Voice AIs are raising competition concerns, EU finds

The European Union has been digging into the competition implications of AI-powered voice assistants and other Internet of Things (IoT) connected technologies for almost a year. Today it’s put out a first report discussing potential concerns that EU lawmakers say will help inform their wider digital policymaking in the coming years.

A major piece of EU legislation introduced at the back of last year is already set to apply ex ante regulations to so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms operating in the region, with a list of business practice ‘dos and don’ts’ for powerful, intermediating platforms being baked into the forthcoming pan-EU Digital Services Act.

But if course applications of technology don’t stand still. The bloc’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, has also had her eye on voice assistant AI technologies for a while — raising concerns about the challenges being posed for user choice as far back as 2019, when she said her department was “trying to figure out how access to data will change the marketplace”.

The Commission took a concrete step last July when it announced a sectoral inquiry to examine IoT competition concerns in detail.

It’s now published a preliminary report, based on polling more than 200 companies operating in consumer IoT product and services markets (in Europe, Asia and the US) — and is soliciting further feedback on the findings (until September 1) ahead of a final report due in the first half of next year.

Among the main areas of potential competition concern it found are: Exclusivity and tying practices in relation to voice assistants and practices that limit the possibility to use different voice assistants on the same smart device; the intermediating role of voice assistants and mobile OSes between users and the wider device and services market — with the concern being this allows the owners of the platform voice AI to control user relationships, potentially impacting the discoverability and visibility of rival IoT services.

Another concern is around (unequal) access to data. Survey participants suggested that platform and voice assistant operators gain extensive access to user data — including capturing information on user interactions with third-party smart devices and consumer IoT services as a result of the intermediating voice AI.

“The respondents to the sector inquiry consider that this access to and accumulation of large amounts of data would not only give voice assistant providers advantages in relation to the improvement and market position of their general-purpose voice assistants, but also allow them to leverage more easily into adjacent markets,” the Commission writes in a press release.

A similar concern underlies an ongoing EU antitrust investigation into Amazon’s use of third party merchants’ data which it obtains via its ecommerce marketplace (and which the Commission believes could be illegally distorting competition in online retail markets).

Lack of interoperability in the consumer IoT sector is another concern flagged in the report. “In particular, a few providers of voice assistants and operating systems are said to unilaterally control interoperability and integration processes and to be capable of limiting functionalities of third-party smart devices and consumer IoT services, compared to their own,” it says.

There’s nothing very surprising in the above list. But it’s noteworthy that the Commission is trying to get a handle on competitive risks — and start mulling potential remedies — at a point when the adoption of voice assistant AIs is still at a relatively early stage in the region.

In its press release, the Commission notes that usage of voice assistant tech is growing worldwide and expected to double between 2020 and 2024 (from 4.2BN voice AIs to 8.4BN) — although only 11% of EU citizens surveyed last year had already used a voice assistant, per cited Eurostat data.

EU lawmakers have certainly learned lessons from the recent failure of competition policy to keep up with digital developments and rein in a first wave of tech giants. And those giants of course continue to dominate the market for voice AIs now (Amazon with Alexa, Google with its eponymous Assistant and Apple’s Siri). So the risks for competition are crystal clear — and the Commission will be keen to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Still, quite how policymakers could look to tackle competitive lock-in around voice AIs — whose USP tends to be their lazy-web, push-button and branded convenience for users — remains to be seen.

One option, enforcing interoperability, could increase complexity in a way that’s negative for usability — and may raise other concerns, such as around the privacy of user data.

Although giving users themselves more say and control over how the consumer tech they own works can certainly be a good idea, at least provided the platform’s presentation of choices isn’t itself manipulative and exploitative.

There are certainly plenty of pitfalls where IoT and competition is concerned — but also potential opportunities for startups and smaller players if proactive regulatory action can ensure that dominant platforms don’t get to set all the defaults once again.

Commenting in a statement, Vestager said: “When we launched this sector inquiry, we were concerned that there might be a risk of gatekeepers emerging in this sector. We were worried that they could use their power to harm competition, to the detriment of developing businesses and consumers. From the first results published today, it appears that many in the sector share our concerns. And fair competition is needed to make the most of the great potential of the Internet of Things for consumers in their daily lives. This analysis will feed into our future enforcement and regulatory action, so we look forward to receiving further feedback from all interested stakeholders in the coming months.”

The full sectoral report can be found here.

 

#alexa, #amazon, #ambient-intelligence, #artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #digital-competition, #europe, #european-union, #gadgets, #google, #internet-of-things, #iot, #margrethe-vestager, #policy, #privacy, #smart-device, #smart-devices, #technology, #virtual-assistant, #voice-assistant

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Google hires former SiriusXM CPO/CTO to lead its Maps team

Almost exactly a year ago, Google announced a couple of leadership changes that saw Prabhakar Raghavan, who joined the company back in 2012, take over the lead of Search, Assistant and Maps. Now, sources familiar with the hiring tell us, the company has hired Christopher Phillips, who was previously the chief product and technology officer at SiriusXM, to lead its geo team, which is responsible for products like Google Maps, Google Earth and Google Maps Platform, the company’s enterprise business around these products. Google has confirmed his hire but declined to share any additional information. Phillips will officially join the company later this month.

Christopher Phillips

Image Credits: Christopher Phillips/LinkedIn

Phillips came to SiriusXM after the company acquired music service Pandora last year. Before the acquisition, he spent six years as Pandora’s CPO and head of Technology, a role he took after leading product and design for Amazon Music from 2012 to 2014 and executive roles at Workspeed and Intuit before that.

In his new role at Google, Phillips will lead both product and engineering for the Geo team and report directly to Raghavan, who will continue to oversee Search, Assistant, Geo, Commerce and Ads. Before last year’s leadership shuffle, Jen Fitzpatrick essentially played a similar role for the Geo team.

According to Search Engine Land, Dane Glasgow and Liz Reid became the leads for the Geo team after her departure. Glasgow has since departed Google and is now at Facebook, while Reid recently took on a new role to lead Google’s search experiences. That obviously left a bit of a vacuum, which Phillips will now fill.

While Phillips doesn’t have any direct experience in building geo products, he does bring with him extensive experience in managing product-oriented engineering teams. His hiring also comes at an interesting time for Google Maps, which only recently announced a number of major updates and which is becoming an increasingly important part of Google’s product portfolio.

 

 

#amazon, #artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #christopher-phillips, #computing, #facebook, #google, #google-maps, #intuit, #pandora, #personnel, #prabhakar-raghavan, #sirius-xm, #software, #tc, #world-wide-web, #xm-satellite-radio

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Interactio, a remote interpretation platform, grabs $30M after seeing 12x growth during COVID-19

Interactio, a remote interpretation platform whose customers include massive institutions like the United Nations, European Commission and Parliament along with corporates like BMW, JP Morgan and Microsoft, has closed a whopping $30 million Series A after usage of its tools grew 12x between 2019 and 2020 as demand for online meeting platforms surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Series A funding is led by Eight Roads Ventures and Silicon Valley-based Storm Ventures, along with participation from Practica Capital, Notion Capital, as well as notable angels such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype, and Young Sohn, ex-chief strategy officer of Samsung.

The Vilnius, Lithuania-based startup offers digital tools to connect meetings with certified interpreters who carry out real-time interpretation to bridge language divides between participants. It does also offer a video conferencing platform which its customers can use to run remote meetings but will happily integrate with thirty party software like Zoom, Webex etc. (Last year it says its digital tools were used alongside 43 different video streaming platforms.)

Interactio’s interpreters can be in the room where the meeting is taking place or doing the real-time interpretation entirely remotely by watching and listening to a stream of the meeting. (Or, indeed, it can support a mix of remote and on-site interpretation, if a client wishes.)

It can also supply all the interpreters for a meeting — and it touts a strict vetting procedure for onboarding certified interpreters to its platform — or else it will provide training to a customer’s interpreters on the use of its tools to ensure things run smoothly on the day.

