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NASA’s space pallet concept could land rovers on the moon cheaply and simply – TechCrunch

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Establishing an enduring presence on the Moon will mean making a lot of landings — and NASA researchers want to make those landings as reliable and cheap as possible. This robotic “pallet lander” concept would be a dead simple (as lunar landers go) way to put up to 300 kilograms of rover and payload onto the Moon’s surface.

Detailed in a technical paper published today, the lander is a sort of space pallet: a strong, basic framework that could be a unit in many a future mission. It’s still a concept and doesn’t really have a name, so space pallet will do for now.

It’s an evolution of a design that emerged in studies surrounding the VIPER mission that was intended to “minimized cost and schedule” and just get the rover to the surface safely. In a rare admission of (at least theoretically) putting cost over performance, the paper’s introduction reads:

The design of the lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirements where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’

It should be noted, of course, that “good enough” hardly implies a slapdash job in the context of lunar landers. It just means that getting 5 percent more tensile strength from a material that costs 50 times more wasn’t considered a worthwhile trade-off. Same reason we don’t use ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead they’re using the space travel equivalent of solid pine boards that have been tested into the ground. (The team does admit to extrapolating a little but emphasizes that this is first and foremost a realistic approach.)

The space pallet would go up aboard a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle would get the pallet and its rover payload into a trans-lunar injection trajectory, and a few days later the space pallet would perform the necessary landing maneuvers: attitude control, landing site selection, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun.

Once on the surface, the rover would go on its merry way at some point in the next couple hours. The lander would take a few surface images and characterize its surroundings for the team on Earth, then shut down permanently after 8 hours or so.

Yes, unfortunately the space pallet is not intended to survive the lunar night, the researchers point out. Though any presence on the moon’s surface is a powerful resource, it’s expensive to provide the kind of power and heating infrastructure that would let the lander live through the freezing, airless cold of the Moon’s weeks-long night.

Still, it’s possible that the craft could be equipped with some low-key, self-sustaining science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — a passive beacon for navigation, perhaps, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.

I’ve asked for a bit more information on the possibilities of science instruments onboard, and what the alternatives might be should the space pallet not be pursued further than concept stage. But even if that were to be the case, the team writes in the paper, “it is important to note that these and other derived technologies are extensible to other lander designs and missions.”



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Google claims it will stop tracking individual users for ads

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As Google’s plan to kill third-party tracking cookies ramps up, the company is answering questions about what will replace it. Many people have wondered: if Google kills cookies, won’t the company just cook up some other method for individually tracking users?

Today, Google answered that concern in a post on its “Ads & Commerce” blog, pledging it won’t come up with “any technology used for tracking individual people.” The company wrote:

We continue to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers. Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

You might look at that statement and think that Google is sacrificing something or turning over a new leaf when it comes to privacy, but really, the fact is Google doesn’t need to track individuals for advertisements. Google’s cookie-tracking replacement technology, the Chrome “Privacy Sandbox,” uses group tracking, which is more in line with how advertisers think anyway.

As Google puts it in its blog post, “advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising. Advances in aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing and other privacy-preserving technologies offer a clear path to replacing individual identifiers.” If you’re an advertiser with a phone ad, you would only ever want to show your ad to “people who care about phones.” As an advertiser, you wouldn’t really care about individuals or exact browsing history, as long as you knew they were open to being manipulated by your ad.

Chrome’s “Privacy Sandbox” interest tracker

The plan to kill cookies is still a bit fuzzy since none of this exists yet. But generally, Google wants to build a machine-learning-powered tracking system into Chrome that groups people into various interest groups like “classical music lovers” rather than building individual profiles of people. Then, when it’s time to serve ads, Chrome can serve up a list of your interests and pull in relevant ads. It’s all the same ad relevance but without any personally identifying info going up to the cloud.

I think a good way of explaining this was that, before, through cookies, you would end up sending personal information and detailed browser history to various web ad servers, which could then build an ad interest file on you in the cloud. Now, the goal is that Chrome will keep that detailed information locally and build that ad interest profile locally, and only the interest profile would be shipped to the advertisers for relevant ads through an open API. Again, this is all very early and only in the experimental stage right now, so there’s not an abundance of concrete detail to go into.

Google thinks this solution will be good enough to continue to make almost $150 billion in ad money per year, even if it stops tracking individuals. The new setup is also a valuable weapon in the war against government regulators, who did get a shout-out in Google’s blog post. The company wrote that, while other ad agencies might build new individual user-tracking technologies, “We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long-term investment. Instead, our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers.”

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All US Apple stores are open for the first time in almost a year

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Enlarge / NEW YORK, June 17, 2020 – Staff workers serve customers outside an Apple store on Fifth Avenue.

For the first time in just a few days shy of a year, all Apple Store retail locations in the United States are open this week, reports 9to5Mac.

Apple first closed all retail locations outside of China on March 13, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company originally planned to reopen its stores by the end of that month, but history had other plans.

Apple has periodically reopened and reclosed certain locations in the United States and elsewhere based on local case levels and government guidance—for example, a major push was attempted to reopen on May 31 as the virus’s spread slowed as a result of lockdown measures. But that was before COVID cases began rising sharply again. The last locations to reopen in the US this week were located in Texas.

