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When AI Speaks For Us


With the advent of Alexa and Siri, we've gotten more comfortable with the idea of talking with artificial intelligence software. But in those interactions, the AI tends to be standing in for something inanimate - a toaster, a kitchen timer, maybe a light switch. A couple of recent announcements, however, suggest that this relationship is about to get a lot more complicated.

Essential Products, a smartphone manufacturer started by Andy Rubin, creator of the Android OS, has announced the development of a new phone that will take on many of its users' social responsibilities. It will automatically respond to texts and emails, and can take care of scheduling tasks without any outside input. Because of its focus on autonomy, it will also look less like a conventional smartphone, with a smaller screen and an emphasis on control via voice; both of these developments line up with some predictions we made late last year.

At the same time, Google has announced that by the end of the year, its Duplex voice assistant software will be available on its Pixel smartphones. You may remember Duplex from its slightly creepy demo back in May, where the next-gen assistant made a hair salon appointment over the phone. Complete with "um" and "ah" pauses, it completed its task without the human on the other end realizing they had been talking with a ‘bot.

If you use Gmail, you may have already had a glimpse into the strangeness of this future. Google Smart Compose launched earlier this year, giving users suggestions for how to reply to emails - "Ok, sounds great!" or "Let me check on that" - and it is continuing to enhance its ability to auto-complete common phrases or introductions.

While this sounds initially very convenient, we anticipate some serious concerns emerging about just who we really are when we use these systems. Did your boss's email really "sound great" or was that just the closest approximation of what you really would have said? How polite do we need to be when we answer the phone, knowing the caller on the other end is most likely a 'bot - even if it's calling on behalf of Grandma? Did you really want to go skydiving, or did your phone just see that you had some free time this weekend and made a few calls? We expect to see questions of trust and honesty emerging alongside these technologies, with consumers pushing for new ways to understand and experience true human connections and know that their decisions - and their personalities - are truly their own.

Dueling Plans to Disrupt Grocery

What's the worst part of going to the grocery store? If you said the checkout line, you'd make a lot of software engineers very happy. This week, Amazon and Walmart both announced their own projects to simplify the grocery shopping experience by using technology to radically cut down on line time.  

Amazon's store uses a system of sensors and cameras to track customers and the items they pick up, no barcode reader necessary - simply walk in, take what you want, and walk out. Your purchases will be charged directly to your card. To use Walmart's system, pick out your items in advance online; they will be bagged up and ready to go when you walk into the store.    

The most interesting part of these pilot programs, though, is what they're not: namely, delivery services. Both still require you to go to a physical store, pick up your groceries and bring them home, which in an era of Uber and Amazon Prime might sound strangely off-message. But it's also a sign that these big retailers know there's still an appeal to shopping in person, and sometimes an online-plus-showrooming one-two punch is the most effective strategy.    

And it's still the fastest way to get what you want when you're planning the dinner menu at the last minute.

Snapchat and the Wearables Trap

Every once in a while an idea comes along that's so appealing - so obviously right - that we'll blame anything but the idea if the product fails. "Sure," we say when someone takes a stab at it and bombs, "they gave it a good shot - but their execution was all wrong. We'll be the ones to get it right."  

Increasingly, wearable cameras are feeling like one of those seductive dead-ends. The idea that we would want to record everything we see is so natural and obvious that it's got to be a winner, right?    

This weekend Snapchat stepped into the ring with a fashionable pair of their own video glasses, called Snapchat Spectacles. Learning from the mistakes of Google Glass, they're aiming for influencers, not geeks. And unlike the various other life-tracking cameras that have come and gone, they've got an enormously popular sharing platform already in place for all the content users will be shooting. So are Spectacles a sure thing?  

It's not wrong that everyone wants their lives to be a movie. But the key insight is that we don't want to be that movie's camera operator; we want to be its star. This is why selfie sticks sell by the millions while the Looxcie remains a footnote. As much as we all love to hate it, the selfie stick at least acknowledges that good content needs a focal point; a personality. Spectacles expect us to be altruistic enough to make our friends those stars - but if it's our video, we want to be in it.

