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Halo fitness band and app: Amazon's entry into the fitness space is ambitious, but odd – CNET

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Amazon has entered the health and fitness world with Halo, a subscription service and accompanying fitness band that unlocks an array of health metrics, including activity, sleep, body fat and tone of voice analysis, to determine how you sound to others. Amazon’s entry into the fitness space is odd indeed, and ambitious. And we’re just getting our minds wrapped around it. 

The band itself looks a lot like a screenless Fitbit tracker, but with a few different elements: It has temperature sensing, much like Fitbit’s newest smartwatch, the Fitbit Sense, and a microphone that continually scans a wearer’s voice to determine emotional tone. Yes, it’s a lot to take in. And the service is immediately available for early access. We haven’t even had a chance to try it out yet. 

The membership part will start at $65 for the first six months ($100 once the early access deal is over) and then $3.99 a month after that. (International prices aren’t currently available, but $65 converts to about £50 or AU$90.) The subscription to Halo includes the basic fitness band that has one button, no screen and tracks your heart rate, steps and temperature. The lack of screen means you’ll have to rely on the mobile app to see all your data, but it does a lot more than just count your steps and log your weight. 

A tone-analyzing, Amazon health band that also lets you scan your body fat may sound like Black Mirror incarnate, but it’s also opening up some ideas in fitness that we’ve never seen before.


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Body fat analysis with a smartphone camera 

Amazon thinks the concept of weight loss is flawed, and that body fat is a much better predictor of health.

Most of us have been conditioned to obsess over our weight. The entire diet industry was built on it with programs, apps and devices that revolve around ways to lose pounds. 

But weight can fluctuate daily based on factors including humidity, medication, menstrual cycle and illness. Plus muscle is more dense than fat, and a scale can’t tell the difference between the two. You could literally work your ass off building muscle and burning fat, and not see the numbers on the scale go down.

Rather than relying on weight, Halo focuses on body fat percentage, which is less volatile and takes a lot more time and work to change. 

The gold standard in the medical world for body composition analysis is a DEXA scan (dual-energy absorptiometry), which can cost up to $100 at a lab. The Halo app does it all using your smartphone camera. Once you take your photos, the app automatically eliminates everything else in the background, calculates body fat percent based on body indicators, and then creates a 3D model of your body, which is both cool and terrifying. The app requires you to wear minimal form-fitting clothing and trust Amazon to take a picture of you wearing it. The entire process takes seconds. 

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Amazon’s Halo app makes a 3D render of your body to analyze body fat, while the fitness band keeps tabs on sleep and activity. 


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If you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s not surprising: The idea of body-scanning with a camera is already an awkward proposition. Amazon doing this on a health platform makes it feel more so. The sample body-scan images Amazon showed me look very personal — not necessarily something I’d ever want anyone else to see.

That’s why Amazon promises that the finished body scans stay on your phone and won’t be shared with anybody, including the company, unless you opt into that. According to Amazon, “the images are processed in the cloud, but encrypted in transit and processed within seconds, after which they’re automatically deleted from Amazon’s systems and databases. All scan images are fully deleted within 12 hours. The scan images aren’t viewed by anyone at Amazon and aren’t used for machine learning optimizations.”

Watch that tone! 

Halo also offers a Tone analysis, which has nothing to do with body tone, but rather analyzes the nuances of your voice to paint a picture of how you sound to others. It can let you know when you’ve sounded out of line, weirdly enough. 

The fitness band has two built-in mics to capture audio and it listens for emotional cues. The company says it’s not intended to analyze the content of your conversation, just the tone of your delivery. It takes periodic samples of your speech throughout the day if you opt in to the feature. You enable the microphones by tapping the side button and you’ll know when the mic is off when a red LED lights up on the band. 

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Amazon

The voice scanning pulls out the wearer’s specific voice in conversations and delivers analysis with related emotional-tone words (like “happy,” or “concerned” in the Halo app). The idea, according to Amazon, is to help guide you to deliver better tones of voice and speaking styles, like a vocal form of good posture. It isn’t intended as a form of psychological analysis, but it seems awfully hard to draw the line on a concept like this. 

Amazon’s been exploring the idea of emotional tone-sensing since at least 2018, but this is the first time it’s approached the idea in any device. And according to Amazon, the Tone feature is only available on the Halo band for now. It will be limited to the band’s microphone, but Amazon sounds open to exploring the idea on other devices, depending on how the early access response goes from first-wave wearers. It’s a very odd thing to put on a fitness band, and we have no idea what this is like to use yet.

Amazon promises that Tone voice samples are encrypted and stored only on a wearer’s phone (shared from the band via Bluetooth with the encrypted key), are deleted after analysis and won’t be shared to the cloud or used to build machine-learning models.

Sleep analysis with temperature tracking

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The sleep analysis includes a body temperature to detect variations that may impact sleep. 


