“Compared directly against Google Assistant, Bixby Voice is in for some embarrassing showdowns.”

Samsung has released a preview of their AI assistant ‘Bixby’ to beta testers:

First things first. If you registered to be a beta tester, make sure you’re running the current version of Bixby by going to its “about” screen. Download any updates that appear there. I also had to clear the data and cache for Bixby apps in my S8+’s settings screen before Bixby Voice appeared. Once it does, you’ll get a tutorial that involves teaching you how to trigger the voice feature and then teaching it to recognize your voice.

This already sounds like a great user experience. Clearing cache, tutorials. Bixby sounds even more beta than Siri was went Apple launched it.

Even the essential task of text messaging someone is surprisingly hard to pull off. For one, you’ve got to use Samsung’s Messages app as your default SMS app. And if you don’t word things exactly right, it won’t happen. “Text mom and ask ‘how are you’” sent me to a Google search. “Send a text to mom and ask ‘how are you’” worked — but still necessitated a few taps to fire off the message. What’s the point of voice, then? Google Assistant nailed it with a single attempt.

One more nugget:

Compared directly against Google Assistant, Bixby Voice is in for some embarrassing showdowns. Until things get better, a lot of people will be asking “What’s the point?” I’m not really sure Bixby Voice saves you much in the way of time since it often runs through the same menus and screens you would with your finger when performing tasks.

Haha. Good luck with this, Samsung.

What I love most about this is that Samsung phones run on Android and Google already has Google Assistant which is way more advanced than Bixby, but Samsung wants to differentiate themselves from the sea of other Android phone manufacturers.

I suppose in that respect they’ve accomplished their mission.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!”

Over at The New Yorker, Ferris Jabr explains why walking helps us think:

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Earlier this year, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford published what is likely the first set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment. They got the idea for the studies while on a walk. “My doctoral advisor had the habit of going for walks with his students to brainstorm,” Oppezzo says of Schwartz. “One day we got kind of meta.”

As a former New Yorker, I walked everywhere for photo-shooting, idea generation, and because sometimes it’s the easiest way to get to where you’re going.

No Speaky to Bixby

Samsung says Bixby voice assistant won’t ship with Galaxy S8:

One of the key signature features of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, its Bixby voice assistant, won’t work out of the box, when the device goes on sale later this month. Other parts of Bixby, including its visual search and reminder abilities, will ship at launch, a Samsung representative told Axios in a statement.

Samsung really doesn’t like being reliant on Android to power all their mobile devices. Tizen is the most obvious example of this. TouchWiz is another. Bixby is the latest example.

What I want to know is if Samsung is truly invested in Bixby for the long-term?

Siri was very beta and had many problems when it first launched. Today it has much fewer, although it has a ways to go. Apple’s great at having the balls to ship 1.0 versions of products and then iterate year after year. Remember when everyone was bitching about the shitty colors, icons, and hard-to-read Helvetica Light in iOS 7? If you compare iOS 7 to iOS 10 you can see a lot has changed in four years.

Even if Samsung does decide to stick with Bixby, they have yet to prove they can ship top-quality software experiences on par with iOS and Android.

If Samsung is dreaming of overcoming Apple, they have some work ahead of them.

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Car Companies Are Still Struggling with Interface Design

Headline from The Verge:

The 2017 BMW 5 Series emphasizes design over intuitive software

First off, shame on whoever the editor is for creating that headline. They’re conflating design with the superfluous. Design isn’t how it looks, it’s how it works.

How many times do we have to go over this?

If you do eventually get your phone connected over Bluetooth, you have a few options for controlling iDrive. The most novel way is with those gesture controls. I was excited to try them because, as I’ve learned after playing around with many gadgets, it’s often a gimmicky and faulty feature. I hoped that BMW had figured out the magic solution to making it an essential form of interaction. Spoiler: the company hasn’t. The gesture controls didn’t always function, and beyond that, I never wanted to rotate my finger in a circle to adjust the volume level or stick two fingers out to end a call. I tried to make the controls part of my driving experience and ended up never using them, although they were still a fun party trick that entertained my passengers. Buttons and knobs have a 100 percent success rate — why would I want to struggle to change the volume with a twirl of my finger when I could just turn the volume knob?

BMW’s voice commands also weren’t foolproof. The system registered people who have a full name in my phone book, like The Verge’s photographer Amelia Krales, but not addresses like 550 West 25th Street, or simple words like “mom.” Why is it always so hard to call my mom?

