Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Commercial Use of Google Glass Faces Tough UK Data Protection Act

British regulators began circling Google's smart glasses like buzzards even before the wearable device went on sale in the UK last week. Google Glass wearers using their device for personal reasons have less to worry about, but commercial users will have to comply with British data protection rules aimed at safeguarding personal privacy.

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Google's Cardboard Virtual Reality Kit

What do you need for a virtual reality experience? You need one image going into one eye and a different image going into the other – it’d be good if the images changed once in a while – and that’s basically it. Google Cardboard brings that to you with only a smartphone, a couple of lenses, and cardboard (and some magnets and rubber bands).

Wednesday at their I/O conference in San Francisco Google handed out unfoldable packages that assembled – via Velcro and some tearing on the dotted line – into fully functional 3-D displays upon adding an Android phone and a Cardboard-compatible app.

Like an old-school stereoscope, the Cardboard uses a lens in front of each eye to focus a user’s eyesight to two evenly-sized windows, creating the illusion of viewing a 3-D landscape. In this case, though, those windows are each half of a smartphone’s screen. The demos within the Cardboard app offer exploration of Google Earth and virtual environments, and there are some additional simple games and displays accessible via Chrome. The setup uses the smartphone’s movement sensors to explore a virtual interface, and a metal ring paired with a magnet clinging to the side of the device moves up and down, allowing users to click by triggering a phone’s magnetometer (normally used to measure the phone’s orientation compared to the Earth’s magnetic field).

Google also put do-it-yourself instructions with equally simple materials online for those who missed the conference.

The trickiest part to find are the lenses: Google’s recommendation is now unavailable on Amazon, and users on Cardboard’s quickly-expanding Google+ group have recommend substituting everything from disassembled reading glasses to extra Oculus Rift lenses. In addition to following the cardboard-based instructions, some adventurous group members report assembling headsets via laser-cut fiber board and 3-D printing, not to mention retro stereoscopes, magnifying glasses, and toys intended for still images. Nobody’s yet followed Google’s own suggestion for the frame: an extra-large pizza box.

Besides the built-in demo, developers have been creating their own free and paid apps—including a Minecraft-like game and a roller coaster simulation—with the help of the VR Toolkit. The toolkit is intended to help with perspective changes, head tracking, and movement in order to optimize apps for 3-D.

Cardboard is clearly not intended as an immersive virtual reality experience on par with the Rift or Sony’s Morpheus, and there's the possibility of blurriness,discomfort, and the inherent motion lag when using today's smartphones. But as a barebones 3-D platform, it's hard to resist. And if the next big app appears on Android for 3-D, you can bet Google will have a higher-quality successor to Cardboard out in a hurry.

That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA

According to my best reading of a notice the FAA announced on Monday, things like the US $154 Husban X4 quadcopter are no longer toys—they are true drone aircraft in the FAA's eyes and cannot be flown without a certificate of authorization or special airworthiness certificate.


Up to now, the FAA has been distinguishing model aircraft from small drones (or small unmanned aerial systems, to use the FAA’s preferred terminology) according to whether they are flown for recreation or for commercial purposes. If you want to fly a 20-kilogram, turbine-powered radio-controlled model airplane, go right ahead, so long as you only do it as a hobby. Fly a 2-kilogram electric foamy for compensation, and you’re breaking the rules against commercial drone use, though. That was the basic argument the FAA had made against Raphael Pirker, who was issued with a $10,000 fine for flying a model airplane for hire in 2011.

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SCOTUS Rules That Cellphone Searches Require Warrants

In a unanimous ruling yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone. This will likely apply to computer and tablet searches as well, and acknowledges that a phone these days is far more like a file cabinet in a home, which historically cannot searched without a warrant, than a wallet, which can.

The court had looked at two cases, Riley v. California, in which officers searched a cell phone during a traffic stop and found information on the phone that connected the phone's owner to gang activity, and United States v. Wurie, in which information on the phone led the police to an apartment that was searched and found to contain drugs and a weapon.

The Justice Department, defending warrantless searches of cell phones, had argued that evidence on a phone could be destroyed remotely, were officers to wait to obtain a warrant to conduct the search. Preventing such destruction, however, can be as simple as switching a phone into airplane mode or slipping it into a Faraday bag, and these precautions are well understood by the law enforcement community.

