Ultrasound could waken a sleeping smart home


The home of the future, we are assured, will be swarming with tiny sensors: security cameras, carbon monoxide detectors, speakers, and everything else. Few need to be running all the time — but how do you wake them up when they’re needed if they’re off in the first place? Ultrasound.

That’s the idea being pursued by Angad Rekhi and Amin Arbabian at Stanford, anyway. Their approach to the problem of devices that can’t stay on, yet can’t be all the way off, is to minimize the amount of energy necessary to send and receive a “wake” signal. That way the internet of things really only consumes power when they’re actively in use.

Radio, which of course all these tiny sensors use to transmit and receive information, is actually pretty expensive in terms of power and space. Keeping the antenna and signal processor ready and listening uses more energy than these devices have to spare if they’re to last for years on a charge.

Ultrasonic sensors, on the other hand, are incredibly power-efficient and require very little space. Ultrasound — soundwaves above the human range of hearing, 22KHz or so — is a much more physical phenomenon, and detecting it is easier in many ways than detecting radio frequency waves. It’s a bit like the difference between a sensor that’s sensitive to nearly intangible x-rays versus one that detects ordinary visible light.

Rekhi (left) and Arbabian looking natural in the lab.

Rekhi, a grad student in electrical engineering working under Arbabian, describes their approach in a paper just presented at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. It’s a simple idea in a way — a small switch that hits a bigger switch — but the results are impressive.

The system’s ultrasound receiver is efficient even for an efficient class of sensors; the tiny, super-sensitive microphone was developed at Stanford as well, by the Khuri-Yakub Group. The receiver is always on, but draws an amazingly small 4 nanowatts of power, and is sensitive enough to detect a signal with a single nanowatt’s strength. That puts it well ahead of most radio receivers in terms of power consumption and sensitivity.

There’s one from a study last year that has it beat on both… but it’s also more than 50 times bigger. The ultrasonic sensor only takes up 14.5 square millimeters to the radio chip’s 900. That’s valuable real estate on an embedded device.

You wouldn’t be able to activate it from across town, of course — ultrasonic signals don’t travel through walls. But they do bounce around them, and the wake-up system’s sensitivity means even the smallest fragment of an ultrasonic signal will be sufficient to activate it.

It’s just a prototype right now, but don’t be surprised if this sort of mega-efficient tech gets snatched up or duplicated by companies trying to squeeze every ounce of life out of a watt-hour.

Featured Image: mrtom-uk/Getty Images

Sonos One is the speaker to beat for those that want great sound and smarts


The connected speaker wars are upon us, and one day they will be detailed in history books for all to remember. But here now, it can be hard to cut through the various narratives surrounding the options out there and pick a winner. Now that the cards are on the table in terms of offerings from the major players, however, it’s pretty clear that Sonos has the best option available for most people.

Sonos One, the connected speaker that the company released last year, is a terrific sounding Wi-Fi-enabled speaker that also has built-in support for Amazon’s Alexa, which is if not the best smart assistant out there, then at least tied for first with Google’s Assistant.

On the sound front, Sonos has the most experience of any of the top three companies making smart speakers worth your consideration, too. The Sonos One is, in many ways, just an updated version of the Sonos Play:1 that’s acoustically very similar – but that’s actually a really good thing. The Sonos One, like the Play:1, is a terrific sounding audio device, especially given its size and physical footprint.

I’ve been using a pair of Sonos Ones for the past couple of weeks, and it’s clear that they do a great job of filling a room with sound, thanks in part to Sonos’ sound shaping tech that uses a two-minute setup process involving waving your phone around to properly model the audio they put out for your space.

Individually, a Sonos One is already a strong contender even against the Google Home Max and HomePod for sound quality for most people (who don’t need the additional power or won’t notice the auditory improvements afforded by the larger speakers) but the Sonos One has a another neat trick up its sleeve, since it can form a stereo pair with a second Sonos One. This provides true sound separation, meaning left and right channels reproduced as they were actually meant to be, instead of via some simulated stereo separation effect (which can be pretty cool, as HomePod reviews show, but which ultimately can’t match true stereo separation).

Another huge benefit of Sonos vs. the competition: the Sonos One integrates out of the box with the rest of your Sonos setup, should you have one. You can control all speakers via voice, and group them together for whole home/room-by-room playback. Google’s Home Max can work together with Chromecast-enabled speakers for similar multi-room streaming setups, and HomePod is set to get an update that will add multi-room and stereo syncing, but Sonos One offers both of these now, and using a method that’s proven to work.

There’s also pricing to consider. Sonos One, in a bundle with two, is available for $349 right now, which is the same price as a single HomePod. It’s an unbeatable deal, given the other advantages listed above, especially since it means you can see if you like it alone, or equip multiple rooms with Alexa smarts and quality connected sound in one go.

There are reasons to consider other options, to be sure, especially if you’re 100 percent committed to the Apple ecosystem of device and services, but in general for most people, for most use cases, Sonos One is the far better choice.

Spotify job listing hints the company’s ‘first physical products’ are coming


Spotify so far has been content to partner far and wide on hardware, via its Spotify Connect platform, which allows anyone building a connected speaker, mobile device or piece of AV equipment to turn their gadget into a Spotify speaker. But a new job listing suggests it will soon build hardware of its own, and it’s looking for people to help make that happen.

The job listing, spotted by The Guardian, seeks an ops manager for “hardware product,” and the first line of the description says outright that “Spotify is on its way to creating its first physical products,” though it doesn’t go into detail bout what those products might be. Chances are good that these will be smart, connected speakers of some kind, however, since it seems like a logical first step into the hardware world for software-focused Spotify.

A dedicated Spotify smart speaker could be a very good thing, especially if it integrates some kind of assistant tech, and could help the streaming leader translate its software success into an ecosystem of products with a bit more range in terms of diversifying their business. The question would be what Spotify could offer that devices from existing partners cannot, and whether Spotify would continue its strategy of embracing such an open ecosystem of hardware partners if it’s also making its own.

Another possibility is that Spotify explore dedicated streaming devices (a low-cost, Spotify-specific iPod-type media player seems like an idea with legs, for instance). But based on this listing, it seems like it’s still early days for any gadget strategy from the streaming music provider.

Featured Image: Denys Prykhodov/Shutterstock

Update for iOS and Macs negates text bomb that crashed devices


Last week we reported a major bug in Apple operating systems that would cause them to crash from mere exposure to either of two specific Unicode symbols. Today Apple fixes this major text-handling issue with iOS version 11.2.6 and macOS version 10.13.3, both now available for download.

The issue, discovered by Aloha Browser in the course of normal development, has to do with poor handling of certain non-English characters. We replicated the behavior, basically an immediate hard crash, in a variety of apps on both iOS and macOS. The vulnerability is listed on MITRE under CVE-2018-4124. If you were curious.

Apple was informed of the bug and told TechCrunch last week that a fix was forthcoming — and the patches just dropped in the last few minutes (iOS; macOS). Apple calls the magical characters a “maliciously crafted string” that led to “heap corruption.” It seems that macOS versions before 10.13.3 aren’t affected, so if you’re running an older OS, no worries.

The iOS patch also fixes “an issue where some third-party apps could fail to connect to external accessories,” which is welcome but unrelated to the text bomb.

You should be able to download both updates right now, and you should, or you’ll probably get pranked in the near future.

RightEye’s portable eye-tracking test catches concussions and reading problems in five minutes

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but physiologically speaking, they’re really windows to the brain.

RightEye looks through that window to detect common but often subtle vision issues resulting from concussions and other brain troubles. Its quick, portable eye-tracking station can tell in minutes whether you should see a doctor — or look into becoming a pro ball player.

It turns out there’s quite a lot you can tell from how someone’s eyes move. We may not notice it ourselves, but we all vary in how and how well we execute a number of basic tasks, from flicking our eyes back and forth to smoothly tracking a moving target. For instance, your eyes may over-correct, fail to line up correctly, or track up or down when moving along a straight line.

For healthy individuals, these variations fall within a safe range, just part of the ordinary differences between bodies. But certain patterns well outside the baseline can be strong indicators of things like concussions and eye muscle problems — and even Parkinson’s and Autism-spectrum conditions.

RightEye tracks these movements with a custom device that looks a bit like an all-in-one desktop; it uses a Tobii eye-tracking module built into a single-purpose computer loaded with a library of simple tests. A basic EyeQ (as they call it) test takes five minutes or so, with more specialized tests adding only a few more, and results are available immediately.

To give you an idea: one test in game form has you defending a space station, destroying incoming ships by looking at them. But certain colored ships you must not destroy — meaning you have to detect them in your peripheral vision and avoid looking at them. In another test, you flick your eyes rapidly between two targets appearing on opposite sides of the screen, demonstrating accuracy and functioning saccades (micro-corrections made by your eye muscles).

Each eye is tracked independently, and their performance as a matched pair is evaluated instantly. An easy-to-understand results sheet shows their actual movements and how (if at all) they deviate from the baseline.

It’s compact and can run on battery for some 8 hours, making it ideal for deployment outside hospitals or the like: anywhere from school nurse’s office to the sidelines of an NFL game, even in the home.

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I tested the device out myself at CES (my vision is just OK, but I want a rematch), and later chatted with Barbara Barclay, RIghtEye’s President. The two most exciting applications of the technology, as judged by her enthusiasm anyway, are in identifying vision-related cognitive problems in kids and in creating a sort of eye fitness test for sporting persons.

Say a child is having trouble learning to read, or perhaps can’t pay attention in class. The immediate thought these days is frequently ADD. But it’s more than a little possible that it’s a vision problem. A subtle difference in how the eyes track, perhaps one going off the horizontal when tracking a line of text, could easily make reading on the page or blackboard frustrating or even painful. What 3rd-grade kid would keep at it?

A reading-focused test tracks how the eyes move along a line of text.

This isn’t some groundbreaking new idea — but reliably and objectively evaluating individual eye movements was only something you could do if you went to see a specialist, perhaps after other explanations for a behavior didn’t pan out. RightEye’s test practically runs itself and can detect or eliminate the possibility of vision problems in minutes. Honestly, I think a kid might even find it fun.

Barclay has personal experience with this, her own daughter having had health issues that only after multiple false starts were found to have their root in a relatively simple vision problem the system indicated.

In 2016, RightEye acquired the rights to a pair of tests based on research linking eye movement patterns to Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as Autism spectrum conditions. It’s not a magic bullet, but again, the quick and easy nature of the tests make them ideal for routine screening.

The Autism spectrum test is for children aged only 1 to 3, and watches eye movements between images of people and images of geometric shapes. Lingering on the shapes more than the people, it turns out, is a good indicator that at the very least the kid should receive further testing.

The Parkinson’s and Huntington’s tests watch for the more well understood patterns that accompany the motor degeneration found in those afflictions. They can be administered to people of any age and have (using earlier eye-tracking setups) contributed to many identifications of the diseases.

On a very different, but perhaps more immediately remunerative, note, Barclay told me that the test also works as a way to find outliers on the other end: people with what amounts to super-vision.

It’s entirely possible that someone could take the test and their results will show that they have faster, more accurate saccades, quicker target acquisition, and better continuous object tracking than the baseline. That’s a heck of an asset to have if you’re batting, fielding, goalkeeping, playing tight end — pretty much anything, really.

Examples of a healthy eye movement report (left) and concussed one (right).

It’s also a heck of an asset to have if you’re a scout or coach. If Lopez is catching great on the left side of the field but not the right, you can look into the possibility that he’s having trouble tracking the ball when looking over his left shoulder, his eyes all the way to the right.

Not only that, but you can test for effects of concussions or other traumas right there on the field if they’re having trouble. Given how widespread such injuries are and the immense danger of repeated concussions, testing early and often could literally save lives.

Right now, Barclay told me, 7 MLB teams are using RightEye tech for player assessments. As for the medical side of things, she said the company currently has 200 clients. The new hardware should help boost that number.

Perhaps more importantly, it has the backing (and therefore clout) of VSP, the country’s largest vision insurance company. That’s both a tremendous vote of confidence and a major in — nothing gets people using a system faster than knowing it’s covered by their existing insurance.

Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

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I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.

Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

  1. ph1-halo-gray-angled-hi-res

  2. ph1-halo-gray-34-hi-res

I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.