Oh hey, Google just announced the Pixel Fold

Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend like the entire world didn’t know this was happening next week, but is a bit of theatrics too much to ask? Google learned a few years back that the best way to juice a product hype cycle is to “leak” the thing yourself, and here here we are, facing down a tweet that leaves very little to the imagination. The short video shows the company’s upcoming Pixel Foldable unfolding slowly from every conceivable angle.

Google’s using Star Wars Day as an excuse to fire up the old hype train, but the truth of the matter is it’s priming up the pump with less than a week before it returns to Shoreline for an in-person I/O. There were already a LOT of leaks and rumors floating around, so the company just went ahead and took matters into its own hands. There’s also an official Pixel Fold page where you can sign up for news and the like. There’s still some information that hasn’t been made official, including pricing and release date.

Image Credits: Google

As seen above, all previous leaks appear to have more or less been on the money. As the name implies, the form factor is more Samsung Galaxy Z Fold than Samsung Galaxy Z Flip — that is to say, more book than clamshell. The dimensions on the other hand, appear a bit closer to Oppo’s recent foldable, or even Microsoft’s bygone Surface Duo.

Google has, of course, been laying the groundwork for its entry into space for a few years now. The company has been working closely with Samsung to create a version of Android that scales well to a foldable form factor. As evidenced by this year’s Mobile World Congress, the age of the foldable as a fringe device appears to be over. The list of big device makers that don’t have a foldable is growing shorter by the month — and even they are most likely working on their own version as we speak.

The design language is in line with the rest of the Pixel device line, including the familiar camera bar, which houses multiple-rare facing lenses. There’s no visible internal camera, which means the company is either doing one under display (unlikely), or it’s using that fairly sizable bezel real estate to hide it.

Image Credits: Google

The front facing screen looks larger, as well, thought it’s difficult to determine how close it gets to edge-to-edge, given that the video show a dark clock face — perhaps by design. There does appear to be a visible crease on the inside screen, which showcases Android’s familiar Material UI design language. We can see power and volume buttons on the metal edge and speaker grilles up top. We don’t get a good view of the bottom, but it’s pretty safe to say we’re working with USB-C here. Over all, the device also looks quite thin — which is especially important for a foldable.

Google India also recently confirmed the budget 7A’s May 11 release date. We’re also expecting a lot more info on the Pixel Tablet, which was officially announced at last year’s event. So, will there be surprises at I/O? Maybe. Though that’s seeming less likely for the Pixel line by the day. We’ll know for sure when the event kicks off May 10 at 10AM PT.

Read more about Google I/O 2023 on TechCrunch

Oh hey, Google just announced the Pixel Fold by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Japan’s biggest drone maker sets its sights on the US

This week, ten-year-old drone company ACSL announced plans to enter the U.S. commercial drone market. The firm has already taken a sizable bite out of the market in its native Japan, with a certification from the country’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, as well as a deal to provide disaster support for the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. It says it’s the country’s largest by headcount, revenue and market cap.

The U.S. is a no-brainer for a company like ACSL. It’s a massive drone market, but government use has been stymied, in part by blacklisting. In October of last year, for instance, the Department of Defense included DJI on a list of “Chinese military companies.” It noted in a release:

The Department is determined to highlight and counter the PRC Military-Civil Fusion strategy, which supports the modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by ensuring its access to advanced technologies and expertise are acquired and developed by PRC companies, universities, and research programs that appear to be civilian entities.

That’s just one in a small list of issues DJI, based in Shenzhen, has faced in the States, as the U.S. government began tightening restrictions during the Trump presidency. Those problems have only continued to mount for the drone maker, which currently commands more than 70% of the global market.

While DJI drones have remained popular among consumers, government contracts have been an entirely different story. The bans have proven a boon for U.S.-based Skydio, which hit a $2.2 billion valuation in February, months after scoring several large government contracts.

This news finds ACSL building out its U.S. team.

