One-size-fits-all exosuits don’t work: we need exo-tailoring

Exoskeletons can be incredibly useful, giving people extra strength or the ability to move freely when injured or disabled. But augmented performance comes at a cost, and users usually have to put in more effort while wearing these prosthetics. Scientists are trying to fix this: they have developed a new system that actively saves the user’s energy by adjusting the exoskeleton to their body’s natural movement.

Now, the idea that exoskeletons consume additional energy may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, aren’t they supposed to make things easier? According to biomechanist Juanjuan Zhang, who led this latest research, the problem is that exoskeletons are built on a one-size-fits-all system, and not tailored to the individual. This means users often fight against them unconsciously, or just find them uncomfortable to wear. This takes up energy.

“In theory they’re giving you an extra push, so you should be using less of your own energy. But the problem is that humans are so different from one to another, and some of us actually try to fight against the exoskeleton,” Zhang tells The Verge. “But the difficulty is not the device, it’s the fact that the human body is so complicated.”

The solution proposed by Zhang and her team in a paper published in Science today is an algorithm that automatically adjusts the exoskeleton to the wearer’s body. The researchers tested their method with an ankle exoskeleton designed to help volunteers walk more easily. The exoskeleton clips onto the shin and foot, with a motor and a pulley system lifting up the back of the heel with every step.

The amount of energy the volunteers expended was measured by monitoring their breathing, and the software automatically tweaked the exoskeleton to see what movement helped most. For example, it would try lifting the heel earlier or later during a step, or applying more or less energy, to see what suited the wearer.

This diagram shows how the exoskeleton’s mechanism was adjusted. The lines show when during a step the motor was activated, and how strong it pulled on the heel.
Image: Science / Zhang et al

This sort of personalization has been done in the past, but, according to an accompanying editorial published in Science, never so quickly or effectively. Usually changes to an exoskeleton have to be made by hand, with researchers gathering data, then tweaking, then testing again. But in just an hour, Zhang and her team were able to reduce the energy each volunteer expended while walking by an average of 24 percent. (That’s compared to walking with the exoskeleton powered off.)

The research is limited in some ways. For example, only four different factors were being adjusted in the ankle exoskeleton. For full-leg or full-body exoskeletons, there would be many more constraints to think of, and this would take more time and computing power to process.

However, says Zhang, her basic method is sound, and should scale up with the right adjustments. Then, she says, it’ll be much easier to build effective and useful exoskeletons for more people: “What we want is a personalized device for everybody.”

After dispute with Apple, chip maker Imagination Technologies puts itself up for sale

Imagination Technologies, former chip designer for Apple, has announced today that it’s selling the entire company, initiating a formal sale process.

Its stock price is climbing rapidly following the news — the first positive growth it’s seen since Imagination’s fall out with Apple in April. The British-based company said in a press release that several parties had expressed interest in buying them over the past few weeks but “there can be no certainty that any offer will be made for Imagination.”

This all comes just two months after Apple announced it would begin making graphics chip designs in house and cut off its reliance on Imagination within two years. This news dropped Imagination’s stock price to half of where it had been before. In response to the end of its relationship with Apple, which was responsible for a significant portion of Imagination’s revenue, Imagination planned to sell off two of its businesses and begin a formal dispute with Apple over its graphic patents because informal talks weren’t getting them anywhere. Apple making graphics chips in house would infringe on Imagination’s patents, the latter maintained, but Apple wouldn’t agree to licensing some of their graphic patents. The initial plan to sell two businesses has grown to include the entire company, in light of rapidly dropping financial numbers.

Imagination wrote in April: “Apple has not presented any evidence to substantiate its assertion that it will no longer require Imagination’s technology, without violating Imagination’s patents, intellectual property, and confidential information,” even if Apple said otherwise. Despite the sale, Imagination says it remains in dispute with Apple.

Ron Howard is taking over the Han Solo standalone film

In June, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy announced that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had stepped down as directors for the upcoming Han Solo film, saying that a replacement would “be announced soon.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, the company has announced that Ron Howard will be taking over the film, and will meet with the cast to get production rolling again.

“At Lucasfilm,” said Kennedy in a statement, “we believe the highest goal of each film is to delight, carrying forward the spirit of the saga that George Lucas began forty years ago. With that in mind, we’re thrilled to announce that Ron Howard will step in to direct the untitled Han Solo film. We have a wonderful script, an incredible cast and crew, and the absolute commitment to make a great movie. Filming will resume the 10th of July.”

