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TinyML is giving hardware new life

The latest embedded software technology moves hardware into an almost magical realm

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

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Smart ring maker Motiv acquired by ‘digital identity’ company

We weren’t alone in being impressed by Motiv. The startup helped flip the script on wearables by essentially cramming a fitness tracker’s worth of technology into a ring. This week, San Francisco ‘digital identity’ startup Proxy announced that it’s acquiring the company.

The company’s site is littered in buzzwords, but Proxy specializes in digital key cards — essentially providing a way to use digital devices like smartphones to access businesses and homes. An odd fit for a company that makes exercise rings, until you look at what Motiv’s been up to in recent years.

Among the additions to the tiny hardware platform are NFC payments, lost phone tracking and two-factor device authentication through gait monitoring. Whether or not Proxy ultimately has interesting in manufacturing and selling a fitness ring, there’s plenty of underlying technology here that would be of interesting to a digital identity company.

“The demand for our technology is only going to increase and we saw a clear path forward in the importance of validating one’s identity in both the physical and digital worlds,” Motiv said in a blog post. “Keys, access cards and passwords are rapidly being replaced with a biometric identity which provides greatly improved security and convenience.”

While the app will continue to be available for download (no word on how long it will continue to offer support), the deal mark the end of Motiv’s online sales, while partner retailers will burn through the rest of their stock.

Proxy, on the other hand, says it’s committed to the ring as the future of the wearables category. “With this acquisition, Proxy plans to bring digital identity signals to smart rings for the first time and revolutionize the way people use technology to interact with the world around them,” the company writes. “We believe it’s possible to ignite a paradigm shift in how people use wearables to interface with the physical world, so they can do and experience things they never have before.”

While compelling, the fitness ring hasn’t exactly taken the wearable category by storm in the past three years, as the space continues to be almost exclusively dominated by smartwatches and headphones. For those who still believe in the form factor, Motiv has had some competition recently, from companies like Oura, a ring largely built around sleep tracking. 

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Google’s much improved Pixel Buds are finally here

The original Pixel Buds weren’t very good. No way around it. Here’s a thing I wrote about them in a review titled “A disappointing debut for Google’s Pixel Buds“: As recently as a couple of years ago, they would have been a contender for the most compelling Bluetooth headphones on the market. But given the strides much of the competition has made, they mostly land with a dull thud.”

And we weren’t alone. Google’s first attempt at wireless earbuds were met with a pretty resounding “meh,” when they arrived in 2017. It’s probably an understatement to suggest that the company went back to the drawing board on this one. The line required a rethink from the ground up.

It took another two and a half years to deliver their successor. And Google seemingly sought to wipe the slate clean entirely, even going so far as not listing a “2” in the name. The new Pixel Buds are simply Pixel Buds. Anything else you remember with that name was clearly a figment of your own imagination.

Those original Pixel Buds that definitely didn’t exist already felt outdated when they hit the market. And while a clean slate was certainly required, Google didn’t do itself any favors by waiting that long. The landscape for wireless earbuds has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. The market has been saturated and the products feel more of a necessity than a luxury.

Six months after their introduction at a Pixel event in New York, the Buds are finally available for purchase in the U.S. — in Clearly White, at least. The other, more fun colors — Oh So Orange, Almost Black and Quite Mint — are not yet on the market. A minor quibble for those who have waited this long for a decent pair of Google headphones.

Color issues aside, I’m pretty into the design language here. It feels fresh in a way most earbuds don’t — the case in particular. It would have been easy to knock-off Apple or Samsung or any number of competitors, but the new Pixel Buds manage to pull off a fresh aesthetic built on top of the same basic concept of charging case that’s essentially universal across the board, at this point.

I actually prefer the matte black to the AirPod gloss. It’s better to look at and feels nice to the touch. Jury’s still out on how easily it will scratch. Full disclosure, I haven’t really left my apartment since the Buds arrived — because, well, life. The case is ovular — a flattened egg, if you will. The top of the case opens with an easy flip. There’s a black accent running around the lid, easily showing where to stick your thumb.