At present, Interactio says it works with 1,000+ freelance interpreters, as well as touting “strong relations with interpretation agencies” — claiming it can easily quadruple the pool of available interpreters to step up to meet rising demand.

It offers its customers interpretation in any language — and in an unlimited number of languages per event. And last year it says it hosted 18,000+ meetings with 390,000 listeners spread across more than 70 countries.

Now, flush with a huge Series A, Interactio is gearing up for a future filled with increasing numbers of multi-lingual online meetings — as the coronavirus continues to inject friction into business travel.

“When we started, our biggest competition was simultaneous interpretation hardware for on-site interpretation. At that time, we were on the mission to fully replace it with our software that required zero additional hardware for attendees besides their phone and headphones. However, for institutions, which became our primary focus, hybrid meetings are the key, so we started partnering with simultaneous interpretation hardware manufacturers and integrators by working together on hybrid events, where participants use hardware on-site, and online participants use us,” a spokeswoman told us.

“This is how we differentiate ourselves from other platforms — by offering a fully hybrid solution, that can be integrated with hardware on-site basically via one cable.”

“Moreover, when we look at the market trends, we still see Zoom as the most used solution, so we compliment it by offering professional interpretation solutions,” she added.

A focus on customer support is another tactic that Interactio says it relies upon to stand out — and its iOS and Android apps do have high ratings on aggregate. (Albeit, there are bunch of historical complaints mixed in suggesting it’s had issues scaling its service to large audiences in the past, as well as sporadic problems with things like audio quality over the years.)

While already profitable, the 2014-founded startup says the  Series A will be used to step on the gas to continue to meet the accelerated demand and exponential growth it’s seen during the remote work boom.

Specifically, the funds will go on enhancing its tech and UX/UI — with a focus on ensuring ease of access/simplicity for those needing to access interpretation, and also on upgrading the tools it provides to interpreters (so they have “the best working conditions from their chosen place of work”).

It will also be spending to expand its client base — and is especially seeking to onboard more corporates and other types of customers. (“Last year’s focus was and still is institutions (e.g. European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations), where there is no place for an error and they need the most professional solution. The next step will be to expand our client base to corporate clients and a larger public that needs interpretation,” it told us.)

The new funding will also be used to expand the size of its team to support those goals, including growing the number of qualified interpreters it works with so it can keep pace with rising demand.

While major institutions like the UN are never going to be tempted to skimp on the quality of translation provided to diplomats and politicians by not using human interpreters (either on premise or working remotely), there may be a limit on how far professional real-time translation can scale given the availability of real-time machine translation technology — which offers a cheap alternative to support more basic meeting scenarios, such as between two professionals having an informal meeting.

Google, for example, offers a real-time translator mode that’s accessible to users of its smartphone platform via the Google voice assistant AI. Hardware startups are also trying to target real-time translation. The dream of a real-life AI-powered ‘Babel Fish’ remains strong.

Nonetheless, such efforts aren’t well suited to supporting meetings and conferences at scale — where having a centralized delivery service that’s also responsible for troubleshooting any audio quality or other issues which may arise looks essential.

And while machine translation has undoubtedly got a lot better over the years (albeit performance can vary, depending on the languages involved) there is still a risk that key details could be lost in translation if/when the machine gets it wrong. So offering highly scalable human translation via a digital platform looks like a safe bet as the world gets accustomed to more remote work (and less globetrotting) being the new normal.

“AI-driven translation is a great tool when you need a quick solution and are willing to sacrifice the quality,” says Interactio when we ask about this. “Our clients are large corporations and institutions, therefore, any kind of misunderstanding can be crucial. Here, the translation is not about saying a word in a different language, it’s about giving the meaning and communicating a context via interpretation.

“We strongly believe that only humans can understand the true context and meaning of conversations, where sometimes a tone of voice, an emotion and a figure speech can make a huge difference, that is unnoticed by a machine.”

#android, #artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #covid-19, #eight-roads-ventures, #europe, #european-commission, #european-parliament, #fundings-exits, #interactio, #jaan-tallinn, #jp-morgan, #lithuania, #machine-translation, #microsoft, #notion-capital, #online-meetings, #practica-capital, #remote-work, #saas, #samsung, #silicon-valley, #skype, #storm-ventures, #translation, #translator, #united-nations, #video-conferencing, #web-conferencing, #webex, #young-sohn, #zoom

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Otter.ai’s new assistant can automatically transcribe your Zoom meetings

A.I.-powered voice transcription service Otter.ai wants to make it even easier for its business users to record their meetings. The company is today introducing a new feature, Otter Assistant, which can automatically join the Zoom meetings on your calendar, transcribe the conversations, and share the notes with other participants. Though Otter.ai is already integrated with Zoom, the assistant is designed to make using transcription something you don’t have to constantly remember to enable at the meeting’s start or stop at the end, while also serving as a place where participants can collaborate by asking questions, sharing photos and more, as the meeting is underway.

The feature also works around the earlier limitation with Zoom, where only the meeting host could use the Otter.ai integration directly.

The idea to automate meeting transcription makes sense for the remote work environment created by the pandemic, where people have been splitting their time between work, parenting, homeschooling and other duties. This can often lead to meetings where users are pulled away and miss things that had been said. That’s one area where Otter.ai can help. But it can also help with issues like overlapping meetings, or larger meetings were only a few topics are directly relevant to your work — but where you’d like to be able to review the rest of the meeting discussion later, instead of in real-time.

To use the new Otter Assistant, users first synchronize their Google Calendar or Microsoft Calendar with Otter’s service. The assistant will then automatically join all Zoom meetings going forward, where it appears as an additional meeting participant, for transparency’s sake.

The assistant also posts a link to the transcription in the Zoom chat for everyone to access. In other words, this is not a feature to use to skip meetings without your boss knowing — it’s designed for those times when everyone has already agreed the meeting will be transcribed.

As the meeting continues, attendees can use Otter’s live transcript to highlight key parts, add photos, and make notes. They can also ask questions via the commenting feature, as opposed to speaking up — which may be helpful if you’re in a noisy place at the time of the meeting.

Once the assistant is enabled, you don’t have to remember to turn on Otter.ai for each meeting, and you can even use your headphones to listen to the meeting in progress. The Otter Assistant will still be able to record both sides of the conversation.

However, you are able to turn Otter Assistant off on a per-meeting basis via the “My Agenda” section on the Otter website, which will include new toggles next to each meeting you have scheduled.

When meetings wrap, you can also have Otter.ai configured to automatically share the meeting notes with all the attendees.

The Otter Assistant is available to Otter.ai Business users, which are upgraded plans that start at $20 per month, and include features like two-factor authentication, SOC2 compliance, advanced search, export, custom vocabulary, shared speaker identification, centralized data and billing, and more.

To date, Otter.ai says it has transcribed over 150 million meetings, up from 100 million in the beginning of 2021 . The company doesn’t provide details on its total subscriber base, but did note earlier it saw a sizable 8x increase in revenues in 2020, leading up to its $50 million Series B, announced in February.

#ai, #artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #hybrid-office, #meeting, #meetings, #office, #otter, #otter-ai, #productivity, #remote-work, #speaker, #startups, #voice, #web-conferencing, #zoom

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Chrome now uses Duplex to fix your stolen passwords

Google announced a new feature for its Chrome browser today that alerts you when one of your passwords has been compromised and then helps you automatically change your password with the help of… wait for it… Google’s Duplex technology.

This new feature will start to roll out slowly to Chrome users on Android in the U.S. soon (with other countries following later), assuming they use Chrome’s password-syncing feature.

It’s worth noting that this won’t work for every site just yet. As a Google spokesperson told us, “the feature will initially work on a small number of apps and websites, including Twitter, but will expand to additional sites in the future.”