Howard is an Oscar-winning director, having helmed 2002’s A Beautiful Mind. He also has a long history with Lucasfilm, appearing in the George Lucas’ 1973 movie American Graffiti, and directing the Star Wars creator’s 1988 cult fantasy film Willow. (And yes, he’s also well known for narrating Arrested Development.)

Howard is stepping into a complicated situation: Lord and Miller joined the project in 2015, promising that they would “take risks to give the audience a fresh experience,” while staying true to the characters. The film lost its directors five months into shooting, which means that Howard will need to hit the ground sprinting, especially as Lucasfilm has said that it’s planning on holding to its May 25th, 2018 release date.

While this changing of the guard is dramatic, it’s far from unprecedented in the history of cinema. Disney famously stepped in to reshoot entire sections of Rogue Onelate in its production to fix the film, demonstrating a serious commitment to the franchise’s success. More recently, Justice League director Zack Snyder turned the reins over to Joss Whedon for extensive reshoots following his daughter’s suicide earlier this year. Edgar Wright dropped out of Ant Man over creative disagreements with Marvel, and was replaced by Peyton Reed. Historically, there’s been other films as well: io9 has a great list from a couple of years ago. How the Han Solo film ends up remains to be seen, and that’ll likely come down to how Howard uses the footage shot by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

The still-untitled Han Solo film is still expected to hit theaters in May 25th, 2018.

Samsung releases another new smart flip phone in Korea, leaving me to cry

Yet again, Samsung is disappointing me by releasing a smart flip phone in its native Korea, leaving this flip phone fan empty-handed. The company announced its new Folder Flip 2 today, which looks pretty much just like the old version, but with a larger keypad. The phone is also available in both pink and black. The pink is everything I want, and seriously re-creates old Razr vibes.

Spec-wise, the Flip 2 runs Android Nougat, has a 3.8-inch display, 2GB of RAM, a 1,950mAh battery, up to 256GB of storage, and a 1.4GHz quad-core processor. Two models will be made: an LTE model and a 3G version. The phone will cost 297,000 won, or $260.

I’ve written some version of this blog multiple times, but I’ll say it again. I appreciate Samsung keeping my flip phone dreams alive, but please, put this phone out in the US. I don’t know how well it’ll sell or if this is what Americans want, but at least give us the option. Thanks.

Image: Samsung

Oskar Fischinger’s musical animations come to life in Google Doodle sequencer

Today’s Google Doodle honors what would have been the 117th birthday of German-American abstract artist Oskar Fischinger.

Fischinger’s musical animations were deemed “degenerate art” in Hitler’s Germany, and he left for the US in 1936, when an agent from Paramount Pictures recruited him to work in America.

His work was groundbreaking; the films were visually stunning despite being created decades before the existence of computer graphics or music videos. Leon Hong, creative lead on the Doodle, expresses just how impressive Fischinger’s work was, and still is. “Each frame [was] carefully drawn or photographed by hand,” says Hong. “A master of motion and color, Fischinger spent months — sometimes years — planning and handcrafting his animations.”

Not only was Fischinger behind the effects on several movies, including Fritz Lang’s 1929 Woman in the Moon, he invented the Lumigraph, a device that generates chromatic displays with hand movements. Hong says the Lumigraph is not only “a sort of optical painting in motion,” but “a precursor to the interactive media and multi-touch games of today.”

Fischinger’s work to this day remains near-impossible to replicate, dancing the line between absolute precision and a human touch. Today’s Google Doodle is meant to pay homage to his work while letting you get a taste of what it’s like to compose your own visual music.

Click on Google’s logo and you’ll be taken to an interface that operates like a basic music sequencer. There are four instruments to choose from, and as you click diamonds on the screen to activate notes, it plays back a loop of your 16-beat melody in real time, with colorful shapes dancing across the screen. In the side bar, you can adjust the tempo, the key, and even add effects like a delay, bitcrusher, and phaser. As a bonus, there are preset packs from the likes of Local Natives, Nick Zammuto (of experimental duo The Books and band Zammuto), and electronica / hip-hop producer TOKiMONSTA.

Even with no musical knowledge, the interface makes it easy to create trippy, atmospheric, and flowing melodies in Fischinger’s style in a matter of minutes. Combined with the built-in visuals, it’s incredibly mesmerizing and almost feels therapeutic. When you’re done with your creations, save and share them (you’ll want to).

