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Rolling, hopping robots explore Earthly analogs of distant planets – TechCrunch

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Before we send any planet-trotting robot to explore the landscape of Mars or Venus, we need to test it here on Earth. Two such robotic platforms being developed for future missions are undergoing testing at European Space Agency facilities: one that rolls, and one that hops.

The rolling one is actually on the books to head to the Red Planet as part of the ESA’s Mars 2020 program. It’s just wrapped a week of testing in the Spanish desert, just one of many Mars analogs the space program uses. It looks nice. The gravity’s a little different, of course, and there’s a bit more atmosphere, but it’s close enough to test a few things.

The team controlling Charlie, which is what they named the prototype, was doing so from hundreds of miles away, in the U.K. — not quite an interplanetary distance, but they did of course think to simulate the delay operators would encounter if the rover were actually on Mars. It would also have a ton more instruments on board.

Exploration and navigation was still done entirely using information collected by the rover via radar and cameras, and the rover’s drill was also put to work. It rained one day, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen on Mars, but the operators presumably pretended it was a dust storm and rolled with it.

Another Earth-analog test is scheduled for February in Chile’s Atacama desert. You can learn more about the ExoMars rover and the Mars 2020 mission here.

The other robot that the ESA publicized this week isn’t theirs but was developed by ETH Zurich: the SpaceBok —  you know, like springbok. The researchers there think that hopping around like that well-known ungulate could be a good way to get around on other planets.

It’s nice to roll around on stable wheels, sure, but it’s no use when you want to get to the far side of some boulder or descend into a ravine to check out an interesting mineral deposit. SpaceBok is meant to be a highly stable jumping machine that can traverse rough terrain or walk with a normal quadrupedal gait as needed (well, normal for robots).

“This is not particularly useful on Earth,” admits SpaceBok team member Elias Hampp, but “it could reach a height of four meters on the Moon. This would allow for a fast and efficient way of moving forward.”

It was doing some testing at the ESA’s “Mars Yard sandbox,” a little pen filled with Mars-like soil and rocks. The team is looking into improving autonomy with better vision — the better it can see where it lands, the better SpaceBok can stick that landing.

Interplanetary missions are very much in vogue now, and we may soon even see some private trips to the Moon and Mars. So even if NASA or the ESA doesn’t decide to take SpaceBok (or some similarly creative robot) out into the solar system, perhaps a generous sponsor will.

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Google loses two execs: one for Messaging and Workspace, another for Payments

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Google had a pair of high-ranking executives leave this week. The first was Bill Ready, Google’s “President of Commerce, Payments & Next Billion Users,” who left to become CEO of Pinterest. The second big departure is Javier Soltero, who was vice president and GM of Google Workspace, Google’s paid business app, and was the leader of Google Messaging. Both executives made big changes to Google in their nearly three-year stints at the company. Now that they are leaving, it’s unclear what the future of their respective products holds.

Ready was only at Google for two-and-a-half years, where his highest-profile move was presiding over the disastrous rollout of a significant Google Pay revamp. The new Google Pay app was spearheaded by Ready’s payments team, led by another recently ousted executive, Caesar Sengupta. The Google Pay revamp brought an app originally developed for India to the US, where the requirement for phone number-based identity came with a huge list of downgrades: The Google Pay website had to be stripped of payment functionality, the app no longer supported multiple accounts, and you couldn’t be logged in to multiple devices.

The rollout of the new app was also clumsy. Slowly, over a month or two, users were kicked out of the old Google Pay and had to transition to a new app. The new identity system wasn’t backward compatible with the old Google Pay, though, which meant users still on the old app couldn’t send money to users on the new app.

According to Pulse network (a wing of Discover card) Google Pay has 3 percent of the entire US NFC market. Keep in mind Google entered this market years before Apple.

According to Pulse network (a wing of Discover card) Google Pay has 3 percent of the entire US NFC market. Keep in mind Google entered this market years before Apple.

The new Google Pay was announced one year into Ready’s tenure at Google and launched in March 2021. The app initially came with big plans for expansion, including a wild announcement of Google-branded bank accounts. Sengupta left Google one month after the US launch of the new Google Pay, which triggered an “exodus” of employees, according to Insider. The report said, “Dozens of employees and executives” left the payments team after Sengupta’s departure, with one employee saying there was “frustration” the new Google Pay “wasn’t growing at the rate we wanted it to.”

What happened afterward seems like a complete scrapping of the original “New Google Pay” game plan. Google generally launches a product in the US first and then slowly rolls it out to the rest of the world, but after the initial poor reception, the new Google Pay never saw a wide rollout outside of the US. Google canceled its heavily promoted plans for a Google bank account, even though, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company already had 400,000 curious users sign up for the public waitlist.

