The iPhone 12 Finally Gets Magnets Right

Avi Greengart, consumer technology analyst at Techsponential says that modular designs appeal to engineers, rather than the typical consumer. “You start with a base slab and then you can add things to it, but it doesn’t match how consumers purchase products,” he explains. “The phone itself needs to be something that they want to buy right now and use by itself.”

The primary use of the magnets in the back of the iPhone 12 is to offer iPhone owners an easier way to charge the device. Accessories are just an additional perk. And even then, Apple is starting out very simply on the accessories front—with just a charger, a wallet and a magnetic case.

Of course, established Apple accessory/case/strap makers will be ready to jump on the new functionality. Teoman said he can’t wait to see “the innovative way” that MagSafe will be used, with the aim being to build “a robust and ever expanding ecosystem.” Belkin has already announced a MagSafe car mount and a MagSafe charger which can charge both your iPhone and Apple Watch, while OtterBox has a MagSafe-compatible iPhone 12 case. Similar Moto modules were much more essential to the use of the Moto Z, but Motorola clearly intended Moto Z users to switch accessories out on a regular basis to increase the functionality of the device. Not so here.

Ramon Llamas, research director for IDC’s Devices and Displays team, thinks that this was one of the issues with Motorola’s implementation of magnets—they were unnecessary additions which are already features in many modern smartphones. “Most of their mods were extensions or duplications of what the Moto Z was already capable of doing—think camera, battery pack or speaker,” he says. “Most smartphones already took high-quality photos, and adding a mod to do DSLR-quality pics would most likely appeal to a select crew.”

Another sticking point was that the Moto Mods weren’t just a little bit of a gimmick, but they were also mightily expensive. A JBL speaker attachment cost $80, the 360-degree camera cost $300 and the Polaroid printer attachment cost $200. The iPhone 12 already has a great camera; it already has a great speaker, and well, who really needs a £150 printer?

Apple already learned some lessons from Motorola by not making MagSafe the unique selling point of the iPhone 12. For anyone watching the keynote, the major focus was 5G, followed by the new design and camera improvements. “Moto hyped up the Mods as it needed a way to stand out from the Android crowd. This meant a lot of focus was placed on the mods, which did not help the phone’s appeal as they were frankly underwhelming compared to the hype,” says Daniel Gleeson, mobile industry analyst at Omdia.

Gleeson says that Apple isn’t making the same mistake with MagSafe. If Apple over-emphasized MagSafe, it would mean that the iPhone 12 would be judged by the quality of third-party accessories. “MagSafe will instead just form part of the ‘it just works’ magic of iPhone,” he says, “where similar capabilities on other brands feel clunky and old fashioned in comparison.”

Ultimately, the reason why magnets won’t fail Apple is a simple one. Apple is a two trillion-dollar company which sells millions of iPhones every single year. Compare that to Motorola’s Moto Z which, according to Omdia data, accounted for just 0.3 per cent of the US market in June 2020. The phone didn’t even enter the top 50 handsets in the UK.

So while accessory manufacturers are no doubt scrambling to make MagSafe-compatible accessories to get a bite of that Apple pie, beyond the partnerships locked in for launch, others clearly weren’t rushing around trying to manufacture Moto Mods. The in-built advantage Apple now commands extends beyond that too. While retailers will be more likely to devote shelf space to MagSafe accessories, they were likely much less willing to give Moto Mods the same courtesy. Still, if the Moto Mods have shown us anything, it’s that if Apple’s softly softly approach takes off, there is plenty of potential for what MagSafe could do.

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.


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Next-Gen Gaming Is an Environmental Nightmare

It’s a sad truth that escapist pursuits are not truly separate from real life, and some even have a nasty tendency to exacerbate real-life problems. And while gaming offers a reprieve from thinking about dooms both personal and global, it threatens to bring at least one of them—climate disaster—closer to reality.

What with plastic casing, mined-metal circuit boards, guzzled power, and e-waste, gaming has for decades been an industry unfriendly to the environment. Now, in line with more meta trends in tech, gaming’s technological underpinnings are becoming smaller and more invisible. Cloud gaming has arrived alongside digital consoles like the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S, where games are buttons on menu screens. You’re not going to see the equivalent of 700,000 Atari 2600 E.T. cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert.

