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Can Facebook finally make smart glasses work?

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The tech giant is partnering with an iconic eyewear brand in an attempt to succeed where many others have failed.

Smart glasses are the graveyard of empires. From Google Glass to Snapchat Spectacles, many a tech titan has announced with great fanfare their intention to conquer the optical wearables space once and for all. None have so far truly succeeded.

Neither Glass nor Spectacles have managed to eke out a space in the consumer electronics market, let alone make augmented reality, or AR, a part of everyday life. Indeed, both were included on this list of nine infamous tech disasters of the 2010s.

So when I was offered the chance to get my hands on Ray-Ban Stories, the new collaboration between Facebook and the iconic sun glasses brand, I was nothing if not intrigued.

The glasses come with a 5MP camera on each side, three microphones, speakers, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capability. They can be used for sound input and output while connected to a phone, and can capture photos and videos (up to 30 seconds at a time) whether or not they’re connected. They come in a number of different existing Ray-Ban styles and can be fitted with various kinds of lenses.

Perhaps what’s most notable about the Ray-Bans is what they’re not; AR. The glasses have no augmented reality features of any kind. All in all, they’re simply a pair of Ray-Ban glasses with a built-in Bluetooth headset and a camera that can be controlled by voice.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about Facebook’s vision for the “metaverse” increasingly frequently lately, of which AR is a big component. And the company certainly has the capability to pursue R&D in this area since its $2.3bn acquisition of virtual reality outfit Oculus in 2014. But the Stories glasses don’t contribute directly to this vision.

That’s actually something Facebook has been quite clear about. Despite referring to them as “smart glasses”, which might bring to mind AR, the company has been clear from more than a year ago that this product wouldn’t have a display.

That said, there’s a strong argument that Ray-Ban Stories represent a kind of dry run for true AR glasses, which Facebook has confirmed it’s working on. And in that respect, there are a number of important things to consider about the glasses.

The tech

Stories prototype a number of technical features that one can easily imagine being used in future, more advanced wearables.

They pack impressive battery life and data storage into a form factor that is effectively identical to standard Ray-Bans. They have a nifty capacitive touch pad for audio control, volume and activating Facebook Assistant. And the speakers built into the arms, just above your ears, are high-quality and quite powerful.

Despite the claims made by the technical team at launch that “in pretty much all environments, it’s going be private, people around you are not going to be able to hear what you’re listening to at all”, there is a fair amount of audio leakage. The sound is directional, maybe impressively so, but if someone was listening to a podcast on these while sitting beside you on a long train ride, you’d get tired of it pretty fast.

The charging case is an important innovation too. It’s about the size and shape of a regular hard glasses case, but has its own (much larger) battery that charges the glasses whenever they’re placed into it. It’s a neat idea that makes it much more possible to bring the Stories out and about. Again, it’s easy to see that being useful for making future AR glasses a part of everyday life.

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The Facebook View app that pairs with the Stories has a number of quite powerful video and photo editing features (for when media has been downloaded to the phone). This is less directly applicable to AR, but may be transferable in future to Instagram, to which the app allows you to publish directly. These features also take advantage of the two-camera set-up, allowing you to introduce motion to photos after they’ve been taken, and do interesting things around altering focus

Privacy

Facebook’s technical team clearly had privacy in mind when designing the glasses. The company is eager to note that a highly-visible LED lights up on the outside of the glasses whenever they’re capturing photo or video so people can’t be recorded without their knowledge. Additionally, all media is encrypted onboard before being transferred to your phone via Bluetooth.

There’s plenty of room for debate about how effective these privacy features actually are, but they’re very deliberately being put front and centre in the marketing. Between the concerns raised around Google Glass and the privacy criticism Facebook has faced more generally, the company is aware it at least needs to be discussing the issue.

The style

It is very important that these are Ray-Bans. The design team was proud to report that Stories are just 5g heavier than (and a bit over twice the price of) regular Ray-Bans, and they look basically identical at a glance. In a way, the company seems to be positioning them as a premium option in the existing luxury sunglasses market – an upgrade to the Ray-Bans people might already have been considering buying. This is also evident in the name – they’re not Facebook glasses, they’re Ray-Ban Stories.

