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Mercedes-Benz’s new MBUX in-car assistant and smart UI rocks

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It’s rare that I pay much attention to automaker infotainment and multimedia system updates at CES – usually there’s too much going on with autonomy, electrification and mobility services to give it much thought. This year, however, Mercedes-Benz had one of the most interesting announcements at the show with its new MBUX smart multimedia system and in-car voice activated assistant.

MBUX is not the underpowered, underwhelming voice input system carmakers have been pushing on consumers for around a decade now. Instead, it’s a learning, smart and connected platform built upon Nvidia’s powerful GPU technology. For maybe the first time, using an in-car infotainment system felt to me like an actual pleasure, rather than doing something that ranges from ‘bad’ to ‘adequate’ on the user experience scale.

Part of that is just the fact that the computers powering the system are capable enough to drive high framerate visuals, on screens with a high resolution that doesn’t leave things pixelated. For too long, infotainment systems in cars have relied on underpowered, cheap local chips to power their output, leaving software developers working at automakers with the unenviable challenge of shoehorning their work onto silicon that really shouldn’t be running an alarm clock, let alone vital apps and information displays you use while driving.

Scrolling and animations on the MBUX system’s two dash mounted displays (one in the center, and another behind the steering wheel) are silky smooth, and feel as responsive as an iPhone to touch input, which is a major achievement relative to typical first-party car touchscreen performance.

MBUX also focuses on simplicity when it comes to interaction: Even though it offers a lot of options and features, many of the things you want to do can be accessed directly from the top level main screen, including navigating to your home, playing a favorite music station, checking the weather and more.

Even when you do want to drill down to be more specific, there are shortcuts built in, thanks to the way MBUX learns your preferences and presents them through a “Suggestions” shortcut that’s just a tap away form the main screen. These will offer suggested destinations, music, cabin comfort settings and more based on what it learns about your habits, your schedule, and your preferences. They also follow the driver around, and are attached to their profile – which can even follow you from vehicle to vehicle if you’re switching between Mercedes cars equipped with MBUX.

Of course, there’s also the voice powered element, which you can trigger by saying “Hey Mercedes” at any time, or by pressing a button on the steering wheel. This allows you to issue voice commands in natural language, like saying “I’m cold” in order to have it increase the heat by two degrees, or asking it if you can wear flip flops next week to retrieve a local weather forecast.

In practice, the voice commands worked well, though Las Vegas cellular service wasn’t always cooperating. Mercedes-Benz built its speech assistant with occasional connectivity in mind, however, so there’s a lot you can do even when you’re not connected to the cloud, including modifying cabin lighting and asking it to play specific songs from an attached USB drive, for instance.

Its capabilities are also designed to grow over time; the smart assistant is built using AI technology powered by Nvidia, and can improve both locally, and via software and feature updates pushed from the cloud. Mercedes-Benz also plans to issue significant feature additions to the system over the lifetime of the vehicle, and using Nvidia GPUs to power it mean they’ve actually got a lot of additional computing power to spare to support those updates.

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang explained in an interview that his company has been working with Daimler directly for two years to bring this to fruition, with a dedicated engineering team set up for the purpose. Daimler VP of Digital Vehicle & Mobility Sajjad Khan also added that working with Nvidia was key to helping the company achieve something that was performant now, but also had plenty of room to grow.

In the end, MBUX is that rarest of beasts: A first-party infotainment system that’s exciting, powerful and extremely well-crafted from a technology perspective. If you’d have told me a week ago that one of my favorite things from CES would be an automaker’s infotainment software, I’d have laughed, but here we are.

MBUX will arrive first on the all-new A-Class when it arrives later this year, but it will also roll out to other new Mercedes vehicles after that.
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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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