But while many gamers will ditch the discs, experts say that less visible tech in no way equals less damage to the planet, and that the games industry as a whole is not on a path to reducing its carbon footprint. Right now, US gaming platforms represent 34 terawatt-hours a year in energy usage—more than the entire state of West Virginia—with associated carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to over 5 million cars. And it’s only going to get worse. “Total emissions are going up,” says Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director for Stand.Earth, an environmental nonprofit founded to challenge corporations’ climate practices. “There’s a real reckoning that needs to happen.”

Two features define next-gen consoles: digital services and big-daddy specs. You might pick up Microsoft’s $300 all-digital Xbox Series S and, downloading games off the cloud, live a life free of disc clutter. You might forgo a console entirely and sign up for Google Stadia, Xbox’s Game Pass Ultimate, or any number of smartphone-based cloud gaming services. Even if you do opt for a specced-out PlayStation 5, you’ll likely still be downloading very big video games from data centers in northern Virginia, Las Vegas, Chicago, and beyond.

In interviews with WIRED, Microsoft executives have described how the future of Xbox isn’t about taking away hardware altogether. Cloud gaming is additive. Microsoft wants to reach potential gamers where they are already, expanding its user base to everybody who might even passingly consider gaming. It envisions customers logging into Minecraft on their Galaxy S20, their Xbox Series S, and their PC, all contained within the Microsoft ecosystem. That’s a lot of hardware, and a lot of power.

“If people are going to choose to play games, we want to be as efficient as we possibly can in delivering that experience, either via a console or a data center in a streamed environment,” said Microsoft’s vice president of cloud gaming, Kareem Choudhry in a March interview with WIRED. “We’re working pretty hard on those issues, all within the envelope of the broader Microsoft carbon-neutral initiative.”

Microsoft has plans to be carbon-negative by 2030. But like Sony, which wants to achieve zero environmental footprint by 2050, Microsoft declined to answer WIRED’s specific questions about changes to its supply chain, console manufacturing techniques, and data centers to meet that goal. (Nintendo, which has not yet announced a next-gen console, has publicized some initiatives in recycling and nontoxic substances). As the dual winds of big console performance and big demand for server-side computing meet, the gaming industry could be setting up for a worst-of-both-worlds situation.

“The worst-case scenario is still using relatively energy-intensive hardware on your side and then still using the cloud gaming platforms that have a lot going on the backend in terms of energy demand,” says Cook.

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Skin Care and Makeup Get the High-Tech Treatment

Most of the attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show, in January, were on the hunt for self-driving cars and improved smartphone cameras, but I arrived at the Las Vegas expo looking for high-tech innovations in beauty. I walked past the AI chemistry teachers and the robot puppy, and headed straight to the at-home lipstick maker and plaque-detecting toothbrush. Over the course of three days, I discovered that our makeup and skin-care routines will be just as high-tech as our living rooms—and change is coming faster than you’d think.

The Smart Toothbrush

Brushing your teeth is possibly the least sexy part of your daily routine, which is probably why the average person only spends about 45 seconds doing it. (The American Dental Association recommends a full two minutes.) But new electric brushes are making this mundane experience more fun, more efficient, and more worthy of 120 seconds.

ALLURE

This story originally appeared on Allure.

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Remember those chewable tabs that made your teeth glow pink to show where you needed to brush? Well, the 2020 version of that is the Colgate Plaqless Pro brush, which can actually pinpoint the buildup that leads to plaque. “We use blue light fluorescent technology and the toothbrush itself can see, as it is being used, where you have buildup,” explains Derek Gordon, VP and GM of global toothbrush at Colgate Palmolive. If you have biofilm on your teeth (and we all do, from bacteria), the brush handle shows a blue band to indicate you’ve got more work to do. After you’ve cleared the area of debris, the band turns white.

When developing the iO Toothbrush, Oral-B’s research team studied and decoded the movements of thousands of toothbrushers to create a custom algorithm. The result: The brush’s handle can sense the angles you’re using to determine exactly where you are brushing and identify where you need to focus more time. (Spoiler alert: You probably missed your molars.) Sync with the app to see your real-time progress across 16 different zones inside your mouth. This advanced brush also has a next-generation linear magnetic motor that reduces noise and vibration.

And oral hygiene may get even better: “You’re putting this brush in your mouth every day,” says Sherrie Kinderdine, senior scientist with Oral-B Research and Development. “You could, in theory, collect [data] and turn this from a cleaning tool into an oral health diagnostic tool.” By analyzing this data, dentists could make links between oral health and certain diseases. At the very least, you won’t be able to convince anyone that you floss daily if your toothbrush can reveal the indisputable truth —Jessica Cruel, Allure

The Next-Level Sleep Aids

If you’re tossing and turning, you’re not alone. In a good year, 30 to 35 percent of Americans have insomnia (defined as difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep, or waking too early). Those numbers have likely skyrocketed during the pandemic, say researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Big changes to your quality of life, like rarely leaving home, can trigger short-term insomnia.

Sleep-tracking wearables (which are similar to, or built into, fitness trackers) promise a better night’s sleep. Out of all of them, I found the Fitbit Charge 4 wristband has the best hardware and software available. It records your time spent asleep and in different stages of sleep (using a heart rate sensor and a motion sensor called a three-axis accelerometer) and blood oxygen levels throughout the night (using an optical SpO2 sensor). Fitbit inputs these factors into a proprietary algorithm to calculate your “sleep score.” If you’re not getting enough sleep or adequate deep sleep, Fitbit suggests personalized recommendations, including wind-down times, avoiding exercise before bed, and sticking to a new bedtime and wake-up schedule.

Still burning the midnight oil? Apps like White Noise Lite and MyNoise turn your phone into a soothing sound machine, can be played through Bluetooth speakers, and offer a sound catalogue that gets very specific—”Cat Purring,” “Grandfather Clock,” and “Tibetan Singing Bowl” are some options on White Noise. Or you can choose pink or brown noise, which have sound waves on the lower end of the spectrum than white noise, and have been shown to be more relaxing.

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What to Expect From Tuesday’s Apple Event

September has a special kind of significance, particularly in the northern hemisphere. The ninth month of the year means back to school, the change of seasons, the autumnal equinox. From a young age we’re attuned to these rhythms, and then sometime in adulthood they’re muted by all of the Other Things that occupy our brain space. Unless, you work in tech, love to read about tech, or are employed to write about tech. In that case, September is for tech events—Apple events.

For more than a decade Apple has hosted a “special event” in September, capitalizing on those fresh-start feelings and presenting its new wares well in advance of the critical holiday buying season. The scene-stealer is supposed to be the iPhone. Over the years, more product categories have crept on stage, like watches and headphones and tablets and a smart speaker. But the iPhone is September, and September is the iPhone.

I probably don’t need to tell you that this year is different. There are no predictable rhythms. We’re fumbling our way through a global pandemic, while millions of people are in economic distress and the American west, Apple’s backyard, is literally burning. Apple executives have already warned that this year’s new iPhone would be delayed by a few weeks, into October. The information, shared on the company’s last earnings call, was both unsurprising and symbolically jarring: A “one more thing” for the pandemic era.

Still … Apple is hosting an event next week. The event will be livestreamed and hosted virtually, like the software conferences we attended on Zoom and WebEx and Teams this spring. The event is unlikely to be centered around new iPhones, but there are other products that Apple will want us to all pay attention to—with whatever sliver of attention we have left.

Watch This Space

The digital invitations sent out by Apple contained the phrase “Time Flies,” a not-so-subtle reference to watches. Bloomberg has also reported that new Apple Watches are in the works.

Yup, watches plural: Expect a new watch that showcases some kind of new technology and sits at the top of the Apple Watch pricing structure; as well as a lower-cost model, which might replace the Apple Watch Series 3. The Apple Watch has, in a relatively short amount of time, become one of the best-selling watches in the world, and is an important part of Apple’s pitch that all of your gadgets should work seamlessly together. But it’s also a popular health tracker, and it’s been rumored that this year’s top model could include a blood oxygen sensor.