“ACSL has been working hard to establish itself in its home market with a lineup that has consistently proven itself as a reliable tool that delivers results,” Global CTO Chris Raabe said in a release. “We began arranging product demos for potential US clients late last year. With the opening of our subsidiary here in California, I am making the US my base, to be personally involved in our activity in the field, meeting these clients, demonstrating our capabilities, and learning about their needs.”

The SOTEN will be the first of ACSL’s products to be available stateside. The folding drone, which hit the Japanese market in 2021, bears more than a passing resemblance to DJI’s popular Mavic line. Exact timeline and pricing have not been announced. The company only says that it “will be offering a competitively priced NDAA compliant small drone to the US market later this year.”

Japan’s biggest drone maker sets its sights on the US by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

Augmental lets you control a computer (and sex toys) with your tongue

Worldwide, about one in six people live with a disability. Whether through injury or illness, disability can manifest itself as an impediment to mobility. There have been fantastic advancements in communication and operational technologies, but there’s always room for improvement, and Augmental, an MIT Media Lab spinoff, thinks that it might be on to something with its newly announced MouthPad.

When you think of assistive devices, you might think of eye-tracking technology, mouth-controlled joysticks or voice recognition assistance. However, as Tomás Vega, one of Augmental’s co-founders, pointed out, many of these devices rely on old tech and — in the case of mouth-controlled joysticks — are obtrusive. They can be exhausting to use, don’t necessarily pay much heed to privacy and they can have other negative impacts, for example, on teeth.

“Augmental has a goal to create an interface that overcomes all those limitations,” says Vega. “Making one that is expressive, and private and seamless and slick. We created a mouth pad which is an internal interface that allows you to control a computer with no hands.”

The Augmental team regards MouthPad’s development as part of the normal progression of technology.

Tongue-controlled gaming is one of the angles Augmental takes into this market. Image Credits: Augmental

“But we can kind of give ourselves the context of just looking at the history of this,” said Corten Singer, co-founder of Augmental. “Mainframe rooms once existed, where the whole room was the computer plugging in actual cables, go to your desktop, or laptops are now with us. Our phones are in our pockets at all times. We have wristwatches that are smart; we’ve got buds in our ears. It’s kind of speaking towards this more seamless human machine integration that is coming in.”

The MouthPad is similar to a dental retainer or plate, but rather than realigning your teeth or holding false ones in place, it provides the opportunity for a wearer to control Bluetooth-connected devices using their tongue. Each MouthPad is created individually using dental scans to ensure that it fits its user perfectly.

“With our super customizable design — the fact that we’re using dental scans — it allows us to be a perfect fit to the user’s anatomy,” said Singer. “We can design a very thin low-profile device that reduces or at least minimizes the impact you have on speech, because in reality, speech interfaces are helpful.”

“Yes, they’re not private, but they’re pretty awesome,” said Singer of speech interfaces. “And we want to design to be complementary with that. Of course we want also to be able to serve as a standalone option, but we don’t want to remove the ability to use the speech interfaces but meet the technology as it currently exists in the landscape, where it’s at and not necessarily interrupting them.” 

Singer described how Augmental’s MouthPad enables eight degrees of freedom to control it. The tongue can operate through the X and Y axes, as well as by deploying pressure. There’re motion sensors that can detect head tracking and activity monitoring. And there’s even a possibility for bites to register as a click.

The wide variety of control options embedded into the MouthPad means that it can be used in conjunction with many different devices. When TechCrunch spoke to the Augmental team, they gave examples from their test users as to how people are making the most of the MouthPad.

“We have gamers that have quadriplegia, and they can only use a joystick,” said Vega. “So in order to play, you need two joysticks, so we were complementing a setup, so they can know strafe and aim at the same time.”

“Then we have another user who is a designer that has issues doing click and drag in very accurate ways,” said Vega. “So we’ve created a clutching gesture so he can click in and click out.”

For work, for play, and for play

But as well as being used for gaming and for work, the MouthPad has also been connected to a sex toy to enable someone with a spinal cord injury to engage in autonomous sex play. Singer explained how some people have been surprised by this use case, but that really, it shouldn’t be regarded as peculiar or extraordinary: it’s a function that helps to make people’s lives better.

