Apple TV gets Dolby Atmos and streamlined sign-ons for channels and services

Apple TV, still definitely not a hobby, has some new features being added as it grows. Tim Cook mentioned there are 50 percent more users now than there were last year, and no doubt they’ll be happy with the addition of Dolby Atmos audio and some nice sign-on streamlining.

Apple TV is now the only streaming player to be both Dolby Atmos and Vision certified. Assuming you’ve got a 4K HDR-capable TV, it could be nice to have, as iTunes boasts the biggest selection of content for those — but because hardly anyone does, it’s more of an aspirational feature at present.

There are more than 100 video channels now after the addition of several live news and sports ones. In France, Apple TV will be the exclusive provider of Canal+, and in Switzerland, Apple has partnered with Salt for a similar exclusive. And Charter Spectrum will also be coming to Apple TV later this year, so around 50 million people will be able to watch their normal cable content through the device. Finally!

Helpfully, many of these apps won’t require a separate log-in, including Charter Spectrum — as any smart TV user or cable cutter knows, managing these logons can be incredibly annoying. So a single sign-on (or zero sign-on, in some cases) will be a boon.

It is unclear what this means for those of us who share passwords between friends and family. Possibly not good.

If you’re a TV background video aficionado, you’ll also be interested in the new orbital video of Earth that can be displayed while nothing else is going on. It’s exclusive to Apple.

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Apple introduces watchOS 5

Kevin Lynch from the watchOS team introduced the next version of watchOS at Apple’s WWDC keynote. It’s been a slow and steady rise for the Apple Watch. It’s by far the most popular smart watch, and it’s becoming slightly more useful every year.

This year is no different. There’s a new workout type for yoga, another one for hiking. You can now challenge your friends for a 7-day competition.

But I’m even more excited about automatic workout detection. If you grab your bike and your heart start beating more rapidly, your Apple Watch will track your workout automatically. You’ll also get notifications to end a workout.

As rumored, Apple is introducing a new Walkie-Talkie app for Apple Watch users. You press to record a message, release to send it. Your friend will receive a notification. That could open up interesting professional use cases. Cellular Apple Watches make this feature more useful too.

The Siri watch face is getting more integrations thanks to Siri shortcuts. You can receive a Citymapper suggestion for instance.

When it comes to the actual voice assistant, you won’t need to say “Hey Siri” anymore. You can just raise your wrist and start talking.

Apple has ported WebKit to watchOS, which opens up a lot of possibilities. You can view web content from your watch. Apple is adding native podcast support and background audio on the Apple Watch too.

Overall, Apple tackled a lot of low hanging fruits. But it’s a compelling pitch and makes the Apple Watch more essential than ever.

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Apple introduces iOS 12

Apple announced the next version of iOS at its WWDC developer conference. While iOS 12 won’t be available before the fall, it’s always interesting to get a sneak peek at the next version of iOS.

Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi first talked about some numbers. 81 percent of iOS users are currently running iOS 11. 6 percent of Android users are currently on the last version.

“For iOS 12, we’re doubling down on performance,” Federighi said. iOS 12 is going to be available on all devices that currently support iOS 11.

It’s interesting the Federighi talked about iOS 12 on the iPhone 6 Plus. Apps launch 40 percent faster, the keyboard comes up 50 percent faster and opening the camera is 70 percent faster.

You get the idea, the big new feature of iOS 12 is performance and optimization.

But it doesn’t mean that Apple didn’t think about new features. Apple has created a new file format for augmented reality called USDZ. Adobe CTO Abhay Parasnis talked for a couple of minutes to announce that Adobe apps are going to support USDZ.

Apple is launching a new app to educate people about augmented reality. This app is called Measure and works pretty much like popular third-party app MeasureKit. While Apple says USDZ is a file format for augmented reality, Federighi also showed a USDZ 3D file in the middle of an Apple News article.

And the company is also updating ARKit with multiplayer augmented reality. You can get the same augmented reality experience with multiple devices. The company invited Martin Sanders from Lego to talk about ARKit. You can point an iPad at a Lego set to add virtual buildings and objects, and recreate a tiny little city.

“Over a trillion photos are captured on the iPhone each year,” Federighi said. Apple is updating search with iOS 12. While you’ve been able tp search for objects or categories, such as cars, dogs, beach and hiking, it’s been hard to find. Apple is going to add suggestions to improve discovery.