Now you may remember Duplex as the somewhat controversial service that can call businesses for you to make hairdresser appointments or check opening times. Google introduced Duplex at its 2018 I/O developer conference and launched it to a wider audience in 2019. Since then, the team has chipped away at bringing Duplex to more tasks and brought it the web, too. Now it’s coming to Chrome to change your compromised passwords for you.

Image Credits: Google

“Powered by Duplex on the Web, Assistant takes over the tedious parts of web browsing: scrolling, clicking and filling forms, and allows you to focus on what’s important to you. And now we’re expanding these capabilities even further by letting you quickly create a strong password for certain sites and apps when Chrome determines your credentials have been leaked online,” Patrick Nepper, senior product manager for Chrome, explains in today’s announcement.

In practice, once Chrome detects a compromised password, all you have to do is tap the “change password” button and Duplex will walk through the process of changing your password for you. Google says this won’t work for every site just yet, but “even if a site isn’t supported yet, Chrome’s password manager can always help you create strong and unique passwords for your various accounts.”

It’ll be interesting to see how well this works in the real world. Every site manages passwords a little bit differently, so it would be hard to write a set of basic rules that the browser could use to go through this process. And that’s likely why Google is using Duplex here. Since every site is a little bit different, it takes a system that can understand a bit more about the context of a password change page to successfully navigate it.

In addition to adding this feature, Google is also updating its password manager with a new tool for important passwords from third-party password managers, deeper integration between Chrome and Android and automatic password alerts when a password is compromised in a breach.

#android, #assistant, #chrome, #chrome-os, #freeware, #google, #google-i-o-2021, #google-chrome, #operating-systems, #password, #password-manager, #product-manager, #security, #software, #united-states, #web-browsers, #web-browsing

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Instreamatic, which inserts interactive voice ads into audio streams, raises $6.1M Series A round

Interactive voice advertising startup Instreamatic, which can insert interactive voice ads into an audio stream, has raised $6.1 million in a Series A funding led by Progress Ventures led the round, joined by Accomplice, and Google Assistant Investments.

SF-HQ’d Instreamatic lets brands that advertise through streaming music apps and podcasts (for instance) have interactive voice-based dialogues with consumers. So instead of an audio ad playing in a one-way experience (as all adverts currently do), the listener can talk to, and interact, with the ad.

For example, when an Instreamatic advert says “Hello! Need help sleeping?” the microphone on the device it’s playing on opens, and the listener can respond however they like. If they say “Yes” then the brand’s voice (perhaps it’s a mattress brand) will respond with “Then we will sing you a lullaby”. If the user doesn’t respond then the ad experience is over and the content resumes playing. There are also more complex versions of this scenario. The key is that Instreamatic knows what happened and can tailor future ads to match the listener’s past engagement. Here’s an example.

The company says its technology can understand the ‘intent and tone’ of consumers’ natural responses to take the next action.

The upshot is that this AI-fueled voice ad could be coming to an audio stream near you soon. And with audio exploding following the pandemic, the platform is likely to benefit.

CEO Stas Tushinskiy, CEO, Instreamatic said in a statement: “Consumers don’t like being fed annoyingly repetitive ads. Brands are under ever-increasing pressure to make those moments meaningful while supporting strong ROI demands. On the publisher side, audio and video platforms need a better way to prove their audiences and ad inventory deliver their promise to brands. Our voice AI infrastructure, deployed by brands such as IKEA, Infiniti, and HP and across platforms like Pandora and Gaana, is empirically demonstrating that conversational marketing benefits brands, consumers, and publishers alike.”

Instreamatic says its voice ads can reach an average of 12% engagement, with some campaigns reaching 19%. These figures are quite unusual for the online advertising industry – the average CTR of mobile advertising is 0.6%.

The company says that a recent campaign by Infiniti saw 5.5% of listeners who declined the offer in the first conversation ask to receive more information about the vehicle after the second (and more personalized) chat.

Instreamatic also says it can achieve what it calls ‘continuous dialogues’ with consumers, not dissimilar to an Alexa or Siri device.

Because of the platforms complexity, Instreamatic also says it can build up a profile of the user based on an individual consumer’s previous interactions with a brand, allowing it to customize future campaigns.

So far brands that have used the platform include Pandora, Salem Media, Gaana (the Indian streaming music service), as well as a recent deal with Universal Electronics to expand voice ads into the smart-TV industry. It is also working with Triton Digital, one of the larger audio ad networks.

 
“Consumer demand for audio and video content, and the ubiquity of smart devices delivering that content on-demand, continues to accelerate,” said Nick MacShane, the founding partner at Progress Ventures, the venture capital arm of Progress Partners, a full-service merchant bank. “What hasn’t caught up is how brands and publishers can effectively engage those audiences in the same medium and analytically prove the ROI of their audio and video platform ad spend.”
 
A competitor to Instreamatic is AdsWizz, which, instead of voice, allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. But its interactions are obviously, therefore, more limited.

According to Juniper Research, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market. Voice assistant usage is booming. Some estimates put it at over at 3 billion right, and half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. Some 55% of teens use voice search daily.

As well as Tushinskiy, the Instreamatic team also includes cofounder Simon Dunlop (former CEO/Founder of Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, and Zvuk; Victor Frumkin (co-founder at Zvuk, a mobile music streaming app in Eastern Europe and Bookmate); Ilya Lityuga, CTO, one of the original team members at RuTube; and Andy Whatley, U.S. radio industry veteran.

#artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #ceo, #co-founder, #cofounder, #eastern-europe, #europe, #gaana, #hp, #ikea, #instreamatic, #juniper-research, #marketing, #mobile-advertising, #online-advertising, #pandora, #partner, #rutube, #sirius-xm, #smart-devices, #social-media-marketing, #tc, #triton-digital, #united-states, #voice-search

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Apple said to be developing Apple TV/HomePod combo and iPad-like smart speaker display

Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, including a mash-up of the Apple TV with a HomePod speaker, and an integrated camera for video chat, according to Bloomberg. It’s also said to be working on a smart speaker that basically combines a HomePod with an iPad, providing something similar to Amazon’s Echo Show or Google’s Nest Hub in functionality.

The Apple TV/HomePod hybrid would still connect to a television for outputting video, and would offer similar access to all the video and gaming services that the current Apple TV does, while the speaker component would provide sound output, music playback, and Siri integration. It would also include a built-in camera for using video conferencing apps on the TV itself, the report says.

That second device would be much more like existing smart assistant display devices on the market today, with an iPad-like screen providing integrated visuals. The project could involve attaching the iPad via a “robotic arm” according to Bloomberg, that would allow it to move to accommodate a user moving around, with the ability to keep them in frame during video chat sessions.

Bloomberg doesn’t provide any specific timelines for release of any of these potential products, and it sounds like they’re still very much in the development phase, which means Apple could easily abandon these plans depending on its evaluation of their potential. Apple just recently discontinued its original HomePod, the $300 smart speaker it debuted in 2018.

Rumors abound about a refreshed Apple TV arriving sometime this year, which should boast a faster processor and also an updated remote control. It could bring other hardware improvements, like support for a faster 120Hz refresh rate available on more modern TVs.

#apple, #apple-inc, #apple-tv, #assistant, #computing, #hardware, #homepod, #ios, #ipad, #portable-media-players, #siri, #smart-speaker, #speaker, #tablet-computers, #tc, #touchscreens, #video-conferencing

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Sonos delivers a near-perfect portable speaker with the new Sonos Roam

Sonos has a new speaker that starts shipping later this month, and it’s a significant departure from the company’s usual offerings in a number of ways. The all-new Sonos Roam is a compact, portable speaker with a built-in battery and Bluetooth connectivity — but still very much a Sonos system team player, with wifi streaming, multi-room feature, voice assistant support and surprisingly great sound quality.

The basics

Priced at $179, the Sonos Roam is truly diminutive, at just over 6 inches, by roughly 2.5 inches for both height and depth. It weighs under a pound, and is available in either a matte white or black finish, which is par for the course for Sonos in terms of colorways. Roam is also IP67-rated, meaning it’s effectively waterproof, with a resistance rating of up to 30 minutes at depths of up to 1 meter (3.3 feet).

