Google powers up assistive tech in Android with facial gesture-powered shortcuts and switches

Making smartphones more accessible is always a good idea, and Google’s latest features bring quick actions and navigation to people whose expressions are their primary means of interacting with the world. Project Activate and Camera Switches let users perform tasks like speaking a custom phrase, or navigating using a switch interface, through facial gestures alone.

The new features rely on the smartphone’s front-facing camera, which can watch the user’s face in real time for one of six expressions: a smile, raised eyebrows, opened mouth and looking left, right or up. It relies entirely on local computing and no image data is saved, nor is it doing what is generally understood as “facial recognition” — this type of machine learning can focus specifically on, for example, identifying the eyebrows and sending a signal whenever they move past a certain, customizable threshold.

Each expression can be assigned a different role. Camera Switches integrates with Android’s existing switch compatibility, by which people who use assistive tech like a joystick or blow tube can navigate the phone’s OS. Now that can be done without any peripheral device at all, and users can pick various facial gestures for iterating through selections, confirming a choice, backing out, and so on.

Image Credits: GoogleUsing Project Activate, expressions can be tied to self-contained actions like speaking a phrase. Many people with disabilities rely on caretakers for a variety of reasons, but one thing you can’t ask a caretaker to do is get your caretaker’s attention! So one useful application might be assigning (say) an extended eyebrow raise to have the device speak the phrase “hey!” or “I need help with something,” or “thanks!”

The gestures can also be used to play an audio file, or text or call a predetermined number. More expressions and more capabilities are on the way, as well as more languages — of course faces don’t have languages, but the app and support documentation do, so Project Activate will start with English-speaking countries and move out from there. Camera Switches, on the other hand, will be available in 80 languages from the start.

Note that these can’t both be used at once, since they both require access to the camera and expression recognition thing. So users should make sure they have a backup method for navigation. Both should run on pretty much any Android phone from the last five years or so.

Lastly, an update to Google’s Lookout app, which reads labels for people with visual impairments, adds the ability to scan and read out handwritten content the way it can with printed things. That’s useful for sticky notes, “gone fishing” type signs on the doors of stores, and things like greeting cards with notes from the sender. The app has seen big increases in usage over the last year so they’re building it out. (Support for identifying euro and Indian rupee banknotes should help fuel that growth too.)

All the new stuff should be available later this week free of charge.

Europe will finally legislate for a common charger for mobiles

EU lawmakers are finally set to standardize charging ports for consumer electronics devices like smartphones and tablets — announcing a proposal today that, once adopted, will see the region settle on USB-C as a universal charging port for gadgets which will also include cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld videogames consoles.

Some smaller consumer electronics devices — like smart watches and fitness bands — are being excluded owing to factors like their size and conditions of use.

The Commission plan will also see regional lawmakers unbundle the sale of chargers from mobiles so they are not automatically included in the box.

Fast charging standards will also be harmonized under the proposal — while device makers will have requirements to provide users with “relevant information about charging performance”, including info on the power required and if a device supports fast charging.

“This will make it easier for consumers to see if their existing chargers meet the requirements of their new device or help them to select a compatible charger,” the Commission notes, going on to suggest that the full package of measures will help consumers limit the number of new chargers they buy and help them save €250 million a year on unnecessary charger purchases.

In its announcement of the proposal, the Commission acknowledges that the “voluntary approach” it has pursued for over a decade — attempting to nudge the electronics industry toward a common standard through mechanisms like a Memorandum of Understanding — has failed to deliver the sought-for standard, with still three different types of mobile phone chargers in play for instance.

The wider aim here is to make a meaningful dent in the global e-waste mountain by reducing a portion generated by the consumer electronics sector — with the Commission noting, for example, that consumers already own around three mobile phone chargers on average, of which they use two on a regular basis. Ergo, there’s simply no call for device makers to put a new charger in the box every time.

Disposed of unused chargers are estimated to represent some 11,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, the Commission adds.

One of the non-standard chargers still on the mobile market belongs to the iPhone maker Apple, of course — which has resisted pressure to put a standard port in its devices — so a pan-EU law to enforce a universal charger could force the tech giant to finally abandon its proprietary Lightning port.

For years, Apple has presided over a sprawling and doubtless highly lucrative accessories business rather than switch to more standard ports on its devices. Indeed, sometimes it has even removed standard ports — deleting the 3.5mm headphone jack off of the iPhone, for instance. It means that users of Apple’s devices typically have to purchase dongles if they wish to gain access to more standard ports — generating yet more future e-waste.

Whether the EU’s legislative proposal will actually outlaw Apple’s dongle-based workaround to embedded universality remains to be seen. (We’ve put the question to the Commission.)

Commenting on the Commission proposal in a statement, Margrethe Vestager, its EVP for digital strategy, said: “European consumers were frustrated long enough about incompatible chargers piling up in their drawers. We gave industry plenty of time to come up with their own solutions, now time is ripe for legislative action for a common charger. This is an important win for our consumers and environment and in line with our green and digital ambitions.”