Apple is reusing an Apple Music idea and adding a “For You” tab. It’ll show you old albums, memories, photos with people you care about and more. For You can also suggest you to share photos with friends and family members. When you share them, it looks like it creates a link that you can send in iMessage. The other person will also get a suggestion to share photos back. It’s like shared albums, but a bit refined.

As for Siri, Apple is introducing shortcuts. It’s not just for voice, Apple is also adding shortcuts on the lock screen or in the search screen for instance. If you’re running late for a meeting, you’ll get a suggestion to send a text to the other person. Shortcuts on the lock screen are like app suggestions, but with more specific actions.

Apple will open up shortcuts to third-party developers to store information or set up shortcuts. Developers will be able to put an “Add to Siri” button in their apps. For instance, you can store your flight details under the “flight to Portland” shortcut. So if you ask Siri that phrase, you’ll get your flight details.

The Workflow team has been working on the Shortcuts app. It’s just like the automation app Workflow that Apple acquired a couple of years ago. But you can also configure connected devices using Shortcuts, and trigger shortcuts using the HomePod. So there you go, Apple is back in the voice assistant game with this new ecosystem of shortcuts.

Apple is also redesigning Apple News and the Stocks app. There’s a new sidebar in the News app to improve navigation. You’ll also get a sort of Yahoo Finance in the Stocks app with share prices, headlines, after-hour pricing. The Stocks app is coming to the iPad too.

As for iBooks, rumors were right. Apple is adding audio books to iBooks (and removing them from the Music app). And the company is also rebranding iBooks to Apple Books. Finally, Apple is adding support for third-party navigation apps in CarPlay.

After this quick rundown of Apple’s new apps, Federighi presented the other pillar of iOS 12 — smarter notifications, do not disturb improvements. If you turn on Do Not Disturb at night, you won’t get a wall of notifications if you want to check the time in the middle of the night. You can also set Do Not Disturb until you move to another place.

And developers cheered like crazy when Federighi presented grouped notifications. It’s a good way to stack similar notifications from the same app. You’ll be able to configure your notifications directly from the home screen.

Many accused Apple of not paying attention to the addictive aspect of smartphones. With Screen Time, your phone can give you an overview of things you do with your phone so that you waste less time mindlessly scrolling through feeds. You can also set up a time limit to receive a notification when you’ve been on Instagram for a while for instance. Obviously, Screen Tim means better parental controls. You can limit some apps, track your kid’s usage and more.

But let’s talk about the most important feature of iOS — animojis. Apple is adding new characters — a ghost, a koala, a tiger, a T-rex. Your phone will now track your tongue.

More importantly, you’ll be able to create your own Memoji. Apple is basically copying Snap’s Bitmoji (or the Xbox avatars or Nintendo’s Miis…). You can create your own avatar, add accessories and change clothes.

In Messages, there are new camera effects that work a bit like Instagram’s or Messenger’s filters, blending your Memoji on top of your face.

Switching gear a bit, Apple is overhauling FaceTime. You can now create a FaceTime group with 32 people. You can now switch from an iMessage conversation to a video chat without having to open another app. This is long overdue, and Houseparty is not going to be happy. It’ll also work on macOS and on the Apple Watch for the audio part.

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How to watch the live stream for today’s Apple WWDC keynote

Apple is holding a keynote today at the San Jose Convention Center, and the company is expected to unveil new updates for iOS, macOS, tvOS, watchOS and maybe also some new hardware. At 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris), you’ll be able to watch the event as the company is streaming it live.

Apple is likely to talk about some new features for all its software platforms — WWDC is a developer conference after all. Rumor has it that Apple could also unveil some MacBook Pro update with new Intel processors.

If you have the most recent Apple TV, you can download the Apple Events app in the App Store. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old events. Users with old Apple TVs can simply turn on their devices. Apple is pushing out the “Apple Events” channel so that you can watch the event.

And if you don’t have an Apple TV, the company also lets you live-stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed works in Safari and Microsoft Edge. And for the first time, Apple says that the video should also work in Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

So to recap, here’s how you can watch today’s Apple event:

  • Safari on the Mac or iOS.
  • Microsoft Edge on Windows 10.
  • Maybe Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
  • An Apple TV gen 4 with the Apple Events app in the App Store.
  • An Apple TV gen 2 or 3, with the Apple Events channel that arrives automatically right before the event.

