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Sky Glass review: streaming TV not quite ready for prime time | Sky

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Glass is Sky’s new voice-controlled streaming television – an ambitious attempt to ditch the satellite dish and provide pay TV straight to the screen, with no set top box required.

The television comes in three sizes starting at £649 for a 43in screen, or £13 a month over four years, which works out at £25 cheaper too. Sky’s service costs from £25 a month on top.

Monolithic looks in your choice of colour

sky glass review
The relatively thick body of the TV is aluminium with a mesh at the top allowing a pair of speakers to fire upwards for surround sound. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Glass is a heavy beast, the 55in version weighs 28kg with its stand – about 10kg more than a standard 55in TV – but hides its bulk well from the front. The body is aluminium in a choice of five colours, and houses the built-in soundbar below the screen, making it look a bit like Apple’s iMac.

The 4K LCD screen ticks most of the specifications boxes. It has “quantum dot” technology with a local dimming LED backlight, which is found in many of the best mid- to high-range TVs. It supports the HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision high-dynamic range (HDR) standards, which covers the most popular formats used for 4K content.

The automatic brightness makes the picture look a little dim and grey except in very bright rooms, particularly with skin tones, and the backlight is uneven around the screen’s edges. Disable auto-brightness for a better picture that looks decent for normal HD and sharp for 4K content. But you’ll also see blacks turning a bit grey and a bit of blooming, where the backlight shines like a halo around dark edges.

Following an update the HDR performance is reasonable, but lacks a bit of peak brightness to really make the picture pop. Overall the screen rivals lower mid-range TVs costing about £500.

sky glass review
HDMI-connected devices are handled like apps within the interface, found within panels to the left of your personalised recommendations. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

There are ethernet and three HDMI 2.1 ports on the back. But all you need is power and wifi to get up and running, making it a one-cable solution, which is extremely rare in the world of televisions.

Rare too is a TV that actually sounds good. Glass supports Dolby Atmos virtual surround sound with its six built-in speakers. It won’t beat something like the Sonos Arc, but does a decent job of delivering punchy, full audio. Its vocal clarity is particularly impressive and you don’t have to deal with any lip-sync issues. It is slightly weaker for music, lacking a bit of balance and detail at times compared to a dedicated speaker.

Sky over broadband

sky glass review
The top of the home screen is filled with personalised recommendations, which also form the basis of the TV’s big splashy screensavers when idle. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Everything Glass does can be delivered via any broadband provider; no satellite connection or Sky broadband is required.

The interface looks like an evolution of Sky Q. The top of the home screen features “top picks for you” recommendations and recently viewed channels, apps or HDMI inputs. Below that you can browse by content type, such as TV, movies or sport, or check out the regular TV guide. There is no one-button option for going immediately to live TV and when hopping between channels it takes two to three seconds before the picture appears.

Recommendations are pulled from all the services and apps including Sky, BBC iPlayer ITV Hub, All4, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and others. The unified voice or text search makes finding shows across multiple services quick and easy.

Playlist

sky glass review
You can add almost anything you like to your playlist from any supported channel or service, but it won’t always be available after the live broadcast and you won’t know that until you try to access it. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Things get more interesting when you reach the “playlist” section about halfway down the home screen. Glass cannot record programmes in the traditional sense. Instead you add shows and movies to your playlist with the “+” button on your remote. When a new episode is available it appears in the “play now” panel, along with the rest of your playlist and others things Sky thinks you might like. The logic is sound, but the execution is mixed.

It works great with content hosted on Sky’s platform, including UKTV and Syfy. New shows turn up, you press watch and it streams immediately. For content from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and some others, the tile in the playlist is only a link to the on-demand app.

Go to watch a BBC show and it opens the programme’s homepage or an individual episode in iPlayer. The same thing occurs with ITV Hub and All4. How far you got in a show is stored separately in the on-demand app and the Sky home screen, meaning they don’t always match. And you need to log into each app with your individual accounts. Jumping through these multiple hoops feels more like using a smart TV or streaming stick than a premium pay-TV service.

sky glass review
When watching non-live shows from terrestrial channels you are forced into using the broadcaster’s on-demand app, such as BBC iPlayer, many of which can be slow and clunky. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You are at the mercy of content rights and availability too. Not everything is available for on-demand viewing and some things only for a short period if they are, with no way to tell up front from the TV guide. It is not as good as having the content recorded and ready to watch, even weeks later.

