Withings doubles down on the classy with ScanWatch Horizon

I tried out the brand new Withings ScanWatch about six months ago, and concluded that it was a great smartwatch for people who prioritize their health over wearing a tiny iPhone-like device on their wrists. Today, the French company announced a classier-looking version of the same watch, borrowing design language from dive watches of yore.

As an avid scuba diver, I’m always a little confused by “dive watches”. Sure, the 10-bar water resistance means that you can go to 100 meters (300 ft), which is deeper than any recreational diver would — but if you’re going to those depths, you’d be well advised to bring a real dive computer along. Still, the style is snazzy; the luminescent watch face and the rotating bezel make it look even less like a smart watch, which is a bonus, if you, like me, care about such things.

Carrying a $499 price tag, it isn’t cheap, but with an impressive set of health-focused features and good looks, it’s still reasonably priced. The watch can go up to a month on a single charge, and can run ECGs, heart rate and O2 sensors, activity tracking and sleep tracking.

“The luxury design and robust health features of ScanWatch Horizon are a great complement to the existing ScanWatch line and we are delighted to bring it to the U.S.,” said Mathieu Letombe, CEO of Withings. “Sophisticated health devices that monitor advanced vitals do not have to look like hospital equipment. With the original ScanWatch, the elegant Rose Gold version and now ScanWatch Horizon, we have a style option to meet every fashion preference, social occasion and budget.”

Available in blue and green. Image Credits: Withings.

Indeed. The watches are available from today, priced at $499, and come with blue or green watch face backgrounds.

Apple adds live captions to iPhone and Mac, plus more accessibility upgrades to come

Apple has released a bevy of new accessibility features for iPhone, Apple Watch, and Mac, including a universal live captioning tool, improved visual and auditory detection modes, and iOS access to WatchOS apps. The new capabilities will arrive “later this year” as updates roll out to various platforms.

The most widely applicable tool is probably live captioning, already very popular with tools like Ava, which raised $10 million the other day to expand its repertoire.

Apple’s tool will perform a similar function to Ava’s, essentially allowing any spoken content a user encounters to be captioned in real time, from videos and podcasts to FaceTime and other calls. FaceTime in particular will get a special interface with a speaker-specific scrolling transcript above the video windows.

The captions can be activated via the usual accessibility settings, and quickly turned on and off or the pane in which they appear expanded or contracted. And it all occurs using the device’s built-in ML acceleration hardware, so it works when you have spotty or zero connectivity and there’s no privacy question.

This feature may very well clip the wings of independent providers of similar services, as often happens when companies implement first-party versions of traditionally third-party tools, but it may also increase quality and competition. Having a choice between several providers isn’t a bad thing, and users can easily switch between them if, as seems likely to be the case, Apple’s solution is best for FaceTime while another, like Ava, might excel it in other situations. For instance, Ava lets you save transcripts of calls for review later — not an option for the Apple captions, but definitely useful in work situations.

Screenshots showing Apple watch apps on an iPhone and a multi-person video call transcription.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple Watch apps will get improved accessibility on two fronts. First there are some added hand gestures for people, for instance amputees, who have trouble with the finer interactions on the tiny screen. A pile of new actions available via gestures like a “double pinch,” letting you pause a workout, take a photo, answer a phone call, and so on.

Second, WatchOS apps can now be mirrored to the screens of iPhones, where other accessibility tools can be used. This will also be helpful for anyone who likes the smartwatch-specific use cases of the Apple Watch but has difficulty interacting with the device on its own terms.

Existing assistive tools Magnifier and Sound Recognition also get some new features. Magnifier’s “detection mode” normally lets the user know if either a person or something readable or describable is right in front of them: “person, 5 feet ahead.” Now it has a special “door detection” mode that gives details of those all-important features in a building.

Image of a phone showing information about a door it sees: "Muffin to write home about bakery"

Image Credits: Apple

Door mode, which like the others can be turned on automatically or deactivated at will, lets the user know if the phone’s camera can see a door ahead, how far away it is, whether it’s open or closed, and any pertinent information posted on it, like a room number or address, whether the shop is closed, or if the entrance is accessible.

Sound recognition is a useful option for people with hearing impairments who want to be alerted when, say, the doorbell rings or the oven beeps. While the feature previously had a library of sound types it worked with, users can now train the model locally to pick up on noises peculiar to their household. Given the variety of alarms, buzzers, and other noises we all encounter regularly this should be quite helpful.

Lastly is a thoughtful feature for gaming called Buddy Controller. This lets two controllers act as one so that one person can play a game with the aid of a second, should it be difficult or stressful to do it all themselves. Given the complexity of some games even on mobile, this could be quite helpful. Sometimes I wish I had a gaming partner with a dedicated controller just so I don’t have to deal with some game’s wonky camera.

There are a number of other, smaller updates, such as adjusting the time Siri waits before answering a question (great for people who speak slowly) and extra text customization option sin Apple Books. And VoiceOver is coming to 20 new languages and locations soon as well. We’ll know more about exact timing and availability when Apple makes more specific announcements down the line.

Eridan reinvents a piece of mobile infrastructure and calls up $46M in funding

Most of the time no one has to think about how the mobile networks we all rely on work. But it won’t surprise many to hear that, as is often the case with infrastructure, some pieces are the latest tech and others haven’t changed in decades. Eridan is a well-funded startup aiming to replace one of the latter with fundamentally different hardware approach could make mobile networks an order of magnitude more efficient.

Everywhere you look — or more likely, just above where you look — there are cell towers that connect your phone to the broader internet. You can think of these as being made up of three big pieces: the modem, which exchanges data with the rest of the net; the antenna, which beams out the radio signal in synchrony with dozens or hundreds of devices nearby; and the transceiver, which sits in between and converts the digital data of the modem to the actual RF signal the antenna puts out.

Obviously the modem must change with the times and increase capacity, and it has done so. Likewise the antenna must change to reflect new and repurposed slices of spectrum being used for mobile data. But the transceiver is sort of like a digital-to-analog converter in that its job hasn’t really changed much — data in, signal out.

Recently, however, we have begun to probe the limits of that middle bit, which is a dinosaur in technological terms.

“How that transceiver has powered the antenna hasn’t changed in the last 70 years,” said Eridan co-founder Doug Kirkpatrick. “It’s called a linear amplifier, and that device, that circuit architecture approach is literally at the limit with what 5G is today.”

These amplifiers are essentially analog devices, and due to their fundamental nature, the more power you put into them, the less efficient they are. And over the years the power used has only increased as the number and complexity of signals has grown; 5G transceivers are roughly half as efficient as 4G ones, which were half as efficient as 3G — yet due to spectrum limitations and growing demand, we’ll need far more 5G cells. Even if the difference is only a handful of watts, it adds up very quickly if you plan to cover all populated areas plus highways.

“If you want to get everywhere, it’s like 20 times more radios, and with the efficiency going down too, you’re talking about taking up 50 percent of the U.S.’s electricity,” Kirkpatrick said. “This dog don’t hunt.”

“What we’ve done is something the industry has been after for maybe 30 years, and something every wireless company has pursued, spending billions. If you want everyone to have 5G without melting the planet, we are the absolute only way this happens,” he continued.

Size of a standard pole-based cell and one using Eridan’s tech.

And just what is it exactly that Eridan has done? I hinted at my skepticism that a startup with limited means could leapfrog decades of research by some of the richest companies on the planet.

“Well, we cheated,” Kirkpatrick admitted. One of the founders of the company, Earl McCune, who sadly passed away two years ago during the development process, was among those doing the research at those big telecoms, where his approach never took off. Not to say he took trade secrets with him, of course — they just found a way to make the theory reality outside of the corporate structure.

After meeting during a failed recruitment to do related work for a large company, the founders decided they liked each other enough to pursue the concept independently.

“We did what you’d do, sat down with a bar napkin and a beer,” he recalled, and after filling the think tanks a bit, “It was one of those epiphanies. Everybody’s eyebrows went up and they said, ‘that’s an insane idea… but it might work.’ Then literally the first time we turned it on, it was the most perfect signal you’ve ever seen. We said, ‘how the hell are we going to explain this to anybody?’ ”

How an Eridan unit might look on a featureless pole, in a void.

The advance is in some ways a simple one, like going from vacuum tubes to transistors.

“A linear amplifier is an analog amplifier; since they’re worrying about cost and efficiency, they’ve made the best of a bad bargain: how dirty [i.e. how noisy] can you make the signal and still be efficient? This is fundamental to what linear amplifiers do,” he explained. “We’re a digital switch — we send out an ultra-clean signal. It’s a hundred times smaller and a hundred times cheaper.”

“This type of direct polar architecture, Earl wrote books on it — he was a savant of this kind of approach,” Kirkpatrick said. His other co-founder, Dubravko Babiç, is a materials expert who focuses on gallium nitride, which without delving too far into the details is used in combination with silicon to create high-efficiency chip architectures. The GaN-silicon combo here let them make a jump from around 10% efficiency in installed devices to 50%.

They first collected a $5 million contract from DARPA, thinking it could be used to shrink military radios, but soon realized the tech reached well beyond the defense category, and brought it to telecoms.

The resulting “Miracle” device (which just looks like a normal PCB, by the way) is so dissimilar to existing infrastructure that they’ve had trouble getting prospective companies to understand its qualities. “But a little over a year ago the doubters got everything they needed — we demoed it on top of a mast. You can doubt the tech all you want, but when you light it up on a mast it’s game over,” Kirkpatrick said.

