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Augmented reality startup hires Steve Mann, world starts paying attention

My main point of skepticism aboutGoogle Glass is not whether it can do what it claims to (it can) but whether we care. Smartphones have had voice controls for a long time, and headsets have been hands-free for even longer. I have never wanted to use Siri when she was in my hand, and I don’t think that would change if she were perched on my face. So when a Kickstarter for a product called Meta started up, saddled with the inevitable label of “Glass killer,” the world didn’t quite care. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I came to pay to attention to the product at all — that’s when Meta announced that it hired Steve Mann as its head scientist.

Steve Mann Meta

For those who don’t know, Steve Mann is sometimes referred to as the “father of wearable computing.” He’s been involved in the field of computational photography for as long as the field has existed, and his famous skull-grafted Digital Eye device has earned him the (disputed) title of the world’s first cyborg. There is essentially no name to drop that could carry more weight for a fledgling cyborg technology. Mann’s street-cred means that, if nothing else, Meta must have at least some features worth getting excited about.

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IBM cracks open a new era of computing with brain-like chip: 4096 cores, 1 million neurons, 5.4 billion transistors

Scientists at IBM Research have created by far the most advanced neuromorphic (brain-like) computer chip to date. The chip, called TrueNorth, consists of 1 million programmable neurons and 256 million programmable synapses across 4096 individual neurosynaptic cores. Built on Samsung’s 28nm process and with a monstrous transistor count of 5.4 billion, this is one of the largest and most advanced computer chips ever made. Perhaps most importantly, though, TrueNorth is incredibly efficient: The chip consumes just 72 milliwatts at max load, which equates to around 400 billion synaptic operations per second per watt — or about 176,000 times more efficient than a modern CPU running the same brain-like workload, or 769 times more efficient than other state-of-the-art neuromorphic approaches. Yes, IBM is now a big step closer to building a brain on a chip.

IBM's TrueNorth chip, and a few friends, in an SMP setup

The animal brain (which includes the human brain, of course), as you may have heard before, is by far the most efficient computer in the known universe. As you can see in the graph below, the human brain has a “clock speed” (neuron firing speed) measured in tens of hertz, and a total power consumption of around 20 watts. A modern silicon chip, despite having features that are almost on the same tiny scale as biological neurons and synapses, can consume thousands or millions times more energy to perform the same task as a human brain. As we move towards more advanced areas of computing, such as artificial general intelligence and big data analysis — areas that IBM just happens to be deeply involved with — it would really help if we had a silicon chip that was capable of brain-like efficiency.

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Samsung unveils standalone Gear S 3G smartwatch: Awesome, until the battery runs out after an hour

Whether you like it or not, it seems this fall will be all about the smartwatch. This morning, following LG’s tease of the round-faced (but awfully named) G Watch R, Samsung has unveiled the curved Gear S — the first major smartwatch with its own 3G connection, allowing it to send/receive calls and generally act as an internet-connected smart device without being paired to a nearby smartphone. And on top of all that, it seems Apple will unveil an iWatch alongside the iPhone 6 at its September 9 event. Is the world ready for a standalone smartwatch? Do we even have the battery technology to allow a 3G smartwatch to run for more than a few hours?

Samsung Gear S smartwatch, white and black, front and back

The Samsung Gear S is the company’s first standalone smartwatch, using a built-in 3G connection to make/receive calls and texts, and to pull down notifications, emails, and so on from the internet. The Gear S, like the Gear 2 and Gear Neo, runs the Tizen operating system. The smartwatch will come preloaded with S Health, Nike+ Running, and Nokia’s Here maps for navigation. There are a ton of sensors that allow the Gear S to act as a fitness band, as well as something that vaguely resembles a very small smartphone. With Google wading into the wearables arena with Android Wear, I have a feeling that Tizen smartwatches won’t be around for long.

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Apple’s iWatch is finally coming in September: Are you ready for the wearable revolution?

After years of rumors, leaks, and false starts, it seems the stars will finally swing into alignment this fall: Apple is will unveil an iWatch smartwatch alongside a new large-screen iPhone 6 at an event on September 9, according to the latest reports. Presumably the iWatch will also be released to the public alongside the iPhone 6 a week or two later. Previous rumors had pointed to an October unveil for the iWatch, but it seems Apple has moved it forward — possibly in response to the Samsung Gear S, LG G Watch R, and the Moto 360, all of which will be released over the next month or two. Just as the iPhone and iPad popularized the smartphone and tablet, will the arrival of the iWatch signal the beginning of the wearable computing revolution?

