Google automatically translates local reviews when you travel

We all use user-generated reviews to figure out what points of interest are worth checking out. If you’re traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language, however, the reviews you rely on are usually in the local tongue. Google has a new feature to help you out. The company will now automatically translate reviews into your native language without any effort on your part.

When you use Google Maps or Search to find a place you’re interested in, the reviews will be translated on the fly into the language you have set on your phone. You’ll see a parenthetical note that the review has been translated, but that’s it. No more pasting unfamiliar language into a translation app or — heaven forbid — using a pocket phrasebook to find that sweet photo spot in Italy or the best shawarma place in Istanbul.

This is just another in a line of features Google’s added lately, including a location-sharing feature that you might actually use and tappable shortcuts for its various apps.


Legendary car designer Fisker unveils his new luxury EV in August

Henrik Fisker has already dropped a few hints about his EMotion luxury electric car, but you now know when you’ll get to hear the rest. The automotive design legend has revealed that his namesake company will formally unveil the EMotion on August 17th. Not that you’ll have to wait too long to know what the fuss is about, as Fisker is already spilling the beans on key details.

Fisker’s company has already said that it’s aiming for a 400-mile range (using graphene supercapacitors instead of lithium-ion batteries, Fisker explains to Business Insider) while mustering a 161MPH top speed. It’ll have the camera and sensor hardware needed for eventual self-driving capability, too. The EMotion will be priced like a top-end Tesla Model S, Fisker says, so that superior range will carry a premium.

Not that the automaker is ignoring the mainstream. The EMotion is considered the precursor to an eventual “entry” car that theoretically undercuts the roughly $35,000 pre-credit prices of the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3. Whether or not it arrives as promised will depend heavily on the EMotion’s performance, of course, but there’s a real chance that this vehicle avoids the pitfalls that sank both the Karma and Fisker’s original incarnation.


Running with an AI ‘personal trainer’ is fun, but expensive

The artificial intelligence that we hope will exist in our lifetimes is a world away from what’s available right now. A thinking computer that knows us better than we know ourselves, and can make us better than we are, is still the stuff of fantasy. But if our goals are simple and easy to understand, does an AI really need to be that smart to get the job done? For instance, can a pair of swanky headphones with an AI personal trainer make me a better runner?

It’s a question that I’ve been musing about ever since I started testing Vi, which its creators call the “first true AI personal trainer.” It combines a pair of bio-sensing headphones and an app from Lifebeam, a military biosensor company founded by a pair of former Israeli air force pilots. Lifebeam’s side hustle is to take those same sensors and bake them into consumer products like cycling helmets and baseball caps.

Here, the company has added that technology to a pair of Bluetooth earphones, along with a raft of other fitness tracking equipment. Buried inside the “halo” that sits around your neck is a six-axis gyroscope, barometer and accelerometer. In addition, the $249 device will work as a regular set of headphones, packing a microphone and Harman/Kardon-branded sound.

The device was a smash hit when it launched on Kickstarter last year, earning nearly $1.7 million, far beyond its initial goal of $100,000. It’s worth saying that the hardware concept isn’t new, since Intel and SMS did the same job with 2015’s BioSport. Similarly, Jabra came out with its Sport Coach headphones, although those didn’t have the optical heart rate sensor. Lifebeam is hoping that Vi, the AI personal trainer with voice coaching that ships with the product, will be the big draw for its headphones.

Once you’ve punched in your vital statistics and connected Vi to Healthkit, Google Fit or Strava, you’re ready to run. Vi needs 120 minutes of data before it truly begins to work, so your first few runs are more about training the app than training your own body. Despite suffering a damaged right knee that was close to giving out, I braved the indifferent English weather and began my testing.

There are four options from which you can choose: Distance Run, Time Run, Free Run and Cycling, and the app also lets you decide how chatty you want Vi to be. Selecting Free Run and asking Vi to “lead the way,” I began to run through the app’s tutorial level. It begins well, with the voice actress — there is no way to change Vi’s gender — speaking in a faux robot voice before admitting that it was a joke and chatting more naturally.

