Translate between English and Spanish speech on-the-fly with Skype Translator

Remember the Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? The tiny organism that automatically translates any spoken word into your native tongue? While that continues to remain limited to the realm of snarky British science fiction, Microsoft is working hard to make on-the-fly translation feasible for everyone. The Skype Translator preview is currently available for download, and offers Windows users the ability to voice chat with each other using two different languages. It still has a long way to go before it’s ready for prime time, but this is a major step forward for worldwide communication.

Earlier this week, Microsoft released a preview version of Skype Translator to the public. While it can translate instant messages in any of over 40 languages, this early build can only translate voice chat in Spanish and English. On top of that, this preview program only works on Windows 8.x and the Windows 10 Technical Preview, so Skype fans on other platforms are currently left out in the cold. Thankfully, that’s bound to change when this feature is fully baked.

So, how exactly does this crazy translation system work? In an in-depth post on the Skype blog, Mo Ladha and Chris Wendt break down the technical aspects of Skype Translator. Using Microsoft’s deep neural networks, Skype recognizes the spoken word, and then converts that into text. From there, it uses a translation engine based on the Bing Translator to convert the text to the target language. Then, it uses text-to-speech to deliver the translated line. In a way, this works a lot like duct-taping Siri to Google Translate.

Keep in mind, this system is not at all seamless. Even with Microsoft’s impressive “learning computers” handling the voice recognition and translation, errors are inevitable. When dealing with natural speech over low-cost consumer mics, who knows what might come out the other side? Also, there is a bit of lag between finishing your thought and hearing the translation. The natural flow of conversation is drastically impacted, so the experience is quite different from conversing normally in a single language.

Flaws aside, this clever use of technology puts a big smile on my face. I frequently voice chat with friends all over the world, but that’s only possible because they speak English. How many friends am I missing out on simply because of the language barrier? I can’t see myself relying on this preview version just yet, but this leaves me very optimistic about the future of the Skype Translator and on-the-fly translation in general.

Here’s why Apple doesn’t have a MacBook Air with a Retina display

Another Apple event has come and gone, and there’s still no MacBook Air with a Retina display. I won’t blame you if you’re frustrated — now that there’s a 5K iMac, the Air is Cupertino’s last screen-packing computer to ship without an extreme-resolution display. For that matter, competitors haven’t had qualms about releasing their own ultraportable laptops with extra-crisp visuals. So, what gives? Is Apple holding back? The company may not be offering answers, but it’s most likely that the technology needed to make a Retina-equipped Air simply isn’t ready for prime time. As much as Apple would like the Air to hop on the high-res bandwagon, it may have to wait until a whole bunch of pieces fall into place. Read on to see what I mean.

You can summarize the biggest problem with two words: battery life. Stuffing more pixels into an LCD typically requires not just stronger backlights (since there’s less light reaching each pixel), but also graphics processing powerful enough to draw all that extra content. You only need to look to one of Apple’s own products, the third-generation iPad, for an example of the challenges involved. Apple had no choice but to give the tablet a bulky battery and a graphics boost (the A5X chip) if it wanted a Retina display using 2012-era backlighting and computing power; it wasn’t until the iPad Air that you saw a no-compromise design. Yes, the MacBook Pro line has had Retina tech since 2012, but it had a thicker chassis to accommodate both a bigger battery and a faster, costlier processor. The MacBook Air doesn’t have that luxury. It has to cram both a low-power display and a quick-yet-efficient processor into a very slim, affordable machine.

The display side of it isn’t that tough any more. There are already super-thin laptops that still wield high-grade LCDs, such as ASUS’ latest Zenbook, and the 5K iMac is loaded with energy improvements (such as brand-new LED backlighting) that could help a portable. It’s the visual horsepower that’s harder to manage. Chips based on Intel’s new Broadwellarchitecture should deliver that ideal blend of miserly power consumption and faster graphics, but they’re not truly ready yet. The Broadwell-based chips that make the most sense for a Retina MacBook Air, the low-voltage U models, aren’t likely to show until early 2015; the Core M you see in newer systems like Lenovo’s Yoga 3 Pro is efficient, but it isn’t exactly speedy. Apple has to either sit tight or make do with CPUs that might not be swift enough to meet its needs… and will definitely be obsolete in a matter of months.

We’ve already seen the troubles that emerge when PC builders put Retina-level screens in their Ultrabooks before the technology is truly mature. Remember the mediocre 5-hour battery life of Toshiba’s original Kirabook, or the so-so 6.5-hour lifespan of the Yoga 2 Pro? Samsung’s ATIV Book 9 Plus manages a very respectable runtime of nearly nine hours, but that still doesn’t compare well to the 12-plus hours of the current 13-inch MacBook Air. Apple likely doesn’t want to take a big step backward in longevity just for the sake of a Retina display, and it may only complicate things if there’s a new form factor (such as a rumored 12-inch screen) or additional performance demands.

There’s no question that the MacBook Air remains late to the Retina party, and that you’ve been missing out if you couldn’t justify buying either a MacBook Pro or a suitably equipped Windows PC. Who wouldn’t want a better laptop display that makes pixels all but disappear? Having seen the hurdles to making this system, though, it’s no wonder that you can’t buy one just yet. Quite simply, Apple has put itself into a corner — it can’t give the Air a Retina display right now without making noticeable compromises in battery life, portability and speed. There are signs that it’ll overcome those obstacles soon, but for now, you’ll have to be patient.

Yahoo In Talks To Buy Video Ad Platform BrightRoll For Around $700M

Yahoo has been building up its video and video advertising content, and we have heard that it may make another key acquisition in the area to further raise its game. The company is in talks to acquire BrightRoll, the cross-platform digital video advertising service.

TechCrunch has heard that term sheets have been signed, and that the price, if the deal is completed, could be anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion, but looks likely to be in the region of $700 million – $725 million.

Yahoo is currently under pressure from activist investor Starboard Value to consider a breakup and/or sale of the company. This could potentially have an impact on negotiations. Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL — Starboard’s target for a merger — earlier today said that a Yahoo sale does not figure as part of AOL’s future plans.

Were a BrightRoll acquisition to go through, you can see Yahoo’s logic: BrightRoll is a strong competitor against the likes of Google and its leading online video property YouTube when it comes to video ad volumes and attracting publishers and advertisers.

BrightRoll’s platform — which works across web, mobile and connected TV devices — acts as an intermediary and service for both advertisers and publishers. Advertisers plan, target, optimise and report digital video ad campaigns, while publishers plug BrightRoll ad inventory into their content.

Its platform is one of the biggest of its kind: “#1 in ads served and largest reach to unique video viewers,” according to comScore in June 2014, and as pointed out by BrightRoll itself. The company works with 25 of the top 50 publishers, and 85 of the top 100 advertisers.

Meanwhile, Yahoo is in a period of change. Under CEO Marissa Mayer, the company has made more than 30 acqui-hires of smaller startups to bring more talent to the company, in part to build out a stronger mobile business. But according to a report inthe WSJ, Yahoo, now flush with post-IPO Alibaba cash, will shift its acquisition strategy.

Going forward, Yahoo’s acquisitions will be more in the Tumblr model: focusing on companies that build up Yahoo’s product and revenue-generating muscle. That’s crucial, given that the company has seen several recent quarterly sales declines.

BrightRoll — estimated in 2013 to be “easily doing over $100 million in revenue” and a clear video play that could help monetise Yahoo’s long-term ambition to grow and make money from its video content — could fit the bill.

According to CrunchBase, BrightRoll has raised just over $40 million from investors that include Adams Street Partners, Scale Venture Partners, Comerica Bank, True Ventures, Trident Capital, KPG Ventures, Michael Tanne, Fabrice Grinda, Auren Hoffman and Jeff Clavier.

BrightRoll CEO Tod Sacerdoti would comment for this story. We have reached out to Yahoo for a comment and will update if we get a response.

Nexus Player back on pre-order, Nexus 6 starts October 29

It is definitely busy weeks for Google, especially for those in charge of the sales of its Nexus devices. After a short and amusing fiasco involving FCC requirements, the Nexus Player is now “back in stock”, meaning it is once again available for pre-order. But the Google Play Store Devices section has another surprise waiting. The Nexus 6 has finally appeared in the pages but don’t get your hopes up just yet as the smartphone isn’t going to be available for pre-order until October 29.

Although it went on pre-order at the same time as the Nexus 9 tablet, the Nexus Player Android TV device was promptly marked as “out of inventory”. The reason had little to do with actual supplies but more because Google failed to get the FCC’s stamp of approval for the device before it put the product up. That said, that was quickly resolved over the weekend, with the Nexus Player appearing in the FCC website. Now the Player is back in pre-order and is noted to ship in 3 to 4 weeks. As a reminder, the Nexus Player itself, which comes with the remote, costs $99.00 but you will have to order the Gamepad separately if you want that as well, for an additional $39.99.

