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Hello HoloLens: Virtual New Reality for the Real New Year

Microsoft could be about to turn the promise of virtual reality into, well, a reality, said Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. The company unveiled a prototype of the Microsoft HoloLens, a “wondrous” pair of high-tech glasses that overlay three-dimensional holograms onto the environment around you. During one demonstration, I put on the headset and saw a scene from the video game Minecraft superimposed on a real living room. A Microsoft minder showed me how to use my hands to select a virtual hammer—a tool in the game—and instructed me to smash the coffee table in front of me. “She wanted me, in other words, to use a digital object to interact with a real one.” I waved my index finger, brought the hammer down, and was stunned by what happened: The coffee table shattered into digital splinters and then disappeared. “HoloLens had perfectly erased the coffee table from the environment.”

This device isn’t just a fancy toy, said Jessi Hempel in Microsoft thinks it will usher in “the next era of computing,” in which workers will one day swap their keyboards and monitors for virtual reality headsets and “compute in the physical world, using voice and gesture to summon data and layer it atop physical objects.” I got a glimpse of this new reality in a hands-on test with HoloLens. I sculpted a digital model of a plastic snowman that could be produced on a 3-D printer and had a holographic Skype call with a motorcycle designer in Spain, who helped me “paint a three-dimensional fender atop a physical prototype.” The big question is whether a tech dinosaur like Microsoft can perfect HoloLens without messing it up, Devindra Hardawar in “Given its history, there’s no guarantee it won’t.” The last time the company released a supposedly groundbreaking product, in 2012, the laptop-tablet hybrid Surface, it was “a fiery train wreck of a device that I wanted to catapult out the window.”

Still, HoloLens already looks as if it has more potential than Google Glass, said Christina Warren in Glass was designed to be an always-on “smart companion” that users would wear in the car, at work, and at home—something few people wanted to do. The HoloLens, in contrast, is “something a person would only wear for short stretches of time” and for specific tasks, such as playing a video game or holding a teleconference. “By setting the expectation that HoloLens isn’t something you wear all the time,” Microsoft could make it into “an experience that you eventually want to have everywhere.”

-As seen in The Week
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Goodbye Google Glass

“Google Glass is finally dead,” said Will Oremus in This week, Google suspended sales of the “semifunctional and socially controversial” high-tech eyewear and all but admitted it was “going back to the drawing board.” Launched in 2013, Glass proved “a public relations disaster” from the start. The device was banned in bars, restaurants, and much of Las Vegas over privacy concerns, and early adopters were widely mocked as “Glassholes.” Some might argue that Google Glass was “too far ahead of its time for its own good,” said Rick Aristotle Munarriz in But in truth, the specs were simply too “creepy” to catch on. No one wanted to sit next to a Glass-wearing stranger, wondering if his or her every move was being recorded, or put up with a Glass-bedecked dinner companion who might be secretly reading emails or even “watching porn.” And at $1,500 a pop, Glass was far “too expensive” and odd looking for a product that still had plenty of kinks.

Ignore these “premature obituaries,” said Fred O’Connor in Even though Google will no longer sell the specs in their current form, the company isn’t killing the project, just shifting it out of the company’s incubator, Google X, and into a stand-alone unit. The fact that Glass will now be overseen by Tony Fadell, an early designer of the iPod who is more recently responsible for the popular digital thermostat, Nest, also suggests Glass’s “future as a consumer device might not be over.” In the immediate term, analysts believe Google will redesign Glass for the workplace, since groups like “surgeons and engineers” have been far more embracing of the technology than everyday users.

If Google is smart, it will ditch the embedded camera altogether, said Jake Swearingen in Smart glasses are a promising type of wearable, since they give users “a hands-free way to look at a screen.” But new technology involves new social norms, and having a recording device attached to everyone’s faces is too much, too fast. Let this be a lesson to Silicon Valley about the “perils of developing hardware whose purpose isn’t clear,” said Conor Dougherty in Compared with the iPhone, which “cleverly combined products people already understood and used,” Glass has a value that has always seemed a little vague. In order for Google to be “the gateway through which people live every aspect of their lives,” the company must be smarter about creating products “that aren’t just useful but have more ethereal qualities like beauty and coolness.” Only time will tell if Google takes this “humbling retreat” to heart.

-As seen in The Week
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I’m a sucker for the conveniences of modern digital life, but...

A guest post from my favorite magazine The Week. Like most Americans, I’m a sucker for the conveniences of modern digital life. I bank on my phone, upload photos to the cloud, and keep my address saved with online retailers to save a few minutes at checkout.

I’ve also come to assume that my personal data have wound up in the hands of a hacker somewhere. I’d be a fool not to. Every week, it seems, there’s a data breach at a big corporation or a new leak of stolen celebrity nude selfies. JPMorgan Chase became the latest victim in 2014, revealing that the accounts of 84 million customers had been digitally ransacked.

Security experts say we should all simply presume our digital data have been stolen. But unless you’re Jennifer Lawrence or the head of IT at a megabank, it’s hard to get worked up about these breaches. For most of us, they mean a canceled card here, a changed password there. The hacks have become so commonplace that we’ve become numb to their dizzying scales and potential danger. Call it a case of data breach fatigue.

Psychologists would call it habituation—we sit up and take notice the first time something happens but tune out after the fourth or fifth occurrence. It’s that effect that causes the nation to collectively shrug when it hears about the latest major car recall, crisis in the Middle East, or tragic school shooting.

When consumers are asked why they tune out to massive data theft, they say the breaches are simply “unavoidable.” Yet it’s that same complacency that allows companies—and political leaders—to perpetuate the status quo. On second thought, excuse me while I go change my passwords.
- Carolyn O’Hara

-As seen in The Week
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The Best Wearable Tech

The best of...

Wearable tech

Reebok Checklight

This skullcap “appears to work quite well” in performing its purpose: It monitors impacts to the head and indicates with a blinking yellow or red light if an athlete sustains a moderate or severe blow.

Nod Gesture Control Ring

“Make a phone call, change TV channels, and more” by simply waving your hand. This Bluetooth-enabled ring communicates with multiple devices and is scheduled to ship sometime in the fall.
$149, hellonod​.com
Source: Consumer Reports

Tory Burch Fitbit Bracelet

Fitness trackers just went “from plain to pretty.” This fall, Tory Burch is releasing three bracelets designed to be used with a Fitbit monitor (sold separately). The delicate solid brass band is a “standout.”

Narrative Clip

This tiny device, which clips onto a shirt pocket, takes a 5-megapixel photograph every 30 seconds. It’s billed as a way to create photo diaries and pairs with software to help users search the results.
$279 per year,

Sensoria Socks

An anklet worn with this sock mates with sensors in the fabric to monitor a runner’s technique and cadence while also measuring distance traveled. Four pairs are included in each package.
Source: Wall Street Journal

-As seen in The Week
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Google Glass may not be inevitable after all

A guest post from my favorite editor William Falk of The Week. In these grim times, there is some hope for our species: Google Glass may not be inevitable after all.

Mat Honan of Wired, the bible of the technorati, spent a year trying out Google Glass, a futuristic pair of eyeglasses equipped with a voice-activated wireless computer and camera and a tiny Internet display in one lens. The trial didn’t go well. Honan reports back that the Glass’s ostentatious techiness—and its ability to photograph or video anything the wearer wants—made him the subject of derision and threats wherever he went. People “talk about you openly,” Honan marvels; he got used to hearing himself called a Glasshole. And despite some “cool” features, Honan found Glass “more novelty than utility”—just another way of “documenting rather than experiencing.”

You need not be a Luddite to be heartened by the Glass rebellion. It suggests we haven’t yet been seduced into surrendering the last vestiges of privacy and spontaneity. In recent months, young techies have been publicly questioning the toll that constant connectivity has taken on their relationships, their attention spans, and their ability to sit quietly with their thoughts. Burnouts are treating themselves to Internet “holidays” or checking into retreats promising “digital detox.” Last week, Web journalist David Sessions published a mea culpa in which he called much of Web journalism “stupid and worthless,” saying it “exists simply to produce the act of clicking.” His chastened advice: “New tools should be scrutinized intensely and skeptically, as should the people who stand to gain vast new forms of power and wealth when they are widely adopted.” Wise words, which I immediately shared with everyone I know via the Internet.

