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Meet Boston Dynamics’ next commercial robot, Stretch

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After 28 years of research and development, Boston Dynamics entered the commercial robot market last year with the launch of Spot. This is a ~$75,000 robotic dog that can march around facilities for remote inspections and, with an extra arm attachment, can even open doors and do remote manipulation.

Today, Boston Dynamics’ quest for commercialization continues with the announcement of a second commercial robot, “Stretch,” a box-moving bot designed to meet the demands of warehouses and distribution centers. The robot is designed to “go where the work is” in a warehouse, unloading trucks, de-palleting shipments, and eventually building orders. For now, we’re seeing a prototype, but Boston Dynamics hopes companies will start buying Stretch when it hits commercial deployment in 2022.

As Boston Dynamics VP of Product Engineering Kevin Blankespoor told us shortly before the launch of Stretch, the company is going to where the customers are. “When we released our first Atlas “Next-gen” video,” Blankespoor said, “there was a part of that video that showed Atlas moving boxes, and we got a big reaction from people in the warehouse space. They wanted Atlas to come work at their warehouse.” Atlas is the company’s do-everything humanoid research robot and is probably far too expensive to be a commercial product.

Blankespoor continues, “We thought, ‘Well, Atlas is probably a bit complicated to actually go work in a warehouse, but we could design a robot that’s much more simple that has the same attributes.'” The result was not just a new robot, but a whole warehouse-focused division inside of Boston Dynamics, headed up by Blankespoor.

Getting a handle on Stretch

With a clear demand for warehouse robots, Boston Dynamics started experimenting, first with its “Handle” robot. Handle started off life based around a new “wheel-legged” mobility platform—that’s two legs, but with wheels at the bottom instead of feet, enabling all sorts of nimble movement. The first version of Handle was a humanoid-ish robot that could do all kinds of crazy tricks thanks to its wheel legs, like banking around corners, rolling down steps, and leaping onto a table. The video shows Handle lifting a box with its two humanoid arms, but the robot wasn’t meant for warehouse work yet.

For version 2, Handle was “re-imagined” from what seemed like a stunt robot into a warehouse robot, and instead of two arms, it used a big vacuum gripper to lift boxes. Handle still used the wheel-leg concept but now with a big counterweight on the back, and along with the long “neck” that supported the vacuum gripper on the front, it looked more like a bird. Blankespoor says Handle could cover a lot of Atlas-in-a-warehouse use cases but with one-third as many joints.

With Handle, Boston Dynamics got as far as doing experiments with customers. The warehouse work shown in the Handle version 2 video showed the robot loading and unloading a pallet in a big, open space, and Handle was good at that. The problem with Handle is that sometimes warehouse work needs to happen in a confined space, like unloading a truck, and it was there that the robot had problems.

Enlarge / Boston Dynamics’ first warehouse design was the bird-like Handle robot (top), and now it has evolved to the hulking Stretch robot (bottom). (Not to scale.)

Boston Dynamics / Ron Amadeo

“It became clear that for Handle, maneuvering in a tight space was tricky,” Blankespoor explained. “We could do the job and get all the boxes unloaded, but it took too long, basically. Every time Handle picked up a box, it had to roll back to the middle of the truck so it could rotate without collisions, roll forward, and place the box.” When lifting boxes, Handle kept its balance with a big, swinging counterweight in the back, and it sounds like the robot’s big bird butt was constantly getting in the way. “We knew that there was this other option out there,” Blankespoor said. “We were considering something like Stretch for years.”

On the Atlas project, Kevin Blankespoor (left) is "Lead Behavior Engineer."
Enlarge / On the Atlas project, Kevin Blankespoor (left) is “Lead Behavior Engineer.”