The play now section also filled up with things I didn’t want to see. Movies I had watched and then removed from my playlist lingered for weeks, while shows I had tried once and hated stuck around like a bad smell. Unlike on the various on demand apps there are no separate user profiles on the main Sky interface, which means recommendations are the same for everyone in your home.

Most major on-demand video services are supported, as well as Spotify and YouTube, with Britbox being the only notable exception. But Glass does not support Chromecast or AirPlay from your phone.

Hello, Sky!?

sky glass review
A coloured bar lights up at the top of the screen when you use the voice commands, showing you what the TV hears in real time. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Glass has hands-free voice control, similar to Google or Amazon smart displays. Mics in the TV listen out for your commands after the wake words “Hello Sky” or “Hi Sky” (but not “Hey Sky”) or there’s a push-button mic on the remote. You can ask for a channel, app, show or movie, search by actor, genre or other bits, access custom recommendations or control volume and playback.

Simple word searches work if you’re clear enough, but it doesn’t always wake up on your first “Hello Sky” attempt, and often misheard me. When I say “show me the guide” it can hear “how many died”.

Your commands have to be far more precise than with Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri, too. Asking it to “turn it down a bit” or “set to 30% volume” doesn’t work, instead you need to say “set the volume to 30%”. Pausing or skipping via voice doesn’t work in on-demand apps. And it doesn’t understand when you ask what’s the weather or when a TV show will next be broadcast.

sky glass review
Glass has a screensaver-like mode, which shows big splashy images from its top recommendations when left idle on the home screen. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The TV can detect motion to wake up when you enter the room and turn off when you leave. But it has only worked a handful of times in the three weeks I have been testing it and has turned on when no one is anywhere near it. If I don’t touch the remote for an hour, it asks me to pick it up to avoid the TV turning off too. Sky says it is working on updates to try to fix motion detection.

Sustainability

sky glass review
The TV guide is logical and responsive, but it is harder to skip ahead whole days at a time because the remote lacks a dedicated fast-forward button that skips 24 hours on Q and other TV services. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The television is generally repairable by Sky in the UK. Repair tools and parts will be made available to third parties within the next two years. It is designed to last a minimum of seven years. The company does not operate trade-in schemes. It will recycle old Sky equipment but not third-party devices.

The TV and remote do not contain any recycled materials, but Sky is offsetting the carbon for the TV making it “CarbonNeutral” rated by Natural Capital Partners. The TV is also shipped in plastic-free, fully recyclable packaging including a well designed box. The company publishes its sustainability commitments, including a net zero by 2030 pledge.

Observations

sky glass review
A mic-mute and power button are in the bottom right side of the TV. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The screen does not support 120Hz or the variable refresh rate (VRR) used by the latest games consoles and PCs, and has no game mode for lower latency as is common on competitors.

  • There’s no way to use headphones, wired or otherwise.

  • There’s a standard aerial socket on the back intended as a backup if your internet goes down – otherwise the TV is useless without broadband.

  • You can’t add to your playlist from within on-demand apps, only the main Sky interface.

  • The motion of football on BBC was a bit blurry but not on Sky Sports.

  • The minimum broadband speed for HD content is 10Mbps and 25Mbps for 4K.

sky glass review
The soft-touch plastic remote is fairly intuitive to use and lights up when you pick it up or press a button. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Price

Sky Glass costs £649 for the 43in version, £849 for the 55in and £1,049 for the 65in when bought outright. It can bought via 24- or 48-month interest-free credit costing from £13 a month.

The Sky Ultimate TV service (Sky Entertainment and Netflix) costs £26 a month in HD. The UltraHD HDR and Dolby Atmos package costs an additional £5 a month. For additional channels, Sky Kids costs £5, Cinema costs £11, Sports costs £25 and BT Sport costs £30. After 12 months the ability to skip ads in on-demand content will cost £5 per month.

The TV can be used in limited capacity without a Sky subscription with third-party on-demand apps and the backup Freeview tuner.

Verdict

Sky Glass is all about convenience. Its streaming system and built-in soundbar removes bundles of cables, boxes and the dish. But while its software and service show lots of promise, it is has bugs and small annoyances, most on-demand apps are slow and clunky, and there are extra hoops that must be jumped through to get to content that make it less convenient to use.

I have no doubt updates will fix many of the issues. But the reliance on terrestrial catchup services and their limitations may always be worse than old-school recordings. If you only ever watch live TV or content hosted directly on Sky’s platform or Netflix, Glass is great.

The screen is decent but not spectacular, competing best with lower priced mid-range sets. The sound is great unless you want a real cinema experience, and the remote is great too. The price is tempting when bought monthly, although you must add the cost of the Sky service on top.

