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Google’s new voice recognition system works instantly and offline (if you have a Pixel) – TechCrunch

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Voice recognition is a standard part of the smartphone package these days, and a corresponding part is the delay while you wait for Siri, Alexa or Google to return your query, either correctly interpreted or horribly mangled. Google’s latest speech recognition works entirely offline, eliminating that delay altogether — though of course mangling is still an option.

The delay occurs because your voice, or some data derived from it anyway, has to travel from your phone to the servers of whoever operates the service, where it is analyzed and sent back a short time later. This can take anywhere from a handful of milliseconds to multiple entire seconds (what a nightmare!), or longer if your packets get lost in the ether.

Why not just do the voice recognition on the device? There’s nothing these companies would like more, but turning voice into text on the order of milliseconds takes quite a bit of computing power. It’s not just about hearing a sound and writing a word — understanding what someone is saying word by word involves a whole lot of context about language and intention.

Your phone could do it, for sure, but it wouldn’t be much faster than sending it off to the cloud, and it would eat up your battery. But steady advancements in the field have made it plausible to do so, and Google’s latest product makes it available to anyone with a Pixel.

Google’s work on the topic, documented in a paper here, built on previous advances to create a model small and efficient enough to fit on a phone (it’s 80 megabytes, if you’re curious), but capable of hearing and transcribing speech as you say it. No need to wait until you’ve finished a sentence to think whether you meant “their” or “there” — it figures it out on the fly.

So what’s the catch? Well, it only works in Gboard, Google’s keyboard app, and it only works on Pixels, and it only works in American English. So in a way this is just kind of a stress test for the real thing.

“Given the trends in the industry, with the convergence of specialized hardware and algorithmic improvements, we are hopeful that the techniques presented here can soon be adopted in more languages and across broader domains of application,” writes Google, as if it is the trends that need to do the hard work of localization.

Making speech recognition more responsive, and to have it work offline, is a nice development. But it’s sort of funny considering hardly any of Google’s other products work offline. Are you going to dictate into a shared document while you’re offline? Write an email? Ask for a conversion between liters and cups? You’re going to need a connection for that! Of course this will also be better on slow and spotty connections, but you have to admit it’s a little ironic.

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Apple reaches quiet truce over iPhone privacy changes

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Enlarge / A privacy notice appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Developers of an application have to ask for the user’s permission to allow cross-app tracking.

Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.

In May Apple communicated its privacy changes to the wider public, launching an advert that featured a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone prompted him to “Ask App Not to Track,” he clicked it and they vanished. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear—if you choose an iPhone, you are choosing privacy.

But seven months later, companies including Snap and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymised and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For instance Snap has told investors that it plans to share data from its 306 million users—including those who ask Snap “not to track”—so advertisers can gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns are working. Any personally identifiable data will first be obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multiyear effort” to rebuild ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data”.

These companies point out that Apple has told developers they “may not derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it.” This means they can observe “signals” from an iPhone at a group level, enabling ads that can still be tailored to “cohorts” aligning with certain behavior but not associated with unique IDs.

This type of tracking is becoming the norm. Oren Kaniel, the chief executive of AppsFlyer, a mobile attribution platform that works with app developers, said that when his company introduced such a “privacy-centric” tool based on aggregated measurement in July 2020, “the level of pushback that we received from the entire ecosystem was huge.”

But now such aggregated solutions are the default for 95 percent of his clients. “The market changed their minds in a radical way,” he said.

It is not clear whether Apple has actually blessed these solutions. Apple declined to answer specific questions for this article but described privacy as its North Star, implying it was setting a general destination rather than defining a narrow pathway for developers.

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, said Apple had to stand back from a strict reading of its rules because the disruption to the mobile ads ecosystem would be too great.

“Apple can’t put themselves in a situation where they are basically gutting their top-performing apps from a user-consumption perspective,” she said. “That would ultimately hurt iOS.”

For anyone interpreting Apple’s rules strictly, these solutions break the privacy rules set out to iOS users.

Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, has called Apple’s policy “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” It performed a variety of tests on top apps and observed that personal data and device information is still “being sent to trackers in almost all cases.”

But the companies aggregating user-level data said the reason apps continue to “leak” information such as a user’s IP address and location was simply because some require such information to function. Advertisers must know certain things such as the user’s language or the device screen size, otherwise the app experience would be awful.

The risk is that by allowing user-level data to be used by opaque third parties so long as they promise not to abuse it, Apple is in effect trusting the very same groups that chief executive Tim Cook has lambasted as “hucksters just looking to make a quick buck.”

Companies will pledge that they only look at user-level data once it has been anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved, said Munchbach.

“If historical precedent in adtech holds, those black boxes hide a lot of sins,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to assume it leaves a lot to be desired.”

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Roku vs. Google drama winds down as companies forge multi-year YouTube deal

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Enlarge / Roku’s 4K Streaming Stick.