In a mirror statement, Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for internal market, added: “Chargers power all our most essential electronic devices. With more and more devices, more and more chargers are sold that are not interchangeable or not necessary. We are putting an end to that. With our proposal, European consumers will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics – an important step to increase convenience and reduce waste.”

The EU’s other institutions — the European Parliament and Council — will still need to back the proposal in order for it to become law. Although the European Parliament has long expressed frustration with the Commission’s failure to deliver a common charging standard — and voted overwhelmingly for tougher action on the issue last year — so MEPs will likely be keen to make a pan-EU law on this happen.

Even so, there won’t be a radical change overnight. The Commission has suggested a transition period of 24 months from the data of adoption of the legislative — so even if the Parliament and Council quickly agree to the plan it will still be years, plural, before device makers have to comply.

The Commission’s PR notes that it wants to give industry “ample time” to adapt to the planned law change, even though the sector has had over a decade of pressure on exactly this issue.

A further step will be needed for Europe to get the common charger solution the Commission wants — with more harmonization required to ensure interoperability of the external power supply. Legislators say that piece will be dealt with by the review of the Ecodesign Regulation — slated to be launched later this year with the aim of it also entering into force at the same time as the common charger port requirement.

In an FAQ on the latter proposal, the Commission answers its own question on why it’s taken it so long to grasp the legislative nettle with this issue, writing that it had initially sought to continue with a more “ambitious” voluntary approach in the hopes that the sector would engage. However, it said proposals put forward by the industry “fell short” — and would not have delivered a common charging solution.

Legislators learning that they do actually need to legislate looks like an important lesson as the world gears up to tackle other existential environmental challenges — like climate change and microplastics pollution.

Sofar and DARPA look to standardize ocean monitoring gadgets with Bristlemouth

The ocean is important to countless industries, but we still only have a rough idea of what it’s like as a whole at any given time. To foster a new generation of ocean-monitoring floats and other devices, Sofar Ocean Technologies and DARPA are publishing an open hardware standard called Bristlemouth so that researchers will have an off-the-shelf option rather than wasting their precious grant dollars solving the same engineering problems from scratch.

Sofar calls itself a “real-time ocean intelligence platform,” which you might think of as a sort of weather service for the seven seas. Unlike the atmosphere, however, the ocean is not easy to remotely observe with satellites and radar — you need to have hundreds, perhaps thousands of devices actually out there bobbing on the waves to understand its motions, salinity, pollutant levels, temperature and so on.

While the company has its own line of business maintaining a network of its own floats, which produce valuable data it can sell to a variety of interested parties, it also wants to advance the ocean-sensing industry in general, and CTO Evan Shapiro suggests that one of the best ways to do so is to create an open hardware and software standard.

Sofar’s interface for showing currents and other ocean conditions. Image Credits: Sofar Ocean Technologies

The lack of a hardware connectivity standard is a huge hindrance to development and innovation. Today, a large portion of budgets allocated to development of new ocean technologies are spent toward resolving fundamental technical bottlenecks — power, data and communications connectivity — rather than on actual ocean innovation,” Shapiro told TechCrunch.

It’s very similar to the way space companies have begun to coalesce around the idea of a few standard buses and spacecraft. If you want to observe space dust or measure radiation outside the atmosphere or some other research goal, you want to spend your time and money on those instruments, not on building a spacecraft. Just as Rocket Lab and others are betting people would rather buy and customize a standard spacecraft than reinvent the wheel, Sofar thinks researchers focusing on the ocean would prefer to focus on their key technologies.

“People rarely want to build a float with power systems, satellite telemetry, GPS and a dolphin-detecting hydrophone. They primarily want to build the dolphin-detecting hydrophone, but in today’s environment (given the lack of hardware standards) they end up having to build the rest from scratch too. Sofar’s commercial adoption and support of Bristlemouth is vital to kick-starting value in the ecosystem,” Shapiro said, though he noted that others have attempted this before. “We’re not the first to recognize the need for standardization, nor the first to take a credible go at it. We are the first to do so as a large-scale commercial platform provider (there’s a reason USB came from Intel, IBM and Microsoft and not a white paper out of Berkeley), and we’re doing so in partnership with some of the most influential movers in the domain.”

A prototype device to demonstrate the Bristlemouth standard sits on a rusty dock. Image Credits: Sofar Ocean Technologies

Among those movers are DARPA, the Office of Naval Research and conservation organization Oceankind. All involved agree that more data coming from ocean sensing can only be a good thing for science and industry.

As for the standard itself, the details aren’t particularly exciting in consumer tech terms — it’s not a kit or reference model (the image at top is one of Sofar’s own smart buoys, though there is overlap) but mainly a hardware-software suite focusing on modularity and interoperability. The idea isn’t that you buy a Bristlemouth Basic and upgrade it, but rather that many in the industry design to a shared standard that covers basic steps like power management, communication and so on, and ensures resulting devices can work together easily. There’s more information available at the official Bristlemouth site.

Ocean intelligence will be a major part of any industry touching the sea, from kelp farming to roboshipping to climate change monitoring. If something like Bristlemouth can mitigate the data scarcity that limits these domains, the “blue economy” will be able to take off earlier and more safely.