A new iPad is also expected to be revealed, a next-generation iPad Air with a design that more closely resembles the iPad Pro. Notable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has predicted that some kind of 10.8-inch iPad would come to market in the second half of 2020, along with a new iPad mini in the subsequent months.

The big question is how, exactly, Apple will distinguish something like this new, sleek Air from the 11-inch iPad Pro. Reports suggest that Touch ID will get some sort of revamp, whether that’s an in-screen touch sensor or one built into the iPad’s tactile power button. (Ideally, the new iPad would also have a front camera that’s centered when the iPad is in landscape mode, which would make it much better for video chats—but that’s just a feature on my personal wish list and not based on any evidence.)

September is also usually when Apple rolls out final versions of the new software it showed off at WWDC in the spring. At this point, the official release date for iOS 14 is unclear, since new iPhones won’t be launching until October. But millions of people will still upgrade to the latest version of iOS on their “old” phones, so it’s possible that Apple may keep the software release consistent with prior years.

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What Is the Internet of Things? A WIRED Guide

Most of the early smart home inventions used automatic controls, making it possible to turn something or off without lifting a finger. But they didn’t connect to anything else, and their functionality was limited. That would begin to change in 1983 when ARPANET, the earliest version of the internet, adopted the internet protocol suite (also known as TCP/IP). The protocol set standards for how digital data should be transmitted, routed, and received. Essentially, it laid the groundwork for the modern internet.

IoT Through the Years

1990
John Romkey creates the first IoT device: a toaster that he controls with his computer

1999
Kevin Ashton coins the term “internet of things” to describe the eyes and ears of a computer

2000
LG introduces its first connected refrigerator with a $20,000 pricetag

2008
The world’s first IoT conference is held in Zurich, Switzerland

2010
Tony Fadell founds Nest, maker of the smart thermostat

2013
Oxford Dictionary adds the term “internet of things”

2014
Amazon introduces the Echo speaker, along with the Alexa voice assistant—a new way to control the smart home

2016
The Mirai botnet infects over 600,000 IoT devices with malware

2020
The number of internet-connected devices, by some estimates, exceeds 20 billion

The first internet-connected “thing” to make use of this new protocol was a toaster. John Romkey, a software engineer and early internet evangelist, had built one for the 1990 showfloor of Interop, a trade show for computers. Romkey dropped a few slices of bread into the toaster and, using a clunky computer, turned the toaster on. It would still be a decade before anyone used the phrase “internet of things,” but Romkey’s magic little toaster showed what a world of internet-connected things might be like. (Of course, it wasn’t fully automated; a person still had to introduce the bread.) It was part gimmick, part proof of concept—and fully a preview of what was to come.

The term “internet of things” itself was coined in 1999, when Kevin Ashton put it in a PowerPoint presentation for Procter & Gamble. Ashton, who was then working in supply chain optimization, described a system where sensors acted like the eyes and ears of a computer—an entirely new way for computers to see, hear, touch, and interpret their surroundings.

As home internet became ubiquitous and Wi-Fi sped up, the dream of the smart home started to look more like a reality. Companies began to introduce more and more of these inventions: “smart” coffee makers to brew the perfect cup, ovens that bake cookies with precision timing, and refrigerators that automatically restocked expired milk. The first of these, LG’s internet-connected refrigerator, hit the market in 2000. It could take stock of shelf contents, mind expiration dates, and for some reason, came with an MP3 player. It also cost $20,000. As sensors became cheaper, these internet-connected devices became more affordable for more consumers. And the invention of smart plugs, like those made by Belkin, meant that even ordinary objects could become “smart”—or, at least, you could turn them on and off with your phone.

Any IoT system today contains a few basic components. First, there’s the thing outfitted with sensors. These sensors could be anything that collects data, like a camera inside a smart refrigerator or an accelerometer that tracks speed in a smart running shoe. In some cases, sensors are bundled together to gather multiple data points: a Nest thermostat contains a thermometer, but also a motion sensor; it can adjust the temperature of a room when it senses that nobody’s in it. To make sense of this data, the device has some kind of network connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, or satellite) and a processor where it can be stored and analyzed. From there, the data can be used to trigger an action—like ordering more milk when the carton in the smart refrigerator runs out, or adjusting the temperature automatically given a set of rules.