The Nexus 6 strangely didn’t go to pre-order at the same time as the other two new Nexus devices, though Google did mention that it will start at a much later date. That date is now known to the public, as the product page clearly states that it will begin on October 29. The Nexus 6 will be available in two color options of Midnight Blue and Cloud White and in two internal storage configurations with matching prices. The 32 GB version will cost $649 but the 64 GB isn’t that far behind at only $699. This Motorola-made smartphone boasts of a 5.96-inch QHD AMOLED screen, a fast 2.7 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 805, still unspecified RAM size, a 13 megapixel f/2.0 rear camera with OIS and double LED flash, a 3,220 mAh battery with Turbo Charging, among other things.

Now that the pre-order dates and prices for the three Nexus newcomers have all been set, the Android world will be waiting with bated breath for the actual shipping date of these devices, expected to be around early or mid November. That period isn’t just significant for would-be owners of the new devices but also for the Android community in general, as it would mark the finalization of Android 5.0 Lollipop and start the process of getting the latest Android version ported for their devices.

Samsung Unveils SGR-1 – An Armed Sentry Robot

While there is no doubt about science and technology making our lives better, it is no big secret that most research is done in military division and how to upgrade defenses. Speaking of which, South Korean forces have installed a team of robots that have been created by a subsidiary of Samsung along the border with North Korea. The robots are known as SGR-1.Samsung Built SGR-1 Sentry Robot4

SGR-1 are equipped with 5.5 mm machine gun and a 40mm grenade launcher while also boasting heat and motion detectors for locking targets that are more than 2 miles away. However, a human operator is required for opening fire (the go ahead is required). The system went on a trial run back in 2006.

Samsung Techwin spokeman Huh Kwang-hak said, “Human soldiers can easily fall asleep or allow for the depreciation of their concentration over time. But these robots have automatic surveillance, which doesn’t leave room for anything resembling human laziness. They also won’t have any fear (of) enemy attackers on the front lines. The SGR-1 can and will prevent wars.”Samsung Built SGR-1 Sentry Robot2

These robots have been deployed along with soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone also known as DMZ. It is a 160 mile long and a 2.5 mile wide strip of land that separates South Korea from North Korea. As per speculation, one unit of SRG-1 costs $200,000, however, the total number of deployed robots is not confirmed. When the SRG-1 detects a potential threat, the command center is notified and the operator then makes use of robots’ video and audio devices to communicate before opening fire.Samsung Built SGR-1 Sentry Robot
In the words of Kwang-huk, “The SGR-1 is essentially a protection technology which will serve and protect our human soldiers against enemy attackers in their dispatched danger zones.”

This New Snake Robot Moves In Sand Like A Real Sidewinder Rattlesnake

How many of you are aware of the sidewinder rattlesnake? It is one of the best sand travelers as far as animal kingdom is concerned. Why are we talking about snakes and sand? That is because if you are using a robot to search for victims after a catastrophic event or checking out some other planet, then it is in the best interest of all those who are involved that your robot doesn’t end up stuck in the sand, don’t you think?

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology and Oregon State University recently showed keen interest in the snake robot developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s team. The snake fell short when it came to moving around in sand. Back in 2011, the snake wasn’t able to move on sandy slopes inside a cave. The latest research was carried out by observing the sidewinder rattlesnake and implementing the findings into the snake robot. Worked like a charm, in case you are wondering.Snake Robot Learns a Trick from Sidewinder Rattlesnake5

The research team set up a slope that was sand-filled at the enclosure located in Zoo Atlanta and placed six sidewinders to facilitate the snake’s climb to the top from bottom. High-speed video of these six sand dwellers were captured and  minute movements during their travelling were noted. The crucial information gained was the fact that these snakes climb by making their body move in 2 independent waves controlled differently. To control what part of their body is in contact with sand, they keep adjusting the aspect ratio of these two waves, horizontally and vertically. As one can expect, the total contact area is increased when the slope is steep.

Once the programming for this pattern was coded and then incorporated into the robot’s movement, it was able to climb up slopes that were previously impossible for it to pull off.SONY DSC

Howie Choset, Carnegie Mellon Professor of Robotics said, “This type of robot often is described as biologically-inspired, but too often the inspiration doesn’t extend beyond a casual observation of the biological system. In this study, we got biology and robotics, mediated by physics, to work together in a way not previously seen.”

How Tech Companies Can Help Their Coders

Editor’s note: Gregg Pollack is CEO and founder of Code School, an online learning destination for existing and aspiring developers that teaches through entertaining content. 

Any time I ask software developers what they do to become better at their craft, I get a mix of responses — from taking on side projects to scanning Hacker News, to following podcasts, to taking online courses and tutorials. And often it’s a mix of those things, all of which mostly happens off the clock.

But there’s one thing I rarely hear: Their employers playing an active role in the process.

It’s a funny thing, considering how often tech companies and startups shower talent with awe-inspiring salaries and perks, that they don’t support the most important thing they need to do their jobs: continued learning. Which brings me to an important point.

Programming Is Not Like Most Jobs

There are plenty of jobs where the required knowledge base is fairly static, but software development isn’t one of them. Technology is always evolving, so developers should evolve too if they want to be the best at their craft. In many ways, learning is as much a part of the job as writing code.

For example, it’s not uncommon for a new language or framework to come along — Apple’s Swift is a great example — that could change the language a developer uses for the foreseeable future.

When I look at my own career, I see myself learning C++ in college, learning Perl on the job, teaching myself Java to get a better job, then teaching myself Ruby on Rails to start my own consultancy. By learning new technologies and languages, I was able to maintain a competitive advantage as a developer and make successful career moves. Without my personal drive to learn, there is no way I would be where I am today.

Do all developers have this personal drive to learn? I’m afraid not. So what happens when these developers don’t keep up with technology trends? The products they’re building and the companies they work for could eventually suffer. This could mean code that’s more difficult to maintain, code that takes longer to execute, or code written in an old language/framework that other developers don’t want to use anymore. That is a scary proposition for any company, but with a bit of work it’s also one they can help mitigate.

How Companies Can Support Developer Education

Most company-driven education solutions are easy to implement and affordable. And if they do come at a cost, they should certainly be compensated through increased productivity or employee happiness.

For starters, one of the easiest things you can do is reiterate to employees that learning on the job is okay. It’s not uncommon for a dev to feel devious taking the time out of his/her day to take a tutorial or read Hacker News instead of “working,” but a simple change in how you communicate with employees and new hires can wipe that fear away.

Another completely free solution is to encourage pair programming. Not only is this proven to minimize bugs and improve code quality, but seeing first-hand how another dev solves a problem is one of the best ways to learn.

Some companies have also rolled out  continuing education initiatives to ensure their technical team has relatively the same knowledge base around their stack. Knowledge gaps in dev teams can be productivity (not to mention morale) crushers, so creating an official program can be a good way to minimize discontent.

Every month at Code School, we set aside a day to do what we call “Betterment.” It’s a day when we only do, create or learn something that makes us better. This could be taking a typing class, reading a book, working on an open source side project, or learning a new language or framework. The educational, creative and morale boost this day provides to our company is always staggering.

We also pay our employees to attend one local and one remote conference every year, and offer to pay for learning materials such as books, online courses and workshops. My guess is for a lot of tech talent, they’ll value this a lot more than say, a free Netflix subscription or a foosball table in the office (and aren’t those cliché anyway?).

These are just a few ideas. Ultimately, every company needs to find out the right solution for them and their team, and how they’ll learn best.

Teams That Learn More Innovate Better

An amazing byproduct of work environments that encourage learning is the impact they have on the product and the company’s longevity as a whole. It cultivates a culture of always using the best tool for the job, not always the tool that everyone is familiar with.

Organizations that are better equipped to find the creative solutions to hard problems will always be more likely to succeed. While there are a lot of other factors that go into creating a successful company, having a team that’s always learning will put you ahead of others that reduce their technical talent to just workers instead of learners.

The truth is, all developers must be both.

Blocks modular smartwatch lets users decide the features

Phoneblocks is a company that makes an interesting modular smartphone that users can customize by attaching the modules with the features they want and leaving the features they don’t want out. Phoneblocks is now applying that same modular approach to smartwatches with a new platform that lets users decide what features they want on their wearable called Blocks modular smartwatch.

The big benefit of a modular smartwatch is that as components become outdated, the user can simply swap in a new module with an updated component for better performance. Since smartwatches also have to look good, the modules themselves are modular.

What that means is each module of the smartwatch has removable covers that allow wearers to customize the look of the device. With the modular approach, you can choose your screen shape, the color of your watch, and lots more.