If there's going to be a massive hit in the flagging world of cameras and video hardware, we would put our money on autonomous drones. As drones get cheaper and their software continues to advance, it seems increasingly likely that our most shareable moments will be captured by a tiny flying camera, loyally circling around us while our hands are free to make avocado toast, or free-climb El Capitan, or cradle an elderly pug in a top hat. And that way, our followers will always see our best angle.

Luxepack 2016

Luxepack is the only creative packaging showcase in North America - we visited to see what exhibitors could tell us about the latest packaging trends, and came away with 3 key insights.

The Future is Encrypted

It's a position we've all been conditioned to accept: that anything stored on a computer or, even worse, the web, has the potential of becoming public. We generally understand that the "black-hat," or malicious, hackers are always a few steps ahead of the "white-hat" good guys, and that the internet is moving inevitably toward total information entropy, a state where all data is equally free and all our embarrassing photos are available to anyone.

And yet, recently, there have been a couple signs that the narrative is changing. Gaming site Kotaku recently pointed out that major video games, which are routinely cracked and distributed for free mere minutes after their launch, are increasingly unavailable through unscrupulous channels. Just Cause 3, a major release and therefore a prestige target for hackers, has so far gone a full two months without being unlocked. Chinese hackers, meanwhile, predict that they'll be unable to crack any games at all within two years.

More prominently, in the last week we've witnessed Apple's refusal to allow the FBI to access Americans' iPhone data. This follows a growing pattern of Apple positioning itself as the guardian of its users' privacy - a rift, perhaps, that they hope to highlight between themselves and obsessive data trackers like Google. It's not a bad business strategy, either. The fact that Apple's encryption appears to be unbreakable by anyone but Apple itself, however, is remarkable on its own.

The growing strength of encryption has a dark side, though. Earlier this week, the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles found itself the victim of an increasingly common form of hacking; invaders breached their computer system and encrypted everything on the local network. Nothing was removed from the computers; the hackers had simply changed the locks, so to speak. They demanded a ransom of 40 bitcoins, or roughly $17,000, to unlock the data. And in the end, the hospital's security consultants opted to simply pay up; it was cheaper to give in than to try to crack the encryption.

So, are we headed toward a rosy future of total internet privacy? The hacking community is far too resilient to allow it. Even the examples cited above could be nothing but coincidental outliers on an otherwise steady trend toward anarchy. But it's important to think about how a changing internet could influence consumers' opinions on safety, sharing and personal data. If security does manage to improve, even just on a small part of the internet, we could see serious ramifications for everything from smart homes to self-driving cars - and perhaps even a reversal in the fates of physical media.


Underground Retail with a Digital Twist

Underground Retail with a Digital Twist

For retailers, 2015 will likely be remembered as a turning point. This was the year that Black Friday shoppers, enticed by convenience and repelled by long lines, bought more online than in brick-and-mortar stores. 

But can a brand successfully integrate both worlds? A newly-opened retail concept here in NYC thinks they've cracked it, and we brought a camera down to their subterranean flagship to find out how.

Using AR to Cut Through Shelf Clutter

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Do you ever feel a little lost when you scan the craft-beer section at your local grocery store? Letsee Beer, a new app from South Korea, uses augmented-reality tech to identify any beer and immediately show user comments and reviews. Mashable recently called it "like Shazam for your beer," and it's a great example of a developer finding an effective real-world use for AR, a technology which often feels like a solution in search of a problem.

There's a bigger point to be made here, though. Craft beer is certainly a booming market, with so many new varieties that brewers are actually running out of new names for their beers. But the broader food world is experiencing a similar trend, with major players increasingly seeing their markets filled with lots of agile little competitors. And while consumers love the variety and regional stories these smaller brands present, there's also a point at which it starts to look like a lot of noise. 

