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Look Over Here, Kids, It’s the Metaverse

Look Over Here, Kids, It’s the Metaverse

Facebook may be mired in scandals at present, but today it attempted to shift the public’s attention towards the future—specifically, a future built around an even more ever-present Facebook.

At the company’s annual developer’s conference today, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew Bosworth, the head of the company’s Reality Labs unit, laid out a broader vision for the “metaverse.” To fuel its next chapter, Facebook announced a series of updates to its Oculus VR and Spark AR platforms, part of an effort to entice developers to build more applications and features for Facebook’s metaverse. Zuckerberg also revealed that the company would be renamed Meta, emphasizing his virtual reality vision for the future.

“The next [internet] platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” Zuckerberg said during the virtual presentation. He went on to say that in the metaverse, people will get together with friends and family to work, learn, shop, and play—things that people can obviously do today using 2D, flat screens like our laptops and smartphones, but that Facebook’s (Meta’s) vision of the metaverse goes beyond the way we’re experiencing things today.

For Facebook, building out the metaverse is just the next move in a years-long land grab for our online attention. For critics of the company, though, there might not be anything more alarming than the idea of Facebook becoming synonymous with the next big phase of the internet, particularly as it grapples with both privacy and content moderation problems around the globe.

And Facebook staking its claim in the metaverse also raises questions about how open this next iteration of the internet may be; even as Facebook calls out other tech companies like Apple for their closed ecosystems, the social media company continues to show off experiences that are exclusive to its own Oculus virtual reality devices.

The Meta Deets

Person using AR interactive UI

Scrolling through the metaverse.

Courtesy of Meta

Zuckerberg, Bosworth, and a virtual parade of Facebook Reality Labs executives constructed a loose vision of the metaverse today, highlighting different elements—from app platforms to hand-gesture technology to prototypes of VR headsets and AR glasses—that will, they say, all eventually come together to create a new form of digital presence. This included an expansion of the Horizon Workrooms app, a kind of VR version of Zoom that Facebook demoed in August; a more social version of “Home” in the Oculus Quest VR headset, for interactions with friends in VR; some enhanced fitness features for the Oculus Quest; and support for some non-3D apps in Facebook’s virtual environments. The 2D app support is particularly noteworthy, though it’s hard to say how useful these apps will be until they’re widely available. But the idea is that even if you’re wearing a VR headset to collaborate with remote coworkers, you won’t have to take it off to check Slack (or Instagram, if you’re slacking off). These apps will run as flat panels within the virtual environment.

Climate Stress Was Getting Me Down, So I Made a Clicker Game

Climate Stress Was Getting Me Down, So I Made a Clicker Game

On cue, a flood came. We had prepared with long plastic gutter extenders that snaked away from the house, but water seeped into the basement anyway. I have a small piece of Wi-Fi-connected wall art that shows in colored LEDs where all the trains are in New York City. We watched as line after line went dark. Then we spent a long night rescuing storage boxes and bailing puddles with a takeout container. When the water wasn’t burbling in, we checked Twitter, where you could see the storm in parallel—subway waterfalls, sink geysers, hallway creeks. There was a picture of someone trying to deliver food on a bike in waist-deep water. It all felt very cyberpunk: plastic tendrils coming off the house, social media threading the crisis in real time, gig workers directed into peril by the apps that control their lives, streets turned to liquid. But of course the sun came up.

We wandered around, groggy. Our next-door neighbor said he’d been here 20 years and had never seen this before, which made it a once-in-two-decades kind of event. No one had a sump pump. My shrink, who used to own a house a block away, said he could remember a big flood in the neighborhood maybe 30 or 35 years ago. Could have been longer. So: a three-times-a-century event. (Of course probability doesn’t work like that; I was just trying to figure out how weird things might be getting.)

