The Verge 2016 tech report cards: Virtual reality, TV, and apps

Consumer VR has yet to establish itself as a viable commercial product or mass-market artistic medium, and it’s still possible that it never will. But there’s no denying that 2016 was a huge turning point, both socially and technologically. VR didn’t exactly soar this year — but it didn’t crash and burn, either.

At the beginning of 2016, virtual reality was almost purely the province of developers, artists, and the lucky few who got to see their work. Concepts were usually more important than execution, and VR experiences didn’t have to be good, just novel. The only real options for most people to try it were the Samsung Gear VR, an interesting product with a lot of flaws, and the simple Google Cardboard.

The year didn’t get off to an auspicious start. The first high-end VR system launch, the Oculus Rift in March, was a bit of a mess. The headset had some great features but cost far more than people expected. It felt incomplete without motion controllers, and a component shortage made it almost impossible to find. The HTC Vive — which came soon after — felt more powerful, but it was barely a consumer device, and selling it as one laid bare how sparse experiences still were. At the same time, it proved that VR could stay entertaining for weeks or months instead of minutes.

Daydream ViewDaydream View

Outside the big commercial headset launches, super-ambitious VR entertainment company The Void launched its first experience in Times Square, to mixed reviews. The Chinese VR market got bigger and more interesting, focusing on compact, self-contained designs and special features. The Sundance and Tribeca film festivals made VR a big part of their lineup, and The Verge co-hosted a pop-up exhibit with the Toronto International Film Festival.

Late fall saw a few highlights. Sony’s PlayStation VR showed how VR could fit with the typical console gaming experience, with uniquely trippy games like Thumper and Rez. Daydream, a mobile VR platform built into Android, put Google’s weight behind virtual reality. Then Oculus made up for its past stumbles by releasing the best VR controllers ever made, alongside clever games like Superhot and I Expect You To Die. These still don’t feel as full-featured as non-VR games, but they’re a far cry from anything we saw in 2015.

Inside virtual reality, we’ve started figuring out its weak points — the potential for harassment,problems with embodiment, and confusion about how to fit it into the existing worlds of gaming and film. Also, nobody can make money developing for it.

These could be signs that VR is still too flawed to succeed, or they could be the growing pains that let it flourish down the road. It’s frustrating to have yet another year of uncertainty ahead of us, but it’s also a good sign that VR has at least squeaked through one of its biggest transitions. — Adi Robertson

Verge 2016 Report Card: VR

B+

2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • Lots of creative, genuinely good experiments
  • Hardware that (eventually) lived up the hype
  • Widespread interest in film and gaming

Needs Improvement:

  • Still inaccessible and expensive for most of the year
  • Economic future is uncertain
  • Interest hasn’t translated into full-featured experiences
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TV makers kept up the “4K!” cheerleading throughout 2016, and as we wrap up December, the years-long slog to Ultra HD still isn’t over — not even close. But we’re entering 2017 in a much better place. You can walk into a Best Buy or Walmart, or log onto Amazon and buy a nice 4K TV for under $700. Most of those will look pretty great when streaming Netflix or Amazon Video in 4K — some even include HDR, which adds brighter and more vivid picture for a more theater-like experience.

So the price barrier to entering the world of UHD is pretty much gone. Will a $2,000 TV still look better than a bargain set? Most always, but it’s (probably) easier than ever to find something affordable that looks great to your own eyes.

The software experience on those TVs hasn’t radically changed since we last left CES. It’s a mix of Tizen (Samsung), Android TV (Sony, etc.), webOS (LG), a very minimal Chromecast UI (Vizio), and Roku TV. Most sets ship with the must-have popular streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube built in, giving you an instant source of 4K video. Not everything’s great, but you can mostly navigate menus on your TV without pulling your hair out. Progress!

Depending on your TV, a set-top box like an Apple TV or Roku might not be the automatic purchase it was a year ago. But if you still want one, they’ve made improvements this year too. Pretty much all the big ones except Apple’s now support 4K resolution. Most of them can also serve as a cable box replacement thanks to services like DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and PlayStation Vue.

But there are still annoying problems and potential frustrations lingering. You’ve got competing standards for HDR: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. (The former has seen wider support across TV brands.) And when it comes to 4K content, you’ve got to pay attention to the HDMI ports when buying a new set. On many TVs, only one or two of several HDMI inputs might support HDMI 2.0, which is critical for streaming Ultra HD.

The year ahead will likely be one of iteration. LG will keep leading the class in picture quality with its OLED TVs — though it’s rumored that Sony might be releasing some of its own. Samsung will put out some fantastic high-end sets, and yep, some will be curved. Vizio, a favorite of home theater nerds, is in the process of being acquired by LeEco, which may result in interesting changes. But yet again, 2017 is going to be all about 4K, 4K, 4K. — Chris Welch

Verge 2016 Report Card: TVs

B+2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • 4K is more affordable than ever
  • HDR makes your living room closer to a movie theater
  • Several set-top boxes now do 4K

Needs Improvement:

  • A winning HDR format between HDR10 and Dolby Vision
  • All TV makers need to keep current with HDMI and HDCP standards
  • OLED, the TVs with best picture quality, are still expensive
Google AlloGoogle Allo

Remember Peach? It was the biggest new thing in social networks in January, but chances are you’ve probably forgotten it existed.

That seems to be the general consensus around 2016 in apps. Occasionally, there are standouts, but most become temporarily popular only to get overshadowed or bought out by the big companies — mainly Facebook and Google.

The biggest promise of the year was also the biggest disappointment: bots. Despite Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all committing to bots as the future of technology, 2016 was definitively not the year of the AI chatbot. Facebook added bots to its Messenger in the form of apps — yep, apps within apps — but rather than wave of new interactions within our smartphones, we got a bunch of text-based versions of things like weather and food ordering. Microsoft went big on bots as a platform, but none of those experiments have really broken through. And Allo, Google’s big bet to bring AI bots to messaging apps, landed with more of a whimper than a bang.

The other takeaway from apps this year is that everyone seems to be hastily looking across the aisle to see what they can take from others. Apple updated iMessage to have Snapchat’s self-destructing photos and LINE-style stickers. Snapchat’s Memories is basically cloud photo storage like that of Google Photos’ and GroupMe’s. Instagram flat out copied Snapchat’s stories down to its feature name. Finally, Facebook Messenger ripped off Snapchat’s live filters and vanishing messages. Instead of any real innovation, we just saw the same features in more places.

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Meanwhile, beloved apps like Vine and Sunrise left our phones for good. Despite the backing of major companies like Microsoft and Twitter, it seems that having a small but dedicated community that use your app is no longer enough.

It’s also been a bad year to be an up and coming iOS game developer. There were some interesting new titles this year, but the F2P market has long since taken over the platform. Suffice to say, we haven’t seen something like Monument Valley take the mobile gaming space by storm. The biggest gaming apps of the year came in the form of Nintendo’s blockbuster franchises making their way to mobile platforms, but Pokemon Go has had little staying power since its summer success, and Super Mario Run faces an uncertain future while clinging to an app store pricing scheme that hasn’t succeeded since 2008.

That said, it isn’t all doom and gloom for the future of apps. We did have some fun new players this year: Prisma is a genuinely brilliant and fun photo editing app that feels like a throwback to apps of years past. And Google’s Motion Stills app took Apple’s Live Photos and elevated them to an entirely new level of brilliant entertainment by turning them into GIFs.

In the end, apps are still the way we interact with almost all of our technological devices, and probably will be for some time. People still buy apps, and despite the promise of bots to make individual applications unnecessary, that future is still ways to go. If that promise extends to next year — perhaps, with some new, more nimble competition to the entrenched players — 2017 could be quite exciting. At the very least, we have more ways than ever to get robots to order us pizza. — Chaim Gartenberg

Verge 2016 Report Card: Apps

C+2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • Some new, creative apps that remixed old smartphone features in new ways
  • Email apps are back

Needs Improvement:

  • Bots need big improvements
  • Messaging apps are unnecessarily complicated
  • It’s tough for new, smaller developers to be found and make money

The Verge 2016 tech report cards: Headphones and streaming music

This has been a queer year for headphones. Two groundbreaking pairs of cans were introduced by an unlikely suspect, but with each of them commanding a four-figure price, those breakthroughs might as well not have happened for most people. Apple catalyzed the move toward wireless technology with its omission of a headphone jack in the iPhone 7, while a bunch of smaller players launched terrific wired options that fit into most people’s budgets. So just as it starts to seem like headphones are reaching a peak of consistently high quality, the tech industry is flipping everything on its head and giving us reason to consider buying yet more stuff.

Firstly, we have to talk about the Focal Elear and Utopia. Yes, one of them costs $999 and the other one costs $3,999 (does it matter which is which?) but what they lack in affordability they make up for in having absolutely superb sound quality. French company Focal is much better known for making speakers than headphones, but their debut at the high end of the latter category has been nothing short of triumphant. Both headphones set new standards for what we can expect at their price points. And the reason mere mortals should care is that, beside the exotic materials, Focal has developed a lot of technological knowhow with these cans that the company’s designers say will inform their more affordable products in the future. Even if you never buy a pair, these headphones are a great harbinger of what’s to come.

Apple’s iPhone 7 headphone jack removal was leaked in January, so naturally tech media spent most of the year debating the reasons the company might have for removing a standard and universally used port. Adopting the Lightning port for audio has some technical advantages, but Apple’s eventual launch made it clear that the company just wanted to push wireless forward. Headphone makers have responded accordingly, with everyone doubling down on wireless models, from Bose’s QC35 to B&W’s P7 Wireless.

The most significant effect of 2016 on this front is that it simply sets the stage for what is likely to be a transformative 2017. At some point in the next year, the default expectation for premium headphones will be that they’re wireless. Those that cost upwards of $200 and still retain a wire will have to justify their existence through better sound quality or some other advantage.

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At the very bottom of the headphone market, Chinese mobile manufacturers made positive noise this year with some very nice introductions. Xiaomi’s established Pistons line kept the $20 market full of good tunes, and OnePlus joined with its massively improved Bullets v2 at the same price point. Meizu’s EP51 showed up as an excellent $65 pair of wireless sports buds, and premium smartphones finally started bundling premium earphones by default, such as with the Nubia Z11. HTC’s audio-focused Android flagship for this year, the 10, also came with some high-quality buds in the box, and LG’s QuadBeats have been consistently good for years.

The best all-around headphones launched in 2016, except for Focal’s unattainable duo, were Bang & Olufsen’s second-generation Beoplay H6. They strike the perfect balance between fun and faithful sound, and their design is as sophisticated as it is comfortable and lightweight. The only problem for the H6 going forward? Everyone shopping in their price bracket in 2017 will be hoping to ditch the wire. — Vlad Savov

Verge 2016 Report Card: Headphones

B

2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • Focal raised the bar for high-end headphones
  • Sound quality advanced across all price ranges
  • The neckbuds trend died a quiet death
  • Apple’s W1 wireless chip is a real boon for simplifying Bluetooth pairing

Needs Improvement:

  • Outside of Apple, wireless connections are still a pain
  • Gaming headsets remain mostly awful
  • Phone makers that drop the headphone jack need to better explain why they’re doing it
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For most music listeners, 2016 will be remembered as the year exclusive releases complicated all our lives. It will also be remembered as the year that access to streaming services became a necessity.

At the beginning of the year, the only guaranteed exclusive release on the horizon was Drake’s Views, which was a part of the deal the musician signed with Apple Music in 2015. But most fans didn’t expect that the onslaught of exclusive content would become Apple Music’s primary tool for chasing down Spotify, or Tidal’s fight for continued existence.

Following nearly every major album announcement in the past year, fans have had to find out if they will have access to the music through their current streaming service, or if they will need to pay and switch providers. Drake, Beyoncé, Chance The Rapper, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Gucci Mane, The 1975, Future, YG, 2 Chainz, DJ Khaled, and many other artists released exclusive albums on either Apple Music or Tidal this year.

Those deals worked out well for artists (they got paid), streaming services (who acquired more subscribers), and labels (the streaming services paid for marketing), but when it came to the fans, exclusive releases became a burden. Despite the inconvenience for consumers, exclusives did help bring in more users and increased engagement for streaming services. Apple Music reached 20 million subscribers a few weeks ago, after just 18 months in the market. Tidal topped 3 million subscribers, which isn’t much compared to Apple or Spotify, but far more than most expected the service to attract. SoundCloud, Amazon, and Pandora entered an already crowded field, each announcing on-demand services to compete with the incumbents. And Spotify crossed the 100 million user mark in June and topped 40 million paying subscribers in September, cementing its spot as the biggest streaming service in the world without even participating in the exclusives game.

Exclusives also benefitted listeners in ways many didn’t expect. Garth Brooks, who has notoriously kept his music off streaming music platforms and iTunes for years, signed an exclusive deal with Amazon’s streaming service. Frank Ocean’s deal with Apple Music allowed him to release Blonde — after a very extended delay — independently, and reap the financial benefits. It also caused his old label Universal Music Group to ban exclusives — which could mark the beginning of the end for the music industry’s favorite trend, and allow listeners to stick with one streaming service going forward..

While 2016 may have been an inconvenient year for some music fans, right now it doesn’t seem like exclusives will be a permanent fixture in the music industry going forward. Yes, Drake’s relationship with Apple will continue and you can expect the next Beyoncé album to arrive on Tidal if it’s still around, but from all indications 2016 was the peak of exclusives. Now it’s time to settle in. — Micah Singleton

Verge 2016 Report Card: Streaming music

B-2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • More services, more users, more competition
  • Lower priced streaming offerings from Amazon and Pandora

Needs Improvement:

  • Less exclusives
  • UI improvements still needed for Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal

The Verge 2016 tech report cards: Cameras and gadgets

Two things immediately struck me when I walked onto the show floor at this year’s Photo Plus Expo. Nikon’s booth was all about the company’s new line of action cameras, including the one that shoots 360-degree photos and videos. Just across the way, Canon’s booth was covered in imagery of the M5, the company’s most serious attempt at making a mirrorless camera. These two companies put out fantastic flagship DSLRs in 2016 — Nikon with the D5, Canon with the 5D Mark IV — and yet here they were, showing off cameras that were decidedly not their moneymakers.

2016 wasn’t a revolutionary year for cameras, but there were signs of big changes on the horizon. The Nikon D500 showed us that there’s a better way to mix Bluetooth and Wi-Fi with Snapbridge, setting a shining example of how cameras are going to connect to our smartphones in the near future. Sony released the A6500 and the RX100 Mark V, cameras that are capable of shooting at such ludicrous speeds that they have the potential to change the way we fundamentally approach photography. Snap pivoted to being a “camera company” and released Spectacles, compelling camera glasses that are easy to use even if you don’t use Snapchat.

We also saw the release of the first reasonable 360-degree cameras for consumers. I don’t think anyone’s sure about the best places and times to use them, or when and how people want to watch 360-degree video. But Facebook and YouTube stepped up support for spherical content in a big way this year, and it looks like it could be a great bridge to virtual reality while we wait for that tech to get better, cheaper, and more accessible. In the VR space, this was the year we started to see the fruits of funky camera maker Lytro’s 2015 pivot into the space. The Lytro Cinema camera is the kind of tool that could push studios to rethink entire visual effects workflows, and Lytro’s impressive Immerge virtual reality camera made its way into the hands of filmmakers for the first time.

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And then there’s our smartphones, where cameras continue to get better. Google took a computational approach to photography with the Pixel phones, and found a way to make them better than the competition in low light. Apple went in the other direction and added more hardware to the iPhone 7 Plus in the form of a second camera unit. These kinds of advances are helping bridge the gap between phones and “real” cameras in ways that many people never thought were possible.

Photography has never been more accessible, and there has never been more ways to approach it. As a result, more people are taking more photos, and we also have more choices of where and how to share those images and videos. All of that is important for preserving memories, but it’s also important for documenting the things — good and bad — that happen around us. — Sean O’Kane

Verge 2016 Report Card: Cameras

B

2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • So many new ways to shoot photos and videos
  • Faster cameras and phones
  • Some great ideas that carry the industry forward in the coming years

Needs Improvement:

  • The biggest companies need to push innovation harder, not just iterate
  • More solutions for storing and sorting through photo files

The New York Times pronounced gadgets dead this year following Fitbit’s acquisition of Pebble, and the failure of other companies, like GoPro, to increase profit year-over-year. I later argued that, actually, they’re very much alive — just look at all the gadgets we want on Circuit Breaker. Smartphones can’t do everything.

We’ve seen new smartphones this year, but we’ve also witnessed a renaissance in Wi-Fi routers, a legion of crowdfunded gear, as well as big companies, like Google and Snap, refocusing on hardware. But overall, three words best represent gadgets in 2016: copycats, batteries, and hype.

The first: copycats. While I wouldn’t call 2016 the Year of the Crowdfunded Gadget, this year exposed crowdfunding’s inherent weaknesses. Gadgets proliferated in 2016 because anyone can throw a sensor in a device and call it “smart,” but gadget makers are hampering each other’s work by copying ideas and making products cheaper. There’s a great Quartz piece on this idea. Essentially, gadget makers who go to China to make their dream product often later find their exact device on the market before their crowdfunding campaign is even online. Gadgets exist but it’s becoming harder to make a living off selling them.

The other two storylines — batteries and hype — stem from arguably the two biggest stories of 2016: the Samsung Note 7 recall and Snap’s launch of Spectacles. The noteworthiness of these two gadgets varies greatly, but they both speak to larger trends. So let’s talk batteries. Oy, batteries. Where do we start?

Samsung’s Note 7 overheated and burned users, forcing the company to issue a recall. Second generation Boosted Boards’ batteries started smoking, which forced Boosted to recall the electric skateboards. GoPro’s Karma drones lost power during operation, forcing the company to recall them. Apple, you guess it, recalled certain iPhones 6S devices after they began unexpectedly shutting down, apparently due to batteries being exposed to “controlled ambient air.” Seriously, what’s up with batteries this year? Is it possible that in a quest for more power and longer life, gadget makers have neglected to go through proper safety testing? Or are we just at a tough point in batteries’ development and ultimately need a battery breakthrough?

Let’s move on to Spectacles. They might prove to be a blip on the grander gadget timeline, but for a brief while Spectacles took over entire cities and sent enterprising people out in search of a pair of $130 glasses equipped with a camera. They sold for high markups online. I know someone who waited 10 hours for a pair. Whether this demand was real remains to be seen. I definitely believe only people in the media, YouTube stars, and social media celebs bought the glasses, not regular humans.

While I’ve focused on some negatives of gadgets this year, that doesn’t mean there’s reason to lose hope. 2016 showed me that gadgets will live on, especially to fill voids left behind by smartphones. Remember: weed gadgets are coming. So are art gadgets. And robots, maybe! 2017 is going to be great. — Ashley Carman

Verge 2016 Report Card: Gadgets

B-2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • There were a lot of gadgets!
  • Hype showed us people are still willing to buy gadgets
  • Routers are back?

Needs Improvement:

  • Batteries, man
  • Let’s be original, though I do love a deal
  • Pebble got acquired
  • RIP headphone jack and ports

Evidence of Russian malware found on US electrical company laptop

A utilities company in Vermont has detected evidence of Russian malware, according to a report this evening from The Washington Post, which cited anonymous US officials. The code is said to be connected to a Russian hacking outfit the US government has named Grizzly Steppe.

According to the company, later revealed to be the Burlington Electric Department, the code linked to Grizzly Steppe was found on just one laptop, and the laptop wasn’t connected to the electrical grid — allaying earlier fears that Russia had hacked into the nation’s electrical grid. Owned by the city of Burlington, the utility firm confirmed the breach in a post on its Facebook page.

“The grid is not in danger,” Vermont Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia told the Burlington Free Press. “The utility flagged it, saw it, notified appropriate parties and isolated that one laptop with that malware on it.”

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation released their joint analysis report describing the Grizzly Steppe hacking campaign. The Department of Homeland Security also notified US utilities that they should be on the lookout for a specific malware code associated with Grizzly Steppe, according to Burlington Electric’s statement.

“We acted quickly to scan all computers in our system for the malware signature,” Mike Kanarick, Burlington Electric’s communications officer, said in the statement. “We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organization’s grid systems.” He adds that the company alerted federal officials immediately.

Green Mountain Power, another Vermont utilities company, also received a recent safety check from the Department of Homeland Security. The company told The Verge in a statement that it has not reported a security incident.

Today’s scare calls to mind similar accusations of alleged Russian incursions into state infrastructure. In December 2015, malicious cyber activity reportedly shut down the power grid in Kiev, Ukraine. The Ukrainian president has accused Russia of thousands of cyberattacks, according to The Washington Post.

Yesterday, President Obama expelled 35 Russian officials from the US — part of new sanctions against the country in response to their reported hacking campaign. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he would not retaliate against the sanctions, a move that President-elect Trump applauded in a Tweet today:

Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016

– Source: The Washington Post
– Source: Burlington Electric Department (Facebook)

Microsoft HoloLens could help you find your keys, and also stalk your every move

You know the trope in Sherlock-esque detective shows where some brilliant sleuth cracks a case by drawing on their nigh-photographic memory? Well, one of the most fascinating and terrifying things about augmented reality glasses is that they turn everybody into that sleuth — and as a new Microsoft patent filing shows, that can be used for things besides crime-solving. The recently published application covers a system that would let its HoloLens glasses track small items like car keys, stopping wearers from misplacing them. More broadly, the patent describes a system that can monitor the status of objects without any instructions from users, keeping tabs on anything that’s important to their lives.

The patent’s basic idea is pretty simple. HoloLens has outward-facing cameras that can make a spatial map of a room, and machine vision technology can identify or track specific objects in an image. So if, for example, you put your keys down on a table, HoloLens could hypothetically spot them through the camera and quietly note their position. When you’re about to leave the house, it could give you the keys’ last known location, even if they’ve since been covered up by a newspaper or slipped under a couch cushion.

This seems like a pretty inefficient way to find your keys today, or possibly ever. For one thing, you’d need to be consistently wearing smart glasses, which is currently staggeringly inconvenient. If you drop your keys somewhere without looking at them, the system might not register that they’ve moved. It’s not clear how much it would help if you slipped something in a coat pocket or bag and then carried it around, unless it’s got some very complex multi-location tracking. It’s not hard to slap a Bluetooth tracker on an item if you’re consistently losing it. And by the time we get to a future of 24/7 augmented reality, we may not have keys at all.

But what’s really interesting isn’t the idea of HoloLens tracking an object. It’s HoloLens learning what items matter to you and choosing what to follow, before you ever worry about losing something. To be clear, you could designate objects: one example has a traveler telling HoloLens to track their passport while abroad. In other cases, though, it could check to see how often you interact with an object, or when you move it around, and start tracking anything that hits a certain threshold.

Any object you pick up and carry to work every morning, for example, could be more important than the glass of orange juice you place on the table beforehand. If you pull an object out of your pocket at a restaurant, HoloLens could automatically warn you to grab it when you leave. This could even extend to things like checking your fridge to see if an item that’s usually present is absent or depleted, and reminding you to buy it when you enter a grocery store hours later.