Carbix spins emissions into gold — or at least useful minerals

Pollutants pouring from smokestacks around the world may be bad news for the atmosphere, but if you catch them before they get out there, you could reduce emissions and collect some valuable materials at the same time. That’s what Carbix aims to do with its carbon-sequestering reactor, which would extract minerals from emissions while staying carbon negative.

Carbix, which presented today at the Disrupt Startup Battlefield, is capitalizing on the pressure being placed on industries to decarbonize or face fines and high taxes. Cement manufacturing alone accounts for some 8%  of carbon emissions, and executives are scrambling to go green.

It turns out that minerals needed for cement and many other industries are being literally thrown away — puffed out of flues and allowed to settle wherever they drift. In fact, these minerals are valuable enough that Carbix can afford to pay factories for the privilege of siphoning them off and reselling them.

“We’re essentially paying emitters for stock they would normally dump into the wind — they have no incentive not to do this,” said Carbix founder Quincy Sammy.

The process is an accelerated version of what happens in nature: atmospheric carbon dioxide interacting with certain abundant minerals and slowly forming other ones — like calcium carbonate, limestone. Turning CO2 into stone is the basis of several startups in what we might call the permanent carbon sequestering market; Heimdal does it using seawater and 44.01 is injecting high-carbon water into fields of reactive minerals. Carbix, of course, is going to artificial sources.

Image Credits: Carbix

It works like this: Carbix goes to a big emitter of CO2 and particulates and analyzes the stream being blown out. From that they can predict what carbonate minerals they can isolate and what they’ll need to do it. Then the output of the facility will be routed through one of Carbix’s reactors, in which the various effluvia are combined with raw reactive minerals — gypsum, lime kiln dust and others sourced from nearby to lower the logistics impact — and out come useful substances like ingredients for making cement, glass and other things. They cart those off and sell the raw materials that would have otherwise disappeared into the atmosphere (and eventually landed on a glacier somewhere).

The reactor, currently in a scale prototype called X1, is the most obviously defensible IP here, and Sammy said that the bulk of the seed round they’re putting together will go toward building the production-scale X2, which will have several hundred times the reactor space. Each X2 should be able to handle about 16,000 tons of carbonates per year per reactor, which corresponds to about 8,000 tons of CO2. They can operate in parallel, and Sammy estimated that a good size emitter might use 10 at a single facility.

Prototype of the X1 reactor. The X2 will be larger by an order of magnitude at least.

Prototype of the X1 reactor. The X2 will be larger by an order of magnitude at least. Image Credits: Carbix

The simplest arrangement would be for the emitter to pay for the upfront costs of the installation, with the understanding of mutual benefits to come. Carbix would then regularly pay for the materials it extracts — a double benefit since the emitter would normally not earn any money on them but the emissions would count toward caps. Sammy didn’t rule out profit sharing or other agreements but this would be the preferred setup.

“We’re breaking new ground with these companies, so reciprocity is key,” Sammy said. And while cement manufacturing is the first vertical they’re targeting, the Carbix process can be adapted to plenty of other industries.

“We don’t want to be tied to any specific sector — flue gas is flue gas. That’s why the project is end to end; we guide people through it. We’re demonstrating that we can work in any industry,” he explained.

As with any hardware company working at industrial scales, there are a lot of upfront costs. Carbix is working on a seed round to cover the expense of building and certifying the X2 reactor so it can be insured and financed through ordinary channels. After that comes the reciprocal back-scratching arrangements that benefit everyone involved.

GM’s OnStar is bringing its emergency service to the home with Amazon Alexa

Owners of Alexa devices will soon be able to use OnStar’s emergency services from their homes, under an expanded partnership between OnStar’s parent company General Motors and Amazon.

OnStar already expanded OnStar Guardian earlier this year with the introduction of the Guardian app, which lets customers access the service via their mobile device. This latest expansion will now bring customers’ voice-enabled home devices into that ecosystem.

While a customer could theoretically use the Guardian app inside their home today, GM’s head of Product Jeff Wajer told TechCrunch in a recent interview that there are many instances where people don’t have their phones on them but nevertheless may need to access emergency help. He noted that people with different accessibility levels, who may be unable to use a phone, could nevertheless shout for help using the OnStar-Alexa integration.

The integration will be rolled out gradually, first to an initial cohort of existing OnStar customers and then more broadly in 2022. Compatible Alexa devices include the Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Show. GM declined to provide further details on how many customers will have initial access to the service, or how much it might cost, but Wajer did say there would be an initial free trial for OnStar customers in the first cohort.

OnStar Guardian is available to customers regardless of whether they drive a GM vehicle. However, this is not GM’s first collaboration with Amazon. The company has already introduced Amazon Alexa to the infotainment systems of select vehicles, and this newest partnership marks a strengthening of the ties between the two companies.

It’s also an indication that the automaker is seeking to strengthen its software and subscription businesses beyond the vehicle itself. The new offering “demonstrates GM’s commitment to its growth strategy and innovating its software enabled services,” the automaker’s VP of global innovation, Pam Fletcher, said in a statement.