Gadgets – TechCrunch Lucas Matney

As digital assistants improve, we’re learning new things to expect from them, but the tasks that a real-life assistant may have handled before can still be a bit of a challenge to home assistants.

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is gaining functionality to help it get smarter about working with your calendar. The new abilities will let users move appointments around and schedule meetings based on other people’s availability.

If you’ve been shared on someone’s calendar availability, Alexa will be able to suggest times that work for both of you. Just say, “Alexa schedule a meeting with [name]” and Amazon’s assistant will search through your schedule for a good time, suggesting up to two time slots that could work.

On a more basic feature level, Alexa won’t make you cancel appointments and reschedule them if a meeting time changes. You’ll be able to just ask Alexa to move an existing meeting, something that should have probably been supported from the beginning, but hey, better late than never.

Both of these features are available to U.S. users today.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

In my endless quest to get geeks interested in watches I present to you the Bell & Ross BR V2-93 GMT 24H, a new GMT watch from one of my favorite manufacturers that is a great departure from the company’s traditional designs.

The watch is a 41mm round GMT, which means it has three hands to show the time in the 12-hour scale and another separate hand that shows the time in a 24-hour scale. You can use it to see time zones in two or even three places and it comes in a nice satin-brushed metal case with a rubber or metal strap.

B&R is unique because it’s one of the first companies to embrace online sales after selling primarily in watch stores for about a decade. This means the watches are slightly cheaper — this one is $3,500 — and jewelers can’t really jack up the prices in stores. Further, B&R has a great legacy of making legible, usable watches, and this one is no exception. It is also a fascinating addition to the line. B&R has an Instrument series, which consists of large, square watches with huge numerals, and a Vintage series that hearkens back to WWII-inspired, smaller watches. This one sits firmly in the middle, taking on the clear lines of the Instrument inside a more vintage case.

Ultimately watches like this one are nice tool watches — designed for legibility and usability above fashion. It’s a nice addition to the line and looks like something a proper geek could wear in lieu of Apple Watches and other nerd jewelry. Here’s hoping.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Josh Constine

The worst thing about Spectacles is how closely tied they are to Snapchat. The proprietary circular photo and video format looks great inside Snapchat where you can tip your phone around while always staying full screen, but it gets reduced to a small circle with a big white border when you export it to your phone for sharing elsewhere.

Luckily, Snapchat has started beta testing new export formats for Spectacles through the beta version of its app. This lets you choose a black border instead of a white one, but importantly, also a horizontal 16:9 rectangular format that would fit well on YouTube and other traditional video players. The test was first spotted by Eric Johnson, and, when asked, a Snapchat spokesperson told TechCrunch “I can confirm we’re testing it, yes.”

Allowing Spectacles to be more compatible with other services could make the v2 of its $150 photo and video-recording sunglasses much more convenient and popular. I actually ran into the Snapchat Spectacles team this weekend at the FORM Arcosanti music festival in Arizona where they were testing the new Specs and looking for ideas for their next camera. I suggested open sourcing the circular format or partnering so other apps could show it natively with the swivel effect, and Snap declined to comment about that. But now it looks like they’re embracing compatibility by just letting you ditch the proprietary format.

Breaking away from purely vertical or circular formats is also a bit of a coup for Snapchat, which has touted vertical as the media orientation of the future as that’s how we hold our phones. Many other apps, including Facebook’s Snapchat clones, adopted this idea. But with Snapchat’s growth slipping to its lowest rate ever, it may need to think about new ways to gain exposure elsewhere.

Seeing Spectacles content on other apps without ugly borders could draw attention back to Snapchat, or at least help Spectacles sell better than v1, which only sold 220,000 pairs and had to write-off hundreds of thousands more that were gathering dust in warehouses. While it makes sense why Snap might have wanted to keep the best Spectacles content viewing experience on its own app, without user growth, that’s proven a software limitation for what’s supposed to be a camera company.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Cornell researchers have made a little robot that can express its emotions through touch, sending out little spikes when its scared or even getting goosebumps to express delight or excitement. The prototype, a cute smiling creature with rubber skin, is designed to test touch as an I/O system for robotic projects.

The robot mimics the skin of octopi which can turn spiky when threatened.