Glass is a work in progress with an enormous potential yet to be realised.

Pros: no satellite or box needed, great sound for a TV, responsive and logical interface, good remote, voice search is fast, unified search helps you find content across a range of services, support for most UK streaming services, long service life and software support.

Cons: no local recording, reliance on terrestrial catchup services disappointing, some things only available live, bugs, motion sensing doesn’t work, voice control unreliable, uneven backlighting, auto-brightness is poor, no game or low lag mode, no Chromecast or AirPlay.

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Facial recognition firms should take a look in the mirror | John Naughton

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Last week, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) slapped a £7.5m fine on a smallish tech company called Clearview AI for “using images of people in the UK, and elsewhere, that were collected from the web and social media to create a global online database that could be used for facial recognition”. The ICO also issued an enforcement notice, ordering the company to stop obtaining and using the personal data of UK residents that is publicly available on the internet and to delete the data of UK residents from its systems.

Since Clearview AI is not exactly a household name some background might be helpful. It’s a US outfit that has “scraped” (ie digitally collected) more than 20bn images of people’s faces from publicly available information on the internet and social media platforms all over the world to create an online database. The company uses this database to provide a service that allows customers to upload an image of a person to its app, which is then checked for a match against all the images in the database. The app produces a list of images that have similar characteristics to those in the photo provided by the customer, together with a link to the websites whence those images came. Clearview describes its business as “building a secure world, one face at a time”.

The fly in this soothing ointment is that the people whose images make up the database were not informed that their photographs were being collected or used in this way and they certainly never consented to their use in this way. Hence the ICO’s action.

Most of us had never heard of Clearview until January 2021 when Kashmir Hill, a fine tech journalist, revealed its existence in the New York Times. It was founded by a tech entrepreneur named Hoan Ton-That and Richard Schwartz, who had been an aide to Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York and still, er, respectable. The idea was that Ton-That would supervise the creation of a powerful facial-recognition app while Schwartz would use his bulging Rolodex to drum up business interest.

It didn’t take Schwartz long to realise that US law enforcement agencies would go for it like ravening wolves. According to Hill’s report, the Indiana police department was the company’s first customer. In February 2019 it solved a case in 20 minutes. Two men had got into a fight in a park, which ended with one shooting the other in the stomach. A bystander recorded the crime on a smartphone, so the police had a still of the gunman’s face to run through Clearview’s app. They immediately got a match. The man appeared in a video that someone had posted on social media and his name was included in a caption on the video clip. Bingo!

Clearview’s marketing pitch played to the law enforcement gallery: a two-page spread, with the left-hand page dominated by the slogan “Stop Searching. Start Solving” in what looks like 95-point Helvetica Bold. Underneath would be a list of annual subscription options – anything from $10,000 for five users to $250,000 for 500. But the killer punch was that there was always somewhere a trial subscription option that an individual officer could use to see if the thing worked.

The underlying strategy was shrewd. Selling to corporations qua corporations from the outside is hard. But if you can get an insider, even a relatively junior one, to try your stuff and find it useful, then you’re halfway to a sale. It’s the way that Peter Thiel got the Pentagon to buy the data-analysis software of his company Palantir. He first persuaded mid-ranking military officers to try it out, knowing that they would eventually make the pitch to their superiors from the inside. And guess what? Thiel was an early investor in Clearview.

It’s not clear how many customers the company has. Internal company documents leaked to BuzzFeed in 2020 suggested that up to that time people associated with 2,228 law enforcement agencies, companies and institutions had created accounts and collectively performed nearly 500,000 searches – all of them tracked and logged by the company. In the US, the bulk of institutional purchases came from local and state police departments. Overseas, the leaked documents suggested that Clearview had expanded to at least 26 countries outside the US, including the UK, where searches (perhaps unauthorised) by people in the Met, the National Crime Agency and police forces in Northamptonshire, North Yorkshire, Suffolk, Surrey and Hampshire were logged by Clearview servers.

Reacting to the ICO’s fine, the law firm representing Clearview said that the fine was “incorrect as a matter of law”, because the company no longer does business in the UK and is “not subject to the ICO’s jurisdiction”. We’ll see about that. But what’s not in dispute is that many of the images in the company’s database are of social media users who are very definitely in the UK and who didn’t give their consent. So two cheers for the ICO.

What I’ve been reading

A big turn off
About Those Kill-Switched Ukrainian Tractors is an acerbic blog post on Medium by Cory Doctorow on the power that John Deere has to remotely disable not only tractors stolen by Russians from Ukraine, but also those bought by American farmers.

