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Snapchat launches Spectacles 3 with two cameras

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You’re tapping through your friends’ Snapchat stories, and suddenly you see something unexpected: Unlike the standard selfies with dancing butterflies or mouse ears, you see a video of your friend biking down the beach while an animated phoenix darts around in front of them, with glittery particles rushing toward you.

This is more than your typical face filter, which maps cute features and animations to your facial features and have been around since 2015. The phoenix, while clearly not real, looks like it’s actually at the beach with your friend. Unlike an animated sticker, where the phoenix might fly around without regard to its backdrop, the bird’s motions and the dazzling particles it emits are all contextual, getting larger as they get closer to the camera.

The phoenix’s magic trick is only possible through Snap’s new Spectacles 3, for which Snap is opening pre-orders today. Unlike previous versions, the Spectacles 3 have two camera—one on each side of the wearer’s face. By putting another camera on its video-recording glasses, Snap’s engineers are able to calculate the distance between the wearer and the objects that they’re looking at, creating what Snap calls a “depth map.” Then, when users go to upload their Spectacles content to Snapchat, they can add a whole series of new effects that take advantage of this newfound understanding of the physical world.

It’s a new approach to Spectacles, distinct from Snap’s first foray into hardware back in 2016. The first Spectacles were brightly colored glasses that had a single embedded camera, enabling users to take 10-second clips of their lives, from their point of view. But while Spectacles seemed like they could be a breakthrough product for the company, which IPO’d just months after their launch, neither the first launch of Spectacles nor the second iteration in 2018 managed to convince millions to put cameras on their faces.

Perhaps that’s why for Spectacles 3, the company is keeping its expectations low. “We’re putting it out there with the goal of learning about some critical things,” a Snap spokesperson said. “We’re not trying to sell a billion of these.”

Instead, Snap is thinking of the new Spectacles as a test run in the company’s push to bring augmented reality to the masses—a trajectory the company began with its popular face filters. By putting another camera on Spectacles 3, Snap opens up a new realm of AR effects that users can add to their videos and images. It’s not just phoenixes; users can also add colorful filters that morph throughout a video based on how far away objects are in the shot and animated hearts that float around a video but burst when they come into contact with a real-world object. Snap is also opening up the depth map’s features to content creators, enabling to make their own AR filters through its DIY filter maker, Lens Studio.

It’s also priced for a limited audience. At $380 for a pair, Snap isn’t going after the casual consumer (previous versions cost $150 and $200). The Spectacles 3 are deliberately designed for early adopters who want to get their hands on the latest filters—and who can help Snap test out this step forward toward its vision of augmented reality. On top of applying AR filters to Spectacles videos, content creators will also be able to upload content straight to YouTube VR, making Spectacles a tool for creating three-dimensional video. Viewers can use a mobile VR headset to feel like they’re immersed in this type of video. Even photos taken with Spectacles 3 will have an added bonus: By stringing together the images from the left and right cameras, they’ll be instantly GIFable, in a single shot.

To understand the depth of the world around Spectacles wearers, Snap’s engineers utilize the same technique that your eyes do, called stereo vision. Our eyes feed two different images to our brains, and our brains calculate the differences between the images. Objects that are closer to us will look mostly the same in the two images, since our eyes tend to point toward your nose to focus on something up close. Objects that are farther away will look different, since our eyes tend to point parallel to each other. With two cameras, the Spectacles 3 can send both of these two images to your phone for processing—for creating depth maps of videos, Spectacles uploads the two videos to the cloud. Snap uses the difference between the same point in each image to determine the distance between that point and the camera. The 3D effects can then be added on the phone at a later time.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of Spectacles 3 is an accessory that will come with each pair when Snap starts selling them in November: a cardboard headset that looks almost identical to cardboard VR headsets. But this isn’t designed to watch 3D videos from YouTube. Spectacles users can put their Snapchat app in a special stereoscopic mode, and then place their smartphone inside the headset to relive their own memories, from their own point of view.

Will anyone actually use this 3D viewer? Maybe not, since we’re all more accustomed to reliving memories through our much more convenient screens. Even avid Snapchatters may find that new, more realistic filters are not enough of a lure to actively use Spectacles 3 on a monthly basis—something that Snap has reportedly struggled with in previous iterations of the product. But even if few people actually use Spectacles, it feels like a step forward for Snap’s augmented reality ambitions because it enables Snap to use depth to make more contextual animations and lenses for the first time.

Though Spectacles have mostly been a commercial flop, Snap says that the glasses are part of its long game. “We have this long-term vision of computing overlays onto the world, and this idea that applications move from 2D screens out into the spatial and 3D space,” Snap CTO and cofounder Bobby Murphy told my colleague Mark Wilson a few weeks ago. “We know that hardware is going to be a major component of realizing that future, and so Spectacles, and our Snap Labs team that builds Spectacles, is a big part of our goal. The different iterations of Spectacles are just kind of pushing us along this path, and allowing us to explore and work on a hardware device from the ground up in a way that will allow us to create some really interesting experiences and interfaces for users in the future.”

Next up? According to a Snap spokesperson, Spectacles are moving closer and closer to bona fide AR glasses that can project images into your eyes. When that day arrives, you might be able to project phoenixes and bursting hearts into your eyes IRL, so you don’t have to wait until they’re uploaded to Snapchat to see them.

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News Corp is making a news service

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News Corp is developing a news distribution service designed to offer an alternative to Google and Facebook, according to The Wall Street Journal. It’s currently being called Knewz, and it’s meant to give the Rupert Murdoch-owned publishing empire leverage over the two tech giants, both of which have become integral to the distribution of news — often to publishers’ consternation.

Knewz is also being developed due to concerns from News Corp executives that Google and Facebook are biased against conservative publications, according to the Journal. While there remains no clear evidence of that bias — Fox News and the Daily Mail were among the top three web publishers on Facebook last month, and a yearlong study by The Economist only found a lean on Google toward more trustworthy publications — it’s obvious why these allegations would concern the Murdoch empire, which has long played a major role in shaping and promoting conservative politics.

A News Corp spokesperson told the Journal that Knewz would show a “wide spectrum of news and views, from local, niche and national sources, without bent or bias.” The service will use both algorithmic recommendations and human curation. Google and Facebook declined to comment.

While the easy takeaway is that this is News Corp’s attempt to make a conservative-leaning news service, the broader goal of challenging Google and Facebook is an important one. Those two tech giants are responsible for directing an enormous portion of traffic on the web. Performing well on either of those platforms can be the difference between a publication growing or failing. (Mic, for instance, thrived on Facebook, then collapsed when Facebook stopped directing as much traffic.)

That means publishers are at the whims of two tech giants that often don’t have their best interests in mind. The Journal, which is also owned by News Corp, suggests that Knewz is being designed with some traits that publishers might prefer: it’ll preference original reports over aggregation (e.g., the Journal’s story about Knewz over this writeup about it), it won’t disadvantage sites with paywalls, it’ll link directly to stories (instead of platform-hosted pages like Facebook’s Instant Articles), it won’t take a cut of ad revenue, and it’ll even share data with publishers.

Getting publishers on board was never going to be the hard part, though. News Corp has more than enough sway to do that, and publishers are always looking for more traffic sources. The trouble will be getting readers on board: Google and Facebook are not first and foremost seen as news distributors. People go to them for other purposes, and those uses lead to them reading stories from across the web. News Corp will likely find it to be far more difficult to get a large base of readers regularly coming to Knewz when they can already get news from a wide variety of other sources.

Knewz could launch later this year with both an app and a website, the Journal says. News Corp still isn’t certain the service will launch, with the spokesperson characterizing the company’s work as an exploration.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 10 wallpapers hide the notch

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Similar to the Samsung Galaxy S10 series, the South Korean company has launched wallpapers that hide the Galaxy Note 10 notch.

Samsung contacted popular Instagram illustrators to make wallpapers for the Note 10. Samsung reached out to Ketnipz and Gemma Correll, Ketnipz has 1.2 million followers.

The single hole punch on the Note 10 is the screen cutout for the handset’s front-facing smartphone camera.

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Apple readying camera-focused Pro iPhones

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Apple Inc. is readying a clutch of new hardware for the coming weeks and months, including “Pro” iPhones, upgrades to iPads and its largest laptop in years.

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant is planning to announce three new iPhones at an event next month, according to people familiar with the situation. The handsets will likely go on sale in September, contributing to fiscal fourth-quarter sales. But the real test will come in the crucial holiday season. That’s when the company is banking on a combination of new hardware, software and services to drive revenue higher, following a huge miss at the end of last year.

Also coming in 2019: refreshed versions of the iPad Pro with upgraded cameras and faster chips, an entry-level iPad with a larger screen, new versions of the Apple Watch, and the first revamp to the MacBook Pro laptop in three years, the people said. Updates to key audio accessories, including AirPods and the HomePod speaker, are in the works, too, these people added. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Beyond these unannounced products, Apple is gearing up to launch a refreshed Mac Pro and its accompanying monitor, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, and Apple Watch software updates, as well as its Apple TV+ video and Apple Arcade gaming subscription services.

Here’s what to expect:

iPhone:

Apple is planning to launch three new iPhones, as it has done each year since 2017: “Pro” iPhone models to succeed the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max as well as a successor to the iPhone XR. The main feature of the Pro iPhones will be a new camera system on the back with a third sensor for capturing ultra-wide-angle photos and videos. The extra camera will let users zoom out and capture a larger field of view. The sensors will capture three images simultaneously and use new artificial intelligence software to automatically correct the combined photo if, for example, a person is accidentally cut out of one of the shots. The new system will also take higher resolution pictures rivalling some traditional cameras. Photos taken in very low-light environments will improve, too.  The high-end handsets will have significantly upgraded video recording capabilities, getting them closer to professional video cameras. Apple has developed a feature that allow users to retouch, apply effects, alter colours, reframe and crop video as it is being recorded live on the device.

Another notable new feature: A reverse wireless charging system so that a user can power-up the latest AirPods in the optional wireless-charging case by leaving it on the back of the new Pro phones. This is similar to a capability that Samsung Electronics Co. rolled out for its Galaxy handsets earlier this year. The high-end iPhones will look nearly identical to the current models from the front and feature the same size screens, but at least some colours on the back will have a matte finish versus the existing glossy look. The new models should hold up better when they’re dropped due to new shatter-resistance technology.

The phones will include a new multi-angle Face ID sensor that captures a wider field of view so that users can unlock the handsets more easily — even when the devices are flat on a table. Apple has dramatically enhanced water resistance for the new models, which could allow them to be submerged under water far longer than the 30-minute rating on the current iPhones.

The new models will have updated OLED screens that lack the pressure-sensitive 3D Touch technology. Apple is replacing this with Haptic Touch, which essentially mirrors 3D Touch’s functionality with a long press, as it did with the iPhone XR last year.

The iPhone XR’s successor will gain a second back camera for optical zoom, the ability to zoom in further without degrading quality, and enhanced portrait mode. Apple is also adding a new green version.

All of the new iPhones will have faster A13 processors. There’s a new component in the chip, known internally as the “AMX” or “matrix” co-processor, to handle some math-heavy tasks, so the main chip doesn’t have to. That may help with computer vision and augmented reality, which Apple is pushing a core feature of its mobile devices.  None of the new models will include 5G, but next year’s will. They’ll also have rear-facing 3-D cameras that will boost augmented reality capabilities.

iPad:

After launching new mid-tier iPad Air and iPad mini models earlier this year, Apple is planning to refresh the iPad Pro and its low-end iPad for schools.

The 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros will get similar upgrades to the iPhones, gaining upgraded cameras and faster processors. Otherwise, the new iPads will look like the current versions.

The low-end iPad’s screen will be 10.2-inches. That means Apple will likely no longer sell a new model with a 9.7-inch display, discontinuing the original display size after using it for nearly a decade.

Apple Watch, AirPods, and HomePod:

After revamping the Apple Watch last year with a new design and bigger screens, this year’s changes will be more muted, focusing on the watchOS 6 software update, and new case finishes. References to new ceramic and titanium models have been found in an early version of iOS 13, Apple’s latest mobile operating system.

Apple is working on new AirPods that are likely to be more expensive than the current US$159 model. New features will include water resistance and noise cancellation with a launch planned by next year. Apple introduced a new version of the entry-level AirPods in March with hands-free Siri support and longer battery life. Apple is also working on a cheaper HomePod for as early as next year. The current US$300 model hasn’t sold very well. The new model is likely to have two tweeters (a type of loudspeaker), down from seven in the current HomePod.

Mac: 

Apple is planning a revamped MacBook Pro with a screen over 16-inches diagonally. The bezels on the new laptop will be slimmer so the overall size of the laptop will be close to the current 15-inch models. The new laptop would mark Apple’s largest since the 17-inch MacBook Pro was discontinued in 2012. It’s part of an effort by Apple to retain and woo professional computer users.

Apple is also launching the previously announced Mac Pro and 32-inch XDR Pro Display later this year.

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