Thu Jun 25, 2020
It’s now week 16 of whatever this is - not exactly self-isolation, but still working from home, despite getting a haircut and going to the dentist. Which is probably the most I’ll be going out this Summer.
One of the highlights in June is WWDC, which for the first time ever, was an online-only event this year. I really liked the format - the production values were slick and the editing in post really helped the pace. A free, online event is the great equalizer - instead of playing to a privileged audience of VIPs and lottery-ticket winners at the Steve Jobs theatre, this WWDC truly was for everyone.
Laughably out-of-touch announcements like the $1000 monitor stand from last year’s WWDC were absent this time around. In contrast we got a more approachable and down-to-earth presentation.
In the traditional preview of upcoming software, there were some cool surprises, despite a few scattered leaks. In some ways, WWDC is more fun than the September hardware event. The absence of a supply chain makes it a lot harder to leak software than hardware.
Apple’s engineers are on top of their game with outstanding optical recognition making Apple Pencil useful across the platform. Handwritten text that can be copied, moved, searched, converted, and used in any text field is a smart upgrade to an old-school input method.
I was also impressed by “spatial audio” where the Airpods Pro get full surround sound purely through a software algorithm that tracks the exact position of your head and your device. And automatic audio switching between devices fixes a huge problem that plagues all Bluetooth headphones.
These are the sorts of clever hardware-software integrations that only Apple can pull off. The biggest announcement in this vein was the switch from Intel to ARM processors in future Macs. I’m definitely curious to see how the complete end-to-end control that juiced the iPhone will measure up when applied to Macs.
I’m not so sure about that macOS 11 UI redesign though - apparently neumorphism is a thing in design circles now? Those new icons look pretty bad - I’m not ready to let go of the clean look of flat icon design just yet.
But the iPhone is still Apple’s breadwinner and the changes coming in iOS 14 are most interesting…even though we’ve seen them all before.
Yes, many of the upcoming new features have been on Android for years. The Verge has compiled a nice list here. That’s not to say that Android “borrows” from iOS all the time, but this year, some major visual UI elements are being ported straight from Android without shame, such as widgets and an app draw. The question on everybody’s lips is - why now?
My take on it is simple: With the new $399 USD iPhone SE, Apple has snatched the title of Budget King away from Android. This surprise reversal has a lot of price-sensitive smartphone buyers set to migrate away from Android. People can’t stomach paying over a grand for a phone with only two years of software support for much longer. Apple is making it very easy for Android fanboy defectors by adding the fundamental UI elements of Android to iOS now while they have the price/value advantage. Welcome new comrade - do you miss widgets and third-party defaults? We’ve got your back.
The value of iOS vs Android is hard to overstate - instant software updates (no more waiting months or even years for carriers to get around to it) and over five years of ongoing support. I’m simultaneously impressed and mad at Apple for supporting my iPhone 6S for yet another year - yes, iOS 14 will be mine baby. I was kind of hoping that Apple would “force my hand” to upgrade to the iPhone 12 by dropping support for my 2015 phone.
But now the choice is a lot harder (easier?) - especially in a year like this where nobody wants to spend any money. I do appreciate the option to keep on truckin’ for yet another year. And perhaps the notch will disappear in 2021? It almost certainly isn’t happening this year - and I really don’t want to get stuck with a notch for the next five years.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a full-blown Notch Watch rant. All you need to know is that Chinese OLED manufacturers have only now finished development of under-display cameras and are ready for mass production. That’s great news - but Apple is always a few years behind the bleeding-edge, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
No matter what may or may not happen, the ever-tantalizing future product roadmap is always fun to dream about. And perhaps the hallowed iPhone is on its swan song - notched or not. One of the most intriguing new product categories that Apple is working on has sprung a few leaks recently. It even has a (leaked) name: Apple Glass.
The rumours (unconfirmed, so this is all pure speculation) point towards a typically hamstrung first-gen device. Like the first Apple Watch, data processing will be offloaded to a tethered iPhone. There won’t be any speakers or cameras, a lesson learned perhaps from the ill-received Google Glass. What it will have, however, is a LiDAR sensor, presumably for AR applications (which are of fuzzy usefulness right now).
The User Interface, codenamed “StarBoard” internally, allegedly allows you to navigate using hand gestures in front of your face and also via some sort of touch panel on the glasses themselves. Hmmm, flicking your fingers in the air is going to look like a nervous tick, but a discrete touch UI sounds okay. I’ll reserve judgement.
The most exciting aspect of these smart glasses, however, is that it is supposed to have a clean, unobtrusive design so that you won’t look like a total cyborg wearing them. If Apple can indeed pull this off, then they might be onto something. And let’s be real - Apple is the only company that can make tech fashionable.
A rumoured starting price of $499 USD plus prescription sounds pretty darn reasonable, especially considering the fugly Google Glass goes for over a thousand and isn’t sold directly to consumers.
I’ll be honest - if third-party health insurance pays for the frames and lenses, then I’m all in. I doubt that these will be covered by insurance, but they really should, considering a regular retail pair of glasses in Canada costs about the same.
I’ve always wanted an HUD on my glasses. By “always”, I mean ever since I was a kid running around my house making helicopter noises and pretending to fly “Airwolf”.
But realistically I won’t be piloting a helicopter any time soon, so what will the “killer app” be on smart glasses? Obvious applications like displaying your latest texts are a no-brainer but are boring. Facial recognition is one futuristic AR app that everybody and nobody wants. As useful as it may be in the future to see some contextual information about a person simply by looking at them, privacy concerns have already shot this future down. The fact that the police are already using facial recognition technology to identify perps has everybody on edge, especially if they abuse their power. And, clearly, they do abuse their power.