This is where an augmented reality headset becomes truly transformative: instead of ticking off a checklist, it anticipates needs you didn’t realize you had. That’s also when it starts feeling a little scary. If multiple people are wearing headsets, the patent describes how data could be shared between them, so you could find your keys even if someone else has moved them. This is fairly innocuous, but it could also do something like alert an abusive spouse that their partner was leaving the house. Remember when a targeted advertising flyer reportedly revealed a girl’s pregnancy to her parents? Imagine what a company like Microsoft or Google could do with an all-seeing headset that finds patterns in your every move — or what law enforcement agencies could do with “metadata” that’s essentially an inventory of your life.

HoloLens obviously isn’t the only piece of tech that can track or reveal our secrets, and patents are often about as close to reality as a sci-fi novel. Even if Microsoft had such a system working, HoloLens is so limited and uncomfortable today that nobody’s going to be casually reading the morning paper in it. But it’s a particularly interesting manifestation of panoptic quantified-life tech, and one that it’s not hard to imagine cropping up again in the future — not just in patent filings.

iPhone manufacturer Foxconn plans to replace almost every human worker with robots

Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturing giant behind Apple’s iPhone and numerous other major electronics devices, aims to automate away a vast majority of its human employees, according to a report from DigiTimes. Dai Jia-peng, the general manager of Foxconn’s automation committee, says the company has a three-phase plan in place to automate its Chinese factories using software and in-house robotics units, known as Foxbots.

The first phase of Foxconn’s automation plans involve replacing the work that is either dangerous or involves repetitious labor humans are unwilling to do. The second phase involves improving efficiency by streamlining production lines to reduce the number of excess robots in use. The third and final phase involves automating entire factories, “with only a minimal number of workers assigned for production, logistics, testing, and inspection processes,” according to Jia-peng.

The slow and steady march of manufacturing automation has been in place at Foxconn for years. The company said last year that it had set a benchmark of 30 percent automation at its Chinese factories by 2020. The company can now produce around 10,000 Foxbots a year, Jia-peng says, all of which can be used to replace human labor. In March, Foxconn said it had automated away 60,000 jobs at one of its factories.

In the long term, robots are cheaper than human labor. However, the initial investment can be costly. It’s also difficult, expensive, and time consuming to program robots to perform multiple tasks, or to reprogram a robot to perform tasks outside its original function. That is why, in labor markets like China, human workers have thus far been cheaper than robots. To stay competitive though, Foxconn understands it will have to transition to automation.

Complicating the matter is the Chinese government, which has incentivized human employment in the country. In areas like Chengdu, Shenzhen, and Zhengzhou, local governments have doled out billions of dollars in bonuses, energy contracts, and public infrastructure to Foxconn to allow the company to expand. As of last year, Foxconn employed as many as 1.2 million people, making it one of the largest employers in the world. More than 1 million of those workers reside in China, often at elaborate, city-like campuses that house and feed employees.

In an in-depth report published yesterday, The New York Times detailed these government incentivizes for Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory, its largest and most capable plant that produces 500,000 iPhones a day and is known locally as “iPhone City.” According to Foxconn’s Jia-peng, the Zhengzhou factory has some production lines already at the second automation phase and on track to become fully automated in a few years’ time. So it may not be long before one of China’s largest employers will be forced to grapple with its automation ambitions and the benefits it receives to transform rural parts of the country into industrial powerhouses.

There is, however, a central side effect to automation that would specifically benefit a company like Foxconn. The manufacturer has been plagued by its sometimes abysmal worker conditions and a high rate of employee suicide. So much so in fact that Foxconn had to install suicide netting at factories throughout China and take measures to protect itself against employee litigation. By replacing humans with robots, Foxconn would relieve itself of any issues stemming from its treatment of workers without having to actually improve living and working conditions or increase wages. But in doing so, it will ultimately end up putting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people out of work.

– Via: MacRumors
– Source: DigiTimes

Noah Hits 240 Green Lights is a beautiful short film so I don’t really care if it’s fake

On December 6th, Uber driver Noah Forman claims he drove from Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem to Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan, then back up to 59th street, across to Second Avenue, and back downtown to the Bowery at Prince Street before hitting a single red light. That’s 240 green lights in a row, for a 27-minute nonstop drive through New York City at about 3:30 in the morning.

Forman told The New York Daily News that his personal best before that night was 186 green lights. All of these things seem nearly impossible — the 186 green lights, the 240 green lights, the decision to drive a car down Fifth Avenue during holiday tourist season, the decision to drive a car down Fifth Avenue given the fact that it is home to a president-elect who does not count his home city’s drivability among his very few concerns. Yet, here is a video (sped up!).

