It’s okay for Pikachu to watch you — as long as you want it to

It’s okay for Pikachu to watch you — as long as you want it to

Millions who downloaded the new Pokémon Go app are living in a brave, new, augmented reality world. For the early adopters (meaning apparently everyone you know) on iOS devices, it meant unknowingly granting Pokémon Go the permission to fully access their Google accounts.

You’ve got to risk it all to catch ‘em all, right?

Wrong. Thankfully Niantic, the company that developed Pokémon Go, acknowledged the mistake and issued a fix. Pokémon Go modified its implementation to request only “basic profile data” — user ID and email address — from Google accounts.

This brings me some peace of mind as my 15-year-old roams the park, my office, the supermarket and the park again in search of furry creatures. Yet, although the company’s privacy policy is thorough, I am left with the lingering sense of unease I feel with almost every other app. I am okay with their treatment of my son’s data today, but it’s up to the company if they want to change the way they use or share his data tomorrow.

Developers need to collect data from users to create apps and experiences like Pokémon Go, but we often feel resigned to choose between Pikachu or privacy. A University of Pennsylvania study published last year found that 58 percent of Americans have come to accept that they have little control over what companies can learn about them, even though they would like to be in control.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Businesses must be intentional, responsible and clear about the data they collect, and provide their customers with real choices. Powerlessness breeds mistrust, and a system based on mistrust benefits no one. On the other hand, earned trust drives adoption and lasting success.

There are three simple steps companies can take to earn trust:

  • Stay lean. Do you need to know when someone is scheduled for a doctor’s visit? Do you need access to their 27 selfies in front of a national monument? Focus on the data you need and leave the rest alone.
  • Build in security. There is no one-size-fits-all security solution. The volume and type of data to which your company has access will determine the appropriate security measures.
  • Engage your consumers. Help people see the value you’re bringing to them by using their data. Chances are they will be happy to trade in their data for a customized experience.

This doesn’t mean consumers are off the hook. We shouldn’t just shrug and breeze through privacy notices accepting whatever permission levels are required. We don’t realize just how powerful we can be if we take full ownership of our data. Replace “data” with the word “dollars” and the value exchange becomes a lot more tangible. Indifference and inaction toward data collection become a lot more absurd. Information is currency.

As the lifeblood of any business, consumers have a unique opportunity to leverage their trust as a way to regain control of their data. Opting out is the most direct path, but not necessarily the right one for you (or the most fun).

Here are a few other things people can do to take back control of their data:

  • Learn about and use the privacy and security settings on your computer and phone and help others to understand how they work.
  • Take it to social media and spread the word about the companies that do great things, as well as those that do “bad things” around data.
  • Support organizations that advocate for better privacy, and use products built with a focus on privacy.

Today I am choosing to trust Pokémon Go with my son’s data, because I have read and understood the terms. But I am just one person, and I happen to be a lawyer. In the long term, we need a commitment from both companies and consumers to make conscious choices about data.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin
Source: TechCrunch

In what contexts should messaging be the UI?

In what contexts should messaging be the UI?

The current messaging hype is overstated. There are certainly some interesting and unique opportunities for messaging as an interface, but I contend the number of practical use cases is a fraction of what the current hype cycle suggests. Facebook and Microsoft in particular have been pushing messaging because their proprietary messaging platforms give them a way to gain some leverage and autonomy on top of iOS and Android — but this reasoning is supply-driven, not demand-driven.

One of the key premises of messaging as a UI is that users may not have or don’t want to install an app to interact with a given service. By abstracting the UI to a messaging interface, the tech giants are trying to solve the “go to the App Store and download the app and create a username” problem. This should, in theory, increase long-term user engagement.
gartner-hype-cycleGartner Hype Cycle

Although messaging can help in these scenarios, there’s no reason this problem can’t be solved in the current app model on iOS and Android. Case in point: Google just showcased Android Instant Apps: partial, on-demand app downloads with integrated identity services. They have blurred the lines between HTML and native apps to offer the best of both worlds.

Apple is likely working on a similar solution for iOS. That function, coupled with persistent OS-level logins for Facebook/Google/Twitter/LinkedIn/iCloud/Apple Pay can easily solve the “go to the App Store and download the app and create a username” problem.

I’m therefore not convinced that a messaging interface should exist to circumvent the “go to the App Store and download the app and create a username” problem. Although messaging can help with this challenge today, this problem will be addressed at the OS level. Apple and Google are not oblivious to this.

