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Computing

Be honest: Your next laptop doesn’t need a headphone jack

It’s been years since we’ve had to debate the merits of analog headphones jacks. But like it or not, we’ve all moved on from there in our smartphones, accepting the fact that wireless earbuds, USB-C (or Lightning) headphones, and the occasional dongle will suffice. Even the iPad Pro moved on from the beloved headphone jack.

But in 2022, the issue has returned — and this time, it’s for laptops.

The Dell XPS 13 Plus is the company’s new flagship laptop, a device bursting at the seams with new ideas and fresh innovation. Among these features are an invisible haptic touchpad, an edge-to-edge keyboard, and even a row of capacitive touch buttons to replace the function keys.

The extremely compact and refined design, though, didn’t leave room for a conventional audio jack. It’s not that the device is too thin to house a headphone jack — after all, even the ultra-thin M2 MacBook Air includes one.

Instead, it’s about how the designers at Dell choose to use the space available to them. The keyboard on the XPS 13 Plus runs right up to the edge of the chassis sides, giving the device an extremely efficient-looking design. No space is wasted, allowing for the extra-large keycaps to extend right to the edge of the laptop. It’s a spectacular look.

Dell has shown how certain designs had been off the table due to the need for a headphone jack.

But it also means that the only location available to include ports are in the small area between the keyboard and the hinge. Without wanting to ditch one of the two USB-C ports, that left the headphone jack on the cutting room floor. In other words, it’s the removal of the headphone jack that allows for this kind type of design innovation.

That’s a lot more justification than was given when the iPhone first ditched its headphone jack. We were told it would allow for thinner devices, bigger batteries, and more features — but we were never given proof. With the XPS 13 Plus, Dell has shown how certain designs had been off the table due to the need for a headphone jack.

That’s bound to not be true for every laptop that decides to cut out this port in the future. Some manufacturers will undoubtedly jump on the bandwagon just to appear edgy or fashionable. But who knows what other innovation some extra space within the chassis could allow for? Every millimeter counts, and one less port can sometimes make all the difference.

The side of the keyboard on the Dell XPS 13 Plus.

And because smartphones led the way in the accelerated adoption of wireless audio, we’re much more prepared to leave the headphone jack behind. Wireless earbuds are cheap and widely available, even as connectivity standards like Bluetooth 5.2 continue to improve.

Personally, I found myself using the headphone jack on laptops less and less — and I bet you do too. Don’t believe me? Just go ahead and count how many times you actually need to use it over the next week. I bet it’s less than you realize.

In my time with the XPS 13 Plus, I only encountered one situation when I actually wished I had a headphone jack. My wireless earbuds had died, and I wanted to listen to some music while I worked. Lo and behold, there was nowhere to plug in my backup pair of wired headphones. Thing is, the adapter Dell included in the box fixed this problem within a few seconds. Before I knew it, I was back to work. It’s a bit of a clumsy solution, but hey, it showed me how small my perceived “need” for a headphone jack really was.

I’m not saying every laptop in the future needs to ditch headphone jacks.

Now, I know what you’re saying. You love your set of old wired computer speakers that you use at your desk. Or maybe you enjoy the ease of jacking into your living room entertainment system. Or maybe you just hate Bluetooth.

I’m not saying every laptop in the future needs to ditch headphone jacks. The huge variety of designs in the world of PCs and laptops is its great strength, and it means there will always be room for devices that carry older ports. Heck, even Apple reversed course on its MacBook Pros to bring back ports like HDMI and an SD card slot. There are certain use cases with laptops that certainly make sense for a headphone jack to be included.

But don’t poo-poo the innovation. I agree that removing features for the sake of removing them doesn’t help anyone. But Dell has already proved that there are advantages to taking the plunge — and I, for one, am ready to embrace what a headphone jack-less future has in store.

Editors’ Choice




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AI

Adobe has built a deepfake tool, but it doesn’t know what to do with it

Deepfakes have made a huge impact on the world of image, audio, and video editing, so why isn’t Adobe, corporate behemoth of the content world, getting more involved? Well, the short answer is that it is — but slowly and carefully. At the company’s annual Max conference today, it unveiled a prototype tool named Project Morpheus that demonstrates both the potential and problems of integrating deepfake techniques into its products.

Project Morpheus is basically a video version of the company’s Neural Filters, introduced in Photoshop last year. These filters use machine learning to adjust a subject’s appearance, tweaking things like their age, hair color, and facial expression (to change a look of surprise into one of anger, for example). Morpheus brings all those same adjustments to video content while adding a few new filters, like the ability to change facial hair and glasses. Think of it as a character creation screen for humans.

The results are definitely not flawless and are very limited in scope in relation to the wider world of deepfakes. You can only make small, pre-ordained tweaks to the appearance of people facing the camera, and can’t do things like face swaps, for example. But the quality will improve fast, and while the feature is just a prototype for now with no guarantee it will appear in Adobe software, it’s clearly something the company is investigating seriously.