My shrink makes me repeat, many times a day: I will remain calm no matter what. And No matter what happens, I can handle it. And I will broaden my expectations. That’s his whole thing. Stuff happens, remain calm, handle it. I started seeing him because I was yelling at my kids about stupid stuff (I’ve stopped, mostly), but it’s not a bad approach for floods, either. We did stay calm under (hydrostatic) pressure. Another flood will surely come, though, which means it’s time to broaden our expectations.

My wife and I accomplish this through shared spreadsheets. There’s a lot to do—for example, I threw away the basement couch when it sprouted mushrooms—but most of the work reduces to the universal unit of home care: the Guy. Gutter guy, floor guy, roof guy, and plumber (there the “guy” is silent). They assume I’m also a guy, but it’s my wife who works in construction, so I hide upstairs when they arrive. Later she comes up and draws diagrams on an epaper tablet to explain what’s going to happen. I nod and say simple words as questions, like “Pipes?” or “Sewer?” That is our love language.

The spreadsheets are fine for dealing with our basement, but I don’t think they’ll scale to every basement on Earth. And because, like so many people, I’m obsessing over climate change, I’ve been looking for software tools that will help all of us plan. A friend recommended Temperate, which seems fine—let’s call it a “climate mitigation wizard” for communities, to make sure you’ve thought about flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, and wildfires. I messed around with the free trial, but I’m not a community. Then I read through toolkit.climate.gov. The problem there is that the government offers around 500 “tools”—some websites, some PDFs—ranging from shareable sunscreen memes to calculators that tell you the pathogen risk at your local beach. It’s like browsing the pamphlets in a health clinic. I did find some helpful checklists, but I am not a coastal wetland (yet), so they weren’t as useful as they could have been.

The Pixel 6 Chip’s Best Upgrade Isn’t Speed. It’s Security

The Pixel 6 Chip’s Best Upgrade Isn’t Speed. It’s Security

Google’s new flagship Pixel 6 and 6 Pro smartphones have gotten solid reviews so far, thanks in part to the custom Tensor processor inside. Google designed the “system on a chip” in-house, giving it a speed and efficiency advantage similar to what Apple enjoys with its homegrown silicon. And while there’s a lot to admire in the snappy performance and all-day battery life, Tensor offers another, less touted benefit: security.

Google’s not alone in its push to make its own smartphone chips, a trend that has built across the industry over the past several years. By controlling every layer—hardware, firmware, and software—companies don’t need to rely on the wherewithal of outside partners. As a result, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro take some big steps, like guaranteeing security updates for five years, up from an industry standard three years. (Apple typically supports old iPhones for up to seven years, but it doesn’t make promises up front.)

Some of the biggest security and privacy benefits on Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are less obvious, though, and relate to how Tensor and Google’s additional Titan M2 security chip work to silo and defend sensitive data. Adding new transparency features and security protections from Android 12 on top of that, the Pixel team says its goal was to make the cost of hacking the 6 and 6 Pro as high as possible for attackers.

“It doesn’t mean there are no bugs ever, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to hack, but the cost keeps rising,” says Dave Kleidermacher, vice president of engineering for Android security and privacy. “I think it’s becoming more and more clear that the open source strategy is the winning strategy.” 

That strategy is in contrast to Apple’s closed iOS ecosystem, which has certainly had its security struggles in recent years. Then again, Android has as well, and it deals with the additional hurdle of manufacturers offering their own versions of the operating system on their hardware—meaning not all security and privacy updates make it to every device in a timely manner, if at all.

The Pixel 6 and 6 Plus have all the goods, though. Tensor is based on ARM technology and uses that company’s isolation architecture, TrustZone, as one way to cordon off sensitive data and computations. But Tensor also offers an isolated, open source sandbox known as Private Compute Core that uses special data analysis techniques to power Android features like Live Caption and Smart Reply suggestions without storing or sharing any data with Google. The goal is to offer customized features without your identifying data ever leaving your devices. On the Pixel 6 and 6 Plus, both TrustZone and Private Compute Core run a specialized, secure, open source Google operating system known as Trusty OS.

