, just to boost the numbers, but that’s simply not how Apple operates.

Apple was never going to go that low. Instead, it made an odd compromise and decided to go low-ish, an approach that appears to have produced mixed results. If Apple were looking for some additional sales, it might have gotten them. If it was looking to use this to increase sales in China, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

See more here: Apple’s iPhone 5c Sales Story Is A Complex One

LG announces a smart bulb that connects to iOS and Android devices

The NSA reportedly spied right into the heart of ‘security threat’ Huawei

Silicon Valley can’t keep up with Korea’s financial revolution

LG’s foray into new verticals consists of more than just its first smartwatch — the G Watch, which was announced last week — after the Korean firm unveiled its answer to the Philips Hue, its less-than-excitingly named ‘Smart Bulb’.

smart bulb LG announces a smart bulb that connects to iOS and Android devices

Android Central reports that the bulb will last for a decade if used for five hours per day, but more interestingly it comes with compatible iOS and Android apps and supports Bluetooth. The apps allow users to control a range of settings, and include a security mode — which uses a lighting sequence to mimic someone being at home — and a play mode that responds to music. The bulb will even blink as a reminder when you get a call, though this is Android-only feature at first.

It’s not clear whether LG’s Smart Bulb will make it out of Korea, where it will retail for 35,000 won (around $32) per unit.

➤ LG Korea Press Release | Via Android Central

Read more: LG announces a smart bulb that connects to iOS and Android devices