Facebook Is Going All In on Augmented Reality

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg focuses on augmented reality and camera apps at Facebook's F8 conference

Have you noticed that most Facebook apps these days have a camera button built in? Well, says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, now it’s time to use those buttons to turn on augmented reality for just about everything you’re doing in Facebook’s world.

“We are making the camera the first augmented reality platform,” Zuckerberg said, kicking off Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Jose this morning. “I used to think glasses would be the first mainstream augmented reality platform,” he said. But he’s changed his mind.

By “camera,” Zuckerberg really means the camera button (which allows users to directly access a mobile device’s actual camera) and related photo processing tools in Facebook and related apps. Now, Zuckerberg said, Facebook is going to roll out tools to allow developers to create augmented reality experiences that can be reached through that photo feature. These tools will include precise location mapping, creation of 3D objects from 2D images, and object recognition.

Developers, he expects, will be able to apply these tools to generate virtual images that appear to interact directly with the real environment. For example, fish will swim around on your kitchen table and appear to go behind your real cereal bowl, virtual flowers will blossom on a real plant, virtual steam will come out of a real coffee mug, or a virtual companion’s mug will appear next to yours on your table in order to make your breakfast routine feel a little less lonely. Augmented reality will also allow users to leave notes for friends in specific locations—say, at a table in a particular restaurant—or let them view pop-up labels tagged to real world objects.

“Augmented reality will let us mix the digital and the physical,” Zuckerberg said in his keynote address to 4000 developers, “and that will make our physical reality better.”

Zuckerberg also predicted the advent of augmented reality street art, and suggested that as technology makes people working in traditional jobs more productive, more and more people will contribute to society through the arts.

Zuckerberg said that it will take a while to roll some of these experiences out into the world, but developers can get started now, with a closed Beta version of its AR Studio software now launching. Also available to users beginning today: a limited library of augmented effects.

WannaCry Update: Microsoft Pushes a “Geneva Convention” to Thwart Cyberattacks

A screenshot of the WannaCry ransomware is a predominantly red window with several smaller windows with instructions for payment and two countdown clocks

As the WannaCry ransomware exploit spreads across 150 countries and over 200,000 machines blame is spreading wildly too. And Microsoft has used cybersecurity’s latest headline-grabbing moment to call for a “Digital Geneva Convention” to limit and defang future cyberattacks.

Redmond has also received some share of the blame. Although Microsoft released a security patch in March that closes the “WannaCry”/“WannaCrypt” hole, unsupported versions of Windows including the still broadly popular Windows XP were left vulnerable till last Friday, when it issued a belated patch for XP.

On the other hand, says company president Brad Smith in a blog post over the weekend, the WannaCrypt exploit drew on vulnerabilities the NSA stockpiled but did not publicize or even report covertly to Redmond. Instead, hackers stole those vulnerabilities from NSA and reportedly used them to make WannaCry.

In addition to blaming the spooks, IT departments have also been rapped for being slow to respond to patched vulnerabilities like Microsoft’s Security Bulletin from March.

Yet above the entire chorus of blame, Microsoft is also promoting clearer cybersecurity expectations and responsibilities for companies and governments.

It’s time, Smith told this year’s RSA 2017 conference, to take a page from the atomic age.

“What the world needs is a new independent organization, a bit like the International Atomic Energy Agency that has addressed nuclear nonproliferation for decades,” Smith said in February. “We need an agency that has the international credibility not only to observe what’s happening, but to call the question and even identify the attackers when nation-state attacks happen. That is the only way that governments will come to recognize that this is not a program that will continue to pay off.”

“What we need now is a Digital Geneva Convention,” Smith said. “We need a convention that will call on the world’s governments to pledge that they will not engage in cyberattacks on the private sector, that they will not target civilian infrastructure, whether it’s of the electrical or the economic or the political variety. We need governments to pledge that, instead, they will work with the private sector to respond to vulnerabilities, that they will not stockpile vulnerabilities, and they will take additional measures.”

Hans Klein, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, says Microsoft is taking some risk in being as pro-active as they are in the current ransomware crisis.

“In some ways it’s a daring move by Microsoft,” Klein says. “It opens up the question of global regulation of companies like Microsoft. … If we start talking about global public policy, and Geneva Conventions and industry agreements, suddenly it might not just be the governments that are being asked to behave better—and possibly with sanctions backing that up. The companies might be asked or required to behave better too. And that might not be a bad thing.”

For instance, Klein says, what if Windows XP (whose support Microsoft officially cut off in April 2014) is so broadly adopted around the world that governments begin requiring Microsoft to continue supporting XP regardless of its profitability or un-profitability for the company? What if, in other words, Windows XP has become something closer to a public utility?

“When it happened, I thought it was pretty noteworthy that a company could declare that it would no longer support a product like Windows XP,” Klein says. “Apparently there was some limited debate [in 2014] but a little less than I expected. But now WannaCry has hit, and [the XP debate] might come back. When the hospitals are getting hit hard, maybe there’s a social and public responsibility for Microsoft.”

As this story was going to press, security researchers at Heimdal Security reported a new variant of the WannaCry/WannaCrypt ransomware that did not contain the “kill switch” that had hobbled previous versions of the exploit.

So any hopes for a quick end to the current ransomware crisis have at least temporarily been quashed. All the more reason, perhaps, for Redmond to think big.

Robot Mechanic Could Prevent Satellites from Becoming Space Junk

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DARPA plans to send a robotic service technician to repair broken satellites in geosynchronous orbit.  Let’s say you are the program manager of a very large, complex system. Perhaps it’s an aircraft, or a building, or a communications network. Your system is valued at over US $500 million. Could you imagine being told that you won’t ever be able to maintain it? That once it’s operational, it will never be inspected, repaired, or upgraded with new hardware?

Welcome to the world of satellite building. After a satellite is launched, it is on a one-way journey to disrepair and obsolescence, and there is little anyone can do to alter that path. Faults (which are called anomalies in the space business) can only be diagnosed remotely, using data and inferential reasoning. Software fixes and upgrades may be possible, but the nuts and bolts remain untouched. The upshot: Even if a satellite is operating well, it could lose its state-of-the-art status just a few years into a typical 15-year lifetime.

If governments and private companies could actively repair and revitalize their satellites in geosynchronous orbit—and move them to new orbits as needed—they could extend the lifespans of  their investments and substantially defer the cost of building and launching replacements.

To that end, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored a project to develop a robotic servicing spacecraft that can work on satellites that were never designed to be repaired—which is pretty much all of the ones in orbit today. The ­public-private partnership, called the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, builds on a decade of work by DARPA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, as well as the efforts of university researchers and space agencies around the world.

When RSGS launches in the early 2020s, its robot arm could move GEO satellites to new orbits, fix stuck solar panels, and perform other important repairs. Independently, NASA plans to launch, around the same time, a robotic mission called Restore-L; its aim is to refuel and relocate a government-owned satellite now in low Earth orbit.

If successful, these two missions will push the limits of automation and robotic operation in space. They could be the first steps toward space construction projects such as vast solar arrays that can beam energy back to Earth, robots that could mine asteroids and deflect those that pose a danger to Earth, and many other applications that would revolutionize the way we operate beyond the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere.

The Corporate Blockchain

An illustration of a handshake with patterns from a circuit board projected onto the hands.

Hundreds of financiers, Wall Street analysts, and C-suite executives gathered in New York City this week to peer into the future of finance at the CB Insights’ Future of Fintech conference. And on Wednesday afternoon, they took a moment to ponder one of the greatest existential threats to their industry—and how they might turn it to their advantage.

Attendees crammed into a standing-room-only session to hear about the role that blockchains would play in existing businesses. To many in finance, it’s a perplexing topic. After all, the Bitcoin blockchain was long ago predicted to render modern finance—and finacial firms—obsolete.