Most people didn’t start building an ecosystem of “smart” devices in their homes until the mass adoption of voice controls. In 2014, Amazon introduced the Echo, a speaker with a helpful voice assistant named Alexa built in. Apple had introduced Siri, its own voice assistant, four years prior—but Siri lived on your phone, while Alexa lived inside the speaker and could control all of the “smart” devices in your house. Positioning a voice assistant as the centerpiece of the smart home had several effects: It demystified the internet of things for consumers, encouraged them to buy more internet-enabled gadgets, and encouraged developers to create more “skills,” or IoT commands, for these voice assistants to learn

The same year that Amazon debuted Alexa, Apple came out with HomeKit, a system designed to facilitate interactions between Apple-made smart devices, sending data back and forth to create a network. These unifying voices have shifted the landscape away from single-purpose automations and toward a more holistic system of connected things. Tell the Google Assistant “goodnight,” for example, and the command can dim the lights, lock the front door, set the alarm system, and turn on your alarm clock. LG’s SmartThinQ platform connects many home appliances, so you can select a chocolate chip cookie recipe from the screen of your smart fridge and it’ll automatically preheat the oven. Manufacturers bill this as the future, but it’s also a convenient way to sell more IoT devices. If you already have an Amazon Echo, you might as well get some stuff for Alexa to control.

By 2014, the number of internet-connected devices would surpass the number of people in the world. David Evans, the former chief futurist at Cisco, estimated in 2015 that “an average 127 new things are connected to the internet” every second. Today, there are over 20 billion connected things in the world, according to estimates from Gartner. The excitement around the brave new internet-connected world has been matched with concern. All of these objects, brought to life like Pinocchio, have made the world easier to control: You can let the delivery man in the front door, or change the temperature inside the house, all with a few taps on a smartphone. But it’s also given our objects—and the companies that make them—more control over us.

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My Doomed Search for a Bedside Wireless Phone Charger

Smartphones have advanced in so many ways over the past half decade—but battery life isn’t one of them. Most phones still need a daily charge, and the easiest way to accomplish this tiresome chore is to make it a part of your bedtime routine. The trouble is, my wife and I often go to bed at different times, and neither of us appreciates the sound of the other scrambling to find the charger or turning on the lamp to plug it in properly.

That’s why we want a good wireless charger—just a simple pad or stand you can place your phone on. Who cares if it takes longer to recharge if I’m sleeping?

Convinced that a couple of wireless chargers would take us a step nearer marital bliss, I started trying out products. That was about five years ago. We’ve tested more than 40 different wireless chargers since then, and we’re still looking.

3 Ways Wireless Chargers Fail

When I began my search, wireless chargers had single-coil designs that necessitated surgical placement. Put your phone down a half-inch off to one side, or bump the nightstand while climbing into bed, and you’ll wake up to a dead battery.

Thankfully, placement has become more forgiving as charging technology has improved and multi-coil designs have rolled out. But straying too far from the sweet spot or having a case on your phone can cause wireless chargers to generate a lot of heat, and heat is the enemy of a healthy battery. To combat this, many manufacturers include fans that make a tiny whirring sound.

The whir of a tiny fan is certainly irritating, but at least it serves a practical purpose. Unfortunately, many chargers also emit a high-pitched whine or buzzing sound. It’s the kind of noise you wouldn’t notice in a busy office but can drive you nuts in a dark bedroom. One of the first wireless chargers I tried also emitted a loud beep when the phone was fully charged—a “feature” that got it expelled from our bedroom at high velocity.

pThe Mikol Nero Marquina Marble charger is a Slip 'n Slide for phones. It lacks proper grip.p

The Mikol Nero Marquina Marble charger is a Slip ‘n Slide for phones. It lacks proper grip.

Photograph: Mikol

Sound isn’t the only problem. Your phone needs stability too. A good wireless charger should have some kind of grips, so it stays on the surface it sits on, and so it holds onto your phone. On some models, a slippery phone can slide itself off, and on others all it takes is a slight bump to send your phone clattering onto the nightstand, cruelly rousing your significant other from their blissful slumber.

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Google Wants to Remix News Radio Just for You

Most of us know how delightful it is to hear a computer-generated song playlist that feels entirely personal. Now, Google wants to create a similar type of bespoke audio experience—not with music, but with news.

The company is adding some new features to its existing news aggregation service called Your News Update, which gathers news clips from different outlets and plays them in one continuous audio feed. Think of it like a Feedly or Flipboard-type service for spoken stories from your preferred news publications.

Google has updated the service to create a more fluid listening experience, so that sitting through an entire session doesn’t feel like you’re just working your way through a hodgepodge of disparate stories. Each personalized playlist is structured to mimic a news program typical of what you’d hear on public radio: short clips about the big headlines up front that gradually shift into longer, more detailed stories. The goal is to create a seamless 90-minute broadcast—a mix of radio, podcast snippets, and text-to-speech article translations—tailored to an audience of one.

“We want to expand what podcasting is to include more newsy content that you have to work less hard to find,” says Liz Gannes, product manager for Google News. “People want to listen where it’s convenient to them. That’s why podcasting is blowing up.”

The feature first rolled out last November in Google Assistant, albeit with more limited text-to-speech functionality. Today it’s available, along with a newly enhanced digital voice, in Google’s Podcasts app on Android. (Support within the Google Podcasts app on iOS is coming “soon,” Google says.)

Based on Google’s wealth of user data, your particular playlist might feature stories about sports teams you follow or—assuming you’re allowing Google to track your location—news from local outlets. (Yes, it’s yet another service dependent on Google knowing as much about you as possible.) Google’s algorithms then hunt for keywords and topics in stories that are most likely to be connected to your interests.

The company has partnered with dozens of media outlets (including WIRED) to adapt and produce content for the service. Outlets that don’t participate directly can choose to add some lines of code to their stories that lets Google more easily analyze the text and have it be read by Google’s digital narrators. If a user wants more local news, they can ask for it directly via Google Assistant.

“Local is this incredibly important part of the news experience, and even more so in a news moment where you want to learn more about how the news is directly affecting you,” Gannes says. Having access to that news in one place makes it easier to call up when you need it. “Say, in a pandemic or wildfire, the local version of the news is really what hits close to home.”

Timbre Ho!

In the previous iteration of Your News Update, transitions between stories were handled by Google Assistant, which would announce the outlet behind each story and its date of publication in a monotone robotic voice. Now, the service comes with its own “newscaster voice,” which was developed with the goal of capturing some of the nuance and emphasis you’d hear from a sentient news anchor. Text-to-speech stories are read by one of eight new voices that switch out for each new story. (There are male and female voices, but they’re only available in English for now.) The goal is to facilitate a smooth, unbroken chain of stories from different outlets that feels like one coherent newscast.

“It’s a bunch of stories, but we don’t want it to feel like we’re just pulling stuff out of a hat,” says Hannah McBride, a conversation designer at Google. “So we have this voice that is sort of connecting it all. It introduces each topic and, in some cases, will even be really specific about what the story is about. It will guide you through the experience.”

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Facebook’s Portal Device Can Now Do Zoom Calls

Portal, Facebook’s device for making video calls that doubles as a digital picture frame, has had a strange run.

Launched in the wake of multiple policy scandals that rocked the company, the device has gone from being treated suspiciously by critics to being more widely adopted by people desperate to communicate with other humans during pandemic-induced isolation.

Now, Facebook has announced a move that could make the Portal more palatable to those still reluctant to put a Facebook-owned camera in their home. The company is adding support for additional videoconferencing services popular in the corporate world. Zoom is the big one, but Webex, BlueJeans, and GoToMeeting are also coming to the Portal.

Previously, video chat on the Portal has been limited to Facebook-owned services: Messenger, WhatsApp, and Workplace (Facebook’s business-oriented social platform). The various new apps will be added throughout September on the Portal, Portal+, and Portal Mini, but won’t come to Portal TV until later in 2020.

In a not-at-all-odd bit of timing, Google and Amazon also announced Wednesday that they are adding support for Zoom to their Assistant-enabled smart displays and Alexa-enabled Echo displays, respectively. Owners of the countertop touchscreen devices—roughly analogous to the Portal—will be able to use them for Zoom calls later this year by syncing the devices with whatever calendar they use for Zoom meetings.

We Need to Talk

pYour Zoom Room is waiting.p

Your Zoom Room is waiting.

Photograph: Facebook

By adding a few other business-friendly features in this update—Portal users can log into Workplace directly without linking their personal Facebook account, and Portal’s touchscreen will now work with the virtual whiteboards in Zoom and BlueJeans—Facebook is keen to position Portal as a tool for the age of widespread remote work.

“It’s a trend that has only accelerated and isn’t going anywhere,” says Micah Collins, director of product management at Facebook. “We definitely want to keep investing in making sure Portal is a great tool for remote workers, and we think by offering more choice on how we can call and connect, we’re really making big inroads there.”

Even with third-party videoconferencing support, Portal isn’t exactly platform-agnostic. Users don’t need a Facebook account to use Portal, but they will still have to log in with WhatsApp or Workplace—platforms that are both owned by Facebook. (Likewise, smart displays from Google and Amazon require an account on the companies’ platforms.) Additional Portal features, like its voice assistant and the Story Time feature for reading virtual kids’ books, are only available when logged into Facebook.

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In a Touch-Free World, the QR Code Is Having Its Moment

Venture outside and you’ll soon see them. Printed on posters and signs, pasted on pub walls and hotel lobbies, taped to picnic tables in beer gardens: QR codes.

WIRED UK

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

As the hospitality industry begins tentatively to open up, restaurants and hotels are turning to technology to deliver a dine-in experience that is as touch-free as possible. Suddenly, a card menu that gets passed through the germy hands of one customer to the next doesn’t seem so appealing. QR codes—the black, barcode-like squares that can point to text or a website—have been around for a while but were previously dismissed as largely a marketing gimmick, at least in a consumer context. Now the QR code has found its time to shine.

“Up until now a QR code, certainly to me, has just been a collection of black and white patterns on a billboard or on a bus stop or wherever,” says Edmund Inkin, who co-owns three hotels across Cornwall and Wales under the brand Eat Drink Sleep. “I’d never really thought of using them.” Now, visitors to Eat Drink Sleep hotels can access the food menu, drinks list, and details on room bookings via QR code (QR stands for quick response).

Nils Engelking, cofounder of Egoditor, a mobile marketing company that runs an online QR code generator and works with companies to implement them, says the coronavirus pandemic was something of a roller coaster for the business. First, customer numbers dropped off, as shops and events were forced to shut down. The main function of a QR code, after all, is to link the digital world with the physical: People can scan the code in real life to get more information on their phone. “So if there’s no sort of life out there and people gathering, QR codes are not that much necessary any more,” Engelking says.

As lockdowns around the world started to ease, however, the QR code found itself in its element. It was the perfect touch-free medium. It allowed people to interact with the world around them while touching only their own smartphone. “Coronavirus just gave it a big push in terms of adoption and also in terms of the end customers,” Engelking says. He says that Egoditor has seen a huge increase in adoption, with a 25-fold increase in sign-ups from restaurants in June compared to February, and sevenfold increase in sign-ups from hotels. There has also been an increase in the number of customers actually scanning the QR codes, which Engelking puts down to them being implemented for more useful functions.

Many restaurants and hotels are using QR codes to display menus, or to direct people to booking pages where they can order food or reserve rooms directly online. They are also starting to be used to help with contact tracing—keeping a record of who has been where in order to identify those who may have come into contact with the virus. The NHS Test and Trace service’s new app, which is currently entering trials, will allow users to scan a QR code at venues in order to keep a log of where they’ve been. Currently, venues on the Isle of Wight are able to create a QR code to work with the Test and Trace system.

Some offices are also turning to the tech to help with bringing people back to work. Software company SAP, which has reopened two of its buildings with a very limited capacity, has incorporated QR codes into its broader strategy of signage, sanitizer, and distancing, in order to inform employees of updates. Scanning the QR code takes employees to information on the latest procedures and processes in place at the office.

Facilities manager Sarah Woodman says the QR code approach means the company doesn’t have to print out so many materials and results in a touch-free experience. “People don’t have to touch things—they’ve got their own phone, they can scan it, they can touch their own phone.” One other advantage is that you can easily update the information that the QR code leads to without changing the code itself. When SAP started using a different parking lot, for instance, Woodman was able to inform employees simply by tweaking the text that the QR code pointed to.

