Apple said to debut voice-activated Siri AirPods in 2018, water-resistant model in 2019


Apple is preparing a couple of updating models of AirPods, according to Bloomberg. The popular fully wireless earbud-style headphones that Apple introduced last year are currently on track for a refresh in 2018 with the addition of a new version of the “W” line of chips that Apple created specifically to manage and improve Bluetooth-based connections between gadgets.

The 2018 hardware refresh would include not only an improved W chip (possibly the W2 added to the Apple Watch last year, or perhaps even a W3) but also the ability to activate Siri just by voice, rather than by physically tapping the AirPod in your ear, as is the case currently.

Like with Amazon’s Echo devices or the iPhone, a user would be able to trigger the virtual assistant simply by saying the wake word aloud – “Hey Siri,” in this case. That would indeed to a step-up in terms of shifting AirPods to a voice-first interface device.

As for the successor currently planned for 2019 (though Bloomberg notes those plans could easily change between now and then), it will add a new level of water-resistance, which Bloomberg reports will be designed to protect against “splashes of water and rain,” rather than full submersion like the current Apple Watch.

AirPods are doing well by all accounts, so putting them on an update cycle similar to the iPhone and other of Apple’s high-demand products seems fairly logical. It’ll be interesting to see if customers choose to upgrade in the same way they do with Apple’s other high selling devices, and what other updates might be in store (please made variable fit tip design, Apple, so that I can finally wear these things without requiring a little foam sleeve).

Intel ships update for newest Spectre-affected chips


Intel has announced that the fix is out for its latest chips affected by Spectre, the memory-leakage flaw affecting practically all computing hardware. The patch is for the Skylake generation (late 2015) and newer, though most users will still have to wait for the code to be implemented by whoever manufactured their computer (specifically, their motherboard).

The various problems presented in January by security researchers have to be addressed by a mix of fixes at the application, OS, kernel, and microarchitecture level. This patch is the latter, and it replaces an earlier one that was found to be unstable.

These aren’t superficial tweaks and they’re being made under pressure, so some hiccups are to be expected — but Intel is also a huge company that has had months of warning to get this right, so people may be frustrated by the less-than-optimal way the flaws have been addressed.

As before, there isn’t much you as a user can do except make sure that you are checking frequently to make sure your PC and applications are up to date — in addition, of course, to not running any strange code.

If you’re on an older chipset, like Sandy Bridge, you’ll have to wait a bit longer — your fix is still in beta. You don’t want to be their test machine.

Featured Image: Alice Bevan–McGregor/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

A system to tell good fake bokeh from bad


The pixel-peepers over at DxOMark have shared some of the interesting metrics and techniques they use to judge the quality of a smartphone’s artificial bokeh, or background blur in photos. Not only is it difficult to do in the first place, but they have to systematize it! Their guide should provide even seasoned shooters with some insight into the many ways “computational bokeh,” as they call it, varies in quality.

Generally the effect created by an SLR with a good lens open wide, leading to smoothly blurred backgrounds and predictably shaped light points, is the gold standard.

The advantages and disadvantages of artificial background blur, as found in most flagship phones these days, come from the basis they all have in dual cameras. By using both cameras to capture information about a scene, then using that information to determine a depth map and blur out things beyond a certain distance or object, a passable simulation of the SLR’s effect can be created.

Look at that smooth background blur… photo by me.

But of course it can be done well or poorly. There are telltale signs of having taken this shortcut, many of which the DxOMark review team has identified and fit into their review schema. Some are expected, while others are a bit surprising. But they all show up in the rather crazy test setup concocted to provoke these undesired behaviors.

For instance, you probably know that these artificial bokeh systems occasionally blur out pieces of the bits they’re meant to keep sharp — a curl or hair, a hand or nearby plant. That’s points off, of course, but real background blur also ramps up smoothly on either side of the focal point, meaning things near the sharp part will be only slightly blurred, while items far away like distant lights will be reduced to circular smudges.

For a phone to simulate that, it would need to calculate an accurate depth map for everything in the scene and render the blur progressively. That kind of processing costs time and battery, so few do anything like it. Still, it’s what they should do if they’re imitating this optical phenomenon — so DxOMark grades them on it.

That’s only one of several pieces of the puzzle, however, so read the rest and next time you read one of the site’s reviews, you’ll have a bit more insight into where all those points come from.

Apple could be buying cobalt from mining companies directly


Cobalt is the new oil. Car companies and battery manufacturers are all rushing to secure multiyear contracts with mining companies for their lithium-ion batteries. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is also participating in this game as the company wants to secure its long-term supplies.

The company has never done this before with cobalt. Apple relies on a ton of suppliers for all the components in its devices — including for batteries. And yet, cobalt prices have tripled over the past 18 months. Chances are Apple will secure a contract much more easily than a battery supplier.

While an Apple Watch battery is an order of magnitude smaller than a car battery, Apple sells hundreds of millions of devices every year. All those iPhone and Mac batteries represent quite a bit of cobalt.

But the issue is that car manufacturers are putting a ton of pressure on cobalt suppliers. BMW and Volkswagen are also looking at signing multiyear contracts to secure their supply chains. And other car manufacturers are probably also paying attention to cobalt prices.

As a side effect, buying cobalt straight from the mines makes it easier to control the supply chain. It’s hard to know where you cobalt is coming from when you buy batteries from third-party suppliers. And in that case, it can be a big issue.

Amnesty International published a report in January 2016 about cobalt mines, saying that tech companies and car manufacturers aren’t doing enough to prevent child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the country is responsible for 50 percent of global cobalt production.

A couple of months ago, Amnesty International published an update, saying that Apple is more transparent than others. The iPhone maker now publishes a list of its cobalt suppliers. But there’s still a long way to go in order to make sure that mining companies respect basic human rights.

But let’s be honest. In today’s case, Apple mostly wants to be able to buy enough cobalt at a fair price for its upcoming gadgets. And the company has deep enough pockets to sign this kind of deals.

Here’s how to make Alexa control a toilet because why not

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Alexa-controlled toilets are a thing in 2018 but cost thousands. An enterprising person can make their own by following these instructions. It takes a bit of work, multiple components and about $750 (plus the cost of the toilet) but the end result is a voice controlled toilet and everyone needs that in their life.

The trick is buying a bidet that has an IR remote and then using a Adafruit Wifi development board to trigger another device to flush the toilet. Easy!

Home voice control has long been considered the gold standard for home automation and Alexa and Google Home are making it easier than ever to make a personal Jarvis. It was just two years ago Mark Zuckerberg set a personal challenge to develop a AI system to control different part of his home and now it just takes a little hacking and coding for someone to do the same — but Zuck’s AI system has Morgan Freeman’s voice, which alone puts it on a different level from Alexa.

Humans sow seeds of destruction by abusing poor robot just trying to walk through a door


You may remember last week that Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, a trim and yellow Spot Mini, has learned to open doors. Seems like at this point you don’t want to anger them. They will find you. Or rather, they’ll find the company’s designated robot abuser and punish him for stopping poor robots from doing what they have been told to do. Soon Spot Mini will not be the one on a leash.

Of course this is necessary testing for when the robot actually has to navigate a busy environment and this kind of interference comes up, deliberate or accidental. A robot has to be able to bounce back, of course; if it freaks out when anything unexpected happens, it won’t be able to accomplish much.

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All the same, it’s excruciating to watch, at least for me. It’s just trying so hard and it doesn’t get angry at the man, even when its piece falls off!

Perhaps robots will be superhuman in patience as well as door-opening ability. Let’s hope so. I kicked a Spot Mini once at its creator’s invitation and if any machines are reading this, I’m sorry.

Featured Image: Boston Dynamics

Humans sow seeds of destruction by abusing poor robot just trying to walk through a door


You may remember last week that Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, a trim and yellow Spot Mini, has learned to open doors. Seems like at this point you don’t want to anger them. They will find you. Or rather, they’ll find the company’s designated robot abuser and punish him for stopping poor robots from doing what they have been told to do. Soon Spot Mini will not be the one on a leash.

Of course this is necessary testing for when the robot actually has to navigate a busy environment and this kind of interference comes up, deliberate or accidental. A robot has to be able to bounce back, of course; if it freaks out when anything unexpected happens, it won’t be able to accomplish much.

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All the same, it’s excruciating to watch, at least for me. It’s just trying so hard and it doesn’t get angry at the man, even when its piece falls off!

Perhaps robots will be superhuman in patience as well as door-opening ability. Let’s hope so. I kicked a Spot Mini once at its creator’s invitation and if any machines are reading this, I’m sorry.

Featured Image: Boston Dynamics