Google Assistant can now control GE, iRobot, LG, and D-Link devices

Google Assistant, and by extension, the Google Home smart speaker, can now control a raft of smart home appliances, including products from big names such as iRobot, LG, GE Appliances, and D-Link. Most of these bigger names are not part of the Home Control section of Google Assistant. Instead, they utilize their own apps that integrate with Google Assistant (and in most cases, with Amazon’s Alexa as well).

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The iRobot Home app, for example, lets you control Wi-Fi-connected Roomba vacuums via Google Assistant. Voice commands then let you tell Roomba to start, stop, or resume cleaning, or you can find out where the Roomba is in the house or what its status is.

GE Appliance’s Geneva smart refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers, and other appliances also now work with Google Assistant. LG’s signature appliances that includes washers, dryers, fridges, and air conditioners also need an app.

 [ Further reading: The best surge protectors for your expensive electronics ]

Other new smart home services integrate directly with Google Assistant inside the Home Control section of the Home app. The most well known is D-Link’s “mydlink” devices that include a range of cameras, routers, and storage devices.

Other new services include Awair air monitors, Hive smart home hubs, Wiz smart light bulbs, as well as Nanoleaf, Plum, and Smartika. Google has an entire list of supported services and products on its help pages.

The impact on you at home: Amazon’s Alexa may be the big leader right now for smart home assistant’s, but Google Assistant is steadily growing. More importantly, however, the rise of these smart assistants–especially when embedded in smart home speakers–shows that the age of smart home automation is well underway.

Via’s 360-degree VR cameras ship for under $100

Via Technologies is now shipping new 360-degree cameras for under US$100, making it more affordable for users to capture and play virtual reality content in headsets.
720peken

The cameras — called Vpai by Via — are being touted as being “720-degree” as they capture everything within view horizontally and vertically. But effectively, the Via cameras capture images at an angle of 360 degrees.

Some 360-degree cameras like Kodak’s PixPro SP360 or LG 360 Cam can achieve the angle but not the full scope of Vpai. Most 360 degree cameras are also priced well over $100.

The Via Chiptrip, ForFun, and Eken Pano cameras are available through Chinese online retail sites and ship worldwide. Details on the cameras are available on the Vpai website.

The cameras record high-definition video via dual fisheye lenses, which are key to grabbing 360-degree video. The cameras can be operated via a mobile phone app.

Some of the new cameras have USB Type-C ports and can plug directly into smartphones, which can then be turned into 360-degree cameras. Other cameras have Wi-Fi connectivity.

The new cameras include the Chiptrip V71, which is capable of up to 40 minutes of recording. The Chiptrip V72 can record up to 70 minutes of video. The Chiptrip V73 is superthin and plugs directly into the USB Type-C port of a mobile device, but it doesn’t have Wi-Fi.

The other cameras include Eken Pano I, which plugs directly into the USB-C port of an Android smartphone to capture video.

The ForFun V1 is a small “point-and-shoot” camera with a small OLED to view captured images. It also has a Micro-SD slot and connects to mobile phones via Wi-Fi or micro-USB 2.0. The more feature-packed ForFun VV720 offers longer battery life of up to 40 minutes and also includes a mini-tripod. The ForFun VV750 supports USB Type-C ports.

It’s a bit surprising that Via has come out with a consumer device, considering the company makes x86 and ARM chips and developer boards. The company also owns a lot of graphics intellectual property and has used its on-chip video compression engine so full HD video quality is delivered on devices without post-processing or upconverting.

3 ways to break your smartphone addiction and get back to work

Few things have as much hold on our attention as our smartphones. Recent research found that an average user touches their mobile phone 2,617 times a day and a heavy user swipes, taps, and clicks more than 5,000 times per day! That’s nearly three to four hours a day of lost productivity.

woman at computer with phone

Luckily, there are a few tools that can help save you from yourself. Treat your smartphone addiction with these three apps.

OffTime

offtime

PCWorld

OffTime lets you tailor your smartphone use—and its distractions—for work, home, or alone time.

The insidious thing about smartphone addiction is that it keeps you from being present in the moment. OffTime curbs your compulsions by tailoring your phone options and access to particular scenarios.

The app lets you create profiles for things like focused work, time with your family, or alone time, and customize the distractions you want to eliminate for each. For example, you may want to block particular apps but receive phone calls and text messages during the workday. This strategy allows you to reduce potential diversions without cutting off connectivity altogether. OffTime also provides analytics to help you track your phone and app usage and keep you motivated to build better habits.

(Android, iOS)

breakfree

PCWorld

BreakFree confronts you with cold, hard data about your phone usage to help you change your habits.

BreakFree

BreakFree puts your faith in the axiom that knowledge is power. It tracks your app usage patterns and gives you an addiction score in real time. You can then view the stats behind your score—such as your most-used apps and how often you’ve launched them, your call patterns, and other details—and make informed decisions about how to lower your score. To assist you, a serene Buddha-like character named Sato will gently remind you to slow down when you start showing signs of addictive behavior like making an excessive number of phone calls or using a particular app for too long.