“It’s just part of this conversation that we think should be had, you know,” said Singer. “It’s at the core, it’s a theme of universal accessibility and digital equity across the board.” 

So far, the Augmental team has raised pre-seed funding from investors at MIT and Berkeley. It has recently launched its website where it has opened up a waitlist, enabling people to sign up for a MouthPad. There is still a little delay, however.

“We still need to finish our FCC certification before we can ship and sell devices,” said Singer, “putting them into the mouths of our customers.”

The company put together a video demo, in case you want to take a closer lick:

Augmental lets you control a computer (and sex toys) with your tongue by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch

Satellite-to-phone race heats up with voice calls and cross-Canada access

The prospect of contacting a satellite to send a text or contact emergency services may soon be an effortless reality as startups move from proof of concept to actual product. Canadians on the Rogers network, which just inked a deal with Lynk, will get direct satellite-phone connections across the country; and not to be outdone, AST SpaceMobile claims to have made the first satellite voice call using a regular cell phone as well.

Connecting a stock smartphone like last year’s Samsung or iPhone to a satellite would have sounded like a fantasy a few years ago, when we all knew it was impossible. But now companies are jostling for position as it becomes clear that satellite services will be a compelling offering on any mobile plan or phone model over the next few years.

Lynk’s approach is to offer as universal as possible an SMS service to as much of the planet as possible, in the hopes that no one who needs help or is off the grid for any other reason will ever have to face “no signal.” It has demonstrated texting from the middle of nowhere (in fact the founder texted me) and also can blanket an area unexpected without signal — due to a power outage or natural disaster — with crucial info like where to find shelter.

The company has been striking deals across the world with various carriers, and is now at the very doorstep of the U.S. (which has a tough regulatory environment and entrenched mobile players) with a deal with Canada’s biggest provider, Rogers.

Although the idea is that everyone will be able to use this, every satellite cellular station still needs to operate through a licensed carrier. The Rogers deal doesn’t necessarily mean total exclusivity (for example, you’re lost and need help but have a different carrier) but Lynk CEO Charles Miller told me it’s not always simple to figure out who does and doesn’t have access.

“Every country is a little different,” he said. “Sometimes there’s technical limitations. They have national roaming in Canada, so perhaps it works out, our goal is to provide those services to everybody, but for now it’s TBD.” Here’s hoping the non-Rogers subscribers up there (and god knows they have their reasons) can get access if they need it.

Bringing an alternative connectivity package to the table is AST SpaceMobile, which has launched its first test satellite and for the first time demonstrated a direct phone-to-satellite call using an unmodified consumer handset. I double checked (this stuff can be tricky) and this was a continuous two-way connection between the phone and the satellite, which relayed it to the terrestrial network:

Abel’s phone in Texas was connected directly to the satellite for both send and receive two-way communications, without any other intermediary. He made the phone call by typing in the number to the regular Samsung dial app on the Galaxy S22, just like you would make any regular phone call. The other end of the phone call in Japan was received via the normal terrestrial communications network (a cell tower).

Demonstrating the capability, even in 2G (as an AT&T rep described it to The Verge) is a big step forward, since the engineering involved in getting a regular phone to connect with something in low Earth orbit is already difficult — maintaining a continuous connection is even harder. Scaling is yet another problem that AST SpaceMobile will face, but having proven the capability, that challenge probably seems less daunting now.

The company’s BW3 satellite is the prototype for a constellation that will provide “2G, 3G, 4G LTE and 5G” coverage from space, though they only have the first of those working just now. Let’s hope for great success, because I lose 5G just going down the block. Help me out, AST SpaceMobile.

Of course Apple has made headlines with its emergency SOS service, which connects to the Iridium network but requires you to sort of sight your phone on a passing satellite in order to exchange a set of mostly premade messages. Useful if you’re stuck in a canyon and need a helicopter to scoop you up, but not if you want to check the weather or tell your spouse your backpacking trip is going fine.