So the question is, when does messaging as a UI make sense? I’ve developed a couple of litmus tests to answer this question:

Does the user actually want to talk to someone to complete the transaction?

Could a reasonable user want to engage in more than 10 different types of transactions?

In Facebook’s first messaging bot demos, they showcased ordering flowers and pizza via a messaging interface. Both are simple, straightforward transactions with a few customization options.

Would you rather buy flowers over the phone, or via an app?

You don’t need to talk to a sales rep to purchase flowers or pizza. Perhaps if you’re in a store, you may want to speak to a florist because she’s there and you want her opinion. But if you’re buying flowers online, all you need to do is select an occasion, look at some pictures, then select a type, number of flowers, a vase and write a personal message. The number of options to choose from are limited, and the options themselves are easy to understand. That interface should be delivered in a graphical way, and not as a messaging conversation.

Or put more simply: Would you rather buy flowers over the phone, or via an app? The app is clearly the superior choice.

The same can be said of purchasing pizza: a linear transaction flow and a few customizations.

Neither of these transactions warrants human conversation in the real world. Why should users try to engage in these transactions as if they were talking to a human?

However, there are really interesting messaging use cases where I, as a user, want to “talk” with someone.

I have money with a private wealth manager at Morgan Stanley. I like talking to him because I can get his feedback on what’s going on in the markets, and discuss the rationale behind asset class allocation decisions. I also have money with Wealthfront. Using Wealthfront, my entire asset allocation decision effectively boils down to a few multiple choice questions that can be approximately simplified to: “How much risk do you want to take?” The computer decides the rest. Although I can look at the transaction details and determine which trades the computer is making, it’s hard to get a summary sense for the reasons behind decisions, and future outlook. A conversational UI would be awesome in this context:

“Hey Wealthfront, I’m concerned about the recent market volatility in the wake of Brexit. What’s going on in my portfolio?”

“Great question Kyle. In light of recent volatility, we’re doing X and Y and Z, and our outlook is A and B and C. I’ll give you another update in 2 or 4 weeks. What frequency would you like to be updated?”

Or …

“How are falling oil prices impacting my portfolio?”

“Well you don’t have any direct exposure to the energy industry. But you do have lots of exposure to the airline industry. Low oil prices reduce fuel costs, boosting airline profits.”

Messaging apps should focus on areas where users want to feel like they’re actually talking to a person.

Right now, all I get is a single line graph showing the aggregate value of my portfolio. Any further analysis is virtually non-existent. I’m sure Wealthfront is trying to address this fundamental problem programmatically, but the UI complexity to pull this off is likely impossible. There are simply too many questions an investor could ask given the massive number of investing options. A messaging-driven UI makes a lot of sense here, given the vast breadth and depth of questions that a user may have.

(BTW, whether the messaging interface is delivered in a generic messaging app or in the Wealthfront app is immaterial for this use case.)

Or take Well. They are a messaging interface between patients and the front desk of a doctor’s office. Well automates appointment reminders, sends patients forms to complete before visits, helps patients reschedule appointments, manages insurance information, gets prescription refills, requests copies of medical records, manages bills/payments, etc. There are 1-2 dozen types of transactions a patient may have with the front desk of a physician’s practice. A graphical UI for navigating 12 different types of transactions will become unwieldy quickly. A messaging UI addresses this by letting the user simply drive the conversation naturally.

ATMs probably represent the limits of graphical UIs. ATMs today give users 3-6 options: check balance, deposit check, deposit cash, withdraw cash, cancel, etc. But as the number of transaction types balloons past ~10, UIs become unwieldy. Messaging can address option-overload.

As we increasingly use our phones to interact with the world around us, messaging as a UI will prosper. But today, messaging is overhyped. Companies are trying to offer messaging UIs where one isn’t really necessary. Many are too focused on circumventing the “go to the App Store and download the app and create a username” problem, as it’s no doubt a huge source of drop-off in the customer acquisition funnel.

But Apple and Google will solve this problem at the OS level. Messaging should not exist simply to circumvent a temporary shortcoming in mobile OSes circa 2016. Messaging apps should instead focus on areas where users want to feel like they’re actually talking to a person. This is a much harder technical problem, but, once solved, it will unlock enormous value.