Out of control
Permanent Pandemic is a sobering essay in Harper’s by Justin EH Smith asking whether controls legitimised by fighting Covid will ever be relaxed.

Right to bear arms?
In Heather Cox Richardson’s Substack newsletter on the “right to bear arms”, the historian reflects on how the second amendment has been bent out of shape to meet the gun lobby’s needs.

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AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law • The Register

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In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

“If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge,” they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. “Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions.”

Today’s laws pretty much only recognize humans as inventors with IP rights protecting them from patent infringement. Attempts to overturn the human-centric laws have failed. Stephen Thaler, a developer who insists AI invented his company’s products, has sued trademark offices in multiple countries, including the US and UK to no avail.

George and Walsh are siding with Thaler’s position. “Creating bespoke law and an international treaty will not be easy, but not creating them will be worse. AI is changing the way that science is done and inventions are made. We need fit-for-purpose IP law to ensure it serves the public good,” they wrote.

Dutch police generate deepfake of dead teenager in criminal case

A video clip with the face of a 13-year-old boy, who was shot dead outside a metro station in the Netherlands, swapped onto a body using AI technology was released by police.

Sedar Soares died in 2003. Officers have not managed to solve the case, and with Soares’ family’s permission, they have generated a deepfake of his image on a kid playing football in a field presumably to help jog anyone’s memory. The cops have reportedly received dozens of potential leads since, according to The Guardian. 

It’s the first time AI-generated images have been used to try and solve a criminal case, it seems. “We haven’t yet checked if these leads are usable,” said Lillian van Duijvenbode, a Rotterdam police spokesperson. 

You can watch the video here.

AI task force advises Congress to fund national computing infrastructure

America’s National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (NAIRR) urged Congress to launch a “shared research cyberinfrastructure” to better provide academics with hardware and data resources for developing machine-learning tech.

The playing field of AI research is unequal. State-of-the-art models are often packed with billions of parameters; developers need access to lots of computer chips to train them. It’s why research at private companies seems to dominate, while academics at universities lag behind.

“We must ensure that everyone throughout the Nation has the ability to pursue cutting-edge AI research,” the NAIRR wrote in a report. “This growing resource divide has the potential to adversely skew our AI research ecosystem, and, in the process, threaten our nation’s ability to cultivate an AI research community and workforce that reflect America’s rich diversity — and harness AI in a manner that serves all Americans.”

If AI progress is driven by private companies, it could mean other types of research areas are left out and underdeveloped. “Growing and diversifying approaches to and applications of AI and opening up opportunities for progress across all scientific fields and disciplines, including in critical areas such as AI auditing, testing and evaluation, trustworthy AI, bias mitigation, and AI safety,” the task force argued. 

You can read the full report here [PDF].

Meta offers musculoskeletal research tech

Researchers at Meta AI released Myosuite, a set of musculoskeletal models and tasks to simulate biomechanical movement of limbs for a whole range of applications.

“The more intelligent an organism is, the more complex the motor behavior it can exhibit,” they said in a blog post. “So an important question to consider, then, is — what enables such complex decision-making and the motor control to execute those decisions? To explore this question, we’ve developed MyoSuite.”

Myosuite was built in collaboration with researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and aims to arm developers studying prosthetics and could help rehabilitate patients. There’s another potential useful application for Meta, however: building more realistic avatars that can move more naturally in the metaverse.

The models only simulate the movements of arms and hands so far. Tasks include using machine learning to simulate the manipulation of die or rotation of two balls. The application of Myosuite in Meta’s metaverse is a little ironic given that there’s no touching allowed there along with restrictions on hands to deter harassment. ®

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A day in the life of a metaverse specialist

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Unity’s Antonia Forster discusses her work using AR, VR and everything in between, and why ignoring imposter syndrome is particularly important in the world of emerging technology.

We’ve started hearing a lot about the metaverse and what it means for the future, including how it might affect recruitment and the working world.

But what is it like to actually work within this space? Antonia Forster is an extended reality (XR) technical specialist at video game software development company Unity Technologies, with several years of experience developing XR applications.

Future Human

In her role at Unity, she works across a variety of industries, from automotive to architecture, creating demos and delivering talks using XR, which encapsulates AR, VR and everything in between.

‘I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect’
– ANTONIA FORSTER

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

It’s challenging to describe a typical day because they vary so much!  I work completely remotely with flexible hours. Most of my team are based in the US while I’m in the UK. In order to manage the time difference, I usually start work around 11am and work until 7pm.

