Category Archives: Gadget News, Reviews, And Features

Facebook may launch ‘Slingshot’ Snapchat competitor this month

Facebook could be gearing up to introduce a Snapchat-like video message tool later this month, according to a Financial Times report. The app, known to staffers as ‘Slingshot,’ would enable users to send short video messages, and it would likely not be integrated with the social site’s other applications, such as Facebook Messenger. Based on the timing of Slingshot’s potential release, it’s possible that a team within the company began working on the app shortly after negotiations to acquire Snapchat for $3 billion failed late last year, leaving Facebook to build its own competitor from the ground up. Still, while the new app appears to be nearly ready for primetime, the launch apparently has yet to be approved — it’s possible that Slingshot may never see the light of day.



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​MotionSavvy uses gesture recognition to give sign language a voice

If you’re fluent in American Sign Language, congratulations: you know one more language than most of the people reading this post. The rest of us? A solution to our communicative failures is on the way. A company called MotionSavvy is building a Leap Motion-equipped tablet case that can actively interpret ASL and ‘speak’ the translation out loud. It’s an ambitious project, but it works: at a recent Leap AXLR8R event we saw company founder Ryan Hait-Campbell sign over a MotionSavvy equipped slate. “Hello, my name is Ryan,” he said. “What’s your name?” It was an impressive demo, but Hait-Campbell admitted it was limited — the setup can only recognize about 100 words at present, and since signs can vary slightly from person to person, those words don’t consistently register for every user. Still, the company’s prototype shows enormous potential. If the firm can outfit it with a larger word database and the ability to decipher personalized signing, MotionSavvy could become an incredible communication tool for the hearing-impaired.



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TED founder thinks big data needs a big makeover

Richard Saul Wurman isn’t a fan of President Barack Obama’s push for, an online repository for big data. “That’s just politicians talking,” the 79-year-old TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference founder told me. “I think there will be a pushback saying, ‘We don’t understand all this fucking data.'” The way Wurman sees it, that bulk collection of raw information has no value without a creative means of diagramming, mapping and comparing it all in a way that gives it meaning. “[You] have to have it in a form that you can understand. They’re leaving that step out,” he said. It’s that approach to the organization of data that has directly informed the creation of Wurman’s high-tech information-mapping project, Urban Observatory.

“He thinks big data is bullshit; it’s like [carbon] atoms. You could either make a nuclear bomb or a bouquet of flowers with them. It’s not helpful,” said Dan Klyn, co-founder of Michigan-based information-architecture firm The Understanding Group and Wurman’s biographer. “Some of the rah-rah-rah about big data is how precise and accurate it is,” he said. “Precision and accuracy are not in a causal relationship with understanding.”

I recently listened to Wurman (pictured lower-left) give a keynote speech at West Michigan Design Week and here’s what I learned: Earth’s largest mammal, the blue whale, has a tongue the size of a school bus; it has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and an aorta that’s big enough to swim through. Speaking of the VW Beetle, the first one rolled off the assembly line around the same time as the first Toyota, which, incidentally, happens to be around when Germany allied with Japan to form the Axis Powers. Oh, and that’s the same time frame during which radar was invented. It’s this type of instant association, linking data to other relevant bits of data, that Wurman finds more useful than simply telling someone that the blue whale’s heart weighs 1,300 pounds.

That need for data comprehension is the driving force behind Wurman’s ambitious Urban Observatory project. And what’s more, it’s actually an extension of something he thought of more than 40 years ago when he edited a 1971 issue of Minnesota’s Walker Art Museum publication Design Quarterly. Wurman’s idea at the time was to create a museum-like exhibit that would allow anyone to learn about and understand the makeup of different cities around the world based on a common set of comparable data. It wasn’t until last year, however, that available technology finally caught up with his vision and Wurman could launch the project.

Wurman’s idea was to create a museum-like exhibit that would allow anyone to learn about the makeup of different cities around the world based on a common set of comparable data.

Urban Observatory is a joint effort including Wurman, Jon Kamen from Radical Media (the production house responsible for Mad Men‘s pilot episode) and Jack Dangermond of Esri, a geographic information system (GIS) giant. It aims to make the world’s wealth of city data both useful and interactive. By design, the system divides available data into five big categories (i.e., work, movement, people, public and systems), plus a handful of sub-categories. It then transforms digital map-related jargon, like georeferencing and clips, into information that anyone could understand.

The key to Urban Observatory, Wurman told me, is that everything stays on the same scale at the same time — something its founders claim hasn’t been done before. Let’s say, for example, a new job meant you had the choice of moving anywhere in the world, and you wanted to find an area where your kids would have the best chances of making new friends. By referencing Urban Observatory, a user would be able to look at a map of Los Angeles and see which neighborhood has the highest youth population density. Zooming in even deeper into a specific neighborhood would trigger comparison maps of other cities you’ve selected to scale accordingly. It’s a function Wurman believes will allow users to make an informed apples-to-apples comparison. You’ll even be able to map how far it is to get to a park from any point, in any city. “It’s amazing how different the cities are [for that],” Wurman told me.