And the secure processing fun doesn’t stop there. Tensor also has a dedicated physical area, Tensor Security Core, that communicates with the Titan M2 chip to protect vital processes like secure boot. Titan M2 is a totally separate custom chip that now has more memory, more storage, and more robust cryptography engines for things like encryption key management and biometric authentication.

iOS 15 Is Here. Here Are All the Top New Features

iOS 15 Is Here. Here Are All the Top New Features

You’ll still be able to access all your apps via the App Library, or you can turn the “Focus” off at any moment. Uniquely, your friends and family can see if you’re in a Focus if you don’t want to be disturbed via the Messages app, but a Status API will allow any messaging app to implement this functionality.  

Live Text, Photo Memories, and Better Safari

Apple's Photo Memories and Live Text features

Live Text recognizes written words in photos, making them selectable and searchable.

Photograph: Apple

One of the coolest features in iOS 15 is Live Text, and it’s tied to upgrades in Apple’s computer vision technology. Point your camera app at anything with text, and you’ll see a text icon on the bottom right. That’ll let you highlight the text so you can easily copy and paste it to another app. This works for images with text in your Photos library too—just tap the same text icon on the bottom right. If there’s a phone number in the photo or an address, Live Text will turn it into a link so you can tap it. Phone numbers seamlessly launch in the phone dialer and the address opens in Maps.

Perhaps a little stranger is an integration between Apple Music and the Photos app. When you open the Photos app and go to the For You tab, you’ll be greeted with a new version of Memories—this feature automatically generates a mini-movie of specific trips or events and automatically chooses a relevant song from Apple Music (but only if you have a subscription to the music service). You can customize the movie as you view it by changing up the pace, switching songs, changing filters, or swapping images. It’s not far off from a Google Photos feature introduced in 2018, but Apple gives you far greater control with music integration here.    

Safari is now easier to use with one hand. The URL bar is now situated on the bottom, and it hides away when you scroll to maximize your screen’s real estate. You’ll notice Safari looks a lot more similar to the interface on macOS or your iPad on the new tab page—there’s your favorite websites, reading list, and content shared with you.  You can swipe through tabs easily and group them together. And finally, for the first time, Safari extensions are coming to iOS. These are available through the App Store, though don’t expect every single extension you use on a computer to be present just yet.

SharePlay

Courtesy of Apple

With SharePlay in iOS 15.1, you’ll be able to share movies, music, Fitness+ workout, and your screen with anyone you’re FaceTiming with. Want to listen to a new album with your friend in sync at the same time? You can bring in tunes from Apple Music. Maybe you want to watch a movie with your long-distance partner while video chatting? Easy. You can AirPlay the movie to your TV at the same time to watch it on the big screen. 

Apple says any other developer with a content streaming app will be able to add support, though services like Disney+, HBOMax, ESPN+, and TikTok are already on board. The implementation gives a lot of control to the developer. For example, if both video call users are trying to stream a movie on Disney+, Disney could allow the other user to sign up for a free trial, allow one free movie to stream via SharePlay a month to anyone, or block access completely if neither party has an account. It’s the developer’s choice.

Improved Maps

Photograph: Apple

Speaking of travel, the improved version of Apple Maps the company introduced last year is now rolling out to four new countries: Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia. Apple’s map data is getting even more detailed in iOS 15. You’ll find more street-level details in commercial districts, elevation information in cities, as well as custom designs for landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. When driving, Maps will now show highway interchanges in 3D so you have a better idea of exactly which lane you need to be on. These features are coming to CarPlay later in 2021, too. 

If you ride public transit, Maps will tell you when to get off, and if you don’t know which way to head once off the bus or outside the subway station, just point your phone at the buildings in front of you to have Apple’s augmented reality point the way. It’s similar to AR Live View in Google Maps.