Sonos has placed the speaker’s control surface at one end of the device, including a microphone button, volume controls and a play/pause button. These are actual, tactile buttons, rather than touch-sensitive surfaces like you’d find on other Sonos speakers, which makes sense for a speaker designed to be used on the go, and in conditions where touch controls might get flummoxed by things like rain and water.

The Roam also has a power button on the back, next to a USB-C port for charging. It also offers wireless charging, via a receiver found in the base of the speaker, which can be used with Sonos’ own forthcoming magnetic charging adapter (sold separately), or with any standard Qi-powered wireless charger you want.

In addition to wifi streaming, Sonos Roam can also connect to any device via Bluetooth 5.0. It also features AirPlay 2 for connecting to Apple devices when on wifi, and it works out of the box with Spotify Connect. The built-in battery is rated for up to 10 hours of playback on a full charge, according to Sonos, and can also provide up to 10 days of its sleep-like standby mode.

Design and performance

This is the smallest speaker yet released by Sonos, and that’s definitely a big plus when it comes to this category of device. The dimensions make it feel like a slightly taller can of Red Bull, which should give you some sense of just how portable it is. Unlike Sonos’ first portable speaker with a built-in battery, the Sonos Move, the Roam truly feels like something designed to be thrown in a bag and brought with you wherever you happen to need it.

Despite its small size, the Sonos Roam offers impressive sound — likely the best I’ve yet encountered for a portable speaker in this size class. Inside, it manages to pack in dual amplifiers, one tweeter and a separate custom racetrack mid-woofer, which Sonos developed to help deliver both lows and mids with a faithfulness that normally escapes smaller speakers. The Roam also gets a lot louder than you’d probably expect it could, while keeping audio quality clear and free of distortion at the same time.

One of the keys to the Roam’s great sound quality is Sonos’ Automatic Trueplay tech, which tunes the audio to best suit its surroundings actively and continually. This feature requires that the mic be enabled to work, but it’s well worth having on in most settings, and makes a big difference while streaming in both Bluetooth and wifi modes. This also helps the speaker adjust when it’s switched from horizontal to vertical orientation, and it’s one of the main reasons that the Roam punches above its weight relative to other speakers in this size and price category.

The Roam would be a winner based on audio quality alone for the price, but the extra Sonos system-specific features it boasts really elevate it to a true category leader. These include a standby mode that preserves battery while keeping the Roam available to your system for wifi streaming via the Sonos app (handy, and also optional since you can hold the power button down for five seconds to truly power off and preserve your charge for even longer, which is great for travel).

One of Roam’s truly amazing abilities is a hand-off feature that passes playback of whatever you’re using it to listen to on to the nearest Sonos speaker in your system when you long press the play/pause button. This works almost like magic, and is a great speaker superpower for if you’re wandering around the house and the yard doing chores with the Roam in your pocket.

Bottom line

Sonos waited a long time to release their first travel-friendly portable speaker, but they obviously used that time wisely. The Sonos Roam is the most thoughtfully-designed, feature-rich and best-sounding portable speaker you can get for under $200 (and better than many more expensive options, at that). Even if you don’t already have a Sonos system to use it with, it’s an easy choice if you’re in the market for a portable, rugged Bluetooth speaker — and if you’re already a Sonos convert, the decision gets that much easier.

#airplay, #assistant, #bluetooth, #computing, #gadgets, #hardware, #play3, #reviews, #smart-speakers, #sonos, #speaker, #spotify, #tc, #technology, #wireless-charger, #wireless-speaker

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BMW debuts the next generation of its iDrive operating system

For modern cars, the standalone, photo frame-like display in the center of the dashboard has become something of a default. But with its next-generation iDrive 8 system, BMW is moving away from this design language by introducing what it calls the “BMW Curved Display,” which takes this idea to the next level by expanding that center display all the way through the cockpit. It’s actually still two screens, the 12.3-inch information display and 14.9-inch control display, but it looks like a single curved display that BMW describes as giving an “appearance of almost floating.”

The new curved display with the new iDrive 8 system will debut in the upcoming all-electric iX and i4, which should arrive later this year.

While the company isn’t sharing any details about the underlying technology stack just yet, BMW is willing to say that its new stack is able to process 20 to 30 times more data than the previous system. The company plans to share more details about the stack after July, Frank Weber, BMW’s head of development, told me during a press roundtable earlier today.

Image Credits: BMW

The company provided a first glimpse of the new layout when it announced the iX last November, but at the time, it didn’t provide any details about the new iDrive system. At the core of it is, unsurprisingly, a wholesale redesign of the user interface. Drivers will be able to choose between different layouts, for example. There’s a standard “Drive” layout for example, which will feature “a dynamically changing area in the center of the information display to show individually selectable information.” There’s also a “focus” mode for “dynamic driving situations,” a “gallery” layout that minimizes driving info in favor of other widgets from apps like your media source and, for when you just want to drive and be left in peace, a “calm” mode that only shows your vehicle speed in the center of the information display, and virtually nothing else.

Image Credits: BMW

There also are three different driving modes: efficient, sport and personal, which allows you to change some of the core driving experience settings like engine throttle, steering characteristics and chassis settings, as well as the audio characteristics of the car.

For maps, which are probably still the most-often used app in any car, there are also three different modes (adaptive, reduced and expanded), all going back to the central idea that the drivers should be able to decide how much information they want to see.

That’s a lot of personalization options and Weber acknowledged as much, but he also argues that the company has made them easy to use so that they don’t overwhelm the driver — and that a lot of drivers really want this functionality.

“When you test our system in China, you cannot do enough for personalization, they almost want to personalize everything,” Weber explained. “And then there are other people who say: I just want to drive my vehicle, I don’t want to see any of that. Therefore, what we did is, we have included a ‘My Mode’ function — a very simple surface in the vehicle. When you push My Mode, you find Sport and you find Efficiency and you find Personal here. And there, it is very easy to almost say ‘Do I want something that is very reduced? Or do I want something that has all the possibilities of personalization?’ There are very artful things that we have included in here. And there are very simple choices.”

Image Credits: BMW

And talking about personalization, with the BMW ID, the company now offers a new system for saving those personalized settings on your smartphone and the new My BMW app.

With this update, BMW is also launching the next generation of its BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant, which made its debut at TechCrunch Disrupt a few years ago. Built on top of Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive Services, the improved in-car assistant will get better at interacting with drivers through a more natural dialog, but in addition to voice interactions, BMW is now also adding more visual components and integrating the assistant with its gesture recognition capabilities. We’ll have to see this in action to see how this works in practice. So far, BMW hasn’t shared a lot of details about these features.

Image Credits: BMW

“In communication between people, a great deal of information is conveyed non-verbally,” the company explains. “The BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant has thus been upgraded with a greater focus on how it is presented visually. This new visualization approach features spheres of light in differing sizes and brightness levels, giving the assistant more space and new ways of expressing itself. This visual image also gives it a “face” with a clearly visible point of focus and identifiable states of activity.”

Like with the iDrive 7 system, this new operation system will also support remote software upgrades, either over the air thanks to the car’s built-in SIM card and cell connectivity (up to 5G for the iX) or through the My BMW app.

As for current cars with the iDrive 7, Weber noted that those cars will get some of the features from iDrive 8 that can be ported back to it — and iDrive 7 will continue to get updates as well.

Image Credits: BMW

“It’s a little bit like in the smartphone world,” Weber said. “All the things — and the good and interesting new things from iD8 that can be transferred to iD7, iD7 we’ll get those upgrades. But like a particular function on a phone, not all of them can be transferred back to the previous generation. So most of it can be transferred, but not all of them. But certainly, we will continue to work on updating the previous generation. We won’t stop that.”

