zGlue launches a configurable system-on-a-chip to help developers implement customized chipsets

The complexity and cost of packing an array of sensors and power inside a small amount of space has opened the door to a wider and wider variety of use cases for internet-connected devices beyond just smart thermostats or cameras — and also exposed a hole for getting those ideas into an actual piece of hardware.

So there are some startups that are looking to address this hole by providing developers a path to creating the customized chipsets they need to power those devices. zGlue is one of those, led by former Samsung engineering director Ming Zhang and former Misfit founder Sonny Vu.  The company’s chiplets are built around the kind of system-on-a-chip approach that you’ll see in most modern devices, where everything is in a single unit that reduces some of the complexity of moving processes around a larger piece of hardware — shrinking the space constraints and allowing all these actions to happen on a device, such as a smartphone. As more and more IoT devices come online, they may all have varying form factor demands, which means companies — like zGlue and others — are emerging to address those needs.

“From the developer point of view, think of us as a system that is not different from any thing else on the market, user-interface-wise,” Zhang said. “It is just smaller in size, faster in time to market, and flexible — customizable by individuals rather than just by Apple and Qualcomms. [We’re] democratizing chip innovation so it is no longer [a] privilege of Fortune 500 companies.”

The company’s first product is called the zOrigin, a “chip-stacking” product that aims to allow developers to embed the sensors and processes necessary for their devices. Stemming from an ARM 32-bit core processor (meaning it can handle more complex and precise calculations), the first launch costs $149 and can include pieces like a Bluetooth radio, accelerometers, and other necessary features.

zGlue’s chipsets have embedded memory, which is an increasingly common approach to try to reduce the number of trips going from the actual processing power to where the information is stored. Those trips cost power, speed, and can restrict the scope of use cases for internet-connected devices. Zhang said the chiplets are packaged closer together — literally reducing the space that information has to cross — in order to speed it up, though that of course carries consequences when it comes to heat constraints these processors can have.

“That’s the price to pay for the continuation of Moore’s law, as it has in the past 40 years,” Zhang said. “Heat dissipation in our system is not going to be any worse than a conventional system. In fact, with the silicon substrate in place, it’s easier to conduct heat compared to a conventional package or board substrate.”

As a kind of templated approach, zGlue is geared toward helping developers produce a custom setup that the can implement into devices that may require a wide set of sensors. The company says it looks to help developers go from a design to a prototype in a few weeks, and then reduce the turnaround time from a prototype to production in “weeks or months,” depending on the complexity and volume.

While this is one example of trying to get a prototype chip out into the wild, there are a few others as well. Si-Five, for example, offers developers a way to prototype custom silicon for their specific niches based on the hardware and IP the startup has. The goal there is to offer both a prototype flow and the ability to graduate into a production flow, allowing developers and companies to get products out the door that require custom silicon. Si-Five hardware is based on the RISC-V architecture, an open-source instruction set for silicon, and the company most recently raised $50.4 million.

Zhang, too, said RISC-V offers some potential, especially in its own scope. “RISC-V is a great tool to build small, fast, and low power IoT applications,” he said. “The nature of open source makes it more available to more people. We welcome and embrace RISC-V to join the family of ‘MCU’ chiplets supported by our technology.”

When it comes to inference — the machine learning processes that happen on the hardware to execute some kind of action, like image recognition, based on trained models — Zhang said the chipsets would support it, but he would not comment further. There is a blossoming ecosystem around custom silicon that looks to speed up inference on devices like cars or IoT devices, which is geared toward reducing the space and power constraints of those chips while also running those processes much more quickly. Companies like Mythic have raised significant venture funding in order to build that kind of hardware.

Bell & Ross releases a new watch for travelers

In my endless quest to get geeks interested in watches I present to you the Bell & Ross BR V2-93 GMT 24H, a new GMT watch from one of my favorite manufacturers that is a great departure from the company’s traditional designs.

The watch is a 41mm round GMT which means it has three hands to show the time in the 12-hour scale and another separate hand that shows the time in a 24 hour scale. You can use it to see timezones in two or even three places and it comes in a nice satin-brushed metal case with a rubber or metal strap.

B&R is unique because it’s one of the first companies to embrace online sales after selling primarily in watch stores for about a decade. This means the watches are slightly cheaper – this one is $3,500 – and jewelers can’t really jack up the prices in stores. Further B&R has a great legacy of making legible, usable watches and this one is no exception. It is also a fascinating addition to the line. B&R has an Instrument series which consists of large, square watches with huge numerals, and a Vintage series that hearkens back to WWII-inspired, smaller watches. This one sit firmly in the middle, taking on the clear lines of the Instrument inside of a more vintage case.