During these initial runs, Vi will run through a pre-recorded spiel about how the system will work to coach you through your journey. You can tap the right earbud to activate the microphone and bark vocal commands at the platform. So if you ask “How am I doing?” you’ll be told your heart rate, speed, pace and step rate. Simply asking for a specific statistic, such as heart rate, will get Vi to offer that statistic on its own.

You can also set audio beacons at specific distances during your run that gently ping when you approach them. The closer you get, the louder the ping, and I set my beacons to launch every kilometer so that I had a sense of achieving a goal. It’s a neat effect, and one that helps you perk up when your stamina might otherwise begin to flag.

During my runs, Vi told me that my stride length was too long and I wasn’t hitting the ground enough, risking fatigue and injury. As such, it offered up a feature called “Step to the Beat,” in which the background music is silenced in favor of a drum track. You’re then asked to make sure your foot is striking the ground in time with each drum hit, something I found quite enjoyable.

Some of the things that were promised in Vi’s initial Kickstarter pitch didn’t make themselves apparent during my short testing period. For instance, on a day with bad weather, Vi was meant to suggest that I work out indoors instead of braving the elements. That didn’t happen, although the app offers no options to exercise beyond running or cycling, so perhaps the feature was quietly dropped.

From Vi’s Kickstarter.

Overall, the experience of running with Vi was pleasant, and I can only attribute t it offers. Even though it’s little more than a series of pre-recorded statements being played at random, there is something about being cheered on — a sense of support — that’s useful. It would probably wear out its welcome after long enough, but I suspect judicious use of the system could be somewhat useful for fair-weather runners.

Unfortunately, some elements of the Vi experience weren’t quite as smooth or enjoyable. The microphone is woeful at picking up voice commands when you’re running in an area with plenty of ambient sound. As I ran at full pelt down a busy road, all Vi would do was apologize for not quite picking up the words I was saying.

I got plenty of funny looks when I had to slow down, and then stop, trying to speak clearly enough to be understood. I’m sure the patrons of a local supermarket thought I was ill after seeing me bellow “Step to the beat!” into my own neckband. Unfortunately, after a while I gave up and intentionally sped up my run to trigger the feature on its own.

The app itself is beautiful and minimalist, offering plenty of ways to dive deeper into your data at the end of a run. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done with the music controls, which do not work at all. Playing library music was an utter chore, as the carousel bounces around when you’re trying to skip a spoken-word track in the playlist. Perhaps the designers paid more attention to the Spotify Premium integration than making sure it worked with your own music.

Then there’s the fact that the AI that Vi boasts simply isn’t that intelligent, and the system is doomed never to live up to its promises. After all, it’s simply a slightly more sophisticated pattern recognition machine with pre-recorded audio prompts. You could just as easily listen to a specific coaching podcast and get a similar experience, albeit with a little more customization.

Admittedly, you won’t get the learning experience that Vi offers, and it will tweak its coaching as it learns more about your running. If you set fat-burning as a goal, and you’re getting closer to your fat-burning zone, Vi will offer some judicious encouragement to get you there. Alternatively, if it you there. Alternatively, if it knows that you’re close to flaking out and slowing down, the system will help you maintain a steadier, more consistent pace. The more data you give it, the better the insights you get back.

Overall, I enjoyed using Vi, because it’s a perfectly elegant way to run, and the voice coaching is friendly and pleasant enough. I’d like to think that I’d continue to use it, in the hope of getting ever smarter recommendations and using it to become a better runner. But one thing, above all of my other gripes, stops me from recommending this to anyone: the price. After all, $249 is a lot of money to spend on a device that does something you can achieve for a hell of a lot less.