As a side note, Weber also addressed the current chip shortage that has led some car manufacturers to slow down production. He noted that since about Christmas, BMW is “fighting for every single production day” but hasn’t lost a single production day yet. He wasn’t willing to make any forecasts, but noted that the company has started to develop alternative solutions on the engineering side. “So far, we are really able and capable of adjusting our pipeline, so that we didn’t have to stop any production at this point,” he said.

 

#assistant, #automotive, #bmw, #cars, #idrive, #in-car-entertainment, #smartphone, #tc

0

Apple discontinues original HomePod, will focus on mini

After 4 years on the market, Apple has discontinued its original HomePod. It says that it will continue to produce and focus on the HomePod mini, introduced last year. The larger HomePod offered a beefier sound space but the mini has been very well received and clearly accomplishes many of the duties that the larger version was tasked with. The sound is super solid (especially for the size) and it offers access to Siri, Apple’s assistant feature.

The original HomePod was a feat of audio engineering that Apple spent over 5 years developing. In order to accomplish its development, the team at Apple built out a full development center near its headquarters in Cupertino, with a world-class development environment with a dozen anechoic chambers, including one of the bigger anechoic chambers outside of academic use in the US. I visited the center before its release, noting that Apple took it the extra mile to get the incredibly complex series of tweeters and woofer that built its soundspace:

But slathered on top of that is a bunch of typically Apple extra-mile jelly. Apple says that its largest test chamber is one of the biggest in the US, on a pad, suspended from the outside world with nothing to pollute its tests of audio purity. Beyond testing for the acoustic qualities of the speaker, these chambers allowed Apple to burrow down to account for and mitigate the issues that typically arise from having a high excursion subwoofer in such a small cabinet. Going even further, there are smaller chambers that allow them to isolate the hum from electronic components (there is a computer on board after all) and make attempts to insulate and control that noise so it doesn’t show up in the final output.

I found it to be one of the best speakers ever made for the home when I reviewed it in 2018. From the booming base and well-shaped nature of the tweeter assembly inside; the cloth cover that was specially shaped to avoid interfering with sound quality in any way; the way that it sensed the way that audio was being shaped by walls and other obstructions and adjusted its output to compensate. It was the definition of ‘no effort spared’ in the speaker department.

The major gripe for the speaker at the time was the $349 price, which was at the top end of the home speaker market, especially those with embedded home assistants. A price drop to $299 mitigated that somewhat, but still put it at the top of the pricing umbrella for the class. Apple’s HomePod mini, launched last year, has been well received. Our Brian Heater said that it had ‘remarkably big sound’ for the $99 price.

Apple gave TechCrunch a statement about the discontinuation:

HomePod mini has been a hit since its debut last fall, offering customers amazing sound, an intelligent assistant, and smart home control all for just $99. We are focusing our efforts on HomePod mini. We are discontinuing the original HomePod, it will continue to be available while supplies last through the Apple Online Store, Apple Retail Stores, and Apple Authorized Resellers. Apple will provide HomePod customers with software updates and service and support through Apple Care.

Existing HomePods will continue to be sold but Apple’s website is already out of Space Gray. It will continue to provide support for existing HomePods. Apple seems to be betting on the mini going forward, which could point to their desire to fill every room with ‘good enough’ sound rather than to focus on the living room with ‘truly unbelievable’ sound. The HomePod itself never quite got to the level where it could act as a full home theater replacement, though paired in their multi-speaker configurations.

The HomePod research and production efforts will live on in some ways through Apple’s advanced audio rendering systems that led to things like Spatial Audio in AirPods. I quite enjoy the ones in my home and have yet to add any minis to the mix. Maybe a last minute hunt is in order.

#airpods, #apple, #apple-inc, #applecare, #assistant, #computing, #cupertino, #homekit, #homepod, #intelligent-assistant, #siri, #smart-speakers, #speaker, #tc, #united-states

0

Ibex Medical Analytics raises $38M for its AI-powered cancer diagnostic platform

Israel-based Ibex Medical Analytics, which has an AI-driven imaging technology to detect cancer cells in biopsies more efficiently, has raised a $38 million Series B financing round led by Octopus Ventures and 83North. Also participating in the round was aMoon, Planven Entrepreneur Ventures and Dell Technologies Capital, the corporate venture arm of Dell Technologies. The company has now raised a total of $52 million since its launch in 2016. Ibex plans to use the investment to further sell into diagnostic labs in North America and Europe.

Originally incubated out of the Kamet Ventures incubator, Ibex’s “Galen” platform mimics the work of a pathologist, allowing them to diagnose cancer more accurately and faster and derive new insights from a biopsy specimen.

Because rates of cancer are on the rise and the medical procedures have become more complex, pathologists have a higher workload. Plus, says Ibex, there is a global shortage of pathologists, which can mean delays to the whole diagnostic process. The company claims pathologists can be 40% more productive using its solution.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Joseph Mossel, Ibex CEO and Co-founder said: “You can think of it as a pathologist’s assistant, so it kind of prepares the case in advance, marks the regions of interest, and allows the pathologist to achieve the efficiency gains.”

He said the company has secured the largest pathology network in France, and LD path, which is five pathology labs that service 24 NHS trusts in the UK, among others.

Michael Niddam, of Kamet Ventures said Ibex was an “excellent example of how Kamet works with founders very early on.” Ibex founders Joseph Mossel and Dr. Chaim Linhart had previously joined Kamet as Entrepreneurs in Residence before developing their idea.

#assistant, #cancer, #dell-technologies-capital, #europe, #france, #imaging, #kamet-ventures, #nhs, #north-america, #octopus-ventures, #outer-space, #pathology, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc, #united-kingdom

0

Google updates Workspace

Google Workspace, the company’s productivity platform you’ll forever refer to as G Suite (or even ‘Google Docs’), is launching a large update today that touches everything from your calendar to Google Meet and how you can use Workspace with the Google Assistant.

Image Credits: Google

Indeed, the highlight here is probably that you can now use the Assistant in combination with Google Workspace, allowing you to check your work calendar or send a message to your colleagues. Until now, this feature was available in beta and ever after it goes live, your company’s admins will have to turn on the “Search and Assistant” service. And this is a bit of a slow rollout, too, with this capability now being generally available on mobile but still in beta for smart speakers and displays like Google’s own Nest Hub. Still, it’s been a long time coming, given that Google promised these features a very long time ago now.

The other new feature that will directly influence your day-to-day work is support for recurring out-of-office entries and segmentable working hours, as well as a new event type, Focus Time, to help you minimize distractions. Focus Time is a bit cleverer than the three-hour blocks of time you may block off on your calendar anyway in that limits notifications during those event windows. Google is also launching a new analytics feature that tells you how much time you waste spend in meetings. This isn’t quite as fully featured (and potentially creepy) as Microsoft’s Productivity Score, since it only displays how much time you spend in meetings, but it’s a nice overview of how you spend your days (though you know that already). None of this data is shared with your managers.

For when you go back to an office, Google is also adding location indicators to Workspace so you can share when you will be working from there and when you’ll be working from home.

And talking about meetings, since most of these remain online for the time being, Google is adding a few new features that now allow those of you who use their Google Nest Hub Max to host meetings at home and a laptop to set up their own second-screen experiences. What’s far more important, though, is that when you join a meeting on mobile, Google will now implement a picture-in-picture mode so you can be in that Meet meeting on your phone and still browse the web Gmail and get important work done during that brainstorming session.

Mobile support for background replace is also coming, as well as the addition of Q&As and polls on mobile. Currently, you can only blur your background on mobile.

Image Credits: Google

For frontline workers, Google is adding something it calls Google Workspace Frontline, with new features for this group of users, and it is also making it easier for users to build custom AppSheet apps from Google Sheets and Drive, “so that frontline workers can digitize and streamline their work, whether it’s collecting data in the field, reporting safety risks, or managing customer requests.”

