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Alexa Might Not Get Much Smarter Than It Is Right Now

Alexa Might Not Get Much Smarter Than It Is Right Now

“Hey Alexa, can you make some money?”

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Amazon is aiming to cut costs by slimming down some of its less profitable departments. The big one is Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant software. Despite Alexa’s existence inside millions of Echo devices and other smart speakers around the world, the business of building, supporting, and licensing a voice assistant platform has apparently been less profitable than Amazon hoped. (According to the WSJ, the Alexa business has been operating at a $5 billion-per-year loss.)

Amazon has a couple options here. It can either invest in Alexa and work to add more functions, or scale back its efforts to improve the service and let it exist as is. However, as the WSJ report notes, most users typically get into a habit of only using a few key voice commands. If that’s the case, it may make more sense for Amazon to let Alexa be instead of continuing to add more features.

Alexa is not the only voice assistant with an uncertain future. Google made a similar move in October, when part of its cost-cutting restructuring plan deemphasized the program that puts Google Assistant into partner devices like smart speakers. Both of these reprioritizations come as companies across the technosphere lay off thousands of employees. It may not be the end of an era exactly, but it’s clear the companies don’t see their voice assistants as top priorities when facing an economic downturn.

Here’s some more news from the world of consumer tech.

Apple Spaces Out

If you’re prone to getting lost in the woods, Apple would like you to know that it will soon have your back. The company has made a big push into emergency response tech recently. At its iPhone 14 announcement event in September, Apple touted its new ability to locate people outside of cellular or Wi-Fi reception range. The service, which Apple calls Emergency SOS via Satellite, is launching later this month.

Apple has made a $450 million investment in emergency satellite tracking tech. Most of the money is going to the US company Globalstar, which operates the satellites used to transmit the messages. Apple’s SOS plan will cover the US and Canada. It’s free for two years if you buy an iPhone 14, though Apple hasn’t said how much it will charge customers after that.

LG Rolls Another One

Forget about foldables, rollables are where it’s at. LG continues to advance its rollable display tech with a screen material that you might (eventually) be able to bend, curl, and warp as much as you like. This week, the South Korean company showed off some stretchable display technology that it says can be used to give screens hitherto unrealized flexibility. The stretchy display looks like a 12-inch strip of fruit leather with RGB lighting in it, which can be pulled across all manner of surfaces. 20 percent stretchability means it’s not exactly taffy, but LG says it can bend about as much as rubber. That flexibility could lend itself to wrapping screens around just about any surface—clothing, furniture, walls.

To be clear, the stretchy sheet is still just a prototype. LG is developing the tech for South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy. The stretchy-screen dream is still way off in the future, but LG says the plan is to finalize the government project by 2024. If all goes well, the stretchy screens could then be implemented in consumer devices.

Digging Up Mastodon

Ever since Elon Musk took over, Twitter has been in something of a free fall. Whether it’s because of the flood of hate speech, the influx of “verified” scammers, or the dismantling of ethics teams at the company, advertisers and users alike have fled the platform. Now, people are scrambling to find an alternative to Twitter that doesn’t feel like it’s being flipped upside down and shaken for loose change. Many people have turned to the decentralized platform Mastodon. So many, in fact, that Mastodon has buckled under the weight of all its new users.

This week on WIRED’s Gadget Lab podcast, WIRED security editor Andrew Couts joins the show to unearth Mastodon—how it works, what the vibes on the platform are like, and whether it will ever come close to recreating the controlled chaos that is (or was) Twitter.

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HoloKit X AR Headset for iPhone: Price, Features, Release Date

HoloKit X AR Headset for iPhone: Price, Features, Release Date

If you need evidence that Apple is working on a mixed-reality headset, take a spin with the HoloKit X. Created by Botao Amber Hu, a developer who has worked at companies like DJI, Google, and Twitter and is now CEO and founder of Holo Interactive, this headset relies entirely on existing capabilities of the iPhone to create interactive hands-free augmented reality experiences. It’s a powerful showcase of what’s possible if Apple ever made a headset using the tech already embedded in its smartphone.