Ultimately watches like this one are nice tool watches – designed for legibility and usability above fashion. It’s a nice addition to the line and looks like something a proper geek could wear in lieu of Apple Watches and other nerd jewelry. Here’s hoping.

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller is an inspiring example of inclusive design

Every gamer with a disability faces a unique challenge for many reasons, one of which is the relative dearth of accessibility-focused peripherals for consoles. Microsoft is taking a big step toward fixing this with its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device created to address the needs of gamers for whom ordinary gamepads aren’t an option.

The XAC, revealed officially at a recent event but also leaked a few days ago, is essentially a pair of gigantic programmable buttons and an oversized directional pad; 3.5mm ports on the back let a huge variety of assistive devices like blow tubes, pedals and Microsoft-made accessories plug in.

It’s not meant to be an all-in-one solution by any means, more like a hub that allows gamers with disabilities to easily make and adjust their own setups with a minimum of hassle. Whatever you’re capable of, whatever’s comfortable, whatever gear you already have, the XAC is meant to enable it.

I’d go into detail, but it would be impossible to do better than Microsoft’s extremely interesting and in-depth post introducing the XAC, which goes into the origins of the hardware, the personal stories of the testers and creators and much more. Absolutely worth taking the time to read.

I look forward to hearing more about the system and how its users put it to use, and I’m glad to see inclusivity and accessibility being pursued in such a practical and carefully researched manner.

Snapchat Spectacles tests non-circular landscape exports

The worst thing about Spectacles is how closely tied they are to Snapchat. The proprietary circular photo and video format looks great inside Snapchat where you can tip your phone around while always staying full screen, but it gets reduced to a small circle with a big white border when you export it to your phone for sharing elsewhere.

Luckily, Snapchat has started beta testing new export formats for Spectacles through the beta version of its app. This lets you choose a black border instead of a white one, but importantly, also a horizontal 16:9 rectangular format that would fit well on YouTube and other traditional video players. The test was first spotted by Eric Johnson, and, when asked, a Snapchat spokesperson told TechCrunch “I can confirm we’re testing it, yes.”

Allowing Spectacles to be more compatible with other services could make the v2 of its $150 photo and video-recording sunglasses much more convenient and popular. I actually ran into the Snapchat Spectacles team this weekend at the FORM Arcosanti music festival in Arizona where they were testing the new Specs and looking for ideas for their next camera. I suggested open sourcing the circular format or partnering so other apps could show it natively with the swivel effect, and Snap declined to comment about that. But now it looks like they’re embracing compatibility by just letting you ditch the proprietary format.

Breaking away from purely vertical or circular formats is also a bit of a coup for Snapchat, which has touted vertical as the media orientation of the future as that’s how we hold our phones. Many other apps, including Facebook’s Snapchat clones, adopted this idea. But with Snapchat’s growth slipping to its lowest rate ever, it may need to think about new ways to gain exposure elsewhere.

Seeing Spectacles content on other apps without ugly borders could draw attention back to Snapchat, or at least help Spectacles sell better than v1, which only sold 220,000 pairs and had to write-off hundreds of thousands more that were gathering dust in warehouses. While it makes sense why Snap might have wanted to keep the best Spectacles content viewing experience on its own app, without user growth, that’s proven a software limitation for what’s supposed to be a camera company.

New XBox and Windows game controller for people with disabilities

Microsoft's new accessible game controller has a retro vibe, enormous buttons, and a range of attachments tailored to specific disabilities.
The new Xbox Adaptive Controller, which will be available later this year, can be connected to external buttons, switches, joysticks and mounts, giving gamers with a wide range of physical disabilities the ability to customize their setups. The most flexible adaptive controller made by a major gaming company, the device can be used to play Xbox One and Windows 10 PC games and supports Xbox Wireless Controller features such as button remapping.
Reminds me of the original arcade Street Fighter "punchable" buttons (see the photo from Ars Technica, below). There's a certain irony here, because (in their primitive 80s form) they were unreliable and made the game too difficult, leading arcade operators to replace them with normal buttons. Because the punch-plates were pressure sensitive, though, the game required six normal buttons to play properly, kicking off the myriads-of-buttons era in which games became markedly less accessible.

I’m in love with Astell&Kern’s crooked, beautiful, ridiculously expensive MP3 player

It may be old-fashioned, but I find dedicated MP3 players wonderful little devices. I’ve used tons over the years (the Zune HD is still the best) and I’m glad to see they live on in some fashion, even if it’s as an objet d’art jammed with audiophile knick-knacks and a $700 price tag: Astell&Kern’s A&norma SR15.

Look at that thing! The ground of the tech world is littered with anonymous-looking lozenges made to appeal to as many people as possible. Then you have this thing.

