Google’s Project Ara: The Modular Smartphone

ara-apartLast week, Google held their first developer conference for Project Ara, Google’s modular smartphone. The concept of this particular modular phone started off as Phonebloks, an initiative by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens to reduce electronic waste. Google and Motorola adopted the concept into Project Ara, which is headed by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team.

Project Ara aims to create a low-cost smart phone for the 5 billion mobile users out there that have yet to jump from their basic feature phones. The modular phone proposed by Ara is a barebones phone that can be customized with the addition of various modules.

An easy analogy would be a custom-built PC that users can upgrade with a selection of components from various manufacturers, things like memory, video cards and higher capacity storage. Now imagine a phone you can upgrade without junking your old one. Want a better camera phone? With a modular phone, there’s no need to buy a whole new phone for that. Just swap out the old camera for a higher resolution camera.

At Google’s event, someone actually dropped the phone, cracking the screen. Fortunately, the nature of the project turned this incident into a selling point. The idea is you’d simply be able to swap out the broken display for a new one, as nearly every part of this phone is designed to be easily replaced.

Because the hardware can be constantly modified, Ara engineers need to be economical about their designs to make the best use of the limited space available. The result is that Project Ara features some innovative, creative design and just plain cool engineering.

The Modular Design

The base of the phone is called the endoskeleton, or “endo” for short. This metal foundation is divided into a grid of several blocks. There are plans for various phone sizes, each with a different number of blocks. The standard size is 3×6, a large phone would be 4×7, and a small one would be 2×5. Each phone features a vertical spine that further segments the grid to accept external modules made up of a certain number of blocks.

endosizesModules are made up of 1×1, 2×1 and 2×2 block configurations, and fit into the corresponding slots on the endo. The CPU, memory, and other core hardware are located in a single 2×2 primary “Application Processor” module, or “AP.” Theoretically, if you want a faster phone, you could just swap out the AP for a newer one. Google hopes to attract various component manufacturers to develop their own modules for the device, including items like displays, microphones, speakers, batteries, cameras, biometric readers, and more.

Modules don’t have to be dedicated to a single function. Since space is very limited, developers are encouraged to maximize their use of space, meaning larger modules can have multiple functions. For example, module designers could fill any left over space with an extra battery, extending the overall battery life of the device.

Integrating New Mobile Technology

Modules communicate with each other by a high-speed interface protocol called UniPro. This interface technology targets mobile applications, featuring high-bandwidth and low power consumption.

Modules physically connect to the endo through capacitive M-PHY surfaces. The capacitive interface allows for clear connection points, minimizing wear and tear when replacing modules and extending the lifetime of the device. Endoskeletons are expected to last 5 to 6 years.

Electropermanent magnets hold the modules in place. As opposed to electromagnets that need a constant current to keep on, electropermanent magnets only need a current to flip between and on and off state, saving on power and battery.

Thanks to a small battery built into the endo itself, the phone continues to receive power, even if the main battery is removed. This means that you’ll be able to swap in and out most modules without having to power down or reset the phone.

Innovations in 3D Printing

In relation to Project Ara, Google is also taking another initiative in the 3D printing space. Google is working with 3D Systems to develop a new 3D printer that excels at printing in volume, something that existing printers have trouble with. This new printing system lays materials down in an oval track, as opposed to the back and for the construction process of traditional 3D printers.

The faster production will allow for mass-production of module shells, and users will able to print their own custom shells to meet their aesthetic desires. Google is also working on developing conductive ink printing, which would allow 3D printers to build electronics within the module cases.

A second Project Ara developer’s conferences in July will specifically cater to artists and 3D printing companies.

Project Ara In 2015

Development lead Paul Eremenko is taking his team through a new work philosophy, adopted from his previous experiences working for DARPA. The team only has 2 years to go from concept to final product. The small time frame encourages the team to take more risks to meet the deadline, leading to more innovation in the development process.

Project Ara will launch in early 2015. There will be two more developer conferences before the end of this year, and pre-production prototypes are already in the cards for December.

