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Nexar’s Live Map is like Street View with pictures from 5 minutes ago – TechCrunch

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We all rely on maps to get where we’re going or investigate a neighborhood for potential brunch places, but the data we’re looking at is often old, vague or both. Nexar, maker of dashcam apps and cameras, aims to put fresh and specific data on your map with images from the street taken only minutes before.

If you’re familiar with dash cams, and you’re familiar with Google’s Street View, then you can probably already picture what Live Map essentially is. It’s not quite as easy to picture how it works or why it’s useful.

Nexar sells dash cams and offers an app that turns your phone into one temporarily, and the business has been doing well, with thousands of active users on the streets of major cities at any given time. Each node of this network of gadgets shares information with the other nodes — warning of traffic snarls, potholes, construction and so on.

The team saw the community they’d enabled trading videos and sharing data derived by automatic analysis of their imagery, and, according to co-founder and CTO Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz, asked themselves: Why shouldn’t this data be available to the public as well?

Actually there are a few reasons — privacy chief among them. Google has shown that properly handled, this kind of imagery can be useful and only minimally invasive. But knowing where someone or some car was a year or two ago is one thing; knowing where they were five minutes ago is another entirely.

Fortunately, from what I’ve heard, this issue was front of mind for the team from the start. But it helps to see what the product looks like in action before addressing that.

Zooming in on a hexagonal map section, which the company has dubbed “nexagons,” polls the service to find everything the service knows about that area. And the nature of the data makes for extremely granular information. Where something like Google Maps or Waze may say that there’s an accident at this intersection, or construction causing traffic, Nexar’s map will show the locations of the orange cones to within a few feet, or how far into the lanes that fender-bender protrudes.

You can also select the time of day, letting you rewind a few minutes or a few days — what was it like during that parade? Or after the game? Are there a lot of people there late at night? And so on.

Right now it’s limited to a web interface, and to New York City — the company has enough data to launch in several other areas in the U.S. but wants to do a slower roll-out to identify issues and opportunities. An API is on the way as well. (Europe, unfortunately, may be waiting a while, though the company says it’s GDPR-compliant.)

The service uses computer vision algorithms to identify a number of features, including signs (permanent and temporary), obstructions, even the status of traffic lights. This all goes into the database, which gets updated any time a car with a Nexar node goes by. Naturally it’s not in 360 and high definition — these are forward-facing cameras with decent but not impressive resolution. It’s for telling what’s in the road, not for zooming in to spot a street address.

Detection Filtering

Of course, construction signs and traffic jams aren’t the only things on the road. As mentioned before it’s a serious question of privacy to have constantly updating, public-facing imagery of every major street of a major city. Setting aside the greater argument of the right to privacy in public places and attendant philosophical problems, it’s simply the ethical thing to do to minimize how much you expose people who don’t know they’re being photographed.

To that end, Nexar’s systems carefully detect and blur out faces before any images are exposed to public view. License plates are likewise obscured so that neither cars nor people can be easily tracked from image to image. Of course, one may say that here is a small red car that was on 4th, and is on 5th a minute later — probably the same. But systematic surveillance rather than incidental is far easier with an identifier like a license plate.

In addition to protecting bystanders, Nexar has to think of the fact that an image from a car by definition places that car in a location at a given time, allowing them to be tracked. And while the community essentially opts into this kind of location and data sharing when they sign up for an account, it would be awkward if the public website let a stranger track a user all the way to their home or watch their movements all day.

“The frames are carefully random to begin with so people can’t be soloed out,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “We eliminate any frames near your house and your destination.” As far as the blurring, he said that “We have a pretty robust model, on par with anything you can see in the industry. We probably are something north of 97-98% accurate for private data.”

So what would you do with this kind of service? There is, of course, something fundamentally compelling about being able to browse your city in something like real time.

“On Google, there’s a red line. We show you an actual frame — a car blocking the right lane right there. It gives you a human connection,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “There’s an element of curiosity about what the world looks like, maybe not something you do every day, but maybe once a week, or when something happens.”

No doubt we are many of us guilty of watching dash-cam footage or even Street View pictures of various events, pranks and other occurrences. But basic curiosity doesn’t pay the bills. Fortunately there are more compelling use cases.

“One that’s interesting is construction zones. You can see individual elements like cones and barriers — you can see where exactly they are, when they’re started etc. We want to work with municipal authorities, departments of transportation, etc. on this — it gives them a lot of information on what their contractors are doing on the road. That’s one use case that we know about and understand.”

In fact there are already some pilot programs in Nevada. And although it’s rather a prosaic application of a 24/7 surveillance apparatus, it seems likely to do some good.