Roku

Roku and Google have arrived at a multi-year deal that will keep the YouTube and YouTube TV apps available on Roku’s devices, Roku announced on Twitter this morning. The agreement comes months after the YouTube TV app was pulled from the Roku Channel Store and just one day before the regular YouTube app would have been removed from the store.

Specific terms of the deal haven’t been announced, including how many years “multi-year” means and whether Roku will begin adding decoding support for the AV1 video codec to its hardware. We also don’t know whether the $65-per-month YouTube TV service will return to the Roku store as its own dedicated app or if it will continue to be rolled into the main YouTube app, as it has been since Google added it there to sidestep Roku’s restrictions in May.

Support for the AV1 codec has been one of the major sticking points between the two companies. The YouTube and YouTube TV apps use AV1 (which is backed by Google, among other companies) to deliver compressed 4K and 8K video streams. But because streaming devices tend to use slower, cheaper processors, they rely on dedicated video decoding hardware to be able to actually decompress and display those video files, and while most of these devices support the commonly used H.265/HEVC codec for high-resolution video streams, fewer support the royalty-free AV1 codec.

Roku has said that adding AV1 support to its devices would “increase consumer costs,” and requiring it for YouTube and YouTube TV support would effectively allow Google to dictate which chips Roku uses in its own products. Google has also accused Roku of using its position in the streaming-device market to secure more favorable terms (Roku’s devices account for a plurality of all streaming in North America, though its market share is lower in other regions). The YouTube and YouTube TV apps may not be able to stream high-resolution video on devices without AV1 support, though having those apps available in Roku’s store in any capacity is probably better for both companies than allowing them to be pulled entirely.

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Razer’s RGB smartphone cooler attaches to iPhones with MagSafe

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Enlarge / Razer Phone Cooler Chroma.

PC gamers know about heat. When you’re in the middle of an intense in-game battle, the last thing you want is for your computer to start acting up because your CPU or GPU got too hot. That’s why gamers and other extreme users rely on products like CPU coolers and liquid cooling systems. You probably haven’t been as concerned about your smartphone’s thermals while playing Candy Crush on your iPhone. Nevertheless, Razer released a new product, the Phone Cooler Chroma, on Tuesday to ensure your smartphone doesn’t overheat the next time you use it for gaming.

Of course, mobile gaming has grown beyond the likes of Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Razer (and some other vendors) have been trying to make mobile gaming a serious thing for a while. The company’s efforts are mostly focused on controllers, like the Razer Kishi, that attach to your smartphone. There’s also Razer’s finger sleeve for mobile gaming.

The Phone Cooler Chroma released Tuesday has a different purpose. Compatible with both iPhone and Android phones (it supports “most smartphones,” Razer’s product page claims), the product is meant to help keep your phone cool while it’s pushing those frames.

Interestingly, the fan takes advantage of Apple’s MagSafe, allowing you to attach the cooler magnetically. That’s convenient, but it also means the cooler won’t sit directly above the phone’s SoC.

If you don’t have a MagSafe-compatible phone, you can opt for the version with a universal clamp.

Clamp option.

We don’t know how adjustable the cooler is, but Razer says it works with phones that are 2.64-3.46 inches (67-88 mm) wide.

Staying cool?

1. RGB, 2. cover, 3. fan, 4. heatsink, 5. Peltier cooling tile, 6. cooling plate.
Enlarge / 1. RGB, 2. cover, 3. fan, 4. heatsink, 5. Peltier cooling tile, 6. cooling plate.

A cooling plate sits on the back cover and is topped by an electronic tile that uses Peltier cooling, also known as thermoelectric cooling, to transfer heat. The next layer is a heatsink under a seven-bladed fan spinning at up to 6,400 revolutions per minute, adjustable via Bluetooth. Razer says the cooler can stay at 30 dB.

On top of the fan lies a cover with air vents, and—of course—RGB lighting. Does the lighting help your phone stay cool? Absolutely not. But it almost wouldn’t be a Razer product without it. The gaming brand even put RGB on its N95 mask, so Chroma lighting here is no surprise.

RGB feels like a Razer requirement.
Enlarge / RGB feels like a Razer requirement.

There are 12 RGB LEDs in the cover, and each can be set to its own color and effect.

You’ll need a USB-C cable to power the Phone Cooler Chroma. The cooler comes with a 4.9-foot (1.5 m) USB-C to USB-C cable, but this seems like it could be burdensome when gaming on the go, as a mobile gamer is inclined to do.

Power over USB-C required.
Enlarge / Power over USB-C required.

Razer didn’t make any claims about how much cooler the product will keep your phone’s components. Unlike a CPU cooler, this cooler doesn’t come into direct contact with the processor, and it doesn’t have any exhaust vents to work with as some laptop fan coolers do. So the heat transfer from the actual SoC may be limited. Hardcore mobile gamers can find out for themselves for $60.

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

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