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4 TechCrunch writers bought the iPhone X. Here are our thoughts

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Happy iPhone X day! A few of us over here at TechCrunch received our new toys today and wanted to share some initial thoughts with y’all.

Leggo.

First up, Megan Rose Dickey, the lunatic who at one point told co-workers she felt like she was on drugs during her initial iPhone X exploration:

I could barely sleep last night because I knew that at some point today, my iPhone X would arrive. After getting showered and dressed, I went on over to my parents’ place, where I was set to receive the shipment.

FedEx arrived around 11am PT this morning and I promptly lost my shit. The first thing I did, obviously, was try out the animoji. Here’s one I sent to my colleague Darrell Etherington.

The animoji are great, but now I want anibitmoji, ya know? Anyway, the Face ID works like magic and I love it.

Next up, Sarah Buhr, who did not feel she was on drugs but was definitely grinning from ear-to-ear when the UPS guy arrived today:

My previous phone was an iPhone 6 with a hairline crack on the screen I never bothered to fix so the X was a much needed upgrade. It’s also a beautiful piece of machinery. I’m still setting it up this afternoon but so far Face ID seems to work very well. It even recognizes me with glasses on or off.

The camera lives up to the hype, too. Hi-res, high-quality. I took a pic of my living room against the window and the light and color still balanced well. Nice touch!

One thing I would like to skip is the need to swipe up after the phone IDs your face. The swiping takes some getting used to and there’s a lot of swiping with this phone. Why not just ID my face and let me in?

And Darrell Etherington, who reserved the phone for pick-up in-store first thing Friday morning so he could check out the launch-day hype in person:

This iPhone replaces the iPhone 8 Plus I had been using (which is now on its way to a new home with my dad). It’s already a huge step-up from the Plus line for me just because of the size, since it’s a lot smaller without sacrificing much screen real estate.

I, too, love the Animoji – I’ve been using them like you’d use voice messages on WhatsApp or WeChat, since they’re incredibly easy to record and I feel like if I’m asking about dinner plans it’s just better coming from a pig or a panda.

I’m also surprised at how quickly I adapted to Face ID, which I never thought would even approach Touch ID in terms of convenience. I now already find myself assuming it’s going to work on the 8 Plus and my iPad Pro, and taking a minute to remember to use my thumb or finger instead.

Fitz Tepper depended on the hospitality of his hotel and a backup order to make absolutely sure he was ready and armed with iPhone X on day one of availability:

I’m pretty weird about needing to get Apple devices the morning they come out. Old-timers will remember my first-ever post on TC was when I camped out at the only store in the U.S. to have the Apple Watch on launch day.

SO, when I found out I’d be in Chicago for a conference on the big day, I had to prepare accordingly. I stayed up until 3am on preorder day and somehow managed to get one sent to my hotel, and another one to my house. The idea was that my flight back home was at 4pm, and there was no way I’d be thwarted by a late UPS delivery. Worst case I’d just have the hotel ship me the second one to return or give to a family member.

Anyways, I’m just now getting it up and running — and my only initial thoughts are regarding the size and screen. It’s so small! Coming from many years of using iPhone pluses, it’s weird typing on a smaller keyboard. Of course the trade-off is that the device itself feels great, and fits perfectly in your hand.

One other weird thing that’s going to take getting used to — no home button. I have 10 years of home button muscle memory, and that’s definitely not going to be fixed overnight.

We’re by no means trying to sell you on the iPhone X. It’s super expensive and a lot of us will be paying it off for quite some time. But if you like the latest and greatest technology, this is it. Check out TC’s official iPhone X review here.
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These high-speed ‘nano-cranes’ could form molecular assembly lines

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Things aren’t going well down at the ol’ nano-factory. They’re having trouble getting all those tiny workers to synchronize and move quickly together. But leave it to the Germans to get things running smoothly! All it took was a careful application of that newfangled technology “electricity.”

Tiny nano-scale machines formed from DNA could be the future of manufacturing things at small scale but great volume: drugs, tiny chip components, and of course more nanomachines. But moving simple, reusable machines like a little arm half a micrometer long is more difficult than at human scale. Wires for signals aren’t possible at that scale, and if you want to move it with a second arm, how do you move that arm?

For a while chemical signals have been used; wash a certain solution over a nanobot and it changes its orientation, closes its grasping tip, or what have you. But that’s slow and inexact.

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich were looking at ways to improve this situation of controlling machines at the molecular scale. They were working with “nano-cranes,” which are essentially a custom 400-nanometer strand of DNA sticking up out of a substrate, with a flexible base (literally — it’s made of unpaired bases) that lets it rotate in any direction. It’s more like a tiny robotic finger, but let’s not split hairs (or base pairs).

What Friedrich Simmel and his team found, or rather realized the potential of, was that DNA molecules and therefore these nano-cranes have a negative charge. So theoretically, they should move in response to electric fields. And that’s just what they did.

They attached tiny fluorescent pigment molecules to the tips of the cranes so they could see what they were doing in real time, then observed the cranes as the electric field surrounding them was carefully changed.

To their great delight, the cranes moved exactly as planned, switching from side to side, spinning in a circle, and so on. These movements are accomplished, the researchers say, at a hundred thousand times the speed they would have been using chemicals.

A microscopic image of the nano-crane’s range of motion, with the blue and red indicating selected stop points.

“We came up with the idea of dropping biochemical nanomachine switching completely in favor of the interactions between DNA structures and electric fields,” said Simmel in a TUM news release. “The experiment demonstrated that molecular machines can be moved, and thus also driven electrically… We can now initiate movements on a millisecond time scale and are thus 100,000 times faster than with previously used biochemical approaches.”