Google says consumers should expect the endoskeleton to cost under $100. They plan to release an endoskeleton package called the “grey phone,” which will include an endoskeleton frame, the display, a battery, the main Application Processor module and a Wi-Fi unit. Google hopes that the module ecosystem will see a number of components from different manufacturers, offering more pricing options for consumers to choose from. The idea is that users will be able to customize their experience, going from a blank “grey” phone to whatever color or flavor of device they desire.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

PAX Gaming Expo Comes to Texas in January 2015

paxasGamers in Texas who want to share their passion with a crowd of like-minded individuals have had a few limiting options to do so in the past. There’s QuakeCon in Dallas, which is mainly focused on PC games. If you’re into pinball and classic arcade games, there’s the Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco. The ScrewAttack Gaming Convention is a little more general, but still relatively low-key, and Austin’s South by Southwest only has a small portion dedicated to gaming. While these events are popular, with attendance in the thousands, they pale in comparison to what folks on the east and west coast have been enjoying for years. Early next year, Texas gamers will finally get to see what they’ve been missing out on with PAX South.

On April 12, during the second day of PAX East in Boston, Massachusetts, Penny Arcade announced that they are bringing their extravagant gaming festival to San Antonio, Texas starting in early 2015.

Many consider PAX to be a gaming mecca, a celebration of all corners of gaming, from video games to tabletop. Fans from all over the world congregate at PAX events to celebrate their love for games by getting together to play video games, roll dice and toss cards in board games, throw down the gauntlet in competitive “e-sports,” demonstrate their creativity with their own independently developed games, and show off their costuming skills in game-themed cosplay.

In addition to the legion of fans in attendance, large game publishers also use PAX as a means of showing off the latest and greatest in the gaming world. Previous events featured showings from big companies like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, debuting games that have never been seen before. Industry figures from games media and game development also use PAX as an opportunity to connect personally with their fans through informative and highly entertaining panels and workshops.

PAX South actually marks the fourth iteration of the convention, joining the ranks of PAX Prime in Seattle, PAX East in Boston, and PAX Australia in Melbourne.

In a press release, Penny Arcade president Robert Khoo stated, “Since its launch in 2004, PAX events have doubled in size almost every year, and our Seattle and Boston events represent the two largest gaming festivals in North America. We’ve been hearing for years that those in the south had a tough time making it to the northern corners of the country; PAX South has always been a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’”

PAX attendance numbers have grown to more than 70,000 attendees at each event. Three-day passes for the recently concluded PAX East 2014 sold out within 3 minutes of going on sale, 154 days before the actual event. For those interested in attending PAX South in January, be on the look out for when tickets go on sale in the coming months, or you might risk missing out on the biggest gaming celebration in Texas.

PAX South will be held next year from January 23rd to the 25th at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in San Antonio.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

“Heartbleed” security bug leaves two-thirds of the Internet exposed

heartbleedSecurity firm Codenomicon and Neehl Mehta of Google Security has recently discovered a major security flaw that affects 66% of the Internet. Officially known as “CVE-2014-0160,” but dubbed “Heartbleed,” the bug is a flaw in the OpenSSL security library that many popular websites use to encrypt valuable data, such as usernames and passwords. Yahoo, in particular, was one of the big websites vulnerable to this security issue.

The bug allows attackers to randomly pull information from a server’s memory. Not all extracted data may be useful, but because the process can be repeated, there’s potential for hackers to retrieve sensitive information such as encryption keys to break the protection on valuable data. While the bug was only recently discovered, the exploit has existed for two years. It is impossible to know if any hackers have taken advantage of the bug during this period of vulnerability.

This specific security exploit only affects specific versions of OpenSSL (1.0.1 to 1.0.1f), and a fix has already been distributed. Some websites may have never upgraded to the compromised version in the first place. However, sites that have been open to the exploit might take a long time to fix since system administrators have to manually fix the problem.

So what should users do? It’s unfortunately on a site-by-site basis. Changing your password on a potentially vulnerable website won’t result in any security until that website has patched the security flaw. Check for official statements from websites you frequent to make sure the Heartbleed bug has been patched and then change your password accordingly. If a website has not yet been fixed, try to avoid using that website until a fix is in place.

There are online tools out there, such as this one, to test whether or not a site is currently vulnerable to the flaw.

For more information on the Heartbleed bug, check out http://heartbleed.com/.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

Amazon enters the streaming box and video game market with the Fire TV

amazon-popcornAndroid-based micro consoles seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but when online retailer titan Amazon jumps on board, it’s big news. During an event in New York on Wednesday, Amazon announced and subsequently released the Fire TV, their entry in the war for living room entertainment.

The Latest for Streaming Entertainment

The Fire TV is a $99 Android-based micro console that allows you to stream movies and TV shows over the Internet to your television. We’ve heard the exact pitch before, but Amazon is in the position to offer services and features that competing devices currently don’t provide.