Any such headset to come out of Cupertino would almost certainly cost more than a thousand dollars. (This is Apple, after all.) Look at Meta’s newest mixed-reality headset for reference; it starts at $1,499. Headsets in Microsoft’s XR platform cost between $600 and $1,000. These high prices are why the HoloKit X exists. Hu, who has long had a special interest in future computing and new media art, says he wants to “democratize” the world of mixed reality. As such, the HoloKit X costs $129, and all you need is a recent iPhone (excluding iPhone Mini and iPhone SE models) to power it.

An iPhone on Your Head

The HoloKit X is a plasticky headset with optical lenses inside. There’s no technology here (save for an NFC sensor, but more on that later). Just think of it as a viewer, not unlike old-school View-Masters. Similar to mobile virtual reality headsets like Google Cardboard, Lenovo’s AR set for Star Wars games, or the now-defunct Google Daydream, you need to mount an iPhone onto the HoloKit X. 

HoloKit X VR goggles with eyeglasses attached

Photograph: HoloKit

Unlike VR headsets, you’re not staring at a screen. The iPhone is mounted up and away from your eyes. Instead, you’re looking through the glass in a 60-degree field of view and can see the physical world as well as the people around you. The iPhone’s screen, while using the rear cameras to manage these AR experiences, is mirrored in stereoscopic vision to the lenses, making it so that you can effectively see virtual 3D objects embedded in the real world.

Exactly what you can do with the HoloKit X is limited right now. There are just a handful of experiences—what Hu calls “Realities”—in the HoloKit app, one of which is a multiplayer dueling game where you cast spells at an enemy. The visuals are clear, colorful, and pretty sharp, and the platform supports six degrees of freedom via Apple’s ARKit framework. Because of this, you can move around virtual objects and they will stay anchored in the real-world places where you position them. And when you’re playing a game, you can even duck to dodge blasts. The “enemy” can be another person using a HoloKit X in a shared space, a virtual character, or even a character controlled by someone with just an iPhone.

Since it’s entirely powered by an iPhone, the HoloKit app is leveraging existing technologies. The ability to play a game with other HoloKit X users, for example, doesn’t rely on cellular data or Wi-Fi, but rather the local networking technology that powers AirDrop. This is also what powers “Spectator View,” which allows anyone to use an iPhone and the HoloKit app to view your augmented reality experience in real time by pointing their phone at the scene. (You can record and share this to social media, or cast it via AirPlay to a TV for others to see.) Hu says Holo Interactive is also working on a Puppeteer mode that would enable someone else to direct your AR experience.

There are a few ways to interact with the augmented reality experience. The HoloKit app uses Apple’s Vision framework technology to identify and track your hand. I didn’t see a demo of this, but the idea is that you can just use your hands to interact with objects and the iPhone’s cameras will recognize your hand movements. Hu says HoloKit also supports any Bluetooth device that can connect to the iPhone, like PlayStation controllers.

What I did demo was the ability to use an Apple Watch’s gyroscope as a motion controller, just like a Wiimote. Hu strapped an Apple Watch to my wrist (it works with Watch Series 4 and newer) with the HoloKit watch app installed and running, and gave me a wand purely so I could feel like I was using it to shoot out spells. Lo and behold, I was able to cast spells with mere gestures or a flick of the wrist. I could even point my wand downward to load a charging bar and trigger a more powerful spell. Aiding the immersion is the use of spatial audio via any of Apple’s headphones that support that feature, so you can hear a spell whizzing past your right ear. The iPhone’s haptic vibration adds another layer of sensory input, but since the phone is mounted in the headset, it’s only vibrating up near your forehead, so you may not immediately sense it.  

You can use the HoloKit X with an iPhone XS, XS Max, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, iPhone 13, and iPhone 13 and 13 Pro Max, iPhone 14, and iPhone 14 and 14 Pro Max. (You’ll need to take off your case so it will fit.) You’ll get the best experience with an iPhone that has a lidar sensor, which became a staple on the Pro models—starting with the iPhone 12 series. 

Apple iPad Pro (2022): Specs, Price, Release Date

Apple iPad Pro (2022): Specs, Price, Release Date

Apple tossed out a couple of surprise product announcements today. There are two brand new iPad Pro models coming next week, both beefed up with Apple’s M2 chip, USB-C ports, and support for new Apple Pencil features. The company also has a new 4K Apple TV model coming out in November.

Apple tends to introduce its products during big publicized events that are teased weeks in advance. But in this case, CEO Tim Cook simply teased the news shortly before the official announcement, tweeting out some colorful digital doodles along with the hashtag #TakeNote, which apparently refers to the Pencil’s newly enhanced writing capabilities.

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The two new models of the iPad Pro are functionally the same inside, except one boasts a 12.9-inch screen and the other’s screen is 11 inches. Both feature Apple’s new M2 chip. The 11-inch iPad Pro model starts at $799 and the 12.9-inch version starts at $1,099. Both of those prices are for the base Wi-Fi-only model; add another $200 to either for a 5G cellular connection. The new iPad Pro models are available to preorder now, and will be out October 26. Color options are Space Gray and Silver, which are apparently different shades.

Anyone who pairs a second-generation Apple Pencil with either of these new iPads will notice some new behaviors when scribbling on the tablet’s screen. A new hover mode allows the stylus to be detected by the iPad while it’s nearly a half inch (12 millimeters) away from the screen. It’s a mode aimed at digital artists, as it could be used to fine-tune brush control; when a Pencil is hovering above the screen, the iPad shows a dot where the tip will touch down, giving users a chance to better line up their strokes.

Apple has slowly adopted USB-C across its devices, and the new iPad Pro is the latest to come into the fold. All current iPad models now use a USB-C connector to charge and attach accessories. iPhones are the lone Lightning cable holdouts in Apple’s lineup, though that may be changing soon thanks to new regulations in the EU requiring all consumer mobile devices sold there to use USB-C ports.

As for the new Apple TV, buyers will get to pick between two options: a model with only a Wi-Fi connection, and one with Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port. The Wi-Fi only version comes with 64 GB of storage, while the Ethernet model gets 128 GB. Both models pump out 4K visuals and Dolby sound, and if your TV and soundbar don’t support those formats, you’ll get 1080p visuals and stereo sound. Both models use Apple’s A15 mobile chip, which is a generation older than the chips found in Apple’s newest iPhones.

Both Apple TV models are cheaper than the previous versions. The Wi-Fi model starts at $129 and the Ethernet-enabled model is $149. However, both models of the last iteration of Apple TVs included Ethernet connection, and now that feature is being limited to just the pricier box. The new Apple TVs can be ordered now and will be released November 4.

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Google’s Next-Gen Video Chat Tech Is Ready for the Real World

Google’s Next-Gen Video Chat Tech Is Ready for the Real World

Good news for anyone who’s sick of Zoom calls but also hates talking to people in real life: Google’s Project Starline is becoming more widely available.

Google introduced Starline in 2021 with the goal of making video calls less weird and awkward. It’s essentially a very complicated video conferencing booth that uses cameras, depth sensors, and three-dimensional imagery to approximate face-to-face conversations between two remote participants. A suite of cameras even track both participants’ eye movements and adjust the view on the other side to enable the two people to make eye contact. Our reporter tried it and found that it does a good job creating the sense that the other person is sitting across from you, making the resulting interactions feel very realistic. Others who have tried it say the same.

Image may contain Human Person Face and Smile

Video: Google

Google has been testing the setup internally and is now preparing to set up Starline booths in offices outside the company. Chances are you won’t be able to use Starline quite yet, unless you happen to work with one of the companies Google is partnering with in the US. (Salesforce, T-Mobile, and WeWork, to name a few.) It’s also not clear what Google plans to do with the tech. The company has positioned it as a way for long-distance relatives or coworkers to connect. Having a more lifelike interaction could help remote workers have less stilted conversations. Yes, you’re stuck in that Starline booth, but at least you don’t have to jump around with a headset on.

Here’s some more of this week’s news from the Gear desk.

iPhone Coasters

At its iPhone announcement event in September, Apple took several opportunities to scare the living daylights out of anyone who dares venture outside their home. Apple’s true goal was to highlight the emergency response features in its new iPhones and Apple Watches. One of those was crash detection, which can automatically call emergency services when the phone senses you’ve been in an auto collision. Apple says its hardware can detect the kinds of sudden stops and inversions that might occur in a wreck. Oh, but you know where else those movements might happen? On a roller coaster.

At theme parks around the US, iPhone users have reported going on twisty-turny roller coasters then discovering later that their phone has called the cops. In some cases, emergency responders have shown up on the scene for these false alarms. Critics have expressed concern that this could potentially tie up emergency phone lines and personnel. Apple has said the issue is not widespread and that the tech will improve over time.

Wish Upon a Polestar

The Swedish car company Polestar has announced a new electric vehicle. The Polestar 3 is an all-wheel drive SUV. The company says the 400-V battery gets up to 300 miles on a charge. Inside is a dashboard powered by an Nvidia computer that projects driving information onto the windshield like a head-up display.

It starts at $83,900, which is nearly twice as much as the debut price of the previous model, the Polestar 2. There isn’t an official release date for the Polestar 3, but the company says it plans to start selling the vehicles toward the end of 2023.

The Zuck Zone

Mark Zuckerberg has bet big on the metaverse. His company, Meta, has already pumped billions of dollars into the virtual realm, convinced that one day it will inevitably become mainstream. Thing is, that bet will take a long time to pay off. Meanwhile, Meta just announced a new $1,500 VR headset. The tech is cool, but there’s still no sign whatsoever that society at large is eager to strap on a face computer and hop into the virtual realm. (Never mind that the headset also uses inward-facing cameras to track the wearer’s eye movements and facial expressions, which raised privacy concerns—especially because it’s Meta on the other end.)

This week on our Gadget Lab podcast, WIRED editor-at-large Steven Levy, author of the book Facebook: The Inside Story, joins the show to discuss Meta’s VR ambitions and when—if ever—VR might finally take off.

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Everything Apple Announced: iPhone 14, Apple Watch Ultra, and More

Everything Apple Announced: iPhone 14, Apple Watch Ultra, and More

It’s September, so you know what that means: iPhone season. Today, Apple held an event at its Cupertino, California headquarters where it unveiled its annual updates to its mobile devices. There are four new iPhones 14, a more durable Apple Watch for adventure enthusiasts, and a new pair of AirPods Pro.

Here’s everything Apple announced.

iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro

Closeup of iPhone 14 Pro camera

iPhone 14 Pro costs $999, or $1,099 for the larger Pro Max.

Photograph: Apple

Did you like the idea of an iPhone Mini? Well, too bad. Apple has nixed its smallest phone in favor of a new iPhone 14 Plus, which sits a rung above the just-announced iPhone 14, but below the top-tier iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max. Like its Pro Max sibling, the 14 Plus has a 6.7-inch screen. The standard-size iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro have 6.1-inch displays.

Outside of this, most of the changes with this year’s iPhone lineup are coming to the Pro models. The infamous notch, for example, which housed the sensor components necessary for Face ID, has now slimmed down to a pill-shaped cutout in the same area, not unlike most modern Android phones. There’s now always-on display support, so you won’t have to tap your phone screen or pick it up to see notifications or the time of day.

The sensor notch can now show notifications. Apple calls it Dynamic Island.

Video: Apple

The Pro models are also the only handsets to use the brand-new A16 Bionic processor. It’s the first time that the standard non-Pro iPhones are sticking with a prior year’s chipset, but this is likely due to supply chain constraints and to keep costs low. The A15 Bionic in the iPhone 14 is still a super speedy chip, but you just won’t get the very best performance.

The primary camera on the Pros will finally move away from 12 megapixels and will utilize a 48-megapixel sensor (a common trait among most Android phones). More megapixels doesn’t necessarily mean better photos, but it will let you capture more detail, and you can print your photos at larger sizes without losing sharpness. The Pro iPhones can also film videos in 8K resolution. That’s certainly more Ks than you need, but it might be handy for cropping into your footage without losing image quality—especially since the screens in most of our homes aren’t big enough to showcase the benefit of 8K resolution.

iPhone 14 in various colors forming a halfcircle

iPhone 14 in all the new colors. The base-model 14 starts at $799.

Photograph: Apple