Shared With You

Shared With You on iOS apple phone
Photograph: Apple

Select items your friends share in Messages now sit in a new “Shared With You” section in certain apps. For example, if someone shares several photos of a trip you were a part of, these images will reside in the new Shared With You section in the Photos app. If you are sent a news article, you can find it in a Shared With You section in Apple News. The idea is to give you another opportunity to see what your friends and family members sent, in case you didn’t have time to look at it earlier. New Shared With You sections are available in Apple Photos, News, Podcasts, Safari, TV, and Music.

Spotlight

spotlight on iOS on apple phone
Photograph: Apple

When you use Spotlight, the search bar that pops up when you swipe down on the home screen, you’ll notice a fresh design with more details when you search for contacts, celebrities, and movies. Plus you can search for your photos through it and use it to install new apps. You can now easily access it right from the Lock Screen too, by simply swiping down on the display.

Health App

With Apple’s Health App, you can now share your health data with family members or caregivers. That way, they can easily keep an eye on metrics and receive notifications for any unusual trends over time. There’s also a new Walking Steadiness metric that routinely analyzes your fall risk. 

You can store your Covid-19 test results and vaccination records in the app, too. If the specific medical location or vaccine provider doesn’t support this feature, you can download the record using a QR code or browser and store it in the Health app to access whenever. If you have successfully added your vaccination record, the app can now create a vaccination card in the Wallet app, so you can easily flash it before entering businesses or a restaurant. 

iCloud+

This new service is available to anyone who subscribes to iCloud already with no changes in pricing. It adds the ability for you to generate one-off burner emails when you’re signing up for a service on the web; expands HomeKit Secure Video support; and adds a feature called iCloud Private Relay (currently available in beta with a final version coming later), which encrypts all the internet traffic leaving your device so that no one can view your data, somewhat like a virtual private network.

Other New Features

Courtesy of Apple

There are tons of other features in iOS 15. Here are a few more that stand out. 

  • ProRes Video: If you have an iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max, iOS 15.1 added the ability to record ProRes video, which you can turn on by heading to Settings > Camera > Formats > ProRes. Then, in the camera app, you’ll see a ProRes option in the video tab. This format gives you greater control when editing, but the file sizes are much larger.
  • Auto Macro Toggle: In the iPhone 13 Pro models, the camera switches lenses when you get close to a subject to enable macro mode, but sometimes it keeps switching back and forth. To prevent this, iOS 15.1 now lets you toggle this Auto Macro feature off (Settings > Camera > Auto Macro). Now, to enable Macro, you’ll need to manually switch to the ultrawide camera and move close to a subject.
  • iCloud Backup: You can temporarily back up your data to iCloud, even if you don’t have enough storage, to transfer your data to a new iPhone.
  • Weather app: Apple bought the popular Dark Sky weather app last year, and it looks like we’re finally seeing the fruits of that acquisition now. The Weather app has a fresh design, with more detailed graphics, a background that more precisely changes to current weather conditions, and access to high-resolution weather maps.
  • Messages: Rather than scrolling through one long message of multiple photos, iMessage now neatly organizes numerous images (sent simultaneously) into a stack you can swipe through. To view all of them at once, you can also tap on the collage icon.
  • Visual Look Up: Just like Google Lens, you can point the camera at landmarks, plants, pets, or books, and get information about whatever you’re looking at.
  • Mail Privacy Protection: This feature prevents senders from seeing if you opened an email, and it hides your IP address and location.
  • Siri: Talking to Siri in iOS 15 is more secure than ever because your audio now doesn’t leave your device. You can control a variety of on-device functions without an internet connection, like asking Siri to turn on Dark mode or set an alarm, and it’ll run much faster.
  • Find My: You can now find your AirPods Pro or AirPods Max through the Find My app.

Coming Soon

Apple showed off a majority of the new features available in iOS 15 at its Worldwide Developers Conference this past summer, but not all of them are available at launch. Below are a few that have been delayed.