But the government angle brings in an unsavory line of thinking — what if the police want to get unblurred dash cam footage of a crime that just happened, or one of many such situations where tech’s role has historically been a mixed blessing?

“We’ve given a lot of thought to this, and it this concerns our investors highly,” Fernandez-Ruiz admitted. “There are two things we’ve done. One is we’ve differentiated what data the user owns and what we have. The data they send is theirs — like Dropbox. What we get is these anonymized blurred images. Obviously we will comply with the law, but as far as ethical applications of big data and AI, we’ve said we’re not going to be a tool of an authoritarian government. So we’re putting processes in place — even if we get a subpoena, we can say: This is encrypted data, please ask the user.”

That’s some consolation, but it seems clear that tools like this one are more a question than an answer. It’s an experiment by a successful company and may morph into something ubiquitous and useful or a niche product used by professional drivers and municipal governments. But in tech, if you have the data, you use it. Because if you don’t, someone else will.

You can test out Nexar’s Live Map here.

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Firefox 86 brings multiple Picture-in-Picture, “Total Cookie Protection”

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Mozilla released Firefox 86 yesterday, and the browser is now available for download and installation for all major operating systems, including Android. Along with the usual round of bug fixes and under-the-hood updates, the new build offers a couple of high-profile features—multiple Picture-in-Picture video-watching support, and (optional) stricter cookie separation, which Mozilla is branding Total Cookie Protection.

Taking Firefox 86 for a spin

Firefox 86 became the default download at mozilla.org on Tuesday—but as an Ubuntu 20.04 user, I didn’t want to leave the Canonical-managed repositories just to test the new version. This is one scenario in which snaps truly excel—providing you with a containerized version of an application, easily installed but guaranteed not to mess with your “real” operating system.

As it turns out, Firefox’s snap channel didn’t get the message about build 86 being the new default—the latest/default snap is still on build 85. In order to get the new version, I needed to snap refresh firefox --channel=latest/candidate.

With the new version installed as a snap, the next step was actually running it—which could be a lot easier. The snap produces a separate Firefox icon in Ubuntu’s launcher, but there’s no way I know of to readily distinguish between the icon for the system firefox and the new snap-installed firefox. After some hit-and-miss frustration, I finally dropped to the terminal and ran it directly by issuing the fully pathed command /snap/firefox/current/firefox.

Multi Picture-in-Picture Mode

In December 2019, Firefox introduced Picture-in-Picture mode—an additional overlay control on in-browser embedded videos that allows the user to detach the video from the browser. Once detached, the video has no window dressing whatsoever—no title bar, min/max/close, etc.

PiP mode allows users who tile their windows—automatically or manually—to watch said video while consuming a bare minimum of screen real estate.

Firefox 86 introduces the concept of multiple simultaneous Picture-in-Picture instances. Prior to build 86, hitting the PiP control on a second video would simply reattach the first video to its parent tab and detach the second. Now, you can have as many floating, detached video windows as you’d like—potentially turning any monitor into something reminiscent of a security DVR display.

The key thing to realize about multi-PiP is that the parent tabs must remain open—if you navigate away from the parent tab of an existing PiP window, the PiP window itself closes as well. Once I realized this, I had no difficulty surrounding my Firefox 86 window with five detached, simultaneously playing video windows.

Total Cookie Protection

In December, we reported on Firefox 85’s introduction of cache partitioning—a scheme which makes it more difficult for third parties to figure out where you have and have not been on the Internet. Firefox 86 ups the ante again, with a scheme Mozilla is calling “Total Cookie Protection.”

In a nutshell, Total Cookie Protection restricts the ability of third parties to monitor your movement around the Web using embedded elements such as scripts or iframes. This prevents tracking cookies from Facebook, Amazon, et al. from “following you around the web.”

In theory, cookies were already strictly per-site—so contoso.com cannot set or read cookies belonging to facebook.com, and vice versa. But in practice, if contoso.com willingly embeds active Facebook elements in its site, the user’s browser treats those elements as belonging to Facebook itself. That means Facebook can set the value of a cookie while you’re browsing contoso.com, then read that value again later when you’re actually at Facebook (or when you’re at other, entirely unrelated sites which also embed Facebook content).

Total Cookie Protection nerfs this misfeature by creating separate “cookie jars” based on the identity of the URL actually present in the address bar. With this feature enabled, a Facebook script running at contoso.com can still set and read a Facebook cookie—but that cookie lives within the contoso.com cookie jar only. When the same user browses facebook.com directly, later, Facebook cannot read, write, or even detect the presence of a Facebook cookie within the contoso.com cookie jar, or vice versa.

This isn’t a panacea against tracking, by any means—for example, it does nothing to prevent scripts from Facebook, Amazon, et al. from uploading data about your Web travels to their own servers, to profile you there. But it does, at least, keep them from using your own computer’s storage to do the dirty work for them.

