Every once in a while, we see technology that is unlikely to actually be experienced by most people, but is truly transformative and life-changing for select people. That perfectly describes eSight, a pair of smartglasses that give blind people the ability to see. That’s amazing enough, but the glasses — which look like a cross between PlayStation VR and the Avegant Glyph — are so effective that in some cases the previously blind person may have the best sight in the room when wearing them.
We met Rosa Henderson, who is legally blind and has been since birth, at CES 2018. She has been wearing eSight for several months, and her story is one that shows the human side of cutting-edge modern tech. She didn’t talk about how something helped her productivity, or solved a very specific problem, but about something that lets her live. She said eSight gives her control over everyday life, confidence, and independence like no other device before it. It enables her to do the everyday things most people take for granted.
An example? Henderson talked about attending classes at college, where she would normally have to make special arrangements ahead of time to sit at the very front of the room, and often bring an assistant along to help with dictation and note-taking. That’s after making the journey to the college in the first place, which may have involved the help of other people, using a cane, or owning a service animal — and always required considerable planning. Not impossible, but hugely restrictive, and very reliant on others. It’s hard for sighted people to understand how difficult all this is. Imagine performing your everyday routine with your eyes closed, and it’s probably pretty similar.
Henderson explained that without eSight, she sees nothing long distance, and couldn’t make out my facial features at all when I was sat less than a meter away. Yet with eSight on, not only could she see what I looked like, but she attends those classes without making any prior arrangements, travels safely on her own, and works in the class on her own anywhere she likes.
The classroom experience is a microcosm of real life. Reading signs, being able to see long distances, crossing roads, recognizing people, and even using an Apple Watch is is now possible for Henderson and other eSight wearers. To hear her describe the difference it has made to her life is extremely uplifting.
It’s not the first assistive device she has used, having had experience with everything from a cane to a massive magnification machine that resembled an old microfiche reader and allowed her to view documents. While these often assisted with a single task, none were very convenient, and some didn’t even work well at all.
Everything is solved with eSight, because it enables the wearer to actually see.
Better than 20/20
The eSight is a visor-like device worn on the head, with a pair of corrective glasses built in if they’re needed. A high-speed camera views the world around the wearer, projecting the image onto a pair of OLED screens, where special software enhances and cleans up the image. There’s no lag, the images produced don’t have a digital appearance, and because the visor can be lowered and lifted, peripheral vision isn’t ruined. It’s arguably the true definition of augmented reality.
A high-speed camera views the world around the wearer, projecting the image onto a pair of OLED screens, where special software enhances and cleans up the image.
How much does it change vision? Incredibly, Henderson has the equivalent of 20/20 sight using it. A zoom feature, which is controlled with a linked handset, means she may see further and often with more clarity than sighted people. There’s even an HDMI port to plug in a media device, so the headset acts like a virtual reality display for watching TV and movies. The whole thing is easy to put on, adjust, and take off, thanks to a clever system of magnets. Henderson admits the device could be lighter, but that’s something to work on for the next version.
Unfortunately, eSight costs $10,000, which makes it prohibitively expensive. However, the passion and commitment shown not just by Henderson, but also by Jeff Fenton, eSight’s Director of Outreach, is infectious. To help get eSight into the hands of people who need it, the company offers a financing plan, plus a way to donate and contribute to a worthy cause — making blindness a thing of the past by 2020. We may get all excited over the latest phone, wearable, or game console, but millions of people could experience the same level of freedom and independence as Henderson does by using eSight, and that puts it on a different level.
Prepare for liftoff! Here’s 7 crazy facts about the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket
Like many folks, we were super excited about this week’s Falcon Heavy rocket static-fire engine test. Unfortunately, the demonstration of the SpaceX rocket which Elon Musk hopes will one day wing its way to Mars was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to logistical and safety concerns.
While no new date has yet been announced, you can entertain yourself in the meantime by feasting on some of these astonishing stats about Musk’s red planet rocket.
It’s the world’s most powerful operational rocket
Being, essentially, three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together (a single Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as boosters), the Falcon Heavy promises to swat away the pesky confines of gravity like a giant swatting away a fly.
SpaceX hails it as the “world’s most powerful rocket,” and that’s no exaggeration. In fact, it is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, boasting more than 5 million pounds of thrust. To put that figure in perspective, it’s the equivalent of eighteen 747 airplanes firing at once.
Its maiden flight will carry a fairly unusual payload
You know Elon Musk is deadly serious about the success of his Falcon Heavy maiden flight when he promises that its cargo will include his personal Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload.