Digital privacy advocates are relieved. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that filed briefs in the two cell phone search cases considered by the Supreme Court, stated yesterday that “these decisions are huge for digital privacy.”

“The court,” Fakhoury said, “recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim.”

Goose Bump Detector Senses Your Skin Crawling

A swell of music that evokes a long-forgotten memory, the rising tension of a horror film, or a sudden drop in temperature can all lead to tiny goose bumps on human skin—a physical response sometimes related to emotional states. New skin sensors capable of tracking such hair-raising moments in life could someday help detect a person's reaction to a new movie or online advertisement.

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Google Fit Wants to Rule All Your Wearable Health, Fitness Devices

human os iconGoogle is no longer satisfied just to know what you searched for online the last time you had a cold or suffered from heartburn. The Internet giant plans for its Google Fit service to track everything about your health by gathering data from fitness trackers, health apps, and wearable medical devices.

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Supreme Court Shoots Aereo Down

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with traditional broadcasters and ruled that Aereo, a New York City-based startup that provides TV streaming service based on “personal antennas,” has infringed the copyrights of producers and their licensed distributors.

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Google Bets $50 Million on Inspiring Girls to Become Coders

Fewer than one percent of high school girls express interest in becoming computer science majors in college—a dismal number that also points to why the percentage of women among computer science graduates has dropped in recent decades. Google aims to boost that number via a mentorship network aimed at getting girls interested in coding. The company plans to invest $50 million into its new "Made with Code" initiative over the next three years.

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Beyond Tianhe-2

The TOP500 semi-annual ranking of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, announced yesterday, revealed that China’s Tianhe-2 has kept its first-place position. The three-time winner, capable of performing 33.86 petaflops (a maximum of 33.86 quadrillion computations per second) remains nearly twice as fast as its nearest competitor, the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The TOP500 ranking is based on contenders’ performance running the LINPACK Benchmarks, which measure how fast a computer can solve large systems of linear equations. While this is a convenient way to rank computer performance, it doesn’t reflect all the tasks supercomputers might be faced with. In particular, some have to analyze and process huge datasets, meaning that it’s more valuable for them to be able to quickly determine the connections between data points than to perform numerical calculations. Their ability to identify such connections is reflected in the newer Graph500 ranking system. But the fact remains that computers that hit these benchmarks are lightning-fast—and able to take on more and more complicated modeling and analysis projects.

The combined speed of all 500 systems—or how fast they’d be if they could all work together—has reached 274 petaflops, up from the 250-petaflop total of the previous TOP500 list in November. This increase (according to the organization’s infographic [pdf]) represents a slowdown in the rate of growth compared with the trajectory based on recent lists, but the curators of the TOP500 list still say it’s likely that one such behemoth will break the exaflop barrier by 2020.

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Why U.S. Companies Will Win Wearables

human os iconWearables seem to be everywhere. Whether it’s the wearables of the near future, like smart glasses, the even nearer future—smartwatches—or the ones most widely available today—activity monitors—it’s clear that the next great wave of consumer electronics will be worn on the human body. Ubiquitous gadgets studding clothing, worn on the wrist, covering the eyes, tattooed on the skin, or placed in the ear is where we're heading—and we're moving there fast.

While other regions of the world may be leading innovation in telecommunications, energy, automobiles, and biomedicine, U.S. companies, big and small, are the main innovators of wearable technology.

That’s because the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. supports entrepreneurs with big ideas. That’s been true for now-massive companies such as Google and Apple, and it’s true for a slew of emerging companies that are developing wearable technologies. One reason is schools such as MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon, which serve as incubators for spin-off companies that benefit from the schools' resources during the development phase. Budding engineers can create new products with little financial risk.

These academic spinoffs in the U.S., unlike their counterparts in other countries, can often retain the intellectual property rights to technology developed in university labs. The ability to retain IP can make entrepreneurs more willing to make the leap from the lab to commercialization and may also increase the value of a company to potential investors.

Once a U.S. spinoff begins the commercialization process, it typically looks not to government organizations for funding but to VCs, angel investors, and crowdfunding. It also can look to the public stock market; initial public offerings for emerging companies are on the upswing, thanks to the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. The goal of the JOBS Act, which was signed into law on 5 April 2012, was to streamline access to capital for companies of all sizes.

“After the dot com bust, the U.S. government put in place a number of new rules and regulations that were very important, but had the unintended consequence of pricing smaller companies out of the IPO process, which is key to capital formation for emerging technology companies. The passage of the JOBS Act in April 2012 reduced the regulatory burden on smaller IPO candidates, and the IPO market has responded with two straight strong years," says Livingston Securities Chairman and CEO Scott Livingston.

He pointed out that the number of IPOs in 2012, the year that President Obama signed the JOBS Act into law, was the highest number since 2006. “And by September 2013,” said Livingston, “the number of IPOs had already surpassed all of 2012.”

While we have yet to see a wearables company achieve an IPO just yet, there is a good chance that we will see one within the next few years.

Meanwhile, crowdfunding seems to have worked particularly well in wearables, where it has brought individual investors and entrepreneurs together, sometimes at breakneck speed. Just look at Pebble. As the most successful Kickstarter project to date, Pebble raised more than $10.2 million for its smartwatches—although its target was only $100K. And consider Oculus VR. Back in 2012, Oculus set a Kickstarter goal of $250K for its Oculus Rift developer kit, a virtual reality headset. The company raised more than $2 million and recently sold itself to Facebook for $2 billion.

European start-ups, for the most part, don't benefit from the diversity of funding sources and the speed of access to money that U.S. companies enjoy. In Europe, innovators instead often grapple for government funding. Jumping through bureaucratic hoops takes time. It can also dampen the entrepreneurial spirit for emerging consumer technologies such as wearables. To be fair, Europe has far surpassed U.S. achievements in areas like sustainable energy, automotive design, and biomedical engineering—fields that often require more infrastructure and can afford longer design-to-delivery windows.

While government funding is also an important part of the Asian innovation engine, wearables start-ups are not the companies that are receiving the funding. So it will be the giants of the consumer-electronics industry in Asia—companies such as Sony, Samsung and LG—that will influence the development of wearable technology there. But China could prove to be an exception. With its booming entrepreneurialism in the consumer electronics industry (as well as the wealth generated by its rising creative class), it’s likely that at least some future wearables will not just be manufactured in China, but designed there, as well.

This is why the prospects for U.S. wearables makers have been looking pretty rosy, especially in the fitness/activity wristband specialty. Jawbone, a San Francisco-based, VC-funded company that makes the UP wristband, recently purchased Body Media, a Pittsburgh-based start-up that spun out of Carnegie Mellon. In March 2014, Intel acquired BASIS Science, a privately held company located in San Francisco, for its Basis bands. And, completing the power-triad of wristband developers, another San Francisco-based company, FitBit, stands successfully alone, selling both fitness/activity wristbands—Flex—and a cute little wireless activity tracker, Zip, which fits in a pocket or a bra.

And U.S. innovation goes beyond wristbands to other types of body-worn devices. Lumo BodyTech, a Stanford spinoff, offers two posture-saving applications: Lumo Back and Lumo Lift. And how did the company first get started? Again, Kickstarter, back in 2012. The company now has venture capital investment.

As executive director of a global trade association focused on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and sensors, I care deeply about wearables because they would not exist without technologies like accelerometers, gyros, and magnetometers. And like many other industry types, I am eagerly anticipating “flexible electronics”—MEMS-based technologies with the potential to transform not just wearables but all kinds of electronic products.


Photo: MC10
MC10's biostamp can measure physiological parameters.

I particularly have my eye on MC10, a Cambridge, Mass., start-up with origins at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. MC10’s technology platform features a “bendable, stretchable, body-compatible electronic system” called the Biostamp—a soft, sensing sticker that can be placed anywhere on the body to measure for a variety of physiological parameters. MC10 is targeting wearable applications in the sports and fitness, consumer health, and regulated medical industries. The company launched its first commercial product, the Reebok Checklight head impact indicator last year, and will be launching the first of its Biostamp applications in 2015.

It is unequivocally true that technology innovation takes place all over the world, but when it comes to wearables and to some of the technology components and platforms that make wearables what they are, U.S.-based companies are ahead and will continue to lead the way.

Karen Lightman is executive director of MEMS Industry Group. She works with companies developing component-level technologies that are used to make wearables and with companies that create wearable products for consumers.


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