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Makeup Classes Have Gone Virtual—and We Tried One Out

Brick-and-mortar stores have had to come up with creative ways to reach customers during the coronavirus pandemic. For beauty retailers, that means connecting with their customers virtually.

Brands like Ashley Adams Beauty, Noleen Sliney, and Blushington, which offered in-studio and on-location makeup applications pre-pandemic, are now offering a variety of lessons over Zoom. I tried an hour-long course from Blushington and spoke to various makeup artists and beauty companies to see whether virtual classes are worth it, or if you’re better off watching a free YouTube tutorial.

Going Virtual

You might not wear as much makeup if most of your time is spent at home, but for some, it’s still a necessity. For me, makeup has always been a way to relax. Makeup artist Jennifer Duvall of JennySue Makeup says (in a Medium article) that putting on makeup allows her to have an outlet for creativity, a regular routine, and it helps build focus.

Duvall transitioned to private virtual lessons early in the pandemic. She’s been pleasantly surprised by the results. “I thought I could only do my private makeup lessons in person, which looking back now, actually limited me to just locals in and around Athens and the Atlanta, Georgia, area,” Duvall tells WIRED. “Already I have worked with women as far as Illinois, Arizona, to Rhode Island.”

Strangely enough, virtual lessons can also feel more hands-on and interactive. Where Duvall might have done half a client’s face in person before the pandemic and guided them the rest of the way, customers now have to make up their entire face themselves while watching Duvall through a screen. The extra practice, she believes, helps them learn quicker.

“It’s also been really fulfilling to interact and connect with women from all over, which is why I love doing makeup anyway,” Duvall says. “Especially when everything seems so tense and unpredictable right now, applying makeup is something we can control and can be a form of art therapy and self-care.”

YouTube is a great free resource, available at any time of day, with a seemingly endless supply of makeup tutorials and product reviews, but private virtual lessons with an expert are more personal and go a step further. Unlike the in-store experience, where beauticians will use their own pro-grade tools, virtual classes force you to use what’s already in your home, making it easier to re-create specific looks later on.

“One-on-one services and lessons allow for complete customization and personalized attention,” says Jackie Zupsic, a spokesperson for Glamsquad, an Uber-like service that offers on-demand beauty services with a focus on makeup, nail, and hair care. “Our [in-person] makeup tutorials, for example, allow clients to choose the specific skill, trend, or feature they want to learn, and Glamsquad’s beauty pros will demonstrate the technique on one side of your face and guide you in finishing the other.”

Glamsquad had to cease its operations early during the pandemic but also began offering virtual lessons. It has begun sending beauty experts back into people’s homes, though both clients and beauty professionals are now required to wear a face-covering during service. Makeup is still prohibited, and beauticians are required to wear gloves and a disposable apron. They must also get a Barbicide certification and follow Barbicide’s Covid-19 protocols.

Virtual one-on-one services might actually improve on the retail store experience. Depending on where you lived pre-pandemic, you may not have received the best beauty advice. Some Mac or Sephora employees might be professionals, but many are just people who like makeup, and they may not know the best tips for a diverse clientele.

Beauty Works

I took a virtual lesson with Blushington, a makeup store with locations in Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York City. The company offers 30-minute classes for $25, hour-long classes for $50, as well as packages and group options. You can choose from a few categories, like a crash course in skin care, learning how to do everyday makeup, or focusing on just your eyes. Or you can opt for a custom lesson if there’s something specific you really want to know, like finally mastering that popular chiseled look without looking muddy and cakey.

Makeup Classes Have Gone Virtualand We Tried One Out
Photograph: Blushington

I’m no expert, but I’ve been wearing makeup since middle school. I like to think I’ve got the basics down, including eye shadow. But my Blushington teacher, Sloane, showed me a technique I’ve never seen before. Instead of putting my transition shade directly on my crease and following the natural curve, she suggested I put it just above the crease and make almost a straight line out for my slightly hooded eyes. It instantly made my eyes look bigger and more refreshed.

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