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Why the iPhone X is the new iPhone you’ll want now

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The iPhone X is billed as a future-focused device with a lot of cutting edge tech, available at a premium. It kind of reminds me of the positioning of the original MacBook Air, or the new MacBook, when those two devices were first introduced – tomorrow’s tech, available today, but for a bit more money and with a few trade-offs as a result of being ahead of its time.

And the iPhone X does have trade-offs – losing Touch ID is a blow, since it’s one of Apple’s strongest innovations in terms of convenience features for a mobile device, and one that has become essentially industry-standard across smartphone manufacturers.

There’s also the price: At $999 to start, this is the most expensive iPhone Apple has ever sold, and with upgraded memory options it’s easily more expensive than the cheapest Mac notebook in the lineup. Apple’s putting new meaning into the term “premium” when it comes to the smartphone category, even considering some recent high-priced device releases from competitors including Samsung.

These caveats might suggest that the true flagship of the moment is actually the iPhone 8 (and 8 Plus), which offer improved capabilities and hardware designs, but keep the price point the same as the 7 (and 7s) that preceded it. For a lot of users, that’s all that’s needed – better specs where it counts, and some great-looking photography features like the new Portrait Lighting mode on the iPhone 8 Plus which compliments the existing Portrait Mode features.

And while it does look like a strong offering, there’s no question in my mind that the iPhone X is the true flagship, and the iPhone that Apple needed to field now to keep pace with the rest of the industry. The Android device field has never been stronger, and some aspects of its current leading trends meant that the X was inevitable.

Using devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, LG V30 and Essential Phone have revealed one core truth about the current smartphone field: Display is king. The difference between using a smartphone with significant bezels and using one without is astounding, and builds over time. In the same way that it was hard to go back to smaller device once Apple relented and finally released an iPhone with a display larger than 4-inches, it’s very hard to go back to a bezel-heavy piece of hardware once you’re used to one without.

The Galaxy Note 8 and Essential Phone, two devices that also have bezel-light fronts.

Similarly, dual optical image stabilization on the rear camera is going to be something that, once you have it, you won’t want to give up. On the Galaxy Note 8, it makes a huge difference when using the tele lens, and I’m willing to bet it’ll be similarly beneficial with the iPhone X, if not more so.

OLED displays, again, are fairly standard on competing devices, and hard to give up once you’re used to their pure blacks and vivid colors. Apple has been holding on the apparent premise that it needed to get color rendering and other aspects of the display up to its exacting standards, but now that it has, it’ll be very hard to look at its older mobile display tech in the same way.

The iPhone X, you could argue, is overkill – just look at its leaked benchmarks in the tweet below, which shows it performing better than a MacBook Pro on paper using GeekBench stats. Everything from the display to the camera could be described as ‘extra,’ based on what you need from a smartphone and how satisfied you are with the one you carry today. But excess is the new normal for the premium smartphone category.

No other smartphone maker necessarily ticks all the boxes that Apple does with the iPhone X, but the X isn’t the first to anything its offering (with the exception maybe of Face ID, though its superiority to Touch ID remains questionable at best). Apple is once again doing the work of combining the best of existing tech in a way that makes the most sense. But doing so isn’t a forward-looking leap – it’s watching the throne in a market with some renewed vigor and excitement thanks to upstarts like Essential.

The iPhone X is the device users are going to want, and it’s going to set the new standard for the iPhone going forward, regardless of what Apple does for the rest of the line. Some, like Matt, might argue that it’s not offering enough to usher in the future now – but really the future is already upon us, and iPhone X is in just the right place.

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Animoji are dumb and I detest them

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Apple today announced the digital equivalent of a singing telegram, a perversion of the emoji concept that embodies the worst of both the company’s exclusionary philosophy and the worst of CG animals and excreta. Animoji are dumb and I loathe them. Here’s why.

1. Emoji meaning comes from context, not expression

Why have emoji become the lingua franca, nay even the interlingua, of the digital messaging world? It’s not because they’re so incredibly emotive. In fact, the clip art illustration style is almost aggressively bland. But it is that very blandness that gave them the power of versatility.

The ?‍♀️ lady is meant to be someone sitting at an information desk. But her empty stare and flippant gesture could just as easily mean a hundred other things, from offering something to shrugging to asking “well?!” It’s up to the users to create the context to infuse emoji with meaning. Even specific faces and emotions depend heavily on how they’re used.

An 3D fox face making a grimace is just a 3D fox face making a grimace. There’s no subtext (except maybe Bradley Cooper), no creation, no interpretation. Just a fancy mask.

2. Emoji standards give us a shared visual language, animoji don’t

But this only works when we’re all seeing the same thing. Apple doesn’t seem to care about that. Remember when they tried to kill the ? and turn it into like a weird pink coconut? I haven’t forgotten.

It’s only when we know exactly what the person on the other end will see that we can successfully give these symbols the meaning we intend. This is an imperfect situation, since cross-platform emoji can create problems, but because the Apple-adopted set has become the de facto standard, it’s often at least an option to use them. This creates a powerful and broad shared lexicon that behaves predictably on most platforms.