Apple iWatch concept

Over the last couple of months, Apple’s (AAPL) stock price has been buoyed by Wall Street’s belief that, at long last, a new segment-defining device was on its way. Last week Apple’s stock price finally rose back above its September 2012 peak. It would seem that, after a couple of years of uncertainty — the echo of Steve Jobs’ death, essentially — the stock market finally thinks that Apple is ready to do more than just squeeze its iPhone cash cow for billions of dollars in profits every quarter.

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Apple Watch vs. Android Wear: Which wearable will win the wrist war?

Apple gave us “one more thing” at its product announcement earlier this week, and just as expected, it was a smartwatch. The Apple Watch unveiling comes a few months afterAndroid Wear devices started hitting the market, and that might have contributed to the state of the presentation — the Apple Watch isn’t done yet. It won’t be on sale until next year, but Apple apparently felt it had to show us how it was approaching wrist computing, and it’s much different than Android Wear. Is either approach any better, though?

Watches

Notifications

Both Google and Apple agree that smartwatches are not phones and should not be treated as such. However, they can take over from your phone in a few important ways. Probably the most common use for watches is as a notification center for your wrist. Apple Watch and Android Wear are able to automatically display the notifications that appear on your phone, which saves you from pulling the phone out of your pocket.

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Microsoft will release a smartwatch (or fitness band) in the next few weeks

Microsoft will launch its first foray into modern wearable computing in the next few weeks, according to the usual “sources” close to the project. Depending on which source you listen to, Microsoft’s wearable is either a smartwatch with fitness band functionality, or a fitness band with limited smartwatch capabilities. In either case, the leaks seem to agree that Microsoft’s first modern wearable will have a screen (but maybe not a big one); passively monitor your heart rate (even while you’re asleep); support cross-platform notifications from iOS, Android, and Windows Phone; and that the device will get around two days of use between charges. (The image above is a render; I doubt it’ll actually look like that.)

Microsoft smartwatch, showing Windows Phone style live tile interface

You might not know this, but Microsoft’s hardware and gadget efforts long predate the Surface line of tablets. At the very least, you’ve probably seen a Microsoft keyboard or mouse — but there has also been a large number of other, relatively unknown and unloved devices that were meant to establish a Microsoft beachhead in new markets, but were, almost universally, critical flops. Way back in 1992, Microsoft began its love affair with pen computing — yes, there really were Windows 3.1 devices that were controlled with a stylus. In 2006 there was the Zune media player, and in 2010 the very short-lived Kin mobile phone. And, though very few people actually remember it, in 2004, in partnership with watchmakers like Fossil, Microsoft released some very ill-fated SPOT smartwatches. SPOT used MSN Direct — a wireless network that used FM radio signals — to send data to SPOT devices across the US and Canada.

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Examiner: Wearable tech Google Glass brings a more personalized experience to flying

Virgin Atlantic is taking wearable tech to the skies. USA Today reports that concierges for the airline have today begun wearing Google Glass to aid in the process of checking in passengers. With the information closer than their fingertips, concierges will be able to offer passengers the latest flight, weather and event information. Glass will also offer the valuable ability to translate languages.

The articles states that at some point, the device will also be able to link a person will their food and beverage preferences. Director of information technology for Virgin Atlantic Dave Bulman said, “The whole industry needs to listen to what these passengers are calling for, and keep innovating to bring a return to the golden age of air travel. Flying should be a pleasure, not a chore.’

This project, which was launched with the help of SITA, an information technology company, will last for a six-week trial period. Should everything go well, the program could be extended to other airports.

Do you view this as a luxury experience for travel? Would it disturb you to be called by name by someone you’ve never seen before and have them know your flying preferences? It does give back a sense of importance to passengers but is it more important to recognize that all passenger information is being uploaded and shared by Virgin Atlantic concierges?

As wearable technology expands into use by various members of different professions, its great to see industries that don’t usually adopt technology quickly jump on the bandwagon. But it will also be interesting to see how privacy concerns are met.

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