Amazon claims that the Fire TV is three times faster than competing boxes, such as the Roku and Apple TV. The Fire TV has a quad-core processor, 2 GB of memory, and a dedicated GPU capable of 1080p HD video. It also supports Dolby Digital Plus surround sound via HDMI out. It connects to the Internet via either WiFi or Ethernet.

Fire TV is capable of voice search using the microphone built into its Bluetooth remote. Simply use your voice to search for specific movies or TV shows using keywords, such as actor or movie names. The Fire TV features integrated information from the Internet Movie Database and tablet integration via the Fire TV’s “X-Ray” feature, allowing you to view related movie information on your tablet device while watching said movie.

Other interesting features include a karaoke-esque music player that displays lyrics on screen, the ability to stream photos from your phone, and a parental control mode called FreeTime. FreeTime is a special mode that allows parents to control their children’s viewing experience by setting time limits or setting restrictions on what content is viewable.

The Fire TV will support the standard streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and Pandora, with more to come. Certain services, such as HBO Go, are absent, however.

Despite being Android-based, Amazon is keeping the Fire TV a closed ecosystem, meaning it will make use of its own app store, separate from the Google Play Store. Amazon assures that they are partnering with multiple content creators to populate their store with a variety of different apps and entertainment items.

It Plays Games, Too!

amazon-gamepadAmazon is using the Fire TV as a means to break into the games market, as well. They are selling a separate $39.99 game controller. Amazon promises more than 1,000 games on their own marketplace, including games from Amazon themselves.

Over the past few months, Amazon has been picking up popular game developers, such as Double Helix, the studio behind the hit Xbox One exclusive Killer Instinct. They’ve also recruited other high profile game industry professionals, including Portal creator Kim Swift.

Amazon Game Studios will be bringing exclusive games to the Fire TV. You can check out a preview of what’s to come in this video. Amazon is also working with third party game developers, including Electronic Arts, Disney, Gameloft, Ubisoft, Telltale, 2K, Sega, Double Find and Mojang. Versions of Minecraft and The Walking Dead were showcased at the New York event.

Amazon says that paid games will start at 99 cents, with the prices averaging at $1.85. Thousands of free-to-play games will also be available.

Even with this new emphasis on games, they are still a secondary focus for the Fire TV. Though the hardware is powerful, it is nowhere near the behemoths of the new generation video game consoles, such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

The Fire TV is available now for $99 on Amazon’s online store. The device will come pre-registered to your Amazon account, along with a free month of Amazon Prime and Netflix.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

The Internet’s Best Jokes for April Fools’ Day 2014

googlepokemonApril 1st is a dangerous time to be on the Internet. It’s already hard enough to tell fact from fiction on the web on any normal day, but on April Fools’ Day, you can trust no one. Everyone and everything is out to fool you, from your friends on Facebook to even big companies like Sony and Samsung. Luckily, most of these jokes are light-hearted and obviously fake. Jokes like these show even the most serious folks in tech can have a little fun once in a while. Here are some of my favorite Internet jokes from April Fools’ Day 2014.

Netflixs Delicious Originals

The popular media streaming service debuted two new Netflix originals on April Fools’ Day: Rotisserie Chicken and Sizzling Bacon.

Rotisserie Chicken was a Benjamin Button-affair, a 73-minute long film of a chicken roasting on a rotating spit. The catch was the video was in reverse, starting with a fully roasted chicken and ending with raw poultry.

The film garnered 173 pages of viewer reviews. Here’s an excerpt from an insightful 5-star review: “Hesitated in giving this a try, based on the skewering it received from other critics. A riveting tour-de-force that kept me on the edge of my seat… Don’t chicken out on catching this masterpiece while you still can.”

If you didn’t have 73 minutes to spare watching a chicken cook in reverse, Netflix had you covered with Sizzling Bacon, a 20-minute video of bacon frying in a pan.

YouTubes Upcoming Viral Video Trends

YouTube spins a tale in which every viral video since 2005 was meticulously planned and produced by YouTube themselves. Gagnam Style and Nyan Cat were all products grown in the YouTube lab.

In this humorous video, YouTube previews their upcoming viral video trends for 2014. They poke fun at the ridiculous nature of viral videos and jokingly reveal it as a sort of science by reproducing them in crazy new forms, such as “baby shaming” and “kissing dads.” Their new fad of the “glub glub water dance” is guaranteed to be a hit just because it’s in a foreign language.

Watch the video yourself and see how YouTube essentially deconstructs how great and stupid the Internet can be.

kodakThe Kodak Picture Kiosk Drone

Kodak never wants you to miss out on a “Kodak Moment,” no matter your location. The Kodak Alaris is a hovering picture kiosk. The drone delivers high quality prints that “fall right out of the sky.” Simply call or text and the drone will come to you no matter where you are.

Kodak even provides the most interesting interpretation of a “cloud service” to date. Just look up at the sky and frantically thrust your arms through the air, and the drone just might notice you for some quality printing service action.

Skullgirls Pokes Fun at Street Fighter With Brand New Playable Fighter

I had to include at least one video game-related prank, and this is one for a game that ended up being one of my favorites from last year.

For months, Capcom had teased a brand new character for their upcoming Ultra Street Fighter IV. Fans spent a lot of time speculating as to who this new character could be. Could it be a character from the days of Street Fighter 1? Maybe a return of a fan favorite! No! Instead, the mystery ended a few weeks ago with the very disappointing announcement that this new fighter was Decapre, a clone of Cammy, essentially a very simple copy of a character that was already in the game.

This leads to April Fools’ Day 2014, when Lab Zero announced that the PC version of their own fighting game, Skullgirls, was getting a brand new character. Instead of disappointment, fans were left with gleeful excitement.

As a jab at Capcom, the Skullgirls character reveal was a parody of Capcom’s own character reveal trailer. Like the Street Fighter announcement, Skullgirls’ new character, Fukua, is simply a differently colored version of Filia, a character that’s been present in the game since its original release in 2012. The difference is Lab Zero didn’t spend months teasing it. It came as a genuine surprise, much to the delight of Skullgirls fans.

The best thing about it is that Fukua has officially been added to the game’s roster as a playable fighter as of April 1st. While Street Fighter fans are still waiting on Decapre, Skullgirls fans can already duke it out with the palette-swapped Fukua. Skullgirls developer Mike Z claims it took less than a week to create the character. Lab Zero says that, if Skullgirls community ends up liking the character, Fukua will remain playable in the game after April Fools’ Day’s end. If that’s the case, Fukua will eventually see release on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

So in the end, the joke turned out to be real!

Google Chrome Emojifies the Web

The Google Chrome team added Emoji to Google Translate. If you’re wondering what Emoji is, it’s essentially graphical representations of emoticons. The Chrome team thinks of Emoji as “next phase of linguistic evolution,” and they sought out to condense the written language into expressive pictures, often resulting in a ridiculous and almost incomprehensible series of images.

Ever wondered how to express the complex emotion of “laughing so hard you’re crying, and you’re a cat” without using words? Google Chrome found a way.

The Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge

A couple of months ago, Twitch played Pokémon, but now Google wants everyone to get in on it with probably the most elaborate April Fools’ prank of the year! Google put together a promotional video on March 31st, the day before April Fools’ Day, advertising a new career opportunity at Google entitled “Pokémon Master.”

In the video, Google Vice President, Brian McCledon, introduced the Google Maps Pokémon Challenge. He challenged Google Maps users to seek out and capture as many Pokémon as they can using the Google Maps application on mobile devices. His ridiculous instructions were accompanied by dramatic video of mountain climbers and other adventurous individuals encountering computer-generated Pokémon at various global landmarks and locales.

As with Skullgirls, the best April Fools jokes are the ones that turn out to be somewhat real. The reality of the Pokémon Challenge is a little less grand than the video, but it was indeed real to some degree. The Google Maps application on iOS and Android devices updated to include an option to activate the Pokémon Challenge. Upon doing so, various Pokémon would spread out around the virtual globe contained within Google Maps. Finding a Pokémon and tapping on them would allow you to “capture” them, with 150 unique Pokémon to collect in all.

Following Google’s prank, thousands of Internet users collaborated in their search for these exotically fictional creatures. Users found Pokémon placed in specific geographic locations. For instance, one could find Pikachu in the Akihabara district of Japan, and Scizor could be caught in the middle of the campus at the University of Texas in Austin. Many of those who sought the title of Google Pokémon Master were willing to work together, sharing Google Docs of Pokémon locations and more. It was fantastic to see Pokémon fans working together across the globe once again with a common goal, all thanks to Google’s elaborate April Fools’ Day prank.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra