Connected door knobs are lying to us

This week’s podcast was all about security and how we can design things to tell us more about how connectivity changes them from mere appliances into networked computers — and all the risks that can bring. John Kestner, a principle with Supermechanical, a design firm that builds connected devices including the Range thermometer (pictured above) and the Twine sensor, was my guest for the show, and we chatted about how he designed those products with security in mind.

But it got far more interesting in the latter half of the interview (around 48:30) when he started talking about how to design products that convey their new status as a connected device.

“Consumer electronics are magic. There’s really no transparency. It’s really hard to gain any kind of mental model as to what’s happening, Kestner said. “At least when we used Ethernet, we knew when something was connected to the network or not. We could physically unplug it if we wanted.”

But now we don’t have any sense that a device is different with the exception of maybe an LED or that it runs out of batteries every now and then. Kestner wonders if that makes people less likely to wonder what makes the device different and makes them also less likely to want to educate themselves about those differences, such as the security implications. He then wondered how and if we should change the design to offer a sort of warning to consumers that the new, connected version of their old fixtures had different capabilities.

“Maybe there’s a bit of disconnect in making objects look exactly like the objects they are displacing. That’s of course, doing its job in making the customer feel comfortable with its replacement. ‘Oh it’s a familiar object,’ but you don’t want them to feel too comfortable because there are dangers that come with this,” he said.

As to what that is, though, he wasn’t sure. LEDs might make sense, or perhaps an entirely new form of design sensibility and vocabulary that we implement for connectivity that becomes synonymous with conveying the kind of information consumers should know about connected devices. If you guys think of it, please let Kestner know.

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Vimeo finally adds Chromecast support to its iOS app

Better late than never: Vimeo added Chromecast support to its iOS app Friday, allowing users to cast videos straight from an iPad or iPhone to Google’s streaming stick or any Android TV device.

Chromecast-connecting

Chromecast support for Vimeo has been a frequently-requested feature ever since Chromecast launched in summer of 2013. Vimeo acknowledged the delayed response in a blog post Friday, cheekily calling the cast feature “the one you’ve been waiting for.”

A Vimeo spokesperson told me that the company doesn’t have a firm date for bringing casting to its Android app, but added: “It’s a priority for us and coming soon.”

Chromecast comes to South Korea and Australia, now in 24 countries

Google’s quest to bring Chromecast everywhere continued with an expansion to Australia, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal in May of 2014. Chromecast is now available in 24 countries and territories.

The company struck a few partnerships with content providers in these countries, bringing cast capabilities to apps like NTT docomo in Japan and Tving and Hoppin in South Korea.

Users will obviously also be able to cast from Google’s own apps, with YouTube being especially popular in some of these countries. South Korea has long been the country with YouTube’s biggest mobile usage, with more than 60 percent of all YouTube views there now coming from mobile devices, according to a Google blog post.

This post was updated at 10:31 a.m. to reflect the fact that the international expansion actually happened nine months ago.

Roku gets a new Plex app that looks nothing like the old one

Good news for Roku users: everyone’s favorite media center app maker Plex just launched a new Roku channel that makes you forget you’re using a Roku: Gone are the endless rows of square cover art and the complicated, nested information architecture that’s present in so many Roku channels, and also dominated the look of the old Plex app.

Instead, the new Roku app is using big imagery, wallpapers and a great-looking full-screen music player, and offers access to Plex’s new content discovery features as well as trailers and enhanced multi-user support. It’s visually very close to the Plex apps on Sony’s Playstation, Microsoft’s Xbox or Vizio’s smart TVs.

This is how an album looks like with the new Roku app...

This is how an album looks like with the new Roku app…

The app is currently only available to paying Plex Pass subscribers, but will eventually make its way to regular Plex users as well. And right now, it only supports movies, TV shows and music, but support for photos, playlists and channels will be added soon, according to a post on the Plex blog.

... and this is how it used to look like.

… and this is how it used to look like.

Plex is also currently working on integrating music videos from Vevo into its apps. The company first showed off this feature at CES, and executives told me at the time that the goal was to eventually make iTunes obsolete.

Next up for Sling TV: A half-price Nexus Player promo

Sling TV really would like you to try its new internet-based TV service, and it’s even willing to chip in for your streaming player. The company announced a promotion featuring devices from Roku and Amazon Thursday, shipping free Roku streaming sticks or Fire TV sticks to new customers who elect to pre-pay for three months of Sling TV service. Alternatively, users could opt to get a Roku 3 or Fire TV streaming box for 50 percent off.