Full disclosure: I advise Well, which is mentioned in this post.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin
Source: TechCrunch

Serious privacy flaws discovered in Glow fertility tracker app

Serious privacy flaws discovered in Glow fertility tracker app

There are scores of startups making fertility tracker and family planning apps today, but a Consumer Reports investigation has singled out Glow Inc. for serious security and privacy flaws.

First, Consumer Reports’ team was able to access very personal information including data and comments about users’ sex lives, history of miscarriages, abortions and more, through a privacy loophole having to do with the way the app allowed couples to link their accounts and share data.

Additionally, Consumer Reports found that Pregnancy Glow community forums transmitted personal data about its users including their full name, e-mail address, approximate location, birthdate and number of other health details they’d logged within the app.

The data was easily unearthed and parsed using a free-to-download security testing app, and online calculators, the report said.

Glow reportedly made immediate moves to fix the security problems with their app and issued a satisfactory update to their app after Consumer Reports notified them of the vulnerabilities.

However, it’s a bit unsettling the startup hadn’t thoroughly tested its own systems enough to find and fix those flaws first.

Consumer Reports set up dummy accounts to test the app for privacy and security flaws, and did not access users’ private data.

Glow CEO Mike Huang was not immediately available for comment. Glow’s executive chairman is veteran tech entrepreneur and investor Max Levchin, whose HVF Labs, a kind of startup foundry, launched the company.

It will be interesting to see if the scrutiny aimed at Glow, and the flaws exposed,  inspire a wave of security-oriented updates across fertility tracker apps on iOS and Android.

Glow’s competition includes a hefty number of websites, mobile apps and even wearables to help couples get or avoid getting pregnant.

Venture funded competitors include SOSV-backed Kindara, which works in conjunction with a smart thermometer called Wink to measure basal body temperature; Union Square Ventures-backed period and ovulation tracker Clue; and Natural Cycles, which is backed by Bonnier Media Growth.

Fertility tracking apps have been found, so far, to be “generally inaccurate” in a study by researchers with Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, published in the July issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

That’s not good news for people relying on them for family planning. And it’s definitely not good news for women who do not want to become pregnant and fail to use other methods of contraception along with the tech.

Featured Image: 2nix Studio/Shutterstock (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)
Source: TechCrunch

Here’s whats new in the latest Pokémon Go update

Here’s whats new in the latest Pokémon Go update

Word started spreading early this morning of an update rolling out to Pokemon Go — version 0.31.0, if you’re keeping track.

The update is reportedly rolling out now, but it’s only gone out to a handful of Android users thus far. I’d imagine that a comparable iOS update is right around the corner, just making its way through Apple’s approval process. Don’t have it yet? Don’t worry: most people don’t.

While players are still digging around to figure out what’s new, a number of changes have already been spotted — some of them welcome, some a bit more questionable.

Ready to dive in to the changes? Tap that right arrow if you’re on desktop, or just scroll if you’re on mobile. Thanks to the Reddit Pokemon Go community for unearthing these.

Source: TechCrunch

Tech trends that will impact your home

Tech trends that will impact your home

Imagine walking through the bathroom door at 7am and the shower starts itself at optimal water heat and pressure. The thermostat adjusts when you enter the room. Want a new bathroom tub? What if you could 3D print it? High-tech homes are about to revolutionize the way we live.

While interior design once relied on color schemes and playful accents, new tech trends are completely revamping how we design, build and live in our spaces. Even more, they’re having a social impact, enabling users to reduce their carbon footprints and increase efficiency as they go about their daily lives.

3D printing, virtual reality and the Internet of Things (IoT) have just recently began to appear in our houses, but they’re making an incredible impact. So what capabilities do these tech trends have? And what will they look like further in the future?

3D printing

3D printers can create car parts and prosthetics. They can even build entire houses. Amsterdam boasts the 3D Print Canal House, a 13-room building and museum built entirely by a giant 3D printer, called the KamerMaker. The KamerMaker 2.0 is currently underway, and prints an area about as tall as a water bottle every second. An Italian engineering company is also working on building a 3D-printed house, and believes similar ones could be built in developing countries where sturdier structures are needed. So while we may not see entire neighborhoods being built by 3D printers just yet, it’s something to look forward to in the future.

We won’t be able to remember a time before we weren’t able to 3D print a new bathroom tub.

It’s not to say that 3D printing isn’t mainstream yet. It is. Companies like Shapeways have users design and order their own 3D-printed items. Customers may design their items using 3D sketch apps like GravitySketch, send it to Shapeways and have their items sent directly to them. What’s more, the company lists dozens of ready-made items for the home — from book shelves to wall art — at prices comparable to High Street stores. Most items are less than US$40.

