PCs with Wireless Charging?

PCWorld reports of a Dell laptop with wireless charging, but it seems a low-key affair without much conviction:

At CES last week, Dell showed a wireless charging PC called the Latitude 7285, a 2-in-1 with a detachable screen attached to a keyboard base. It’s the first wireless charging laptop based on the AirFuel Alliance’s emerging wireless PC charging standard.

But Dell doesn’t have widespread plans to put wireless charging in a host of new devices. That’s partly because the technology, with slow charging speeds, is limited to low-power devices and isn’t mature enough to replace wired charging. The wireless charging Latitude 7285 has a low-power Intel Kaby Lake chip that draws just 4.5 watts of power.
– via PCWorld

You can see the problem. The whole point of wireless charging is that it works for smaller devices that you want to charge without having to fiddle with cables. It’s also a location thing: if you’re at your desk you’ve probably got a cable. But if you’re at your bedside, and want to charge your Kindle or phone overnight, just being able to put it on the nightstand and know it’s charging is elegant and appropriate.

So part of the problem here is companies foisting a ‘solution’ on a problem that doesn’t exist. The other is the continuing failure to agree on standards that work across all devices. Until that happens, don’t expect this to be a thing. As PC World says:

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for wireless PC charging. Intel had earlier taken the lead on establishing the wireless PC charging ecosystem. But the company scaled back efforts after laying off 12,000 people last year and restructuring operations to focus more on servers, internet of things, automotive tech, and other areas.

Intel was also leading an effort by AirFuel Alliance to establish the Resonant standard for wireless PC charging. AirFuel last November reconstituted a PC Task Force to drive adoption of wireless charging in PCs, with partners including Dell, Lenovo, and STMicroelectronics.

Intel also took on the job of trying to convince airports, cafes, and other locations to install wireless charging stands for laptops. But the efforts have not yet shown any tangible results.

Dog fight: Start-ups take aim at errant drones

Here’s a piece I wrote with Reuters colleague Swati Pandey about the rise of anti-drone technologies. Buckle up.

A boom in consumer drone sales has spawned a counter-industry of start-ups aiming to stop drones flying where they shouldn’t, by disabling them or knocking them out of the sky.

Dozens of start-up firms are developing techniques – from deploying birds of prey to firing gas through a bazooka – to take on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being used to smuggle drugs, drop bombs, spy on enemy lines or buzz public spaces.

The arms race is fed in part by the slow pace of government regulation for drones.

In Australia, for example, different agencies regulate drones and counter-drone technologies. “There are potential privacy issues in operating remotely piloted aircraft, but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s role is restricted to safety. Privacy is not in our remit,” the CASA told Reuters.

“There’s a bit of a fear factor here,” says Kyle Landry, an analyst at Lux Research. “The high volume of drones, plus regulations that can’t quite keep pace, equals a need for personal counter-drone technology.”

The consumer drone market is expected to be worth $5 billion by 2021, according to market researcher Tractica, with the average drone in the United States costing more than $500 and packing a range of features from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS, predicts NPD Group, a consultancy.

Australian authorities relaxed drone regulations in September, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification.

Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices – and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.

Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot. One U.S. prison governor has converted a bookshelf into an impromptu display of drones his officers have confiscated.

Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are increasingly using off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a consultancy on weapons.

A booby-trapped drone launched by Islamic State militants killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul.

The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread, says Jenzen-Jones. “There’s an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones,” he told Reuters.

ANTI-DRONES

This is feeding demand for increasingly advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones.

At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a start-up called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky, its CEO and founder Sjoerd Hoogendoorn said in an email.

Other approaches focus on netting drones, either via bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute via compressed gas.

Some, like Germany’s DeDrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors – camera, acoustic, Wi-Fi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners – to passively monitor drones within designated areas.

Newer start-ups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone’s direction and payload to then take it over and block its video transmission.

Singapore’s TeleRadio Engineering uses RF signals in its SkyDroner device to track and control drones and a video feed to confirm targets visually.

DroneVision Inc of Taiwan, meanwhile, says it is the first to anticipate the frequency hopping many drones use. Founder Kason Shih says his anti-drone gun – resembling a rifle with two oversized barrels, coupled with a backpack – blocks the drone’s GPS signals and video transmission, forcing it back to where it took off via the drone’s own failsafe features.

VARIED CLIENTELE

Clients, the start-up companies say, range from intelligence agencies to hotels. DroneVision, for example, helped local police down 40 drones flying around Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings and a magnet for drone users, in a single day.

In the Middle East, upscale hotels are talking to at least two companies about blocking drones from taking shots of their celebrity guests longing poolside or in the privacy of their bathrooms.

