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One week with Alexa

My morning routine is simple: I wake up when my phone’s alarm goes off, I go back to sleep, wake up again, contemplate more sleep, get dressed, make coffee and listen to one of Alexa’s “flash briefings” before I start slinging words on the internet. Getting that first news blast of the day used to be a job for my trusty clock radio, but no longer: Alexa’s invasion has begun.


More precisely, it began this past summer, when I was dragged through a Home Depot, saw a spider-wrapped Echo, and said, “Eh, what the hell?” For a while there, in the early days, Alexa’s responsibilities boiled down to reading my Audible audiobooks and telling me what the weather was like so that I didn’t need to look out the window. I know: mundane. Since then, though, she’s become so enmeshed in the fabric of my household that I don’t consciously remember all the times I talk to her. She’s just there, always listening, always trying to be helpful, and mostly succeeding. Strangely, I’ve come to regard Alexa as a sort of cloud-powered child. One moment she’s hyper-capable and in the next, she can’t grasp what I’m saying.

It’s understandably tricky to teach a voice interface to grapple with spoken language, which is why Alexa isn’t much of a polyglot — she understands American English, British English and German. I only speak that first one, and in general, Alexa’s a great listener, thanks to the Echo’s seven microphones. Most of the time, she’s great at understanding me too; I can’t remember the last time she whiffed when I asked her to set an alarm or give me a flash briefing.


Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Trying to control my rudimentary smart-home setup is a different story. I have three Philips Hue bulbs in lamps around my home, and Alexa can always understand when I ask her to turn them on. Anything more complicated than that is a crapshoot: Sometimes she’ll bring the brightness down to 50 percent, and sometimes she has no idea what I’m asking her. Same goes for leaving myself reminders. If I give Alexa a simple command like “remind me to buy eggs,” she’s fine. Almost anything more complex than that is hit-or-miss to the point where her mangled interpretations have become a running joke.

I don’t mean to make Alexa sound bad; most of the time she handles my commands just fine, so long as they’re reasonably simple. Every once in awhile, she’s even able to remember the context around what I ask so that I didn’t need to ask a slew of repetitive questions. When I asked her in which year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, she answered correctly; she then correctly answered the question “How many kids did he have?” That’s important: She knew “he” was “John F. Kennedy” without me needing to say it again. Alexa definitely still needs work as a conversationalist, though, and Amazon knows it: Alexa’s chief scientist has said prolonged chats are part of the company’s vision.

Beyond that, Alexa isn’t the best at answering general-knowledge questions. Sure, she can pull information from web searches, Wikipedia and more, but she’s still miles behind Google’s Assistant when it comes to scouting out answers to my inane questions. That almost doesn’t matter, though, because developers have come to embrace Alexa with surprising affection. As I write this, Alexa has over 15,000 “skills” — Amazon’s term for all the voice-controlled applets and services that make the assistant more than just a friendly voice in a tube. I’ve asked Alexa to order a pizza (and canceled because she doesn’t support good pizza places) and then played a streamlined version of Jeopardy.

So yeah, Alexa is a super-capable assistant that works best when you talk to her as if she were a toddler. If that dynamic isn’t odd enough, she’s also a shop assistant at the Everything Store.

Among my friends and colleagues, I have a reputation for being a pretty indiscriminate shopper. Do I need that three-pack of breathable running socks? Sure, but only if I upgrade my running shoes. You could call this a disorder, or perhaps, merely a lack of discipline. Either way, I was concerned that having an Amazon shopkeeper living in a black plastic tube with me would lead to many frictionless, frivolous purchases. I needn’t have worried. Alexa’s skill as a shopping assistant is well-documented: You can purchase almost anything from Amazon’s seemingly infinite store shelves with just a few commands. Thankfully, Alexa is terrible at idle browsing.

Let’s go back to those running socks. Unless I know exactly which ones I want, I would just ask her to “buy me some running socks.” Alexa thinks for a second and tells you all about the highest-ranking result for that search query. If that doesn’t work, well, she’s off to search result No. 2. It makes total sense that shopping with Alexa would work like that, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious.