Comparing London’s and New York’s urban sprawl

Future updates to Urban Observatory’s data set are limited only by what a city is willing to provide, which, it turns out, is surprisingly little. “If given the choice, a bureaucrat will keep things private,” Wurman said. “It’s a struggle getting information. That’s why we only have the cities we have.” His partner Dangermond has most, if not all, of the relevant GIS data (e.g., information about landfill locations, coastal development and agricultural expansion) at his fingertips, but can’t make use of it unless local governments give the green light.

A non-interactive prototype of the Urban Observatory project made its debut at the Esri user conference last year in San Diego with datasets from 10 major cities including Chicago, Hamburg and Abu Dhabi. Wurman said that the number will jump to 50 cities at this year’s Esri conference in July, and then to 78 next February. The initial exhibit consisted of large LCD panels stacked three high, in a roughly 30-foot-wide arc. “It looked great and ambitious. People were wowed by it, but you couldn’t understand anything,” Wurman told me. “It was too much information to understand at one time.”

“Everything I do is something I do for myself,” Wurman said. “I don’t really give a fuck about the world; I’m just trying to understand things better.”

Which is why the installation will change when it debuts at the Smithsonian Institute come February 10th, 2015. Wurman has reduced the size down to three 15-foot-wide “pods,” each with its own interactive navigation display. In a lot of ways, it’s like the Urban Observatory’s web app, which, for now, is the only way you can fiddle with the data. “Anybody at anyplace in any city could probably afford it. Or a university can afford one and have it there and have it updated all the time from the cloud,” Wurman said. He likened the Urban Observatory to a new type of museum, one filled with ideas and information instead of physical objects; one that’s the same everywhere, at all times around the world and curated by data sitting on servers in Esri’s San Diego offices. “It’ll keep on going and getting better, but eventually it’ll reach a conclusion of something I started when I was quite young,” he said.

You might think that Wurman’s involvement with Urban Observatory, or information architecture in general, is a type of philanthropy or even a way to help the world. But that’s not the case. Wurman is nothing if not unapologetically selfish with his motives and quest for knowledge, and if someone else benefits along the way, so be it. “Everything I do is something I do for myself,” he said. “I don’t really give a fuck about the world; I’m just trying to understand things better.”

[Image credit: Esri]



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Adidas is taking sneaker customization to a whole nother level

Adidas is in the process of revamping mi Adidas, its feature that lets people customize shoes with various elements — you can mix and match colors and even have your name embroidered on them. To make things better (or worse, depending on who you ask), Adidas will soon also allow you to create sneakers using any image you want as your print — because why not, right? Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do this with all Adidas Originals, as the sporting gear company is limiting the customization feature to the ZX Flux model. Adidas says the ZX Flux is the perfect shoe for this, citing the recent success of the Photo Print Prism model as evidence and as a driving force behind the idea. You can customize your own pair starting in August, which is when the iOS and Android apps are due to launch.

It’s worth noting that the concept of customizing shoes, or other gear, isn’t particularly novel for manufacturers; Nike, as an example, has its NikeiD program and, of course, there’s the one we’ve been talking about: mi Adidas. Still, there’s something more exciting about the idea of letting buyers upload a picture of their choosing — we can only imagine what folks will be sporting on their feet soon enough.

Adidas Photo Print ZX Flux

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12 Photos



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What you need to know about online advertisers tracking you

Spend lots of time online? Then perhaps you’ve heard of targeted advertising, “Big Data” analysis and complaints of privacy violations by advertising companies. The ads above your Gmail inbox? Yeah, those. As it turns out, most people don’t like being tracked by advertisers. Surprise! As such, a variety of tools exist to protect individuals. But what about a solution that anyone could use, that didn’t require knowledge of cryptography or even a software install? That’s where the Do Not Track initiative comes in.

Do Not Track (DNT) is explained by its own name: Don’t track what I do online, including what I buy, what I read, what I say and who I communicate with. But how should it work? Therein lies the controversy. Since the subject is still being debated, now’s the perfect time to learn about it, voice your opinion and request more control over your data. If you want more control, that is.

What is it?

The idea of Do Not Track (DNT) was initially conceived in late 2007. Several groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to help with the creation of something similar to the National Do Not Call Registry: a system to limit the amount of personally identifiable information a company can obtain without express authorization from an individual. More directly, DNT is a system to protect individuals from advertisers eager for personal info on consumers.

The proposed technology asked for online advertisers to submit web address information to the FTC, which the agency would publish and make accessible to the public. Why a list? So that web browsers (Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.) could effectively block advertiser tracking on a wide scale. The list concept, however, was ultimately flawed: Every time an advertiser changed its web info, the DNT function became obsolete. It would require extreme vigilance to keep the system 100 percent effective. As such, it died.

In 2010, the idea of Do Not Track came back to life, albeit in a completely different form. Instead of relying on a list, web browsers would simply ask the advertising software (instantly, in the time it takes to load a webpage) to not track personal information. This is the Do Not Track initiative as we know it today.

Why should I care?