Ideally, just being confronted with the facts of your behavior will prompt you to dial back your usage. But just in case it doesn’t, BreakFree also includes several phone-management tools like the ability to disable the internet, send auto text replies, and reject phone calls that you can schedule for your busiest times of day.

(Android, iOS)

Flipd

flipd

PCWorld

When willpower isn’t enough, Flipd will lock you out of your phone for the duration of your work day.

If gentler measures aren’t easing your phone addiction, Flipd may be the tough love you need. The app offers two different modes, one even more restrictive than the other.

The first is a “casual lock”— a Pomodoro-like timer that challenges you to abstain from your phone and focus for a specified period of time. If that doesn’t work, there is the “full lock” and it’s as severe as it sounds, hiding all your apps and locking you out of your device for a duration of time you set beforehand. Even rebooting your phone won’t disable the app. Because it’s so prohibitive, it’s recommended for only the most incorrigible offenders.

(Android, iOS)

A free decryption tool is now available for all Bart ransomware versions

Users who have had their files encrypted by any version of the Bart ransomware program are in luck: Antivirus vendor Bitdefender has just released a free decryption tool.

Files affected by the Bart ransomware can be decrypted.

The Bart ransomware appeared back in June and stood out because it locked victims’ files inside ZIP archives encrypted with AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). Unlike other ransomware programs that used RSA public-key cryptography and relied on a command-and-control server to generate key pairs, Bart was able to encrypt files even in the absence of an internet connection.

The original implementation of Bart did have some weaknesses and security researchers from antivirus firm AVG, which is now part of Avast, created a tool that could guess the password for the ransomware’s archives using brute-force methods. The decryptor required the user to have at least one unaffected copy of a file that had been encrypted.

In later versions, the Bart developers changed their crypto implementation, rendering the AVG decryptor ineffective. According to Catalin Cosoi, chief security strategist at Bitdefender, the encryption used by the latest Bart variants is strong and has no obvious flaws.

Despite that, Bitdefender was able to create a decryption tool after the Romanian police provided them with the necessary keys, which were probably obtained during an investigation. The company credits collaboration with the Romanian Police and Europol for its success in creating the tool.

The tool was published on NoMoreRansom.org, a support website for ransomware victims that’s maintained by a coalition of security vendors and law enforcement agencies. The website has prevention advice as well as a set of decryption tools that work for various strains of ransomware.

Some researchers believe Bart to be related to another widespread ransomware program, called Locky, that has affected many organizations in 2016. Files affected by this program have the .bart.zip, .bart and .perl extensions.

As always, having a backup plan in place is the best approach to deal with potential ransomware infections, rather than hoping for a free decryption tool that might or might not work for the particular variant that ends up affecting your files.

In the absence of backups, security experts advise against paying ransom because it encourages cybercriminals and doesn’t always result in file recovery. The affected files should be saved though in case a solution to recover them is found at a later date.

Google says its AI chips smoke CPUs, GPUs in performance tests

Four years ago, Google was faced with a conundrum: if all its users hit its voice recognition services for three minutes a day, the company would need to double the number of data centers just to handle all of the requests to the machine learning system powering those services.

A Google Tensor Processing Unit.

Rather than buy a bunch of new real estate and servers just for that purpose, the company embarked on a journey to create dedicated hardware for running machine- learning applications like voice recognition.

The result was the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), a chip that is designed to accelerate the inference stage of deep neural networks. Google published a paper on Wednesday laying out the performance gains the company saw over comparable CPUs and GPUs, both in terms of raw power and the performance per watt of power consumed.

A TPU was on average 15 to 30 times faster at the machine learning inference tasks tested than a comparable server-class Intel Haswell CPU or Nvidia K80 GPU. Importantly, the performance per watt of the TPU was 25 to 80 times better than what Google found with the CPU and GPU.

Driving this sort of performance increase is important for Google, considering the company’s emphasis on building machine learning applications. The gains validate the company’s focus on building machine learning hardware at a time when it’s harder to get massive performance boosts from traditional silicon.

This is more than just an academic exercise. Google has used TPUs in its data centers since 2015 and they’ve been put to use improving the performance of applications including translation and image recognition. The TPUs are particularly useful when it comes to energy efficiency, which is an important metric related to the cost of using hardware at massive scale.

One of the other key metrics for Google’s purposes is latency, which is where the TPUs excel compared to other silicon options. Norm Jouppi, a distinguished hardware engineer at Google, said that machine learning systems need to respond quickly in order to provide a good user experience.

“The point is, the internet takes time, so if you’re using an internet-based server, it takes time to get from your device to the cloud, it takes time to get back,” Jouppi said. “Networking and various things in the cloud — in the data center — they takes some time. So that doesn’t leave a lot of [time] if you want near-instantaneous responses.”

Google tested the chips on six different neural network inference applications, representing 95 percent of all such applications in Google’s data centers. The applications tested include DeepMind AlphaGo, the system that defeated Lee Sedol at Go in a five-game match last year.

The company tested the TPUs against hardware that was released around roughly the same time to try and get an apples-to-apples performance comparison. It’s possible that newer hardware would at least narrow the performance gap.

There’s still room for TPUs to improve, too. Using the GDDR5 memory that’s present in an Nvidia K80 GPU with the TPU should provide a performance improvement over the existing configuration that Google tested. According to the company’s research, the performance of several applications was constrained by memory bandwidth.

Furthermore, the authors of Google’s paper claim that there’s room for additional software optimization to increase performance. The authors called out one of the tested convolutional neural network applications (referred to in the paper as CNN1) as a candidate. However, because of existing performance gains from the use of TPUs, it’s not clear if those optimizations will take place.

While neural networks mimic the way neurons transmit information in humans, CNNs are modeled specifically on how the brain processes visual information.

“As CNN1 currently runs more than 70 times faster on the TPU than the CPU, the CNN1 developers are already very happy, so it’s not clear whether or when such optimizations would be performed,” the authors wrote.

TPUs are what’s known in chip lingo as an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC). They’re custom silicon built for one task, with an instruction set hard-coded into the chip itself. Jouppi said that he wasn’t overly concerned by that, and pointed out that the TPUs are flexible enough to handle changes in machine learning models.

“It’s not like it was designed for one model, and if someone comes up with a new model, we’d have to junk our chips or anything like that,” he said.

Google isn’t the only company focused on using dedicated hardware for machine learning. Jouppi said that he knows of several startups working in the space, and Microsoft has deployed a fleet of field-programmable gate arrays in its data centers to accelerate networking and machine learning applications.

SOS: Astronauts can make a quick getaway via a zip line

As if astronauts didn’t have a cool enough job already, they now get to also zoom down a zip line. Engineers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station recently finished testing an exit system designed to quickly transport astronauts to safety in case of a launch emergency.

The zip line is being prepped for crew members of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule, which will be launched toward the International Space Station atop the Atlas V rocket. The zip line begins 172 feet in the air, on top of a tower crew members will use to board the Starliner, and ends about 1,300 feet away.

It’s made up of four cables. Each cable has five seats, meaning the system can transport up to 20 people at a time. After strapping in, riders control their speed by releasing pressure on the handles. Springs at the end of the line help to stop the rider if they forget to brake.

Patch to fix Intel-based PCs with enterprise bug rolls out next week

Next week, PC vendors will start rolling out patches that fix a severe vulnerability found in certain Intel-based business systems, including laptops, making them easier to hack.

Intel

Intel on Friday released a new notice urging clients to take steps to secure their systems.

The chipmaker has also released a downloadable tool that can help IT administrators and users discover whether a machine they own has the vulnerability.

   [ Further reading: How the new age of antivirus software will protect your PC ]

In addition, vendors including Fujitsu, HP, and Lenovo have released lists showing which products are affected and when the patches will roll out.

The products include laptops from Lenovo’s ThinkPad line and HP’s EliteBook series, along with servers, and desktops. Some of the patches are slated to come in June.

Computers running enterprise management features found in Intel-based firmware from the past eight years will have the bug.

Specifically, the vulnerability resides in past versions of Intel Active Management Technology, Intel Small Business Technology, and Intel Standard Manageability.

Fortunately, the vulnerability can only be exploited if these features have been enabled, according to security firm Embedi, which uncovered the bug.

These enterprise features were designed to help businesses remotely manage, track and repair huge fleets of connected computers, including retail checkout systems, digital signs, and PCs.

However, Intel’s firmware bug could allow a hacker to take over the PCs and devices that use these remote management technologies, the chipmaker said.

In March, Intel learned about the vulnerability from a researcher at Embedi, a security product provider.

On Friday, Embedi released more technical details about the Intel firmware bug, saying it could be exploited to remotely control a machine’s mouse and keyboard and even turn the computer on or off.

“Which means, you can remotely load, execute any program to the target system,” Embedi said.

The vulnerability also bypasses the machine’s authentication processes, so no knowledge of the password is needed, Embedi said.

Until the patch becomes available, Intel is recommending users manually apply temporary fixes to address the threat. Users can also contact Intel’s customer support.

This week in games: Forza Horizon 3 gets Hot Wheels, Terry Crews gets a wild Old Spice PC

Forza Horizon 3 - Hot Wheels expansion

Take a deep breath. It’s been one of the most crowded spring release schedules I’ve ever seen, and we’re not quite done—Prey releases next week. But we’re almost done, and then you’ll have a solid four months to catch your breath before we head into fall. I’m looking forward to finally getting around to NieR Automata, Sexy Brutale, and finally finishing off Snake Pass.

But for now, news. This week Terry Crews received a custom-built PC