Of course, you also can read TechCrunch’s live blog if you’re stuck at work and really need our entertaining commentary track to help you get through your day. We have a big team in the room this year.

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This DIY smart mirror is small, stunning and full of features

Several years ago Google X engineer Max Braun published a medium post on a smart mirror he made and now he’s back with a new version that’s smaller and smarter. This is a smart mirror I can get behind though I still find smart mirrors completely frivolous.

He published his project on Medium where he explains the process and the parts a person would need to build their own. This isn’t a project for everyone, but Max gives enough instructions that most enterprising builders should be able to hack something similar together.

I recently reviewed a smart mirror and found it a bit silly but still useful. Ideally, like in Max’s smart mirrors, the software is passive and always available. Users shouldn’t have to think about interacting with the devices; the right information should be displayed automatically. It’s a balancing act.

At this point, smart mirrors are little more than Android tablets placed behind a two-way mirror. Retail models are expensive to buy and hardly worth it since a person’s phone or voice assistant can probably provide the same information. After all, how many devices does a person really need to tell them the weather forecast?

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Count your bees with this Raspberry Pi project

Bees need all the help they can get. Thus programmer Mat Kelsey created a bee counter to see just how many of his winged honeymakers are hanging out in his hives. His system, which uses a Raspberry Pi and a machine learning algorithm that recognizes the number of individual bees entering a hive, is used to see bee trends over time and see just how the bees are faring.

“The first thing I thought when we setup our beehive was ‘I wonder how you could count the number of bees coming and going?’” wrote Kelsey. “After a little research I discovered it seems no one has a good, non-intrusive system for doing it yet. It can apparently be useful for all sorts of hive health checking.”

The system looks at sets of pictures of the hive door taken every 10 seconds. It then extrapolates out the background, assesses the objects that have moved in the frame, and then counts the things that are likely to be bees. It’s a fascinating problem to solve since the bees are constantly moving and because it can also ignore bees that are coming out of the hive.

You can download the source on Github and check out his detailed blog post here. Given the need for bee protection as we enter an era of colony collapses, tools like this one are wildly important. Plus it’s cool to see a Raspberry Pi do something so complex.

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Watch a hard-working robot improvise to climb drawers and cross gaps

A robot’s got to know its limitations. But that doesn’t mean it has to accept them. This one in particular uses tools to expand its capabilities, commandeering nearby items to construct ramps and bridges. It’s satisfying to watch but, of course, also a little worrying.

This research, from Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, is essentially about making a robot take stock of its surroundings and recognize something it can use to accomplish a task that it knows it can’t do on its own. It’s actually more like a team of robots, since the parts can detach from one another and accomplish things on their own. But you didn’t come here to debate the multiplicity or unity of modular robotic systems! That’s for the folks at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where this paper was presented (and Spectrum got the first look).

SMORES-EP is the robot in play here, and the researchers have given it a specific breadth of knowledge. It knows how to navigate its environment, but also how to inspect it with its little mast-cam and from that inspection derive meaningful data like whether an object can be rolled over, or a gap can be crossed.

It also knows how to interact with certain objects, and what they do; for instance, it can use its built-in magnets to pull open a drawer, and it knows that a ramp can be used to roll up to an object of a given height or lower.

A high-level planning system directs the robots/robot-parts based on knowledge that isn’t critical for any single part to know. For example, given the instruction to find out what’s in a drawer, the planner understands that to accomplish that, the drawer needs to be open; for it to be open, a magnet-bot will have to attach to it from this or that angle, and so on. And if something else is necessary, for example a ramp, it will direct that to be placed as well.

The experiment shown in this video has the robot system demonstrating how this could work in a situation where the robot must accomplish a high-level task using this limited but surprisingly complex body of knowledge.

In the video, the robot is told to check the drawers for certain objects. In the first drawer, the target objects aren’t present, so it must inspect the next one up. But it’s too high — so it needs to get on top of the first drawer, which luckily for the robot is full of books and constitutes a ledge. The planner sees that a ramp block is nearby and orders it to be put in place, and then part of the robot detaches to climb up and open the drawer, while the other part maneuvers into place to check the contents. Target found!