Fischinger passed away in Los Angeles in 1967, at the age of 66, but his legacy is felt to this day. The artist’s daughter spoke to Google about the project, saying, “I feel incredibly proud of my family and am delighted to be the daughter of Oskar and Elfriede Fischinger. It means so much to me to see this celebration of my father’s art. It’s wonderful to know that his work, which has been steadily praised since the 1920s, will continue to receive worldwide recognition.”

Scammers selling fake cures for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are getting away with it

Nearly one-third of the advertisements for “memory-boosting” supplements reviewed by a government watchdog may be illegally claiming to cure or prevent diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, according to a recent report. The report suggests that government regulation is failing to keep up with the growing supplement industry, but regulators aren’t prepared to actually fix the problem at its root.

Over two months, investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sorted through memory supplement marketing online, in print, on TV, and in stores. After analyzing 91 advertisements and labels in depth, they discovered 28 ads for 34 supplements that claimed a product could protect against or treat dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease. That’s illegal; claims that a pill or concoction can treat, cure, or prevent diseases have to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The dietary supplement industry is massive, raking in an estimated $39 billion in sales in 2015. The portion catering to customers who want to improve their memories is growing — nearly doubling from $353 million in 2006 to $643 million in 2015. Most of the advertising for these drugs is online, the GAO found. And the supplement makers are minimally regulated. Products can hit the shelves without being tested for safety or efficacy, and, often, without their labels being vetted for accuracy. “It’s a challenge to take on an industry that’s this large,” says FDA spokesperson Lyndsay Meyer.

The Senate Committee on Aging was concerned that aging consumers might be especially vulnerable to claims that one weird trick could stave off senior moments, so it asked the GAO to check in. The GAO shared the 28 examples it found with the FDA, which agreed 27 of them may have violated the law that generally bars supplement manufacturers from making disease claims.

But the agency has only taken action against a couple of the companies. It sent a warning letter to Utah-based Lifevantage Corp, and two onlineadvisory letters to companies making similar statements: Healinginabottle.com for the product Immuno Boost Eximius, and Life Decoders, LLC, for Sheep Placenta Advanced Capsules marketed on stemcelltherapyplus.com. The FDA is monitoring the rest.

Healinginabottle.com has expired; an email to the account the FDA used to contact the company bounced, and the company didn’t reply to a Facebook message. Stem Cell Therapy Plus’ website still mentions Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease; spokesman Joe Cruz says the company has addressed the FDA’s concerns.

Ryan Nadeau, a spokesperson for Lifevantage, noted that the website the FDA discussed in its warning letter, nrf2science.com, is not selling a Lifevantage product — it’s discussing the protein that this product is purported to target. “We definitely agree with the need for transparent advertising and making sure that you stay within the guidelines,” Nadeau says. “I mean you’re talking about diseases — it’s not something you want to con your way into.”

The problem with deceptive marketing is that it could lead people to, at best, waste their money, and at worst, make dangerous health decisions. “Most people believe when they go to the store and they’re able to just pick it up off the shelf that this is something that the agency has reviewed for safety and efficacy. Or safety, at a minimum,” the FDA’s Meyer told The Verge. “The way that the framework is set up for supplements in this country — that’s just not true.”

Despite its latest findings, the GAO doesn’t have any big regulatory or enforcement recommendations for the FDA, which oversees supplement labeling, or the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees advertising. Instead, the GAO recommended that the FDA and FTC clarify to consumers “which agency to report concerns to involving Internet marketing.” If this seems like an anemic response, that’s because it is.

“Obviously it’s not ideal or optimal by any means for consumer protection and other issues. But those were the cards we were dealt,” says Seto Bagdoyan, a director of forensic audits and investigations for the GAO. “And that’s why we focused on our market research and also on the consumer awareness of these regulators’ respective roles.”

The problems with supplement oversight go back to a 1994 law called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or DSHEA. Under this law, supplements are regulated as food, not drugs. That means that supplement makers aren’t required to prove their products are safe or effective before selling them. And while manufacturers are typically legally barred from making disease claims on product labels, the FDA generally doesn’t approve labels before supplements hit the shelves.

So the agency can only reprimand companies that it catches breaking the rules. And catching wrongdoers is challenging, because the FDA doesn’t have a comprehensive list of the supplements on the market. “You can have concerns over products and then the products get renamed,” says Joshua Sharfstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and former FDA deputy commissioner. “There are so many aspects of this that are out of control at the same time.”