What a design choice, to tilt the screen like that and form the rest of the device from prism-like complementary rectangles! The site even has a “design concept” page, on which it points out that this isn’t a purely aesthetic choice:

The slight angle and precise, mindful alignment show the empty space and tones that fills the space.
From any angle, or either hand you hold your device, it does not hinder the display screen and offers the best grip.

Isn’t that wonderful? And it’s even kind of true! Those areas we so carefully avoid with our fingers or thumbs are now grippable.

Meanwhile, the tilted screen also makes room for the knurled volume knob, while simultaneously protecting it from unwanted touches. And the angle of the screen makes for a visual hint for the power button.

I just love how risky this design is, how eye-catching, how simultaneously practical and impractical. We need much more of that in tech. This device has more personality than every iPhone since the 6 — combined.

Inside is the usual blast of audio jargon: Cirrus Logic Dual DAC, native direct stream digital, 24-bit 192KHz playback, balanced 2.5mm headphone out and a quad-core CPU to support it all. Do you need any of that? Probably not, but a few people might, and at least you’ll be sure this thing will play pretty much anything you throw at it and sound great doing so.

I’ve used a few of A&K’s previous products, and can testify that they’re extremely well-built and feel great to use, though the screens are a bit low-resolution and the UI can be lacking. The 3.3-inch screen isn’t going to blow anyone away with its 800×480 resolution, but it should be sharp enough, and the UI got a redo between the devices I’ve used and the SR15. I’m eager to see if it’s more fun to use now.

The A&norma SR15 is available now for anyone with a pocket full of money to burn.

This jolly little robot gets goosebumps

Cornell researchers have made a little robot that can express its emotions through touch, sending out little spikes when its scared or even getting goosebumps to express delight or excitement. The prototype, a cute smiling creature with rubber skin, is designed to test touch as an I/O system for robotic projects.

The robot mimics the skin of octopi which can turn spiky when threatened.

The researchers, Yuhan Hu, Zhengnan Zhao, Abheek Vimal, and Guy Hoffman, created the robot to experiment with new methods for robot interaction. They compare the skin to “human goosebumps, cats’ neck fur raising, dogs’ back hair, the needles of a porcupine, spiking of a blowfish, or a bird’s ruffled feathers.”

“Research in human-robot interaction shows that a robot’s ability to use nonverbal behavior to communicate affects their potential to be useful to people, and can also have psychological effects. Other reasons include that having a robot use nonverbal behaviors can help make it be perceived as more familiar and less machine-like,” the researchers told IEEE Spectrum.

The skin has multiple configurations and is powered by a computer-controlled elastomer that can inflate and deflate on demand. The goosebumps pop up to match the expression on the robot’s face, allowing humans to better understand what the robot “means” when it raises its little hackles or gets bumpy. I, for one, welcome our bumpy robotic overlords.

Interpol’s New Software Will Recognize Criminals by Their Voices

A new platform aims to identify offenders by matching voice recordings to speech samples stored in a massive database, raising privacy concerns
Photo: istockphoto

The world’s largest police network is evaluating software that would match samples of speech taken from phone calls or social media posts to voice recordings of criminals stored within a massive database shared by law enforcement agencies.

The platform, as described by developers, would employ several speech analysis algorithms to filter voice samples by gender, age, language, and accent. It will be managed by Interpol at its base in Lyon, France with a goal of increasing the accuracy of voice data, and boosting its reliability and judicial admissibility.

The development team completed successful field tests of the system in March and November 2017. Next up is a project review this June in Brussels.

While the system can process any “lawfully intercepted” sound, including ambient conversation, its expected use would be to match voices gleaned from telephone and social media against a “blacklist” database. The samples could come from mobile, landline, or voice-over-Internet-protocol recordings, or from snatches of audio captured from recruitment or propaganda videos posted to social media.

That recorded data essentially becomes a widget on a production line. This file, the captured voice clip, may already include some descriptive metadata added by the law enforecement officials who originally secured it. The software then attempts to add new information about the speaker's age or accent, for example.

To help with this task, the SIIP platform would create a template of a given police recording of a phone call, marking the acoustic features that represent the voices on the clip. Those features, or identity vectors, are then used to try to find matches in the database.

To create the software, developers lined up algorithms, or modules, to sort newly recorded voice samples through a processing chain built on open-sourced architecture. Interim reports, issued in June 2016, May 2017, and February 2018, say the challenges of building such a system included setting up tools to filter out background noise, enhance voice clarity, isolate sounds, and to easily share, gather, and classify data for applications both at police headquarters and in the field.