If you really want a pair of Bluetooth halo earbuds with Harman/Kardon sound, you can pick up LG’s Tone for a lot less. There are plenty of apps that offer voice coaching, as well as podcasts that’ll do a similar job — sometimes for free. Since you have to bring your phone along with you, it’s not as if you need the motion-tracking abilities of the Vi headset anyway.

If you’re a hardcore fitness enthusiast who wants a premium product, cash be damned, then sure. Vi is a beautiful piece of equipment that offers good sound and doubles as a decent pair of running ‘phones. But for everyone else, it’s probably not worth the extraordinary premium.

Does an artificial intelligence need to be smart to make you a better runner? No, but then, it’s not really an artificial intelligence, is it?


Google’s next trick for Android is ‘copyless pasting’

Google’s recognition for context goes beyond conversing with Assistant, it would seem. The search juggernaut is working on a feature that “thinks” of what you were looking at in Chrome and makes it available in other apps. It’s called “Copyless Paste” for now and a glimpse at the code documentation should give a few clues as to how it works:

“Provide suggestions for text input, based on your recent context. For example, if you looked at a restaurant website and switched to the Maps app, the keyboard would offer the name of that restaurant as a suggestion to enter into the search bar. The data is indexed locally and never sent to the server. It’s disabled in incognito mode.”

So, it isn’t the same as copying a string of text from a recipe or article and then Android automatically dropping it in an email or a text message, but it still sounds pretty useful. The info won’t leave your phone, either. VentureBeat writes that you can activate the feature if you’re running Chrome Canary on your device, but that you might not notice any changes.

What’s more, the code review suggests that this won’t be available on low-end devices. With I/O coming up next month, it’s pretty likely we’ll hear more about this feature soon, and what it’ll mean in the context of Android O.


Apple’s iPhone 8 might not ship in September

Apple has practically settled into a routine with its flagship iPhone launches: it announces the new model in early September and ships it later that month. You can practically set your clock by it. Well, you might not want to bank on that schedule this year. KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a mostly solid track record when outlining Apple’s plans, believes that the long-rumored OLED iPhone won’t enter production until October or November. Reportedly, the new model’s “significant hardware upgrades” (such as the OLED screen and depth-sensing front camera) are pushing back the release. There could be shortages until Apple refines its manufacturing, too.

Provided the analyst is on the mark, this won’t be great for either you or Apple’s bottom line. While there has been talk of Apple releasing three new iPhones later this year, the OLED model is believed to be the truly exciting one — the other two would be mild upgrades to the iPhone 7 line. You may end up waiting several weeks longer to get the iPhone you really want, and that could leave Apple’s sales in the doldrums for a while.


The Moto Z2 Play looks very familiar

You probably picked up the Moto Z Play for its long battery life, mid-range price and compatibility with Motrola’s flagship modular backs. If you were worried that those components wouldn’t work on the next version of the handset, don’t — leaked images of the Moto Z2 Play from TechnoBuffalo suggest that the device will be almost visually identical to the original. Well, there is one notable change: the Moto Z Play’s square button has been replaced with a round one.

Ultimately, this isn’t too much of a surprise — any drastic changes to the phone’s chassis would have made it incompatible with the battery, camera back and other accessories created for the Moto Z line. Keeping the same shape was important. Unfortunately, beyond form factor and the hard-point connector that confirms mod compatibility, the leak tells us precious little else about the phone. The leaked image’s clock does have a date listed for June 8th, however, which could be a tease, but take that with a grain of salt. If we hear anything, we’ll let you know.

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How Gorillaz brought a global listening party to your phone

Gorillaz are having a house party at 500 locations around the globe. The animated band — brainchild of musician Damon Albarn (Blur) and artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) — is hosting the unusual audio soirée for its upcoming album launch for Humanz. Just streaming the new music to its recently launched app isn’t Gorillaz’s style, so instead it’s created a sort of musical scavenger hunt that’s part Pokemon Go, part concert.

The technical team that helped bring Hewlett and Albarn’s vision to life is known more for working with the likes of Nike and Google than cartoon rockers. While located around the globe, it was B-Reel’s London office and executive creative director Davor Krvavac’s team that took on the slightly insane but definitely impressive app and its worldwide dance-party ambitions. “It was a sort of a sense of awe really, because all of us here, we really respect what Jamie, Sheila and Damon Albarn have been doing over all these years in so many different manifestations,” Krvavac said.

Gorillaz are more than just a band. Each album mixes music, art and technology into interactive sites, games, movies, DVDs, live chats with cartoon characters, an upcoming show at an amusement park and concerts that fuse the live band with their animated avatars. The lead up to Humanz is no different and if anything has raised the bar. The band has released a 3D music video, Twitter-moment “books” for each member of the band and of course the mixed-reality Gorillaz app.

“It was a very different sort of creative process than we might follow as an agency with one of our branded clients,” Krvavac told Engadget. “It’s all about building trust, because the Gorillaz and the creative products of the Gorillaz, that’s the crown jewels.”

The two teams worked closely together on the app, which, like the upcoming album, places the Spirit House at the center of the story. The band handled the story and art, and B-Reel handled the tech. “Of course they’re super switched on and well aware of all the kind of developments that have happened in the six years since the last album. You know AR, VR all of that stuff,” Krvavac said.

The result is an app that launches right into mixed reality with a vision of the real world overlaid with objects from each band member appearing as you spin around. It’s a reminder that you’re leaving your world and entering the band’s domain. The dilapidated Spirit House has been overtaken by Murdoc Niccals, 2-D, Russel Hobbs, and Noodle, and users can explore the band members’ rooms either with or without a VR headset.

“It’s all about discovery. It’s all about immersing yourself into the story,” Krvavac said. “Really early on we were talking about when you buy the bonus pack that comes with your vinyl or CD and you go over sleeve notes and all the little things to discover. Well it’s kind of like that. It’s a mixed-reality kind of extension of their world that sort of spills over into our world, and I think the listening part is the ultimate sort of reward. Everything in the house essentially builds up to the actual location of the house and discovering it for yourself.”

The global listening party is live for the next three days. During that time, the app will guide fans with directions and distances toward the nearest geolocation of the Spirit House. It’s bit like Pokemon Go, but instead of finding a tiny monster, you’re rewarded with a stream of the entire album. With 500 locations all over the globe, most major metropolitan areas will be covered.

Of course, the developers and band added a challenge to finding the final digital jukebox. The directions lead you in the general location of the nearest Spirit House, but you’ll still have to do a bit of sleuthing to discover the exact spot. Fortunately, Gorillaz’s Facebook page has been dropping the longitudes and latitudes of various Spirit Houses to help you along.

It’s an ambitious endeavor for something that’ll shut down on Sunday night. But the tech is there, and in the future it could be used for something else. “What I can tell you for sure is that the stream will cease with the actual launch of the album, but there are some ideas and thoughts about what happens with the house after that. So, you know, watch this space, essentially,” Krvavac said.

With all that’s been invested into the prelaunch of the album, it’ll be interesting to see what Gorillaz finally comes up with summer when it launches for real. “They’ve always had to push the technology so hard and kind of invent new things in order to manifest themselves as a band,” Krvavac said.


The best laser printer

After nearly 250 hours of research and testing over the past few years, we’ve found that the best choice for an affordable laser printer right now is the Brother HL-L2340DW. Among the dozens of laser printers we’ve looked at, the L2340DW is one of the most economical and least frustrating models you can buy.

Who should get this

If you print less than once a week on average, or mostly print text-first documents—like school assignments, invoices, shipping labels, tax forms, real estate applications, personal records, permission slips, tickets—a mono laser printer is probably all you need. Assuming, that is, you really need a printer at all.

Compared with inkjet printers, laser printers cost more to buy, but less to own over time because the toner is so cheap. Lasers won’t cause as much stress as inkjets, either, because they never clog, and their large toner cartridges can print at least twice as many pages as a typical ink cartridge before they need to be replaced. Laser printers also tend to be faster than inkjets, and they usually produce sharper-looking text as well.

So who shouldn’t get a laser printer? If you don’t have a lot of money to spend but need to print in color, an inkjet printer is the only way to go. Inkjets are also the only (relatively) affordable way to print glossy, high-quality photos at home. And a decent inkjet that can scan, copy, and print in color costs much less than a color laser machine with the same features. We recommend some decent inkjet machines here.


Based on the best-seller lists at major retailers, most people want a printer that’s affordable, with a low cost per page and minimal maintenance—a simple machine that can handle basic jobs. Most of those printers are monochrome laser printers, so we focused on those when considering candidates for our main pick.

To start, we scouted for all the current monochrome (black and white) laser printers we could find for under $200. Then we whittled these down to printer-only models (we considered copy/scan models separately), and those with automatic duplex printing, Wi-Fi, and support for mobile printing. We also favored models with cheaper toner costs. To weed out any clunkers that had good specs but poor real-world performance, we read through dozens of customer reviews and editorial reviews.

Plenty of people want a copier and scanner in addition to a printer, so we also sought out a great monochrome multifunction printer.

We set up each printer on both a Windows PC and a Mac, following the manufacturer’s instructions and trying to use Wi-Fi where possible. We considered setup a success once we could print a page from a Web browser and then shut the printer off, turn it back on, and get it to print again. We also tested other connectivity standards, which you can read about in our full guide.

For print-quality testing, we used reference documents that were predominantly text-based, with some elements like columns, tables, or charts.

We also checked out each printer’s quality options, including toner-density sliders and any available print-resolution settings, to see what you can expect with toner-saving options and whether we could eke out better-looking text.

We stress-tested all the paper-feeding parts of each printer, including the main paper trays and document feeders if the printer had one. We (slightly) overstuffed them with paper to see if they’d jam, and we also fed them single sheets to see if they could pick up each. For more on our testing procedures.

The Brother HL-L2340DW (pictured) and HL-L2360DW fit onto (or under) most desks. Photo: Kimber StreamsThe Brother HL-L2340DW monochrome laser printer is the laser printer that we think will work the best for most people. Toner is a bargain, and it was easier to add to a simple home network than other models like it. All the crucial features you can expect from a decent document printer are here: Wi-Fi, auto duplexing, and support for important mobile printing standards. Text is crisp, and print speed is as fast as you’d ever need in a home office.

Though the L2340DW’s default print quality is worse than that of its closest competitor, the Samsung M2835DW, it’s fine for most home use. If you boost the print-quality setting, the difference mostly vanishes anyway. Even with that downside, we think the L2340DW is the better affordable laser printer overall because it’s easier to set up and troubleshoot, and user reviews suggest that it’s more reliable over a couple of years, too. You probably (probably) won’t ever feel like beating the L2340DW to a pulp Office Space style.

The best thing about the L2340DW is the dirt-cheap cost of ownership. It uses only about 1.7¢ worth of toner per page. Even counting the wear on the drum, the cost works out to about 2.3¢—less than most other residential printers out there. Compared with a similarly low-cost inkjet printer, you’ll save something like $20 per year on document printing even if you print just 500 pages per year. The more you print, the more the math favors the Brother.


The HL-L2360DW is the fraternal-twin Brother (hey-o!) to the HL-L2340DW, and is worth grabbing if it’s cheaper, or if you need an Ethernet port. The L2360DW can print a few extra pages per minute, but both printers are wicked fast for home-use standards, and you probably won’t notice the difference. From what we’ve seen so far, the L2360DW tends to cost a few dollars more than the L2340DW, and isn’t available at as many stores. But again, the differences hardly matter—follow your wallet.

A practical multifunction monochrome printer


If you want an affordable printer that can also copy and scan, the Samsung Xpress M2875DW mono laser is our favorite option. The cost of operation is low, and this printer is easier to install than most of its competitors. It also has a 50-page auto document feeder, whereas many of its competitors have only a flatbed scanner. The ADF makes copying and scanning multipage documents much easier. The M2875DW also has reliable Wi-Fi connectivity, auto duplex printing, convenient mobile apps, and support for both AirPrint and Google Cloud Print. We think it’s best for home users, but it could work for a small office with modest needs.



Microsoft has a plan to beat Chromebooks at their own game

Microsoft is holding an education-focused event on May 2nd, and speculation has indicated that we might see Windows 10 Cloud for the first time. The software is pegged as a low-resource platform that could compete with Google’s Chrome OS, which has been making big inroads in EDU markets recently. The latest indication of Microsoft’s plan to take Chromebooks on comes from Windows Central, which published a leaked spec sheet showing Windows 10 Cloud minimum specs and performance requirements as compared to Chromebooks.

Assuming this chart is accurate, it gives us a good idea of what sort of hardware we’ll be seeing from Windows 10 Cloud devices. The relatively modest specs include 4GB of RAM, a quad-core Celeron (or better) processor and either 32GB or 64GB of storage — that all sounds a lot like you’ll find in a Chromebook. Microsoft is looking to achieve “all-day” battery life for “most students” and super-short boot and wake from sleep times, as well.

What we’ve seen from Windows 10 Cloud suggests that machines running this new software will only work with Universal Windows Platform apps you get from the Microsoft Store — traditional Windows software will be out. But for a lot of students, that plus the many web-based apps and services out there will be enough to get a lot of work done. In any event, it looks like we’ll know more in less than two weeks, and we’ll be at Microsoft’s event to cover all the news.

TN specials

ARM-powered Windows 10 laptops will arrive this holiday

Remember Windows RT, the stripped back version of Windows 8 meant for ARM-based hardware? It was a complete failure for Microsoft, recreating the desktop environment but little else for the Surface and Lumia 2520. Undeterred, Microsoft is working with Qualcomm to get Windows 10 running on Snapdragon processors. Announced last December, we should see the fruits of that partnership in new hardware later this year. Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf revealed during an investor call: “Our Snapdragon 835 is expanding into mobile PC designs running Windows 10, which are scheduled to launch in the fourth calendar quarter this year.”

Unlike Windows RT, ARM-based hardware running Windows 10 should support proper desktop-class apps. That’s because Microsoft is building an emulator directly into the OS capable of handling Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, and other desktop staples. That’s a big promise, but one that could change the complexion of the Windows 10 market if successful. For one, it’ll be the same experience that Windows customers are used to — no strange amalgamation of apps and environments like the Surface 2. For another, ARM-based hardware should offer longer battery life, providing better options for people who need stamina more than power.

It’s also possible that ARM-powered laptops will be cheaper than their Intel-based contemporaries. That’s not guaranteed, but if it does happen Microsoft will be better positioned to tackle Chromebooks and iPads in the classroom. The first wave of ARM-based devices will come from other manufacturers, rather than Microsoft’s Surface division. Lenovo is reportedly working on a device, and there’s a good chance we’ll see a few more at Microsoft’s Build conference in Seattle.


Canada strengthens net neutrality with zero-rating crackdown

In a victory for net neutrality, Canada’s telecom regulator has ruled against a carrier offering ‘free’ music streaming as part of a zero-rating scheme. Quebecor’s ‘Unlimited Music’ allows premium Videotron subscribers to use select streaming apps, such as Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, without the data counting towards their monthly allowance. Many believe this type of scheme violates the principles of net neutrality, which argue all data should be treated equally. If certain apps are ‘free’ to use, others — which could offer a superior experience, but simply don’t have the cash to be involved in a carrier’s program — are put at an unfair disadvantage.

Clearly, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) supports this view. In its ruling, the watchdog said the scheme created an “undue and unreasonable disadvantage” for services that weren’t included, such as internet radio stations. It argued the plan was also unfair to Videotron subscribers who were ineligible for the scheme, as well as customers who are eligible but prefer other services. “Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data-usage prices, Internet-service providers should be offering more data at lower prices,” Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the CRTC said in a statement.

Videotron said it was “disappointed” in the regulator’s decision, and felt the scheme was necessary to set itself apart in the market. It will now study the decision, which “directs” the carrier to fall in line with the Telecommunications Act by July 19th, 2017. Videotron says customers who use Unlimited Music can continue doing so “until further notice.”

CRTC’s ruling isn’t a blanket ban on zero-rating. It could have ramifications for larger telecom companies such as Telus and Rogers Communications, however. Alongside the Videotron decision, the regulator has published a “framework”for assessing “differential pricing practices,” or zero-rating. Precise rules, it says, would quickly become outdated due to the fast-paced nature of the industry. Instead, it hopes a rigorous set of criteria, including “the impact on internet openness and innovation,” will be enough to judge companies on a case-by-case basis.

The stance is in direct opposition to the US. Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the FCC, called net neutrality a “mistake” at Mobile World Congress in February, preferring a “light touch” to internet regulation instead. Subsequent reports by Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have hinted at a soon-to-be-announced rollback of net neutrality rules created under the Obama administration. The reversal will likely strip the FCC of its powers over internet service providers and transfer them across to the FTC. Canada, it seems, is keen to strike a different regulatory path.


Facebook’s plans for Oculus are finally taking shape

When Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in early 2014, it wasn’t entirely clear what Mark Zuckerberg planned to do with all of the virtual reality hardware suddenly at his fingertips. Hell, it wasn’t even clear that VR was going to be a legitimate industry: Sony hadn’t revealed the PlayStation VR yet, Google Cardboard didn’t exist, and Valve was a year away from announcing the HTC Vive headset. VR was truly in its infancy when the world’s largest social networking site strode in, promising to deliver video games and “many other experiences” on the Oculus Rift.

While we’re still waiting on the “video games” part of that promise, today Facebook launched the beta for Spaces, its first attempt at translating social networking to VR. Spaces is a digital world exclusive to the Oculus Rift that you can share with up to three other people at a time. Create a 3D avatar of yourself and hang out with digital renditions of your VR-capable friends, talking, drawing objects, exploring 360-degree films and taking photos with a selfie stick. And that’s about it.

Even though Spaces is fairly barebones and still in the early stages of development — Facebook says the beta represents 1 percent of its goal product — it’s our first glimpse at Zuckerberg’s grand VR vision. This is what Facebook wanted when it bought Oculus: selfie sticks in VR.


“This is really a new communication platform,” Zuckerberg wrote about VR in 2014. “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

Facebook Spaces is precisely what Zuckerberg laid out from the beginning. It’s a way to share an experience with a friend, even if that person lives across the world, and even if your adventure is as simple as taking a photo together. Spaces lays the foundation for grander features like playing games together in VR, and its goal is clear: Blur the line between hanging out in reality and “hanging out” on Facebook (where algorithms and advertisers can more easily find you).

However, Facebook’s dream of trans-continental selfies (and ads) won’t come true if you or your friends don’t own an Oculus Rift — and chances are, you don’t. Oculus hasn’t shared actual Rift sales figures, but third-party industry trackers suggest it sold between 250,000 and 400,000 headsets in 2016. Regardless of the actual number, Facebook’s headset is firmly in last place, hundreds of thousands of units behind the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

Not to mention, Facebook Spaces requires users to own the Oculus Touch controllers as well — a $99 accessory that doesn’t come bundled with every Rift.

This hardware shortfall makes one aspect of today’s announcement particularly intriguing: Anyone using Spaces is able to call friends via Facebook Messenger video and talk with them inside the VR world, regardless of whether that friend has a Rift. Facebook is aware that VR can’t survive on its own right now; it has to be incorporated into our existing systems until the hardware itself is more accessible and normalized. Or, until the bulky VR headsets disappear entirely, replaced by mass-market augmented reality systems instead, like HoloLens or a functional Google Glass.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has pounced on the AR industry as well, today announcing the Camera Effects Platform to help developers create apps that overlay objects, information and filters on the real world. This parallel focus on AR and VR isn’t an accident — in fact, both industries are a large part of Facebook’s 10-year roadmap.

Facebook is poised to combine Oculus’ hardware chops with a steady stream of camera-based AR innovation rolling in from developers across the world — and within its own walls. Facebook is preparing to take over our reality, in whatever form it eventually takes.



Toyota is testing a hydrogen fuel-cell powered semi

Toyota built a larger sibling for the hydrogen fuel cell powered Mirai, a semi truck. The automaker is testing a water-expelling big rig at the Port of Los Angeles that it hopes will yield data to help build a fleet of zero-emission trucks.

Gallery: Toyota Portal Project | 11 Photos

Called the “Portal Project,” the study will determine how well hydrogen fuel-cell heavy duty vehicles work in a shipping environment. The truck itself will be use two Mirai fuel cell stacks and a 12kWh battery to power two motors connected to the rear wheels working in parallel. With a range of over 200 miles per fill-up, the truck can haul a gross combined weight capacity 80,000 pounds.

“We think that there’s a market demand for this technology in the ports today and there are no there are no competing services to diesel solutions,” said Craig Scott, national manager of Toyota’s advanced technology group.

Tony Gioiello, deputy executive director of port development for the Port of Los Angeles said “the Port of Los Angeles has been a leader in working to reduce pollution from port operations, and we’re excited at the potential for a true zero-emission heavy-duty truck to push our Clean Air Action Plan even further.”

The truck and the project are part of Toyota’s larger plan to help kick start an infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai. Initially the automaker will hire its own driver to help collect data on the big rig and it’s trips. But it will eventually hand the keys over to the driver of a yet-to-be-determined shipping partner.


Baidu wants to work with everyone on self-driving tech

Like many big technology companies, Chinese giant Baidu has been working on self-driving cars for a few years now, even investing with Ford in LIDAR sensor company Velodyne. Collaborations between tech firms and carmakers are now commonplace, but after an unsuccessful marriage with BMW, Baidu is seeking new partners — or rather, all the partners. In a project Baidu calls “Apollo,” the company is offering up its whole self-driving platform to the wider industry, from software to reference vehicles, to give the general pursuit of autonomous cars a NOS-like boost.

From July, Baidu says it’ll begin sharing more and more of what it’s been developing in-house. The company claims its particular strong suit is employing AI to solve the self-driving puzzle, but the Apollo project will offer a complete “solution.” That includes vehicles, other hardware like sensors, software, cloud services and all kinds of code, as well as testing tools. It’s not just about what Baidu can provide others, though, as the firm is hoping that allies will also help the project out with improved vehicles and components. “This will lower the barriers to entry for research and development of autonomous driving technologies, making it more accessible to the general public, and accelerate the overall pace of innovation,” Baidu’s release reads.


BMW is adding 100 EV charging stations to US national parks

Today BMW turned on a EV charger at Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the former home of the inventor. It’s the first of 100 stations that the German automaker plans on installing in US national parks over the next few years.

The partnership between National Park Foundation, National Park Service (NPS), Department of Energy and now BMW of North America is meant to get more EVs into national parks. While urban areas usually have a nice selection of places for an electric car to charge, once a driver gets into the great outdoors, it can be a bit more difficult to keep a battery topped off.

BMW’s head of group region Americas Ludwig Willisch said “together with our partners, I hope that we can channel a little of Edison’s spirit and, in the same way that he made electric power widely available, make electric vehicle charging more widely available for everyone.” BMW has been aggressive about getting more charging stations on the road.

The partnership will determine where to place the charges based on the proximity and strength of the local EV markets, the location of nearby chargers and how the stations will fit into the natural and cultural landscape. The build out should take approximately two years. Meanwhile the charger at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park will be free for the next six months.