In the past, the GAO has suggested that the FDA should come up with guidelines that spell out the scientific evidence companies need to back up claims like “calcium builds strong bones” on a product’s label. The GAO also said that the agency should ask Congress for the power to demand that supplement companies hand over that scientific evidence. Neither of these suggestions were implemented. “They explained to us, once again, that they really are hamstrung in terms of their authorities,” Bagdoyan says. “The focus of their work is at the back end — where something negative has to happen before they take action.”

That’s why the GAO’s recommendation is so unhelpful, especially since most consumers are unlikely to know whether a supplement’s advertising is illegal. Even if it were clearer where consumers should report concerns to, it’s hard to imagine that would make much of a difference. Adverse health events are already massively underreported (consumers and clinicians can report them here). Scientists with the CDC and FDA estimate that dietary supplements are associated with more than 23,000 emergency room visits annually. The FDA estimates that there are over 50,000 supplement-related health incidents each year. And yet only somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of these incidents are reported, according to a 2008 GAO report.

Until regulation of dietary supplements changes, Meyer sums up the bottom line for health-conscious consumers: “Don’t take your supplements lightly.”

Pioneer’s Lightning-connected earbuds auto-mute your mic when you’re not talking

Pioneer announced its Rayz Plus earbuds earlier this year with the promise of continual software upgrades. Today, the company is adding new functionality to the Lightning-connected earbuds with its “Smart Mute” feature. The earbuds’ mic will automatically mute when you’re not talking during a phone call. It’ll unmute once you start talking again.

I tested this feature out over the past week or so and found that I could verify my mic muting from my iPhone’s call screen. You see the phone call mute button turning on and off. None of the people I called seemed to notice a difference in our call quality, though, so while the feature’s neat, I could take it or leave it. The selling point of these earbuds is still that it features adaptive noise canceling, pass-through charging, and will auto-pause your music when you take the earbuds out.

Now, most people probably didn’t go out of their way to purchase the Rayz Plus from Amazon, so today the company is also announcing that they’ll be available to purchase at Apple Stores worldwide soon. The retail launch accompanies the release of two new colors, too: rose gold and black. They’ll cost $149.95.

The Big Sick is a hilarious, tearjerking rom-com starring Kumail Nanjiani

This review of The Big Sick was originally published on January 21st, 2017 as part of The Verge’s Sundance Film Festival coverage. The film hits theaters this weekend and we’re still just as smitten with the movie, a high-water mark for the romantic comedy genre and an welcome respite from the season’s blockbusters.

Kumail Nanjiani is arguably best known for his role as Dinesh Chugtai on HBO’s Silicon Valley, but I suspect regular readers of The Verge — folks fascinated with technology and the culture that unspools around it — probably know his work on Adventure Time, Bob’s Burgers, The X-Files, and The Indoor Kids. That last one isn’t a movie or television show, but a (now defunct) podcast Nanjiani hosted with his wife, the writer and producer Emily Gordon.

The Big Sick is the pair’s first foray into co-writing a screenplay, and in an unintentional way, a prequel to their podcast. It’s a romantic comedy about how Nanjiani and Gordon met, started dating, and overcame a life threatening illness. Ya know, the usual rom-com stuff.

(Full disclosure: Years ago, my wife worked with Nanjiani and The Big Sick director Michael Showalter on the Comedy Central show Michael and Michael Have Issues.)

What’s the genre?

Romantic-dram-com.

What’s it about?

For people who became familiar with the life story of Nanjiani and Gordon through their podcast, this will sound familiar. Kumail, played by himself, is an aspiring stand-up comedian, polishing a set in a Chicago nightclub. Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, is a grad school student who attends one of his shows. They hook up, hang out, date — and split. Nanjiani’s fear of disownment from his traditional Pakistani family is an insurmountable roadblock.

Then, without warning, Emily becomes ill from a mysterious infection, and is put into a medically induced coma that affords the doctors time to search for a cause and a cure.

Okay, what’s it really about?

Parents. There’s a beautiful, somewhat traditional love story tucked into The Big Sick, but it’s bookended by a warm, but frank confrontation with how we seek the love and approval of our parents and our in-laws.

Nanjiani’s performance effortlessly carries the film’s staggering emotional weight. The character is a struggling comic on the cusp of breaking out, an immigrant questioning the faith and customs of family, a romantic torn between his expectations and his heart, and one half of the film’s two love stories.

Yes, two. We first watch Kumail and Emily in an extended meet cute, but once the young woman enters the coma, we get a second and different sort of love story between Kumail and Emily’s parents, the calls-‘em-like-she-sees-‘em Beth and the anxious Terry. Played with folksiness by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, the doting parents are lived-in, where they easily could have become cloying. And so, The Big Sick presents a story that I believe plays out often in the real world, but rarely in art: a potential spouse discovers a deeper and richer affection for their partner by getting to know the people that raised her. Beth, Terry, and their marriage are imperfect, but the two care deeply about their daughter. Watching Kumail gradually spot that tenderness and ultimately share it is beautiful.

But is it any good?

Absolutely. Nanjiani and Gordon have discussed romantic comedies on their podcast and elsewhere, and their expertise shows in the ways they improve upon the genre. I mentioned Emily’s mother already, but I also should highlight the other women in the film, who are afforded time and dialogue to express their own personalities and wants. I’m talking about Emily, but also the many Pakistani women that Kumail’s parents hope he will accept for an arranged marriage. The film takes a late, brief, and unexpected detour to give one of these women a chance to share her side and her exhaustion with the process.

And when Kumail relies on the male niceties and eccentricities of rom-coms, women shut him down as his intellectual and comic equal — if not superior. On their second date, Kumail performs his ritual of showing his new girlfriend a classic horror B-movie, and Emily sarcastically quips how she loves when new boyfriends judge her taste.

What should it be rated?

Update: We were right. The MPAA gave the film an R-rating for “language including some sexual references.”

The film doesn’t have an official rating, but I’d say it should be PG-13, because an R rating will prevent teenagers from seeing a genuine and complex depiction of love. Of course it will be rated R because the word “fuck” is said more than once.

How can I actually watch it?

Update: The film opens in theaters in limited release on June 23rd and wide release on July 14th.

The film doesn’t have a release date, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets held for Oscar season. It’s not traditional Awards fare, but both Hunter and Romano give performances good enough to warrant supporting actor and actress buzz. I expect whoever acquires the film this week will offer a nice paycheck, and maybe some marketing promises to get the film in front a big audience — one it deserves.

You can now watch your smart home camera from an Amazon Echo Show

Amazon’s new Echo Show doesn’t launch until next week, but it’s already getting support from the top smart home camera companies. Nest, August, Amcrest, EZViz, IC Realtime, Vivint, Ring, Logitech, and Arlo smart home cameras will all work with the Echo Show, allowing you to simply say “Alexa, show me the front door” to get access to your camera feed.

As the integration is linked to Alexa in general, even Echo devices without the 7-inch screen of the Echo Show will be able to tap into audio feeds from the compatible cameras. It’s all part of a new Smart Home Camera Control available to all developers today to make it easy to integrate connected cameras with Alexa.

Amazon’s Echo Show will be available on June 28th, priced at $229.99. The device includes a 7-inch touchscreen display, with Alexa built-in. It also includes access to content from YouTube and Amazon Video, alongside support for video calling. Amazon is using the Show’s display to provide more information from Alexa queries, and it’s clear from today’s expansion that the display will be used for extending Alexa’s impressive smart home support.

Update, 11:25AM ET: Article updated to include Logitech’s Circle 2 smart home camera.

Facebook introduces profile picture protections to stop people from misusing images

Facebook is introducing new protections for profile pictures for users in India, in a bid to stop people from copying, sharing, or otherwise misusing their images. Users who elect to guard their profile through the new system will ensure that others can’t send, share, or download their picture, and will keep strangers from tagging themselves in the image.

People who opt in will also get a blue shield border around their image, and — on Android at least — Facebook says it will prevent users from taking screenshots of users’ profile pictures “where possible.”

Posted by Facebook Safety on Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The social network says that it was motivated to offer the tools after hearing from Indian social and safety organizations that some women in the country elected not to upload pictures of their faces to the internet. The tools were developed in partnership with a range of those organizations, with tests indicating the kinds of things that would cut down on the misuse of profile pictures. For example, Facebook says that something as simple as adding a design overlay to a picture means that others are at least 75 percent less likely to copy it.

Users can now add those layers quickly through Facebook’s system, but the tools aren’t likely to cut out the copying of profile pictures overnight. While Facebook says it’s doing what it can to stop people from screenshotting images via Android, users could still take screengrabs on laptop or desktop, and the new blue shielded border is a “visual cue” of protection, rather than any hard barrier.

Still, though, if tests have shown that fairly simple additions can deter opportunists, then the tools are a potentially useful option for Indian users. For now, Facebook has not yet indicated whether similar measures will come to other countries.