What Project Morpheus also is, though, is a deepfake tool — which is potentially a problem. A big one. Because deepfakes and all that’s associated with them — from nonconsensual pornography to political propaganda — aren’t exactly good for business.

Now, given the looseness with which we define deepfakes these days, Adobe has arguably been making such tools for years. These include the aforementioned Neural Filters, as well as more functional tools like AI-assisted masking and segmentation. But Project Morpheus is obviously much more deepfakey than the company’s earlier efforts. It’s all about editing video footage of humans — in ways that many will likely find uncanny or manipulative.

Changing someone’s facial expression in a video, for example, might be used by a director to punch up a bad take, but it could also be used to create political propaganda — e.g. making a jailed dissident appear relaxed in court footage when they’re really being starved to death. It’s what policy wonks refer to as a “dual-use technology,” which is a snappy way of saying that the tech is “sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe shit.”

This, no doubt, is why Adobe didn’t once use the word “deepfake” to describe the technology in any of the briefing materials it sent to The Verge. And when we asked why this was, the company didn’t answer directly but instead gave a long answer about how seriously it takes the threats posed by deepfakes and what it’s doing about them.

Adobe’s efforts in these areas seem involved and sincere (they’re mostly focused on content authentication schemes), but they don’t mitigate a commercial problem facing the company: that the same deepfake tools that would be most useful to its customer base are those that are also potentially most destructive.

Take, for example, the ability to paste someone’s face onto someone else’s body — arguably the ur-deepfake application that started all this bother. You might want such a face swap for legitimate reasons, like licensing Bruce Willis’ likeness for a series of mobile ads in Russia. But you might also be creating nonconsensual pornography to harass, intimidate, or blackmail someone (by far the most common malicious application of this technology).

Regardless of your intent, if you want to create this sort of deepfake, you have plenty of options, none of which come from Adobe. You can hire a boutique deepfake content studio, wrangle with some open-source software, or, if you don’t mind your face swaps being limited to preapproved memes and gifs, you can download an app. What you can’t do is fire up Adobe Premiere or After Effects. So will that change in the future?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but I think it’s definitely a possibility. After all, Adobe survived the advent of “Photoshopped” becoming shorthand for digitally edited images in general, and often with negative connotations. And for better or worse, deepfakes are slowly losing their own negative associations as they’re adopted in more mainstream projects. Project Morpheus is a deepfake tool with some serious guardrails (you can only make prescribed changes and there’s no face-swapping, for example), but it shows that Adobe is determined to explore this territory, presumably while gauging reactions from the industry and public.

It’s fitting that as “deepfake” has replaced “Photoshopped” as the go-to accusation of fakery in the public sphere, Adobe is perhaps feeling left out. Project Morpheus suggests it may well catch up soon.

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Game

Paper Mario launches N64 era on Switch Online but doesn’t nail the landing

Earlier this year, Nintendo announced the Switch Online Expansion Pack. While the Expansion Pack doesn’t offer any improvements to the online service at the center of the subscription, it does offer various extra perks for those willing to shoulder the additional cost. Those perks include access to libraries of Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games, along with ongoing access to the Happy Home Paradise DLC for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nintendo has now confirmed that the first post-launch addition to the N64 library will be Paper Mario.

Nintendo Co., Ltd., Nintendo of America Inc.

A classic Nintendo 64 game comes to Switch this month

As far as Nintendo 64 games are concerned, Paper Mario is right up there as one of the classics. A spiritual successor to Super Mario RPG on the Super NES, Paper Mario blazed a new trail for Mario role-playing games when it was originally released. Paper Mario is a fantastic game, and if you’re subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online with the Expansion Pack, it’s well worth checking out when it arrives on the service later this month.

When will it arrive? Nintendo has announced a December 10th release date for Paper Mario, so release is right around the corner. Sadly, Paper Mario is the sole addition to Nintendo Switch Online for the 10th. There are no new NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis games heading to Switch Online alongside it, so hopefully, it won’t be long before we see more additions to some or all of those libraries.

Does Paper Mario make NSO’s Expansion Pack worth it?

It’s no secret that the price of Nintendo Switch Online’s Expansion Pack is a tough pill to swallow. A standard Nintendo Switch Online subscription costs $20 a year and allows you to play online multiplayer games, allows access to libraries of NES and SNES games, and includes a few freebies like Tetris 99 and Pac-Man 99. Nintendo’s online service is not great – something we’ve mentioned in reviews for games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Mario Maker 2 – but $20 is still a reasonable price considering what a subscription includes.

The Expansion Pack, on the other hand, adds collections of Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games along with access to the Happy Home Paradise DLC for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a DLC that costs $25 to buy outright. The Expansion Pack adds another $30 per year to the Nintendo Switch Online subscription cost, bringing the total to $50 a year. Is the Expansion Pack worth subscribing to?