For all the good that Alexa is capable of, she sometimes just freaks me out. She’ll just be sitting there, totally inert, when I notice her blue listening light come to life out of the corner of my eye. What the hell? Turns out, they’re false positives from the ever-present TV or YouTube video I have running, and they’ve thankfully become less common.

Now, I’m not vain enough to think anyone would want to spy on me, but it’s not like mass surveillance is impossible. I know that if Alexa were recording everything we said, a shitstorm of unholy proportions would land on Jeff Bezos’s doorstep. Still, part of my paranoid brain can’t help but wonder. Is it possible? Maybe? There’s also the conundrum of constantly referring to a technically sexless disembodied voice as a “she” like I have been. Based on her name and her voice, Amazon very clearly intended for Alexa to be female, but there are moments when bossing around a subservient assistant can feel paternalistic.


Chris Velazco/Engadget

Alexa isn’t just a homebody anymore, either. Thanks to some opportune partnerships, she’s now on phones too: You’ll find her on Huawei’s Mate 9 and the HTC U11. I spent my week with the latter because it’s the first phone that makes Alexa feel native; there’s no need to launch an additional app first — you just start talking to her. The thing is, Alexa still feels like she’s stuck inside the home. Typical requests I’ve been able to ask of Siri and Google’s Assistant, like calling or texting a friend, just don’t work here. At least Alexa is kind enough to explain: You can send recorded voice messages or actually even call people … as long as you have either an Echo of your own or have the Alexa app installed on your iOS or Android device.

OK. I guess that helps. You can technically add these capabilities with third-party skills, but you still can’t, say, ask Alexa to navigate you to your local non-Amazon retailer. She’s also incapable of launching apps, changing settings or doing any of the nitty-gritty stuff where assistants come in handy on phones. And to be honest, phones — at least the ones we have now — don’t seem like ideal places for Alexa right now, anyway. They typically use simpler microphone setups, which explains why I had to occasionally had to yell at U11-Alexa for her to hear me. And when U11-Alexa failed to understand me, the little Alexa window that pops up just stays there, keeping the phone’s screen on and burning through its battery. Needless to say, phone makers primarily regard Alexa as an afterthought.

That’s fine, though — Alexa is great at home, and despite all of her little frustrations, I can’t imagine getting rid of her. Google Home’s slick design and improved tolerance for silly commands has made me think about making the switch, but I can’t tell Google to play my beloved Heinlein audiobooks, and besides, I’m already used to Alexa’s quirks. I can’t say I trust her completely, but whether I like it or not, she’s basically part of the family.

This week Engadget is examining each of the five major virtual assistants, taking stock of how far they’ve come and how far they still have to go. Find all our coverage here.


‘State of Decay 2’ forces you to pick who becomes zombie food

State of Decay 2 wants you to decide who lives or dies — and whatever happens next. The sequel aims to double-down on what made the 2013 original work: a more sophisticated game world, and bothy more elaborate skill trees and settlements, whether that’s medical facilities or just better zombie-deflecting defences. The invasion may be delayed, but you’ll be in charge of your own survival when it finally hits in 2018. I got to see the game in action here at Gamescom, and if you’ve ever wanted alternative to The Walking Dead where anyone and (nearly) everyone could die, this is for you.

State Of Decay launched on Xbox 360 back in 2013, part of the console’s Xbox Live Arcade exclusive lineup that eventually got a PC and Xbox One remaster. Despite that remake, it still had plenty of rough edges, and glitchy environments were de rigour as you battled zombies, fortified your home and explored the game’s measured-in-kilometers-squared world. However, it’s sequel time, and developer Undead Labs has the full backing of Xbox Studios to ensure its new world of zombies is a little less messy — and I mean that in a technical sense. There’s still plenty of zombies to run over, smash with a baseball bat, and the rest.

The original was lauded for the freedom it offered players, but it was just really, really glitchy. But the game is now on a new console and a sequel, and the 30-minute (admittedly hands-off) playthrough had none of the environmental graphics hiccups that State of Decay was notorious for.

Leaving technical upgrades aside, creator (and previously World of Warcraft lead programmer) Jeff Strain stressed how the game doubles-down on what made the first game so popular. Instead of focusing on one “hero” you can control anyone in your motley survivor crew. Each future zombie meal has their own strengths and weaknesses, ones that not only include medical skills or shooting proficiency, but the person’s effect on camp morale. Naturally, those individual talents will also affect how you play the game.