Phoneblocks says that it is in talks with several companies to build modules for the smartwatch for things like fitness, contactless payments, and a SIM card block. There is no word on when or if the modular smartwatch might come to market.

This is the HTC Nexus 9 for movers and makers

The fated day has indeed arrived and Google has unleashed a flood of Android announcements that proves to the world that it is still at the top of its game. Leaked and speculated on time and again, Google is indeed finally giving Android lovers a newer tablet to desire. And indeed it is made by HTC, the manufacturer’s first tablet in a very long time. And indeed, as well, the Nexus 9 has turned out to be quite everything we have dreamed the next reference Android tablet would be.

If you loved HTC’s latest high-end products and design, then you will most likely love the Nexus 9. Front-facing speakers with BoomSound audio, a tinge of metal on the edges, and an overall premium quality build. If you’re in the market for an Android tablet, this would be it. Especially if you are sick of the often times obnoxious customizations that OEMs and carrier impose on their customers. The back of the tablet has that signature soft plastic Nexus texture that makes it easier to grip without resorting to cheap (faux leather) tricks.

If the outward appearance of the Nexus 9 seem a bit lackluster to some, under the hood you will find a raging beast. Well, even on its face you already see its power, with an 8.9-inch display that bears a resolution of 2048×1536 pixels. The tablet is powered an NVIDIA Tegra K1 Dual Denver running at 2.3 GHz. Not only is this the most powerful mobile chip around, at least based on benchmarks, it is also one of the few 64-bit mobile CPUs in the consumer market today. RAM is at 2 GB, though we had hoped that Google and HTC would have provided just a bit more. Battery is a large 6,700 mAh, which is noted to last 30 days on WiFi and LTE standby, though only 8.5 to 9.5 hours of continuous usage. One area where the Nexus 9 might fall short of is in digital photography, with only an 8 megapixel f/2.4 AF rear camera with LED flash and a 1.6 megapixel f/2.4 on the front. Then again, rarely do tablets get used for serious photography

Of course, that is only the raw hardware and only half the Nexus experience. The other half comes from the software, which in this case is the fresh, new, and still sweet Android 5.0, now revealed to be Lollipop. Though that deserves a treatment of its own, one of the new features of this latest Android version is support for 64-bit devices, which goes hand in hand with the Nexus 9’s Tegra K1 CPU. You’ve also got a cornucopia of features like Material Design, Android Runtime (ART) by default, better battery management, and so much more.

The HTC Nexus 9 will come in three back color options of black, white and gold, and two storage options of 16 GB and 32 GB. Sadly, no mention of the rumored microSD card expansion. The tablet will also have a folio keyboard cover as rumored, sold separately and revealed to magnetically latch on to the tablet. All that is left now is to wait for the October 17th start of pre-orders and, of course, the price tag that will go along with it.

Display: 8.9-inch QXGA 2048×1536 4:3 ratio
Processor: 64-bit NVIDIA Tegra K1 Dual Denver @ 2.3 GHz
Storage: 16 or 32 GB
Camera: 8 MP f/2.4 AF LED flash / 1.6 MP f/2.4
Audio: Dual front-facing HTC BoomSound speakers, Dual microphones, 3.5 mm audio jack
Battery: 6,700 mAh
Connectivity: Quad-band GSM, CDMA, Penta-band HSPA, LTE, WiFi 802.11ac 2×2 (MiMO), NFC, Bluetooth, Micros USB 2.0
Sensors: GPS, Ambient, Gyro, Accelerometer, Magnetometer

Developer offers Jams Music Player app for free, now an open source

Music player apps for Android are a dime a dozen. There are lot of paid ones too but one app called Jams is about be offered for free. Apparently, it’s developer, Psaravan on, is now making the app available for free. To formerly paid app on Google Play Store, it is also now an open source because the developer can no longer provide support for the paid users. He doesn’t want the app to just go offline so he’s releasing the app for free and open sourced it.

Other developers are free to use Jams Music Player app now for their own purposes and release it again to other users. Now that it’s open source, anyone can make their own version or even improve on it. The developer still promised to update the app occasionally if he has free time but will only be beta level.

The developer is encouraging other developers to work on the app and use the current codebase of Jams as long as he is notified. He’s even willing to feature the updated version on his GitHub page. The app has been available for almost a year. It has been getting good feedbacks from the users but the developer still needs to fix a lot of issues. He doesn’t have much time now because of his other personal projects but he’s willing to let Jams Music Player live in the hands of other developers like him.

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