Simply put: probably not for most. If you’re only interested in playing Nintendo 64 or Sega Genesis games, the Expansion Pack definitely isn’t worth it. It is, admittedly, impossible to play most of the N64 games included in the Switch Online Expansion Pack on modern platforms, but there are plenty of options for revisiting the many of the Sega Genesis games that are included because Sega loves its compilations.

The sole addition of Paper Mario doesn’t really improve the Expansion Pack’s value proposition. Perhaps there will be a point in the future where there are enough Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games to warrant the extra cost. Still, for now, the Expansion Pack should only really be a consideration for Animal Crossing fans who want the Happy Home Paradise expansion in addition to the N64 and Genesis titles.

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Game

Facebook says it doesn’t want to own the metaverse, just jumpstart it

Here’s what Facebook’s metaverse isn’t: It’s not an alternative world to help us escape from our dystopian reality, a la Snow Crash. It won’t require VR or AR glasses (at least, not at first). And, most importantly, it’s not something Facebook wants to keep to itself. Instead, as Mark Zuckerberg described to media ahead of today’s Facebook Connect conference, the company is betting it’ll be the next major computing platform after the rise of smartphones and the mobile web. Facebook is so confident, in fact, Zuckerberg announced that it’s renaming itself to “Meta.”

After spending the last decade becoming obsessed with our phones and tablets — learning to stare down and scroll practically as a reflex — the Facebook founder thinks we’ll be spending more time looking up at the 3D objects floating around us in the digital realm. Or maybe you’ll be following a friend’s avatar as they wander around your living room as a hologram. It’s basically a digital world layered right on top of the real world, or an “embodied internet” as Zuckerberg describes.

Before he got into the weeds for his grand new vision, though, Zuckerberg also preempted criticism about looking into the future now, as the Facebook Papers paint the company as a mismanaged behemoth that constantly prioritizes profit over safety. While acknowledging the seriousness of the issues the company is facing, noting that it’ll continue to focus on solving them with “industry-leading” investments, Zuckerberg said: 

Oculus Quest 2

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

“The reality is is that there’s always going to be issues and for some people… they may have the view that there’s never really a great time to focus on the future… From my perspective, I think that we’re here to create things and we believe that we can do this and that technology can make things better. So we think it’s important to to push forward.”

Given the extent to which Facebook, and Zuckerberg in particular, have proven to be untrustworthy stewards of social technology, it’s almost laughable that the company wants us to buy into its future. But, like the rise of photo sharing and group chat apps, Zuckerberg at least has a good sense of what’s coming next. And for all of his talk of turning Facebook into a metaverse company, he’s adamant that he doesn’t want to build a metaverse that’s entirely owned by Facebook. He doesn’t think other companies will either. Like the mobile web, he thinks every major technology company will contribute something towards the metaverse. He’s just hoping to make Facebook a pioneer.

“Instead of looking at a screen, or today, how we look at the Internet, I think in the future you’re going to be in the experiences, and I think that’s just a qualitatively different experience,” Zuckerberg said. It’s not quite virtual reality as we think of it, and it’s not just augmented reality. But ultimately, he sees the metaverse as something that’ll help to deliver more presence for digital social experiences — the sense of being there, instead of just being trapped in a zoom window. And he expects there to be continuity across devices, so you’ll be able to start chatting with friends on your phone and seamlessly join them as a hologram when you slip on AR glasses.

Facebook Horizon Home
A simulated preview of Horizon Home.

Facebook

But, of course, the metaverse won’t be built in a day. At Facebook Connect today, the company announced several ways it’s moving towards making it more accessible. For one, Facebook will be transforming the Oculus Quest’s Home interface into “Horizon Home,” a more fully featured environment where you can invite friends and hang out virtually. Eventually, you’ll also be able to build and customize your home space. The Venues app is also becoming “Horizon Venues,” where it’ll continue to serve as Facebook’s prime spot for live virtual events. (The company also says NBA games are coming back to Venues in early November.)

The company is also making a major push for developers: its new Presence Platform offers through APIs that’ll allow devs to make more inventive VR apps. The Insight SDK will let them take advantage of the Quest 2’s cameras to bring the real world into VR; the Interaction SDK opens up the door for more hand-tracking interactions; and the Voice SDK will — you guessed it — let you use your words in more ways.

The Insight SDK, in particular, could reshape what Quest VR experiences could look like. It includes Spatial Anchors, which will let virtual objects persist across sessions in a space. So if you placed a VR pet bunny on your coffee table, it should always be there every time you logged into an app. Additionally, there’s a Scene Understanding feature, which can help developers get a better sense of your physical space. A character talking to you in VR could, for example, wander around your living room without bumping into furniture.

Facebook Polar

Facebook

When it comes to augmented reality, Facebook also has plenty of upgrades in store for its Spark AR platform. For one, it’s planning to launch an iOS app called Polar that’ll let people design their own AR effects and objects without any coding. It’s aimed at creators, who could use it to build unique 3D signage or makeup effects that their followers can apply. More experienced devs will also be able to create Geo-anchored objects, which are tied to specific locations in the real world, as well as AR effects that track your hands and body. They can also try out building group video chats for Messenger, something that’ll eventually be supported in other apps.  