“You’ll have a say in what materials you will use, what your materials will look like, and how they are made,” said Peter Limburg, Head of Business Development and Sales at Shapeways. “Mass-manufacturing is made to eliminate as much variety as we can. With 3D printing, we are allowing things to be more personal. The joy from our products will be a lot higher.”

3D printing also means we don’t rely on factories that are oceans away. Shapeways’ factory is located in Long Island, NY, and ships out 200,000 unique items each month. Additionally, 3D-printed items produce less waste — the process uses exactly the amount of material necessary to make a product and no more, reducing an individual’s carbon footprint.

People involved in the industry have been forward-thinking entrepreneurs. However, as 3D printing moves to the mainstream, larger companies like HP are jumping on the bandwagon. Ricoh and Canon have both announced they will release printers, too. Limburg says these larger companies will help bring down prices and drive innovation, benefitting the entire industry. It’s confirmation, he says, that 3D printing is here to stay.

VR and AR

VR and AR will soon play a critical role in helping people make better decisions in regards to interior design and online shopping. The tech tools will help consumers choose big-ticket items, allowing them to see how all the elements will fit into their homes without having to purchase them.

Furniture companies in particular are using AR apps. Littlewoods and Very have developed AR apps that act like a personalized catalog. Instead of having to visualize how a piece of furniture will look in their home, users can scan their room with their camera and virtually place the furniture in 3D. DIRTT, a company that uses technology to manufacture highly customizable interiors, uses a VR app in their furniture showroom, increasing their in-store experience.

Alper Guler is the founder of AR Pandora, a company that develops AR and VR apps. He says that people are now starting to try Google Cardboard experiences at home because they are very affordable and available through most mobile phones. However, people will be more likely to try devices such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in physical stores and showrooms because those devices require expensive computers to run. The headgear itself cost more than US$500, as opposed to $15 for Google Cardboard. “Retailers will benefit from this by helping their customers visualize better. These technologies will help them sell more, and I think faster,” said Guler.

Without these technologies, designers working online have problems with presenting to their clients.

AR and VR also helps clients better imagine their newly designed spaces. Without these technologies, designers working online have problems with presenting to their clients, said Guler. “They make the [whole] design with 3D modelling tools, but when it comes to presenting it… they only take a snapshot of their 3D model… and send those images to the client,” he said. However, with AR and VR, people can see their newly designed 3D homes from any angle.

VR in particular will put clients in their newly designed spaces before they even exist, offering an experience far beyond viewing flat images of their designs. Facebook has even showcased its social VR, which allows people to interact in VR together.

It may seem far-fetched — reports show it will take 6-8 years for VR to go mainstream — but Facebook’s social VR pushes the boundaries. The whole notion could soon become a reality for clients and interior designers, enabling them to meet and discuss designs in VR from miles away and feel as if they are in the same new room.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT encompasses a wide range of in-home capabilities. From thermostats to lightbulbs, ordinary objects have been given serious upgrades with IoT technology. And widespread adoption of this technology will lead to substantial energy savings. According to a study by the Consumer Technology Association, IoT could help avoid up to 100 million tons of CO2 emissions, and reduce energy consumption in each household by 10 percent.

Voice-activated platforms have been popular among larger tech companies. Google just announced it would launch a voice-activated home device integrated with Google search capabilities. This would be similar to Amazon Echo, a device that sits in your home and acts as, really, a personal assistant. The Amazon device is powered by Alexa — when you speak to her, she’ll do things like turn on lights, play music and set up your Wi-Fi network.

AdMobilize just built the MATRIX device, a product made to simplify the IoT space. Any connected device can be integrated into the MATRIX — it’s a central hub for all the smart devices in a home. The device downloads apps just as a smartphone would — such as ones that detect when you’ve gotten out of bed in order to turn the shower on, for example — allowing for hundreds of capabilities within the home. The technology is also touchless: users only have to gesture with their hands to turn the lights out. However, it’s not on the market yet — the company is just finishing up fabrication and has been taking pre-orders.

“It’s going to change the home because it’s going to allow people to interact with technology without having it impair their life,” said Isabella Mongalo, Brand Manager at AdMobilize. “[It’s] creating a really natural way for people to interact with technology and to have a smart home in a way that is really seamless and touchless.”