The case is fairly long in relation to the Buds themselves, owing, one imagines, to the size of the battery. All told, the Buds should get 24 hours with the case. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom (they’re wirelessly chargable, too) and a pairing button on the rear. The charging light flips on when open — white for full, orange for low battery.

Flipping the case open with the Buds in will also trigger a pairing dialog box on Pixel phones and other handsets running Android 6.0 and up. It’s a super simple pairing process — one akin to what you’ll get with AirPods on iOS. And once the headphones are registered to you, the box will pop up with the info on your other devices.

The Buds themselves are also aesthetically distinct from most of the competition. They feature a round button surface sporting a small, engraved Google “G.” The surface gives you space for the touch controls, which are as follows:

  • Tap to play/pause media, answer calls
  • Double tap to skip track, end/reject call, stop the Assistant
  • Triple tap to rewind/go to previous track
  • Swipe forward to increase volume
  • Swipe backward to decrease volume

The Buds felt good in my ears with the default medium tips. There are a larger and smaller pair in the box, as well, so you can play around to get a better fit. They’ve been in for the better part of four hours and my ears feel fine — not something I can say with every pair of earbuds I’ve tested. They’re not too large or heavy, so they don’t pull on or press the ear. There’s also a small, removable silicone wing at the top to keep them in place.

The battery on the buds is a bit lacking. After the aforementioned amount of time, I just got a low battery notification on the right bud. Curiously, they’ve run down at different rates. The right is at 14%, the left at 34%. Time to stick them back in the case for a recharge.

The sound is decent. Not the best sounding pair I’ve tried and certainly not the worst. I’d say they’re pretty middle of the pack in terms of the price point. If audio is (understandably) you’re biggest concern, I’d recommend opting for a pricier model from Sony, Sennheiser or Apple’s AirPods Pro. There’s no active noise canceling here, either. The “Hey Google” microphone array works as advertised whether activated by voice or a long press with a finger. The connection was mostly solid. I was able to keep the music playing while walking into another room, though I did hit a few rough patches here and there.

At $179, the new Pixel Buds are priced close to the middle of the pack. That feels about right. The models are a big upgrade over their disappointing predecessors, but are still a pretty middle of the road choice for Android users.

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Emerging Technologies in the Pandemic Crisis: 10 Use Cases and Future Outlook

Illustration: © IoT For AllAs professionals in the emerging tech space, we are well aware of the many benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and drones and robotics. Therefore, we cannot help but wonder: What if most of the emerging …

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Daten von Smartwatch & Co. – So funktioniert die Corona-App des RKI

Das Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI) hat eine App veröffentlicht, die Daten von Fitnessarmbändern und Smart-Uhren sammelt. Daraus will das RKI neue Erkenntnisse über die Ausbreitung von Corona-Infektionen in Deutschland gewinnen. BILD erklärt, wie die neue App funktioniert und wie nützlich sie ist.Wie funktioniert die App?Die App „Corona-Datenspende“ …

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Vom RKI entwickelt – Neue App soll im Kampf gegen Coronavirus helfen

Das Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI) hat eine App veröffentlicht, die Daten von Fitnessarmbändern und Smart-Uhren sammelt. Daraus will das RKI neue Erkenntnisse über die Ausbreitung von Corona-Infektionen in Deutschland gewinnen. BILD erklärt, wie die neue App funktioniert und wie nützlich sie ist.Wie funktioniert die App?Die App „Corona-Datenspende“ …

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Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically for curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be co-located at a …

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How IoT Keeps Mine Workers Breathing Underground

Illustration: © IoT For AllUnderground mines are large industrial operations and prime for IoT adoption, especially where safety is concerned. Mines are often in remote geographic locations. While an open-pit mine, even a large one, can be inspected by drones and other straightforward methods, underground mines are dark, complex, and …

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Desperate to exit, a $10B price tag for Magic Leap is crazy

Augmented reality headset maker Magic Leap has struggled with the laws of physics and failed to get to market. Now it’s seeking an acquirer, but talks with Facebook and medical goods giant Johnson & Johnson led nowhere according to a new report from Bloomberg’s Ed Hammond.
After raising over $2 …

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Modified HoloLens helps teach kids with vision impairment to navigate the social world

Growing up with blindness or low vision can be difficult for kids, not just because they can’t read the same books or play the same games as their sighted peers; Vision is also a big part of social interaction and conversation. This Microsoft research project uses augmented reality to help kids with vision impairment “see” the people they’re talking with.

The challenge people with vision impairment encounter is, of course, that they can’t see the other people around them. This can prevent them from detecting and using many of the nonverbal cues sighted people use in conversation, especially if those behaviors aren’t learned at an early age.

Project Tokyo is a new effort from Microsoft in which its researchers are looking into how technologies like AI and AR can be useful to all people, including those with disabilities. That’s not always the case, though it must be said that voice-powered virtual assistants are a boon to many who can’t as easily use a touchscreen or mouse and keyboard.

The team, which started as an informal challenge to improve accessibility a few years ago, began by observing people traveling to the Special Olympics, then followed that up with workshops involving the blind and low vision community. Their primary realization was of the subtle context sight gives in nearly all situations.

“We, as humans, have this very, very nuanced and elaborate sense of social understanding of how to interact with people — getting a sense of who is in the room, what are they doing, what is their relationship to me, how do I understand if they are relevant for me or not,” said Microsoft researcher Ed Cutrell. “And for blind people a lot of the cues that we take for granted just go away.”

In children this can be especially pronounced, as having perhaps never learned the relevant cues and behaviors, they can themselves exhibit antisocial tendencies like resting their head on a table while conversing, or not facing a person when speaking to them.

To be clear, these behaviors aren’t “problematic” in themselves, as they are just the person doing what works best for them, but they can inhibit everyday relations with sighted people, and it’s a worthwhile goal to consider how those relations can be made easier and more natural for everyone.

The experimental solution Project Tokyo has been pursuing involves a modified HoloLens — minus the lens, of course. The device is also a highly sophisticated imaging device that can identify objects and people if provided with the right code.

The user wears the device like a high-tech headband, and a custom software stack provides them with a set of contextual cues:

  • When a person is detected, say four feet away on the right, the headset will emit a click that sounds like it is coming from that location.
  • If the face of the person is known, a second “bump” sound is made and the person’s name announced (again, audible only to the user).
  • If the face is not known or can’t be seen well, a “stretching” sound is played that modulates as the user directs their head towards the other person, ending in a click when the face is centered on the camera (which also means the user is facing them directly).
  • For those nearby, an LED strip shows a white light in the direction of a person who has been detected, and a green light if they have been identified.

Other tools are being evaluated, but this set is a start, and based on a case study with a game 12-year-old named Theo, they could be extremely helpful.

Microsoft’s post describing the system and the team’s work with Theo and others is worth reading for the details, but essentially Theo began to learn the ins and outs of the system and in turn began to manage social situations using cues mainly used by sighted people. For instance, he learned that he can deliberately direct his attention at someone by turning his head towards them, and developed his own method of scanning the room to keep tabs on those nearby — neither one possible when one’s head is on the table.

That kind of empowerment is a good start, but this is definitely a work in progress. The bulky, expensive hardware isn’t exactly something you’d want to wear all day, and naturally different users will have different needs. What about expressions and gestures? What about signs and menus? Ultimately the future of Project Tokyo will be determined, as before, by the needs of the communities who are seldom consulted when it comes to building AI systems and other modern conveniences.

Source: TechCrunch