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Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent – TechCrunch

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If any aliens or technology ingenues were trying to understand what on earth a ‘smart home’ is yesterday, via Google’s latest own-brand hardware launch event, they’d have come away with a pretty confused and incoherent picture.

The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making.

Meet the ‘Made by Google’ Home Hub.

Buy into the smart home, the smart consumer might think, and you’re going to be stuck shelling out again and again — just to keep on top of managing an ever-expanding gaggle of high maintenance devices.

Which does sound quite a lot like throwing good money after bad. Unless you’re a true believer in the concept of gadget-enabled push-button convenience — and the perpetually dangled claim that smart home nirvana really is just around the corner. One additional device at a time. Er, and thanks to AI!

Yesterday, at Google’s event, there didn’t seem to be any danger of nirvana though.

Not unless paying $150 for a small screen lodged inside a speaker is your idea of heaven. (i.e. after you’ve shelled out for all the other connected devices that will form the spokes chained to this control screen.)

A small tablet that, let us be clear, is defined by its limitations: No standard web browser, no camera… No, it’s not supposed to be an entertainment device in its own right.

It’s literally just supposed to sit there and be a visual control panel — with the usual also-accessible-on-any-connected-device type of content like traffic, weather and recipes. So $150 for a remote control doesn’t sound quite so cheap now does it?

The hub doubling as a digital photo frame when not in active use — which Google made much of — isn’t some kind of ‘magic pixie’ sales dust either. Call it screensaver 2.0.

A fridge also does much the same with a few magnets and bits of paper. Just add your own imagination.

During the presentation, Google made a point of stressing that the ‘evolving’ smart home it was showing wasn’t just about iterating on the hardware front — claiming its Google’s AI software is hard at work in the background, hand-in-glove with all these devices, to really ‘drive the vision forward’.

But if the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory.

Google also made a point of referencing concerns it said it’s heard from a large majority of users that they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, saying: “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being.”

Yet it said this at an event where it literally unboxed yet another clutch of connected, demanding, function-duplicating devices — that are also still, let’s be clear, just as hungry for your data — including the aforementioned tablet-faced speaker (which Google somehow tried to claim would help people “disconnect” from all their smart home tech — so, basically, ‘buy this device so you can use devices less’… ); a ChromeOS tablet that transforms into a laptop via a snap-on keyboard; and 2x versions of its new high end smartphone, the Pixel 3.

There was even a wireless charging Pixel Stand that props the phone up in a hub-style control position. (Oh and Google didn’t even have time to mention it during the cluttered presentation but there’s this Disney co-branded Mickey Mouse-eared speaker for kids, presumably).

What’s the average consumer supposed to make of all this incestuously overlapping, wallet-badgering hardware?!

Smartphones at least have clarity of purpose — by being efficiently multi-purposed.

Increasingly powerful all-in-ones that let you do more with less and don’t even require you to buy a new one every year vs the smart home’s increasingly high maintenance and expensive (in money and attention terms) sprawl, duplication and clutter. And that’s without even considering the security risks and privacy nightmare.

The two technology concepts really couldn’t be further apart.

If you value both your time and your money the smartphone is the one — the only one — to buy into.

Whereas the smart home clearly needs A LOT of finessing — if it’s to ever live up to the hyped claims of ‘seamless convenience’.

Or, well, a total rebranding.

The ‘creatively chaotic & experimental gadget lovers’ home would be a more honest and realistic sell for now — and the foreseeable future.

Instead Google made a pitch for what it dubbed the “thoughtful home”. Even as it pushed a button to pull up a motorised pedestal on which stood clustered another bunch of charge-requiring electronics that no one really needs — in the hopes that consumers will nonetheless spend their time and money assimilating redundant devices into busy domestic routines. Or else find storage space in already overflowing drawers.

The various iterations of ‘smart’ in-home devices in the market illustrate exactly how experimental the entire  concept remains.

Just this week, Facebook waded in with a swivelling tablet stuck on a smart speaker topped with a camera which, frankly speaking, looks like something you’d find in a prison warden’s office.

Google, meanwhile, has housed speakers in all sorts of physical forms, quite a few of which resemble restroom scent dispensers — what could it be trying to distract people from noticing?

And Amazon now has so many Echo devices it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s as if the ecommerce giant is just dropping stones down a well to see if it can make a splash.

During the smart home bits of Google’s own-brand hardware pitch, the company’s parade of presenters often sounded like they were going through robotic motions, failing to muster anything more than baseline enthusiasm.