Most of my day is spent on developing content, whether that’s using Unity and C# to code a technical demo, creating video content to help onboard new starters with Unity’s tools, or writing a script for a webinar.

Before the pandemic, a role like mine would involve lots of travel and speaking at conferences. But unfortunately, that’s a little more challenging now.

We use a whole range of tools from organisational ones like Asana to manage our projects, to Slack and Google Docs to coordinate with each other, to Unity’s own technical tools to create content.

All of Unity’s XR tools fall under my remit, so I might be creating VR content one day and creating an AR mobile app the next. I also use Unity and C# to create my own projects outside of work. For example, I co-created the world’s first LGBTQ+ virtual reality museum, which has been officially selected for Tribeca Film Festival in June 2022 – during Pride!

What types of project do you work on?

At Unity, my role is to create content that helps people understand our tools and get excited about all the different things it enables them to do. For example, for one project I visited a real construction site and used one of Unity’s tools (VisualLive) to see the virtual model of the building model overlaid on top of the real physical construction.

This makes it very easy to see the difference between the plan and the actual reality, which is very important to avoid clashes and costly mistakes. For another project, I used VR and hand-tracking to demonstrate how someone could showcase a product (say, a car) inside a VR showroom and then interact with it using hand tracking and full-body tracking.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

The most relevant skill for my role is the ability to break down a larger problem into small steps and then solving each step. That’s really all programming is! That and knowing the right terms to Google to find the solution and enough understanding to implement the solution, or continuing to search if you don’t understand that solution or it is not appropriate for your problem.

Despite my title, I don’t think of myself as highly ‘technical’. I’m an entirely self-taught software developer, and I’m a visual learner, so I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect!

Another crucial skill is persistence because VR and AR are emerging and fast-moving technologies that are constantly changing. If I follow a tutorial or try a solution and it doesn’t work, I used to grapple with the feeling that maybe I’m not good enough.

In reality, this technology changes so often that if a tutorial is six months old, it might be out of date. Learning to be resilient and persistent and to ignore my feelings of imposter syndrome was the most important thing I’ve learned on my career journey. Your feelings are not facts, and imposter syndrome is extremely common in this industry.

What are the hardest parts of your working day?

One of the most difficult challenges of my working day is the isolation. I work remotely and many of my team are on a different time zone, so we’re not always able to chat. To overcome that, I prioritise social engagements outside of work.

When I’m extremely busy with my own projects – like the LGBTQ+ VR museum – I go to co-working spaces so that I can at least be around other people during working hours.

I also struggle with time blindness. I have ADHD and working remotely means that it’s easy to get absorbed in a task and forget to take breaks. I set alarms to snap myself out of my ‘trance’ at certain times, like lunchtime. I have to admit though, it doesn’t always work!

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

My main tip for productivity is to find what works for you, not what works for other people, or what others think should work for you.

For example, I am a night owl. So, starting my day a little later and working into the night, works well for me. It also means I can sync with my team in the US. I don’t find time to play video games, piano or meet up with my friends in the evening, so instead I arrange those things for the morning, which helps me persuade myself to get out of bed!

In the same way, when I was learning to code, people gave me advice like: ‘Break things and fix it, to see how it works’. But that produced a lot of anxiety for me and didn’t work well.

Instead, I learned with my own methods like writing songs, drawing cartoons and even physically printing and gluing code snippets into a notebook and writing the English translation underneath. Code after all, is a language, so I treated it the same way. Find what works for you, even if it’s not conventional!

How has this role changed as this sector has grown and evolved?

I began this role in 2020 and typically – before the pandemic – my job would have been described as a ‘technical evangelism’, which involves a lot of public speaking and travel to conferences.

Of course, that wasn’t really possible, so my role has evolved into creating content of different types – webinars online, videos, onboarding tutorials and technical demos for marketing and sales enablement.

While I really enjoy public speaking, the lack of travel has given me time to get deeply familiar with Unity’s XR tooling and sharpen my technical expertise. This technology is always changing so it’s really important to constantly learn and grow. Luckily, I have an insatiable curiosity and appetite for knowledge. I think all engineers do!

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I have two favourite things about this job. First, the autonomy. Since I have a deep understanding of the tools and our users/audience, I’m trusted to design and propose my own solutions that best meet the user needs.

Secondly, the technology itself. Being able to create VR or AR content is like sorcery! I can conjure anything from nothing. I can create entire worlds that I can step into based only on my imagination. And so can anybody that learns this skill – and it’s easier than you think! That has never stopped being magical and exciting to me, and I don’t think it ever will.

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