But that’s not all. Sling TV is also getting ready to launch a similar promotion with Google’s Nexus Player, the Android TV-based streaming device that Google unveiled last November. Sling TV customers will be able to get the Nexus Player 50 percent off as well, which brings the price down to $50. The Nexus Player promotion hasn’t been officially announced yet, but is already listed on a subsection of Sling’s website.

sling tv nexus player promo

Already teased, but not yet live: Sling TV’s Nexus Player promotion.

However, don’t get too excited just yet: The site doesn’t actually let you order the price-reduced Nexus Player just yet, for a reason. There’s one more thing that Sling TV has to do before it actually goes live with the Nexus Player promotion: Launch an Android TV-compatible app. As of now, Nexus Player support is still listed as “coming soon.”

A sneak peek at Xiaomi’s Android-based Mi TV

Chinese smart phone maker Xiaomi may be getting ready to sell some of its wares in the U.S., but its smart TV devices likely won’t be part of that U.S. line-up any time soon: Xiaomi VP of International Hugo Barra told me on the sidelines of a press event in San Francisco Thursday that Xiaomi’s TV set is heavily customized for the Chinese market, thanks in part to content licensing agreements, and the company isn’t looking to strike similar deals in the U.S.. The same goes for Xiaomi’s Mi Box mini, a streaming device that the company introduced last month.

However, never say never: Xiaomi revealed last year that it plans to invest $1 billion in online video content, which could eventually pave the way to target Chinese expats, or even wider audiences, outside of China as well. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look at Xiaomi’s Mi TV, the company’s 47-inch smart TV, which was on display at the press event as well.

Xiaomi Mi TV

Mi TV is based on Android, but it doesn’t look at all like the Android TVs Google is currently introducing with manufacturers like Sony and Sharp. Instead, Xiaomi has custom-built its own user interface, which boasts access to TV, movie and game content as well as an app store and access to user-generated local and cloud content.

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At the center of the experience is definitely Xiaomi’s movie and TV content, which the company is licensing from China’s ICN TV. “Essentially, you get a Netflix-style subscription for free,” Barra told me.

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Barra stressed that all of the content available through Mi TV is licensed, and said that it’s possible to offer free content in part because licensing costs in China are a lot lower.

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Mi TV also offers access to Android games, which can be played with an external game pad.

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Mi TV users can also access Xiaomi’s Mi Cloud service, which offers personal media backup and synching across devices. That way, they are able to view photos and videos taken on Xiaomi smartphones on their TVs.

IMG_4137

Xiaomi President Bin Lin said Thursday that Mi Cloud already stores 30 billion photos. Over time, the company wants to extend the cloud functionality to connect all kinds of devices through the company’s IoT platform.

Samsung TVs start inserting ads into your movies

Thought you could watch that video on your local hard drive without ads? Think again: A number of owners of Samsung’s smart TVs are reporting this week that their TV sets started to interrupt their movie viewing with Pepsi ads, which seem to be dynamically inserted into third-party content.

“Every movie I play 20-30 minutes in it plays the pepsi ad, no audio but crisp clear ad. It has happened on 6 movies today,” a user reported on Reddit, where a number of others were struggling with the same problem.

Reports for the unwelcome ad interruption first surfaced on a Subreddit dedicated to Plex, the media center app that is available on a variety of connected devices, including Samsung smart TVs. Plex users typically use the app to stream local content from their computer or a network-attached storage drive to their TV, which is why many were very surprised to see an online video ad being inserted into their videos.

Samsung accepted the blame for the ad a day after this story originally published, with a spokesperson telling me it was an error that was confined to TVs sold in Australia:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are aware of a situation that has caused some Smart TV users in Australia to experience program interruption in the form of an advertisement. This seems to be caused by an error, and we are currently conducting a full and thorough investigation into the cause. This situation has been reported only in Australia. We would like to apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”[/blockquote]

A Plex spokesperson had previously assured me that the company has nothing to do with the ad in question. It looks like the Pepsi ad isn’t just making an appearance within Plex. Subscribers of Australia’s Foxtel TV service are reporting that streams watched through the Foxtel app on Samsung TVs have been interrupted by the same commercial. A Foxtel employee responded to these reports by saying that “this absolutely should not be happening and is being escalated immediately.”

It looks like the ad insertion was accidentally turned on by default for apps that it wasn’t actually meant for, but the faux pas points to a bigger issue: Device makers like Samsung have long tried to figure out how to monetize their platforms and generate additional revenue in a time where margins on hardware are slim at best.

Samsung initially tried to sell ads on its smart TVs, but shuttered its paid app store for the big screen a year ago because it realized that most people simply didn’t want to pay for TV apps. Another popular idea in the industry has been to monetize smart TV platforms through media services — but it turns out that isn’t all that easy either, especially at a time where most people are perfectly happy with just using Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Instant.

To its credit, Samsung caught on to this shift in consumer behavior earlier than others as well, and shuttered its movie rental service last July. The last option for Samsung is to monetize third-party apps — and the company isn’t alone in trying. Roku has been particularly aggressive with ad and revenue sharing agreements, but I’ve been told that almost all platforms are trying to strike some kind of deal with more successful developers to either run ads against their content or get a cut of their revenue.

Consumers rarely ever get to know about these deals — unless something goes wrong, which seems to be exactly what happened in the case of that Pepsi ad that popped up on Samsung TVs this week. That’s bad, because there are other issues at hand than interruptions from unwelcome ads. Who, for example, gets what kind of data when TV manufacturers strike deals with advertisers? And how can consumers opt out of data collection altogether?

Coincidentally, the Pepsi ad started to pop up on Samsung TVs a mere day after the company was in the hot waters over another smart TV-related privacy mishap: Earlier this week, an owner of a Samsung smart TV discovered that the company’s privacy policy included warnings not to disclose private information in front of the TV, with the implication that the device might be listening in on our all your conversations. Samsung has since clarified that this isn’t the case — the device is only capturing voice commands when you press the microphone button on your remote control, and otherwise using hot words to monitor for voice commands.

But the incident clearly indicated that companies like Samsung have to be more transparent about the data collection capabilities of their devices. The Pepsi app just seems to be the icing on the cake, urging the company to get serious about this now.

This story was updated on 2/11/2015 with a statement from Samsung.

TeraDeep wants to bring deep learning to your dumb devices

Open the closet of any gadget geek or computer nerd, and you’re likely to find a lot of skeletons. Stacked deep in a cardboard box or Tupperware tub, there they are: The remains of webcams, routers, phones and other devices deemed too obsolete to keep using and left to rot, metaphorically speaking, until they eventually find their way to a Best Buy recycling bin.

However, an under-the-radar startup called TeraDeep has developed a way to revive at least a few of those old devices by giving them the power of deep learning. The company has built a module that it calls the CAMCUE, which runs on an ARM-based processor and is designed to plug into other gear and run deep neural network algorithms on the inputs they send through. It could turn an old webcam into something with the smart features of a Dropcam, if not smarter.

“You can basically turn our little device into anything you want,” said TeraDeep co-founder and CTO Eugenio Culurciello during a recent interview. That potential is why the company won a Structure Data award as one of most-promising startups to launch in 2014, and will be presenting at our Structure Data conference in March.

Didier Lacroix (left) and Eugenio Culurciello (right)

Didier Lacroix (left) and Eugenio Culurciello (right)

But before TeraDeep can start transforming the world’s dumb gear into smart gear, the company needs to grow — a lot. It’s headquartered in San Mateo, California, and is the brainchild of Culurciello, who moonlights as an associate professor of engineering at Purdue University in Indiana. It has 10 employees, only three of which are full-time. It has a prototype of the CAMCUE, but isn’t ready to start mass-producing the modules and getting them into developers’ hands.

I recently saw a prototype of it at a deep learning conference in San Francisco, and was impressed by its how well it worked, albeit in a simple use case. Culurciello hooked the CAMCUE up to a webcam and to a laptop, and as he panned the camera, the display on the computer screen would alert the presence of a human when I was in the shot.

“As long as you look human-like, it’s going to detect you,” he said.

The prototype system can be set to detect a number of objects, including iPhones, which it was able to do when the phone was held vertically.

teradeep setup

The webcam setup on a conference table.

TeraDeep also has developed a web application, software libraries and a cloud platform that Culurciello said should make it fairly easy for power users and application developers, initially, and then perhaps everyday consumers to train TeraDeep-powered devices to do what they want them to do. It could be “as easy as uploading a bunch of images,” he said.

