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This tactile display lets visually impaired users feel on-screen 3D shapes – TechCrunch

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Using a computer and modern software can be a chore to begin with for the visually impaired, but fundamentally visual tasks like 3D design are even harder. This Stanford team is working on a way to display 3D information, like in a CAD or modeling program, using a “2.5D” display made up of pins that can be raised or lowered as sort of tactile pixels. Taxels!

The research project, a collaboration between graduate student Alexa Siu, Joshua Miele and lab head Sean Follmer, is intended to explore avenues by which blind and visually impaired people can accomplish visual tasks without the aid of a sighted helper. It was presented this week at SIGACCESS.

The device is essentially a 12×24 array of thin columns with rounded tops that can be individually told to rise anywhere from a fraction of an inch to several inches above the plane, taking the shape of 3D objects quickly enough to amount to real time.

“It opens up the possibility of blind people being, not just consumers of the benefits of fabrication technology, but agents in it, creating our own tools from 3D modeling environments that we would want or need – and having some hope of doing it in a timely manner,” explained Miele, who is himself blind, in a Stanford news release.

Siu calls the device “2.5D,” since of course it can’t show the entire object floating in midair. But it’s an easy way for someone who can’t see the screen to understand the shape it’s displaying. The resolution is limited, sure, but that’s a shortcoming shared by all tactile displays — which it should be noted are extremely rare to begin with and often very expensive.

The field is moving forward, but too slowly for some, like this crew and the parents behind the BecDot, an inexpensive Braille display for kids. And other tactile displays are being pursued as possibilities for interactions in virtual environments.

Getting an intuitive understanding of a 3D object, whether one is designing or just viewing it, usually means rotating and shifting it — something that’s difficult to express in non-visual ways. But a real-time tactile display like this one can change the shape it’s showing quickly and smoothly, allowing more complex shapes, like moving cross-sections, to be expressed as well.

tac

Joshua Miele demonstrates the device

The device is far from becoming a commercial project, though as you can see in the images (and the video below), it’s very much a working prototype, and a fairly polished one at that. The team plans on reducing the size of the pins, which would of course increase the resolution of the display. Interestingly another grad student in the same lab is working on that very thing, albeit at rather an earlier stage.

The Shape Lab at Stanford is working on a number of projects along these lines — you can keep up with their work at the lab’s website.



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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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