Morale is important when you want to keep each man and woman at your base, strengthening it, fixing it, or just ensuring there’s enough food to eat. The team stresses that SOD2 will better signpost what’s happening to your settlement, and what’s happening to your characters — important when you’ll have to balance home problems while inching forward with the story. Apparently the narrative will lightly blend together with your day-to-day settlement woes, so you might actually make it through the entire game despite distractions — I’m looking at you Fallout 4.

What pulls me in most is how players will bond with their survivors, and when it comes to hard decision time, what choices will you make? We recruit two new members during our playtime, but those new members come at a cost: our only medic is coming down with the zombie plague, and we didn’t have time to save him. Medic skills are rare; we made the wrong decision.

The following decision isn’t made for us, though. We approached the guy and were given two options: end his life, or send him out into the open to fend for himself / try to find a cure. We did the latter, and the gamemakers said that there is the (small) chance that these people will recover and return back to the fold — which sounds both supremely tempting and a mid-season TV plot-twist.

I also got a glimpse at how cooperative play will work inside the game, with a flare gun used to summon your Xbox buddy (or random stranger) to your side. Like in the standard game, if you die while helping your friend and that person stays dead, but you’ll also get to keep any supplies and materials you find. High stakes, but possibly worth it too.

It’s been played out and debated in excess, but zombie movies, books, TV shows and games are at their best when its focusing on the humans, less the undead threat. That is the interesting part. State of Decay 2 hints at a game system that could make the definitive zombie game for me — and there’s still plenty of time until Spring 2018.

Follow all the latest news live from Gamescom here!


‘Stranger Things’ is already headed for a third season

Netflix is releasing the second season of Stranger Things on October 27th, but the show is already set to come back for a third season. In an interview with Vulture, Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things confirm that a third season is in the works and that the whole series will likely end with the fourth season. “We’re thinking it will be a four-season thing and then out,” said Ross.

The duo compared season two to a movie sequel and said that they “wanted to push things a bit.” “If you have a successful movie, number two is always a little bit bigger,” said Ross. You can watch a trailer for the upcoming season below.

Along with working on the show, the Duffer brothers are also tinkering with a sci-fi film that they said will be very different from Stranger Things but is still a ways off. “I think the goal right now is to focus on elevated genre with a focus on characters,” said Matt. “And no more kids on bikes.”

In the meantime, those kids on bikes are surely in for wild times in season two, season three and presumably season four. “They’re going to have to get the fuck out of this town,” said Ross. “It’s ridiculous!”

Source: Vulture


Tencent becomes the exclusive Chinese home of the NFL

The NFL has signed a deal with Tencent that’ll see the Chinese giant becoming the exclusive home of the game for the next three years. As well as most pre and regular-season games, Chinese fans will be able to watch both the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl. In addition, Deadline Hollywood says that ancillary shows, such as the Draft, Hard Knocks, Game Day and A Football Life are all included in the deal.

Tencent is a Chinese conglomerate that makes several American tech giants feel tiny by comparison, being Amazon, Facebook and Google all wrapped into one. But even though American Football’s not a huge deal in China, the deal is a big win-win for both the NFL and Tencent. The former gets its content in front of up to a billion new potential customers, while the latter gets the prestige of a top-tier global sports brand.

The NFL’s toe-dipping didn’t begin with Tencent, however, and experimented with streaming live games on Sina Weibo last year. That limited trial saw it broadcast six regular season games, one edition of Sunday Night Football, three playoff games and the Super Bowl. Less than a year later, however, and the league has switched allegiances to Tencent, Sina’s wealthier and more popular local rival.

Yes, you should have a nagging sense of deja vu, because it’s the exact same playbook the league used in the US. Before the 2016 season, the NFL brokered a deal with Twitter that saw the microblog live stream Thursday Night Football. A year later, and the league chose to work with Amazon Prime instead, although Twitter still has a 30-minute news show that it’ll broadcast as a consolation prize. Not to mention Verizon’s longstanding deal with the league to handle streaming video and apps for its users.