-As seen in The Week
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Drones: Google’s sky-high ambitions

Google is spreading its wings, said Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic. The tech giant unveiled a drone delivery project called Project Wing last week, which aims to use “self-flying vehicles” to transport and deliver goods. The project has been in development for two years at Google X—the research lab responsible for Google’s self-driving cars and the Google Glass headset—and has run more than 30 test flights in Queensland, Australia, delivering items such as radios, candy bars, and cattle vaccines to farmers. With a wingspan of 5 feet and a weight of 19 pounds, the Project Wing drones take off vertically and then hover and winch packages down to the ground. Though Google says it will be years before the vehicles are ready for commercial use, it imagines a future in which its drones help reduce the carbon footprint of traditional delivery vehicles like planes and trucks, and goods can be delivered mere minutes after orders are placed.

Google is clearly trying to give Amazon a run for its money, said Will Oremus in The Internet retailer announced its own drone delivery ambitions last year, with plans to develop a system that could deliver orders to customers within half an hour. Both companies’ commercial aims are years away, but the drones they develop could have other applications, such as delivering emergency relief more efficiently or letting people rent certain items, like a power drill, “for only the few minutes that they need them before sending them on their way.” It’s too early to say how Google’s efforts stack up against Amazon’s. But one thing is clear: The drone war has begun.

Amazon may have at least one advantage, said Alex Wilhelm in The company is already experienced in sourcing, shipping, and delivering goods. Still, “non-military drones remain a nascent area of technology,” and Google could quickly catch up. For now, both companies will face similar challenges if they want their drone experiments to really take off. That means building “fleets that are safe, and useful enough for the average consumer to want to summon,” but also economically viable. Government regulations will make that tough task more difficult, said Conor Dougherty in The New York Times. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned commercial drones in the U.S. pending new rules that are due next year, and the vehicles haven’t been tested in densely populated cities. That won’t stop Google or Amazon from moving forward, but the days of receiving “dog food, toothpaste, or whatever else a modern family might need” via hovering drone are still a distant prospect.

-As seen in The Week
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As governments invade privacy, tools for encryption grow more popular

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA collecting massive amounts of user meta-data, many people went in search of safer, more secure ways to use the internet anonymously. Once thought to be something only used by the tech-savvy, increased interest in end-to-end e-mail encryption has prompted both Google and Yahoo to develop user-friendly versions of the protocol that would, in theory, make personal messages exceedingly difficult to intercept.

GeeksPhone, a Spanish hardware manufacturer, and Silent Circle, U.S. communication firm, promise to provide the same kind of privacy with Blackphone, the first fully encrypted smartphone meant for the average consumer. While technically an Android device, Blackphone runs a forked version of the operating system called PrivatOS that rids the phone of any and all connections to Google’s servers.

Encrypting e-mail is effective, but requires that both the sender and recipient of a message use the same specific encryption protocol to maintain privacy. Blackphone, for all of the protection that it provides, cuts users off from most of the services–like games, maps, and other functions–so as to make sure that there are absolutely no gaps through which information might be extracted.

The Onion Router also known as Tor, a browser designed keep users entirely anonymous, is something of a happy medium, and the NSA is actively trying to scare people away from it. Tor guides its internet traffic through complex networks of layered encryption that hide a computer’s physical location and make it nearly impossible to monitor the IP addresses that it visits.

Post-Snowden, Tor saw a substantial increase in the number of people using its browser and network, undoubtedly in-part due to privacy concerns. Documents published by The Guardian revealed that the NSA were actively engaged with attempting to infiltrate Tor’s network, and considered the browser to be “the king of high-secure, low-latency anonymity.” Following widespread, successful-attempts at tracking Tor users’ activity, the FBI openly admitted to exploiting a loophole in Tor’s infrastructure as a part of a larger operation in pursuit of a child pornography ring.

Authorities have justified their pushes into the “anonymous internet,” asserting that by and large, much of Tor’s traffic is related to illegal activities, but that seems to be changing. Richard David James, better known by his stage name Aphex Twin, is a fixture in the electronic music scene. Earlier this week James announced his latest album using a website that could only be accessed using Tor, drawing in a significant number of pageviews in a single day.

The attention, says Tor executive director Andrew Lewman, is both a blessing and a curse. While Tor’s network was able to handle the 133,000 visits that Aphex Twin drew, he doubts whether it could withstand the kinds of gargantuan traffic that Facebook sees on a daily basis. Tor users, comparatively speaking, are rare–a fact that Lewman asserts is what makes them targets for governmental organizations.

“It’s been co-opted by GCHQ and the NSA that if you’re using Tor, you must be a criminal,” Lewman explained to The Guardian. “I know the NSA and GCHQ want you to believe that Tor users are already suspect, because, you know, god forbid who would want their privacy online, they must be terrorists.”

Proponents of Tor and other forms of ubiquitous encryption have called for the public to adopt the technologies on a larger scale, logic stating that if everyone is using encryption, then no one can be singled out for it. Rather than adopting the small, experimental proofs of concept like Tor, Lewman says, true privacy on the internet will come when internet juggernauts like Facebook, Twitter, and Google incorporate the technology into their platforms, making them the standard rather than the exception.

-As seen on PBS
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Facebook ready to spend billions to bring whole world online

Facebook is prepared to spend billions of dollars to reach its goal of bringing the Internet to everyone on the planet, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on Friday.

"What we really care about is connecting everyone in the world," Zuckerberg said at an event in Mexico City hosted by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

"Even if it means that Facebook has to spend billions of dollars over the next decade making this happen, I believe that over the long term its gonna be a good thing for us and for the world."

Around 3 billion people will have access to the Internet by the end of 2014, according to International Telecommunications Union (ITU) statistics. Almost half that, 1.3 billion people, use Facebook.

Facebook, the world's largest social networking company, launched its project last year to connect billions of people without Internet access in places such as Africa and Asia by working with phone operators.

"I believe that ... when everyone is on the Internet all of our businesses and economies will be better," Zuckerberg said.

-As seen on Reuters
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California passes law mandating smartphone kill switch

Smartphones sold in California will soon be required to have a kill switch that lets users remotely lock them and wipe them of data in the event they are lost or stolen.

The demand is the result of a new law, signed into effect on Monday, that applies to phones manufactured after July 1, 2015, and sold in the state.

While its legal reach does not extend beyond the state’s borders, the inefficiency of producing phones solely for California means the kill switch is expected to be adopted by phone makers on handsets sold across the U.S. and around the world.

The legislation requires a system that, if triggered by an authorized user, will lock a handset to essentially make it useless. The feature must be installed and activated in new smartphones, but users will be able to deactivate it if they desire, and it must be resistant to attempts to reinstall the operating system.

Police can also use the tool, but only under the conditions of the existing section 7908 of the California Public Utilities Code. That gives police the ability to cut off phone service in certain situations and typically requires a court order, except in an emergency that poses “immediate danger of death or great bodily injury.”

The law doesn’t specify how the system locks the phone, nor what happens to the data on the phone when it’s locked. Each manufacturer can come up with their own system.

The law follows pressure on phone makers from the state’s law enforcement community to do something about rising incidents of smartphone theft, which has become one of the most prevalent street crimes in the state.

Apple has already responded and added a feature called Activation Lock into its iOS 7 operating system, which meets all requirements of California’s kill switch law bar one—it doesn’t come enabled in new phones. That will have to change.

Both Google and Microsoft have said they are introducing similar features in upcoming revisions to their smartphone operating systems.

“California has just put smartphone thieves on notice,” California State Senator Mark Leno, the sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement. “Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smartphones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities.”

The law makes California the second state in the U.S. to pass legislation aimed at reducing smartphone theft. Minnesota passed a law in June, but it doesn’t require the kill switch to be enabled as default. Law enforcement says that’s key because it will increase the chance that a new smartphone has the kill switch enabled, hopefully reducing its attractiveness to thieves.

The kill switch function was actively opposed by the wireless industry until earlier in 2014, when carriers and their lobbying group reversed course and came out in favor of the plan. They received more persuasion in the form of two additional bills introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

- As seen on PC World
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