As Musk wrote on Twitter, the first Falcon Heavy’s “payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing ‘Space Oddity.’ Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” We totally hope he’s not kidding. At any rate, it beats firing monkeys and dogs into space.
It can carry a whole lot more than just a Tesla Roadster, though
The Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines and three cores are capable of transporting more than 54 metric tons (119,000 lb), including passengers, luggage, crew and fuel.
That’s equivalent to a 737 jetliner and more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, which was last flown in 1973, was able to deliver more payload to orbit.
It has taken longer than planned
Even before its recent delay, the Falcon Heavy was running late. Announced in 2011, it was originally supposed to have its maiden voyage back in 2013 or 2014, only for that date to be pushed back.
In 2015, SpaceX said the first rocket launch would happen in early 2016. When no launch transpired, that date was pushed back to late 2016. Then, after one of SpaceX’s rockets exploded on a Florida launchpad in 2016, that date was put on hold until 2017. In the middle of the year, Musk tweeted that this would happen in November, before delaying it once more to January — and now beyond that as well.
“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk said last year. “Really way, way more difficult than we originally thought. We were pretty naive about that.”
Given the enormity of the undertaking, delays are no great surprise, of course. Hopefully early 2018 will turn out to be the time when this eagerly anticipated test launch does finally happen — for real this time!
It is “competitively priced”
Everyone’s idea of affordable is a bit different, but SpaceX is confident that the Falcon Heavy offers “competitive pricing.” A fully kitted-out version will set you back $90 million on a standard payment plan.
Too rich for your blood? SpaceX will offer “modest discounts,” although you’ll probably need to buy a few rockets to secure this. Or arrive at the showroom in a brand new Tesla Model X.
It has impressive fuel economy (although not as good as Elon Musk wants)
Unlike the Tesla, Falcon Heavy needs actual honest-to-goodness fuel to power it, but at least it promises pretty good fuel economy. Not only does it (as mentioned) claim 2x the payload of the next closest operation vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, but also that it will deliver this at just one-third the cost.
As of April 2016, the idea is that Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 2,268 kg to GTO (geostationary transfer orbit) for a cost of $3,968.25 per kilo. That’s more than 3.5x the $1,100 per kg that Musk stated was his ultimate goal with SpaceX when appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in May 2004.
Still, it’s an impressive step in the right direction — and the plan to have a recoverable upper stage should lead to a further reduction in cost for subsequent missions.
There’s something bigger coming down the track
The Falcon Heavy was designed from day one with the mission of playing a key role in Musk’s dream of carrying humans to Mars. But it won’t be the final piece in the puzzle.
As Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, told Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future: “Our Falcon Heavy will not take a busload of people to Mars. So, there’s something after Heavy. We’re working on it.”
As has since been revealed, that “something” would be the Interplanetary Transport System, a.k.a. The Big F***ing Rocket.
WhatsApp targets small businesses with new app for better communication
WhatsApp, if you didn’t already know it, has a massive user base. Chances are that you’re part of it.
More than a billion people around the world fire up the messaging app every day, with a growing number of people using the service to converse with businesses.
The Facebook-owned startup has decided to lend the smaller outfits a hand, launching a new app called, would you believe, WhatsApp Business. Its main goal is to improve the app’s ease of use for companies dealing with a large number of WhatsApp messages on a daily basis.
Specifically, WhatsApp said the app is aimed at making it easier for businesses to respond to customers, and separate customer and personal messages. Overall, it should help them to create a more official presence on the platform.
One obvious difference to the regular app is the addition of business profiles that let companies include more information about their business, such as a description, address, and website details.
The free app also comes with smart messaging tools designed to offer fast answers to FAQs, as well as greetings messages that introduce a potential customer to the business, and “away” messages so customers know you’re busy. Potentially useful messaging stats are also part of the package.
WhatsApp Business is available now for businesses in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Mexico, and Indonesia, and is coming to the rest of the world in the next few weeks. But take note, at launch the app is an Android-only offering.
WhatsApp edges toward monetization
Perhaps the only surprise about WhatsApp launching the new business-oriented app is that it’s taken it this long to do so. The move will be seen by many as a notable step toward the company monetizing its service, something that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hinting at doing pretty much ever since he bought the startup for $19 billion in 2014, five years after it launched.
WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum and Zuckerberg have been happy to play the long game when it comes to making money out of the messaging app, which has always been cautious about introducing revenue-generating schemes such as ads.
Instead it’s been trying over the years to get regular users comfortable with interactions with businesses, with a possible view to charging brands for the valuable contact opportunity.
As far back as 2015, Zuckerberg insisted the slow approach could prove lucrative in the long run, telling investors: “The long-term bet is that by enabling people to have good organic interactions with businesses, that will end up being a massive multiplier on the value of the monetization down the road.”
The new WhatsApp Business app is another step toward that goal.
Instagram now shows when you’re on the app, and here’s how to stop it
If you’re the kind of person that turns off read-receipts on messaging apps at the first available opportunity, and you’re on Instagram, then here’s another “feature” you’ll be wanting to take care of.
In a nutshell, it lets some of your Instagramming buddies know your activity status on the app, and gives you information on their activity, too. And it’s switched on by default.
By “activity status” we mean how many minutes and hours since you last checked in to look at content. It’ll also say “active now” if you happen to be scrolling through your timeline when they check.
Viewable inside the Direct Messages section of the app, the data is only shared with users that you follow as well as anyone that you message privately. So, no, people that follow you will not be able to check your activity status — unless you’re following them, too.
Instagram describes it like this: “Allow accounts you follow and anyone you message to see when you were last active in Instagram apps. When this is turned off, you won’t be able to see the activity status of other accounts.”
Indeed, if you’d prefer not to share that kind of information on Instagram, it’s easy to stop it.
Simply open the app, go to your profile page, tap the gear icon for Options, and then scroll down till you see “show activity status.” Tap the button beside it and you’re done.
It’s not clear when Instagram introduced the functionality, though it may have come as part of updates rolled out for iOS on Tuesday and Android on Wednesday. With no announcement, there’s a chance it could be a test with a limited number of users, so it may even disappear as quietly as it arrived.
The Facebook-owned company is continuing to roll out updates and test potential features on a regular basis, some more significant than others. Earlier on Thursday, it emerged that Instagram is currently trialing “Type,” a feature that lets you add photo-free text to one of your Instagram Stories. Several fonts are offered, and the app automatically chooses a colored background for you. If you want to jazz it up a bit, you can still select one of your own images as a background, though Instagram will fade it so the text stands out. As with all testing, Instagram will evaluate the results, and possibly tweak the feature, before deciding whether to roll it out to everyone.
London’s anticipated electric black cab launch loses its spark
The much-anticipated launch of London’s first electric black taxi has pretty much fizzled after problems with the vehicle scuppered its smooth arrival.
The “TX” cabs, an updated version of the city’s iconic taxi design, are being built by the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC) and were supposed to arrive on the streets of the capital toward the end of 2017, the Guardian reported this week. But the car, which costs a hefty 55,600 pounds ($77,230), is no longer being delivered to drivers because of an issue with its meter, which is pretty important when you consider a taxi’s primary role.
The technical glitch reportedly results in fares much lower than they should be — a boon for tourists and locals hopping in for a ride across London, but not much good for a cabbie trying to make a living.
“Deliveries are subject to a short delay as a result of an unexpected issue with compatibility with the taxi meters and the taxi,” LEVC said in a tweet on Wednesday. “The problem is understood, and it involves the pulse messages sent between the vehicle and the meter.”
LEVC said it has found a solution and is now working with Transport for London (the city’s travel authority) and third-party meter suppliers “to get the updated, approved meters installed so we can begin customer deliveries in earnest.”
The new electric taxi has a driving range of 70 miles, but that extends to 400 miles with its three-cylinder petrol engine that performs as a generator for a battery pack and electric motor. The system could save cabbies 100 pounds ($138) a week compared to current diesel taxis, according to LEVC.
Inside the vehicle, riders will find seating for six people and modern features such as Wi-Fi and charging ports for mobile devices.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, told the Guardian that the TX is “a fantastic vehicle” and said it could help prompt locals to switch to “electric, clean and green” vehicles.
As for London cabbies, McNamara said many are currently reluctant to ditch their diesel-powered taxi, explaining, “We’ve got to pay 12,000 pounds ($16,700) more for a vehicle that we don’t know the reliability or durability of, at a time when the market is being squeezed by that company.” Yes, he’s referring to Uber.
Another issue is an apparent lack of fast-charging points, with only 90 currently in operation across the capital. To have a serious impact on emissions, cabbies will have to regularly charge their taxis to avoid having to use the gasoline range extender. TfL promises more rapid charging points are on the way.
The rollout of the new electric taxi is clearly presenting some serious challenges, but TfL is aiming for 9,000 of London’s more than 20,000 black cabs to be “zero-emission capable” within two years.
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