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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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Fivetran nears five times its unicorn valuation as it plans further growth

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The data integration business growing its EMEA HQ in Dublin is set for further expansion following a $5.6bn valuation and key acquisition.

Silicon Valley-headquartered Fivetran has announced $565m in Series D funding alongside a deal to acquire HVR.

This latest funding round sees the automated data integration provider’s value reach $5.6bn just over a year after it first reached unicorn status.

The funding round from new and existing investors included General Catalyst, CEAS Investments and Matrix Partners. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, which also brought in new investors Iconiq Capital, D1 Capital Partners and YC Continuity.

In total, Fivetran has raised $730m to date. And in tandem with its Series D funding round, the company also announced a $700m cash and stock deal to acquire data replication business HVR.

‘Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure’
– MARTIN CASADO, A16Z

For Fivetran’s mission to help businesses make use of the data they have, in a way that is quicker and requires fewer resources, HVR brings database replication performance along with enterprise-grade security.

“HVR is a recognised leader for enterprise database replication and shares our same vision – to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity,” said Fivetran CEO George Fraser. “Their product is the perfect complement to our automated data integration technology and will be instrumental for us to help enterprise organisations that want to improve their analytics with a modern data stack.”

Fraser added that the latest injection of funding from investors will enable the company to expand its capabilities and accelerate its global growth.

Fivetran established its EMEA HQ in Dublin in 2018. The following year, fresh investment saw the company plan to double its Irish workforce. Last summer, a $100m funding round saw these expansion plans furthered.

In terms of market opportunity, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado says Fivetran is a “critical component” of the modern data stack, which represents “a paradigm shift for global enterprises, with billions of dollars of revenue at stake”.

“Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure,” said Casado.

The acquisition deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close in early October, subject to regular approvals.

Customers from both companies are expected to benefit from each of the business offerings. On the side of Fivetran, this client list includes Autodesk, DocuSign, Forever 21, Lionsgate and Square, while HVR services dozens of Fortune 500 brands.

“Combining HVR and Fivetran will enable a next-generation solution that will better inform business decisions by providing the freshest data available,” said HVR CEO Anthony Brooks-Williams.

“We’re thrilled to be joining forces with Fivetran and look forward to what this incredible opportunity will provide for our growing team, partners and customers.”

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Ring Video Doorbell 4 review: pre-roll is a battery bell gamechanger | Amazon

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The latest iteration of Amazon’s battery-powered Ring doorbell adds a new feature to capture the early details of events most competitors would miss without needing to be plugged in.

The Ring Video Doorbell 4 costs £179 ($199.99/$A329) and can be installed in any home with wifi. It tops Ring’s battery-powered range, which starts at £89.

The look and basic function of the Doorbell 4 is very similar to Ring’s older models. It has a camera with night vision, motion sensors and a large doorbell button.

When someone pushes the button Ring’s signature chime plays and an alert is sent to your phone. You can view a live feed and speak through the doorbell using the app from anywhere with internet. If you don’t answer, the new “quick replies” feature is like an answering machine for your door, recording caller’s messages. And it works as a motion-activated security camera too.

Four seconds of pre-roll

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
A ring of blue LEDs lights up when the doorbell is pressed showing that it is active and something is happening, such as you answering the door through the camera. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Most battery-powered doorbells sleep until motion is detected to save power, which means they typically only capture the second half of an event as it takes time for the camera to wake up and start recording.

Ring’s “pre-roll” system fills in the gap before the motion sensor is tripped. It takes a clip from a looping four-second lower-resolution colour recording that can be operated all the time without draining the battery too much.

It is a gamechanger for battery doorbells, giving you a much better idea of what has happened before the main camera fires up.

Video, motion and replay

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
The camera has a wide 160-degree horizontal field of view, but only a 84-degree vertical field of view, which means you can’t see packages left on your doorstep. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The main 1080p HD video is clear and sharp enough to discern faces and name tags, and recorded HDR (high dynamic range) to better handle the sun shining straight at your door. The infrared night vision is bright and clear, too.

You can adjust the motion sensitivity and define areas you want monitored so that you only get notifications when something happens in the chosen zone, which is particularly useful for avoiding notification overload if your doorbell faces the street.

Ring Protect

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
All the settings, power modes and alerts are accessed through the app, which has an easy-to-use video recording timeline if you pay for the Ring Protect cloud storage. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

While standard motion and doorbell notifications, live view and pre-roll are free, you need to subscribe to Ring Protect to get the most out of the doorbell. A free 30-day trial is included so you can see what it does, and plans start at £2.50 a month, but it is essentially cloud recording for your videos as they are not stored locally.

You get up to 30-day event history, messages recorded by visitors from the quick replies feature and still snapshots taken every 14 minutes to fill in the gaps between events.

Ring Protect also enables smart motion alerts, to differentiate between people and other things such as cars, and rich notifications, which show an image of the motion or person within the alert on your phone.

Set up and battery life

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
The quick-release battery can be swapped out in seconds for charging without having to remove the doorbell from the door. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Setting up the doorbell is very easy. It comes with screws and wall plugs, plus a bracket for angling the camera towards your door if needed and cables for attaching it to an existing doorbell wire and chime if you have one.

The doorbell can be held in place by sticky strips if you can’t damage the mounting surface, such as if you’re renting. I used a set of Command-brand foam strips, but Ring sells a £17 “no-drill mount” that achieves something similar.

Once it is mounted you just slot the battery in the bottom, open up the Ring app on your smartphone and scan the QR code on the side of the bell. The app will run through the rest of the setup in about five minutes.