Incumbents always laugh at the idea of a newbie coming into their industry and stealing away market share, but the car industry is a great example of an industry ripe for disruption. This happened to the fixed-keyboard smartphones with the iPhone, it’s happening now to the watch world with the Apple Watch, but I’m not sure we can say it’s happening to the auto industry yet (Ford sold 2.5 million cars in 2016, Tesla moved 80K).

It frustrates me when I read about BMW creating it’s own (currently inferior) voice command system, when a lot of us already use Siri or ‘Ok, Google’. It’s bad enough we have redundant AI efforts happening at Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple, but now auto makers are joining in. I understand not wanting to let the tech companies eat your lunch, but something has to give. Let us plug our phones into our cars, our lives are on those devices.

Mercedes-Benz is another company continuing to make cumbersome user interfaces. I recently drove a fully-loaded 2016 E Class sedan and for such a classy, well-engineered, and fun-to-drive car, the on-screen graphics and menus lack the visual sophistication you expect from a Mercedes (fonts are clunky, drop shadows are heavy-handed, background swooshes and texture are dated, animations are stiff), and are also confusing to navigate.

Uber’s Psychological Tricks

The New York Times has a fascinating look into all the psychological tricks Uber (and Lyft) uses to get drivers to to keep driving:

Uber even published a study last year, using its vast pile of data on drivers’ rides and hours, finding that a “substantial, although not most, fraction of partners” practice an extreme form of income targeting when they start on the platform, though they abandon it as they gain more experience. Strict income targeting is highly inefficient because it leads drivers to work long hours on days when business is slow and their hourly take is low, and to knock off early on days when business is brisk.

The beauty of the messages that Uber sent Mr. Streeter and his fellow drivers is that the drivers need not have even had a specific income goal in mind in order for the messages to work. Some of the most addictive games ever made, like the 1980s and ’90s hit Tetris, rely on a feeling of progress toward a goal that is always just beyond the player’s grasp. As the psychologist Adam Alter writes in his book “Irresistible,” video game designers even have a name for this mental state: the “ludic loop.”

Uber, for its part, appears to be aware of the ludic loop. In its messages to drivers, it included a graphic of an engine gauge with a needle that came tantalizingly close to, but was still short of, a dollar sign.

And the ludic loop is far from the only video game feature that Uber has adapted as a way of keeping drivers on the road.

If taken in isolation, this article isn’t all that crazy, but it’s part of a bigger picture revealing a company whose executives visit karaoke-escort bars in Korea, evades law enforcement with their technology, has a hostile, sexist work environment filed with sexual harassment cases, and give the actual drivers rather shitty compensation considering they’re valued at over 60 billion dollars.

The ultimate goal of a corporation is 100% efficiency and after reading this piece, it’s clear humans are but a stopgap solution until robots start driving (and doing everything else).

Trivially Easy

Android Wear has made it trivially easy for fashion companies to ‘make’ tech products:

March has been a particularly fecund time for new Android Wear watch announcements, though unlike previous years, the brands behind these devices are almost all from the fashion and luxury spheres of business. Tag Heuer, Montblanc, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel, Emporio Armani, Michael Kors, and Movado are just some of the well known names announcing Wear 2.0 smartwatches. This wave of new products is symptomatic of a broader trend in the tech industry: one where a high degree of component and software integration has made it almost trivial to launch a new tech product, whether or not you’re actually a tech company.

I wonder if this ‘trivial’ aspect of wearable tech is going to help move the needle for Android Wear sales. At the end of last year Apple was still leading in the contracting smartwatch market.

The crux of the problem with these internally identical Android Wear watches is that tech consumers demand substantive differences between cheap and expensive gadgets. How does Montblanc justify charging three times as much as LG for a watch that is functionally the same as LG’s? When Tag Heuer or any other famed watchmaker puts four-figure prices on its mechanical watches, there’s an implied promise that they’ll have an unmatched quality of workmanship and precision. But when those same companies outsource the brains to Google and the brawn to Qualcomm, what’s left for them to differentiate themselves with?

This doesn’t make any sense. The Apple Watch Series 2 is functionally identical across all price points (the Series 1 isn’t water resistance and doesn’t have GPS).

The real question is: can Google make a smartwatch interface that feels just as premium as the shell and straps around it?

It took years for Android for phones/tablets to be in the same league as iOS in terms of a seamless software experience that didn’t jitter and adhered to a set interface guidelines. I wonder if it will be the same for Android Wear.

There’s not an app for everything

The Women’s March proves that 21st century protest is still about bodies, not tweets:

Headed to DC on Friday, I was asked by my editor to pay attention to the ways that people were communicating and dealing with logistical issues on the spot. Would the Women’s March app be used to ping people with changes in plan, or would the massive crowds inspire an official recommendation of using peer-to-peer communications like FireChat? Would organizers encourage participants to use encrypted messaging services to protect themselves? Would there be clashes with police or anti-protest groups that warranted live video streams? In reality the only mass communication I witnessed was organizers asking participants to text a no-reply number to obtain an official tally for the march — seemingly unaware that 500,000 people sending a text in synchronization in a small space is probably impossible, and that many people had been warned not to help create records of their location and ID on protest day. For all the reasoned and confident organization the Women’s March team did before the event, they were unprepared to direct the crowd that eventually materialized before them on Saturday morning, and they didn’t use any of the tools we imagined.

One of the reasons people didn’t use their mobile devices was because the Internet tubes got clogged:

At one point, a rally speaker acknowledged that the crowd “may have seen” a news article saying the march was no longer happening because there were too many people. But there was no way to get Twitter to load in the thick of things, so most of us had not. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were useful only on the outskirts of the protest and afterwards, to digest dispatches that had been sent whenever a signal could be ferreted out.

To get things done in life sometimes you have to put down your iPhone and get your hands dirty. Talk to people face-to-face, not through a text message with emoji characters.

Millenials be loving vinyl.

The Economist’s Prospero blog explains it’s millenials, not baby boomers, who are driving the boom in vinyl sales:

Many consider nostalgia the driving force behind this uptick. Turntables are cheap and easy to get hold of (a Crosley costs less than $100 on Amazon) and so furnish baby boomers with a good excuse to dust off what remains of their collection, and expand it further. But data show that this isn’t a sufficient explanation: nearly 50% of vinyl customers are 35 or younger, according to ICM. Indeed, it is 25-35 year-olds who are the most voracious demographic, taking home 33% (by comparison, 45-54 year-olds are responsible for only 18% of sales). Millennials might like to carry their favourite songs around with them and discover new artists via streaming apps, but they also want to collect that music in album form.

The key word to understand when it comes to records is experience.

We’re physical animals and we enjoy physical activities, particularly in a world getting more and more digital and virtual.

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“Seeing comes before words.”*

John Berger, Provocative Art Critic, Dies at 90:

John Berger, the British critic, novelist and screenwriter whose groundbreaking 1972 television series and book, “Ways of Seeing,” declared war on traditional ways of thinking about art and influenced a generation of artists and teachers, died on Monday at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. He was 90.

Ways of Seeing should be in every artist and designer’s library (*the title of this post is the first sentence from the book).

I still have the copy I bought in college on my book shelf.

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Art, Human Experience

Empathy Vacuum

Om Malik thinks Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum:

Otto, a Bay Area startup that was recently acquired by Uber, wants to automate trucking—and recently wrapped up a hundred-and-twenty-mile driverless delivery of fifty thousand cans of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. From a technological standpoint it was a jaw-dropping achievement, accompanied by predictions of improved highway safety. From the point of view of a truck driver with a mortgage and a kid in college, it was a devastating “oh, shit” moment. That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk. Truck driving is one of the few decent-paying jobs that doesn’t require a college diploma. Eliminating the need for truck drivers doesn’t just affect those millions of drivers; it has a ripple effect on ancillary services like gas stations, motels, and retail outlets; an entire economic ecosystem could break down.

Whenever you abstract things from real, physical life, they become less real to you.

‘Technological innovation’ seems to supersede ‘societal impact’ in Silly Valley.

A Wonderful Engine Note

Can electric sports cars be sporty without any engine noise?

Not only does a noisy engine give a visceral thrill, knowing that there are thousands of tiny explosions happening to keep you going, but it just sounds awesome. It would be a shame to lose it, and carmakers know it. Bloomberg says Porsche has been looking at artificially inserting noise into the cabin, perhaps via the stereo like some other manufacturers have done, or amplifying the high-pitched hum of the electric motor.

One side of me is appalled by the idea of a car with fake engine noises. The other side of me sees this as a merging of video games and real life.

If the simulation is indistinguishable from reality, does it matter?

Another question: if simulated engine noises become the new normal, will car companies copyright engine sounds?