Expeditions AR brings volcanoes and DNA molecules to the classroom

OnTheGo

Google’s popular education-focused Expeditions program has allowed over two million students to immerse themselves in new environments and get a close look at monuments and other items of interest using the Cardboard VR headsets. Now the program is moving from virtual to augmented reality.

Expeditions AR uses Tango-compatible smartphones like the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro to put the study subjects directly in the classroom.

Launching this fall through Google’s Pioneer Program, users will be able to point their AR-ready devices at specific points in the classroom and find volcanoes, the Statue of David, DNA molecules, and more awaiting them. The objects are fully interactive; Google’s demo video shows a volcano erupting, billowing out smoke and lava.

Much like the original Expeditions for VR, Expeditions AR looks to be an exciting new project that will undoubtedly get students more excited​and involved in their studies.

Source: 9to5google.com

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AI-powered diagnostic device takes out Tricorder XPrize

OnTheGo

Launched in 2012, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize tasked competing teams with developing a portable and versatile medical diagnostics machine that would give people “unprecedented access” to information about their health. The contest has now been run and won, with an AI-powered device awarded top honors and US$2.5 million for its trouble.

This particular XPrize – a series of competitions aimed at solving global issues – was created to encourage the development of a device that mimicked the iconic Tricorder from Star Trek. More specifically, this meant the ability to diagnose 13 conditions including anemia, diabetes, sleep apnea and urinary tract infections, along with the ability to detect three of five additional diseases: HIV, hypertension, melanoma, shingles and strep throat.

The competition was whittled down to ten finalists in 2014, and then again to two in December last year. The Taiwan-based Dynamical Biomarkers Group took second place with its prototype for a smartphone-based diagnostics device, but was beaten out by Final Frontier Medical Devices from Pennsylvania.

The winning machine is called DxtER and uses artificial intelligence to teach itself to diagnose medical conditions. It does this by using a set of non-invasive sensors to check vital signs, body chemistry and biological functions and draws on data from clinical emergency medicine and actual patients. All this data is then synthesized by the AI engine and the device spits out a “quick and accurate assessment.”

In addition to the $2.5 million, the Final Frontier and Dynamical Biomarkers Group teams (which received a not-too-shabby $1 million for second place) will benefit from ongoing support and funding from XPrize and its partners. This includes R&D partnerships with the US Food and Drug Administration and the University of California San Diego. Meanwhile, Lowe’s Home Improvements has committed to distributing a consumer-ready version of the device, while the General Hospital of Maputo in Mozambique will provide it to its doctors, nurses and patients.

“We could not be more pleased with the quality of innovation and performance of the teams who competed, particularly with teams Final Frontier and Dynamical Biomarkers Group,” said Marcus Shingles, CEO of the XPrize Foundation. “Although this XPrize competition phase has ended, XPrize, Qualcomm Foundation, and a network of strategic partners are committed and excited to now be entering a new phase which will support these teams in their attempt to scale impact and the continued evolution of the Tricorder device through a series of new post-competition initiatives.”

Source: Newatlas.com

Frozen phone? Cosmic rays could be to blame

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Next time your smartphone freezes, think twice before cursing the shoddy workmanship of the phone manufacturer under your breath. The culprit might actually be the cosmic rays that are constantly raining down on us from outer space and can mess with the integrated circuits in electronic devices. A new study by Vanderbilt University has examined how modern consumer electronics are becoming more vulnerable to cosmic interference, and suggested ways for manufacturers to build better chips.

Thought to be produced by supernovae, cosmic rays are particles that travel through space at close to the speed of light, and they can be dangerous to humans and electronics alike. While the Earth’s electromagnetic field shields us from the worst of the damage, astronauts in orbit or, eventually, journeying to Mars, can soak up unhealthy amounts of radiation fairly quickly. Likewise, satellites and probes need to carry proper shielding to protect their delicate electronics from failure.

Here on Earth, oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere break these cosmic rays down into other secondary particles, like neutrons, pions, positrons and muons. We’re being showered in these lighter particles every second of the day, and although they’re harmless to living organisms, they can interfere with electronic systems. Granted, a quick reboot can usually fix the problem, but unfortunately, the more advanced a computer system is, the more susceptible it is to failure by cosmic rays.

“The semiconductor manufacturers are very concerned about this problem because it is getting more serious as the size of the transistors in computer chips shrink and the power and capacity of our digital systems increase,” says Bharat Bhuva, a professor and member of Vanderbilt University’s Radiation Effects Research Group. “In addition, microelectronic circuits are everywhere and our society is becoming increasingly dependent on them.”

Some of these particles have enough energy to actually alter individual bits of data in an electronic system, switching it from a zero to a one (or vice versa) in a process called a “bit flip.” While it might sound too small to be a problem, the effects can be catastrophic: Bhuva illustrated the point with the example of a Belgian voting machine in 2003, where a bit flip resulted in over 4,000 erroneous votes. In 2008, the autopilot system in a Qantas A330 failed, causing the plane to buck and dive, injuring 119 people on board. Although it’s hard to determine exactly what caused a given bit flip, cosmic rays were suspected in both incidents.

“When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes,” says Bhuva. “It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes.”

So the Vanderbilt team tested the rate that several generations of transistors would fail as a result of a single-event upset (SEU), or a bit flip caused by cosmic rays. By blasting samples of these chips with a neutron beam, the researchers measured how many failures occurred, and found that overall, that number is growing with each generation.

First, the “good” news: individual transistors are much less likely to experience an SEU now than ever. That’s probably because they’re shrinking with each generation, making them smaller physical targets for particles to strike. And since they’re now made in a three dimensional architecture, the chips are also much hardier against SEUs.

But the problem is that modern devices contain billions of transistors, and each one also requires a smaller electrical charge to make up each bit of information. All factors considered, devices at the system level are increasingly vulnerable to cosmic ray-induced failures.

“Our study confirms that this is a serious and growing problem,” says Bhuva.”This did not come as a surprise. Through our research on radiation effects on electronic circuits developed for military and space applications, we have been anticipating such effects on electronic systems operating in the terrestrial environment.”

Bhuva pointed out that industries like aviation, IT, transportation, spacecraft, communications, power and medical technology are addressing the problem in their devices, but so far consumer electronics have been lagging behind. Shielding isn’t practical in everyday devices, but steps can be taken at the design level, by building in redundancy measures.

“The probability that SEUs will occur in two of the circuits at the same time is vanishingly small,” says Bhuva. “So if two circuits produce the same result it should be correct.”

Bhuva presented the Vanderbilt team’s findings at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting last week.

Source: Vanderbilt University

What the Nokia 3310 had that smartphones don’t

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The Nokia 3310 – one of the most popular cell phones in the world just after the turn of the millennium (along with its variations) – is having a surprising resurgence in popularity, amidst reliable rumors that Nokia will re-introduce a modernized version of the phone at the Mobile World Congress later this month.

However, all signs point to the reiteration being a “dumb” phone, that is, the kind of brick we were all sporting before the iPhone ushered in the smartphone era. That makes the rumored reintroduction the stuff of clickbait, a flash-in-the-pan indulgence of nostalgia that should get people talking, but not much else. The rumored going rate for the new generation is only 59 Euro; the source speculates that it will be hawked as a second phone.

It sounds like a tough sell, even for nostalgic mobile enthusiasts. There are a number of mobile and desktop solutions that can fulfill the need for a second phone, if indeed you ever encounter it. Instead, we wish that smartphone manufacturers (Nokia included) would take a cue from the traits that made the trusty little bricks endure so long in the public memory. Here are the Y2K-era selling points we’d like to see come to smartphones.

Indestructibility
The original Nokia 3310’s indestructibility is the stuff of legend (not to mention memes). On the other hand, it would be a foolhardy move to rock a smartphone without a case.

Yes, we appreciate the recent trend toward increased water resistance and incrementally tougher builds, but that’s not enough. Now that smartphone ownership is nearly a given, the industry isn’t cutting consumers any deals. Not only must we pay for more expensive phones, we have to pay for the data plans and the third-party accessories to go with it. We’d be thrilled if more smartphones were capable of surviving impacts and drops without additional protection.

Terrific battery life
The Nokia 3310’s 900 mAh battery is dwarfed by the 3,000 mAh+ powerhouses seen in today’s flagships, but its overall life (up to 4.5 hours of talk time, or 260 hours of standby) was impressive for its time, especially considering that phones did a lot more standby time back then. The phones seemed to last forever between charges.

It seems that today’s leading manufacturers are prioritizing charging tricks over battery duration, and that’s a questionable strategy. Fast and wireless charging are often billed as attractions, but does it matter how a phone is charged if you only need to do so every few days?

We know battery life can be added without deal-breaking bulk. Accessory makers are dreaming up ever-thinner battery cases that can double the life of a phone while adding only millimeters of thickness. That kind of built-in capacity would be quite welcome.

No beauty contest required
Don’t get us wrong: We’re not about to condemn the gorgeousness of ever-shrinking bezels or a slim, sexy smartphone. But not everybody needs or appreciates that aesthetic. When you consider that many flagships have only minor differences in build details, and that they’re usually stuffed into a case anyway, cutting-edge appearance doesn’t hold much value.

In practice, “good looks” in a smartphone means adhering to the established thin/light/unibody standard. For those who don’t want to pay a premium for incremental improvements in those departments, there aren’t many choices.
If a halfway-decent looking phone was released with an abundance of user-friendly details, we could easily overlook its lack of a supermodel status. (For what it’s worth, we think the Google Pixel and Pixel XL flirt with this “performance over presence” concept.)

The original Nokia 3310 fits that description well. It didn’t look super-futuristic and its bar-style build wasn’t ogled like its slim flip phone counterparts, but its no-nonsense style and optional personalization make it look equally at home in a teenager’s purse or a businessman’s briefcase.

Simple pleasures
Snake 2, a customizable screen saver, optional modular face and back plates, compose-your-own ringtones: These bells and whistles are humble, but they made users feel like part of a club. Those little pleasures are a big factor in today’s Nokia nostalgia.

Modernized versions of these pleasantries could take any number of understated, achievable forms. One current example is the Google Pixel’s cat-themed Easter egg, but the blue chat bubbles that iOS users see when they hold an iMessage conversation could also fit the bill.

We feel these personal touches help the user feel welcomed and appreciated. It seems like back then, manufacturer egos took a backseat to customer satisfaction (another sea change we can credit to the iPhone). Nowadays, even high-value offerings like the OnePlus 3T are emblazoned with aggressive branding – “Never Settle”, its stock wallpaper proclaims.

In summary – good value and customer appreciation
Yes, super-sophisticated builds, the latest operating systems, and cutting-edge performance are important to some mobile buyers. But if you want value – a phone that works well without insisting on its own greatness – there really aren’t many options.

The Nokia 3310 is remembered fondly because it occupied a sweet spot between capability and affordability. If a comparably-situated smartphone hit the market, it could inspire some powerful brand loyalty. But somehow, we don’t think egos the size of Apple’s are going to listen.

Source: New Atlas magazine

Smartwatch-based signature verification is all in the wrist

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Despite advances in biometric identification technologies, such as fingerprint, eye and facial recognition, the humble handwritten signature is still the most commonly used form of biometric used to verify someone’s identity. Researchers have developed software that blends the old and the new by leveraging the motion detection capabilities of a smartwatch to verify a signature as it is written.

While dedicated hardware, such as digital pads or special electronic pens, has dragged the signature into the digital age, these systems can be cumbersome and expensive. New software, developed by researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, uses motion data captured by a smartwatch as the wearer scribbles their John Hancock to confirm the veracity of said signature.

The motion data captured during the signing process comes courtesy of the smartwatch’s accelerometer or gyroscope, which produces what the researchers say is a unique identifier that allows the signature to be classified as genuine or a forgery.

“Using a wrist-worn device such as a smartwatch or a fitness tracker bears obvious advantages over other wearable devices, since it measures the gestures of the entire wrist rather than a single finger or an arm,” says study co-author Dr. Erez Shmueli of TAU’s Department of Industrial Engineering. “While several other recent studies have examined the option of using motion data to identify users, this is its first application to verify handwritten signatures – still a requirement at the bank, the post office, your human resources department, etc.”

To test the accuracy of the system, the researchers enrolled the services of 66 TAU undergraduate students. With all of them wearing smartwatches, they each provided 15 signature samples on a tablet using a digital stylus. The students then watched video of people signing their signature and were tasked with forging five of those signatures after having time to practice and being rewarded for “exceptional forgeries.”

Despite the researchers reporting the verification software achieved an “extremely high level” of accuracy in detecting forgeries, they admit there is a major downside to this approach – the fact that most people (66 percent according to a recent survey cited by the researchers) wear a watch on their non-dominant hand. This means that the majority of people would need to swap the smartwatch to their dominant hand when signing their signature, significantly affecting the user friendliness of the system.

However, the team has applied for a patent with plans to eventually commercialize the technology. But before then, they are looking to improve upon it.

“Next we plan to compare our approach with existing state-of-the-art methods for offline and online signature verification,” said Dr. Shmueli. “We would also like to investigate the option of combining data extracted from the wearable device with data collected from a tablet device to achieve even higher verification accuracy.”

Source: TAU

The Fairphone 2 is an ethical smartphone with a modular build

You might remember the original Fairphone from back in 2013 – at first glance it looks like any other smartphone, but read the small print and you’ll find a device built with an emphasis on responsibly sourced materials, and made by fairly paid workers. It’s been a couple of years since the original device broke cover, and the company is back to address those aging specs (and to reaffirm its mission statement) with the Fairphone 2.

Running on Android 5.1 Lollipop, the Fairphone 2 is powered by a Snapdragon 801, with 2 GB RAM and 32 GB internal storage, plus a microSD slot for expansion. The 5-inch panel has 1,920 x 1,080 resolution (about 441 PPI), and there’s LTE connectivity on board as well as dual SIM card slots. That’s a big jump up over the original 2013 handset, but these still aren’t quite top-shelf specs, sitting roughly in line with what we’d expect from an early 2014 flagship.

Of course the Fairphone 2 isn’t just about the specs, as like its predecessor it does its best to earn its name. For starters, the device itself is designed in a modular manner, so it’s easy for the user to take it apart and repair themselves (check out the video at the bottom to see this in action).

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The back cover is also built to wrap around the front edge of the display, acting as a protective case, making it perhaps a bit less likely that you’ll drop and destroy your handset.

The project’s goal is to make supply chains more transparent, attempting to trace the exact origin of all raw materials used. At present, you can see which suppliers individual components have been sourced from, as well as estimated manufacturing locations.

The company uses as many minerals as possible from responsible sources within conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The idea is to contribute to ethical practices in areas where the opposite is the norm.

Worker welfare is also a priority, with a contribution from every device sold going into a fund at the factory in Suzhou, China. That money will be used to help train the workers to better represent themselves, teaching skills for expressing concerns about working conditions and negotiating with management, as well as for projects suggested by the workers themselves.

It’s also about better communication with consumers about where their money is going, with users able to view a detailed breakdown of the costs involved in making each unit. You can see exactly where the money has been spent, with 65 percent of the retail price going into physically building each handset.

Aside from its modular nature, there might not be anything too exciting about the Fairphone 2 hardware, but there’s a lot to like about what the company is doing behind the scenes.

The Fairphone 2 is available for pre-order in the Europe for €525 (US$585), and is expected to ship in November. You can check out the video below for a look at the device’s modular nature.

Source: Fairphone

HandyCase lets users operate mobile devices from both sides

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Despite the rapid advancement of smartphones and tablets, accessory makers continually find new ways to enhance the mobile device experience. No longer are cases and covers just for rugged protection, as many provide additional features on top of that. Handscape is set to change how people interact with devices. The company’s HandyCase is designed to let users operate touchscreens with fingers set behind the device.

Like most mobile cases, the HandyCase is form-fitted to attach directly to the back of smartphones and tablets. But what’s special about the HandyCase’s design is the way it enables devices to “see through” the hardware. Fingers making contact with the case are registered as if they touched the screen itself. Users can maintain a full, two-handed grip on a tablet and operate it comfortably without hands obscuring content.

The HandyCase’s patented technology communicates the touch of fingers to one or more devices via Bluetooth. Unlike camera or infrared systems, the HandyCase works in any type of lighting conditions. The flexible, high-resolution sensor is designed to provide stable touch-interaction with up to 10 registered contact points. And since the HandyCase’s functionality is in addition to devices’ normal screen operation, users benefit by having a greater range of ergonomic comfort versus control.

While the HandyCase may be able to “see through” devices, human eyes are stuck with traditional, non-x-ray vision. The Handscape mobile app supports a number of applications while providing an underlay of visible fingers. The current options to choose from are human hands, x-ray hands, and robot hands, with more expected to be developed.

The Handscape HandyCase is currently funding on Kickstarter, having reached 24 percent of its US$100,000 goal in just a day, with another 45 days to go. The HandyCase is available for the iPhone 6/6+, iPad Mini, and iPad Air in choice of neon green, pink, gold, and silver. Pledges start at $99, which includes the cost of worldwide shipping. Developers can get their hands on a HandyCase and the Handscape SDK for iOS for a pledge of $999.

If tooling, testing, and production go according to plan, backers can expect to receive deliveries of HandyCases sometime in April, 2016. Check out the video below for feature highlights.

Sources: Handscape, Kickstarter