 

#assistant, #computing, #enterprise, #gmail, #google, #google-nest-hub-max, #google-workspace, #google-calendar, #google-drive, #mobile-software, #software, #tc, #workspace

0

Qualcomm’s new chipset for wireless earbuds promises improved noise cancellation, all-day battery life

There are now so many wireless earbuds, it’s hard to keep track, but one of the reasons why we’ve seen this explosion in new and existing manufacturers entering this business is the availability of Bluetooth Audio SoCs from Qualcomm, including the QCC5100 and QCC30xx series. Today, the company is launching the latest chipset in its wireless portfolio, the QCC305x.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a more powerful chip, with four more powerful cores compared to the three cores of its 304x predecessor. But the real promise here is that this additional processing power will now enable earbud makers to offer features like adaptive active noise cancellation and support for using wake words to active Alexa or the Google Assistant.

The new chipset now also supports Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive with an audio resolution of up to 96kHz and aptX Voice for 3-microphone echo canceling and noise suppression for clearer calls while you are on the go (or on a Zoom call, which is more likely these days). And despite the increased power, Qualcomm promises all-day battery life, too, though, at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual manufacturer to tune their gadgets accordingly.

Image Credits: Qualcomm

The new chipset has also been designed to support the upcoming Bluetooth LE Audio standard. This new standard hasn’t been finalized just yet, but it promises features like multi-stream for multiple synchronized audio streams from a single device — useful for wireless earbuds — and support for personal audio sharing, so that you can share your music from your smartphones with our people around you. There’s also location-based sharing to allow public venues like airports and gyms to share Bluetooth audio with their visitors.

It’s still early days for Bluetooth LE Audio, but during a press conference ahead of today’s announcement, Qualcomm continuously stressed that its new chips will be ready for it once the standard is ratified.

“Not only do our QCC305x SoCs bring many of our latest-and-greatest audio features to our mid-range truly wireless earbud portfolio, they are also designed to be developer-ready for the upcoming Bluetooth LE Audio standard,” James Chapman, vice president, and general manager, Voice, Music, and Wearables at Qualcomm, said in the announcement. “We believe this combination gives our customers great flexibility to innovate at a range of price points and helps them meet the needs of today’s audio consumers, many of whom now rely on their truly wireless earbuds for all sorts of entertainment and productivity activities.”

Image Credits: Qualcomm

#alexa, #aptx, #assistant, #bluetooth, #google, #hardware, #qualcomm, #smartphones, #telecommunications, #voice, #wireless, #wireless-earbuds

0

Google adds support for Apple Music to its Google Assistant-enabled smart speakers and displays

Google announced this morning it’s adding support for Apple Music to its Google Nest smart speakers, and other Google Assistant-enabled smart speakers and displays in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Japan. This means Google’s flagship smart speaker devices, including Nest Audio, Nest Hub Max, and Nest Mini, will now be able to play Apple Music songs, albums and playlists by way of voice commands, as will others.

The update makes Google’s own smart speakers more competitive with both Apple’s HomePod and newer HomePod Mini, as well as Alexa-enabled smart speakers like the Echo, which has supported Apple Music since late 2018.

To stream from Apple Music, Google device owners will need to first link their Apple Music account in the Google Home app then optionally set it as their default music service. After doing so, they’ll be able to use voice commands like “Hey Google, play New Music Daily playlist” or “Hey Google, play Rap Life playlist,” for example, or ask for any other specific song, artist or playlist the service offers.

Users will also be able to ask Google Assistant to stream music based on genre, mood, or activity, or they can request Apple Music to stream from their own library of songs by saying, “Hey Google, play my library.”

Apple Music will also work in multi-device households, allowing Google device owners to stream across all their speakers at once, or to move music from one device to the others.

Today, many Google smart speakers owners may use a third-party service like Spotify, Pandora or Deezer — which are already supported in the Google Home app. But those who had been longtime Google Play Music customers have more recently had to make a decision as to whether to jump ship to a new service or stay within Google’s ecosystem, following the Google Play Music service shut down which saw the service merge with YouTube Music. As a result, some former Google Play Music customers moved to Apple Music to leverage its library feature.

Apple Music allow users to have up to 100,000 songs in their music library, which appeals to some of Google Play Music’s past customers. It also offers over 70 million songs for on-demand, ad-free streaming.

Google says the new Apple Music support is rolling out starting today to supported devices.

#apple-music, #assistant, #google, #google-nest, #google-play-music, #nest-audio, #nest-hub-max, #nest-mini, #smart-speakers, #tc

0

Diagnoss launches its coding assistant for medical billing

Diagnoss, the Berkeley, Calif.-based startup backed by the machine learning-focused startup studio The House, has launched its coding assistant for medical billing, the company said.

The software provides real-time feedback on documentation and coding.

Coding problems can be the difference between success and failure for hospitals, according to Diagnoss. Healthcare providers were decimated by the COVID-19 outbreak, with hospitals operating below 60% capacity and one-fourth of them facing the potential for closing in a year if the pandemic continues to disrupt care.

The cost pressures mean that any coding error can be the financial push that forces a healthcare provider over the edge.

“For every patient encounter, a physician spends an average of 16 minutes on administration, which adds up to several hours every single day. In addition, codes entered are often wrong – up to a 30% error rate – resulting in missed or delayed reimbursements. We believe that, with the great progress we’ve seen with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can finally address some of these inefficiencies that are leading to physician burnout and financial strain,”  said Abboud Chaballout, founder and chief executive of Diagnoss, in a statement.

Diagnoss acts like a grammar checking tool, but its natural language processing software is focused on reading doctor’s notes. The company’s tools can provide evaluation and management code for patient encounters; point out missing information in doctors’ notes; and provide predictions about the diagnosis and procedure codes that could apply after reviewing a doctor’s notes.

In a study of 39,000 de-identified EHR charts, the company found that its machine coding service was about 50% more accurate than human coders, according to a Diagnoss review.

Physician practices are already using Diagnoss’ service through a previously announced partnership with the mobile EHR vendor, DrChrono .

#assistant, #california, #coding, #drchrono, #electronic-health-records, #health, #healthcare, #knowledge, #machine-learning, #natural-language-processing, #physician, #tc

0

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving mode

Google today announced an update to Google Maps that includes a number of new COVID-related features, as well as the ability to see the live status of your takeout or delivery orders, as well as the launch of the long-expected new Assistant driving mode.

In addition, the company shared a few new stats around Google Maps today. The company says that it makes 50 million updates to Maps each day now, for example, though that includes user-generated content like user reviews, photos and ratings. The company also now features “popular times” information for 20 million places around the globe.

Image Credits: Google Maps

As far as COVID is concerned, there are two announcements here. First, Google is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps on Android and iOS with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to COVID resources from local governments. Second, Google Maps can now tell you, in real time, how busy a given transit line is so you can avoid packed trains or busses, for example. That’s based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users and will feel familiar if you are aware of how Google Maps can already show you how busy a given store or restaurant currently is.

Image Credits: Google Maps

Semi-related — delivery services are booming during the pandemic, after all (even as they continue to struggle to make a profit) — Google Maps on mobile will now be able to show you the live delivery status of your takeout and delivery orders in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil and India. To do so, you have to book your order from Google Maps on Android or iOS.

For Google Maps users who don’t have an Android Auto-compatible car, the new Google Assistant driving mode in Maps has long been something to look forward to. The company first talked about this set of new features at its I/O developers conference in May 2019, but as is so often the case, features announced at I/O take a while to get to market. Originally, this was supposed to launch last summer.

Image Credits: Google Maps

The idea here is to allow drivers to get alerts about incoming calls, have the Assistant read out text messages and control your music right inside of Google Maps. Using the Assistant ideally reduces driver distractions. For now, this new mode is only coming to Android users in the U.S., though, and the number of features it supports remains limited. Google promises to support more features over time, but it’s not clear which features it plans to add to this mode.