However, Apple’s focus on privacy bodes well for a thoughtful implementation of facial recognition, especially if limited to an approved list of close contacts. After all, using a LiDAR sensor to map out facial geometry adds a level of abstraction so that we’re dealing with data points instead of images. A data set on a secure enclave is much more likely to gain acceptance because it strips away flesh-and-blood photo realism and reduces faces to a mathematical point profile.
If I had to pick one killer app though, it would be location mapping and spatial awareness. Imagine being able to “see” in the dark with that LiDAR sensor mapping out the spatial geometry of the room you are in. Or how easy GPS navigation would be if turn-by-turn driving directions were superimposed over your vision. Your eyes would never have to leave the road.
There are some futurists who see AR wearables as a stepping stone to cybernetic implants. I’m not so sure. Many people upgrade their phones every two years - but are they going to schedule an elective surgery every few years to install a new implant upgrade?
Hacking is also an ongoing concern - if your smart glasses are hacked, you can just take them off. If your bionic eyes are hacked, you’re screwed. The bad Netflix movie Anon explores what would happen if a hacker could change what you see, and while the movie wasn’t terrifying, the idea is.
Whether Apple Glass heralds the return of the glasshole, or a commercial explosion in the AR-wearable product category remains to be seen. I am intrigued though - I already wear glasses during every waking moment - why not make them “smart” in a thoughtful, considered, respectful way and bring a little magic into what we see.
That’s enough - I’m starting to sound like Phil Schiller.
Let’s put the Apple talk to bed and move on to some other June happenings. In another surprise highlight this month, Sony finally unveiled the PlayStation 5 hardware design. Initial reactions are split down the middle - you either love it or hate it. Many have tried to increase their social currency through sarcasm and mockery - a typical and tiresome reaction to any new design.
Personally, I think the organic, flowing aesthetic is bold and avante garde. They could have easily just created another black box, but they chose to make a statement - I respect that. Raymond Wong of Input Mag argues that being boring and invisible is the future of hardware design. I respectfully disagree - the future needs to feel fresh, not conventional and stale. I welcome a blurring of the line between industrial design and art.
My eyebrows shot up a bit when Wong praises the black-box PS4 design for looking good both “shown off or hidden”. Okay, so why the hell would hiding the PS5 away in your TV cabinet piss you off when you can’t even see it? His whole argument just falls apart right there. Those who want “a sculpture to be crowded around” can proudly put it on display. And those who want invisibility can just put it away. Everybody wins.
I’m looking forward to pricing details, but I don’t plan on being an early PS5 adopter. I’m sort of at a gaming crossroads right now. With all the free PC games I’ve accumulated from Steam, GOG, the Epic Games Store, and itch.io - there has never been a better time to return to PC gaming. I’d also really like to build my own PC - a fun project I can sink my teeth into. But those PS5 exclusives are going to come eventually and they’re going to be extremely tempting.
Okay, this is awkward - but I’m going to take a major pivot here. It’s impossible to look back on this month and not acknowledge the police brutality and resulting protests that erupted in America. It’s ugly and sickening and jarring, but can’t be ignored.
Unfortunately, systemic racism in the police force is nothing new. As somebody on Twitter said, there’s no rap song called “Fuck the Firefighters”.
Look, I get it. Police work isn’t easy and not all cops are bad cops. But, just as pedophiles throughout the ages sought refuge in the institution of the Catholic Church, so do racists seek refuge in the institutions of law enforcement. Police officers are not generally open-minded philosophers and dreamers and poets who want to make the world a better place. Because they get to kick ass and take down the names, law enforcement is an attractive occupation to thugs and bullies worldwide.
And to make matters worse, there are evil men who find solidarity and like-minded peers in uniform. Whether they don white hoods or blue shirts, it doesn’t matter - groupthink still festers.
American racists at every level of socioeconomic status have been fighting to keep their privilege since the days of slavery. And they are scared. They are scared because their president did not enforce their privilege and make America “great again”. Because their president used tear gas for a photo op with a bible, but when asked point-blank whether he goes to church, stayed silent. Because their president’s hubris over the coronavirus has killed over two million of his own people.
The insanity and hypocrisy that is Trump is an overwhelming embarrassment when compared to the black president before him. The black president is the better president. If you were racist, how would you feel about that?
This is a moment in history that will pass as it always does before returning in wave upon wave until the wall finally breaks. But before we let this moment go, take some time to listen. Listen to my favourite tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee reflect on the colour of his skin. Despite his fame and success, he can’t help but wonder if he made the ultimate frisbee team because of his skill or because he’s black.
Listen to RTJ4, topical album of the month and some damn good music you’ll be listening to for a while.
Look at all those slave masters posing on your dollar. Gave me chills.
Watch Da 5 Bloods on Netflix - a Spike Lee joint. In the movie, a flashback to the Vietnam war shows a radio broadcast from the North Vietnamese propagandist Hanoi Hannah. Appealing to the African-American soldiers, she tells them they “are only 11 percent of the U.S. population, but among U.S. troops in Vietnam you are 32 percent.” She asks, “Black GI, is it fair to serve more than the white Americans who sent you here?”
And finally, if you’re a geek who is into reading science fiction and fantasy like I am, you’ve probably already read The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin. But if you haven’t, there isn’t a better exploration of slavery and redemption in a genre perfect for reflecting our humanity back on us. Sometimes you have to destroy the world before rebuilding it. The three books in the trilogy all won Hugo awards back-to-back in three consecutive years.
This ended up being a lengthy post, so if you’re still here, then I appreciate you. It was an eventful month but Summer is here and I’m thinking that things are going to slow down for the next couple of months until the September madness hits. I could be wrong though - you never know what’s going to happen in 2020 - the year we’ll never forget.