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The app provides a comprehensive sleep analysis with a breakdown of the different stages of sleep and overall sleep score, much like other fitness trackers. It also goes beyond the basics by keeping track of your overall body temperature during sleep and creating a baseline for each person. It then charts your average temperature each night relative to your baseline to help you identify variations that could affect your health and the quality of your sleep. 

The Halo band won’t provide a specific body temperature, similar to the way other temperature wearable devices like the Oura Ring already work.

Temperature has become a trending wearable metric in the COVID-19 era: The Oura Ring has one and Fitbit’s newest Sense watch has one too. Amazon’s Halo team is pursuing research for COVID-19 symptom detection on its wearables, much like other health wearable companies, but no specific studies or plans have been laid out yet.

Activity tracking: A week at a glance 

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The activity app is based on a weekly point system. 


Amazon

Halo also does basic fitness tracking based on the information from the band. It can automatically track walks and runs, but you’ll have to go into the app and tag any other workouts manually. 

It rewards you for any type of movement or activity, but gives more points for more intense workouts and subtracts points for sedentary time. And it doesn’t keep a daily tally of your activity, your score is based on the points you accrued during the entire week. The entire picture of exercise, sedentary time and active time is combined into one tally.

Amazon’s sleep and activity scores and other AI tools will require an Amazon Halo subscription; otherwise, the band will default to more basic tracking data. Much like Fitbit and its Premium service, this looks to be continuing a trend of fitness devices that expect a subscription model as part of the package.

A lot of labs and partners, but no Google or Apple integration

A Labs section of Amazon Halo looks similar to what’s on Fitbit’s Premium service, with a lot of multiweek health and fitness goals to opt into, and partners lined up from OrangeTheory to Weight Watchers. Amazon promises these challenges are scientifically vetted, but it also sounds like these challenges will keep being added to over time. 

But at least at launch, Halo will not tie in to Apple’s HealthKit or Google’s Fit App which puts it at a disadvantage with people who are already deeply invested in either for health tracking. Amazon is leaning on Weight Watchers, John Hancock Vitality wellness program, and a few others that will be able to hook into Amazon Halo health data.

The looming privacy question

There’s a lot of process in terms of features, and while some seem interesting and innovative, the biggest barrier to entry is privacy. Sharing any kind of health data (let alone unflattering seminudes) requires next-level trust, and you might not be prepared to give Amazon that trust. The company doesn’t exactly have the most pristine track record when it comes to keeping user data private. Alexa-enabled devices have been in the hot seat for storing private conversations “for machine learning purposes.” And Amazon’s Ring doorbell has had a series of privacy dust-ups. 

Halo puts privacy in your hands by allowing you to opt out of data sharing with Amazon and third-party apps as well as disable the microphone on the band, but it’s still going to be an uphill battle. That is unless its features prove to be earth-shattering and worth the privacy risk, which remains to be seen.

Amazon is late on arrival

The lack of connection to Apple or Google is telling. Amazon’s making a play in the health and fitness data space, and with Google, Fitbit and Apple already deep in, it’s a big question as to how Amazon will make waves. Or, where Amazon Halo will go next. It’s a platform as much as a wearable, and it sounds like Halo’s early-access experiment may just be the tip of the iceberg.

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You need to know these 9 hidden iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 features – CNET

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iOS 14 is full of hidden gems; you just have to know where to look. 


Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Apple’s new iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 update for your iPhone ($699 at Amazon) and iPad ($270 at Back Market) add a truckload of features we’re excited about, like widgets on the homescreen, an app drawer of sorts and privacy improvements. (Here’s how to install iOS 14 and iPad 14 right now, after prepping your phone or tablet, of course.)

These welcome enhancements will surely enrich your experience, but my favorite tricks in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 are the ones you have to work to find. For instance, you can now fully ditch Apple Mail and Safari with a new default apps setting.

Below, I’ll walk you through how to use nine of the best hidden features I’ve uncovered in iOS 14. This list will surely continue to grow, so check back for more gems. 

Set your default email or web browser

It’s true, Apple is finally giving up some control over your default apps. Right now the feature is limited to email apps and web browsers. So, for example, you can assign Chrome to be your go-to browser or Outlook as your email app of choice. 

App developers will need to update their apps for iOS 14 in order for the new default assignment option to appear, so you may need to be patient if your favorite app isn’t ready. 

To get started, open your iPhone or iPad’s Settings app and then scroll down to the bottom where it lists all of your installed apps. Find the mail or browser app you’re looking for and tap on it. If it’s been updated for iOS 14, you’ll see either Default Browser App or Default Email App; tap it and then select your preferred app. 

There’s currently a bug in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 that resets your default app selection when you restart your device. Apple is aware and promises a future update will fix it. 