And failing to dispel a strengthening sense that the smart home is almost pure marketing, and that sticking update-requiring, wired in and/or wireless devices with variously overlapping purposes all over the domestic place is the very last way to help technology-saturated consumers achieve anything close to ‘disconnected well-being’.

Incremental convenience might be possible, perhaps — depending on which and how few smart home devices you buy; for what specific purpose/s; and then likely only sporadically, until the next problematic update topples the careful interplay of kit and utility. But the idea that the smart home equals thoughtful domestic bliss for families seems farcical.

All this updatable hardware inevitably injects new responsibilities and complexities into home life, with the conjoined power to shift family dynamics and relationships — based on things like who has access to and control over devices (and any content generated); whose jobs it is to fix things and any problems caused when stuff inevitably goes wrong (e.g. a device breakdown OR an AI-generated snafu like the ‘wrong’ photo being auto-displayed in a communal area); and who will step up to own and resolve any disputes that arise as a result of all the Internet connected bits being increasingly intertwined in people’s lives, willingly or otherwise.

Hey Google, is there an AI to manage all that yet?

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Chinese hackers targeted SolarWinds customers in parallel with Russian op

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By now, most people know that hackers tied to the Russian government compromised the SolarWinds software build system and used it to push a malicious update to some 18,000 of the company’s customers. On Monday, researchers published evidence that hackers from China also targeted SolarWinds customers in what security analysts have said was a distinctly different operation.

The parallel hack campaigns have been public knowledge since December, when researchers revealed that, in addition to the supply chain attack, hackers exploited a vulnerability in SolarWinds software called Orion. Hackers in the latter campaign used the exploit to install a malicious web shell dubbed Supernova on the network of a customer who used the network management tool. Researchers, however, had few if any clues as to who carried out that attack.

On Monday, researchers said the attack was likely carried out by a China-based hacking group they’ve dubbed “Spiral.” The finding, laid out in a report published on Monday by Secureworks’ Counter Threat Unit, is based on techniques, tactics, and procedures in the hack that were either identical or very similar to an earlier compromise the researchers discovered in the same network.

Pummeled on more than one front

The finding comes on the heels of word that China-based hackers dubbed Hafnium are one of at least five clusters of hackers behind attacks that installed malicious web shells on tens of thousands of Microsoft Exchange servers. Monday’s report shows that there’s no shortage of APTs—shorthand for advanced persistent threat hackers—determined to target a wide swath of US-based organizations.

“At a time when everyone is hunting for HAFNIUM webshells because of the Exchange zero-days we learned about last week, SPIRAL’s activity is a reminder that enterprises are getting pummeled on more than one front,” Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, principal threat researcher at security firm SentinelOne, said in a direct message. The report is “a reminder of the diversity and breadth of the APT ecosystem.”

Counter Threat Unit researchers said they encountered Supernova in November as they responded to the hack of a customer’s network. Like other malicious web shells, Supernova got installed after the attackers had successfully gained the ability to execute malicious code on the target’s systems. The attackers then used Supernova to send commands that stole passwords and other data that gave access to other parts of the network.

Secureworks CTU researchers already believed that the speed and surgical precision of the movement inside the target’s network suggested that Spiral had prior experience inside it. Then, the researchers noticed similarities between the November hack and one the researchers had uncovered in August, 2020. The attackers in the earlier hack likely gained initial access as early as 2018 by exploiting a vulnerability in a product known as the ManageEngine ServiceDesk, the researchers said.

“CTU researchers were initially unable to attribute the August activity to any known threat groups,” the researchers wrote. “However, the following similarities to the SPIRAL intrusion in late 2020 suggest that the SPIRAL threat group was responsible for both intrusions:”

  • The threat actors used identical commands to dump the LSASS process via comsvcs.dll and used the same output file path (see Figure 6).
    LSASS process dump from August 2020 using an identical command to the November 2020 incident.
    Enlarge / LSASS process dump from August 2020 using an identical command to the November 2020 incident.

    Secureworks

  • The same two servers were accessed: a domain controller and a server that could provide access to sensitive business data.
  • The same ‘c:userspublic’ path (all lowercase) was used as a working directory.
  • Three compromised administrator accounts were used in both intrusions.

The CTU researchers already knew that Chinese hackers had been exploiting MangeEngine servers to gain long-term access to networks of interest. But that alone wasn’t enough to determine Spiral had its origins in China. The researchers became more confident in the connection after noticing that the hackers in the August incident accidentally exposed one of their IP addresses. It was geolocated to China.

The hackers exposed their IP address when they stole the endpoint detection software Sercureworks had sold to the hacked customer. For reasons that aren’t clear, the hackers then ran the security product on one of their computers, at which point it exposed its IP address as it reached out to a Secureworks server.