The researchers, Yuhan Hu, Zhengnan Zhao, Abheek Vimal, and Guy Hoffman, created the robot to experiment with new methods for robot interaction. They compare the skin to “human goosebumps, cats’ neck fur raising, dogs’ back hair, the needles of a porcupine, spiking of a blowfish, or a bird’s ruffled feathers.”

“Research in human-robot interaction shows that a robot’s ability to use nonverbal behavior to communicate affects their potential to be useful to people, and can also have psychological effects. Other reasons include that having a robot use nonverbal behaviors can help make it be perceived as more familiar and less machine-like,” the researchers told IEEE Spectrum.

The skin has multiple configurations and is powered by a computer-controlled elastomer that can inflate and deflate on demand. The goosebumps pop up to match the expression on the robot’s face, allowing humans to better understand what the robot “means” when it raises its little hackles or gets bumpy. I, for one, welcome our bumpy robotic overlords.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Making something fly involves a lot of trade-offs. Bigger stuff can hold more fuel or batteries, but too big and the lift required is too much. Small stuff takes less lift to fly but might not hold a battery with enough energy to do so. Insect-sized drones have had that problem in the past — but now this RoboFly is taking its first flaps into the air… all thanks to the power of lasers.

We’ve seen bug-sized flying bots before, like the RoboBee, but as you can see it has wires attached to it that provide power. Batteries on board would weigh it down too much, so researchers have focused in the past on demonstrating that flight is possible in the first place at that scale.

But what if you could provide power externally without wires? That’s the idea behind the University of Washington’s RoboFly, a sort of spiritual successor to the RoboBee that gets its power from a laser trained on an attached photovoltaic cell.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author of the paper describing the bot, Shyam Gollakota. He’s obviously very concerned with power efficiency — last month he and his colleagues published a way of transmitting video with 99 percent less power than usual.

There’s more than enough power in the laser to drive the robot’s wings; it gets adjusted to the correct voltage by an integrated circuit, and a microcontroller sends that power to the wings depending on what they need to do. Here it goes:

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction,” explained lead author Johannes James.

At present the bot just takes off, travels almost no distance and lands — but that’s just to prove the concept of a wirelessly powered robot insect (it isn’t obvious). The next steps are to improve onboard telemetry so it can control itself, and make a steered laser that can follow the little bug’s movements and continuously beam power in its direction.

The team is headed to Australia next week to present the RoboFly at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

The InSight launch earlier this month had a couple of stowaways: a pair of tiny CubeSats that are already the farthest such tiny satellites have ever been from Earth — by a long shot. And one of them got a chance to snap a picture of their home planet as an homage to the Voyager mission’s famous “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s hardly as amazing a shot as the original, but it’s still cool.

The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and B, are an experiment to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system; previously they have only ever been deployed into orbit.

That changed on May 5, when the InSight mission took off, with the MarCO twins detaching on a similar trajectory to the geology-focused Mars lander. It wasn’t long before they went farther than any CubeSat has gone before.

A few days after launch MarCO-A and B were about a million kilometers (621,371 miles) from Earth, and it was time to unfold its high-gain antenna. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis had an eye on the process and took a picture to send back home to inform mission control that all was well.

But as a bonus (though not by accident — very few accidents happen on missions like this), Earth and the moon were in full view as MarCO-B took its antenna selfie. Here’s an annotated version of the one above:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said JPL’s Andy Klesh in a news release. “CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

So far it’s only good news and validation of the idea that cheap CubeSats could potentially be launched by the dozen to undertake minor science missions at a fraction of the cost of something like InSight.

Don’t expect any more snapshots from these guys, though. A JPL representative told me the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly. Really any pictures of Mars or other planets probably wouldn’t be worth looking at twice — these are utility cameras with fisheye lenses, not the special instruments that orbiters use to get those great planetary shots.

The MarCOs will pass by Mars at the same time that InSight is making its landing, and depending on how things go, they may even be able to pass on a little useful info to mission control while it happens. Tune in on November 26 for that!

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

If there’s one thing I envy in the global spirit and character its the appreciation of a fine bidet. Hygiene being close to godliness, one can imagine the huddled scientists at CERN and KAUST and Tokyo University creating scientific marvels, secure in the knowledge that their posteriors were as clean and crisp as their lines of thought. The same can be said of peoples of all continents who celebrate the occasional fountainal intrusion, from those who use bidets complete with birdsong to hide their doings to those with a simple hose next to the can.

But America, that land of the free and the home of the brave, can’t join in the fun? Is there no bidet culture in Dear Columbia? Pshaw. After all, there’s something called Tushy.

This simple bidet system is the gateway drug to posterior enjoyment. I’ve been trying to install a proper bidet in my home since 2007. The problem I discovered was that the design of my toilet did not allow for something large and heavy up against the toilet tank. Because the system was so large I couldn’t fit it in place of the seat, resulting in endless heartbreak. I was almost going to swap out my toilet for one of a simpler designed but luckily the Tushy is the low-cost, low tech solution I was looking for.

It works by sitting in line with the tank refill line. You simply connect the line to the Tushy and then connect a line from the Tushy to the tank. The water that would normally go into your bowl is routed through a little movable nozzle and up into your backside. The water, obviously, is cold. You can also turn it so the water cleans the nozzle, and important health and safety addition.

Bear in mind that the Tushy is as simple as it gets. It doesn’t blow out fine perfumes, it doesn’t steam or mist you, and it doesn’t play birdsong. But it costs $69 and seems to work just fine in my testing. In fact, I’m thinking of Tushying up the whole house since it doesn’t actually need electricity or any plumbing changes.

Tushy also sells an $84 Spa model that connects to your hot water line for a bit of warmth. But that’s for the coddled few who can’t manage a little cold water.

Why is this important? Because all innovation is important, for one. The changes in lifestyle associated with tech are moving out of the esoteric into the basic, a fact that should give us all a bit of a giggle. If electrified scooters in SF are a sign of the apocalypse, things like the Tushy are a sign of a renaissance. After all, the clean innovator is the happy innovator.

Ultimately ideas like Tushy will lead us to a new world of butt hygiene. Perhaps, one day, all of us will have a bidet in our homes and offices. Perhaps one day we will be able to break the shackles of toilet paper. And perhaps, one day, we will join the ranks of men and women who enjoy a good squirt in the morning. Until then, Tushy does its business.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Today brings historic firsts for both SpaceX and Bangladesh: the former is sending up the final, highly updated revision of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time, and the latter is launching its first satellite. It’s a preview of the democratized space economy to come this century.

Update: Success! The Falcon 9 first stage, after delivering the second stage to the border of space, has successfully landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, and Bangabandhu has been delivered to its target orbit.

You can watch the launch below:

Although Bangabandhu-1 is definitely important, especially to the nation launching it, it is not necessarily in itself a highly notable satellite. It’s to be a geostationary communications hub that serves the whole country and region with standard C-band and Ku-band connectivity for all kinds of purposes.

Currently the country spends some $14 million per year renting satellite time from other countries, something they determined to stop doing as a matter of national pride and independence.

“A sovereign country, in a pursuit of sustainable development, needs its own satellite in order to reduce its dependency on other nations,” reads the project description at the country’s Telecommunications Regulation Commission, which has been pursuing the idea for nearly a decade.

It contracted with Thales Alenia Space to produce and test the satellite, which cost about $250 million and is expected to last at least 15 years. In addition to letting the country avoid paying satellite rent, it could generate revenue by selling its services to private companies and nearby nations.

Bangabandhu-1 in a Thales test chamber.

“This satellite, which carries the symbolic name of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu, is a major step forward for telecommunications in Bangladesh, and a fantastic driver of economic development and heightened recognition across Asia,” said the company’s CEO, Jean-Loïc Galle, in a recent blog post about the project.

Bangabandhu-1 will be launching atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but this one is different from all the others that have flown in the past. Designed with crewed missions in mind, it could be thought of as the production version of the rocket, endowed with all the refinements of years of real-world tests.

Most often referred to as Block 5, this is (supposedly) the final revision of the Falcon 9 hardware, safer and more reusable than previous versions. The goal is for a Block 5 first stage to launch a hundred times before being retired, far more than the handful of times existing Falcon 9s have been reused.

There are lots of improvements over the previous rockets, though many are small or highly technical in nature. The most important, however, are easy to enumerate.

The engines themselves have been improved and strengthened to allow not only greater thrust (reportedly about a 7-8 percent improvement) but improved control and efficiency, especially during landing. They also have a new dedicated heat shield for descent. They’re rated to fly 10 times without being substantially refurbished, but are also bolted on rather than welded, further reducing turnaround time.