Still, he admitted, the infrastructure market is conservative. These are companies paying huge sums to build millions of installations to serve hundreds of millions of people — they tend to go with what they know works even if there’s a newcomer out there that’s better and cheaper. But a pilot test at Fort Hood should show off Eridan’s 5G small cell capabilities, which assuming all goes well should lead into commercial deployments around the end of 2023.

The Eridan team and their owners. CEO Doug Kirkpatrick is center in a pink shirt.

What likely convinced them, beyond the existential threat of linear amps reaching the theoretical limits of the amount of data they can handle, is the further expandability of Eridan’s tech. It would be enough to make 5G deployments cheaper and better — but what about the next upgrade?

The latest signal protocols coming from mobile data authorities and standard setters involve 8-bit signals pushing 256 QAM — we won’t get into the technical details here either but you can think of it as equivalent to home internet bandwidth. Essentially the more bits you can fit in a given stretch of signal, the more data you can deliver, though as is always the case with wireless, the more risk there is that this increasingly complex and fragile signal doesn’t arrive intact.

As you can imagine, going from analog to digital production of that signal has a huge effect on how effective a transmission is. “Which do you think propagates farther, a clean signal or a dirty signal?” asked Kirkpatrick, obviously rhetorically. The use of GaN allows the system to operate at high voltages, removing the need for an amplifier at all, further improving signal because amplifiers amplify “the crud along with the good” in a dirty signal.

Eridan had an experimental 10-bit, 1024-QAM released by 3GPP working within hours of its release, and has moved on to showing in a lab setting that they can transmit a 16-bit, 64K (i.e. 65,536)-QAM signal. (Trust that people who like wireless protocols will find that number very impressive.)

The promise of being a major part of infrastructure that needs to be built out for a decade and more has clearly activated the check-writing portions of investors’ brains. After the $5 million from DARPA, Eridan has raised a total of $46M between today’s B round announcement and an secret $8M A round. The latest round was led by Capricorn Investment Group, Monta Vista Capital, and Social Capital (which led the A round).

The money will go towards hiring up and manufacturing — “we’re setting up to make tens or hundreds of millions of these things,” said Kirkpatrick. Though he couldn’t name the prospective customers, it’s not hard to imagine the likes of whom would benefit from this hardware. Basically, if you’ve heard them hollering about 5G at some point in the last 5 years, they’re probably on the list.

Commercial deployments should start appearing after the official demonstrations at Ft Hood and elsewhere next year. You probably won’t notice anything — but then again, that’s kind of the point.

DJI’s new Mini 3 Pro drone hits the aerial photography sweet spot

DJI has just introduced a new drone — its most capable ever to squeak under the 250 gram limit that keeps operators free from a whole host of headaches and restrictions for flight (note that local laws and rules still do apply — being small doesn’t mean you can do anything you want). The DJI Mini 3 Pro drone is the first in the series to add that ‘Pro’ moniker, and it does a lot to earn it, making this the best overall value yet in the consumer/enthusiast drone space for people who want portability, affordability and image/video quality.

The Basics

The DJI Mini 3 Pro is still small enough to earn its name, but it is a bit larger than prior iterations. While the drone’s weight comes in at 249 grams with the included standard battery pack, the wingspan in particular is a lot larger than the original Mini in particular, when the arms are extended for flight. This provides additional flight control capabilities, and it only barely changes the drone’s profile when it’s folded for carry, so it’s definitely a welcome design trade-off.

DJI has not only refined the aerial engineering here, they’ve also packed an impressive gimballed 1/1.3 inch sensor camera in the Mini 3 Pro, which can capture images at up to 48MP in RAW format, and record video in 4K at up to 60 fps, with a slow-mo mode that captures 120fps footage at full HD (1080p) resolution.

DJI Mini 3 Pro drone

The new DJI Mini 3 Pro drone in flight

The ‘Pro’ also comes into play with the formats that the Mini 3 Pro offers: You can record video in D-Cinelike mode, which offers a wealth of color information for tuning the color mix of you video to your liking afterwards in programs like DaVinci Resolve. This can give you a cinematic look that is frankly astounding when you consider it’s coming for a drone that slips pretty easily into a jacket pocket.

Another ‘Pro’ feature that DJI has introduced to this size category for the first time: obstacle detection and avoidance. The Mini 3 Pro gets the company’s Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems 4.0, meaning you’re far less likely to have to scale a tree to retrieve it because it got caught up in some branches.

Other features include the ability to pivot the camera via the gimbal to shoot vertical video, making this the ideal TikTok drone, subject tracking, 4x digital zoom (which unlocks some creative video shooting capabilities), panorama shooting and 34 minutes of run time on the standard battery (plus 47 minutes possible on the extended juice of the optional Flight Battery Plus — which also tips you over that 250 gram limit, I should note).

Design

At first glance, the Mini 3 Pro doesn’t deviate much from DJI’s tried-and-tested approach to drone design; it’s a four-rotor aircraft, mostly made up of that central body, with extendable arms and integrated stubby landing gear. There are some big obvious changes vs. prior Minis, however, including at the front of the drone, where the usual bulbous overhang that covers the camera makes way for a scooped out, ‘hammerhead’-like look with the orientation cameras flanking the gimballed 24mm-equivalent, f/1.7 camera below.

The DJI Mini 3 Pro compared to the DJI Mavic Mini

The DJI Mini 3 Pro (right) and the DJI Mavic Mini (left) folded

This probably helps eke out weight savings to allow the Mini 3 Pro to boast its impressive specs while still staying on the fair side of those aviation rule restriction. It also means the drone ships with a larger, more bulbous protective hood attachment to keep the gimbal and camera safe and stable in transit. This was my one knock on the drone’s design — the gimbal is loose when the drone is powered down, which is understandable to protect the motors, but it means you have to fight it to a certain extent to get it to line up correctly with the protective hood before it clips in.

DJI Mini 3 Pro and DJI Mavic Mini

The DJI Mini 3 Pro (right) and the DJI Mavic Mini (left) with arms extended

DJI has obviously learned a lot from years of trying to make the most of the sub-250 gram drone category, however, and it really shows in the Mini 3 Pro. The rotors don’t have the easy removal clips that come on larger models, but once again this is a worthwhile trade-off. For a few minor inconveniences, what you get is a drone that doesn’t require a major packing logistics operation to take along with you — and one that captures images and videos of a quality that won’t leave anyone but the most demanding pro users feeling like they should’ve brought along a beefier machine.

A note here on the controller options — the Mini 3 Pro comes with the RC-N1 controller by default (though there’s a controller-less option as well to save a few bucks if you already have one), which is a great controller in its own right, but which requires you to supply the viewfinder in the form of your connected smartphone. The DJI RC package comes with that brand new controller as well, and if you’re on the fence, you should absolutely go for that one: The DJI RC has a built-in display, and essentially runs an integrated Android phone to operate the DJI Fly app. It’s a very compact and well-designed device, with excellent display quality and so many fewer headaches when it comes to fiddling with hardware smartphone connectors. More about the DJI RC in the next section.

Performance

I’ve already alluded to the quality of the DJI Mini 3 Pro’s image and video capture a few times, but in case it wasn’t clear: This thing more than delivers.

The 48 megapixel images offer new levels of detail and printing options, and the RAW capture means you can really get a lot more out of your still captures when editing after the fact in programs like Lightroom. Images are also much less noisy than they have been from prior iterations of the Mini, owing to the larger sensor and the larger pixel size on the sensor itself. Low-light capture has never been a particular strength of these drones, but DJI has done a good job of prioritizing improvements in that area on the Mini 3 Pro, and it shows.

DJI Mini 3 Pro JPEG from the camera, auto-settings

DJI Mini 3 Pro JPEG from the camera, auto-settings

Auto mode delivers images that really impress, and for most users there’s probably not much reason to delve into manual mode. But for advanced enthusiasts and pros, the manual modes offers the ability to tweak to your heart’s content, which can result in some truly unique captures that stand out from the crowd. Custom image modes including the panorama feature are excellent for unique applications like large-scale prints, and the Mini 3 Pro software makes actually getting good ones a relative breeze.

Speaking of breeze, when it comes to flight control, the Mini 3 Pro seemed to have no problem handling wind with aplomb. One thing I noticed quite a bit on my own OG DJI Mavic Mini was that it was frequently complaining about wind speeds and stability as a result; the Mini 3 Pro, even at altitudes above 400 ft, never gave any indication it was struggling with that particular issue. The days I flew were relatively calm at ground level, so your mileage may vary, but it’s definitely improved vs. previous generation hardware.

DJI Mini 3 Pro sample image, auto-settings

DJI Mini 3 Pro sample image, auto-settings

As much as the DJI Mini 3 Pro is optimized for stills capture, the new video options are a major upgrade vs. what this category could previously do. 4K/60, HDR, full HD 120fps slow-mo, vertical video and the D-Cinelike color profile all add up to a drone that can do it all, whether you’re an amateur filmmaker trying to make the next art-house classic, a YouTuber who puts a premium on production value, or a TikTok creator who wants to add another dimension to their content. Subject tracking works reliably well, and combined with vertical video and modes like the ‘dronie’ aerial selfie capture option, you can dive into a lot of creative options for novel posts on any platform.