App Privacy Report

apple privacy report screen on iOS
Photograph: Apple

Available by heading to Settings > Privacy > Recent App Activity, this feature will show what apps have been accessing your camera, microphone, location, and photos over a seven-day period. It’ll even highlight what third-party domains the app has contacted, so you can truly see where your data is going. Unfortunately, the pleasant interface you see above isn’t available yet. At the moment, after 7 days, you’ll get a downloadable report that you can only open in a text editor on a PC or Mac. 

Digital Wallet

Driver's license in Apple's Wallet app

License and registration, please.

Photograph: Apple

Apple is continuing its quest to take over your physical wallet. Last year it let you add car keys, but in iOS 15, you can add additional keys. Add a home key if you use a smart lock, an access card you may use to enter your office, or a hotel room key—Apple says Hyatt is rolling out this functionality to 1,000 properties worldwide, and yes, you will be able to tap your Apple Watch to enter your room. 

The Future Is Bleak. Pondering Pangaea Gives Me Hope

The Future Is Bleak. Pondering Pangaea Gives Me Hope

The human passion for gouging burnable stuff out of the earth and reducing it to ashes may well be the end of us. But it’s not clear who the “us” is. Not you and me, obviously; we’ll be lucky to see 2100. But “us” can’t just mean our direct descendants, right? Does it have to mean hominids? Maybe humans of the far, far future don’t even have to have blood or DNA to count as survivors. Hundreds of millions of years from now, we primates could live on in our component parts: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. We could have a kind of immortality of the elements.

Unlike the imperiled biosphere, Earth’s crust and mantle, which are charged with many of the baseline ingredients of humans, show no signs of decline. In fact, they’re having a heyday—erupting, grinding, migrating, and splintering in unpredictable ways. Recent data also indicates the plates are up to something supremely weird: making a discreet move toward reunification. Like gazing at the stars, contemplating the so-called deep future of Earth with a new supercontinent can take the sting out of bleak climate predictions for the nearer term.

In about 200 million years, our far-flung continents may join up again. Though progress toward the Pangaea Proxima, the next Pangaea, is slow, it is also measurable. Seismologists have found that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountain range on the ocean floor that separates North America from Europe and Africa, is expanding about as fast as fingernails grow, broadening the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of some 4 centimeters per year. Meanwhile, the Nazca, a plate off the west coast of Peru, seems to be moving faster, about the speed that hair grows, which may be closing up the Pacific.

Of course, the chance that humans will exist to check the prediction is essentially zero. But to study the deep future is to recognize that flora and fauna, human fauna included, may be bit players in the fathomless intergalactic drama of chemicals.

Eons in advance, then, cartographers and earth scientists are clocking continental drift and fantasizing about new worlds. “Amasia” is the name for a hypothetical supercontinent formed when Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe, and Australia all fuse around the north pole. An even deeper-future hypothesis, which might take 250 million years, is called “Aurica,” the coalescence of all seven continents, including Antarctica, around the equator. It will no doubt be useful that the next Pangaeae are named in advance, so the rocks will have something to call themselves.

This past January, British seismologists based at the University of Southampton on England’s south coast—Southampton was the illustrious departure port for the Mayflower and the RMS Titanic (so they care about geological oceanography)—found new ways to observe mantle convection, some 400 miles below Earth’s crust and more than a thousand miles from its core. The material there is surging. As plates move apart along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, material rises to fill the space between them. As the team reported in a paper published in Nature, these surges could shove tectonic plates up from below and help push the continents farther apart (meaning, since this is a sphere we’re talking about, closer together around the back).

‘My Body Is Used to Design Military Tech’

‘My Body Is Used to Design Military Tech’

My left arm extends all the way up to and just barely past my elbow, tapering into a small, fleshy stump. For prosthetists, I’ve always been a weird fit—that funny little kid in the office with my arm held out like a bird with a broken wing, waiting for the plaster mold to dry. Since I do not have a forearm, a prosthesis socket must fit over my elbow to stay on, but the socket necessarily limits the range of motion and makes it harder to prevent falling off during a full day of bending and extending. My most recent prosthetist had devised their own patented method of molding a socket that better accommodates bodies like mine.

What I didn’t realize was how else they have applied this knowledge, before I even became their patient. With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to develop wearable technologies for combat soldiers, my prosthetist had designed a suit made up of black straps, metal joints, and sinewy tubing, reminiscent of an outfit for a dystopian video game character. This exoskeleton is intended to “reduce injuries and fatigue and improve soldier’s ability to efficiently perform their missions,” and could potentially make real-life soldiers more lethal. The technology that allows soldiers to jump and crouch and shoot while wearing this contraption, they say, is the same as what went into making my socket. It is the result of years of experience working with people with limb differences that make it very difficult to fit a conventional prosthesis, people like me. My body—or bodies like mine—is used to help design military technology.

Imagine if your dentist applied their years of experience working on mouths like yours to develop, say, teeth weaponry for the military. Inside American prosthetist offices, this is actually a fairly common relationship. The revolving door and entangled history between the prosthetics and orthotics industry and the military has forced patients like me into a cycle of design that creates high tech arms for American veterans on one side and death and mutilation on the other. The intention is that future soldiers wearing this technology would be better at destroying enemies— creating more disabled people who will likely never receive a prosthesis. A crucial part of this cycle is the industry’s fixation on developing new, expensive, electronic prosthetic devices for veterans, who receive them from the government at no cost. Yet the vast majority of people who experience limb loss in the United States not only never receive these devices, they aren’t veterans at all.

Prosthetic devices were once largely homemade contraptions devised by their wearer to help with domestic tasks. George Webb Derenzy, captain of the 82nd Regiment in the British Army, who lost his arm to gangrene during the Napoleonic Wars, is known for designing a number of domestic mechanical gadgets that he describes in his 1822 book, Enchiridion. (Come for the one-handed boot hooks, stay for the steel egg-holder.) These kinds of devices didn’t have a large potential market and were geared toward private use. Derenzy believed they could help disabled people rejoin society without having to “burden” others with requests for help with specific tasks.

It wasn’t until the American Civil War—during which 60,000 soldiers underwent limb amputations—that the prosthetic arm and leg became lucrative business opportunities and valued commodities. The US government propped up this new industry by passing a law that issued a prosthetic limb to every veteran amputee in need. By the late 19th century, there were a number of competing prosthetic limb manufacturers: The Salem Leg Company, A. A. Marks, and J.E. Hanger, which today, under the name Hanger Clinic, is one of the largest prosthetic limb providers in the US.

The commodification of the prosthetic limb came up against some initial reluctance to hide stumps inside wooden sockets. For many Confederate veterans, healed-over stumps were a mark of pride and resilience—a true survivor bore a stump. In time, sentiments about both limb loss and artificial limbs shifted dramatically. According to David Serlin, professor of communication at UC San Diego, the US military spent the first half of the 20th century developing various analytical methods to identify the body types of ideal military recruits. The result, in popular media and the public consciousness, was an indelible association between the military and the idealized male body: muscular, symmetrical, and lean. When these bodies returned from the World Wars with missing limbs, the military sought to convince the public that not only were these men especially masculine for putting their bodies on the line, but also that prosthetic devices would help reaffirm their masculinity, virility, and even heterosexuality.

Prosthetic devices have a deep history with patriotism and nationalistic projects. The carefully staged images of veterans using prosthetic devices in Carry On, a 1918 magazine produced by the US surgeon general, told the story of how the synthesis of man and technology could completely rehabilitate amputees. According to Beth Linker, a professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, the staff at Carry On “hoped to persuade the public that rehabilitation had the power to make the wounds of war disappear.” In their marketing campaigns, prosthetic limb manufacturers similarly sought to associate the prosthesis user with a triumphant and resilient nation—painting a new image of the veteran completely remade through technology and able to return to the workforce. Today, the true survivor bears a polypropylene socket with an airbrushed bald eagle flanked by fireworks and the American flag.