And then there’s T-Mobile and SpaceX, which plan to provide a Starlink data connection to the network’s customers. While no one can gainsay Starlink’s ability to provide a signal from orbit, it has not yet demonstrated an orbital connection to an unmodified phone, something it supposedly will do this year.

Pretty soon these services will graduate from experiment to line item and we’ll be back to the days when texts cost a dime each. Still, it’s better than nothing, and that’s definitely what a lot of people have once they leave the city to take a hike or go fishing. Let’s hope the connection stays on-demand, though — no one needs to get spam messages from orbit while they’re waiting for the trout to bite in a remote mountain lake. That’s not a future anyone wants.

Satellite-to-phone race heats up with voice calls and cross-Canada access by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Researchers develop tiny hydraulic haptics for touchscreen notifications you can physically feel

If you find smartphone notifications annoying enough already thanks to their skill at exploiting the full range of distraction options available, whether dropping a banner from above or sprinkling pox-like red balls over your homescreen icons so as to lodge like grit in the eye, you should prepare yourself for even less subtle demands bubbling into your eye-line in the future if novel research into flat panel haptics ends up being commercialized by mobile device makers.

Think notifications that create a physical bulge in the screen of your smartphone — making the update icon stick out or even pulse lightly like the proverbial sore thumb until you press with your own digit to remove the unsightly wrinkle.

On the less dystopian side, touchscreens with the ability to be dynamically tactile could have accessibility benefits by enabling form and texture to co-exist with the utility of flat panel computing — for instance by providing people with visual impairment with physical signals to help identify key on-screen content (paired with the necessary software to power such a use-case in existing apps and interfaces of course).

The ever inventive Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University is behind the research into what they describe as “embedded electroosmotic pumps for scalable shape displays”. The main break-through they’re claiming here is squeezing the hydraulics-based haptics into a thin enough panel that it can be sequestered behind an OLED screen — such as those found on modern smartphones.

Their work is detailed in this research paper (PDF) — and demoed in the below video:


While bulging notifications might not be the average smartphone users’ idea of futuristic mobile computing heaven, the researchers suggest the prototype tech could allow for dynamic interfaces on other types of devices so that buttons and signals appear at the point of necessity — say power, play and track progress on a music player — rather than having to fit in lots of physical knobs and dials.

They also trail the idea of the flat panel haptics tech enabling the return of keyboard physicality to touchscreen smartphones.

Long time mobile industry watchers may recall that BlackBerry-maker RIM, a company which dominated the mobile arena in the pre-iPhone touchscreen era with its designed-for-email physical keyboard handsets, actually tried something like this all the way back in 2008.

The ill fated BlackBerry Storm, as the ‘turducken’ handset was named, combined a touchscreen with embedded physical haptics — the screen literally clicked as you pressed — in a bit to recreate the sensation of pressing real keys on a physical-Qwerty-free touchscreen handset.

The problem was, er, the experience basically sucked. It was neither fish nor foul, as the saying goes. So whether lots of mobile makers will be rushing to embed electroosmotic pumps into their handsets just to have another bite at keyboard physicality in the era of touchscreen computing seems debatable.

Although tablets seem a much more interesting use-case. (And, beyond that, the general idea of squeezing more attention-grabbing bells and whistles into roughly the same physical space will surely have takers.)

Add to that, RIM’s attempt to implement a touchscreen keyboard with physicality some fifteen years ago was clearly lacking the fine-grained tactility needed for the tech to perform usefully in a typing context, since the company apparently just stuck a single button under the screen’s backplate.

Whereas the researchers point out their electroosmotic pumps can be as small as 2mm in diameter (and up to 10mm), with each pump being individually controllable (akin to pixels) and supporting fast update rates. This suggests that a flexible touchscreen combined with an array of their miniaturized hydraulics could be a lot more dynamic and versatile (and thereby potentially useful) than was possible with the sorts of mechanical mechanisms available for pairing back in the day.

So there is still a chance that RIM’s BlackBerry Storm was simply ahead of its time.

Researchers develop tiny hydraulic haptics for touchscreen notifications you can physically feel by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch