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We learned today about Apple’s satellite project: a team working on ways to establish direct two-way connections between iPhones and satellites.
If that sounds like crazy science-fiction, it’s actually not. The technology to do it exists today and has been proven to work with today’s phones. You shouldn’t, however, expect to have ubiquitous access from anywhere on the planet, nor for satellite connections to replace your existing mobile data plan.
The technology has significant limitations…
A company called Lynk (originally Ubiquitilink) proved the tech works by creating what it called ‘the first cell tower in space.’ It created a prototype satellite that was assembled on the International Space Station and subsequently attached to the nose of the Cygnus resupply spacecraft for a live test back in February. It worked, as TechCrunch reported at the time.
The theory became a reality earlier this year after Ubiquitilink launched their prototype satellites. They successfully made a two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite, proving that the signal not only gets there and back, but that its Doppler and delay distortions can be rectified on the fly.
“Our first tests demonstrated that we offset the Doppler shift and time delay. Everything else is leveraging commercial software,” Miller said, though he quickly added: “To be clear, there’s plenty more work to be done, but it isn’t anything that’s new technology. It’s good solid hardcore engineering, building nanosats and that sort of thing.”
If it sounds incredible that one of today’s iPhones can transmit into space, especially when there are still mobile dead-spots around on ordinary mobile networks, Lynk says it’s really not. Remove ground obstacles from the equation by beaming directly to and from space, and stick to low-frequency signals, and they can travel a long way.
“That’s the great thing — everybody’s instinct indicates [that it’s impossible],” said Ubiquitilink founder Charles Miller. “But if you look at the fundamentals of the RF [radio frequency] link, it’s easier than you think.”
The issue, he explained, isn’t really that the phone lacks power. The limits of reception and wireless networks are defined much more by architecture and geology than plain physics. When an RF transmitter, even a small one, has a clear shot straight up, it can travel very far indeed.
There are, however, some important caveats that would apply to Apple’s satellite project.
First, you can’t communicate with satellites in geosynchronous orbit – that’s simply too high. The maximum range is around 300 miles, which is extremely low in satellite terms. At that height, satellites can’t remain in orbit at one fixed point above the Earth: they need to orbit much faster than the Earth’s rotation, which means coverage from any one satellite won’t last long.
You’ll have no signal for 55 minutes, then signal for five.
So you’d need at least a thousand satellites to ensure there will always be at least one within range. That would be a massive undertaking, even for Apple.
Second, low-frequency signals mean low bandwidth. What Lynk has demonstrated so far is 2G communication, meaning that it’s suitable for things like text messages but not much more than that. The company does talk grandly about 3G, LTE, and 5G being subsequent stages, but that’s all just talk so far – and it’s hard to see how those kinds of speeds could be achieved over that kind of range through the atmosphere.
Third, it’s unlikely that Apple will sell you a data plan based on low-Earth satellite connections. This is tech which is most likely to be sold through existing mobile carriers as an additional roaming option in areas of the planet that are not served by conventional base stations.
If you want to understand more about how the tech works, the full TechCrunch piece is worth reading, and Lynk has links to other coverage on its website.
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It’s rare that a great space movie breaks the Hollywood traditions of big budgets, blatant abuse of physics, over-the-top special effects, factitious characters, and hokey one-liners. Successfully straddling the line between fact and reality, as these space oddities strive to do, is extraordinarily difficult.
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey easily sets the highest standard in this department. However, we recently screened the new movie Europa Report, and were taken aback by its respect for audience intelligence while still offering a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat story [watch the trailer below]. It’s clear director Sebastián Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt did their science homework. Their characters behave like real people on a believable mission to search for life on Europa — an icy moon of Jupiter that astrobiologists yearn to explore.
Here, we pick the brain of Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist and expert on Europa at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and one of the film’s volunteer science consultants, on how to create a truly realistic space film that won’t bore viewers to tears.
How and why did you get involved with Europa Report?
Through the Science & Entertainment Exchange. They connect moviemakers with scientists, catalyze those relationships, and, if one works, we go off on our own to consult.
The leadership and writing team for Europa Report was very keen on learning as much as they could about the moon. They wanted a compelling story that adhered to science to make it believable. They constantly emailed and called us to talk through ideas and see if they had gotten it right. To me it seemed refreshingly out of the ordinary.
Anyway, both myself and my colleague, Steve Vance, had a pretty heavy hand in making sure they got some of the big-picture brushstrokes correct.
Astronaut Outside Europa One
What concerned you the most?
Something we talked about early on was the feasibility of getting humans to Europa. It’s an icy moon of Jupiter, and not a desirable place to be. The surface is incredibly cold and bathed in dangerous radiation — and it would take a very long time to get there. But it could still happen.
Filmmakers are always about putting the story first. We here at JPL think robots make great characters, but it often takes human actors to make a film work. So that was something I had to get over.
Once we got past getting to Europa, we played around with what it would be like on the surface. They listened to us, and I was quite impressed with the final product’s attention to detail, including, for example, how harsh the radiation environment is and how it’d manifest itself. They committed some errors here and there — a wrong turn of phrase or incorrect geological term — but overall, I was impressed.
Where does the nasty radiation come from?
The magnetic field of Jupiter has all of these electrons, protons, and ions stuck within it. So as Jupiter rotates, Europa is kind of like a slow jogger in a windy rainstorm. The wind — the magnetic field in this analogy — comes sweeping from behind and throws raindrops (the particles) on the back side of the jogger (Europa).
Jupiter has a 10-hour rotation and 3.5 Earth days for Europa, which makes the same face always showing to Jupiter. So the backside is always exposed to this intense electromagnetic radiation. The leading hemisphere, meanwhile, we think gets less radiation. Even on the front side, there’s a fair amount of radiation — broadly equivalent to Earth’s upper atmosphere during a solar storm, which is a pretty dangerous amount. They did get that right.
Each second on the surface, without any shielding, would be about the dose of a chest CT scan. Even with shielding, you would get severe radiation poisoning in about an hour that might be fatal.
Descent to Europa
Landing on Europa is key to this movie. How good was their descent vehicle?
Well, the engineering sequence that they present is as well-fleshed out as any manned mission to Europa has ever been — and of course there haven’t been any. They had lot of creative license, considering a human mission to Europa is nowhere on the books.
The renderings of Europa’s surface certainly looked incredible, but I’m curious what you thought about them.
We worked in considerable depth with the artist both on the landing region and the small canyon in which they land. What they came up with was wonderful. I think they really gave the viewer a sense of what it’d be like to stand on surface of Europa.
My motivation here was to open up a window into this beautiful, fascinating world. That, to me, is the first step in getting an audience fascinated with a place like this, and reeling them into the possibility and excitement of exploring it — even though I think robots are a better way. It seems like such a small thing, but can have a big influence.
What science fiction influenced your career as an astrobiologist?
Definitely Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It had the dual effect of captivating and scaring the heck out of me as a young kid. And then of course the kinder, gentler ET came along and was a heavy influence on my boyhood fascination with extraterrestrial beings. The fascination with microbial life came later, once I gained a scientific appreciation for the variability of life.
I also read Arthur C. Clarke in high school and have watched [2001: A Space Odyssey] and [2010: Odyssey Two] over and over again.
The movie gets really interesting when they get close to a weak point in Europa’s icy crust. Do those actually exist?
We can’t be certain if Europa is still geologically active today, or has just been in the recent past. It could be that the fissures we see on the surface are relics from a million or 10 million years ago. We have no smoking gun like we do with Enceladus [a moon of Saturn]; it’s spraying water and other material into space, and the Cassini spacecraft flew through that and analyzed it. We don’t have anything like that for Europa.
One thing we do have is remote observations of surface chemistry. We think Europa is recombining salts from the ocean below with ions spewed out by its neighboring moon, Io. We also know that Europa’s surface has been active within the recent past — hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago. That is a short timeframe, geologically speaking. We think the surface of Europa is the same age as its seafloor, and few impact craters tell that story.
Still, we’ve only really had two spacecraft visit Europa, and barely: The Voyagers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Galileo, which launched in 1989 and orbited Jupiter and performed flybys. Here we are, in 2013, and we have yet to go back to Europa — even though it’s an incredibly compelling world in which to search for life beyond Earth.
The Surface of Europa
There’s some of that search in the movie — a female scientist scoops up colored ice. What did you think of that sequence?
The sample she got was on the surface, and she determined it was living right away. We don’t expect to find anything alive on surface of Europa. The harsh cold and radiation make that a losing proposition. That’s not the way it’d happen. We could, however, find complex organic molecules or maybe dead, frozen life on the surface.
And what about the thing under the ice?
To have something that interesting right below the surface is not realistic. The filmmakers took some license with how thick the ice is. Our knowledge of the ice’s thickness is more of a global average, but it’s still a few kilometers to tens of kilometers thick.
That said, I liked how they ended it with just enough to intrigue you about what they found, but not go over the top with it all. I found the ending refreshing. That kind of discovery is my dream of dreams.
How would you rate the overall scientific accuracy of the movie?
There are a few mistakes here and there, but I have to say it’s well above average in terms of scientific accuracy. I love that this sort of documentary-from-the-future way of framing the movie. The Europa Report is singularly believable film, from the conflicts within and among characters, to the premise of the mission and what it might look like.
At the end of the day, though, I’m just thrilled anyone is making a movie about Europa. It’s such a fascinating yet little-known world out there in our Solar System. I hope this movie brings a little bit of spotlight onto the moon.
The film premieres today in New York, and Popular Science will be on hand to moderate a panel with the filmmakers. Stay tuned on chúng tôi for a video recap.
As Apple continues to sign orders for various TV shows, there is growing speculation about how the company will release those shows to the public. We’ve highlighted a few possibilities in the past, but these are some of the things I think are crucial to the success of Apple’s streaming TV offerings…Binge releases
Part of what makes modern television on platforms like Netflix so enticing are the binge releases. By this, I’m referring to how Netflix releases an entire season of a show at once, rather than rolling it out episode-by-episode of the course of months.
All-at-once releases allow users to choose their own pace for watching a TV show, whether it be gradually, or binging the entire series in one swoop. Furthermore, they create more of a social buzz, which could be beneficial to Apple’s marketing for its TV shows.Apple Music + Apple TV subscription
We’ve heard several different possibilities for how Apple plans to monetize its original content. Personally, I think the best option here is to offer an Apple Music + Apple Originals TV combo subscription. That’s not to say it couldn’t offer a standalone subscription for those non-Apple Music users, but pairing the two together would make it more enticing for people who already pay for Apple Music.
As for specific pricing, I’d love to be able to get Apple Music and Apple’s TV shows for right around $15 per month. For instance, you can get Hulu + Spotify for $12.99 per month – an offer that is hard to refuse when the two standalone services push close to $20 individually.To acquire or to not acquire?
One of the biggest questions right now is if Apple is plotting a major media acquisition to help its content efforts. I go back and forth on this topic as part of me would really like Apple’s subscription to include more content than just its own, but Apple isn’t generally one to make major acquisitions (save for Beats).
One alternative here is this: Included in your subscription, you get access to a certain amount of content from iTunes, as well. This could include TV, movies, and more, and would help people justify the subscription cost.Ad-Free
Whatever the case may be for Apple’s subscription offering, I think there has to be an ad-free tier. If Apple wants to offer an ad-based tier, that’s totally fine, but I personally would much rather pay a few extra dollars per month for an ad-free experience.Cross platform availability
Much like Apple Music, if Apple wants its TV shows to garner mainstream success, I think they have to be offered cross-platform. This means availability on Android, as well as Windows.
One area where I do think Apple could maybe get away with exclusivity is in the set-top box market. Having exclusive access to original content would be a strong selling point for Apple TV in comparison to competitors like Roku.Family Friendly?
Last year, a report suggested that Apple wants its original content to family friendly a suitable to be shown in an Apple Store. This means it’s looking for broad appeal for both its dramas and comedies.
When this report first emerged in October, I was skeptical of this strategy, and I still am today. Part of what makes content from the likes of Netflix so popular is that it doesn’t have to conform to typical regulations for TV content. I absolutely support Apple wanting to have family friendly content, but I don’t think it needs to blanket all of its TV as family friendly.Wrap up
These are just a few things I think Apple’s original content ambitions need to succeed. It’s no secret that the streaming TV market is incredibly crowded, with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and others all creating original shows that are very, very good.
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The revelation that a major FaceTime bug can effectively turn your Apple devices into a hot mic, allowing a caller to hear or even see you before you pick up, would be a massive embarrassment no matter which company was involved. It’s an absolutely crazy security fail.
But when that company is Apple – which has been ceaselessly pushing privacy of late – it becomes so cringeworthy we’re going to have to invent a whole new scale just to measure it …
I mean, I get it. Bugs happen. No-one intends them, but coding is complex, and software engineers are human. It’s just a fact of life that some bugs will make it through, and that this will include security vulnerabilities.
Software testing is also complex, given the massive number of variables involved. This particular FaceTime bug occurs only when someone does something completely illogical and unexpected: adds themselves to a call they initiated. I appreciate this would have been a tricky scenario to anticipate and include in testing.
But when you are Apple, a company which has talked of little other than privacy over the past few months, then you don’t get a pass on this. And if you think I’m holding Apple to too high a standard, let’s take a look at some examples.FaceTime Bug vs. Privacy
October 2, Tim Cook talks privacy to Vice.
I’m not a pro-regulation guy, but when the free market doesn’t produce a result great for society, you have to ask yourself what we need to do. We’ve got to figure out a way to take it to the next level and change some things.