And because the field provides the energy, this movement can be used to push other molecules around — though that hasn’t been demonstrated just yet.

But it’s not hard to imagine millions of these little machines working in vast (to them) fields, pushing component molecules towards or away from each other in complex processes or rolling products along, “not unlike an assembly line,” as Simmel put it.

The team’s work, which like most great research seems obvious in retrospect, earned them the coveted cover story in Science.
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Tile lays off dozens after a disappointing holiday

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Tile, one of the best known item-tracking gadgets out there, has laid off some 30 people and reportedly stopped the potential hires of another 10, TechCrunch has learned. This comes less than a year after the company raised a $25 million B round last May. The layoffs are reportedly due to disappointing sales over the holidays.

When reached for comment, Tile offered the following statement:

As part of our 2018 planning process, the Tile leadership team determined that a recalibration of our priorities was necessary so that the company can focus on the development of our Tile Platform business and core hardware products. Unfortunately, this means that we had to say goodbye to roughly 30 Tile colleagues. Tile remains the leader in smart location, and we will continue creating a world where everyone can find everything that matters.

The roughly 30 employees being recalibrated weren’t solely from any one area, according to information provided to TechCrunch, so it seems as the company says to be a general cost saving measure. A Tile representative pointed out that a hiring freeze was not announced, so the 10 hires that were reportedly prevented from taking place are still a bit of a question mark.

Tile revamped its product line late last summer, improving range and adding two new “Pro” units: a sporty one for active types and a fancy white-and-gold “Tile Style.” Perhaps it was too little, too late, or perhaps Tile has become too popular for its own good and everyone already has all the Tiles they need.

At CES, it announced a handful of new partners that will integrate Tile tech into their products. This is reportedly the new focus of the company — being a platform-first rather than a hardware-first company. No doubt the devices will still be made and sold, of course, but it won’t be the totality of the Tile offering.

Here’s hoping it works and these layoffs are the last we hear of.
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The BecDot is a toy that helps teach vision-impaired kids to read braille

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Learning braille is a skill that, like most, is best learned at an early age by those who need it. But toddlers with vision impairment often have few or no options to do so, leaving them behind their peers academically and socially. The BecDot is a toy created by parents facing that challenge that teaches kids braille in a fun, simple way, and is both robust and affordable.

Beth and Jake Lacourse’s daughter Rebecca (that’s her up top playing with the prototype) was born with Usher Syndrome, a common cause of blindness and deafness. After finding existing braille toys and teaching tools either too basic, too complex, or too expensive, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

Jake happens to have a background in product design, having worked for years at a company that creates simple, durable environmental sensors. But this was a unique challenge — how to make a toy that doubles as a braille teaching aid? Months later, however, he had created a prototype of a production device, albeit with a one-off 3D printed case.

You can see it in action at the TechCrunch booth at CES here:

The BecDot has a colorfully lit surface on which toys equipped with NFC tags (programmed through an app) can be placed. Once the tag is detected, for instance on a toy cow, up to four braille letters appear, formed by lifted pegs: C-O-W. The device can also emit a sound uploaded by the parent or teacher.

It’s simple, yes — as toys should be for kids this age. Yet it affords blind and partially sighted kids the opportunity to learn the alphabet and identify short words at the same time and in much the same way as sighted children. And with the sounds, lights, and the possibility of integration with books and lessons, kids will likely find it plenty of fun.

Here it’s worth noting that kids with disabilities often suffer doubly, first from simply not having the same senses or mobility as other kids, but secondly from the social isolation that results from not being able to interact with those kids as naturally as they interact with one another. This in turn causes them to fall further behind, isolating them further, and so on in a self-perpetuating cycle. This effect snowballs as time goes on, shrinking kids’ prospects of higher education and employment. We’re talking 70 percent unemployed here.

The BecDot and devices like it could help short circuit that cycle, both allowing kids to connect with others and learn on their own through play.

One of the things holding back devices like this is the complexity and cost of braille displays. If you think what’s behind an LCD is complicated, imagine if every pixel needed to actually move up and down independently and withstand frequent handling. The braille equivalents of e-readers can cost thousands to display a sentence or two at a time — but of course kids don’t need that.

Unsatisfied with the available options, Jake decided to engineer his own. He created a simple Scotch yoke mechanism that can control up to three dots at a time, meaning two of them can create a braille letter. It’s all controlled by an Arduino Uno. Simple means cheap, and the other parts are far from expensive; he told me that his bill of materials right now is around $50, and he could probably get it below $30.

Such a low cost would make the BecDot highly attractive, I should think, for any school with vision-impaired students. And of course there’s nothing stopping sighted kids from playing with the gadget either, as I’m sure they will.

Right now the BecDot is only in prototype phase, but the Lacourses sounded optimistic during CES, when I met with them. They’d been selected for a reward and exhibition by Not Impossible, an organization that creates and advocates for tech in the humanitarian space. Jake tells me that their time at the show exceeded his expectations, and that they got a chance to speak with people who can help both move the device towards market and advance the message he and Beth are trying to get out.

Toys like this (follow-up devices could have more letters or spaces for input) could help close the literacy and socialization gap that leads to many deaf and blind people being unemployed and dependent on others later in life. And having educational toys aimed at underserved, marginalized, and at-risk populations seems obvious in retrospect. It’s a simple idea in some ways, but only made possible by a creative and innovative application of technology and, of course, love.

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