Animoji don’t exist within that platform, but they ape it in order to leech legitimacy from it. But make no mistake, these aren’t emjoi. It’s an Apple product and they do not intend to share it. This wonderful advance will be locked into iMessage forever.

3. It’s a toy for the moneyed elite

Any time you see an animoji, picture a little $1,000 price tag hanging off the side, swaying realistically. Because no one but the four-figure club gets to use them.

As usual in consumer electronics, the most futuristic technologies are being deployed for the most frivolous purposes. And the people willing to shell out such fantastic sums in order to access such trivial toys will be eager to display them.

Remember this when you get the inevitable 150-megabyte update to Messages, and hold that anger inside you like a burning coal.

4. They look like turn of the century bad CG

Did anyone really like Antz? And is it weird to say “turn of the century” for the late ’90s and early 2000s? Is it weird that the target demographic for this feature wasn’t even born when Antz came out?

5. I hate fun

It’s unacceptable that Apple or anyone else creates a form of expression that’s at odds with my calcified ideas of how people should communicate. Technology is serious business and this lighthearted application of facial recognition tech has no place in it.

As you might guess at this point, I’m only half serious here. I think new forms of digital expression are interesting and laudable — I’m a big fan of Snapchat’s experimentation with the medium and wish others would take risks like it has.

But I also think emoji derive their greatest value from the reasons set forth in 1 and 2, and that Apple’s has been working not to expand expression but to solidify its hold on its users in the face of other free, reliable, secure messaging apps. The company’s philosophy is not one of openness, and I oppose that wherever I see it. (I also oppose Antz wherever I see it.)

Emoji are by and for everyone — that’s why everyone uses them. If some emoji (or emoji-likes) are only for some people, then in my opinion that’s the wrong way to go.

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Modular, self-healing robot swarms are definitely a great idea

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Robots are going to have to work together if they want to destroy us, their soft, fallible masters. But the current paradigm of having a Skynet-like (or rather, Zerglike) overmind control a set of semi-autonomous drones is too easy to beat — take out the brain and the rest fail, right? Not if they’re all the brain, which is the idea demonstrated in a wonderful new paper, “Mergeable nervous systems for robots.”

The admiration of the authors for our shining, pitiless destroyers is evident from the get-go. The very first sentence of their paper, published today in Nature Communications, reads:

Robots have the potential to display a higher degree of lifetime morphological adaptation than natural organisms.

Not if we don’t let them! But I digress. The researchers, a multinational team from Lausanne, Lisbon and Brussels (led by Marco Dorigo of the latter), point out that this amazing potential is, at present, unattained. Why? Because the swarmbots we’ve seen tend to outsource their intelligence to a higher power like a computer watching them from above. They’re more like remote limbs than independent bots.

To fix that, to me reassuring, weakness, the team decided to imbue each robot with the ability to control both itself and its brethren. These MNS robots all have their own CPUs, sensors, wheels and so on, and can operate independently. But when one connects to another, it subjects its will to the “brain” robot and becomes as a mere appendage to it.

Bots operating independently avoid a green stimulus, then operate as single units once connected to do the same thing. Instructions always originate in the red-lit “brain” modules.

This has lots of advantages. First, there’s no need for an overarching intelligence that monitors and directs the robots, and all the infrastructure that implies. Second, it vastly simplifies the logic necessary to accomplish tasks: the “brain” issues commands and the “limb” robots execute them. Third, it makes replacing parts easy: if part of an arm isn’t working, swap it out; if the brain is destroyed, switch to the next one down the line. Fourth, it makes scaling the robots from five- or six-bot formations to hundred-bot formations… well, if not easy, then easier than before. And finally, adding functions like lifting or pushing is as easy as adding a lifter or pusher unit to the “organism.”

Or, if you wanted to sound like an evil genius planning to take over the world with these things:

Our control paradigm enables robots to exhibit properties that go beyond those of any existing machine or of any biological organism.

That’s how the paper describes it. We get it, robots are superior!

Each MNS robot is like a little custom layer cake: wheels and “treels” (track-like wheels) on the bottom; then a ring with a little gripper that can rotate around and expand to hold onto another robot’s ring; then an optional utility module like a magnet for picking up nearby objects; then the computer and sensor package, which has the Wi-Fi, 360-degree camera, range sensor and identification beacon. You can see the rest of the parts in the diagram at right.

Obviously these little basketball-sized things aren’t going to do any serious work. They don’t even have arms, or guns, or vicious blades. But the robots in the experiment are just to demonstrate the logic and benefits of such a setup.

Imagine a real-world application with a dozen or two of these things rolling around a construction site. They could operate on their own to pick up supplies and trash, recharge and do simple deliveries, but join together when they need to do something unusual like pick up something heavy, climb a wall or monitor the site at night.

In conclusion, Dorigo et al. write:

Our vision is that, in the future, robots will no longer be designed and built for a particular task. Instead, we will design composable robotic units that give robots the flexibility to autonomously adapt their capabilities, shape and size to changing task requirements.

Clearly, it’s the future we deserve.

Featured Image: Marco Dorigo and Nithin Mathews

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