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
Depending on how close your wifi router is to the door you may need a wifi extender or the £49 Chime Pro (pictured), which as well as acting as a ringer also creates a wifi network specifically for Ring devices. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

If you don’t have a traditional chime you can buy the wireless £29 Ring Chime or use any existing Amazon Alexa devices in your home to ring instead.

Battery life varies depending on how many features such as snapshot and pre-roll you have on and the number of motion events and live views. With everything active and capturing roughly 45 events a day, the battery lasts about a month. I would buy a second £20 battery as it takes at least five hours to fully charge the battery via microUSB.

Privacy

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
Ring has had a few privacy concerns over the years, particularly in the US with regard its activities with law enforcement. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You can block the recording of certain parts of the camera’s view such as your neighbour’s drive using privacy zones. Ring has recently added options to limit how long recorded videos are stored on a camera-by-camera basis, strengthened account security with two-factor authentication and, in addition to standard encryption, has enabled the activation of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for videos.

E2EE offers the strongest protection and means only the mobile devices you select can decrypt and watch captured videos. No one else can see the video, not even Ring. But with E2EE turned on some more advanced features such as pre-roll, snapshots, the event timeline, rich notifications and Alexa integration for watching a live feed from an Echo Show cannot be used.

Sustainability

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
The faceplate and battery can be easily swapped if damaged, while various screws, brackets, parts and add-ons are available direct from Ring.

The Ring Video Doorbell 4 is generally repairable and a range of spare parts, including the rechargeable battery, are available at reasonable cost. Most parts are also interchangeable with older models. The company will support its devices with software updates for least four years from the point it stops selling the device on its site, and continues to support all of the devices it has sold so far.

Ring offers trade-in and recycling schemes through Amazon for its devices, but it did not comment on the use of recycled materials in the Doorbell 4. Ring falls under Amazon’s climate and sustainability pledges.

Observations

Ring Video Doorbell 4 review
The removable faceplate, which is available in several colours to best suit your door, is held in place with a small security screw in the bottom of the battery. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The response time to live view requests through the app is shorter than previous Ring models, but it can still take a few seconds to answer the door, so Ring has a separate stripped-down Rapid Ring app that is faster to load, which can be used for answering rings alongside the main Ring app.

  • Alexa smart displays can show a live feed on demand or automatically when the doorbell rings.

Price

The Ring Video Doorbell 4 costs £179 ($199.99/$A329) and Ring Protect costs from £2.50 a month.

For comparison, the Ring Video Doorbell (2nd gen) costs £89, the Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2 costs £219, the Google Nest Doorbell costs £179.99 and the Arlo Video Doorbell Wire-Free costs £179.

Verdict

The Ring Video Doorbell 4 is yet another great battery-powered smart doorbell from Amazon.

It intentionally doesn’t look any different from previous versions, so that parts are interchangeable and the older models don’t look dated. But it wakes up faster, the colour pre-roll captures much more of each event and its night vision is really good.

It can be installed almost anywhere but it needs good wifi so you might need a booster. You’ll probably need the extra £29 Chime too, which brings the real cost to £189 as a bundle, plus the £2.50 a month subscription to really make the most out of it as it doesn’t have local video storage.

Note the Ring Android app has an extremely annoying hard-coded pattern of four strong and long vibrations for every motion alert. It cannot be changed, which forced me to disable motion alerts entirely and lost the Doorbell 4 a star. Ring said it is working to fix the problem by the end of the year. This issue does not exist for the Ring iPhone app, however.

Pros: easy to install, clear video, great colour pre-roll, lots of accessories, solid iPhone app, faster, quick replies, snapshots, Alexa device integration, great as a regular doorbell replacement, end-to-end encryption available.

Cons: no local storage means you need Protect subscription for event review, no constant video recording, fairly wide for some door frames, battery needs charging once a month, Chime likely needed.

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-Werror pain persists as Linus Torvalds issues Linux 5.15rc2 • The Register

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Linus Torvalds has revealed that winding back the decision to default to -Werror – and therefore make all warnings into errors – has made for another messy week of work on the Linux kernel.

“So I’ve spent a fair amount of this week trying to sort out all the odd warnings, and I want to particularly thank Guenter Roeck for his work on tracking where the build failures due to -Werror come from,” Torvalds wrote in his weekly missive about the state of kernel development.

“Is it done?” he asked rhetorically. “No. But on the whole I’m feeling fairly good about this all, even if it has meant that I’ve been looking at some really odd and grotty code. Who knew I’d still worry about some odd EISA driver on alpha, after all these years? A slight change of pace ;)”

Torvalds expressed his annoyance that his efforts have seen him enter “fix one odd corner case, three others rear their ugly heads” territory.

But he’s willing to wear the pain. “I remain convinced that it’s all for a good cause, and that we really do want to have a clean build even for the crazy odd cases,” he wrote.

And if he must handle this sort of thing in any week of the kernel production cycle, it might as well be the week of rc2.

“I hope this release will turn more normal soon – but the rc2 week tends to be fairly quiet for me, so the fact that I then ended up looking at reports of odd warnings-turned-errors this week wasn’t too bad,” he wrote.

Late last week, Torvalds also took some time to share what he described as “the true 30th anniversary date” of Linux.

On September 17th he wrote “a random note to let people know that today is actually one of the core 30-year anniversary dates: 0.01 was uploaded Sept 17, 1991.

“Now, that 0.01 release was never publicly announced, and I only emailed a handful of people in private about the upload (and I don’t have old emails from those days), so there’s no real record of that,” he wrote. “The only record of the date is in the Linux-0.01 tar-file itself, I suspect.

“Just thought I’d mention it, since while unannounced, in many ways this is the true 30th anniversary date of the actual code.”

So The Register though it worthy of mention, too. ®

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