Is it real? I don’t know, and neither does the NYC Department of Transportation. A spokesperson told The Verge that the DOT “cannot attest to this video, given we are unsure of its accuracy.”

I don’t want to be a jerk, but I typed Noah’s route into Google Maps. Unfortunately, as the speed limit on both Fifth Avenue and Second Avenue is 25 miles per hour, I’m going to have to guess that Noah was speeding a little bit at times. That part of the possibly true story is not great, as it would be illegal.

But either way, the video is beautiful. Look at how many times something goes right. 240 times. Can you imagine 240 things going just the way you want, and all of them happen one right after the other? Oh my goodness! While watching “Noah Hits 240 Green Lights,” it is lovely to zoom past the Christmas lights of midtown Manhattan. The zooming is much better than having to trudge through a hoard of human beings so dense and unnavigable that you end up thinking “hmm what would happen if I were to just lie down and take a nap in the warmth of this leg forest?” It is nice, in my opinion, that there are no collisions in this film about a car — atypical for the “movies about cars” genre. I am happy.

Forman told The New York Daily News that he “could tell right from the beginning” that it was a perfect night to try for his record. He also said, “It seems like you go with where the lights take you,” which is a cheesy poetic phrase but not the worst I’ve heard. Honestly if he’s making all this up I don’t even care.

We can’t expect virtual reality to make us better people online

Last week, I got to chat with Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, one of the virtual reality gaming industry’s most prominent figures. Like many others, Sweeney believes that VR has the potential to transform how we interact online, especially as more sophisticated tracking systems translate body language, facial expressions, and other details into digital worlds. More specifically, he thinks virtual reality could make us treat each other better there. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly wrong — and if we wait for it to happen, I fear we’ll ruin social VR in the process.

During the interview, I asked Sweeney about how social VR would deal with the toxicity that multiplayer games and social networks already have had to address. “Both multiplayer games and online forums have this property of virtual anonymity. Other people can’t really see you, they don’t really know who you are. And so the sort of social moderating mechanisms in real life, and your desire not to offend people around you, don’t really adjust,” Sweeney told me. “Once your VR avatar really looks like you, and people can see you, and you can see them and their faces and emotions, I think all of the normal restraining mechanisms will kick in. If you insult somebody and you see that they have a sad look on their face, then you’re going to feel really, really bad about that. And you’re probably not going to do it again.”

At first glance, this sounds theoretically possible: if people are more civil in face-to-face conversation, maybe that means we need more virtual faces on the internet. Anecdotally, virtual reality developers have shifted away from photorealism because some players have found killing real-seeming people in VR disturbing. But there’s a gulf between a willingness to kill and a willingness to say nasty things, and even if a minority of people treat each other badly, that can ruin things for everyone else.

As anyone who’s been bullied, catcalled, or otherwise harassed in real life can attest, social restraining mechanisms don’t create a blanket aversion to “offending people.” They make everyone worry about offending people they see as part of their in-groupor people they could face punishment for bothering.

There are good reasons to make online communication more expressive. Being able to read someone’s emotions better is great if you’re already invested in having a decent conversation. It could make it easier to detect sarcasm, convey intimacy, or tell whether you’ve accidentally caused distress. It’s a worthy and interesting goal, and one that could transform how we interact online.

But saying that emotions will make you care about a person is totally backward. Online griefers, for instance, love seeing firsthand evidence that they’ve hurt someone. The platitude “don’t feed the trolls” has limits, but it accurately captures an important harassment dynamic: the more visible and agitated someone’s response, the more “exploitable” they are for future attacks. Outside virtual reality, games like Hearthstone and Splatoon were praised for removing — not expanding — the ability to communicate with other players. And the argument that VR has a unique empathy-generating power has its own set of problems.

The internet isn’t hostile because people there don’t look real enough — it’s not even clear that making internet users tie their actions to real-life identities helps that much, except insofar as it helps prosecutors literally put offenders in jail. Among other reasons, the internet is hostile because it puts a lot of disparate groups within arm’s reach of each other, and it’s extremely easy to deliver abuse with said proximity. The odds of suffering any external social consequences are vanishingly low, and they’re often offset by your own digital tribe’s approval — see, for example, the rise of “professional victimizers” and their legions of fans. Even if you assume that the majority of users are kind (or indifferent) to everyone they meet online, communications technology can vastly amplify a few bad voices. And the attempts to correct them through old-fashioned social shaming often backfire tremendously, simply creating a new cycle of abuse.

Harassment has already proved to be a problem in VR social networks and multiplayer experiences: one of the most famous incidents of 2016 involved an anonymous player grabbing his female partner’s virtual chest in an archery game. Saying that things will get better once we just have the right combination of sensors only inspires complacency. Why bother fixing something in the short term when you could chase a utopian dream instead?