#android, #apps, #assistant, #australia, #brazil, #canada, #computing, #covid-19, #driver, #germany, #google, #google-maps, #india, #operating-systems, #software, #tc, #united-states

0

Josh.ai launches a ‘nearly invisible’ Amazon Echo competitor that’s the size of a coin

In the past several weeks we’ve seen refreshes and product expansions from about every facet of the smart home virtual assistant world. Apple launched the HomePod Mini, Google offered a long-overdue refresh of the Google Home, and Amazon found even more speaker shapes to shove Alexa into.

Today, we’re getting an addition from a startup competitor. Josh.ai has aimed to build out a niche in the space by building a smart assistant product that’s designed to be professionally installed alongside other smart home wares and they announced a new product this afternoon.

The device, Josh Nano, fully buys into a more luxury home-focused niche with a low-profile device that appears to be a little bit bigger than a half-dollar, though the bulk of the device is embedded into the wall itself and wired back to a central unit via power-over-ethernet. The device bundles a set of four microphones eschewing any onboard speaker, instead opting to integrate directly with a user’s at-home sound system. Josh boasts compatibility with most major AV receiver manufacturers in addition to partnerships with companies like Sonos . There isn’t much else to the device, a light for visual feedback, a multi-purpose touch sensor, and a physical switch to cut power to the onboard microphones in case users want extra peace of mind.

Image via Josh.ai

The aim of the new hardware is to hide the smart features of a home and move away from industry standard touch screen hubs with dated interfaces. By stripping down a smart home product to its essential feature, Josh.ai hopes it can push more users to buy in more fully with confidence that subsequent hardware releases won’t render their devices outdated and ugly. The startup is taking pre-orders for the device (available in black and white color options) now and hopes to start shipping early next year.

Powering these devices is a product the company calls Josh Core, a small server which basically acts as a hub for everything Josh talks to in a user’s home, ensuring that interactions between smart home devices can occur locally, minimizing external requests. The startup will also continue selling its previously released Josh Micro which integrates a dedicated speaker into the wall-mounted hardware.

Though Josh.ai partners directly with professional installers on the hardware, the startup has been scaling as a software business, offering consumers a license to their technology on an annual, 5-year or lifetime basis. The price of that license also differs depending on what size home they are working with, with “small” rollouts being classified as homes with fewer than 15 rooms. In terms of hardware costs, Josh.ai says that pricing varies but for most jobs, the average cost for users works out to be something like $500 per room.

Massive tech companies naturally design their products for massive audiences. For startups like Josh.ai this fact provides an in-road to design products that aren’t built for the common needs of a billion users. In fact, the selling point for plenty of their customers comes largely from the fact that they aren’t buying devices from Google, Amazon or Apple and hard-wiring microphones that feed back to them inside their home.

Though 95% of the startup’s business today focuses on residential, going forward, the company is also interested in scaling how their tech can be used in commercial scenarios like conference rooms or even elevators, the startup tells me.

#alexa, #amazon, #amazon-echo, #apple, #apple-inc, #assistant, #av, #companies, #computing, #ethernet, #google, #google-nest, #home-automation, #homekit, #homepod, #homepod-mini, #micro, #nano, #smart-devices, #smart-home-devices, #smart-speakers, #software, #sonos, #speaker, #tc

0

Apple reveals the $99 HomePod Mini

Today, during its iPhone hardware event, Apple unveiled the $99 HomePod Mini.

The HomePod Mini is clearly a reach for a broader swath of new users. The original HomePod managed to impress audiophiles but its high price served as a high barrier of entry to new users looking for a new smart speaker. Complicating that “smart speaker” designation is the face that Siri was and is several years behind the intelligence of both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, leaving the speaker as a more compromised choice for users who might have been hoping to embrace the fully smart home ecosystem.

The new device starts shipping the week of November 16. The device comes in white and space grey colors.

The HomePod Mini ditches the trashcan Mac Pro design of its bigger relative and is much more spherical in shape, still covered in a mesh fabric. It boasts the same onboard screen that allows users to summon Siri and adjust volume, while giving the device a more interesting visual look than smart devices from other companies. Also differentiating the device is Apple’s S5 chip which the company says helps the HomePod Mini bring users its “computational audio.”

Like with the original HomePod, users can arrange a stereo pair of two of the HomePod Minis and will also be able to utilize multiple HomePod devices in a home to operate a new “Intercom” experience.

Image Credits: Apple

#amazon, #amazon-alexa, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-iphone-event-2020, #assistant, #computing, #google, #homekit, #homepod, #ios, #iphone, #iphone-4, #iphone-5s, #s5, #siri, #smart-devices, #smart-speaker, #smart-speakers, #software, #speaker, #tc

0

Google Assistant gets an incognito-like guest mode

Google is launching a few new privacy features today that include a refreshed Safety Center that’s now live in the U.S. and coming soon globally, as well as more prominent alerts when the company expects that your account has been tampered with.

The most interesting new feature, however, is a new Guest mode for the Google Assistant on Google-branded devices. Not to be confused with giving guests access to your Google Chromecast, for example, this new Guest mode is more akin to the incognito mode in your browser. With Guest mode on, which you invoke by saying “Hey Google, turn on guest mode,” the Assistant won’t offer personalized responses and your interactions won’t be saved to your account. It’ll stay on until you turn it off.

Typically, the Google Assistant saves all of your interactions to your account.  You can delete those manually or have Google automatically delete them after 3, 18 or 36 months. You can also prevent it from saving any audio recordings at all.

This new feature will roll out to smart speakers and displays in the coming weeks.

Talking about deleting your data, Google today also announced that you will soon be able to edit your Location History data in the Google Maps Timeline.

Also new: when you now search for “Is my Google Account secure” or use a similar query, Google will start displaying your security and privacy settings for you. That’s actually a useful step forward, given that we’ve reached a point where those settings are often hard to find.

#android, #assistant, #computing, #google, #google-assistant, #google-nest, #google-search, #google-maps, #operating-systems, #software, #tc, #united-states

0

Grammarly launches new features to improve your business writing

Grammarly, the popular spelling and grammar checker, is launching a few new features for its paying users today that go beyond some of its traditional tools to help its users make their overall writing not just technically correct but also more legible. That means the service can now help you restructure sentences for clarity, help you improve your formatting to make your sentences more readable (mostly through suggesting bulleted lists) and suggest changes to your tone.

In addition, Grammarly is also getting a UI update with a new floating sidebar that lets you see all of the service’s suggestions in an easier to read format.

Grammarly’s Nicholas Stanford recently walked me through some of the new features. The main idea here, he noted, is to help writers put the reader at the center. That’s not something that comes naturally to a lot of writers, but that’s essential if you want to get your point across.

Image Credits: Grammarly

“For most people in the world, most of the writing they do — and certainly most of the important writing they do — is actually at work,” he noted. “And these aren’t necessarily people that are professional writers but more regular office workers writing emails, writing marketing pitches and reports. And it turns out that a lot of people feel uncomfortable with writing. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to be understood. It’s difficult to get your message across. How many times have you received a quick little email and thought: is this person upset at me?”

Based on Grammarly’s own research, 75% of its users are afraid of being misunderstood. Yet, after the pandemic started and people began working from home, writing only became a more important part of their jobs.

Today’s updates to Grammarly’s writing assistant are largely based on the company’s AI smarts, though some remain mostly rule-based, too. On the AI side, the service’s new tools for rewriting systems may be the most interesting ones. Typically, tools like Grammarly have focused on the word level — and maybe a bit beyond that for stock phrases. Now, this tool can look at a convoluted sentence and suggest rewrites to make the sentence more readable, for example. Over time, Stanford said, the plan is to make this tool even smarter so that it can understand context across paragraphs, too.

Image Credits: Grammarly

“It’s currently just at the sentence level. We’re trying to start expanding it beyond that, because you’re very limited if you don’t see beyond that what the larger context is,” he explained. The challenge here for a system like this, after all, is not just to suggest a basic rewrite or to break a long sentence into two, but to ensure that the sentence still has the same meaning in the larger context. To enable that, the team built a second system that runs in the background to ensure that the new sentence doesn’t suddenly have a completely different meaning.

As for improved readability, the focus here is mostly on making documents more skimmable by suggesting bullet points instead of long lists in a sentence. The tool can also detect dates and deadlines and bold them to make sure they stand out.

Tone detection is something Grammarly has done for a while. Now, however, the system will not just point out what a document sounds like but provide suggestions for improving it.

#artificial-intelligence, #assistant, #grammar, #grammarly

0

Android Auto gets Google Calendar integration

Google today announced a number of updates to Android Auto (which runs on the user’s phone) and Android Automotive (which car manufacturers can natively build into their cars) that will affect both users and developers on these platforms. In addition, Google today announced that it expects Android Auto to be available in more than 100 million cars in the coming months.

The most obvious user-facing update is the integration of Google Calendar into Android Auto thanks to the new calendar app. There are very few surprises here as the app lets you see your upcoming appointments (and get directions to them or make a call right from the app).

Image Credits: Google

Another new feature is a new settings app, which now lets you manage your Android Auto preferences right from your in-car car display without having to go back to your phone to make major changes.

The company today also said that it is working with a number of partners like SpotHero, Chargepoint and Sygic to bring more navigation, parking and electric charging apps to the platform. Google expects that some of these companies will be able to beta test their new apps by the end of the year.

Image Credits: Google

Currently, there are about 3,000 apps in the Google Play store that support Android Auto. To expand this set of apps — which have to pass a number of tests to ensure that they don’t distract drivers — Google is launching a new Cars App Library that developers can use to ensure that tasks within their apps will only take a few taps and minimal glances.

Image Credits: Google

 

“To mitigate driver distraction, we collaborated with government, industry and academic institutions to develop our own best practice guidelines that we apply to every aspect of our product development process,” Google says in today’s update. “With our standard templates and guidelines, developers have the tools to easily optimize their apps for cars, without needing to become an expert in driver distraction.”

On the Android Automotive side, Google is working with developers and car manufacturers to help them bring more media apps to the platform. Currently, the Polestar 2 is the first car that uses the new system, but Volvo, Renault and General Motors have announced plans to launch infotainment systems that will use it.

For these developers, Google is launching an update emulator that now includes the Google Assistant, Maps and Google Play — and the Google Play Console now accepts Android Automotive APKs. Developers can also test their apps against the Polestar 2 system image.

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Amazon says police demands for customer data have gone up

Amazon has said the number of demands for user data made by U.S. federal and local law enforcement have increased during the first half of 2020 than during the same period a year earlier.

The disclosure came in the company’s latest transparency report, published Thursday.

The figures show that Amazon received 23% more subpoenas and search warrants, and a 29% increase in court orders compared to the first half of 2019. That includes data collected from its Amazon.com retail storefront, Amazon Echo devices and its Kindle and Fire tablets.

Breaking those figures down, Amazon said it received:

  • 2,416 subpoenas, turning over all of partial user data in 70% of cases;
  • 543 search warrants, turning over all of partial user data in 79% of cases;
  • 146 court orders, turning over all of partial user data in 74% of cases.

The number of requests to the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services, also went up compared to a year earlier.

But it’s not clear what caused the rise in U.S. government demands for user data. A spokesperson for Amazon did respond to a request for comment.

But the company saw the number of overseas requests drop by about one-third compared to the same period a year earlier. Amazon rejected 92% of the 177 overseas requests it received, turning over partial user data in 10 cases and all requested data in four cases.

Amazon also said it received between 0 and 249 national security requests, flat from previous reports. Justice Department rules on disclosing classified requests only allow companies to respond in numerical ranges.

Amazon was one of the last major tech companies to issue a transparency report, despite mounting pressure from privacy advocates. But its report remains far lighter on details compared to its Silicon Valley rivals.

The company’s Ring smart camera division, despite facing criticism for its poor security practices and its close relationships with law enforcement, has yet to release any data related to police requests for user data.

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BMW wants to sell you subscriptions to your car’s features

BMW today announced a number of updates to its in-car software experience during a VR press event, complete with a virtual drive through Munich to show off some of these features. These new updates will come to most recent BMWs that support the company’s Operating System 7 later this year — and new cars will already have them built-in.

The company is able to launch these regular updates because it is now able to not just update the car’s infotainment system but virtually every line of code that’s deployed to the various compute systems that make up a modern vehicle. And because of this, the company is now also able to bring a couple of features to market that it has long talked about.

One of those features — and maybe the key announcement from today’s event — are updates to BMW program for subscribing to specific hardware features that are may already be built into your car, like heated seats or advanced driver assistance systems, but that you didn’t activate when you bought the car. BMW has talked about this for a while, but it is now making this a reality. That means if you didn’t buy the heated seats and steering wheel, for example, your new BMW may now offer you a free three-month trial and you can then essentially buy a subscription for this feature for a set amount of time.

Image Credits: BMW

“We offer maximum flexibility and peace of mind to our customers when it comes to choosing and using their optional equipment in their BMWs, whether this BMW is new or used,” a company spokesperson said during today’s press event. “So flexible offers, immediate availability, simpler booking and easy usability for choice, at any time, when it comes to your optional equipment. We already started connectivity over 20 years ago and since 2014, we are online with our Connected Drive Store, where digital services can already be booked.”

Those were very much infotainment features, though. Now, BMW will let you enable vehicle functions and optional equipment on demand and over the air. The company started offering some features like active cruise control with stop and go functionality, a high beam assistant and access to the BMW IconicSounds Sport. The carmaker will add new features to this line-up over time.

Surprisingly, it’s often easier and cheaper for car manufacturers to build some hardware into cars, even if it is not activated, simply because it removes complexity from the production process. A lot of the features that BMW is talking about consist of a combination of software and hardware, though.

What’s new here is the ability to only subscribe to some features for a short time. “In the near future, we will not only be able to add more functions here, but we will also be able to add even more flexibility for our customers with temporary bookings so booking of options for three years, for one year, or even shorter periods of time, like a few months,” a spokesperson said.

Image Credits: BMW

The company also notes that this will give somebody who buys a used car a lot more flexibility, too. It’s worth noting that Apple CarPlay support was also originally a subscription feature in new BMWs, costing $80 a year. The company’s customers were not very happy about this, though, and the company reversed that decision last December. That really felt like nickel-and-diming drivers, though, since none of BMW’s competitors charged for this. It’ll be interesting to see how drivers will react to additional subscription services, but the focus now is more on convenience features that would usually be an option when you buy a new car, so my guess is that this will be less of an issue.

Among the other new and updated digital services the company showcased today is support for Apple’s new ‘Car Keys,’ which BMW brands as the BMW Digital Key, as well as an updated BMW Personal Assistant. Some of these new Assistant features are more cosmetic and about how it is showcased on the in-car display. But one nifty new Assistant feature here, for example, is a kind of IFTTT for your car, where you can easily program it to automatically roll down your windows when you enter your company’s parking garage, for example, so that you can easily scan your badge to open the boom gate.

Image Credits: BMW

Other updates include the new BMW Maps, the company’s built-in GPS system, which the company described as a ‘major leap.’ This cloud-based service can now find routes faster, has more granular traffic data and also includes the ability to find parking spaces for you — and that parking feature itself is based on a lot of work the company is doing in aggregating sensor data from across its fleet, which already covers and maps close to 99% of the German highway system once a day in HD.

Image Credits: BMW

Talking about maps, the company, which is still in the middle of the roll-out of its hybrid-electric vehicles, BMW also today announced that its hybrid fleet will make it easier for drivers to find charging stations and will automatically switch to electric driving when they enter low-emission zones in 80 European cities, with support for additional cities coming over time.

“Digital technologies belong to the core of BMW – because hardware and software are of
equal importance for premium cars,” said Oliver Zipse, the Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW. “Our mission is to integrate advanced digital technologies with highest product excellence to enhance our customers’ experience and driving pleasure even more.”

 

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