Like HoloLens and HTC Vive, Facebook plans to make a bigger push into enterprises with Quest for Business. It’s a way for employees to log into Quest 2 headsets with secure work accounts (it’s probably not great for your boss to see how often you’re playing Beat Saber, after all). Since they’re meant for office environments, IT departments will also be able to manage work accounts, specific devices and integrate their own security features. The key is that it’s all going to be accessible on consumer-grade Quest 2 headsets, Facebook won’t have to make entirely new hardware for work environments.

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Game

Steam Deck performance doesn’t get a boost in docked mode

Valve’s Steam Deck handheld gaming PC was immediately compared to the Nintendo Switch when it was first announced, but that’s a rather superficial comparison when it comes down to the details. While both are indeed handheld gaming devices, the Steam Deck is more like the Switch Lite with its nonremovable controls. Another critical difference between the two has just surfaced, revealing that the Steam Deck’s performance will be the same whether you hold it in your hands or nest it in a dock with a larger, higher-resolution screen.

Both the Steam Deck and the Nintendo Switch have two main modes of play, with handheld being the primary form. When connected to the TV dock, however, the Switch can push its hardware to the limit and support a higher 1080p resolution than what the built-in display supports. The Steam Deck also supports higher resolutions when docked, but it apparently won’t get the same performance boost that the Switch does in that mode.

What this means in practice is that the Steam Deck might actually perform worse in docked mode, especially if it’s connected to a monitor with a significantly higher display resolution. Valve designed the handheld PC for 30 fps performance, but that only applies to its native 800p screen. A higher resolution will definitely push the device to the limits, especially if other peripherals are connected to it as well.

Speaking with PC Gamer, Valve’s Greg Coomer explains that it was an intentional decision on their part. They opted to prioritize and optimize for the main use case of handheld gaming and decided not to make any changes when in docked mode. It does make Valve’s work easier, but it comes at the expense of user experience down the line.

That said, there are still some missing pieces to the Steam Deck’s picture to make a final judgment on that front. The device’s and the dock’s cooling systems could definitely play a big part in pushing the performance beyond normal levels, for example. Since the Steam Deck runs on Linux, there’s also the possibility of overclocking or workarounds for whatever limits Valve set, much more than what Nintendo Switch owners could do without jailbreaking their handhelds.

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Game

8 Problems the Nintendo Switch OLED Model Doesn’t Fix

The Nintendo Switch is one of the most popular consoles in history. Since its release in 2017, it has sold nearly 85 million units, with several of its bestselling games reaching over 20 million copies shipped. There are plenty of reasons for the system’s success, whether it’s the fantastic lineup of games, its versatility, or how approachable the handheld hybrid is.

Despite this, the system is not perfect. No system is, but the Switch in particular lacks many features you’d expect from a modern console. Evidently, the lack of these features doesn’t seem to have impacted sales much, but many of its omissions are still hard to ignore. Given we’re over four years into the system’s life cycle, it’s unlikely all of its missing features will be addressed.

The new Nintendo Switch OLED model actually fixes some of the initial complaints with the original version, which is certainly a step in the right direction, but there are lots of improvements to be made still. Here are eight key features the Nintendo Switch is still missing that the OLED model doesn’t address.

Customizable home screen

One of the most requested Nintendo Switch features is the ability to customize the home screen with folders and different themes. From day one, fans expected these basic features to be added, but four years later, they’re nowhere to be found. What’s odd is the 3DS had many home screen customization options, from fancy themes based on Nintendo games to the ability to create folders.

With as many games as are available on the system, it’d be nice to have the option to organize them, which was a handy 3DS feature. The omission of themes, which change the look of the home screen, is particularly baffling. Nintendo of all companies could get away with charging a few bucks for themes based on its franchises. It’s unclear why they still haven’t been added considering fan demand, but we can confidently say we’re tired of looking at the same black and white default screen available on the system now.

Better discoverability on eShop

Nintendo Switch eShop promotional art.

The Nintendo Switch eShop is severely lacking when it comes to discoverability. Searching the storefront has improved substantially since launch, but it’s still a rough experience. The biggest issue is that games are presented in an overwhelming visual way, making it hard to find what you’re looking for. As of now, games are simply listed sequentially, which can be hard to browse.

The eShop could use a user rating system too, so it’d be more clear which games are worth players’ time. While this wouldn’t be the end-all and be-all, it would definitely increase discoverability, especially for smaller indie games. It could borrow the rating system from Steam or other storefronts that work well, which would improve the overall browsing experience.

A “recommended for you” section that suggests games based on what you’ve played or purchased before would be another nice touch. If not that, perhaps more detailed search filters would solve some problems. While you can search for games via genre, the parameters aren’t always specific enough. And why isn’t there an option to add multiple items to your cart? The Nintendo Switch digital storefront feels outdated and it’s puzzling why it hasn’t been completely overhauled by now.