“You don’t need to be a programmer to make these things do magic,” TeraDeep CEO Didier Lacroix added.

But Culurciello and Lacroix have bigger plans for the company’s technology — which is the culmination of several years of work by Culurciello to develop specialized hardware for neural network algorithms — than just turning old webcams into smarter webcams. They’d like the company to become a platform player in the emerging artificial intelligence market, selling embedded hardware and software to fulfill the needs of hobbyists and large-scale device manufacturers alike.

A TeraDeep module, up close.

A TeraDeep module, up close.

It already has a few of the pieces in place. Aside from the CAMCUE module, which Lacroix said will soon shrink to about the surface area of a credit card, the company has also tuned its core technology (called nn-x, or neural network accelerator) to run on existing smartphone platforms. This means developers could build mobile apps that do computer vision at high speed and low power without relying on GPUs.

TeraDeep has also worked in system-on-a-chip design for partners that might want to embed more computing power into their devices. Think drones, cars and refrigerators, or smart-home gadgets a la the Amazon Echo and Jibo that rely heavily on voice recognition.

Lacroix said all the possibilities, and the interest it has received from folks who’ve seen and heard about the technology, are great, but noted that it might lead such a small company to suffer from a lack of focus or perhaps option paralysis.

“It’s overwhelming. We are a small company, and people get very excited,” he said. “… We cannot do everything. That’s a challenge for us.”

Windows 10 and Ubuntu prepare for IoT battle on Raspberry Pi 2

The Raspberry Pi 2, announced Monday, looks set to be a focal point for the internet-of-things (IoT) development efforts of both Microsoft and Canonical – both will be providing free operating systems for the low-cost device.

Because the $35 quad-core computer is based on the ARMv7 architecture, it is powerful enough to run the recently announced Ubuntu Core, a lightweight version of the popular Linux distribution that will work across drones, robots, smart devices and home hubs. That much was clear from the specs – earlier Raspberry Pis used unsuitable architecture – and the Ubuntu Core image for Raspberry Pi 2 is already available, but the news that a free version of Windows 10 will also run on the device is more of a surprise.

In a Monday blog post, Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton wrote:

For the last six months we’ve been working closely with Microsoft to bring the forthcoming Windows 10 to Raspberry Pi 2. Microsoft will have much more to share over the coming months. The Raspberry Pi 2-compatible version of Windows 10 will be available free of charge to makers.

Microsoft’s internet of things efforts have so far generally been limited to the provision of a cloud back-end in the form of Azure, but in July last year the company rolled out an IoT developer program with a focus on Intel’s x86-based Galileo board.

The Raspberry Pi has a huge following in the maker community, though, which is doubtless why [company]Microsoft[/company] is making Windows 10 available for that device as well as for the Arduino-compatible Galileo.

Here’s what Microsoft had to say in its own Raspberry Pi 2 blog post:

Windows 10 is the first step to an era of more personal computing. This vision framed our work on Windows 10, where we are moving Windows to a world that is more mobile, natural and grounded in trust. With the Windows for IoT developer program we’re bringing our leading development tools, services and ecosystem to the Raspberry Pi community!

We see the Maker community as an amazing source of innovation for smart, connected devices that represent the very foundation for the next wave of computing, and we’re excited to be a part of this community.

Google’s Chromecast has been used for more than one billion casts

Google still hasn’t released any sales numbers for its Chromecast streaming stick, but Google’s Chief Business officer Omid Kordestani updated investors on one metric during the company’s Q4 call Thursday: Chromecast reached one billion cast sessions last week, Kordestani said.

This means that Chromecast usage seems to be accelerating: Google VP of product management Mario Queiroz told us at our Structure Connect back in October that Chromecast had reached 650 million cast sessions. Three months before that, the number of sessions was at 400 million.

Google defines a “cast session” as a user pressing the cast button within an Android, iOS or web app. In other words: Streaming multiple YouTube videos to your TV one after another counts as just one session.

Google put a lot of energy into international expansion for Chromecast in 2014. At CES, it also introduced Google Cast for audio, adding casting to connected loudspeakers from Denon, LG and Sony. Queiroz told me at Structure Connect that the company plans to introduce a V2 of Chromecast in the future.

Here’s my interview with Queiroz back in October:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EXUOyAjNSg]