That said, not all Apple Stores offer the same mid-pandemic experience. In previous reopening pushes, Apple opened some stores with strict rules like temperature screenings, appointment-only shopping, and curbside-style pickup options.

Depending on location and other factors, each Apple Store retains some or all of the above restrictions. Apple still operates a website where would-be customers can go to check what the process is for a specific location.

Beyond the US, 14 Apple Stores remain closed globally due to the pandemic, according to CNBC, including two in Brazil and 12 in France.

Apple has long seen the retail experience as part of the Apple product experience; executives have talked not just of integrating software and hardware but of including retail and services in that integration as well. But the past year has been tumultuous for Apple Stores, to say the least.

The pandemic was not the only factor that negatively affected the stores. Rioting amid the protests for racial justice last year resulted in damage and theft at some stores around the country, and natural disasters like California wildfires and the winter storm in Texas further battered specific locations.

Despite all that, Apple’s sales have been strong over the last year. It may be impossible to say just how much retail closures affected those numbers, though; CEO Tim Cook recently suggested that Apple’s blockbuster holiday could have been even bigger if physical retail had been a bigger part of the story.

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Google’s VR dreams are dead: Google Cardboard is no longer for sale

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Google’s last surviving VR product is dead. Today the company stopped selling the Google Cardboard VR viewer on the Google Store, the last move in a long wind-down of Google’s once-ambitious VR efforts. The message on the Google Store, which was first spotted by Android Police, reads, “We are no longer selling Google Cardboard on the Google Store.”

Google Cardboard was a surprise hit at Google I/O 2015 and moved the entry point for VR lower than anyone had imagined previously. The device was a literal piece of cardboard, shaped like a VR headset, with special plastic lenses. Google built a Cardboard app for Android and iOS, which would let any suitably high-end phone power the headset. The landscape display split into left and right views for your eyes, the phone hardware rendered a VR game, and the accelerometers did 3-DoF (degrees of freedom) head tracking. There was even a cardboard action button on the handset that would boop the touchscreen with a capacitive pad, so you could aim with your head and select options in a VR environment. Since the product was just cardboard and plastic lenses with no electronics whatsoever, Google sold the headset for just $20.

After cardboard, Google started to scale up its VR ambitions. In 2016, Google also launched an upscaled version of Google Cardboard, the Google Daydream VR headset. This was a plastic and cloth version of a phone-powered VR headset, with the key improvements of a head strap and a small controller, for $80.

Next, Google started to pile on software support. VR support also was built into Android 7 Nougat in 2016, allowing Google to make latency-reducing graphics pipeline improvements in the core OS. Google started certifying devices for enhanced “Daydream” support, laying out best hardware and software practices for VR. Android got a VR home screen and added a special notification style so apps could still alert you in the 3D VR interface. A VR version of the Play Store let users download the latest VR experiences in 3D. VR support came to YouTube and Google Street View, and together with Mozilla, the Chrome team launched WebVR. Google’s best app was Tilt Brush, a killer piece of VR painting software.

In 2018, Google even roped OEMs into making standalone Daydream VR hardware, so instead of being powered by a phone, Android and all the usual phone bits were integrated into a standalone VR headset. The first one announced was the Lenovo Mirage Solo.

Google’s VR legacy

As in many other areas, Google was very enthusiastic about VR for a few years, and then the company quickly lost interest when it didn’t see immediate success. The VR shutdown started in 2019, when Google omitted Daydream support from the Pixel 4 and killed the Daydream VR headset line. Google put out a VR post-mortem statement saying there was resistance to using a phone for VR, which cut off access to all your apps, and that the company hadn’t seen “the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped.” It was also around this time that Google open-sourced the Cardboard project. VR support in Android was stripped out of consumer phones with 2020’s release of Android 11, and Google quit Tilt Brush development in January 2021, choosing to open-source the app under Apache 2.0.

Google might have quit VR, but Cardboard and Android’s VR legacy live on. Android should still stick around for a long while in VR, even if it’s not officially sanctioned by Google. Oculus and Samsung originally teamed up on the Gear VR, a fancy, plastic VR viewer that was powered by Samsung’s Android phone line. While Samsung has quit phone VR, too, all of Oculus’ standalone “Quest” VR headsets still run Android. Standalone VR headsets are always powered by ARM chips and other off-the-shelf smartphone parts, so Android—however, forked or stripped-down you want to make it—will be a top pick to power this smartphone-adjacent hardware. It already has all the hardware support and APIs you could want, so why re-invent the wheel?

Three years after Cardboard, Nintendo took Google’s “cheap cardboard accessory” idea and ran with it, creating the Nintendo Labo products. Labo packaged Nintendo Switch software with a boatload of pre-cut, printed cardboard sheets, which could be assembled into all sorts of cheap peripherals like a cardboard piano, or a robot suit. The Labo VR kit was an exact Google Cardboard copy: A cardboard VR headset used the Nintendo Switch as the display, letting you view Nintendo’s worlds in 3D.

Google’s VR division has turned its attention (at least for a while) to AR instead of VR. Google’s ARCore framework lets developers make augmented reality apps for Android and iOS, and the company regularly ships AR improvements on Android phones. With Apple reportedly working on a VR headset, though, you’ve got to wonder how long Google’s fickle product direction will be able to stay away from VR.

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