Key media apps

Netflix promotional art featuring shows and movies.

This point is a controversial one, but the Nintendo Switch should have more media apps. Sure, it’s a gaming device first and foremost, but it seems odd to omit key media apps like Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and Spotify in 2021. It’s even stranger that Hulu is actually available on the system, so the lack of others feels even more out of place.

Nintendo likes to do its own thing, and we appreciate that, but leaving out media apps just doesn’t make sense when they were even included on the Wii U.

Bluetooth support

Third-party receiver used for wireless headphones on Nintendo Switch.

This is a big one. Why the Nintendo Switch doesn’t have Bluetooth support is anyone’s guess and it’s a huge blow to the system. Given its prominence as a leading handheld device, having to carry around wired headphones or a receiver to allow for wireless connectivity is less than ideal. As we covered in our guide to using AirPods on Nintendo Switch, it’s certainly possible to wirelessly connect a headset to your system, but it’s not the most elegant solution — you need a third-party peripheral to make it work.

The main issue has to do with the receiver itself. When you plug it in via USB-C, it takes up your only port. That means you can’t charge your system while the receiver is in. For a system that boasts its portability, having to bring an extra device with you isn’t the best look. It also disallows the ability to utilize your system in tabletop mode, which is just another hurdle that gets in the way.

Improved voice chat solution

Diagram of the current voice chat sytstem on Switch, which requires a smart device.

To be frank, Nintendo’s solution to voice chat is atrocious. As it stands, you have to use the Nintendo Switch Online app on a phone to talk with other players while you play. It’s no different than utilizing Discord or another third-party app, so why even bother with this method at all? Even the Xbox 360 had built-in voice chat, so it’s confusing why Nintendo chose this route.

What’s strange is that Fortnite actually has native voice chat on Nintendo Switch, meaning the system is more than capable of pulling it off. It’s likely something to do with safety since the Nintendo Switch is a family device — but even still, the company’s backward approach to online play is hard to get behind. There are certain qualities that are just standard in consoles nowadays and built-in voice chat is one of them.

An achievement/trophy system

Lineup of PlayStation trophies.

Microsoft’s achievement system and Sony’s trophies are a fun way to get more mileage out of games. If the achievement lists are done right, they can offer a fair challenge that feels satisfying to overcome. That same logic could apply to games on Nintendo Switch. We’d love to go through all of our favorite Switch games to hunt for achievements that we could then share with our friends. Collect all the moons in Super Mario Odyssey, or complete all Shrines in Breath of the Wild? That sounds like a no-brainer!

Sure, achievement hunting may not be worth it to some players, but to others, it’s a great metagame that adds to the replay value while letting them show off their accomplishments. It’s not necessary, but an achievement system could add a longer lifespan to some of our favorite Switch games.

Virtual console (or something similar)

Nintendo Switch Online list of games.

Arguably one of the most requested Switch features is a Virtual Console equivalent where players can buy old games. Sure, the system has its Nintendo Switch Online service, but it’s no alternative to a full retro storefront. The Virtual Console on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS allowed players to buy many older Nintendo games from the NES area, to the SNES, and beyond. Without getting too far into the weeds of game preservation, Nintendo has often been criticized for the way it handles its legacy products and the lack of a Virtual Console on Switch is proof of that.

How great would it be to be able to boot up your Switch to play each first-party release from the NES all the way to the Wii? Microsoft figured out a way to do just that with its Xbox Series X system thanks to its stellar backward compatibility solution. From a business perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to neglect older games, especially if fan demand for them is so high. With over 85 million Switch consoles in the wild, it’s a safe bet older games would sell well on Switch.

A fix for Joy-Con drift

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Joy-Con.

It’s incredible that Nintendo still hasn’t fully solved its Joy-Con drift issue. How this happened in the first place is something we’ll likely never know the full details about, but it’s a problem that should have been addressed right away. To succinctly summarize Joy-Con drift, this is when the controller’s analog stick registers movement without you touching it, making it difficult to play. It can also work in reverse, wherein the stick won’t register inputs at all.

Even the Nintendo Switch Lite suffers from the same issue, though it’s much worse since you can’t replace its Joy-Con. The issue is so bad that Nintendo was actually sued in 2019, leading to an apology from company president Shuntaro Furukawa. Even in 2021, Joy-Con drift still persists, with players having to send their controllers back to Nintendo for repairs. Out of all the issues on this list, Joy-Con drift is one that negatively impacts how we play and should be of the utmost priority for Nintendo to address.

Editors’ Choice




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Tech News

T-Mobile REVVL V+ 5G doesn’t look too shabby for its price

Whether warranted or not, the term “affordable” has been used as a euphemism for “cheap,” which, in turn, has carried a stigma of poor quality or lackluster design. So when T-Mobile claims to have the most affordable 5G phone in the US market, it’s unsurprising that some might presume it’ll be a rather disappointing affair. They might be surprised, however, to find a rather good-looking handset that does deliver some value for its price, even if it does cut corners.