In the next task, it must cross a gap between two desks. Fortunately, someone left the parts of a bridge just lying around. The robot puts the bridge together, places it in position after checking the scene, and sends its forward half rolling towards the goal.

These cases may seem rather staged, but this isn’t about the robot itself and its ability to tell what would make a good bridge. That comes later. The idea is to create systems that logically approach real-world situations based on real-world data and solve them using real-world objects. Being able to construct a bridge from scratch is nice, but unless you know what a bridge is for, when and how it should be applied, where it should be carried and how to get over it, and so on, it’s just a part in search of a whole.

Likewise, many a robot with a perfectly good drawer-pulling hand will have no idea that you need to open a drawer before you can tell what’s in it, or that maybe you should check other drawers if the first doesn’t have what you’re looking for!

Such basic problem-solving is something we take for granted, but nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to robot brains. Even in the experiment described above, the robot failed multiple times for multiple reasons while attempting to accomplish its goals. That’s okay — we all have a little room to improve.

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Nokia closes digital health sale to Withings founder Eric Carreel, who plans relaunch by EOY

Nokia has closed the books on its unlucky foray into digital health devices and services, and with it, a business is marking its return to the world of startups. Today, the Finnish telecoms giant announced that it has closed the sale of its digital health division, along with 200 employees, to Eric Carreel, the former chairman and co-founder of Withings. Now Carreel plans to relaunch the business once again under the Withings brand by the end of this year, with products focused on preventive health.

Withings had formed the core of Nokia’s digital health business after it acquired the company, famous for its smart scales, in 2016 for €170 million. Nokia later rebranded the business as Nokia Digital Health.

“I am delighted to start working again with the brilliant teams that made the brand such a great success” said Carreel in a statement. “We have an exciting challenge ahead of us as we continue to push the boundaries of connected health.”

The deal comes less than a month after Nokia announced that it had entered into exclusive negotiations with Carreel for the sale, part of a larger reorganization at the company to refocus away from unprofitable businesses.

There were no financial terms revealed in the sale, nor any details about how the new Withings will be financed. (We are asking.) In its previous incarnation as a startup before its exit to Nokia, Withings had raised just under $34 million with investors including Bpifrance, Ininvest and and Ventech starting in 2008. The new startup will be based out of Paris with operations also in the U.S. and Asia.

Alongside the news about Withings, there are some executive changes at Nokia, too.

Gregory Lee — who joined the Nokia Technologies division in part to restructure the business by hiving off unprofitable operations like digital health — is now leaving the company altogether. Maria Varsellona, who is the company’s Chief Legal Officer, will now also be the president of Nokia Technologies.

This change makes some (disheartening) sense: Nokia has a huge trove of patents from its long history, which included helping forge and for a long time leading the mobile phone industry. While Nokia’s mobile phone business eventually collapsed, quite dramatically, it has held on to a number of patents, and has added to that in recent years. And this is why it is unsurprising to have Nokia’s legal head also leading its Technologies division: it shows where the company’s priorities are today. 

Back at Withings, in addition to connected scales, the company today makes activity tracking watches, blood pressure monitors, a smart thermometer, and a sleep tracking pad, which work with an app it calls Health Mate. The focus on preventive health sounds like it will keep all of these in place.

The story of hardware startups is one of many optimistic and often exciting ideas, but also a lot of failures, as the realities set in of developing supply chains, trying to find the right economies of scale and of course finding customers for your shiny new gadgets. Withings is some way out of the initially hard part of simply getting products designed, working, made and out into the market, but it will still have to contend with keeping the business operating and growing — challenges that Nokia clearly could not surmount.

One thing in its favor is the rise of AI and the general expansion of possibilities that come with all the data that can now be collected. Putting aside clunkers like Theranos, a number of startups — such as Ava, which is focusing on women’s health — have been exploring not just what kind of data they can gather from wearables and other devices, but how to “read” that data and match it up with new understanding about disease pathology and health, to gain more insights about us and how we work.

This seems to be the direction that Withings hopes to go, too.