As for actually flying the drone, it’s a bit hard to evaluate from the perspective of a newcomer since I’ve now been flying DJI aircraft since the original Mavic. But it definitely feels intuitive and simple, with the added bonus that the obstacle avoidance protections do kick in when large objects get in your way, potentially saving you from an expensive accident.

You can tweak settings like how fast the camera tracks in order to refine the end product and compensate for inexpert or jerky joystick movements, but out of the box the DJI Mini 3 Pro seems tuned to produce good end results for a wide range of users.

As mentioned, the DJI RC controller option also really ups the game in terms of the actual experience of flying the drone. My main headache with DJI drones in the past has been the less-than-elegant experience of connecting a smartphone to the controller, getting everything working properly and settled into the grip optimally. The DJI RC changes that into a truly seamless “it just works” experience, and you can connect the controller to any wifi network (including tethering to your phone in the field) to keep both it and the aircraft up to date with firmware and flight restriction maps. Image quality and live video feed are high-res and excellent, viewable even in direct sunlight, and it’s absolutely not something you can give up once you experience it.

Bottom Line

Along with a boost in performance, DJI’s latest Mini drone also got a fairly significant bump in price: The DJI Mini 3 Pro starts at $669, and that’s without a remote control. $759 will get you the Mini 3 Pro and the RC-N1 (which requires you to bring your own phone). The best option is of course the most expensive one, but I do think it’s the one most people should consider — that’s the DJI Mini 3 Pro plus the DJI RC for $909. As reviewed, my unit also included the DJI Mini 3 Pro Fly More Kit, which provides two more 34-min batteries, a hub to charge all three batteries at once, extra propellers, and a handy shoulder bag that perfectly fits the drone, controller and everything I just mentioned, which is an added $189.

DJI Mini 3 Pro sample image

DJI Mini 3 Pro sample image. JPEG with auto settings

All told, the DJI Mini 3 Pro kit I reviewed costs a total of around $1,100 — nearly double the price of the DJI Mini 2 Fly More combo which still retails for $599. But for what you get, particularly with the improvements to image and video quality, as well as the inclusion of the obstacle avoidance system, that’s well worth the price delta. Ultimately, the Mini 3 Pro is probably better compared to something like the DJI Air 2S, which costs $1,299 for the Fly More combo. With that option, you do get a larger sensor and better, 5.2K video recording, but most users likely won’t appreciate the differences there, and the Mini 3 Pro still manages to sneak under that critical 250g limit, which the Air 2S does not.

DJI’s pace of innovation means it can be tough to decide when to jump on as a consumer (I myself have three of my own prior generation drones, including the original Mini). But what it’s put together in the Mini 3 Pro seems like a package that has so few compromises it should satisfy even the most discerning enthusiast for years to come.

Voice control at last: Hey Sonos, play the ‘Breaking Bad’ theme song

If you’ve always wanted Giancarlo Esposito — the actor playing the meth-slinging Los Pollos Hermanos boss Gustavo Fring from “Breaking Bad” — to guide you through your choice of music, ho boy does Sonos have a treat for you. Esposito lent his voice to a Sonos speaker near you, alongside its long-awaited voice control feature set. The new voice functionality will be available as a free update for supported speakers.

The company’s implementation of voice functionality is privacy-forward, and promises to keep the dulcet tones of your top-secret conversations to itself; the voice command systems are entirely on-device, without shipping clips of your voice or transcripts to Sonos. A nice touch in a world where it seems that the other voice-controlled speakers take great pleasure in livestreaming your commands to Google, Amazon or Apple servers.

You can shout at your Sonos speakers to control Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer and Pandora at launch, with other services to follow in due time.

“Sonos is committed to delivering new experiences that effortlessly connect listeners to the content they love,” said Joseph Dureau, vice president, Voice Experience, Sonos. “One of the most natural ways to connect to your music is with your voice, but when we speak to our customers, we hear that many of them have concerns about privacy and are dissatisfied with the accuracy, speed and ease of use of existing voice services. Sonos Voice Control delivers the experience our customers want without compromise — one that puts speed, accuracy and privacy on an equal footing.”

Sonos Voice Control is available in the U.S. starting at the beginning of next month. French customers will see the functionality later this year, and from there the company is planning a gradual global rollout. Keep an eye (well, ear) out for updates!

Google will release a Pixel Tablet… in 2023

Offering a sneak preview of the Pixel 7 wasn’t enough, so Google’s really leaning in. Today at I/O, the company announced that it’s returning to the tablet business with a new device set for, get this, a 2023 launch.

“Normally we wouldn’t tease a new product before it’s ready,” said Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh, “but there’s so much amazing energy around tablets in the developer community that we wanted to bring you all into the loop.”

The Pixel Tablet is going to be something of a spiritual successor to 2018’s Pixel Slate, which the company quietly discontinued last year. Like the Pixel Book, the hardware was nice, but in a world full of super cheap Chromebooks, Google never really nailed the “why.”

The Pixel Tablet does break from those products in one key way: it’s actually an Android device. In a world of ChromeOS dominance, the company is attempting to reinvigorate the Android tablet market.

Presumably part of the thinking here was to find another home for Google’s custom Tensor processors, which debuted in last year’s Pixel 6. At the very least, utilizing the same chip means the phones and Tablet should play together nicely, as the company slowly builds out a hardware ecosystem that also includes Pixel Buds and the forthcoming Pixel Watch.

Beyond that, details are unsurprisingly scarce for a device that’s not due out for another year. As the above photo suggests, we’ve got a rear-facing camera, some side-facing speaker slits and, I guess some buttons? Meet us back here for Google I/O 2023, I guess.

Image Credits: Google

The announcement follows news that Google is reinvigorating the Android experience for tablets, as well as rolling out additional versions of apps for the form factor. Those will be available in a special tab in the Google Play Store.

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Biofire aims to reduce tragic accidents with a gun only its owner can use

The last thing we need in this world is more guns. But we’re getting them whether we like it or not, so wouldn’t it be nice if those guns had safety mechanisms like our phones, making them impossible for anyone but their owners to use? That’s what Biofire is building, and it has raised $17 million to finalize and commercialize its biometric-secured firearm.

Founder Kai Kloepfer said he began looking into the idea after the Aurora mass shooting in 2012.

“I started to think, what could I possibly do to have an impact on this? How can I apply product building skills to what would appear to be a public health challenge? The problem of children and teens finding guns, accidents and suicides — that was the place where I really saw tech and a physical, product-based solution having an impact,” he said.

Let’s be clear on something first. A gun that only the shooter can use could hardly have prevented most mass shootings. Gun ownership is also closely correlated with suicide, increasing risk in almost every way.  Guns themselves are fundamentally at the heart of gun violence, but it must also be acknowledged that there have been precious few advances in safety and restrictions in recent years despite countless shootings and constant debate on the issue.

Of course there are locks out there already: trigger locks, gun safes, and things like that. But as Kloepfer pointed out, “all those require human action to re-secure the gun — and sometimes that’s not feasible.” Those could be situations where the gun is taken away from a person, or the much more likely occurrence of simply forgetting or neglecting to lock it up.

“So we thought of something that’s very simple. You pick it up, it unlocks, it stays unlocked for as long as you hold it, and when you put it down it locks again within a fraction of a second,” he said.

The team was assembled from a variety of industries where reliability is key, like aerospace and the military. Then they set about building a firearm with a “true ground up approach. We’ve really gone back to the drawing board,” as he put it.

This is because, though there is of course deep expertise out there in building reliable firearms, none has ever integrated biometrics and smart capabilities this deeply. There are conversion kits out there and of course biometric trigger locks, but ultimately it’s an ordinary gun with a fancy lock on it. The point here is to build the locking mechanism in at the most basic level.

Kloepfer was careful to add that this isn’t a “smart gun” in the sense of many other “smart” objects like fridges and TVs, which have all kinds of unnecessary digital additions and opportunities to fail or be hacked. So while the gun has modern electronics built into it, they are all in service of the locking mechanism and the user will ideally never even have to think about it.

Biofire CEO Kai Kloepfer fires one of the company’s guns at a shooting range. Image Credits: Biofire

“Obviously this is an electronic device, so it has an internal battery,” he said. “But we’ve designed the system such that the vast majority of customers, probably 99%, will never have to think about the battery – charging it, discharging it. And user privacy is top priority — the gun has no RF communications of any kind. It’s a complete, hardened system with one hardened interface port.”

No doubt this last is as much a concession to gun owners, who would balk at the idea of a gun able to be disabled wirelessly, as it is to a security team that understands that such protocols only increase the attack surface of a truly safety-critical device.

Images of the firearm show a fingerprint sensor on the left side of the grip, where the user would place their thumb (it looks as if lefties are out of luck for now). When I asked for more details on the security and authentication methods, Kloepfer said that the company is still finalizing them, and declined to comment beyond generalities.

“The engineering work to do this is not trivial, but we’re happy about where we’re at. We can’t share numbers because we’re in the middle of testing. You can’t shortcut that,” he said, noting the company was entering a private beta program with owners, military and law enforcement, and cybersecurity experts before launching the device. “Biofire’s goal is to do this one thing perfectly — we’re not looking to build a defense company. This is the problem, and we don’t want to release a product until we’ve hit all of those milestones. This lets us engage in a quantitative rather than qualitative dialogue with our customers.”

CG render of a Biofire gun resting on a table.

Image Credits: Biofire

Frankly, reticence to discuss crucial systems at this stage is a little worrying. It’s difficult to imagine that more measures could be added at this point, since the firearm is clearly at an advanced enough stage that it can be provided to testing partners. But I was repeatedly told that the company would not share any more details about the mechanisms or how they work.

That’s something of a red flag, to be sure, but one also has to consider the confidence of investors, who have clearly seen enough to put $17 million towards the system’s completion. It’s possible but unlikely that a truly “beta” system, or one that is not meeting its goal of instant and reliable locking and locking, would attract that level of funding. (Investor confidence is not sufficient or necessary to cancel anyone’s skepticism, of course, and they are not infrequently duped — I just didn’t get that sense here.)

Nevertheless, the ambition of taking on torpid and culpable firearm manufacturers in the name of safety is, at the very least, newsworthy. As we have seen in other, less controversial domains, it often takes a small and disruptive force to shake legacy industries out of their preconceptions on what is possible and desirable. Should Biofire prove out what it claims to have built, there will be good reason to question why other firearm producers either failed or didn’t bother to try over the last few decades.

Innovation and tech may yet have a role to play in the arena of gun violence, not as a panacea but simply as one of many layers of control and safety that ensure firearms are used legally and personally.

The list of investors who agree is quite long, it seems — Biofire found “bipartisan support” from more than 50 VCs, family offices, and assorted wealthy people, including Ron Conway and Gavin de Becker. Though the only one joining the board is Lt. General Guy C. Swan (ret.), who reiterated in a press release that the company won’t launch the product until it’s ready.

RIP iPod, you walked so smartphones could run

A long, long time ago before the iPod, MP3 players were badly designed devices with insufficient storage. The market was ripe for a change, and Steve Jobs, who had returned to Apple four years prior, was ready to give it to us.

On October 23, 2001 the company released its first music player with a scrolling wheel and 5GB and 10GB storage options. Who would ever need so much?

And it was a design like no other. In fact, it would have a similar impact on music lovers that the Sony Walkman had two decades earlier. We would fall in love with it and the device would be the first of many that led Apple from the brink of bankruptcy to multi-trillion dollar company.

And a humble music player got it all started.

Just yesterday, the company announced the end of the road for venerated device. That it lasted this long, was a testament to its popularity, but when the company released the iPhone in 2007, it seemed to mark the beginning of the end for a music-only gadget. Why would you need a separate thing for your music when the phone would handle everything?

It would still hang on for years in spite of that, especially with the iPod Touch, which provided both music storage and internet access in one package, a nice compromise for people who didn’t want a full-fledged phone.

As my colleague Brian Heater wrote about yesterday’s final blow:

Apple this morning announced that the iPod is dead. That is, as much as a particular gadget can ever be dead. Rather, it will shuffle off this mortal coil slowly, remaining for sale while supplies last. So if you were considering purchasing one for any reason, buy now or forever hold your peace.

I remember quite clearly getting my first iPod. It was a 4GB Mini. I couldn’t tell you the year exactly, but I remember sitting in the driveway of my children’s piano teacher waiting for them to complete their lesson and trying to figure out exactly how this thing worked.

iPad Mini

My much loved and scuffed iPad Mini. Image Credits: Ron Miller

I was a bit baffled by the scrolling wheel design at first, but once I figured it out, like so many things Apple has created over the years, I recognized the elegance of the approach. I remember the smoothness of the cool silver case in my hand, the way my thumb moved around the wheel and the sound of the music as I pushed the headphones into my ears.

It put 1000 songs at my fingertips, which seemed like more than I would ever need.

While the device was as cool as the other side of the pillow (as Stuart Scott used to say on ESPN), the software you used to connect to it, left something to be desired. iTunes was as clunky as the iPod was cool. But it provided a way to buy music for .99 a song, and to build a library from your CDs, at a time when people were using services like Napster to share music without paying for it. That combination of hardware and software really proved to be a game changer.

But it wasn’t only the smartphone that did in the music players like iPod. Services like Spotify, and yes Apple Music, that would come along later would provide access to not just 1000 songs, or 10,000 songs as later models held, it would give you access to most any music you could imagine. We didn’t really need a dedicated device to hold our music anymore.

The iPod is a gadget from bygone days now, one that seems quaint looking back, but for a time it captured our attention and our imaginations, and gave us access to portable digital music in a way that just hadn’t existed prior to its release.

And for that, it will hold a special place in many of our hearts forever, regardless of whether Apple produces them anymore or not.

Watch Google I/O keynote live right here

Google’s developer conference Google I/O is back, which means that the company has a few things to announce. During the opening keynote, Google is expected to unveil new hardware products, new software updates and new features for Google’s ecosystem.

The conference starts at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. on the East Cost, 6 p.m. in London, 7 p.m. in Paris) and you can watch the livestream right here on this page.

Rumor has it that Google could unveil the Pixel Watch. This isn’t the company’s first experience in the smartwatch space, but it represents a fresh new start with Google’s own hardware division leveraging Wear OS. If you’re a Pixel person, you can also expect some smartphone news and maybe new accessories.

More importantly, Google will likely share some news about its flagship services, such as Google Maps, Google’s search engine, YouTube and Google Play. It’s going to be interesting to see if Google has anything to share about Chrome and Android as well.

Whether you’re a Google user who relies a lot on Google’s ecosystem or a tech enthusiast who wants to see what’s next for Google, make sure to watch today’s keynote and read our coverage on TechCrunch.

Read more about Google I/O 2022 on TechCrunch

The iPod is dead

Last October marked 20 years of the iPod. It’s a remarkable run in the cutthroat, always-iterating world of consumer electronics. And while it’s undoubtedly true that life hasn’t been particularly fruitful for the music player in a product lineup that includes various iPhones and iPads, the beloved music player has somehow managed to hang on.

That is, until today.

Apple this morning announced that the iPod is dead. That is, as much as a particular gadget can ever be dead. Rather, it will shuffle off this mortal coil slowly, remaining for sale while supplies last. So if you were considering purchasing one for any reason, buy now or forever hold your peace.

The iPod’s death has been a protracted one. I can hear those “the iPod was still around?” posts clogging up the comments section as I type this. The iconic clickwheel model, which later gave rise to the Classic, was discontinued back in 2014. The Shuffle and Nano, meanwhile, were killed off three years later. Until today, the seventh-generation iPod Touch stubbornly clung to life, three years after its debut.

SAN FRANCISCO – JANUARY 6, 2004: Apple CEO Steve Jobs announces the new Mini iPod available in five colors during a keynote address at Macworld January 6, 2004 in San Francisco. Jobs announced several new products including the new iLife 4 software and the Mini iPod. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The first iPod debuted onstage in the hand of Steve Jobs on October 23, 2001. “With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go,” he noted at the time. “With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again.”

In the age of ubiquitous smartphones and Spotify, it’s hard to impress upon people how revolutionary the promise of 1,000 songs in your pocket ultimately was. All of that was packed onto a tiny 5GB Toshiba hard drive and plugged into a Mac via FireWire cable. Whom amongst us didn’t want to be a silhouetted figure dancing with white headphones in front of a brightly colored backdrop?

Without the iPod, there’s no iPhone, no iPad. Last week, iPod and iPhone co-creator Tony Fadell walked us through that direct connection.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Tony Fadell

“We did iPod Plus Phone,” Fadell said. “You took the headset, which had a microphone on it and the one ear thing. You could use the Click Wheel to select numbers and names, or you could dial with it, like a rotary phone, which was the ultimate death of it. You couldn’t enter anything, because there’s no textual input. But it was an iPod Classic with a phone in it. Walk it back from the third-party prototype, and we were there, too.”

Of Jobs and the iPod/iPhone connection, he explained, “He had very clear views on things — until they weren’t clear,” he told TechCrunch. “Or it became very clear that they wouldn’t work. He pushed us very hard on making the iPod Plus Phone work. We worked weeks and weeks to figure out how to do input with the click wheel. We couldn’t get it, and after the whole team was convinced we couldn’t do it, he was like, ‘keep trying!’ At some point we all said, ‘no, it isn’t going to work.’”

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – SEPTEMBER 22, 2005: Models display the latest iPod Nano at a press launch on September 22, 2005 in Seoul, South Korea. The latest release from Apple features a 4 GB model with the capacity to store up to 1,000 songs or 25,000 photographs. The iPod Nano weighs 1.5 ounces and measures only 3.5 x 1.6 x 0.27 inches. The 4 GB model will be available on the Korean market at $290 USD and the 2 GB version available for $230 USD. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

When the iPhone arrived six years later, it ditched the clickwheel for a touchscreen, though the company was still attached enough to keep that iconic input device alive through the iPod Classic. 2007 also saw the debut of the iPod Touch, which drew upon the iPhone’s touchscreen design. That same year, the company announced that it had sold its one-hundred-millionth device.

Apple used the bittersweet occasion to mourn the device’s end-of-life, while plugging products that will keep that flame burning.

“Music has always been part of our core at Apple, and bringing it to hundreds of millions of users in the way iPod did impacted more than just the music industry — it also redefined how music is discovered, listened to, and shared,” Greg Joswiak said in a release. “Today, the spirit of iPod lives on. We’ve integrated an incredible music experience across all of our products, from the iPhone to the Apple Watch to HomePod mini, and across Mac, iPad, and Apple TV. And Apple Music delivers industry-leading sound quality with support for spatial audio — there’s no better way to enjoy, discover, and experience music.”

Perhaps it’s time to dig through the old gadget drawer, dust off the iPod and see if it’s possible to resurrect it for one final spin. Here’s to you, old friend.