The REVVL V+ 5G runs on a Dimensity 700, one of MediaTek’s 5G chipsets aimed exactly at the mid-range market. It’s joined by 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, powering a 6.82-inch HD+ display. There’s also a large 5,000 mAh battery that should get you through your workday, but with 5G involved, you might soon find yourself reaching for a power bank at least.

The phone surprisingly looks good, given its price. Of course, we’re probably looking at plastic made to look like glass, but that’s what it is exactly designed for. The back houses four cameras (“16MP + 5MP + 2MP RFC with 16MP FFC”) in a modern-looking camera bump with no trace of a fingerprint scanner. There is no under-display sensor, though, and that fingerprint sensor is off to the side beneath the power button.

T-Mobile’s latest 5G phone does run the latest Android 11, so that’s definitely a plus, no pun intended. The REVVL V+’s biggest rival at this price range would be the OnePlus Nord N200 5G. The latter does have the advantage of a better screen and probably better software support down the road.

The T-Mobile REVVL V+ 5G‘s appeal, at least for the network’s customers, will be its $199 price tag. T-Mobile customers can even get it at $8.34 per month for 24 months on the carrier’s EIP program.

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Game

Microsoft’s zero-percent cut on Windows apps doesn’t extend to games

When Microsoft revealed its store’s new design for Windows 11, it also had great news for developers. The tech giant will allow them to use their own or a third party commerce platform in their apps starting on July 28th. If they choose to do so, the company will no longer take a cut from their earnings, and they can keep 100 percent of their revenue. In its announcement, Microsoft mentioned “app developers” specifically. Turns out that’s because they’re the only ones who can enjoy the incentive: The company has confirmed that the revenue-sharing exemption doesn’t apply to games.

Microsoft makes big money from game sales and subscriptions like any other company that runs a digital platform. It even admitted that it sells Xbox consoles at a loss, knowing that it’ll make profit from getting a 30 percent commission from game developers. While it’s unlikely for Microsoft to let go of game commissions entirely, it will implement lower rates for games starting on August 1st. It will only take 12 percent of a developer’s revenue instead of 30, at least when it comes to PC releases sold through its store.

By lowering its commission rate, Microsoft is following Epic’s lead. Epic has been getting a 12 percent cut of developers’ earnings since it opened its own PC games store in 2018 and has been the most vocal critic of Apple’s 70/30 revenue-sharing model. 

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AI

Building AI that doesn’t give your users ‘algorithmic fatigue’

Elevate your enterprise data technology and strategy at Transform 2021.


Consumers today are more AI-savvy than you think. Customers use their best interaction experience in one domain as a baseline expectation in others. This means that, when it comes to AI, every single business is in competition with the global giants, including Amazon and Netflix. AI is no longer a nice-to-have feature; it’s a must-have — and poor AI has become a real threat to businesses.

When the algorithm fails to live up to people’s expectations of the user experience and doesn’t deliver the service its users want, the people using the system end up feeling annoyed, frustrated, and tired. New research my team was involved in has identified this phenomenon, and it’s hurting businesses everywhere.

Consumers’ patience is running out. We are at a tipping point where companies in many industries need to step up and build better AI to survive. Indeed, AI is no longer just about the technology; it’s about how customers experience your brand.

In my 15 years working as a consultant for digital businesses, I’ve worked to resolve many of the pain points that come with corporations implementing AI. Here are four things I’ve learned about realigning any organization to build better AI.

1. Focus where it counts

One of our clients — a Nordic data-intensive public authority serving millions of people — had been successful in deploying various forms of AI-powered chatbots in customer interactions across their operations. While their customers appreciated these chatbots, the chatbots soon turned out to be a bit of a distraction for the business. The most significant opportunity lay instead in applying AI to the company’s own back-office operations, the service that ultimately produced the real customer value.

This called for a different, more complex type of cooperation within the organization. The project required new cross-functional teams, and as the firm was not quite mature enough to support these efforts, AI implementation needed to be prioritized as a top management issue, coordinated as a company-wide, top-down effort.

From a business strategy perspective, AI brings the most impact when it is used to create or optimize distinctive capabilities (sources of competitive advantage) instead of table-stakes (non-differentiating must-haves). Introducing AI into the core processes of your business is hard but it may also be critical if you want to change your competitive game.

AI development also requires constant iteration and it is best done in cross-functional teams. In other words, AI is a focused, company-wide effort. The idea of cross-functional teams for AI may seem simple and compatible with existing organizational structures, but in practice, that is seldom the case. Many attempts fail. AI must therefore be involved in business strategy work from the get-go: It should be recognized as a potential source of threats and opportunities in the business environment and acknowledged as a force that can influence the entire future trajectory of your organization.