And even while the military, Jenzen-Jones says, may have the capability to bring down drones, demand is shifting to nimbler, more agile devices to cope with attacks using smaller off-the-shelf devices. “The key is looking for systems that are scalable, lightweight and easily deployable,” he said.

HEY, REGULATORS

The problem, such companies say, is that regulations on the use of drones – and about countering them – are still in their infancy. In countries like the United States and Australia, for example, drones are considered private property, and they can only be jammed by government agencies.

“Mitigation capabilities,” says Jonathan Hunter, CEO of Department 13, “are therefore limited.”

Oleg Vornik, chief financial officer of DroneShield, however, says: “This is expected to change shortly as governments start to recognise that critical infrastructure facilities such as airports need to be able to defend themselves against drones.”

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is testing various counter-drone technologies at several airports.

Interest in the space will only grow.

London will next year host the world’s first two conferences on counter-drone technologies, says Jenzen-Jones. But there will also likely be consolidation.

DroneShield’s Vornik says the company has counted 100 counter-drone start-ups, and is talking to more than a dozen of them as potential acquisition targets.

It’s too early, Vornik says, to see evidence of moves to get around anti-drone technology. But Amazon.com last month tested deliveries in the UK via drones, and published a patent describing how it might defend drones from threats, ranging from a bow and arrow to signal jammers.

Why we hate video calls

Good piece in the New Scientist about why we’ve always hated video calls:

When another New York Times reporter went to Pittsburgh in mid-1971, however, he found only 33 Picturephones in operation, with just 12 able to dial outside their own buildings. Aside from impracticalities such as cost, it seemed that, against all predictions, no one actually wanted video calling. Users were more interested in seeing graphics than face-to-face video conversation. At Bell Labs, Lucky recalls that the only person who called his Picturephone was his boss, Arno Penzias. “I found it very awkward because I had to stare at him,” he says.

More than that, I think the enduring non-appeal of video is that it doesn’t start to replace talking face to face. Face to face talking is not about seeing the other person, or looking them in the eyes — it’s about non-verbal communication — gestures, body language, touching, etc. It’s also about allowing other things to intervene — movement, distraction, interaction with objects.

Video calls are exhausting, because you are trying to replace all that with just maintaining eye contact, or at least giving the appearance of remaining engaged. It’s a new form of communication, and we’ve tried and rejected it. Whenever Cisco drag me over to their HQ for some elaborate video conference I always feel it’s a waste of time, and a major overengineering of a flawed medium.

Talking on the phone, meanwhile, suits us perfectly (although I’ve come to hate it almost as much as video calling.) As George Costanza once said, after going through a phone conversation with a blind date:

George: She had to be impressed by that conversation, had to! It was a great performance. I am unbelievable on the phone. On the date they should just have two phones on the table at the restaurant, done.

Phone calls have become useful because we are able to transfer a lot of the body language and non-verbal cues into speech (and silence). We’re still working on text chat, but we’re getting there. It works — it’s not exhausting. It’s communicating what we want to communicate, and filtering out what we don’t — and not reading, at least for the most part, anything into anything else.

Evernote Makes Employee Reading of Messages Opt-in

Evernote has been through the wringer with its decision to add machine learning to its repertoire, effectively trying to pave the way to added services based on scanning the contents of users’ notes. Users were not happy, not least because Evernote made it opt-out. The settings looked like this: 

Screenshot 2016 12 15 06 23 04

Evernote has now had a change of heart, rather coyly calling it Evernote Revisits Privacy Policy Change in Response to Feedback: No longer would it implement the planned Privacy Policy changes for January 23.

“Instead, in the coming months we will be revising our existing Privacy Policy to address our customers’ concerns, reinforce that their data remains private by default, and confirm the trust they have placed in Evernote is well founded. In addition, we will make machine learning technologies available to our users, but no employees will be reading note content as part of this process unless users opt in. We will invite Evernote customers to help us build a better product by joining the program.”

It’s probably the best solution in the circumstances, but it was poorly handled, and reflected a lack of understanding, once again, of what the product is. Evernote is simply that: a place where you can store your notes forever. That needs to be paramount. Anything else needs to support that, and not undermine it. 

Users’ reaction was becaues they prized privacy and security above other layers of features and services that may arise from running semantic engines and whatnot over Evernote. And certainly doing it via opt-out, and a privacy policy that raised suspicions.

I personally would love to see more done with my notes — complex search is still poor, finding similar notes is still poor — but I need, and I’m sure I’m not alone — to be confident Evernote isn’t going to do anything weird with my stash without my permission. Especially have employees poring over them. 

Turn off location in iOS, and Uber doesn’t work

(Update: Uber say they are looking into it.) 

Buzzfeed says Privacy Advocates Want Uber To Stop Tracking Users After Rides End but Uber responds that “by offering the option of manually entering pick-up locations, the company is giving users a choice to be tracked or not.”

It quotes Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel at EFF, as saying that this ‘takes away a lot of the usability.’ Part of Uber’s appeal is how easy it is to open the app and let GPS pinpoint your location for a driver. ‘As you’re trying to get picked up by the side of the road, you might not know what address you’re at,’ Opsahl said. ‘I guess you could turn it on and off again…but that’s pretty clunky as well.’”

I’d agree, and have found in my tests that it’s worse than that: turn location off, and the app no longer works. 

First off, here are the options, as described in settings in iOS:

2016 12 06 18 10 15

So it’s either Always or Never. Nothing in between. Turn to Never and things not only get clunky — meaning that you’re prompted by dire warnings every few minutes, but after a day or two you start to get blank screens, like these when you try to book an Uber. 

2016 12 06 18 09 38

2016 12 06 17 10 20

I’ve reached out to Uber for an explanation. 

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

A piece I wrote for Reuters on travel startups:

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some start-ups are taking on one of air travel’s last undisrupted bastions – the economy-class cabin. While first and business class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades, there’s been less attention to innovation at the rear of the plane.

“We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not just the top 1 percent,” Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight economy-class seat.

He’s not alone. Half a dozen firms are pitching something similar, wanting to make seats more comfortable, improve cabin lighting, make it easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, and even upgrade the humble food trolley.

They are trying to penetrate an industry eyeing significant growth on the back of strong jetliner demand, illustrated by this week’s $6.4 billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an interiors manufacturer.

Persuading the airline industry to upgrade, however, is a tough ask. In a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins, carriers have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation, says Anthony Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and airlines.

“Right now, we’ve designed ourselves into a corner with the current economy format,” he says. “It’s about as tight and tiny as you’re going to get it. So something has to give, and it’s difficult to see what that is.”

Acumen, which designed the world’s first flat bed for British Airways 20 years ago, has had only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused: both involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats.

But that’s not stopping a new generation of outsiders working with new materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at least more bearable.

FLAX SEED TROLLEY

AirGo’s Yaghoubi, for example, vowed to do something about airline seats when he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and noticed the seats hadn’t been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago. “Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable” than today’s seats, he said.

The latest prototype of his seats, he says, offers a wider back rest by having smaller elbow rests that fold down rather than up, and has better head support. Extra leg room is created by moving the literature pocket and improving the seat posture to have people sit more upright.

But these firms realize they can’t just pitch their seats on comfort alone.

UK-based Rebel.Aero, for example, promises to speed up boarding and integrate a child seat by letting the seat slide upwards, like an inverted cinema seat. This frees up space for passengers to move in and out and stretch their legs. Founder Gareth Burks says he’s halfway through getting certification and has delivered sample seats to some aircraft manufacturers.

AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon fiber composites, where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow structure that halves their weight.

Others are experimenting with other materials. France-based Expliseat has announced Air Tahiti as the first customer for its titanium seats, freeing up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers.

And UK-based FlightWeight has redesigned the food trolley, ditching the usual aluminum casing for mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar and water – making it almost a third lighter.

OBSTACLES, GRUMBLES

Changing consumer habits also offer airlines a chance to shed weight.

Most passengers would prefer to use their own mobile device, says Fred Cleveland, former vice president at American Airlines and now an adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This allows some airlines to ditch some expensive and heavy wiring and hardware, and convert seats into charging stations.

Cobalt Aerospace, another UK-based design firm, offers ways to customize seats, including wireless charging in tray tables and arm rests.

This could be bad news for suppliers of in-flight entertainment systems such as Thales and Panasonic. Singapore Airlines’ budget subsidiary Scoot has already abandoned traditional seat-back consoles in favor of pre-loaded iPads.

But there are obstacles for start-ups.

A lot has already been spent by companies such as Germany’s Recaro and France’s Zodiac Aerospace on making seats as light as possible by using advanced materials. Many leading airlines are already installing them.

But production bottlenecks in the interiors industry highlight the challenges it faces in keeping up with demand, and may make airlines wary of gambling on untested suppliers.

Persuading airlines to spend more isn’t easy, says Martin Darbyshire of UK-based Tangerine, which customized the head rests in Cathay Pacific’s A350 economy seats. Cathay was willing to make the changes, he said, because it makes money from economy. “But for most other airlines the costs are prohibitive.”

Maybe the biggest hurdle is certification.

There are strict rules about what can and can’t be done, and any tweaks require approval. When one airframe maker reduced the weight of the tracks where seats slot in, it found itself having to restore all the saved weight to ensure the design met certification requirements, said Darbyshire. “It becomes a vicious circle.”