“We are still only just starting to discover what connected health can really bring to people,” said Carreel in a statement. “From now on we must concentrate our efforts on developing tools capable of advanced measurements and the associated services that can help prevent chronic health conditions. Today’s technologies allow us to imagine solutions that have the potential to benefit the lives of millions of people, and our ambition is to ensure that we, as Withings, lead the way with technological advances and intuitive designs.”

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UK puts legal limits on drone flight heights and airport no-fly zones

The UK has announced new stop-gap laws for drone operators restricting how high they can fly their craft — 400ft — and prohibiting the devices from being flown within 1km of an airport boundary. The measures will come into effect on July 30.

The government says the new rules are intended to enhance safety, including the safety of passengers of aircraft — given a year-on-year increase in reports of drone incidents involving aircraft. It says there were 93 such incidents reported in the country last year, up from 71 the year before.

And while the UK’s existing Drone Code (which was issued in 2016) already warns operators to restrict drone flights to 400ft — and to stay “well away” from airports and aircraft — those measures are now being baked into law, via an amendment to the 2016 Air Navigation Order (ahead of a full drone bill which was promised for Spring but still hasn’t materialized yet).

UK drone users who flout the new height and airport boundary restrictions face being charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft — which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Additional measures are also being legislated for, as announced last summer — with a requirement for owners of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the Civil Aviation Authority and for drone pilots to take an online safety test.

Users who fail to register or sit the competency tests could face fines of up to £1,000. Though those requirements will come into force later, on November 30 2019.

Commenting in a statement, aviation minister Baroness Sugg said: “We are seeing fast growth in the numbers of drones being used, both commercially and for fun. Whilst we want this industry to innovate and grow, we need to protect planes, helicopters and their passengers from the increasing numbers of drones in our skies. These new laws will help ensure drones are used safely and responsibly.”

In a supporting statement, Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick Airport’s COO, added: “We welcome the clarity that today’s announcement provides as it leaves no doubt that anyone flying a drone must stay well away from aircraft, airports and airfields. Drones open up some exciting possibilities but must be used responsibly. These clear regulations, combined with new surveillance technology, will help the police apprehend and prosecute anyone endangering the traveling public.”

Drone maker DJI also welcomed what it couched as a measured approach to regulation. “The Department for Transport’s updates to the regulatory framework strike a sensible balance between protecting public safety and bringing the benefits of drone technology to British businesses and the public at large,” said Christian Struwe, head of public policy Europe at DJI.

“The vast majority of drone pilots fly safely and responsibly, and governments, aviation authorities and drone manufacturers agree we need to work together to ensure all drone pilots know basic safety rules. We are therefore particularly pleased about the Department for Transport’s commitment to accessible online testing as a way of helping drone users to comply with the law.”

Last fall the UK government also announced it plans to legislate to give police more powers to ground drones to prevent unsafe or criminal usage — measures it also said it would include in the forthcoming drone bill.

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Xiaomi’s new fitness band has 20-day battery life and 50-meter water resistance

Xiaomi’s very-iPhone-X-looking Mi 8 smartphone was the highlight of its Shenzhen press event today, but the company did also unveil a number of other notable products, including an updated version of its popular fitness band.

The Mi Band has always offered a solid performance at around $30 — to the point that I’ve bought two of them for myself — and the third incarnation pushes things further. Mi Band 3 includes a longer 20 days of battery life per charge, 50-meter water resistance and a new band design that Xiaomi touts as being both more comfortable and more secure on your wrist.

Like the Mi Band 2, the third-gen tracker includes a pulse monitor and the usual fitness tracking. It syncs to the Xiaomi Mi Fit app, with data exportation to other services possible.

The Mi Band isn’t a full-blown fitness band, for example it doesn’t include GPS so it won’t help you track runs on apps like Strava, but at just 69 yuan, or around $25, it is a seriously cheap option. The Mi Band 3 will make its debut in China first, where it’ll come in a choice of red, black and blue. Like most Xiaomi products, we’ll have to wait on details of international availability but it will almost certainly be sold outside of China soon.

Aside from the Mi Band 3 and Mi 8, Xiaomi also unveiled its Mi VR Standalone product, which was developed alongside Facebook-owned Oculus, which is now home to former Xiaomi international executive Hugo Barra. Xiaomi also took the wraps off its largest smart TV to date, the 75-inch Mi TV 4.

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