2. Think long-term

A large European grocery chain we work with first started applying AI in marketing automation, a non-differentiating must-have. Soon, however, they realized the serious business possibilities with AI and began to view artificial intelligence as an indispensable in-house capability. Rather than attempt to calculate ROI for a specific business case, they saw hiring the right talent and building other key enablers for AI as an investment that would pay off over time through its impact on the core business. This took patience and foresight. The firm’s AI capabilities have since taken years to build, but it now has sophisticated AI handling assortment management, one of the distinctive capabilities and sources of competitiveness and profitability in the high-volume grocery business. The investment also better positioned the company for the future: Its AI capabilities have proven a key asset in the battle for overall market share brought about by the strong growth in grocery ecommerce.

Regardless of what you build or buy, or of the talent composition of your teams, it’s important to secure control of critical resources and ensure you build AI capabilities in-house over time. That means it’s crucial to reframe AI as an investment not as a cost. Organizational capabilities in AI may take years to build, but the business benefits are likely to become substantial over time. Once in place, AI capabilities can show a very high business yield — and can do so quickly. Even large companies can become agile to the point where new AI applications can be created in as little as one week.

3. Loosen the reins

A global industrial company we work with has been quite successful in building AI applications on a local business line or product level using cross-functional teams. The problem, however, is that these AI capabilities are now scattered across the group in pockets of excellence. This works well on a local level, but it also means a lot of potential and efficiency are lost due to the lack of learning and capability development across the units. To then scale the business impact of AI while retaining the strong business anchoring calls for building out a centralized mechanism for developing general AI capabilities. The aim is not to centralize control of application development but to best support such development in an overarching, coordinated way.

Purposeful AI development requires both direction and degrees of freedom. Cross-functional teams for AI must stay focused and dedicated but must also have enough autonomy to carry out the exploration and development needed to build AI. There has to be a continuous awareness of what the desired business outcomes are but also an openness to explore the possibilities and detours that inevitably come up in all AI exploration and development.

Organizing around AI is about balancing managed expertise and local application. The hub and spokes approach is one way to enable cross-functional teams at scale while still retaining control of the general capability. The optimal setup is a balance between a centralized and a distributed approach. If your AI capabilities are too centralized, they end up detached from the business; if they’re too distributed, they fail to create impact. You should organize AI development with a hub-and-spokes model, according to the overall AI maturity of your organization, and make sure you balance business goals with your teams’ freedom to experiment.

4. Show, don’t tell

A large luxury fashion retail group we worked with wanted to bring in advanced analytics across all its core business processes, including marketing, purchasing, merchandising, and pricing. The initiative faced fierce resistance in some functions that operated on human experience and intuition. We built ground-level AI solutions that helped doubters at their own trade and visibly improved their performance. One such solution was a machine learning–based segmentation tool that revealed a novel, clear distinction between brand loyalists and the customers who expected to be served with variety. Our solution also demonstrated to the stakeholders the benefits of working with such segmentation. This then significantly helped build understanding and buy-in for the overall agenda.

Building with AI is to a large extent about creating the right organizational mindset. AI solutions aim to augment or replace human cognitive tasks and decision-making, and such intrusions on human intuition typically face varying degrees and forms of resistance in an organization. One way to overcome this is to let your people see the realized benefits of AI for themselves, in their own work. AI can streamline processes, free up time and space, and help make the work more strategic and interesting. When people are involved in the process and are gradually shown these realized benefits of AI, they tend to become invested in making sure that AI flourishes in the organization. From there on, the rest then tends to fall into place.

Olof Hoverfält is a leading Strategy & Business Design expert at the technology consultancy Reaktor.

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Boston Dynamics’ latest robot doesn’t do backflips — and that’s a smart move

Boston Dynamics has made a name for itself through fascinating videos of biped and quadruped robots doing backflips, opening doors, and dancing to Uptown Funk. Now, it has revealed its latest gadget: A robot that looks like a huge overhead projector on wheels.

It’s called Stretch, it doesn’t do backflips, it doesn’t dance, and it’s made to do one task: moving boxes. It sounds pretty boring.

But this could, in fact, become the most successful commercial product of Boston Dynamics and turn it into a profitable company.

What does Stretch do?

Stretch has a box-like base with a set of wheels that can move in all directions. On top of the base are a large robotic arm and a perception mast. The robotic arm has seven degrees of freedom and a suction pad array that can grab and lift boxes. The perception mast uses computer vision–powered cameras and sensors to analyze its surroundings.

While we have yet to see Stretch in action, according to information Boston Dynamics provided to the media, it can handle boxes weighing up to 23 kilograms, it can make 800 displacements per hour, and it has a battery that can last eight hours. The video posted by Boston Dynamics on its YouTube channel suggests that the robot can reach the 800-cases-per-hour speed if everything remains static in its environment.

Traditional industrial robots must be installed in a fixed location, which puts severe limits on the workflows and infrastructure of the warehouses where they are deployed. Stretch, on the other hand, is mobile and can be used in many different settings with little prerequisite beyond a flat ground and a little bit of training (we still don’t know how the training works). This could be a boon for many warehouses that don’t have automation equipment and infrastructure.

As Boston Dynamics’ VP of business development Michael Perry told The Verge, “You can take this capability and you can move it into the back of the truck, you can move it into aisles, you can move it next to your conveyors. It all depends what the problem of the day is.”

A boring but useful robot

At first glance Stretch seems like a step back from the previous robots Boston Dynamics has created. It can’t navigate uneven terrain, climb stairs, jump on surfaces, open doors, and handle objects in complicated ways.

It did manage to do some amusing feats on its intro video, but we can’t expect it to be as entertaining as Spot, Atlas, and Handle.

But that’s exactly what real-world applications of robotics and artificial intelligence are all about. We still haven’t figured out how to create artificial general intelligence, the kind of AI that can mimic all aspects of the cognitive and physical abilities of humans and animals.

Current AI systems are robust when performing narrow tasks in stable environments but start to break when they’re forced to tackle various problems in unpredictable settings. Therefore, the success of AI systems is to find the right balance between versatility and robustness, especially in physical settings where safety and material damage are major concerns.

And Stretch exactly fits that description. It does a very specific task (picking up and displacing boxes) in a predictable environment (flat surfaces in warehouses).

Stretch might sound boring in comparison to the other things that Boston Dynamics has done in the past. But if it lives up to its promise, it can directly result in reduced costs and improved production for many warehouses, which makes it a viable business model and product.

As Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development Michael Perry told The Verge last June, “[A] lot of the most interesting stuff from a business perspective are things that people would find boring, like enabling the robot to read analogue gauges in an industrial facility. That’s not something that will set the internet on fire, but it’s transformative for a lot of businesses.”

boston dynamics stretch spot robots

The competitive edge of Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics is not alone in working on autonomous mobile robots for warehouses and other industrial settings. There are dozens of companies competing in the field, ranging from longstanding companies such as Honeywell to startups such as Fetch Robotics.

And unloading boxes is just one of the several physical tasks that are ripe for automation. There’s also a growing market for sorting robots, order-picking robots, and autonomous forklifts.

What would make Boston Dynamics a successful contender in this competitive market? The way I see it, success in the industrial autonomous mobile robots market will be defined by versatility/robustness threshold on the one hand and cost efficiency on the other. In this respect, Boston Dynamics has two factors working to its advantage.

First, Boston Dynamics will leverage its decades of experience to push the versatility of its robots without sacrificing their robustness and safety. Stretch has inherited technology and experience from Handle, Atlas, Spot, and other robots Boston Dynamics has developed in the past years. It also contains elements of Pick, a computer vision­–based depalletizing solution mentioned in the press release that declared Hyundai’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics. This can enable Stretch to work in a broader set of conditions than its competitors.

Second, the company’s new owner Hyundai is one of the leading companies in mobile robot research and development. Hyundai has already made extensive research in creating autonomous robots and vehicles that can navigate various environments and terrains. Hyundai also has a great manufacturing capacity. This will enable Boston Dynamics to reduce the costs of manufacturing Stretch and sell it at a competitive price. Hyundai’s manufacturing facilities will also enable Boston Dynamics to deliver new parts and props for Stretch at a cost-efficient price. This will further improve the versatility of the robot in the future and allow customers to repurpose it for new tasks without making large purchases.

boston dynamics stretch robot depalletizing

The future of Boston Dynamics

Stretch is the second commercial product of Boston Dynamics, the first one being the quadruped robot Spot. But Spot’s sales were only covering a fraction of the company’s costs, which were at least $150 million per year when Hyundai acquired it. Stretch has a greater potential for making Boston Dynamics a profitable company.

How will the potential success of Stretch affect the future of Boston Dynamics? Here’s an observation I made last year after Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics: “Boston Dynamics might claim to be a commercial company. But at heart, it is still an AI and robotics research lab. It has built its fame on its advanced research and a continuous stream of videos showing robots doing things that were previously thought impossible. The reality, however, is that real-world applications seldom use cutting-edge AI and robotics technology. Today’s businesses don’t have much use for dancing and backflipping robots. What they need are stable solutions that can integrate with their current software and hardware ecosystem, boost their operations, and cut costs.”

How will Stretch’s success affect Boston Dynamics’ plans for human-like robots? It’s hard to remain committed to long-term scientific goals when you’re owned by a commercial enterprise that counts profits by the quarter.

But it’s not impossible. In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein worked as an assistant examiner at the Swiss patent office in Bern because physics research didn’t put food on his family’s table. But he remained a physicist at heart and continued his research in his idle time while his job as patent clerk paid the bills. His passion eventually paid off, earning him a Nobel prize and resulting in some of the greatest contributions to science in history.

Will Stretch and its successors become the norm for Boston Dynamics, or is this the patent-clerk job that keeps the lights on while Boston Dynamics continues to chase the dream of humanoid robots that push the limits of science?

This article was originally published by Ben Dickson on TechTalks, a publication that examines trends in technology, how they affect the way we live and do business, and the problems they solve. But we also discuss the evil side of technology, the darker implications of new tech and what we need to look out for. You can read the original article here.



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