Part of the problem is that while passengers grumble about economy-class travel, they are sensitive to price and don’t differentiate much on features, says Acumen’s Harcup.

Unlike booking a hotel, he says, where cost is just one of many metrics a customer looks at – internet access, parking, a pool – when it comes to the airline seat “the passenger is confronted with one metric and that’s cost. So it’s no wonder we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Xiaomi Goes Virtually Edgeless By Using Ultrasound

NewImage

Regular readers will know I’ve been looking out for this to happen for a while: the use of sound, or rather ultrasound, as a form of interface. Here’s a Reuters piece I did on it a year ago:  From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound | Reuters:

Ultrasound – inaudible sound waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring the unborn – may change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

But the proof will be in the pudding, I reckoned:

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercialising mid-air interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers’ fantasies but to the customer’s bottom line.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the world’s biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires no special chip and removes the need for a phone’s optical sensor.

Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a selfie, say, by waving at the screen.

Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its phones, but says “people didn’t use it”.

Danielsen says her technology is better because it’s cheaper and broadens the field in which users can control their devices.

That day has happened. Xiaomi’s new MIX phone, Elliptic Labs says, is the first smartphone to use their Ultrasound Proximity Software:

INNER BEAUTY replaces the phone’s hardware proximity sensor with ultrasound software and allows the speaker to be completely invisible, extending the functional area of the screen all the way to the top edge of the phone.

Until now, all smartphones required an optical infrared hardware proximity sensor to turn off the screen and disable the touch functionality when users held the device up to their ear.

Without the proximity sensor, a user’s ear or cheek could accidentally trigger actions during a call, such as hanging up the call or dialing numbers while the call is ongoing.

However, INNER BEAUTY — built on Elliptic Labs’ BEAUTY ultrasound proximity software — uses patented algorithms not only to remove the proximity sensor, but also to hide the speaker behind the phone’s glass screen.

Besides eliminating the unsightly holes on a phone’s screen, Elliptic Labs’ technology eliminates common issues with hardware proximity sensors, such as their unreliability in certain weather conditions or in response to various skin colors as well as dark hair.

This is a good first step. The point here of course, for the company, is that they can push the display right to the top, which definitely looks nice (the front-facing camera, if you’re wondering, is now at the bottom.) But the use of ultrasound has lots of interesting implications — not least for how we interact with our phones. If gestures work, rather than just say they work, it will make interacting with other devices as interesting, maybe more interesting, than voice.

The Ugliness of Short Term Hacks on the Road to Wireless

Here’s a Kickstarter project to solve the problem of no audio jack which illustrates just how thorny it is: iLDOCK – charge and listen to iPhone 7 at the same time by ildockgear — Kickstarter

ILDOCK lets you use your wired headphone while charging your iPhone 7. You can also add storage via SD, TF and USB ports with Plus. 

NewImage

The problem, as some have highlighted in the comments, is that Apple rarely grants MFi status to accessories where the lightning cable doesn’t plug directly into an Apple device. In this case, one does but the external one doesn’t. Most manufacturers get around this by making the external one a microusb. I don’t mind that, in fact it helps me, but some folk aren’t crazy about it. 

There are other issues too, of course: if you have lightning headphones and want to charge, this isn’t going to help you. 

I know I’ve written before that the future is wireless, but this project, worthy though it is, merely illustrates how ugly the interim is going to look like. 

(Via Kickstarter)

Yahoo Dyslexia

Yahoo probably has enough on its plate right now, facing possibly the largest data breach ever –  Yahoo says at least 500 million accounts hacked in 2014 – but I just wanted to point out that it doesn’t inspire confidence when their log in screen contains a glaring typo: 

Screenshot 2016 09 23 05 11 47

(I’m not sure the links below about the ‘account security issue’ are particularly helpful either. Users may not have heard about it, and so don’t know what it’s referring to, and the second link does not enlighten the user in this case about whether they’re ‘potentially affected’ or not.) 

But a typo on a login screen? I had to double check I’d not been diverted to a scam site. Not reassuring. 

I’m An Airline, Fly Me

This an email from a bona fide airline: 

Dear Sir/Madam,

Please be informed that your transaction with [international carrier] has been confirmed. Due to fraud prevention procedure against Credit Card transaction, we would like to validate your recent transaction with [international carrier] by filling information below :

Passenger(s) name :
Route :
Date of Travel :
Cardholder name :
Address :

Also, we need to confirm and validate your name and last four digit of your card number. Please kindly provide scanned/image of your front side credit card that used to buy the ticket. You may cover the rest information on the card. Please reply in 8 hours after received this email or we will cancel the reservation.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Best Regards,
Verification Data Management