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Futuristic air commuting via drone-like air taxis is around the corner

(TECH NEWS) German aviation company, Volocopter, and southeast Asia rideshare company, Grab, partner to take business to the skies in Singapore.

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air taxis taking flight

Move over, Jetsons! You too, Leela and Fry! You’re not the only ones living in the future. If Volocopter and Grab have their way, you’ll soon be able to hail an air taxi as painlessly as you hail a rideshare, at least if you live or travel in Singapore.

Nothing thrills me like being airborne, so I am excited to read this. The dreams of my childhood are unfolding before me. Electric air taxis transporting us across the urban landscape? Yes, please, and hurry up. Are you with me?

Imagine what a powerful–and fun–flex it will be to summon your own private electric multicopter and hop from rooftop to rooftop (AKA VoloPort to VoloPort), arriving at your destination in high style. Eyebrows will go up, and jaws will drop as you saunter into your appointment with a nonchalant air of confidence. In my mind, clients and investors will rush to sign contracts with you, and potential mates will move you up to the top of their short lists.

This is the reaction I imagine at first, when Volocopter and Grab launch their test commercial flights in 2022. If we are to believe the hype, this experience won’t always be such an exclusive one. The long-term goal (at least ten years) is to offer affordable and accessible rides for the general population, not merely the posh and pompous among us.

Drone-type electric Volocopter air taxis are single-passenger multicopters. Other companies are also dabbling in these vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft as well, but the Volocopter 2X has beaten them to the punch with successful test flights in Germany, Dubai, and Las Vegas.

By many accounts, multicopters with several chopper blades are simpler to navigate and more stable than a traditional, single-blade helicopter. However, flying requires mucho power, which must be why Volocopter has set its sights on multiple, short flights vs. long-distance transportation. They currently are projecting a maximum distance of 17 miles and 30 minutes per ride.

Singapore-based Grab is already part of daily life in Southeast Asia, much as Lyft or Uber is in the U.S. and elsewhere. Singapore is one of the fast-growing financial hubs in Asia, one of the Four Asian Tigers. Wealth and commerce abound in this charming island nation/city. In general, Singaporeans are quick to embrace modern solutions that add value and convenience to their lives. As such, it’s a dream location to test the waters for using VTOLs as a means of transportation.

Therefore, it makes sense that German aviation startup, Volocopter, and popular southeast Asian rideshare company, Grab, would team up in Singapore to make this futuristic dream a reality. No word yet on the cost-per-ride of traveling via the uncrowded skies of Singapore, but one can assume it will start out fairly prohibitive. Testing these flights with commercial clients first ensures that the math checks out for now.

However, Volocopter foresees a time when their VTOLs can land in a park or parking lot as easily as at a sanctioned rooftop VoloPort. Bring on the glory days of your average commuter as they hop from home to work to the nightclub with the greatest of ease. I want to live in this reality.

By 2035, Volocopter and Grab predict building up the capacity to deliver up to 10,000 Grab air taxi rides per day in Singapore alone. The commute to work never looked faster, easier, or sexier. One day in our nearish future, we may shrug and see air taxis as a mundane part of daily life, a mere getting from point A to point B.

I expect it to stay exclusive and kind of a thrill a while longer. However, if you’re planning to travel in Singapore, and your company is an early adopter of the first commercial Volocopter air taxi flights, rest assured your glamorous sunnies and fanciest gear will not look out of place–yet.

Joleen Jernigan is an ever-curious writer, grammar nerd, and social media strategist with a background in training, education, and educational publishing. A native Texan, Joleen has traveled extensively, worked in six countries, and holds an MA in Teaching English as a Second Language. She lives in Austin and constantly seeks out the best the city has to offer.

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Study finds 1,000 phrases that accidentally activate smart speakers

(TECH GADGETS) Don’t worry about accidentally activating your nosy smart speakers… unless, of course, you utter one of these 1,000 innocuous phrases.

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smart speakers

It’s safe to say that privacy concerns, especially in today’s digital era, are unquestionably valid. With new video recording technology making it easier to identify people at a glance (whether they like it or not) and concerns that your smart speakers are eavesdropping on you, it may feel like you’re bordering on slightly paranoid around modern technology.

After all, even though there have been cases of smart speakers picking up on intimate conversations, there’s absolutely no risk of them overhearing private things without your consent, right? Even though it’s been documented that these devices — including Cortana, Alexa, Siri, and Google Home — have listened in relationship spats, criminal activity, and even HIPAA-protected data, you’re totally in the clear.

Oh yeah. The thing is, everything that gets broadcast into your smart speaker? There’s a completely random chance that someone back at headquarters may decide to sift through it in order to improve AI learning.

And while most of the time these conversations are totally benign, it doesn’t change the fact that a complete stranger is getting an earful of your private life. In fact, these transmissions? Are actually completely admissible in court, as several murder cases have already demonstrated. Their key evidence was none other than poor Alexa herself.

But wait, wait. These smart speakers can only get your information if you activate them, and that requires you to clearly enunciate their names. Right? Um. Not exactly. Even though you may think that you need to speak crisply into the speaker to activate it, it turns out that these devices are highly sensitive to any suggestion that you might be talking to them. It’s almost like your dog when you even remotely glance at his bag of doggie treats in the corner: one crinkle and Fido comes running, begging for some kibble and ready to serve you.

It’s the same for your smart speakers. As it turns out, there are over a thousand words or phrases that can trigger your device and invite it to start recording your voice. These can range from the perfectly reasonable (Cortana hearing “Montana” and springing to attention) to the downright absurd (Alexa raising her hackles over the words “election” and “unacceptable”). Well, crap. Now what?