Right now, I know Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Outlook and Hey email have updated to include this new “default” toggle. 

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It’s true, you can set some default apps on iOS 14. 


Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Quickly get rid of app home screens

iOS 14’s new App Library acts like an app drawer, allowing you to ditch countless home screens full of apps you rarely, if ever, use. Instead of going through each app one by one and sending them to the App Library, you can hide entire home screen panels with just a few taps. 

Long-press on an empty area of your home screen to trigger edit mode. Next, tap on the page indicator, then tap the check mark below each panel you want to remove. This won’t delete those apps, but will instead move them solely to the App Library, where they’re more or less hidden in an app drawer that you can access at any time.

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The home screen on your iPhone is now a lot more customizable. 


Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Banish newly downloaded apps from your home screen

You just took all that time to curate your home screens, adding widgets and keeping just your most important apps, only to have all of your hard work ruined by a new app you just downloaded. Instead of letting your iPhone put apps on your home screen when you install them, send them directly to the App Library until they prove they’re worthy. 

Open Settings > Home Screen and select App Library Only in the top section. You can easily find recently downloaded apps in the App Library’s Recently Added category, which should be the top-right folder when you view it. 

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Can’t find that emoji you need? Search for it. 


Jason Cipriani/CNET

Search the emoji keyboard

Finally — yes, this one deserves a very loud “FINALLY! “– you can search the emoji picker for exactly what you want. Launch the emoji keyboard just like you always do and now you’ll find a search bar at the top of the keyboard. 

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Your hidden photo album can actually be hidden now. Cool, right? 


Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Hidden photos are now actually hidden

The ability to hide specific photos or videos has been in iOS and iPadOS for awhile now, but there was a big problem — these photos you didn’t want to see anymore were stored in a Hidden Album in the Photos app that was far too easy to find. With iOS 14, Apple has added the option to hide the hidden album, letting you truly cloak those photos and videos you want to keep, but don’t want anyone else to see. 

Turn it on by going to Settings > Photos and making sure the Hidden Album switch is turned off. (Yes, off: Enabling the setting means the Hidden Album will show in the Albums tab.) Anything you hide in your camera roll will still be saved on your device and in your iCloud Photos library, but you won’t have a way to get to it unless you go back to this setting and turn the Hidden Album feature on. 

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Picture-in-picture is one of our favorite iOS 14 features. 


Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Watch YouTube videos in Picture in Picture mode

The iPhone now has one of my favorite iPad features: Picture in Picture (PiP) mode for watching videos or using during FaceTime calls. Here’s how it works. Instead of having to stay in an app, for example if you’re watching your favorite game streamer in Twitch, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to leave the app and the video will automatically shrink down to a floating window. You can move this thumbnail video around, or even hide it off the edge of the screen if you just want to listen to the audio.

The YouTube app doesn’t support PiP right now, but you can get around that by starting to watch a YouTube video in Safari in full-screen mode, then swiping up to go back to your home screen. The key is you have to put the video in full-screen mode before leaving the app. If that’s not working for you, try requesting the desktop version of the site before you start watching the video. 

If you’d rather not trigger PiP when you leave an app, turn off automatic activation by going to Settings > General > Picture in Picture and turn it off. After which, the only time PiP will be used is when you tap on the icon in a playing video. 


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Fake eye contact in FaceTime

We first saw FaceTime’s eye contact feature show up in the iOS 13 beta last year, but ultimately it was never released. Well, it’s back in iOS 14. Essentially your iPhone or iPad will make it look as if your eyes are looking directly into the camera, even if you’re staring at the screen. 

It’s a subtle feature, but one that should make the person on the other end of the call feel as if you’re fully paying attention instead. 

Turn it on by going to Settings > General > FaceTime > Eye Contact

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Tap on the back of your phone to do all kinds of fancy tricks. 


Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Double- or triple-tap on the back of the phone to trigger actions

A new accessibility feature called Back Tap makes it possible to trigger system features, like multitasking or Control Center, or launch a Shortcut just by tapping on the back of your iPhone two or three times. 

Find the feature in Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Back Tap. Pick the number of taps you want to use, and then you’ll see a list of actions you can initiate. 

For example, you can triple-tap on the back of your phone to take a screenshot or launch Siri

When I first read about this feature, I thought it would be all too easy to prompt it just by putting my iPhone in my pocket or placing it on my desk. But that hasn’t been the case at all — the phone seems good at identifying the tap pattern before it activates. 

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You can use the Apple Pencil to write in any text field. 


Scott Stein/CNET

Scribble in any text field on your iPad with Apple Pencil

The iPad has a new feature called Scribble. It basically converts any text field into a box that you can write in using an Apple Pencil, and your iPad will convert your handwriting to typed text automatically. 

If you’re in the middle of jotting notes and you get a new iMessage, you can pull down the alert and use the quick-reply field to write out your response and go back to writing notes, all without ever putting down the Pencil or activating the keyboard. 