The point is to be able to match a new recording against a very large database of sound samples stored in a database that may have more than a million records on file. That database would be managed by Interpol; the records would be populated by the institution’s member law enforcement agencies. These agencies, from 192 countries, would have access to the system.

The platform can also match voice samples taken from social media platforms including Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook. By combing through multimedia content based on search criteria such as language relevance and geolocation, the system will tag and process this material, and find similar clips in the database. The software’s video processing engine can extract the audio from an online video, split it into mono, and format it into uncompressed 16 kilohertz WAV files. Audio-only content can also be searched and tagged in this way.

Coordinating the project is Verint, an “actionable intelligence” company based in New York and Israel. Verint’s roots are in commercial call recording—think of hearing “this call may be recorded for quality control and training purposes.” The firm worked with Airbus, Singular Logic, and Nuance to develop the system, with keyword spotting components from Sail Labs of Vienna and Swiss research nonprofit IDIAP. Security groups in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom studied the project’s ethical aspects. Input from law enforcement came from Interpol, the Italian Carabinieri, the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police, Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt, and Portugal’s Policia Judiciaria.       

As with the broader field of automated voice surveillance, the project is spurring complex reactions. “I consider speech recognition in the hands of police and secret services to be quite dangerous. I have objections,” says Matthias Monroy, a Berlin-based activist who edits a civil rights journal. Monroy has been keeping tabs on the SIIP effort since it launched in 2014.

Paul Johannes, a research associate in commercial law at the University of Kassel and a member of Forum Privatheit, a Berlin-based digital privacy organization, says law enforcement is always on the hunt for tools in a race against new techniques developed by criminal or terror organizations.

But political context is everything, says Maya Wang, a senior researcher and China expert at Human Rights Watch, who recently helped produce a report criticizing the Beijing government’s work to build a database of voice pattern samples enhanced by artificial intelligence. She sees a tripolar context: there is China and its “Wild East” of surveillance, with no meaningful protections, as opposed to stricter rules in Europe, and a looser framework in the United States that is still connected to a vibrant civil society and rule of law. The malign potential for automated voice recognition, Wang argues, depends on where it is used.

Complicating matters, the European Union is about to enact its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a sweeping consumer data privacy package. There are mixed opinions on whether the directive would impact voice recognition tools such as SIIP. Johannes says the GDPR has a “forgotten twin” directive which regulates police or intelligence processing of personal data and sets rules for its free movement.

Many law enforcement agencies already use voice recognition packages. An Interpol survey of 91 departments in 69 countries showed that more than half already run automated speaker identification of some sort.

For example, STC Group, a European subsidiary of the Russia-based Speech Technology Center, offers a voice recognition suite called Voice Grid, deployed in Mexico in 2011 and in Ecuador in 2015. STC makes a point of separating a so-called “voice print” from underlying raw voice data—in the event a database containing the voice prints is hacked, personally identifying data is already stripped out.

Verint and Interpol did not return repeated requests for comment. One of the goals of the system is to improve prospects for using voice recognition in court cases. But if Interpol goes ahead with the SIIP platform, sources say, the distinguishing feature may well be the database.

Geoffrey Stewart Morrison, an associate professor at the Center for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., says there is a big difference between using voice data in court and using voice recognition as an investigative tool. Through published works, he and a colleague have drawn sharp lines for speech comparison testimony in court.

The Interpol platform might prove just as useful in narrowing lists of potential suspects as in prosecuting criminals. Morrison says individual law enforcement agencies may already buy existing systems for their own purposes, but they may not share data even within their own countries. Interpol’s role, however, is to ease information-sharing among law enforcement. 

This analysis could also be considered a warning, given recent concerns about companies hoovering data from social media platforms like Facebook. As the activist Monroy points out, the general public is only recently aware of the huge extent to which their written communication can be monitored and filtered for keywords. “They should know that this works with speech as well,” he says.

Completely silent computer built

There's an art and craft to building fanless computers that can do fancy things (like play games), but the one Tim made is housed in the attractive Streacom DB4 and makes no noise at all. Zero decibels. Tim had to research motherboard clearances to the fraction of a millimeter to make sure he picked the right one to work with its heatpipe kit.

This computer makes no noise when it starts up. It makes no noise when it shuts down. It makes no noise when it idles. It makes no noise when it’s under heavy load. It makes no noise when it’s reading or writing data. It can’t be heard in a regular room during the day. It can’t be heard in a completely quiet house in the middle of the night. It can’t be heard from 1m away. It can’t be heard from 1cm away. It can’t be heard — period. It’s taken nearly 30 years to reach this point, but I’ve finally arrived. The journey is over and it feels great.
The full-size Streacom DB4 is $300 at this site; a miniature version is available on Amazon for some obscene sum but you won't be building anything with much grunt in it.