The opportunity to help consumers hone in on the right item exists everywhere - and on every shelf of the grocery store. As smaller players take a larger slice of the pie, expect to see similar attempts to help intimidated consumers take advantage of all that choice.

YouTube Goes VIP

With the unveiling of YouTube Red, the world's largest video provider now offers a premium paid-subscription plan that will allow viewers to bypass the site's ubiquitous ads. This move has seemed inevitable for a long time - the pay model has served other video and music streamers well, and YouTube has an enormous viewer base. With the boom in ad-blocking software as well, content providers across the web are looking for ways to ensure steady revenue. 

YouTube's model could face some challenges, however. Their content is typically of the "snackable" variety - small clips watched through a shared link or in a spare minute mid-commute. Skipping all those pre-roll ads might add up to a lot of saved time over a year, but can consumers be expected to open their wallets when it's become habitual for many of us to just click "Skip Ad" after three seconds?

The other question is one of account fatigue. We now have monthly subscriptions to Netflix, HBOGo, Hulu, Spotify, and any number of more specialized services, and with each of these comes another username and password and signup process. The hassle of adding one more account might not stop many people from bringing YouTube into their mix, but as we approach a critical mass of paid user accounts, it seems like the emergence of some kind of cable-package-style aggregator of streaming subscriptions is increasingly inevitable.

Eyes on the Oculus Rift

Eyes on the Oculus Rift

Earlier this week we sent our resident geek, Dave C., to do some reconnaissance at the Museum of the Moving Image. They're currently hosting an exhibition on new and experimental storytelling technologies, called Sensory Stories, and the centerpiece is the much-hyped Oculus Rift. 

While it was hardly our first encounter with the Rift, the exhibit at MoMI had several different software experiences queued up, and they presented a great overview of the potential of this new generation of virtual reality devices. There were interactive games, but also a remarkably immersive 360º tour of a refugee camp in Jordan - Clouds Over Sidra - produced by the United Nations, and some disconcertingly realistic 3D-rendered experiences that explored the illusions of proximity and distance that the device can create.

Everything we saw implied that virtual reality is ready for primetime - not just as a gaming device or novelty, but as a new way to consume all kinds of media, from telepresence to documentary film. And the most important part of the equation may just be price; Oculus recently announced that when the final version of the Rift arrives for purchase early next year, the entire system necessary to experience VR - including a computer to run the software - will cost about $1500. At that price point, we think VR-based entertainment might finally be more than an illusion.

Sensory Stories will run at the Museum of the Moving Image through July 26, 2015

A Week For Robots

A Week For Robots

Developing new technology takes time - which means that those of us who love to hear about new advances in robotics typically have to wait a while between items. Sometimes, though, the stars align and we find ourselves inundated with robot news - and that's just what has happened over the last seven days.

It began with the blogosphere's thrilled/terrified reaction to the newfound jumping ability of MIT's Cheetah Robot, and has been followed by more feats of robot dexterity, like this humanoid 'bot that moves boxes just like a real (struggling) person. And of course we watched and rewatched the remarkable feats - and untimely demise - ofthis tiny robot, too. 

Finally, we have some hope for the logistics of working robots, via The Verge, where they've found that the actual cost of Amazon's delivery-by-drone service could be quite reasonable. Well, as long as we assume that the program could be implemented without any legal hurdles or unforeseen conflicts. It might be a while before your next Amazon box drops onto your porch from the sky, but we're glad to see that one of Amazon's most out-there visions has some real-world viability.  

YouTube Launches TrueView for Shopping

YouTube Launches TrueView for Shopping

We've seen some great ideas for expanding the influence of YouTube advertising content - see, for example, Geico's brilliantly unskippable ads - but now, the video service is launching a new type of ad that will allow users to jump directly into purchasing the products they see. It's called TrueView for Shopping, and Google hopes that it'll transform "micro-moments" - those times when we turn to YouTube to help us learn a new skill, for example - into opportunities to shop for the items we might be learning about.