It’s no secret that someone is listening in on your conversations. That’s been clearly documented, researched, dissected, and even accepted at this point. However, if you thought that they’d only listen to it if you gave them implicit permission by activating your device (which, to be fair, should not even count as permission in the first place), you were wrong.

So what’s a privacy-loving person to do? Just suck it up and try to choose between the lesser of two evils? On one hand, yes, these smart speakers are super convenient and can make your life easier. On the other?

Well, if you’re a fan of your privacy, then perhaps these devices aren’t meant for you. At this point, you’ve got little recourse. These companies will continue to use your data, and there’s nothing stopping them from spying on you. That is, unless you prevent them from doing it in the first place.

If you want to keep your private conversations private, either unplug your smart speaker when you’re not using it, or don’t get one in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll continue to give your implied consent that you’re totes cool with them butting in on your personal life, and they’ll continue to be equally totes cool with using it without your permission.

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HEY needs to fix its issues to be the Gmail killer it claims to be

(TECH NEWS) You would hope that HEY, the paid email service, would launch without issues but it has a few. Let’s hope some of that money goes to fixing them.

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Hey email

Last week, we covered HEY–a new email service that seemingly has a lot to offer–and while we largely praised the service despite it being a paid client awash in a sea of free email options, not everyone is fully on board with HEY’s inimitable charm–at least, not yet.

Adam Silver, an interaction designer focused on user experience, had some criticisms of HEY–many of which he identified as “pretty surprising oversights.” Though Silver does mention that his overall opinion of the service is good, these oversights are the focus of his review.

“HEY isn’t very accessible,” says Silver in his notes. His assessment, while self-admittedly not a holistic view, includes issues related to JavaScript (specifically when it isn’t enabled, which is something more and more companies are requiring) and lack of reasonable keyboard shortcuts for anyone using a screen reader. As Silver points out, these are fairly simple–and, thus, surprising–problems that probably should have been caught from the onset.

“All of these things are really easy to fix,” amends Silver.

Another issue Silver highlights is the inbox (imbox?) sorting. As we mentioned previously, there are three locations for email: the imbox, the feed, and the paper trail, each of which serves a different purpose. The problem with this system is that organizing emails by only three overarching categories affords little flexibility; furthermore, Silver notes that the menu for accessing each folder leaves a lot to be desired from a design standpoint.

The feed is also the subject of Silver’s criticism in that it doesn’t function enough like a traditional inbox to the point that it is actually difficult to use. Especially given the feed’s purpose–to store newsletters and such in a free-scrolling manner–this is a hold-up for sure; coupled with the feed’s lack of notifications, you can see how this problem cripples the user experience without active attention to the ancillary feed inbox.

Lastly, Silver mentions that the name “imbox” is, well, stupid. “This is not a typo but it’s not good,” he says. “You need a really good reason not to keep things simple.”

This is actually a point that we initially glossed over in our overview, but it’s another instance of a company doing a little too much to stand out–and, in doing so, potentially disrupting the user experience. “Keeping it simple” by calling the delivery place for your email the “inbox” won’t sink your brand, and the name “imbox” is sure to, at best, annoy.

It’s important to reaffirm that HEY’s driving principle–accessible email that prioritizes your privacy and charges you a relatively nominal fee for doing so–is good, and that’s the tough part of any app’s development; should they choose to follow Silver’s lowkey advice and make a few tweaks, they’ll have a winning product.

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Tech News

Live captioning via AI is now available for Zoom, if a little limited

(TECH NEWS) In order to be more inclusive, and improve the share of information with your team, live captioning is a great option for your next Zoom call.

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Zoom live captioning

The ubiquitous all-father Zoom continues to prompt innovation–and in a time during which most companies are still using some form of remote communication, who can blame them? It’s only fitting that someone would come along and try to flesh out Zoom’s accessibility features at some point, which is exactly what Zoom Live Captioning sets out to accomplish.

Zoom Live Captioning is a Zoom add-on service that promises, for a flat fee, to caption up to 80 hours per month of users’ meetings via an easy-to-implement plugin. The allure is clear: a virtual communication environment that is more time-efficient, more accessible, and more flexible for a variety of usage contexts.

Unfortunately, what’s less clear is how Zoom Live Captioning proposes to achieve this goal.

The live-captioning service boasts, among other things, “limited lag” and “the most accurate [speech-to-text AI] in the world”–a service that, despite its sensational description, is still only available in English. Furthermore, anyone who has experienced auto-captioning on YouTube videos–courtesy of one of the largest technology initiatives in the world–knows that, even with crystal-clear audio, caption accuracy is questionable at best.

Try applying that level of moving-target captioning to your last Zoom call, and you’ll see what the overarching problem here is.

Even if your Zoom call has virtually no latency, everyone speaks clearly and enunciates perfectly, your entire team speaks conversational English at a proficient degree across the board, and no one ever interrupts or experiences microphone feedback, it seems reasonable to expect that captions would still be finicky. Especially if you’re deaf or hard of hearing–a selling point Zoom Live Captioning drives home–this is a problematic flaw in a good idea.

Now, it’s completely fair to postulate that any subtitles are better than no subtitles at all. If that’s the decision you’d like to make for your team, Zoom Live Captioning starts at $20 per person per month; larger teams are encouraged to contact the company to discuss more reasonable rates if they want to incorporate live captioning across an enterprise.

Nothing would be better for speech-to-text innovation than being wrong about Zoom Live Captioning’s potential for inaccuracy, but for now, it’s safe to be a little skeptical.

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