Ready appointed a new leader of Payments this January, a move Bloomberg described as a “reset” of Google’s payments strategy. Ready also made headlines at the time by saying, “Crypto is something we pay a lot of attention to,” though no Google product has emerged.

Four months later, at Google I/O 2022, another revamp of Google Pay was announced, re-branding the product to “Google Wallet.” That’s right, after a big revamp of Google’s payment app in 2021, there’s now another new revamp in 2022. Ready is now leaving five months after appointing a new Payments lead and setting these plans in motion, but he won’t be around for the launch of Google Wallet. Between the departure of old Payments lead Sengupta, Sengupta’s boss, Ready, and “dozens” of team members, it sure seems like the payments team ended up cleaning house.

This nightmare of a map has the US with Google Pay and Google Wallet co-existing, while the rest of the world gets a cleaner solution of one payment app: Wallet.

This nightmare of a map has the US with Google Pay and Google Wallet co-existing, while the rest of the world gets a cleaner solution of one payment app: Wallet.

Google

At the heart of Google’s payments turbulence is probably the fact that most estimates put Google Pay at 3-4 percent of the US NFC payments market, which is way behind Apple’s nearly 92 percent market share. It’s an embarrassing loss considering Google was a pioneer in NFC payments and entered the market three years before Apple.

A big part of Google’s payment problems is this kind of instability, with Google’s payment app running through four different brands in 10 years (Google Wallet, then Android Pay, then Google Pay, now Google Wallet again). It still doesn’t seem like the company has arrived at a great solution with the new Google Wallet. The current plan—which could change once Ready’s replacement is hired—is for Google Wallet and Google Pay to co-exist in the US. In the rest of the world, there will be one payment app, Wallet, which sounds like a clean, reasonable offering. In the US and Singapore, though, Google doesn’t want to kill the widely panned new Google Pay app, so Google Wallet and Google Pay will be available. Why? If Wallet is rolling out to the rest of the world, the codebase clearly has the full payment feature set, why not just roll it out everywhere?

Google is still searching for a VP to replace Bill Ready, but the interim Payments president will be longtime Googler Nick Fox. Fox was previously front and center in the Google tech landscape as the head of Google messaging when the company produced Google Allo. Allo was Google’s main messaging app from 2016-2018, lasting about 576 days on the market. Since Allo, Fox has been running Google Search.

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Forget smart glasses, this smart contact lens prototype has a new vision for AR 

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Enlarge / Smart contact lenses don’t work quite this easily yet. (credit: Getty)

Since 2015, a California-based company called Mojo Vision has been developing smart contact lenses. Like smart glasses, the idea is to put helpful AR graphics in front of your eyes to help accomplish daily tasks. Now, a functioning prototype brings us closer to seeing a final product.

In a blog post this week, Drew Perkins, the CEO of Mojo Vision, said he was the first to have an “on-eye demonstration of a feature-complete augmented reality smart contact lens.” In an interview with CNET, he said he’s been wearing only one contact at a time for hour-long durations. Eventually, Mojo Vision would like users to be able to wear two Mojo Lens simultaneously and create 3D visual overlays, the publication said.

According to his blog, the CEO could see a compass through the contact and an on-screen teleprompter with a quote written on it. He also recalled viewing a green, monochromatic image of Albert Einstein to CNET.

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Some Macs are getting fewer updates than they used to. Here’s why it’s a problem

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Aurich Lawson

When macOS Ventura was announced earlier this month, its system requirements were considerably stricter than those for macOS Monterey, which was released just eight months ago as of this writing. Ventura requires a Mac made in 2017 or later, dropping support for a wide range of Monterey-supported Mac models released between 2013 and 2016.

This certainly seems more aggressive than new macOS releases from just a few years ago, where system requirements would tighten roughly every other year or so. But how bad is it, really? Is a Mac purchased in 2016 getting fewer updates than one bought in 2012 or 2008 or 1999? And if so, is there an explanation beyond Apple’s desire for more users to move to shiny new Apple Silicon Macs?

Using data from Apple’s website and EveryMac.com, we pulled together information on more than two decades of Mac releases—almost everything Apple has released between the original iMac in late 1998 and the last Intel Macs in 2020. We recorded when each model was released, when Apple stopped selling each model, the last officially supported macOS release for each system, and the dates when those versions of macOS received their last point updates (i.e. 10.4.11, 11.6) and their last regular security patches. (I’ve made some notes on how I chose to streamline and organize the data, which I’ve put at the end of this article).

The end result is a spreadsheet full of dozens of Macs, with multiple metrics for determining how long each one received official software support from Apple. These methods included measuring the amount of time between when each model was discontinued and when it stopped receiving updates, which is particularly relevant for models like the 2013 Mac Pro, 2014 Mac mini, and 2015 MacBook Air that were sold for multiple years after they were first introduced.

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