If you don’t care that websites and companies monitor your behavior, share what they know about you and generally act creepy about personal information, well, we’re impressed you got this far into a piece about Do Not Track. If you don’t want Amazon to show you ads about swimsuits, towels and sunblock because you mentioned you were excited about going to the beach on Facebook, you should care.

Not freaked out enough by that example? What if they know your daughter is pregnant before you know? For some people, this isn’t a big deal. For others, it’s extremely important.

We aren’t going to get into the implications of governments knowing everything about you; the Do Not Track initiative is only aimed at advertising companies. However, it’s not crazy to think that a government could request all the data an advertising company has in order to collect taxes, or worse: infringe on free-speech rights.

How does it work?

Modern browsers, such as Firefox, currently send something called “headers” to web servers (computers where websites are hosted). Say you’re visiting, I don’t know, this website. Say you’re on a PC, running Windows 7, and you’re using Firefox to read all about whatever happened to Netscape. The server hosting Engadget’s content needs to know how to present information (in this case, our website), to your particular setup. So your computer tells our web server how it’s set up and in turn, our web server returns a readable website. It also returns ad-tracking software.

The Do Not Track initiative simply adds an additional piece of information (the DNT header) to the initial request, which is set to 0 or 1. If the DNT header equals 1, the web browser knows it should not track the user’s behavior on the site, and a company knows not to use that data for advertising purposes.

You can see the DNT header turned on in the highlighted text below:

Most popular web browsers and at least the two most popular web servers (IIS and Apache) already offer support for Do Not Track. To enable this option on your browser of choice, just follow the steps dictated by the developers, linked below:

Internet Explorer

Can I start using it right now?

Yes — but not so fast, cowpoke. While the system is implemented in browsers and web servers, it’s not actually being used by advertising companies right now. A list of websites that honor the system is on, but not all advertising companies have agreed to abide by it. There are even conflicts between browser and web server developers as to how it should be used.

For example: Google, one of the biggest advertising companies on the internet, provides a warning about the Do Not Track setting in Chrome (seen below). Not exactly reassuring, is it?

What’s the argument?

One major point of contention is a concept known as “the tyranny of the default.” This idea is that a great majority of users never change the default settings, and thus, whatever the default settings were will most likely stay that way. Should browsers assume that users want DNT enabled by default? Microsoft thought so, and proceeded to enable DNT on Internet Explorer without user interaction. However, many believe that in order for the initiative to have any type of weight on advertising companies, the user should intentionally enable it.

Because of Microsoft’s decision to enable DNT by default in IE, the people behind the Apache web server patched out the setting. Wait, what? You see, according to the rules of DNT, the service can only be implemented if it “reflect[s] the user’s preference, not the choice of some vendor, institution or network-imposed mechanism outside the user’s control.” If there is “misuse” of the technology — such as Microsoft, an institution, turning it on by default — web servers can decide to ignore the header and the tool is useless.

The debate about enabling DNT by default started in 2012 and it hasn’t ended yet. Google, Facebook and now Yahoo all ignore DNT requests (at least for now).

Want even more?

Everything about Do Not Track is still open for debate. Technology companies are still discussing proper ways to implement it. Advertising companies are deciding if they want to respect it. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether DNT means “don’t save this information” or “don’t use this information.” And, of course, governments are considering enforcing the technology. This means that, as of right now, DNT is useless.

For now, the best you can do is precisely what you’ve already done by reading this article: Learn about Do Not Track. If you do want this technology or something that serves a similar purpose, be vocal about it. Take it directly to advertising companies on social networks. Contacting your senator wouldn’t hurt either! Maybe you love the benefits of targeted advertising and personalized web browsing? Express your opinion and let people know! The subject is still wide open for debate.



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Engadget Daily: The FCC’s new net neutrality rules, HTC’s One Mini 2 and more!

You might say the day is never really done in consumer technology news. Your workday, however, hopefully draws to a close at some point. This is the Daily Roundup on Engadget, a quick peek back at the top headlines for the past 24 hours — all handpicked by the editors here at the site. Click on through the break, and enjoy.

FCC votes in favor of new Net Neutrality rules, leaves room for ‘fast lanes’

Today, the FCC voted on a new set of Net Neutrality rules, and not surprisingly, the outcome was a split decision. Thankfully, nothing’s set in stone just yet. The final vote will take place later this year.

HTC’s One Mini 2 is an awkwardly named, cut-down version of the excellent One M8

The HTC One Mini 2 is here, and surprise, it looks just like the One M8. But despite its similar appearance, this miniature handset has been downgraded in almost every department. Even still, the Mini 2 remains a great option for those on a budget who want that premium feel.

How a water bottle gave birth to a whole new world of self-healing products

Sometimes great things happen by accident. Read on and learn how a Dasani water bottle and laboratory error lead an IBM researcher to develop the tech behind a self-healing and flexible polymer.

Wearhaus: If you love your social headphones, set them free

Social headphones you say? A company called Wearhaus wants to empower over-ears with the ability to wirelessly share music with anyone. Our own James Trew loves the idea, but fears it won’t catch on.



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