For heavy Apple Pencil users, Scribble should speed up a lot of tasks that normally would have been slowed down by having to switch between stylus and keyboard. 

There’s so much more to these updated operating systems. iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 are available as free updates and don’t take long to install. Just make sure to do some housekeeping on your device before installing to make sure the process goes smoothly. And don’t be surprised if there are some issues with your favorite apps for the first few days — Apple surprised everyone, including developers, by releasing the update the day after the Sept. 15 “Time Flies” event.

Update, Sept. 18., 11:50 a.m.: Adds info about default apps resetting.

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Twitter and Zoom’s algorithmic bias issues – TechCrunch

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Both Zoom and Twitter found themselves under fire this weekend for their respective issues with algorithmic bias. On Zoom, it’s an issue with the video conferencing service’s virtual backgrounds and on Twitter, it’s an issue with the site’s photo cropping tool.

It started when Ph.D. student Colin Madland tweeted about a Black faculty member’s issues with Zoom. According to Madland, whenever said faculty member would use a virtual background, Zoom would remove his head.

“We have reached out directly to the user to investigate this issue,” a Zoom spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re committed to providing a platform that is inclusive for all.”

When discussing that issue on Twitter, however, the problems with algorithmic bias compounded when Twitter’s mobile app defaulted to only showing the image of Madland, the white guy, in preview.

“Our team did test for bias before shipping the model and did not find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “But it’s clear from these examples that we’ve got more analysis to do. We’ll continue to share what we learn, what actions we take, and will open source our analysis so others can review and replicate.”

Twitter pointed to a tweet from its chief design officer, Dantley Davis, who ran some of his own experiments. Davis posited Madland’s facial hair affected the result, so he removed his facial hair and the Black faculty member appeared in the cropped preview. In a later tweet, Davis said he’s “as irritated about this as everyone else. However, I’m in a position to fix it and I will.”

Twitter also pointed to an independent analysis from Vinay Prabhu, chief scientist at Carnegie Mellon. In his experiment, he sought to see if “the cropping bias is real.”

In response to the experiment, Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal said addressing the question of whether cropping bias is real is “a very important question.” In short, sometimes Twitter does crop out Black people and sometimes it doesn’t. But the fact that Twitter does it at all, even once, is enough for it to be problematic.

It also speaks to the bigger issue of the prevalence of bad algorithms. These same types of algorithms are what leads to biased arrests and imprisonment of Black people. They’re also the same kind of algorithms that Google used to label photos of Black people as gorillas and that Microsoft’s Tay bot used to become a white supremacist.

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Microsoft pledges to bring Xbox game streaming to iOS: 'we will get there' – MobileSyrup

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Xbox chief Phil Spencer has promised that the company’s game streaming service will eventually come to iOS at some point in the future.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Spencer noted that there are “ongoing discussions” between Microsoft and Apple to make this happen.

“We’re committed to bringing xCloud to all mobile endpoints, including Apple’s big ecosystem,” he said. For customers out there — and I see it on Twitter all the time, people asking — they can just know we will get there. We remain committed.”

On September 15th, Microsoft launched game streaming on Android, allowing those in Canada and 21 other countries with a $16.99 CAD/month Game Pass Ultimate subscription to play more than 150 Xbox games through the cloud. This includes major exclusive titles like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Gears 5 and Sea of Thieves, as well as notable third-party titles such as Destiny 2The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, all through Game Pass Ultimate.

However, Xbox game streaming has not yet come to iOS, despite Microsoft expressing a desire to bring the service to as many platforms as possible. The reason for this exclusion is because Apple’s App Store rules prevent all-in-one game streaming services like Xbox’s, as well as others like Google’s Stadia and Nvidia’s GeForce Now.

While Apple recently updated its storefront policies, they still prevent Xbox game streaming as it currently exists. That’s because Apple still requires each Game Pass title to be made available on the App Store through its own app. Naturally, this would allow Apple to take its standard 30 percent cut on a per-title basis, rather than a less lucrative share of subscription fees.

In response, Microsoft argued that this would create a “bad experience” for consumers. Further, the company also stated that it’s unreasonable that gaming services like Game Pass are subject to being carved up in such a way when video streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ are able to carry all of their content within the app with no further regulation from Apple.

For now, though, Spencer seems to think Microsoft will be able to come to some sort of agreement with Apple. As it stands, it’s unclear when — if at all — the two companies may strike a deal.

It also remains to be seen whether Fortnite maker Epic’s ongoing legal battle with Apple — in which it argues that the Cupertino, California-based tech giant employs unfair, monopolistic App Store practices —  might result in a loosening of the App Store’s policies that could, in turn, allow Game Pass to come to iOS.

Source: Bloomberg

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