The average home may not yet see 3D-printed items or smart devices, but they will soon. More and more AR, VR, 3D printing and IoT will enter our homes — and stay. The devices will alter and improve the way we interact with and customize our homes, until we won’t be able to remember a time before we weren’t able to 3D print a new bathroom tub.

Featured Image: Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock
Source: TechCrunch

The human role in a bot-dominated future

The human role in a bot-dominated future

Imagine a world where bots are ubiquitous… a world where nearly every online interaction takes place with a Siri, Alexa, Cortana or some soon-to-be-named artificial being. Here, banking is a breeze, as a customer service bot can quickly extrapolate your banking preferences from your online search history. In this world, your cupboards and refrigerator are always full, because your groceries are reordered every week automatically, based on consumption data.

But in such a world, where bots provide the ultimate convenience of a futuristic lifestyle, is there still room for human help?

At the most recent F8 Conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made some bold claims about a bot’s place in the future of commerce. Using 1-800-Flowers as an example, Zuckerberg argued that by integrating bot chats into the sales process, a customer would never have to dial 1-800-Flowers or speak to a human again. In theory, using chat with bot support can expedite the buyer-seller interaction and bring the consumer closer to a sale. While Zuckerberg may be correct to say that customers much prefer chat interaction to using the phone, we can’t necessarily leap to the conclusion that their preference includes chatting with a robot.

Human interaction is, and has always been, vital to a high-quality customer experience. Even Facebook supports this claim, as they’ve partnered with several companies to help with the hand-off from bot to human during live chats. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, has publicly stated that, “…we simply don’t have the technology yet to actually imagine that a bot could replace humans in the sales process.”

So, what is the human role in a bot-dominated future?

Remember that frustration every time you call customer service and end up with an automated voice (IVR)? That’s where we are with bot chats. And guess what happens every time a bot fails? You end up talking to a real, live customer service representative — back to square one.

We’ll see exponential adoption of bot technology, but human capital for engagement is both inevitable and necessary.

There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way with artificial intelligence, but for the strides we’ve made, we’re still a ways away from the creation of a bot that can successfully pass all facets of the Turing test. While a bot can handle a good portion of a conversation with a human, there will undoubtedly be times when it gets confused and fails (especially when it comes to switching from one topic/area to another). In these situations, your bot chat gets handed over to a human to complete your engagement.

Even with all the buzz today, the bot is nothing new. In the late 1990s, when AOL Instant Messenger was all the rage, I remember chatting with SmarterChild. At its core, SmarterChild was essentially an early version of a bot. You could chat with it about school, life or sports — much like you would do with your real friends. SmarterChild worked great (most of the time) and seemed quite sophisticated. Though, in fairness, a majority of the chats were conducted by twelve-year-olds.

So, the real question today is whether the bot is really going to define the future, or are we all just falling for the same hype we did when we were ‘tweens?

To answer this question, it’s important to understand the technology behind a bot. While we’ve seen tremendous strides and advances in computer technology and software development over the last 20 years, bot technology has essentially been siloed into two categories: those based on simple logic trees (SLT) and those that rely on natural language processing (NLP) or machine learning (ML).

An SLT bot relies on the traditional logic tree to gather information and redirect the user. For example, an insurance bot may ask several questions to determine which policy is ideal for you. If your answers match what the bot has anticipated, the experience will be seamless. However, if your answers stray from those predicted and stored in the bot database, you might hit a dead-end. If you’re lucky, you’ll be handed off to a human to complete the interaction. If you’re not, you’ll end up in bot purgatory. Most bot technology today relies on SLT.

An NLP and machine learning (ML) bot is meant to function more like a real conversationalist by picking up keywords and phrases from the user’s input to gather information, instead of requiring direct answers to specific questions. In theory, this category of bot sounds like the better option. Examples of this type of bot are Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

While Siri and Alexa are pretty good at simple functions like giving the weather or telling a joke, they still have a ways to go with complex functions and lengthy commands.

Regardless of whether you are engaging with an SLT or NLP bot, the likelihood of ending up needing to speak to a real person is incredibly high. SLT bots often lack the complexity we expect from technology today, while we are unable to fully utilize the technology necessary for NLP or ML bots at this point.

The specific value of an engagement with a real person can be very significant.

