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Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing – TechCrunch

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Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

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The 6 Best Apple Black Friday Deals 2021

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Apple doesn’t typically like to associate itself with the madness of Black Friday, but if you know where to look, you can pick up some helpful discounts on many of the company’s hottest devices. This year, Apple itself is dipping a toe in the deal pool itself by offering Apple Gift Cards with select devices on its own online store. If you go that route, note that Apple says it’ll send the credit to your email address within 24 hours from the time your purchase ships or is available for pickup.

Below are the most worthwhile Apple deals we’re seeing as of this writing.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Our Black Friday Coverage

Apple's AirPods Pro.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Pro.

Apple AirPods Pro for $170 ($205) at Amazon

or receive a $50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of AirPods Pro from Apple

We’ve recommended the AirPods Pro a number of times in past buying guides. While the noise-canceling earphones briefly fell as low as $159 earlier this week, this is still one of our favorite audio deals for Black Friday and roughly $20-30 off the Pro’s usual street price. Either way, the Pro’s noise cancelation and sound pass-through modes are effective at drowning out or letting in the ambiance of your surroundings, and their balanced sound is among the best in the segment.

If you prefer the open-back feel of the eartip-less AirPods, meanwhile, Apple is selling the second- and new third-gen models of those with a $25 digital gift card.

It’s also worth noting that the Studio Buds from Apple subsidiary Beats are on sale for a new low of $100, which is roughly $40 off their street price. This lightweight true wireless pairs shares many (but not all) of the same benefits you’d get from a pair of full-on AirPods, and they work more handily with Android devices, though their noise cancellation isn’t as strong. We gave them mostly positive marks in our review earlier this year.

The Apple Watch SE is the best low-cost alternative to the Series 7.

The Apple Watch SE is the best low-cost alternative to the Series 7.

Apple

Apple Watch SE for $219 ($279) at Amazon, Target, Best Buy

or receive a $50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of Apple Watch SE from Apple

The Apple Watch Series 7 tops our list as the best smartwatch you can buy, but the Apple Watch SE is the next best option. Neither of these is the best fitness tracker available, but they both offer more than 50 different activity-tracking modes, ranging from dancing to e-biking and everything in between. The real draw here is watchOS’s wide app compatibility, which brings most, if not all, popular smartwatch apps right to your wrist. Though it lacks the always-on display and more advanced health features (electrocardiogram (ECG) support, blood oxygen monitoring) of the Series 7, the Apple Watch SE’s GPS, optional LTE, and music storage still makes it a device you can confidently use to leave your phone at home.

This deal brings the best price we’ve seen for the SE outright, while Apple’s gift card deal brings effectively the same discount. Sadly, we’ve yet to see any major deals on the Series 7 as of this writing.

Apple

AirPods Max for $440 ($550) at Amazon

or receive a $75 Apple Gift Card with purchase of AirPods Max from Apple

This is the $10 off the lowest price we’ve clocked for the impressive Apple AirPods Max. They briefly fell as low as $429 earlier this week, but this is still a good $50 or so off their normal street price and more than $100 off their MSRP.

Either way, the Max’s best-in-class noise cancelation, full-bodied sound, swanky design, and intuitive controls make them a joy to use. Just note that, like all AirPods, they’re best used with an iPhone or MacBook. Their lack of a dedicated power button can sometimes be annoying as well. We gave a fuller breakdown of the AirPods Max in our best headphone deals roundup.

Samuel Axon

MacBook Air (2020) for $850 ($1000) at Amazon, Best Buy

or receive a $100 Apple Gift Card with purchase of MacBook or Mac Mini

We may get an updated model next year, but the 2020 MacBook Air is perennially lauded for its speedy M1 chip, fantastic battery life, light weight, and thin profile. This deal covers the entry-level configuration with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, so it’s not a workhorse, but it should be alright for more general usage, which is where the Air excels anyway.

Student discounts can often take $100 off, but this deal dips even further to net an extra $50 in your pocket. We’ve only seen this config drop lower a couple of times in the past. If Amazon and Best Buy run out of stock, Apple’s $100 Gift Card offer is nice, though only $20-30 lower than the notebook’s typical going rate on Amazon.