They've already tested the system with Sephora, and have seen some significant results in consideration and ad recall. With web video booming, but no clear way to turn that growth into revenue, we expect to see some really interesting tie-ins between video and shopping coming down the pike.

Mobile Tech for the Great Outdoors

Mobile Tech for the Great Outdoors

Here on the East Coast, a brutal winter is just releasing its grip. If you're like us, you're probably itching to get out and spend time in the great outdoors. Not without your gadgets, of course! Fortunately, spring has brought a crop of new apps and devices designed to help maximize your enjoyment of the warm weather.

Your first download should probably be, a new app that works like AirBnB for sporting goods. Rent your neighbor's unused mountain bike, camping stove or kayak for a few bucks a day, and you'll be saving money as well as space in your own garage.

Next up is finding the perfect place to enjoy the fresh air - and for this, we'd turn, a new app that helps you find the most picturesque hiking spots in your area. After all, what good is trekking out into the wilderness if you don't come back with some great Instagram pics?

Of course, pictures are just part of it - if you want to get video, but don't want to enlist a fellow traveler as your videographer, you may want to look into the AirDog, a new autonomous drone funded on Kickstarter that will be going on sale later this year. The AirDog will follow you wherever you go, traveling at up to 45 miles per hour, for up to 20 minutes. And it's small enough to fold up in your backpack, making it an easy travel companion.

The impulse to escape into the wilderness might be driven by a desire to get away from it all, but it's obvious that at every stage the latest technology is redefining how we're enjoying those wide open spaces.

Keys in the Cloud

Keys in the Cloud

In the interest of security, many of us have switched over to password managers - those clever programs that store all of our various security credentials somewhere in the cloud, keeping us from having to walk around with our pockets stuffed with little scraps of paper.

Now, a new service called KeyMe looks to do something similar for physical keys. Take a photo of each of your keys on a white background, and you can upload them to KeyMe's servers. Then, any time you need a key, just stop by a Lowe's, log into their kiosk and print out copies of whichever key you need. You can even share key files with housemates electronically.

Exciting, to be sure, but also a little scary in a world where reports of new hacks seem to come in daily. KeyMe is a great example of how the cloud can make our real-world lives easier; we just hope they don't turn out to be a cautionary tale, too.

For more, check out this article on Ars Technica.

High-Tech Packaging, Spotted in the Wild

High-Tech Packaging, Spotted in the Wild

A recent article in Packaging World examines the world of printed electronics, or PE, which stand ready to revolutionize product packaging. Using ultra-thin electronics and power supplies, they can be used to add flash to items on store shelves (check out Bombay Sapphire's awesome phosphorescent box) or even automatically update to display the freshness of the product contained within.

We hear about unusual new packaging innovations every once in a while, and to be honest, most of them seem to fizzle for one reason or another before they reach shelves. But PE could be different - check out the video embedded in Packaging World's article, showing some Gillette Fusion packages recently sighted at a Walgreen's in Boston that appear to be using PE. The future could be coming sooner than we think.

Pressure Builds on Sodastream

Pressure Builds on Sodastream

In the world of countertop drinks appliances, there are two clear leaders: in one corner, we have Sodastream, the undisputed champ of home soda making. In the other, Keurig, which has beaten back all other challengers to its proprietary-coffee-pod-system crown. So far, the two have grown their share in their respective markets without clashing. 

But this could soon change, with word that Keurig is developing its own pod-based soda machine, codenamed Geyser. Coca Cola, a part-owner of Keurig, will be licensing pods for the device, and the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group is reportedly on board as well, giving Keurig a wide range of well-known brands to pull from. 

Will Sodastream make deals with the Keurig team's rivals? Will consumers find enough reason to make soda in a machine, instead of opening a can from the fridge? Which machine will provide better carbonation? This is one showdown we'll be watching closely.