Fortunately, customers enjoy the efficiency of interacting with a real person. While the trend is moving away from long, formal conversations, customers still expect the same quality of service from chat, whether live or bot. In fact, a recent study by American Express found that 78 percent of customers have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of a poor service experience. The same study also found that 67 percent of customers have hung up the phone out of frustration when they could not talk to a real person. In most of those cases, the customer was forced to endure a dialogue with a bot.

We will likely see a two-stage industry transition as we attempt to adopt bot technology into daily transactions. The first will be very human interaction-intensive, as real people will be required to take over every interaction that a bot fails to handle. The risk of a poor customer experience is simply too much for top brands to stomach, so staffing their engagement centers to take over when the bot fails will be a very real side effect.

It seems inevitable that at some point ML and NLP will allow for a bot to become more intelligent, to a point where the failure rate is minimal. At that time, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that a majority of interactions will take place on bot channels. Will the bot channels stand alone, or will they be integrated into the existing channel landscape? If they exist on their own, what happens to the other channels?

In a scenario where the preferred customer engagement moves away from a brand’s website and onto a bot channel like Facebook Messenger, a question of scale is presented. Even with low failure rates, the number of human hand-offs will most likely grow because of the sheer volume of engagements that will likely occur.

It’s more than likely that we’ll see exponential adoption of bot technology, but human capital for engagement is both inevitable and necessary for sales and customer support. Depending on the lifetime value of the customer and the margin of the product, the specific value of an engagement with a real person can be very significant.

As we prepare for a more automated future, it’s important to not forget about the role of the human in engagement. And, as great as R2-D2 was in “A New Hope,” we all must remember that there was a human in that bot.

Featured Image: ktsdesign/Shutterstock (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)
Source: TechCrunch

10 most unlikely startup investments made by NBA legends

10 most unlikely startup investments made by NBA legends

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Source: TechCrunch

Make your commute suck less

Make your commute suck less

wirecutter-logoEditor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. This is a condensed version of several Wirecutter guides; you can find links to the full guides in the discussions below.

Everything you do to make your commute better is like an early-stage investment in your success at work. Start earning dividends early by borrowing some of our hundreds of hours of research and picking up the best devices and accessories for commuters. They make your twice-daily trek by car, rail or bike worry-free, comfortable, and sometimes even fun.

In-ear headphones

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The Marshall Mode sounds rich and balanced, and it fit all of our testers equally well. Photo: Michael Hession

For better music, a much better microphone, and a wonderfully improved fit, switch out the earbuds that came with your phone and pick up the best in-ear headphones under $100, the Marshall Mode (for iOS and Android).

After researching hundreds of headphones in this price range, then testing 54 with an expert audio panel, we found Marshall’s Modes stand out. They fit better, their sound profile works with every kind of sound, they never sound muddy or tinny, and their OS-specific remotes and mics make hands-free calls far less of a pain.

USB portable battery pack

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The TravelCard comes in both Micro-USB and Lightning-connector flavors. Photo: Mark Smirniotis

Avoid the sting of a dead phone battery at the end of a long day by packing an ultra-portable USB battery pack.

We like the TravelCard Charger because it’s nearly the size of a credit card, but quickly zaps 30 to 50 percent back into the battery of a large smartphone. Its built-in USB charging cable (and Micro-USB or Lightning connectors) keep its profile slim and mean no extra cords to carry. You can find cheaper packs, sure, but after examining 50 pounds of batteries, then flying the best 17 to a Canadian battery analysis lab, we believe the TravelCard is the most pocketable pack that can still pack a punch.

E-reader

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Amazon’s Kindle home screen. Photo: Nick Guy

With an ebook reader, you can fit your personal library on a thinner-than-paperback-size device—one that’s easy to toss in a bag and hold one-handed—and recharge only every few weeks. After testing the only five competitive ebook readers available in the US, we can say that the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is the right choice for almost everyone.

The Kindle Paperwhite’s features and price, coupled with Amazon’s vast collection of reading material, make it the best device dedicated to reading.

Travel mug

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Zojirushi’s new Stainless Mug was our top pick for close to three years. Photo: Michael Hession

After doing close to 50 hours of research on 60 different travel mugs and testing 20 for heat retention, durability and drinking convenience, we still think that Zojirushi makes the best travel mugs.

Specifically, the new Zojirushi Stainless Mug is lighter and more compact than its champion predecessors, but the newest model still offers one-handed usability and a foolproof locking mechanism that will keep your drink warm and your clothing safe. It’s available in a 20-ounce version that can double as a water bottle, as well as 12- and 16-ounce versions.