People made fun of Google Glass for its supposedly ‘dorky’ appearance, but you can easily imagine wearing these on an everyday basis. People might not even notice unless you started taking photos or talking to your eyewear. Granted if you, like me, don’t need glasses, people might ask why you’re suddenly wearing them all the time. But you could also buy the sun glasses version.

That’s part of the point; a key supposed use case of the Stories is to capture moments as they happen without having to fish out your phone. Your glasses are there, and you just press the button or use a voice command. It’s partially for activities for which you need to be able to use both hands or concentrate on what you’re doing, but it’s also for fleeting moments that you might otherwise miss. I found use for the glasses while zip-lining, and to get some quality shots of my cat (who usually stops whatever cute thing he’s doing the minute I point a phone at him).

If marketed right, this gives the Stories at least a chance at the mass-market appeal that previous smart glasses efforts have failed to achieve, rather than exclusively appealing to those keenly interested in tech. Apple, with its reputation for stylishness, managed to tap into this market relatively successfully with the Apple Watch, so it can be done.

Certainly, the Venn diagram of people who are interested in luxury sunglasses and people who want more ways to create content for Instagram, TikTok, etc has a pretty big intersection, and the aforementioned content-editing features indicate a desire to appeal to these kinds of consumers. It’s hard to say if this will work. It is still a gamble, but partnering with the single biggest name in luxury eyewear certainly seems worth a try.

Whether this strategy will be maintained for future, actual AR wearables from Facebook isn’t clear. The company may see lower-tech glasses with mass-market, fashionable potential and more advanced AR gear for techy types as entirely separate niches, with the former double-jobbing as a testbed for the latter.

Will Stories succeed, either as a money maker or to lay the groundwork for the augmented reality future? It’s far too early to say. But the approach is novel without a doubt, and quite clever.

Personally, I thought the Ray-Ban Stories were kind of neat. They’re well designed for what they are, and fun to use. I do struggle quite a bit to imagine myself going out and buying them at their premium price point, but I am neither dedicated enough to Instagram nor stylish enough to speak on behalf of the core target demographic.

But if you’ve always wanted to somehow make hands-free cooking videos while also wearing designer glasses, today is your lucky day.

Ray-Ban Stories are available online and in Ray-Ban stores in Ireland, the US, the UK, Canada and Australia and Italy from today (9 September). They cost €329 for baseline frames, €359 with polarised lenses, €409 for transition lenses, and at variable prices for prescription lenses.

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UK government’s risk planning is weak and secretive, says Lords report | Politics

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Assessment and planning by the government relating to risks facing the UK are deficient and “veiled in secrecy”, a report has found.

The 129-page report, entitled Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, was produced by the House of Lords select committee on risk assessment and risk planning – a group appointed in October 2020.

James Arbuthnot, chair of the committee, said that while the UK’s risk assessment processes had been praised across the world before the pandemic, the impact of Covid suggested there may be problems.

“It had been advised that if there were to be a coronavirus pandemic, as a country we would suffer up to 100 deaths,” he said. “Over 140,000 deaths later, we realised that we could perhaps have been doing rather better in our assessment and our planning.”

The report – which draws on sources including oral evidence from 85 witnesses, including from the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, during 29 sessions – looked at the country’s approach to assessing and preparing for a wide range of risks, from chemical warfare to the climate crisis and severe space weather.

“If you ask, what keeps me awake at nights, it is the growing possibility of major disruption due to more and more frequent cyber-attacks,” said Lord Rees, a committee member. “And even more, I worry on a timescale of tens of years about bioterrorism, bioengineered viruses and all that, which are going to be feasible.”

The report’s conclusions point to a number of shortcomings. Among them the committee highlighted a tendency for the government to focus on immediate problems rather than preparing for the long term.

“The likelihood of major risks actually occurring during the term of the government is low,” said committee member Lord Mair, noting as a result there is no incentive to prepare for them.

The committee also flagged concerns over the National Risk Register and the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), and called for better processes to categorise risks, including looking at how vulnerable the country would be to certain threats, and better modelling of how risks can cascade – with Arbuthnot noting as an example the impact of Covid on school exams.