Instead, many financial firms have embraced blockchain technology, and even become rather bullish about it in the process. But companies have also found that preparing a blockchain to go live, and integrating it with existing systems, can be a daunting process.

Up on stage, and tasked with guiding the crowd through its mixed bag of emotions, were: Marley Gray, principal program manager for Microsoft’s Azure Blockchain Engineering; Joe Lubin, founder of the blockchain consulting firm ConsenSys; and Rumi Morales, executive director of CME Ventures, the investment arm of CME Group which manages the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Gray set the tone for the discussion from his vantage point at Microsoft, which offers a platform that it calls blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) to help companies build their own blockchain-based networks and applications. As a result, Gray has seen how early experiments have fared across many industries.

“One of our goals was to make it ridiculously easy to roll [blockchains] out,” he said. “Now we’re at the next phase of—now I’ve got this blockchain, what do I do with it? So we’re kind of stuck on that piece right now.”

Many banks and stock exchanges are on the cusp of moving from pilots and proof-of-concepts to actual blockchain implementations. Morales, who has overseen her firm’s investments into Ripple and Digital Currency Group(which owns the cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk and has funded Coinbase, a trading service), suggested the industry is facing a moment of truth.

“Last year, we saw a number of companies announcing that they would be building things, or had a use case, for [the blockchain],” she said. “This is the year they need to prove that.”

There has been some progress on that front—in May, Nasdaq, Citi, and Chain revealed a blockchain-based payments system for private equity and earlier this week, IBM announced that it was building a system to manage trade finance with seven European banks that would go live by the end of the year.

But there’s a significant back-office bottleneck for people looking to deploy systems. Developers have a limited set of software tools at their disposal, and there is fierce competition for their talent. Consortiums, startups, and incumbents such as IBM and Microsoft are developing dozens of different ways to build blockchain-based networks and applications, without any reference architecture or standards to lean on.

This process can be frustrating, to say the least, said Morales. “For many people I know, they’ve moved on to pulling out their eyelashes because they’ve finished pulling out their hair,” she said. “It can be very painful.”

Even so, Morales and her fellow panelists were not keen on the idea of establishing comprehensive standards anytime soon. “I really think we’re going to have to be very, very specific about the definition of blockchain if we’re going to talk about standards,” she said.

Gray from Microsoft put it more bluntly. “It’s way too early for standards,” he said.

In the end, of course, the agony of blockchain development could very well result in big pay offs. For many, the thrill of the technology is its potential to overturn so many aspects of how business is done today. Throughout the week, I heard attendees and speakers batting around dozens of possible uses for blockchains in sessions and hallway meetings.

On stage, Lubin described one of his favorite projects at ConsenSys—a solar power system in which batteries automatically sell or buy extra juice through a blockchain, thereby improving the efficiency of the entire grid. “It prevents the need to spin up billion-dollar petrol plants to handle peak load in hot days in the summer,” he said.

And for every discussion of a practical use that has already been identified, there were countless mentions of the technology’s unexplored possibility. “It’s like trying to predict Facebook back in 1995,” Gray said. “Who would have known?”

While everyone else is dreaming about blockchain’s killer app, Gray believes the highest value of the technology will be to bridge industries and simplify all kinds of interactions across companies, individuals, public entities, and real-world events. “The true promise is ultimately getting to a place where we can have business contracts that weave together across verticals,” he said.

This also means that Gray expects the current industry-wide preference for permissioned blockchains—those which are cordoned off from public access—will eventually erode. Instead, he thinks society will gradually embrace the power and functionality of decentralized, public chains, such as the one that underlies Bitcoin.

First, though, public blockchains must prove that they can scale up to handle millions upon millions of transactions every day. Currently, no public blockchains could do this, said Lubin.

Looking ahead, Lubin expects both public and private blockchains to evolve over a long development period that has only just begun. “Blockchains in two, five, and 10 years from now are going to look completely different,” he said.

For all the work ahead, many speakers and attendees at the conference remained optimistic—and at times, positively upbeat—about the future of blockchain technology. For the finance industry, the promise of reducing costs, settling trades, and streamlining transactions is particularly intoxicating. “That gain is hopefully going to be worth the pain,” Morales said.

Unhackable Quantum Networks Take to Space

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The dream of a space-based, nigh-unhackable quantum Internet may now be closer to reality, thanks to new experiments with Chinese and European satellites.

Quantum physics makes possible a strange phenomenon known as entanglement. Essentially, two or more particles such as photons that get linked or “entangled” can, in theory, influence each other simultaneously no matter how far apart they are. Entanglement is essential to the workings of quantum computers, the networks that would connect them, and the most sophisticated kinds of quantum cryptography—a theoretically unhackable means of information exchange.

Back in 2012, Pan Jianwei, a quantum physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China at Hefei, and his colleagues set the distance record for quantum entanglement. A particle on one side of China’s Qinghai Lake influenced one on the other side, 101.8 kilometers away. However, entanglement gets easily disrupted by interference from the environment, and this fragility has stymied efforts at greater distance records on Earth.

Now, Pan and his colleagues have set a new record for entanglement by using a satellite to connect sites on Earth separated by up to 1,203 km. The main advantage of a space-based approach is that most of the interference that entangled photons face occurs in the 10 km or so of atmosphere closest to Earth’s surface. Above that, the photons encounter virtually no problems, the researchers say.

The researchers launched the quantum science experiment satellite (nicknamed Micius) from Jiuquan, China, in 2016. It orbits the planet at a speed of roughly 28,800 kilometers per hour and an altitude of roughly 500 km. “Through ground-based feasibility studies, we gradually developed the necessary toolbox for the quantum science satellite,” Pan says.

The experiments involved communications between Micius and three ground stations across China. Beacon lasers on both the transmitters and receivers helped them lock onto each other.

Micius generated entangled pairs of photons and then split them up, beaming the members of a pair to separate ground stations. The distance between the satellite and the ground stations varied from 500 to 2,000 km.

The record distance involved photons beamed from Micius to stations in the cities of Delingha and Lijiang. The experiments transmitted entangled photons with a 1017 greater efficiency than the best optical fibers can achieve. “We have finally sent entanglement into space and established a much, much larger quantum optics laboratory, which provides us a new platform for quantum networks as well as for probing the interaction of quantum mechanics with gravity,” Pan says.

Although these experiments generated roughly 5.9 million entangled pairs of photons every second, the researchers were able to detect only about one pair per second. Pan’s team expects a thousandfold improvement in this rate “in the next five years,” he says. He also notes that the current transmission rate for entangled pairs is close to what’s necessary to provide quantum cryptography for very brief texts; five years from now, networks of satellites and ground stations could successfully transmit at megahertz rates.

In another study, researchers in Germany found they could measure the quantum features of laser signals transmitted by a satellite a record 38,600 km away. These findings suggest that satellites could play a role in quantum networks that use less sophisticated forms of quantum cryptography that do not rely on entanglement.

Quantum physicist Christoph Marquardt from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, in Erlangen, Germany, and his colleagues experimented with the Alphasat I-XL satellite, which is in geostationary orbit. Alphasat used laser signals to communicate with a ground station at the Teide Observatory in Tenerife, Spain.

Marquardt notes that the laser communications technology they experimented with is already used commercially in space. That, combined with the success of his and his colleagues’ experiments, suggests that quantum networks that do not rely on entanglement could be set up “as soon as five years from now,” he says.

Marquardt acknowledges that entanglement enables more-sophisticated strategies for foiling eavesdroppers. But “our approach only needs relatively small upgrades to proven technology,” he says.

The German scientists are now working with satellite telecommunications company Tesat-Spacecom and others to design a quantum network. Though it will be based on hardware already employed in space, it will require upgrades such as adding a quantum random number generator, Marquardt says.

Former Pebble, Essential and WebOS designer joins Google Home team

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In the leadup to the launch of the Essential company’s first phone, one of its top executives has left for Google.

Liron Damir announced this week on LinkedIn that he joined the Google Home team as its head of user experience, leaving behind the same role over at Android founder Andy Rubin’s startup.

“Definitely took the scenic route, but super excited and proud to be joining Google today to lead the design of Google Home products,” Damir wrote this week.

A Google representative confirmed the hire to CNET but offered no further comment.

Damir has previously served in design roles for the Pebble watch company as well as on the WebOS operating system for HP and LG. He is the third executive to leave Essential in the past two months, with previous departures including its VP of Marketing, Brian Wallace, and its Head of Communications, Andy Fouché.

The Essential Phone, which includes a nearly bezel-free design while running on the Android operating system, is currently only being sold online, with Sprint as the only phone carrier selling it in the US later this summer.

iPhone 7 Has the Best Mobile LCD Display Ever Tested, Says DisplayMate

iPhone 7 Has the Best Mobile LCD Display Ever Tested, Says DisplayMate

Screen-testing firm DisplayMate termed the display on Samsung Galaxy Note 7 as the “Best Performing Smartphone Display” that the company has ever tested. Now, the company has tested the display on iPhone 7 and claims that it is the “best performing mobile LCD display” that it has ever come across, while it also sets some overall records.

DisplayMate’s President Dr. Raymond M. Soneira said that even though in size and resolution the iPhone 7’s display is indistinguishable from the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s, the smartphone packs a display that is ‘truly impressive’ and ‘major enhancement’ on the display from iPhone 6.

One of the main reasons for the improvement, as pointed out by DisplayMate, is the presence of two standard colour gamuts. The iPhone 7 carries a “DCI-P3 Wide Color Gamut that is generally used in 4K UHD TVs and Digital Cinema” and a “traditional smaller sRGB / Rec.709 Color Gamut,” the company said.

DisplayMate says that both colour gamuts have been implemented with absolute colour accuracy that is “Visually Indistinguishable from Perfect.” According to the company, iPhone 7’s display is rated to deliver 625 nits of brightness, but in fact only delivers 602 nits – which is still the “Highest Peak Brightness” DisplayMate has measured on any smartphone. However, the actual peak brightness is even higher, at 705 nits, when Automatic Brightness is turned on in high ambient light conditions.

As per DisplayMate, the displays on Apple’s smartphones have a record high contrast ratio for IPS LCD displays and a record low screen reflectance for smartphones.

Regarding the power efficiency of the display, Soneira said that wide colour gamut LCDs like the iPhone 7 use “specially tuned Red and Green phosphors to optimally transform the light for the chosen saturated Red and Green primaries, which improves their light and power efficiency.”

It has been rumoured that Apple’s iPhone for 2017 might be shipping with an Oled display. If this turns out to be true, iPhone 7’s display might be the last huge leap that Apple takes with LCD displays.

Xiaomi Mi Air Purifier 2 With Wi-Fi Connectivity Launched at Rs. 9,999

Xiaomi on Wednesday launched its first smart home product in India – the Mi Air Purifier 2. Priced at Rs. 9,999, the Mi Air Purifier will be available from 12pm IST September 26 via Mi.com, and from 12am IST on October 2 via Flipkart. The company at the event also launched the Mi Band 2 (Review) in India, priced at Rs. 1,999.

To recall, the Mi Air Purifier 2 was launched in China back in November last year, and is smaller and more powerful than its predecessor. To give a perspective on pricing, the air purifier had been launched in China at CNY 699 (roughly Rs. 7,100).

The Xiaomi Mi Air Purifier 2 features a triple layer filter (seen below) which needs to be replaced every 6 months approximately, and the replacement has been priced at Rs. 2,499. The triple layer filter is fitted in a cylindrical shape for 360-degree filtering, and features a PET pre-filter, an EPA filter, and an activated carbon filter.

The Mi Air Purifier 2 is controlled via the Mi Home app, which is available for both Android and iOS. Apart from remote access to the Wi-Fi connected air purifier, the app lets users also share control with other users – such as family members.

The air purifier has three modes of operation – auto, night (sleep), and manual. The Mi Home app also provides real time air quality monitoring for the home, and includes statistics like humidity and temperature, apart from regulating fan speed. Users can also set timer schedules for the Mi Air Purifier 2 via the app. The app also provides reminders to change the filter.

The Mi Air Purifier 2 measures in at 520x240x240mm, and weighs 4.8kg including the filter. It has a clean air deliver rate (CADR) of 310 cubic metres an hour, and supports Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n connectivity. The company is touting the quietness of the air purifier as well, with the device producing 30dB of noise in night mode.

The company has also updated the MIUI 8 Weather app – it is currently available in beta, but will be rolling out in a few weeks to MIUI 8 users. The Weather app now includes real time air quality index (AQI) data for India.

YouTube Heroes Programme Rewards Users for Moderating the Site

YouTube Heroes Programme Rewards Users for Moderating the Site

YouTube, being the world’s largest video sharing platform, wants to make sure that its users receive the best possible experience. With over a billion accounts from around the world, it is quite difficult for YouTube to solely moderate its own site, which is why the company is announcing a new programme wherein the job to moderate comments and videos now fall into the hands of the viewers. The programme is called YouTube Heroes which comes alongside the recently launched Community section.

Announced on the YouTube Help channel, the Heroes program awards points to viewers based on various deeds performed. Points are awarded by adding captions and subtitles to videos, reporting negative content and responding to other users, among other things.

Collecting enough points will let you unlock different levels, with each level offering new benefits. Unlocking the starting level lets you see the Heroes dashboard where you can connect with other members in the community. The fifth level is the highest (requiring 1000+ points) where the ‘Hero’ will be able to test products before release and can apply for what YouTube calls the Heroes Summit.

YouTube has not been the best when it comes to moderation. Many a times unfavourable comments and negative contents are overseen and the company wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. Trusting users to moderate also frees up the company to work on bringing new updates, features and improvements to its site.

Anyone can apply for the YouTube Heroes programme. Especially those who enjoy the platform and genuinely want to better it. While the programme is a positive step from Google-owned YouTube’s part to moderate the site, one will have to wait and see how users respond to it. Those interested in joining the programme can do so from here.

The recently launched YouTube Community tab allows creators to share photos, text messages, GIFs, and even live videos with their subscribers.

Internet Now Has 334.6 Million Domain Name Registrations: VeriSign

Internet Now Has 334.6 Million Domain Name Registrations: VeriSign

Nearly 7.9 million domain name registrations were added to the Internet in the second quarter of 2016 globally – a growth rate of 2.4 percent over the first quarter – global domain and internet service provider VeriSign Inc. said on Wednesday.

It brings the total number of domain name registrations to approximately 334.6 million across all top-level domains (TLDs) as of June 30 this year, according to the latest Domain Name Industry Brief.

The .com and .net TLDs experienced aggregate growth in the second quarter of 2016, reaching a combined total of approximately 143.2 million domain name registrations in the domain name base. This represents a 7.3 percent increase year over year.

New .com and .net domain name registrations totalled 8.6 million during the second quarter of 2016. In the second quarter of 2015, new .com and .net domain name registrations totalled 8.7 million.

“During the second quarter of 2016, Verisign’s average daily Domain Name System (DNS) query load was approximately 130 billion queries per day across all TLDs operated by Verisign, with a peak of nearly 179 billion queries,” the company said in a statement.

Quarter over quarter, the daily average query load increased 4.9 percent and the peak decreased by 5.0 percent. Year over year, the daily average query load increased by 17.0 percent and the peak decreased by 1.5 percent.