Laptop backpack

Mission Workshop Sanction on our tester’s back. Photo: Michael Hession

Mission Workshop Sanction on our tester’s back. Photo: Michael Hession

The Mission Workshop HT500 Sanction is the laptop backpack that is everything a modern commuter needs their rucksack to be: simple, rugged, and comfortable. It’s as sleek as it is tough, and it resists water from all angles, making it perfect for bike commuters and people who live in rainy climates.

But commuters of all varieties will appreciate its slim profile that lets you squeeze through crowds and its ability to overload in a pinch to accommodate the jacket that, in retrospect, you really didn’t need to wear today. It’s basically a comfortable bucket you wear on your back. That’s a lot more useful than it sounds.

Bluetooth stereo kit

The Anker SoundSync Drive.

The Anker SoundSync Drive.

If you want Bluetooth in your car, but you don’t want to spend the money and/or time to install a new head unit, and you’re fortunate enough to have an aux-in port (an audio-input jack that fits a plug like the one on your headphones), a Bluetooth kit with an aux-in cable is the easy choice. It’s the most reliable alternative to full-blown car surgery, and will produce the best sound and call quality.

We recommend Anker SoundSync Drive for its superior sound quality (as good as, or better than, the sound from the competition) and good microphone performance. We also appreciate the inclusion of track-control buttons on the main unit. If you don’t have line-in, the GoGroove’s FlexSmart X2 is our FM transmitter pick.

Bluetooth headset

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Not everyone needs a Bluetooth headset. But if you’re hopping on and off the phone throughout the day, or if you’re typically talking on the phone while walking long distances or driving (despite the safety concerns), the Plantronics Voyager Edge is the best Bluetooth headset for most people.

After more than 20 hours of research in our latest update, and testing 12 models in real-world scenarios, we found the Voyager Edge to be the best headset with the right balance of stellar sound quality, long battery life, impressive Bluetooth range and comfortable fit.

Smartphone car mount

TechMatte’s MagGrip CD in place. Photo: Nick Guy

TechMatte’s MagGrip CD in place. Photo: Nick Guy

After surveying more than 1,000 Wirecutter readers, surveying the market for hours, and testing about 30 models, the smartphone car mount we recommend for most people is TechMatte’s MagGrip CD Slot. You were probably expecting something with a suction cup, like we were at first. But the MagGrip CD Slot uses a space that more than 90 percent of cars have, but fewer than 6 percent of people put actual CDs into.

This style — magnet on the CD slot, metal disk in your phone case — allows for the easiest insertion, removal, and repositioning, and does not sacrifice a secure hold. It also places the phone at an ideal position that doesn’t block your view of the road. For those who can’t give up their CD player, or who have cars with awkward angles, we recommend TechMatte’s MagGrip Air Vent.

Car USB charger

Scosche’s USBC242M ReVolt Dual. Photo: Nick Guy

Scosche’s USBC242M ReVolt Dual. Photo: Nick Guy

The best USB car charger for most people and most devices is Scosche’s USBC242M ReVolt Dual. Packed into this tiny charger is the capability to simultaneously charge two full-size tablets at full speed — a capability that most models don’t have.

The ReVolt is also able to differentiate between different devices to deliver the proper charging current to each, something not every charger can do — including the previous iteration of this model. Though not the absolute smallest or most powerful charger we tested, it has the best balance of all the important features among the 20 we tested, and a reasonable price.

Rear bike rack

Topeak rear bike rack. Photo: Eve O’Neill

Topeak rear bike rack. Photo: Eve O’Neill

If you plan to carry more than a few pounds of stuff on your bike, you’ll need a rear rack. A solid rear rack is the foundation of any good gear-hauling setup because it lets you attach other components to your bike and get that heavy pack off your back.

After considering 38 models and testing eight top contenders, we’re confident that the Topeak Explorer is the best rack for most people. This rack was the easiest to install and felt the most stable under testing loads. It also has a sturdier taillight mount than other racks.

Pannier

The Arkel Commuter mounted on a rear rack. Photo: Eve O’Neill

The Arkel Commuter mounted on a rear rack. Photo: Eve O’Neill

If you regularly lug a laptop to and from work, the Arkel Commuter Urban Pannier will carry your computer (up to 15 inches) alongside 23 liters’ worth of gear to wherever you need to be. It goes on and off a bike in seconds, is supremely durable (and backed by a lifetime guarantee), and remains unobtrusive on the bike. It was also the only pannier in our test group that had a metal backplate, which can keep a laptop from bumping against the ground or walls.

Bike lock

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It won’t make your commute fun, but a sturdy bike lock will give you peace of mind and ensure you’ve got a ride home. We interviewed bike enthusiasts — and bike thieves — and they agreed that Kryptonite’s KryptoLok Series 2 Standard U-Lock is strong enough to foil most any thief who’s not an expert looking for a multithousand-dollar model.

It’s also light and comes with a stable, easy-to-mount carrying bracket that fits on virtually all bikes. If you’ve got a pricier bike, or just want more assurances, Kryptonite’s accompanying “insurance” — costing $20 for three years — will pay the homeowners’ or renter’s insurance deductible or the replacement cost of the bike if a particularly skilled thief beats its Series 2.

The included 4-foot KryptoFlex cable is just one more layer of security discouraging opportunists from nabbing a wheel or seat.

The links in these guides contain affiliate codes (disclosure). These picks may have been updated. To see the current recommendations, please read Wirecutter’s guides.

VR needs a hit

VR needs a hit

I believe virtual reality is going to be huge. Huge. …Eventually. But when? Are we talking years, or decades? I visited yet another VR festival this week, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’re still in the very early days of the medium. It’s amazing! It’s thrilling! And it’s still kind of the Stone Age. When do we get to discover bronze?

People talk about a “Cambrian explosion” of VR content over the next year or so. I sure hope so. Because there is a very plausible future in which a hard core of VR enthusiasts build systems and worlds that whet the appetite, tickle the interest, and fan the flame of true belief in a tiny minority — but spend a decade failing to break through to the larger population.

Most VR experiences so far are more curiosities than they are compelling. One exception, for me, was Leap Motion’s no-controller motion-tracking experience, which simply tracks your hands in real time such that you almost seamlessly, almost perfectly, wield them and use them in a virtual world. It doesn’t quite just work, but it’s close enough that the weightlessness of virtual objects is actually instinctively disconcerting.

Of course, on the other hand…

But write those caveats off as glitches fixed in the next generation, or the next. The question remains: what might the first real breakout, crossover VR hit be? When can we expect it? And how will it get to us?

The obvious answer is “games.” Unless you count Google’s Cardboard headsets — which on the one hand are popular, but on the other hand seem to tend to languish unused after brief experimentation — gamers are VR’s first major (consumer) target market. A compelling, you’ve-never-experienced-anything-like-this-before VR-only game / world would go a long way towards drawing in the proverbial masses.

VR gaming rigs are expensive, yes, but I predict capitalism will make its usual lemonade from that lemon, and we’ll soon see a rebirth of the arcade culture of the 1980s … except this time all the arcade gamers will be wearing headsets and gesticulating wildly at nothing in little pay-by-the-hour booths.

I suppose completeness compels me to mention another possibility for the VR killer app:

…and I suppose time will tell; but again, I’m talking about a crossover hit, one that stakes out territory in our collective cultural commons. (It helps that VR fiction like Ready Player Onea copy of which is issued to every Oculus Rift employee — has already built a bit of a bridgehead there.) Until we see one of those, VR will be like nuclear fusion: it is the future, sure, but it has been the future for decades, and it often feels like it will always be the future, never the present.

That future will not happen in a culturally meaningful way until better hardware, better software, and more creativity come together to create something now. Not an adaptation; not just a new dimension; but a game or experience that can only work in VR.

One so compelling will drive ordinary people to use and buy VR hardware, rather than merely preach to the choir of early adopters searching for content to justify the hardware they bought out of habit. One that spreads by word-of-mouth, until middle-aged couples who wouldn’t normally be caught dead in VR arcades find themselves lining up to try this hot new thing. One that inspires a censorious moral panic — you really know you’ve made it when you trigger a moral panic.

It’s a mug’s game to try to predict exactly when that will happen, or what it will be. But I think it’s a fairly sound prediction that (consumer) VR will languish as a minor curiosity appealing largely to a few die-hards — think Ingress compared to Pokémon Go — until it does.

Source: TechCrunch

The VCR Is Officially Dead, But We’ll Never Forget It

The VCR Is Officially Dead, But We’ll Never Forget It

VHS VIDEO TAPE CASSETTE

Source: WIRED