Among other issues the report criticised a lack of transparency by the government. “The current risk management system is veiled in an unacceptable and unnecessary level of secrecy,” the report noted, adding that in turn has hampered the country’s preparedness, with frontline responders including local government and volunteer groups struggling to access the information they need.

It is not the first time the government has been accused of secrecy over risk assessment and planning: a report on Exercise Cygnus, the 2016 government simulation of how the country would handle a fictitious “swan flu”pandemic was only made public after a copy was leaked to the Guardian.

Among other actions, the latest report recommends:

  • The establishment of an Office for Preparedness and Resilience by the government, headed by a newly created post of government chief risk officer.

  • A presumption of publication by the government, and the publication of the content of the Official-Sensitive National Security Risk Assessment except where there is a direct national security risk.

  • The publication, every two years, by the government of a brochure on risk preparedness to inform the public on topics including what to do in an emergency.

“[It’s] much better to face some of these issues, having prepared for, and practised for, and exercised for them in advance rather than doing them first in the heat of battle,” said Arbuthnot

Arbuthnot added the Covid pandemic had offered the chance to “address a public that is ready to be addressed. And people have proved that they’re up to it.”

Prof David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, and who contributed evidence to the report, welcomed its publication.

“It’s extraordinary that the National Risk Register does not get any public promotion or media coverage, and I welcome the committee’s recommendation to radically improve the communication with the public about the risks they face,” he said. “These vital issues deserve to be widely known and discussed.”

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Ubiquiti dev charged with data-breaching own employer • The Register

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A Ubiquiti developer has been charged with stealing data from the company and extortion attempts totalling $2m in what prosecutors claim was a vicious campaign to harm the firm’s share price – including allegedly planting fake press stories about the breaches.

US federal prosecutors claimed that 36-year-old Nickolas Sharp had used his “access as a trusted insider” to steal data from his employer’s AWS and GitHub instances before “posing as an anonymous hacker” to send a ransom demand of 50 Bitcoins.

The DoJ statement does not mention Sharp’s employer by name, but a Linkedin account in Sharp’s name says he worked for Ubiquiti as a cloud lead between August 2018 and March 2021, having previously worked for Amazon as a software development engineer.

In an eyebrow-raising indictment [PDF, 19 pages, non-searchable] prosecutors claim Sharp not only pwned his employer’s business from the inside but joined internal damage control efforts, and allegedly posed as a concerned whistleblower to make false claims about the company wrongly downplaying the attack’s severity, wiping $4bn off its market capitalisation.

Criminal charges were filed overnight in an American federal court against Sharp, of Portland, Oregon. The indictment valued the 50 Bitcoins at $1.9m “based on the prevailing exchange rate at the time.”

US attorney Damian Williams said in a US Justice Department statement: “As further alleged, after the FBI searched his home in connection with the theft, Sharp, now posing as an anonymous company whistle-blower, planted damaging news stories falsely claiming the theft had been by a hacker enabled by a vulnerability in the company’s computer systems.”

Sharp is alleged to have downloaded an admin key which gave him “access to other credentials within Company-1’s infrastructure” from Ubiquiti’s AWS servers at 03:16 local time on 10 December 2020, using his home internet connection. Two minutes later, that same key was used to make the AWS API call GetCallerIdentity from an IP address linked to VPN provider Surfshark – to which Sharp was a subscriber, prosecutors claimed.

Later that month, according to the prosecution, he is alleged to have set AWS logs to a one-day retention policy, effectively masking his presence.

Eleven days after the AWS naughtiness, the indictment claims, he used his own connection to log into Ubiquiti’s GitHub infrastructure. “Approximately one minute later,” alleged the indictment, Sharp used Surfshark to ssh into GitHub and clone around 155 Ubiquiti repos to his home computer.

“In one fleeting instance during the exfiltration of data,” said the indictment, “the Sharp IP address was logged making an SSH connection to use GitHub Account-1 to clone a repository.”

For the rest of that night, prosecutors said, logs showed Sharp’s personal IP alternating with a Surfshark exit node while making clone calls. Although it was not spelled out in the court filing, prosecutors appeared to be suggesting that Surfshark VPN was dropping out and revealing “the attacker’s” true IP.

Ubiquiti discovered what was happening on 28 December. Prosecutors claimed Sharp then joined the company’s internal response to the breaches.