The Apple iPad Pro.
Enlarge / The Apple iPad Pro.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch 128 GB for $999 ($1100) at Amazon, Best Buy

or receive a $100 Apple Gift Card with purchase of iPad Pro 11-inch or 12.9-inch

The iPad Pro is billed as a laptop replacement by Apple, and although iPadOS’ limitations still make that claim a stretch, the Pro’s speed and storage capacities aren’t too far off from a MacBook. Discounts get $50 deeper for any storage over 256 GB (512 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB). Still, the iPad Pro is a luxurious tablet and great complementary devices for work, school, art, or leisure. Some Apple accessories, like Apple Pencils and iPad keyboard covers, are also being offered with up to $50 Apple Gift Cards.

The new Apple TV 4K.
Enlarge / The new Apple TV 4K.

Apple

$50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of Apple TV 4K ($180) or Apple TV HD ($150) from Apple

The Apple TV is far from the best value on the 4K streaming device market, but if money is no object, it supports almost every major streaming service, works with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR content, and has a relatively easy-to-navigate user interface that doesn’t stuff you with as many ads as cheaper streamers. A redesigned remote control has made things much easier, too. Most notably, if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, it’ll fit right in, as it’ll let you easily mirror content from your Mac, iPad, or iPhone to the TV.

The Apple TV is still expensive compared to the latest Google Chromecast—our favorite affordable streaming stick, which is currently on sale for $40—but if you know you’ll use Apple’s $50 gift card, this deal will effectively represent the best price we’ve tracked. Outright discounts on the newest streamer have been rare otherwise.


Our Black Friday Coverage

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9 Best Black Friday Headphones Deals 2021: Top ANC Picks from Sony, Bose & More

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Enlarge / A handful of the wireless noise-canceling headphones we’ve tested in recent months.

Jeff Dunn

Black Friday has started its attack run, which means it’s a good time to be in the market for a new pair of headphones. More specifically, a good set of noise-canceling headphones always seems to be in high demand during the gift-getting season. But if you’re not sure which to buy, let us help you grab a good deal.

I’ve reviewed many wireless noise-canceling pairs for Ars over the past few years, from in-ears to over-ears, and some of the better options I’ve used happen to be on sale during the Black Friday barrage. Below are a handful of these top discounted recommendations, including picks from Sony, Apple, Bose, and more.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Sony's WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones.
Enlarge / Sony’s WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones.

Jeff Dunn

The Best for Most: Sony WH-1000XM4 for $248 ($330) at Amazon, Target, Best Buy

I’ve recommended them in multiple guides and deal posts since they launched last year, but to my ears, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are still the most well-rounded pair of wireless headphones for most people. This deal has been active for much of the past month, but it matches the lowest price we’ve tracked.

For noise cancelation (ANC), the XM4 do better than most pairs I’ve tested at blocking out lower- and mid-frequency noises like the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of a jet engine, and they’re unusually effective at reducing higher-pitched sounds like nearby voices. The latter makes them particularly convenient for the office (or home offices with especially chatty housemates). Note that the ANC turns off whenever you take a call, though.

The headphones themselves are comfortable and well-padded, and they don’t clamp down too hard on larger heads (such as my own). They have a professional, if not particularly showy, aesthetic and a durable design that’s flexible and can fold up for easier storage. A useful carrying case comes in the box.

They have a few genuinely useful perks, too. An optional “speak-to-chat” mode in the app can automatically pause your music whenever you start speaking to someone, and a “quick attention” feature momentarily lets you hear ambient noise when you put your hand over an earcup, which can be useful for catching quick announcements. The ambient sound mode performs well, and the headphones can connect to two devices simultaneously.

They aren’t perfect: their sound profile out of the box goes a bit heavier on the bass than some might prefer (though Sony’s companion app has an EQ tool to customize this to be more neutral); their microphone quality is just OK for calls; and they don’t allow you to adjust the strength of their active noise cancelation (ANC)—a feature found on other high-end pairs like Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

I prefer physical control buttons to touch controls, but swiping and tapping on the XM4’s earcups to adjust volume, accept calls, and skip tracks is more reliable than not. Battery life is excellent at more than 30 hours per charge—the specific length will vary depending on how loud you play your music—and the headphones recharge over USB-C. It’s also possible to use them passively through an included cable, though you won’t be able to take calls in that mode.

Apple's AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.

Jeff Dunn

A Pricier Upgrade: Apple AirPods Max for $429 ($490) at Amazon

If money is no object, and you’re an iPhone user, the AirPods Max might be a better buy than the WH-1000XM4. They sound better than any other wireless headphones I’ve used to date, even without a customizable EQ tool. There’s a slight bass boost—a trait I personally enjoy—but the sound signature is exceptionally clear, accurate, and detailed. (To be clear, the audio quality of any wireless headphones still can’t match the best wired pairs.)

To my ears, the AirPods Max also do a better job canceling low- and mid-frequency noise than any other headphones I’ve worn. Voices and high-pitched sounds still come through a bit clearer than they would on the Sony XM4, but most everything else is markedly reduced. The ambient sound (or “transparency”) mode is superb as well, making outside noises sound crisp and relatively natural alongside your music.

The headphones have an attractive design and an aluminum finish that’s cool to the touch. They’re heavier, and thus a little less comfortable, than the Sony or Bose pairs in this roundup, but they feel premium. The multi-function “Digital Crown” dial, similar to what you’d see on an Apple Watch, makes controlling volume and playback a breeze. The included mics work well for phone calls, and battery life is decent at a little more than 20 hours per charge. Apple also offers a battery replacement service for $79.

There are a few strange design choices. Oddly, there’s no power button. Instead, you have to put the headphones into an included “case” to activate a low-power mode. I put “case” in scare quotes because it’s barely protective, acting more as an earcup cover than anything else. Apple doesn’t include a 3.5mm cable in the box, either, and even if you pay for an adapter, you won’t be able to listen to music if your battery dies. The Max also can’t connect to multiple devices at once, nor can they fold up. Like all AirPods, they’re best used with other Apple devices. They aren’t as convenient to pair with Android or Windows, and they lack certain settings controls on those platforms.

The AirPods Max are also really expensive, with an MSRP of $549. This Black Friday deal brings them down to the best price we’ve seen, but even then, they’re not cheap, which is why we think the XM4 are close enough in quality to be a much better value. But if you’re an iPhone user, and want the best audio quality and active noise cancelation possible, the AirPods Max should make for a swanky gift.

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Qualcomm exclusivity deal might be keeping Windows from running on other ARM chips

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Microsoft has created versions of Windows 10 and Windows 11 that run on ARM chips, but to date, the company has not been interested in selling Windows on ARM licenses to anyone other than PC builders. The ARM versions of Windows can run on things like the Raspberry Pi or in virtualization apps running on Apple Silicon Macs, but Microsoft doesn’t officially support doing it, and the company has never elaborated as to why.

One possible explanation comes from a report on XDA Developers, which claims that an exclusivity deal with Qualcomm keeps Microsoft from making the ARM versions of Windows more generally available. According to “people familiar with it,” that exclusivity deal is currently “holding back other chip vendors from competing in the space.” The Qualcomm deal is also said to be ending “soon,” though the report isn’t more specific about how soon “soon” is.

This allegation comes a few weeks after Rick Tsai, CEO of ARM chipmaker MediaTek, said on a company earnings call that MediaTek “certainly intend[s]” to run Windows on its chips. Qualcomm, MediaTek, Rockchip, and others are all shipping ARM chips for Chromebooks, in addition to the chips they all provide for Android devices.

Whether this Qualcomm deal exists or not, it is a fact that Microsoft announced the availability of Windows on ARM with Qualcomm’s cooperation back in 2016, and since the first modern ARM Windows systems shipped back in late 2017, they’ve been powered exclusively by Qualcomm chips. This includes the Surface Pro X’s Microsoft SQ1 and SQ2, which are Microsoft-branded but were “developed in partnership with Qualcomm.” An exclusivity deal could be mutually beneficial at first—Qualcomm gets all the design wins for Windows on ARM systems for a few years, and Microsoft gets another chance to build an ecosystem for an ARM version of Windows after a few false starts. But over time, it could also limit the variety of Windows-on-ARM systems or hold back performance through lack of competition.

If Microsoft allows Windows to run on other ARM processors, it could open the door to a virtualized version of Windows on Apple Silicon Macs. The performance penalty for running x86 apps in the ARM versions of Windows would be much less noticeable on Apple systems, because the M1-series chips so thoroughly outstrip the performance of anything Qualcomm has to offer right now.

And that’s what Windows on ARM needs to really succeed—hardware that can do for Windows PCs what the M1 chips have done for Macs. It was a smart bet for Microsoft to build a version of Windows that could run on ARM chips without giving up the app compatibility that keeps so many people tethered to Windows in the first place. But until we can get hardware that can match or beat Intel’s and AMD’s CPU performance while improving on their energy efficiency, the operating system will remain a technical curiosity. The end of this exclusivity deal with Qualcomm, assuming it exists, opens the door for more chipmakers to try to deliver that speed and efficiency.

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