The way we go into product design is we challenge ourselves to collect as little as possible. We challenge ourselves to make it not identifiable. We don’t read your email, your messages. You are not our product. It’s not the business we’re in.
October 23, Cook gives a keynote address at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels.
We at Apple can—and do—provide the very best to our users while treating their most personal data like the precious cargo that it is. And if we can do it, then everyone can do it.
October 24, Cook says many companies can’t be trusted on privacy, and federal regulation is needed.
In this case, it’s clear that the amount of things that can be collected about you, without your knowledge, maybe with your consent – although it’s a 70-page legal piece of paper, just isn’t reasonable. These things can be used for such nefarious things, we’ve seen examples of this over the last several years and we think it’s time now to take this thing and put it under control, because if we don’t, the problem gets so large that it may be impossible to fix
November 18, Cook talks privacy with HBO.
Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of regulation. I’m a big believer in the free market. But we have to admit when the free market is not working. And it hasn’t worked here.
January 5, an Apple billboard in Vegas claims ‘What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.’
January 24, Cook writes an op-ed for Time in which he says that ‘data breaches seem out of control.’
Consumers shouldn’t have to tolerate another year of companies irresponsibly amassing huge user profiles, data breaches that seem out of control and the vanishing ability to control our own digital lives.Apple Standards
The standard to which I’m holding Apple today is one the company set for itself, very loudly and very frequently.
Difficult or not, the testing work to prevent a security vulnerability of this magnitude has to be done. Every variable has to be tested, whether it’s someone adding themselves to a call they made, adding contacts in reverse alphabetic order or asking Siri to initiate a call while standing on your head in a west-facing room on a Thursday evening.
Apple has responded by disabling group FaceTime calls. That’s a responsible course of action. And I have no doubt that it will quickly release an update to fix the bug.
But this FaceTime bug is an absolutely massive fail. Apple either needs to be able to overhaul its software development and testing regime such that it can be certain nothing of this seriousness can ever occur again, or it needs to cease throwing quite so many stones from what turns out to be a glass house.
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When Apple announced Studio Display, it promised “sensational” webcam quality. However, as customers got their hands on the product, they noticed that the images captured by the built-in camera were not good. Apple is now rolling out a beta software that promises to fix some of these issues – but the thing is, Studio Display’s poor webcam quality is not a software bug after all.The complaints
According to pretty much every Studio Display owner, the webcam images are pretty bad compared to the front camera on other Apple devices. In most cases, the images look blurry, are washed out, and have a lot of noise.
In his review for The Verge, Nilay Patel wrote that the Studio Display’s camera looks “awful in good light, and downright miserable in low light.” Joanna Stern at The Wall Street Journal likened the camera performance to that of an “old BlackBerry.” Gizmodo had similar complaints, saying that the Studio Display’s webcam is “noisy” and “not great.”
Soon after the first Studio Display reviews criticizing its 12-megapixel webcam were published on the web, Apple told the press that it was working on a software update to improve the quality of the image captured by the built-in camera.
Nearly two months after Studio Display was announced, Apple today released a beta firmware to developers that brings enhancements to the image processing of the company’s built-in display webcam.
Right now, the update is only available to those running the latest beta of macOS Monterey, and it’s unclear when the update will be released to the public. However, some Studio Display users have already installed the firmware update to see what it actually changes. And it turns out, the update doesn’t change much.
As noted by Jason Snell, Apple has made some adjustments to make the Center Stage cropping less aggressive. At the same time, James Thomson also noted that there’s much less noise in the webcam images after the update, as well as a bit more contrast, but the quality is still “quite washed out” compared to other webcams.
Comparing the 15.5 (1st pic) and 15.4 (2nd pic) firmware for the Studio Display camera. There’s a _lot_ less noise, and a touch more contrast, but it’s still quite washed out compared to the iMac Pro camera (3rd pic, taken last month). chúng tôi James Thomson (@jamesthomson) April 26, 2023
The update doesn’t seem to miraculously improve the quality of the Studio Display’s webcam, and there’s a reason for that.It’s all about the ultra-wide lens
Apple proudly says that the Studio Display has a 12-megapixel camera, which should be enough for sharp images. After all, the iPhone and other Apple devices also have 12-megapixel front-facing cameras. But why is the Studio Display webcam so different in terms of image quality?
While most Apple devices have a regular wide front camera, Studio Display has an ultra-wide lens. This is because it has Center Stage, a feature that uses machine learning to always center the image on a person during a video call or video recording. Since this camera has no optical zoom, Center Stage digitally crops the image to center the people in the frame.
So while an iPhone is capable of taking a real 12-megapixel selfie, Center Stage cameras capture images at 12 megapixels using the ultra-wide lens and then digitally crop them to look like a regular photo or video. This process results in less-sharp images.
For instance, my third generation iPad Air has a seven-megapixel front-facing camera. When I compare it to my iPad mini 6 (which has Center Stage), the old iPad’s images look sharper.
The thing is, the ultra-wide lens is 12MP at its full size. It basically zooms in on you with digital cropping to make the image look like a regular photo, so you’re losing quality. Not to mention that the ultra-wide lens has a smaller aperture, so it gets less light. chúng tôi Filipe Espósito (@filipeesposito) April 26, 2023
As another example, I took the same picture using the wide and ultra-wide rear lens on my iPhone 13 Pro Max.
Both lenses have 12-megapixel resolution, but then I cropped the photo captured by the ultra-wide lens to make it look like the photo from the wide lens, simulating what happens with photos taken by a Center Stage camera. The result, as you can see below, is a much worse quality photo.Is there a solution?
Unfortunately, no matter what Apple does in terms of software updates, there’s nothing that will dramatically improve the Studio Display webcam.
The only two possible solutions to solve this problem are to use a higher resolution sensor, so that the cropped image is at least 12 megapixels, or a larger sensor to capture more light – which would help reduce noise in the image.
However, as you may have guessed, both solutions require a hardware upgrade, which means that owners of the first generation Studio Display will have to deal with the webcam the way it is.
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Why is Google going backwards with Project Tango tablets?
Google’s Project Tango is set to spawn a new device, so the leaks would have it, with the company tipped to be readying 4,000 prototype 3D scanning tablets just in time for Google I/O late in June. Whether they’ll be I/O giveaways or something else is unclear at this stage, though the goal is believed to be furnishing developers ahead of a broader launch. What’s interesting, however, is that Google already had a Project Tango tablet: in fact, it replaced it with the current developer device.
The current Project Tango device – and the one Google revealed the R&D with back in February – is a 5-inch smartphone which Google specially commissioned for its scanning purposes.
As Johnny Lee, technical program lead at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group responsible for Project Tango explained to me in March, there’s a whole lot of unusual technology packed into that Android handset. On the front, there’s a wide field-of-view camera, while on the back there’s a high-speed, 4-megapixel RGB-IR camera, a motion-tracking camera, and a depth-sensing camera.
Inside, meanwhile, two separate vision processors do the heavy lifting, allowing the phone to mimic how the human eye works. A detailed central section is surrounded by a broader – but less detailed – area of peripheral vision. Used in combination, they can build up a 3D model of a room or other area, with photographic detail layered on top.
Google Project Tango hands-on:
The phone, however, was actually the second prototype that the ATAP team produced. The first, Lee told me, was a 7-inch Android tablet made in late Q2 2013. That had the same sort of sensors as the smartphone, but a far more rudimentary shell: effectively two sheets of transparent plastic between which the various boards, sensors, and other components were sandwiched.
Google has already been trialling the Project Tango phone with third-party developers – one firm, Matterport, contrasted it favorably with its own, far more expensive 3D mapping system – but devices have been limited in number. Lee told me only around 200 were produced, unsurprisingly leading to a bottleneck in availability.
This next batch of 4,000 would seem to address that, but it’s unclear why Google would go back a step to the 7-inch form-factor, rather than sticking with the slightly-chubby but still pocketable phone.
A possibility is cost. Lee wouldn’t say how much Google paid for each device, referring only to the overall technology as being intended for consumers not niche professionals, but the expense of creating a special run of phones that squeeze in unusual sensors is likely to be high. Google might be able to save money by going bigger, potentially allowing for larger, cheaper components to be used, or generally avoiding some of the expense of miniaturization.
Another explanation could be battery life. The current phone uses tricks like cycling the depth sensor on and off, Lee said, so as to cut power consumption and processor load, but 3D scanning is still an intensive activity.
Opting for something more akin to a Nexus 7 in size would allow Google to fit in a considerably larger battery.
Finally, there’s the prospect of the “killer app”, something Lee conceded that Google was still figuring out for Project Tango overall. The ATAP team had settled on games to most easily demonstrate what the smartphone could do, cooking up a few simple titles that showed how a virtual character could interact with the physical surroundings.
That, along with mapping applications, simply may work better and be more effective for users on a larger screen.
Whatever the reasoning, there won’t be long to wait. Google is believed to be readying its Project Tango tablets for June, which tallies neatly with I/O. SlashGear will be there to bring back all the news.
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