In January 2021 Ubiquiti received a ransom note sent from a Surfshark VPN IP address demanding 25 Bitcoins. If it paid an extra 25 Bitcoins on top of that, said the note, its anonymous author would reveal a backdoor in the company’s infrastructure. This appears to be what prompted Ubiquiti to write to its customers that month alerting them to a data breach. Ubiquiti did not pay the ransom, said the indictment.

Shortly after Federal Bureau of Investigation workers raided Sharp’s home, prosecutors claim he “caused false or misleading news stories to be published about the Incident and Company-1’s disclosures and response to the Incident. Sharp identified himself as an anonymous source within Company-1 who had worked on remediating the Incident. In particular, Sharp pretended that Company-1 had been hacked by an unidentified perpetrator who maliciously acquired root administrator access [to] Company-1’s AWS accounts.”

This appears to be referencing an article by infosec blogger Brian Krebs that was published that day, on 30 March 2021. He spoke “on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Ubiquiti”, and El Reg (among many other outlets) followed up Krebs’ reporting in good faith. In that article, the “whistleblower” said he had reported Ubiquiti in to the EU Data Protection Supervisor, the political bloc’s in-house data protection body.

We have asked Krebs for comment.

Sharp is innocent unless proven guilty. He is formally charged with breaches of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, transmitting interstate threats, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. If found guilty on all counts and handed maximum, consecutive sentences on each, he faces 37 years in prison. ®

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Limerick’s Serosep crowned Irish Medtech Company of the Year 2021

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Other winners at the Irish Medtech Association awards included Alcon Ireland, West, Vertigenius, Luminate Medical, BioMEC, Jabil Healthcare, Cook Medical and Aerogen.

Limerick-headquartered business Serosep has been named Irish Medtech Company of the Year at a virtual conference hosted today (2 December) by The Irish Medtech Association with Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.

The Irish Medtech Association which represents the medtech sector in Ireland made the announcement at its annual Medtech Rising conference. This year’s awards ceremony was the first to feature new categories. Alcon Ireland won the Sustainable Medtech company of the Year, while West scooped the Best Medtech Talent Strategy Award.

According to the association’s director Sinéad Keogh, the annual awards ceremony offers the medtech community a chance to “recognise and celebrate the strength and importance of the industry in improving life.”

“The sector has remained resilient despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, with over 42,000 people now working in the industry, across 450 companies,” she added.

The overall winner, Serosep, is a self-funded, family run business, which manufactures clinical diagnostic products at its base in Annacotty, Co Limerick. It serves more than 35 different countries spread over 5 continents. The company is 25 years in business and employs 114 people. Earlier this year, it announced a five-year contract to supply its gastroenteritis diagnostic system to Liverpool University Hospital. The company already supplies the NHS.

Serosep CEO and founder Dermot Scanlon, said he was “humbled” to receive the award, adding that the company’s innovative diagnostic test tools have “changed the way gastroenteritis is tested in clinical laboratories.”

“We are currently manufacturing in excess of one million tests in our state-of-the-art facility,” he said, explaining that the award would motivate the whole company to “continue forging ahead, achieving bigger and better things.”

Other award winners included:

Trinity College Dublin spin-out Vertigenius, winner of the eHealth Innovation of the Year Award. Vertigenius is a platform which aims to enhance clinical and patient engagement in the treatment of balance problems.

Luminate Medical, winners of the Emerging Medtech Company of the Year Award. The NUI Galway spin-out has developed a technology to prevent chemotherapy induced hair loss.

NUI Galway’s Biomechanics Research Centre (BioMEC) won the Academic Contribution to Medtech Award. The company’s technology integrates the latest in silico computational models to simulate the mechanical performance of implanted coronary stents.

Bray-based Jabil Healthcare scooped the Medtech Partner/Supplier of the Year Award for its new Covid-19 PCR testing device.

Cook Medical received the Women in Leadership Company initiative Award for its commitment to gender balance in the workplace.

The Covid-19 Response Recognition Award was awarded to Aerogen which has developed an inhaled vaccine station. The company’s products have been used on more than 3m critically ill people since March 2020, according to Enterprise Ireland’s head of life sciences, Deirdre Glenn. Aerogen won last year’s Medtech Company of the Year award.

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