As we looked at last year, however, there is one issue with the current plans to bring sports broadcasting online: it doesn’t get the ratings regular TV does. Although if Tencent and others are prepared to spend big to bring the rights to their platforms, it may not matter that only a couple of million people tuned in.

Source: Deadline Hollywood


Astro’s email app packs a virtual assistant you can talk to

Virtual assistants have been quick to invade our phones and our homes — is it any surprise that they’re creeping into our email accounts, too? A startup called Astro built a chatbot (imaginatively named “Astrobot”) into its email app earlier this year, and now it’s taking things a step further: as part of a new update going live today, users can talk to Astrobot when they want to sift through their emails sans hands.

Well, mostly: you can’t invoke it with a wake-word like “Ok, Google.” Once installed, you’ll have to long-press the little Astrobot button that lives in your inbox. Then, you just gab away: asking if you have any emails prompts Astrobot to read through your most recent messages out loud, and telling it to archive, snooze or mark as unread worked consistently well. I’ve been testing the feature on iOS and Android for a few days now, and while I wouldn’t call it a game-changer, it has definitely shaved a few minutes off of my morning routine.

For me, the most valuable part of talking to Astrobot was being able to work with specific subsections of my inbox — say, emails that were routed into my priority inbox, or emails from people either I or Astrobot had previously flagged as VIPs. As you might imagine, a considerable chunk of the email that flows into my account each day is utter trash, and right out of the gate, Astro does a very good job figuring out which ones were worth completely ignoring.

Astro’s biggest selling point, though, is its ability to draw conclusions and modify its own behavior to treat certain emails as more important than others. The more you interact with specific people and the more you ignore others, the more nuanced Astro becomes. Over time, this came to be a sort of mild obsession: it was always a little fun firing up Astrobot to see who it thought it should ignore today. Given the hype around conversational assistants, it was only a matter of time before Astro CEO Andy Pflaum and his team wrapped those interactions up into a package worth talking to.

Still, as useful as Astrobot is, I have to wonder whether the team’s vision is sustainable over the long term. After all, Apple has a perfectly capable virtual assistant and a perfectly capable mobile email app. Ditto for Google. There’s very little (short of some patent defenses) keeping a bigger player from executing what Astro does, and reaching many more people in the process. That said, Astro in its current state is such a smart alternative that I’d pay to see Pflaum and his crew continue to fight the good fight in the war on junk mail.


‘Final Fantasy XV’ comes to your phone this fall

Square Enix is bent on bringing Final Fantasy XV to every platform imaginable, and that includes the phone in your pocket. It just unveiled a Pocket Edition of the road trip role-playing game that will hit Android, iOS and Windows 10 (yes, despite its dwindling influence) this fall. Its first episode will be free to play, while you’ll have to fork out an unspecified amount to continue the tale of Noctis and crew. The title includes the “main story” and characters, but don’t expect a carbon copy of the game you can buy on your console.

For one… well, look at it. The studio is adopting a “cute” art style that it believes will appeal to both newcomers used to mobile games as well as series veterans (that’s debatable — we’d say it’s just adapting to the reduced processing power). The Pocket Edition also adopts “casual” touch controls, and it adopts more of a top-down perspective than its console counterpart. It looks like many of the core mechanics are still present, though, including cooking.

There’s no question that Square Enix is trying to wring as much as it can out of its investment in Final Fantasy XV with the phone-friendly version. At the same time, it also speaks to the importance of mobile: the developer sees mobile gaming as big enough that it can justify bringing an expansive RPG (even if it’s a streamlined version) to platforms it might have ignored in the past.

Source: Final Fantasy XV (YouTube)


Medium is letting some users hide their posts behind a paywall

If you come across a piece on Medium you can’t read without an account, don’t be surprised. Medium has expanded its Partner Program to give users a way to earn money from their articles by publishing behind a paywall. The company has been testing the feature since March, but it has just sent out its first batch of invitations to a small group of writers and publishers who can now take advantage of the option. Every time they push a post a live, they can choose to make it visible to everyone or make it exclusive to the platform’s subscribers. Even if you’re not a subscriber, you’ll still be able to read up to three free articles every month that are behind the paywall.

As the image above states, participants’ payments will be based on member engagement, especially the number of “claps” you give them. You know how you can leave Reactions other than Like on Facebook? Well, Medium has its version of Reactions and Like called “clap.” Writers and publishers get a bigger percentage of your membership fee the more claps you leave their locked posts.

In his announcement, Medium head of product Michael Sippey said they’re at the “early days of what [the company] consider[s] a grand experiment.” Medium will send out more invites in the future, and anyone interested can sign up to be part of the waitlist.

Source: Medium


SNES-inspired 3DS XL hits Europe in October

Miss out on the SNES Classic pre-orders that went up (and promptly sold out) overnight? Nintendo has a consolation prize for you. Sort of. The storied game-maker will release a Super Nintendo-themed 3DS XL this October 13th. There’s a catch though: It’ll only be available in Europe. As Polygon notes, last year Japan got a Super Famicom-styled 3DS XL, and it still hasn’t made its way to our shores. But given that the Super Famicom itself was exclusive to Japan, that makes sense. The same can’t be said for the SNES one. We’ve reached out to Nintendo for more information and will update this post should it arrive.

Introducing the New Nintendo #3DS XL – Super Nintendo Entertainment System Edition, coming to store shelves on 13/10! #NintendoGC

— Nintendo UK (@NintendoUK) August 22, 2017

Source: Nintendo UK (Twitter)


How RFID tags became trendy

As far as wireless technologies go, radio-frequency identification (RFID) is one of the oldest. Patented in 1983 by the late British inventor Charles Walton, RFID made it possible for new, cutting-edge tech such as near-field communication (NFC) to exist. As with NFC, RFID chips are used to store information digitally, which can then be shared between objects through electromagnetic fields and radio waves. It may not be sexy, but companies see real potential in the technology, no matter how old. It’s no surprise, then, that over the past few years RFIDs have become ubiquitous in a wide range of industries, including travel, sports and one you wouldn’t expect: fashion.

Brands and retailers from that world, known for being generally slow to embrace technology, have started adopting RFID for different purposes. Some are using it to help them combat counterfeit products, others to make in-store shopping seem more futuristic. And these are just a couple examples. Last year, for instance, fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff began rolling out an RFID-powered self-checkout feature at her boutiques. The system consists of RFID tags tied around items, like a garment or handbag, and smart tables that can read them and send product information to a nearby iPad. The idea is to let you pay faster than you would with a traditional cashier.

For the most part, Minkoff’s self-checkout works smoothly, though it does get tedious when you have to wait for a store associate to come and physically remove the RFID tags from whatever product you’ve purchased. That said, one of the main reasons companies like to experiment with RFID is its versatility. In Minkoff’s stores, the same RFID tags used to create a speedier checkout process also double as a security measure. Say someone tries to leave without paying for a $500 purse: The chips will set off an alarm that alerts associates as soon as the individual tries to step out the door.

While Minkoff’s version of self-checkout isn’t as automated as what Amazon has planned for its future Go stores, which will offer a Just Walk Out Shopping experience, RFID is a solid alternative for brands that may not have the same resources as a tech giant. If you’re wondering why Minkoff didn’t just use NFC, it’s because RFID is more cost-efficient and offers a longer read range. Mark Roberti, editor in chief of the industry publication RFID Journal, said RFID tags are less expensive than NFC ones due to the “simplicity” of the antenna construction. NFC also relies heavily on Bluetooth, which isn’t the case for RFID.

Italian-French luxury label Moncler is another fashion company that’s shown interest in RFID. Unlike Rebecca Minkoff, however, Moncler’s use is intended to combat fake goods. Last year, the company announced that starting with its spring-summer 2016 collection, it would outfit products with RFID chips that customers could use to authenticate via an app or website. Thanks to the tech, each piece now comes with a unique ID that buyers can scan and, within seconds, find out if their recently purchased garments are legit. This could come particularly in handy if you bought something secondhand or not directly from Moncler.


Moncler’s RFID tag

According to a 2016 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global trade of counterfeit and pirated goods amounts to nearly half a trillion dollars per year. As such, the fashion industry can benefit from technologies like RFID to authenticate products. That’s why other fashion brands like Salvatore Ferragamo have been experimenting with RFID since 2014. Beginning with its pre-fall 2014 collection, the Italian company started embedding footwear and accessories with microchips. You can go back to 2003 as well, when another Italian label, Benetton, revealed it would put RFID tags on 15 million products — also as a way to fight counterfeits.

Meanwhile, the world’s biggest fast-fashion retailer, Zara, is using RFID to keep better track of inventory and restock its clothing racks more quickly. Since the garments are embedded with the technology, each time one is sold it prompts the stock room to send out another of the same model or size. Per The Wall Street Journal, Zara is now using the technology at more than 1,000 of its stores worldwide, with the company noting that the main benefits are that the chips can be reused and the amount of time they can save employees.

For example, Zara said associates used to have to spend 40 hours taking inventory, because it required them to scan bar codes from items on racks one by one. But now, thanks to RFID-powered retail guns and racks, they can walk around the store and get the job done in about five hours. The tech is so effective that Zara bought 500 million RFID chips, and that was before it kicked off this initiative.


Zara uses RFID to restock clothing racks more efficiently.

So where is the sudden resurgence of RFID coming from? Well, Roberti said that since 2002, the tech has become less expensive and more reliable than traditional bar code systems. That, along with its efficiency and versatility, is what’s led different brands and retailers to find ways to implement it in their business. He added that RFID is “just now reaching maturity and will soon explode,” particularly as more companies see its benefits firsthand.

“I don’t see anything coming along to replace RFID in the near time,” he said. “Nothing else combines the ability to capture data remotely without line of sight. RFID will be combined with robotics, video and data analytics to transform manufacturing, as well as retail and logistics.” Research firm IDTechEx estimates that the retail space alone will demand roughly 9 billion RFID tags in 2017, most of which will be used to tag apparel at stores and warehouses.

Perhaps it won’t happen anytime soon, but chances are RFID will eventually be replaced. That’s the nature of technology. Still, for the time being, RFID seems to have found a second life in the fashion world. Right now that may be limited to helping spot counterfeits or replenish inventory quicker. But as the likes of Moncler, Rebecca Minkoff and Zara continue to embrace it, there’s nothing stopping RFID from becoming a powerful resource to even more brands. At least until something better comes along.


Home and factory robots can be hacked to harm humans

Last month, cybersecurity firm IOActive let everyone know that Segway MiniPro hoverboards were vulnerable to hacks and outside control via their Bluetooth connections. Now it has revealed that industrial robots from Universal Robots and consumer models from Softbank Group and UBTech Robotics also have some troubling security flaws that can allow hackers to “modify safety settings, violating applicable safety laws and, consequently, causing physical harm to the robot’s surroundings by moving it arbitrarily,” according to a report published by the company today.

The devices produced by Universal Robots are uncaged industrial robots meant to work with humans. Safety features are put in place to make sure working alongside the robots is safe for humans, but IOActive was able to override those features after hacking into the software. The company told Bloomberg that with these robots, “even running at low speeds, their force is more than sufficient to cause a skull fracture.”

With Softbank’s Pepper and NAO consumer robots, IOActive discovered that hackers can use them to record audio and video and transmit those recordings to an outside server. With UBTech’s Alpha series, information captured by the models wasn’t encrypted, making it pretty easy for someone with the right skills to steal it. And though they’re not as big as the Universal Robot devices, the smaller consumer bots could still cause some harm. Check out the video below to see UBTech’s cute Alpha 2 turn into a screwdriver-wielding, tomato-stabbing maniac.

IOActive informed the companies of the vulnerabilities it uncovered. “We contacted all the vendors in January but sadly there’s little to suggest that the 50-plus vulnerabilities we demonstrated have been fixed,” Lucas Apa, IOActive’s principal security consultant told Bloomberg. “Most vendors were not forthcoming when we contacted them in private, so going public was the only option left available to us.” Universal Robots told Bloomberg that it was aware of the report and that the products “undergo rigorous safety certification.” SoftBank said it had patched the vulnerabilities found by IOActive.

“If we know about these vulnerabilities, chances are that we’re not the only ones,” said Apa. “These are early days for the robotics industry, but as it grows, we want to make sure it has a more secure future.”

Source: IOActive, Bloomberg

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