No, the other TCP

If you want to enable Total Cookie Protection (and we really, really wish Mozilla had picked a name that didn’t initialize to TCP), you’ll first need to set your Enhanced Tracking Protection to the Strict profile. To do so, click the shield icon to the left of the address bar (visible when browsing any actual website; not visible on the blank New Tab screen) and click Protection Settings. From there, you can change your ETP profile from Standard to Strict.

Total Cookie Protection has a few, apparently hard-coded exemptions for third-party login providers—for example, logging into YouTube with a personal Gmail account still allowed a visit to Gmail.com in another tab to instantly load the correct inbox without the need to log in again separately.

Mozilla warns that the Strict Enhanced Tracking Profile may break some sites entirely—and we believe Mozilla—but in our own cursory testing, we didn’t encounter any problems. We had no difficulty with loading and logging in to Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and several other major sites.

Listing image by Airwolfhound / Flickr

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LG enters fray with Google, Amazon, Roku for TV operating system dominance

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LG has announced that it will begin licensing its webOS TV software for use by other TV manufacturers. That will put webOS in direct competition with other platforms in use across TV brands, such as alternatives from Roku, Amazon, and Google.

LG says “over 20 TV manufacturers” have “committed to the webOS partnership” and names RCA, Ayonz, and Konka as examples. They’ll ship the OS in their TVs and, in so doing, gain access to voice control features, LG’s AI algorithms, and a fairly robust library of already built streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube, or Disney+.

For smaller manufacturers, this is more cost-effective than developing these features on their own or lobbying companies like Netflix or Disney to support new platforms.

At the annual Consumer Electronics Show this January, LG announced webOS 6, a major revamp of the interface that adopts a design language that more closely resembles what’s found in most other TV operating systems. However, licensees of webOS will at least for now be limited to an earlier version of webOS which has the old interface.

In addition to any licensing fees, LG will be able to leverage this larger install base to profit from a more robust advertising network and from larger-scale user data collection. The company will also put its LG Channels content operation on more TVs. Further, LG has bigger ambitions for webOS than just TVs, so this move aids the company’s efforts to make webOS more ubiquitous as the software expands into cars, home appliances, and other products.

Users may balk at the advertising and data collection, but there is one upside for them: a larger install base for webOS will likely lead to more frequently updated, higher-quality apps from content companies.

As is the custom, this announcement came with a published statement from a prominent executive at the company—in this case, LG Home Entertainment President Park Hyoung-sei, who said:

The webOS platform is one of the easiest and most convenient way to access millions of hours of movies and TV shows… By welcoming other manufacturers to join the webOS TV ecosystem, we are embarking on a new path that allows many new TV owners to experience the same great UX and features that are available on LG TVs. We look forward to bringing these new customers into the incredible world of webOS TV.

webOS for TVs as we currently know it dates back to 2014, and reviewers and users have admittedly responded well to it because it’s one of the nicer-to-use TV operating systems. Part of its ease of use stems from the Wii remote-like magic remote that comes with LG TVs; LG’s press release says that partners who license webOS will ship TVs with similar remotes.

LG previously released an open source version of webOS in 2018, and Samsung announced plans to make its Tizen TV OS available for licensing by other TV manufacturers back in 2019. But a year and a half later, we haven’t heard anything more concrete about the latter.

Listing image by LG

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Google Maps for Android officially gets dark mode support

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Google Maps has finally decided to support dark mode on Android 539 days after it officially launched Android 10. Google’s latest blog post says that dark mode in Google Maps is “soon expanding to all Android users globally,” making the feature official after lots of public experiments.

Google’s uneven rollout strategy makes it hard to nail down when any feature officially “launches.” Some users have had dark mode for a while, though, through various experiments and early rollouts. Google has been teasing a dark mode for Google Maps since October 2019, and experimental rollouts hit some users in September 2020. Google Maps has also been showing a dark-colored map in navigation mode for some time, but that’s not the same thing as a comprehensive dark mode for all the UI elements.

If Google Maps is following Android’s best practices, the UI should automatically switch over to the dark theme if your system settings have dark mode enabled. Google says you’ll also be able to find a new “theme” section in the Google Maps settings, where you can toggle the feature manually. The Google Maps dark mode that has been floating around for a while has been on a server-side switch. The code is already on your device, so there’s no version we can point to that will enable dark mode; you just have to wait for Google to flag your account.

With Google Maps finally on the dark mode train, that should cover all of Google’s major apps. The Play Store, Gmail, Google Assistant, Chrome, Calendar, Drive, Photos, and YouTube all support dark mode.

Listing image by Google

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