The naming convention of the hackers’ computer was the same as a different computer that the hackers had used when connecting to the network through a VPN. Taken together, the evidence collected by CTU researchers gave them the confidence that both hacks were done by the same group and that the group was based in China.

“Similarities between SUPERNOVA-related activity in November and activity that CTU researchers analyzed in August suggest that the SPIRAL threat group was responsible for both intrusions,” CTU researchers wrote. “Characteristics of these intrusions indicate a possible connection to China.”

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Headphones without headphones—we test Lucyd Lyte Bluetooth sunglasses

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Lucyd Lyte is a pair of $150 sunglasses which includes speakers and mic suitable for use in making phone calls or listening to podcasts. This isn’t a category of device I was aware of at all before a PR rep reached out to offer a review unit—but once I knew it was a thing, I very much wanted to test it.

The Wayfarer style that I tested is a neutral, unremarkable style unlikely to get much attention whether negative or positive. They look nicer than gas station sunglasses but without any particular style cue to lead a viewer into thinking they’re an expensive designer brand. There’s no visual cue to the onboard audio, either—the frames are a touch on the thick side, but unlike Bose Frames there’s no telltale shape to give the extra functionality away.

Lucyd Lyte paired with my Pixel 2XL phone quickly and easily. The instructions recommend a two-hour initial charging period; when factory-new and after the initial charging period, the phones are both on and in pairing mode—all you need to do is open the pairing menu in your phone and select “Lucyd Lyte.”

There is no specific trigger to “pairing mode” on the Lucyd Lytes—if they’re not in range of the device they were last paired to, they go into pairing mode and can be selected from any new device in range.

Testing

As sunglasses, Lucyd Lytes are quite good. I found them comfortable enough to “disappear” on my head in six-plus hours of continuous wear, beginning with a 45-minute drive and continuing through conversations with my parents, playing catch with my kids, and otherwise goofing off outdoors on a bright sunny Saturday.

As Bluetooth headphones, they’re unfortunately not as stellar. The audio quality is decent, but the maximum volume level is low—and anyone nearby can hear what you’re listening to nearly as well as you can. I listened to podcasts on the 45-minute drive out to my parents’ house, and my daughter reported she could hear the podcasts easily (including making out most or all of the words) from the passenger’s seat.

The low max volume isn’t a problem when listening to music or to well-normalized podcasts, but it’s likely to be an issue on phone calls or podcasts with a very quiet source. At maximum volume, Joe Ressington’s Late Night Linux wasn’t quite as loud as I wanted it to be, but I could understand everyone speaking over the interstate road noise. Jamie Loftus’ Lolita Podcast was another story entirely—engineered with far quieter source levels, I needed to cup one ear (drastically increasing perceived volume from the phones) almost continuously.

Maintaining the Bluetooth connection was also a bit of a crapshoot. With the Pixel 2XL sitting in a cupholder, the connection was fine. Putting the Pixel in the pocket of my jeans would almost immediately kill the connection, after which the Pixel would connect to my car instead until manually redirected to the (unpocketed) phone. I had much better luck with the phone pocketed while walking around than I had in my car—but it was never rock solid.

Aside from the volume issues, the audio quality is decent—better than you might expect from practically microscopic speakers embedded in a sunglasses stem, but not up to snuff when compared to typical earbuds or headphones. For voice calls or podcasts—again, assuming the level is high enough—you’re unlikely to have any complaints. The Lytes unlikely to be anyone’s favorite music listening device, however, with nearly-nonexistent bass and little if any sense of stereo positioning.

We tested Lucyd Lyte’s mic using a voice recorder app rather than a call, to eliminate any potential telephony issues. The experience is better than putting the Pixel 2XL in speakerphone mode, but it’s not as good as either the phone’s native mic in normal mode or the mic in most standard headsets. The audio level and clarity are quite good, but there’s little or no differentiation between the speaker’s voice and ambient noise—in my test recording, my kids’ voices and the episode of Spongebob Squarepants on the television were just as much in the foreground as my own voice was.

Battery life seemed easily up to the manufacturer’s claim of eight hours—we didn’t attempt to run them dry, but after about 90 minutes of driving and nonstop listening to podcasts, the Bluetooth connection dialog on the Pixel 2XL reported the Lytes’ batteries at 85 percent.

Controls

The Lucyd Lyte phones are easy to manage—the included charge cable has magnetically coupled two-pin connectors which snap directly onto contacts on each stem of the sunglasses. The charging cable is a Y-splitter type and needs to be connected to both stems—they have independent batteries which must also be charged independently.