Boston Dynamics

Stretch is the first Boston Dynamics robot that’s “fully purpose-built” for the warehouse, and you can see that a lot of the nimble bird design has been thrown out in favor of a big, hulking industrial robot. We’ll start with the base: the robot is simply mounted on a big box now, so it’s stable by default and doesn’t have to actively balance anymore. The robot weighs 2,650 lbs (1,200 kg) now, so there’s no need for a big, swinging counterweight when lifting—it’s not going to tip over. The arm can spin around on top of the base, so it can unload boxes from a truck to a conveyor belt without needing to move and bump into something. The result is that Stretch can unload a truck about five times faster than Handle. Stretch can move up to 800 boxes an hour.

Most warehouses are designed around the 48×40-inch dimensions of a pallet, so the base of Stretch just happens to have a 48×40-inch footprint, and it can fit anywhere a pallet fits. Wheels in each corner of the box, all with independent steering, let Stretch move in any direction, including side to side or rotating in place. The giant base also means there is a lot of room for the battery, enough to power Stretch through an eight-hour work shift, or up to 16 hours with “the extended range option.”

Going to where the work is

There are lots of stationary robot arms that can move boxes around, but fixed-infrastructure arms need costly installation, and you need one for every location where a box needs to be moved. Being mobile means Stretch can do the work of multiple stationary arms as the needs of the warehouse dictate, without the need to redesign or install anything. Blankespoor imagines a typical day in the warehouse for Stretch: “Stretch might spend the morning on the inbound side of the warehouse, unloading boxes from trucks. It might spend the afternoon in the aisles of the warehouse, building up pallets—those will go off to retailers or e-commerce centers. And it might spend the evening loading boxes back into trucks.”

Stationary arms can be as beefy as they need to be, but being mobile means Stretch needs to watch its weight. Boston Dynamics’ custom arm design is one-fourth the weight of an industrial arm, while still being able to out-lift its predecessor, with a 50-pound max payload (23 kg) versus the 33-pound (15 kg) capacity of Handle. The arm needed to be designed so it could reach across pallets and boxes all the way at the top of the truck, where there won’t be much clearance. The robot actually grabs the top row of boxes from the side, since it won’t be able to fit between the box and the roof.

Stretch's multi-jointed arm can reach all the way to the top of a truck, or all the way to the bottom.
Enlarge / Stretch’s multi-jointed arm can reach all the way to the top of a truck, or all the way to the bottom.

Boston Dynamics / Ron Amadeo

The final major component of Stretch is the perception mast, a big tower that sits on the same rotating base as the arm and houses most of the robot’s sensors, so it’s never in the way of the arm. The mast houses both 2D and depth sensors, giving Stretch a high-up view of its surroundings. For vision, the robot uses Boston Dynamics’ “Pick” software, a collection of machine-learning-powered algorithms for detecting and moving boxes, which arrived at the company via an acquisition of Kinema Systems.

The base of Stretch actually has a modular interface where you can attach various accessories. For truck unloading, you can attach a conveyor belt to Stretch, so the robot can bring the conveyor belt with it as it moves deeper into the truck. This means it only ever has to just pick up a box, spin around, and drop it for faster unloading. There’s also a pallet cart attachment, so the robot can haul a pallet around as it builds orders. Additional sensors can be attached to the base, too, either for situational awareness like extra cameras or lidar, or a barcode reader for input.

Boston Dynamics hopes to sell Stretch in 2022, but it still has some iteration to do before then. What we’re seeing right now is the Stretch prototype, while the “product” version of Stretch will be sold sometime next year. As Blankespoor explains, “The Stretch product will look a lot like this, but it’s really been totally redesigned from the ground up. Every component’s been reworked for manufacturability for cost reduction, reliability, and higher performance. So the Stretch product, we will start building the first units of that this summer, and then it’ll go on sale next year. We’ll start rolling out applications that the product can do, incrementally. The first one we’ll do is truck unload, and then a little bit later we’ll start doing pallet building.” Blankespoor says the final product will get a few more sensors, like a lidar on the face of the robot.

“The other thing with the prototype is that our whole software team gets a jump start on developing control systems, vision and autonomy, and testing it on real hardware,” Blankespoor tells us, “so that when you get the product, the systems are a lot more mature.”

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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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