Fortunately, this isn’t the approach I’ve seen most developers take. When QuiVR’s creators found out about the incident above, they instituted a personal space bubble that prevented unwanted touching, as well as a gesture that could totally erase another player from view. VR social network AltspaceVR introduced a similar bubble after people reported harassment on the platform. These technological solutions aren’t a silver bullet; you also need strong social norms and moderation. But they’re a kind of infrastructure that empowers good citizens and makes trolls’ lives harder.

The sheer scale of the digital world can make it feel more dangerous than the “real” one, both inside and outside VR. But the internet can also provide spaces to engage with people you would never meet offline, safe from threats of physical force or economic pressure. The best communities have thrived by giving users control over what they can share, letting them choose who to interact with, and consistently kicking out people who break the rules — not by waiting for some final, perfect method of communication.

DirecTV Now’s $35, 100-channel plan will jump to $60 on January 9th

DirecTV Now’s limited-time introductory $35-per-month subscription deal is going away early next month. AT&T’s website confirms that the “Go Big” package of over 100 channels will switch to its normal $60 monthly cost starting January 9th.

If you’re at all interested in the streaming TV service, you should sign up before that date — otherwise you’ll miss out on the promotional price. If you do start a DirecTV Now subscription by the 9th, you’ll be able to continue paying that $35 each month without being switched to the more expensive subscription plan. Once the limited offer ends, there will still be a $35 plan, but with significantly fewer channels:

AT&T has said that anyone who subscribes to the $35 promotion will be locked in at that price. But for how long? That part’s unclear. The DirecTV Now website plainly states that this “offer rate may increase,” and AT&T executives have already admitted that the service’s pricing structure is likely to rise in the future to account for the costs of signing deals with cable channels. Oh, and those channels might go away with little or no notice — something PlayStation Vue customers are now familiar with. Yeah, some people might just be better off sticking with traditional cable.

But we’ve found DirecTV Now, in its currently early incarnation, to be a decent bargain for the $35 / 100 channels price. I’d seriously hesitate to pay more than that at this stage, as I’ve been getting emails from some customers upset over bugs, streaming issues, and other viewing problems in the weeks since the service publicly launched. If you want to see how things fare for you, you can sign up for an entire free month using this promo code over at Slickdeals. Normally the free trial is limited to one week, but this gets you more time and in on that temporary $35 pricing before it’s gone.

Teens are vaping more than ever, and not just nicotine

Vaping is more popular with teens than ever, with more than one-third of high school students reporting having tried e-cigarettes. And teens aren’t always using e-cigs for nicotine, according to a new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that dug into teen vaping behavior.

To evaluate e-cig use, the CDC and the US Food and Drug Administration poured through surveys filled out by 17,000 middle and high school students across the US in 2015. About 38 percent of high school students and 13 percent of middle school students reported that they’ve tried e-cigarettes. That could be an underestimate, too, since the students were reporting their own behavior, and surveys based on self-reports are known to be unreliable.

The CDC is interested in vaping is because we still don’t know exactly how using e-cigarettes could affect a teen’s development. A medical group in the UK lauded e-cigs as useful tools to help current smokers quit, but the CDC said in a statement there’s no evidence that they work. What’s more, e-cig use during adolescence could kickstart an addiction, and the US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warns that nicotine in any form is unsafe for teenagers. Still, more than 3 million teens used e-cigs in 2015, a tenfold increase over four years that Murthy called a public health crisis. But to stop it, the CDC has to understand it better.

In today’s report, one-third of e-cigarette users reported using their devices for something other than nicotine. This was more common for male white and Hispanic students than non-Hispanic black students. The survey didn’t get into what exactly the students were using their vape pens for, if not nicotine. But other studies point to pot as the most likely substance.

More than half of the e-cig users stuck to reusable electronic cigarettes — the ones you can refill with new liquid nicotine cartridges — as opposed to the disposable kind. Although most of the students didn’t know what brand they were using, the ones who did used blu and VUSE most frequently.

Both of these brands are owned by big tobacco companies, and are among the most heavily advertised. Millions of teens are exposed to ads for e-cigarettes online and in stores. These ads take a leaf out of big-tobacco’s book, promising independence and sex appeal to manipulate people into buying. And they work: more exposure to e-cig advertisements corresponds with more e-cig use in young adults, according to previous CDC research.

The CDC has repeatedly called for restricting e-cig marketing, but they have no control over advertisements. But regulation of the devices is growing; just this year, the FDA ruled that e-cigarettes and vape pens fall under the regulatory umbrella of tobacco products, which means the agency can ban sales to people under 18. We’ll see if the numbers of teenage users drop when the CDC analyzes the data from 2016.