The individual stems are also powered on independently. Long-pressing one control button results in that stem’s voice eventually declaring “powered on,” after which you can long-press the button on the other until it, too, powers up. With only one stem powered on, the onboard voice will declare “connected”—once the second stem also powers on and connects, you get a Windows-style “bing-bong” sound effect that lets you know everything is fully connected.

Once powered on, what the controls do depends in part on whether you’re taking a call or listening to music—a single tap on either button will answer an incoming call, or a two-second long press will decline it. While connected (to either calls or music), a single press of the left button increases volume, and a single press of the right button decreases it. Double-pressing either button pauses music (or podcast) playback, and triple-pressing either button skips tracks forward or backward depending on button.

Powering the headphones off is done with an eight-second-long press on either button. Unlike the power-on procedure, powering either stem off turns the other one off along with it.

Conclusions

My wife and I were both pretty excited about this device—even though the audio quality isn’t up to par with good traditional headphones, the light weight and lack of aural intrusion appealed to us both. If these were cheap devices, I’d be on board with them for certain use cases despite their Bluetooth connection flaws and relatively low volume.

The ambient broadcast factor of the Lucyd Lytes is also unappealing. Half the point of using headphones is sparing those around you from hearing your music or podcasts—which the Lucyd Lytes absolutely do not do. In a car full of road noise, it’s much less obnoxious than blaring a podcast out over the car stereo—but if there’s something in your podcast or music you’d prefer your kids / coworkers / whoever not to overhear, these aren’t a good choice.

Unfortunately, at $150, these are not cheap devices. At that price, we expect a solid, reliable Bluetooth connection at the very least—and we didn’t get it. For us, that’s the deal breaking flaw in Lucyd Lyte.

The Good

  • Comfortable
  • Lightweight
  • Unobtrusive styling
  • Neither in nor on your ears
  • Reasonably clear audio
  • You can still hear what’s going on around you
  • Simple, tactile controls
  • Magnetically coupled charging
  • Can be ordered with standard, prescription, bifocal, or reader lenses

The Bad

  • Flaky Bluetooth connection
  • Inadequate maximum volume
  • Completely audible to anyone nearby

The Ugly

  • We didn’t know we wanted Bluetooth sunglasses until testing these
  • Now we know—and these are tantalizingly close, but still not quite there

Listing image by Jim Salter

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Google TV takes a baby step toward multi-user support with “kids profiles”

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It sure sounds like Google is re-committing to the TV space with Google TV—a renamed, revamped version of Android TV. In addition to the new content-centric (instead of app-centric) home screen, watch list, and an upcoming “dumb TV” mode, Google is now revamping parental control support.

The new “kids profiles” will turn on a fun, kid-friendly UI with themes like “dinosaurs,” “space,” and “under the sea.” The big, new feature of Google TV—content-centric recommendations—will kick over into a kids-friendly mode, too, pushing educational content to the home screen.

Parental control functionality looks pretty much the same as in Android TV, with parents able to set limitations on total screen time, bedtime, and individual apps. The big difference is the interface, which has a friendlier UI that doesn’t look like a system administrator panel anymore. The controls are also compatible with Google’s Family Link app, which allows for remote administration and tracking.

Kids mode looks like a baby step toward solving Google TV’s biggest problem right now: the lack of support for multiple profiles. The flagship feature of Google TV is the home screen content recommendation engine, but there’s no differentiation between users, so it’s going to mash up the entire household’s viewing habits. Google lightly copped to this deficiency in the blog post, saying, “I personally want to be able to find my shows and movies, without being overwhelmed by my kids’ content.”

Kids mode will let you quarantine Sesame Street from your recommendations, but there’s still no way to separate the viewing habits between adults. Hopefully, kids mode is the beginning of full-blown profile support with personalized recommendations and watchlists, but Google hasn’t come out and said that.

Google TV is currently very rare, available mainly (only?) on the new “Google Chromecast with Google TV” that launched in September. It’s also headed to Sony’s entire Bravia XR 2021 lineup and select TCL TVs coming out later this year. Google’s decision to change the name of its TV product from Android TV to Google TV makes everything unnecessarily confusing, but it’s all the same code base. Google’s TV OSes based on Android 9 and lower are called “Android TV,” and the new versions, based on Android 10 and up, are “Google TV.” In theory, some Android TV set-top boxes and smart TVs can be upgraded to Google TV, since it’s just the next version. Your device manufacturer would need to actually ship an update, though, and a lot of smart TV manufacturers don’t.

Google says that support for kids profiles on Google TV will roll out “in the US starting this month and globally over the next few months.”

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