The legs on which the rocket lands are also fully retractable, meaning they don’t have to be removed before transport. If you want to launch the same rocket within days, every minute counts.

Instead of white paint, the first stage will have a thermal coating (also white) that helps keep it relatively cool during descent.

To further reduce heat damage, the rocket’s “grid fins,” the waffle-iron-like flaps that pop out to control its descent, are now made of a single piece of titanium. They won’t catch fire or melt during reentry like the previous aluminum ones sometimes did, and as such are now permanently attached features of the rocket.

(SpaceX founder Elon Musk is particularly proud of these fins, which flew on the Falcon Heavy side boosters; in the briefing afterwards, he said: “I’m actually glad we got the side boosters back, because they had the titanium fins. If I had to pick something to get back, it’d be those.”)

Lastly (for our purposes anyway) the fuel tank has been reinforced out of concerns some had about the loading of supercooled fuel while the payload — soon to be humans, if all goes well — is attached to the rocket. This system failed before, causing a catastrophic explosion in 2016, but the fault has been addressed and the reinforcement should help further mitigate risk. (The emergency abort rockets should also keep astronauts safe should something go wrong during launch.)

The changes, though they contribute directly to reuse and cost reductions, are also aimed at satisfying the requirements of NASA’s commercial crew missions. SpaceX is in competition to provide both launch and crew capsule services for missions to the ISS, scheduled for as early as late 2018. The company needs to launch the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 (not necessarily the same exact rocket) at least 7 times before any astronauts can climb aboard.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

The three-axis tourbillon is one of the most complex watch complications in the world. Originally based on a design by watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, this type of tourbillon – literally “whirlwind” – rotates the balance wheel of a watch in order to ensure that gravity doesn’t adversely affect any part of the watch. It’s a clever, complex, and essentially useless complication in an era of atomic clocks and nano materials but darn if it isn’t cool-looking.

Based on this original, simpler model, this new three-axis tourbillon is available for download here. It consists of 70 potentially fiddly parts and runs using a basic motor.

As you can see, the main component is the balance wheel which flips back and forth to drive the watch. The balance wheel is contained inside a sort of spike-shaped cage that rotates on multiple axes. The balance wheel controls the speed of the spin and often these devices are used as second hands on more complex – and more expensive – tourbillon watches. Tourbillons were originally intended to increase watch accuracy when they were riding in a vest pocket, the thinking being that gravity would pull down a watch’s balance wheel differently when it was vertical as compared to being horizontal. In this case, the wheel takes into account all possible positions leading to a delightful bit of horological overkill.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Jon Russell

Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone maker that’s looking to raise as much as $10 billion in a Hong Kong IPO, is continuing to grow its presence in the American market after it announced plans to bring its smart home products to the U.S..

The company is best known for its well-priced and quality smartphones, but Xiaomi offers hundreds of other products which range from battery chargers to smart lights, air filter units and even Segway. On the sidelines of Google I/O, the company quietly made a fairly significant double announcement: not only will it bring its smart home products to the U.S., but it is adding support for Google Assistant, too.

The first products heading Stateside include the Mi Bedside Lamp, Mi LED Smart Bulb and Mi Smart Plug, Xiaomi’s head of international Wan Xiang said, but you can expect plenty more to follow. Typically, Xiaomi sells to consumers in the U.S. via Amazon and also its Mi.com local store, so keep an eye out there.

Smartphones, however, are a different question.

Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun — who stands to become China’s richest man thanks to the IPO — previously said the company is looking to bring its signature phones to the U.S. by early 2019 at the latest.

There’s no mention of that in Xiaomi’s IPO prospectus, which instead talks of plans to move into more parts of Europe and double down on Russia and Southeast Asia. Indeed, earlier this week, Xiaomi announced plans to expand beyond Spain and into France and Italy in Europe, while it has also inked a carrier deal with Hutchinson that will go beyond those markets into the UK and other places.

You can expect that it will take its time in the U.S., particularly given the concerns around Chinese OEMs like Huawei — which has been blacklisted by carriers — and ZTE, which has had its telecom equipment business clamped down on by the U.S. government.

Hat tip Android Police