Eight Great Apps and Software Services That Launched In 2018

Eight Great Apps and Software Services That Launched In 2018

2018 was rather special and interesting, from a software point of view. While tech giants continued to deliver futuristic, mind-bending and impressive software and services, they also realised their own software was chewing away our brains, making us all sloppy. We took a good look around to see which software and services were introduced this year that are likely to shape the way we use most of our tech products.

Here are our top picks for the best software and services we saw in 2018.

1. Google Duplex
Google likes to show off cool stuff at its I/O developer conferences each year. Duplex, however, was way above anything we’d seen. It just blew everyone’s mind away. Built as a feature inside Google Assistant, Duplex can place phone calls for you to make reservations for you and more. All this in a human-like tone that could be hard for someone on the other line to make out if it’s an actual human being or a robot.

google main duplex

The search giant even demonstrated the feature in front of the crowd and it didn’t sound anything like a robot as Duplex added a little “hmmm” and “umm” into the conversation. The uses cases are endless and it looked like this could completely change the way we use our smartphones.

However, once everyone picked up their jaws from the floor, there was a growing concern amongst many that Duplex calls may be amazing, but a little too creepy. Google has assured that Duplex will properly notify that a call is being made from a robot when it’s working.

The feature has started rolling out to Google Pixel owners in the US.

2. WebAuthn
Let’s be honest, passwords aren’t everyone’s favourite method of authentication even though we continue to live our daily lives with one. Back in April this year, two major standards bodies FIDO and W3C revealed that they were going to kill the good old password with WebAuthn.

WebAuthn is simply a new protocol that eliminates the use of a password. The most popular browser makers like Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla have agreed to integrate WebAuthn within their browsers. Users will be able to use a physical security key (USB) or a mobile device instead of a password. This could make things a lot easier for Internet users all across.

3. Screen Time on iOS and Digital Wellbeing on Android
As technology is making our lives simpler and easier, it’s also slowly vacuuming us all into a world we can’t escape from. This year, the makers of the two most popular mobile operating systems decided to change things a little.

we;; wellbeing

Both Apple and Google announced new features built right inside the OS to help users measure how much time they were spending on their mobile devices.

Apple introduced Screen Time on iOS 12 and Google added Digital Wellbeing on Android 9.0 Pie. Both services may have different interfaces but share a common goal. The idea is to get you to use your phone less so you don’t spend hours staring at it when you could be doing something else, something more productive.

Later in the year, both Facebook and Instagram apps introduced their own version of these features.

4. Siri Shortcuts
With iOS 12, Apple also introduced a new way to make the most out of Siri. Siri Shortcuts lets users group together a bunch of iOS-based actions and easily trigger them using voice commands. A large chunk of iOS apps also added support for Siri Shortcuts.

siri short short

Although the idea sounds simple, it has become a popular way to get things done on an iOS device. From something as simple as having a text message sent when something else happens, to asking Siri about the status of your online food order, it can do pretty much anything you want.

The feature makes Siri more useful and powerful.

5. Otter
Otter is a mobile app that can automatically transcribe your voice recordings. The app is quite different from similar apps we’ve seen in the past. It is specifically meant for long-form conversations and can accurately convert voice to text without any issues.

Otter is perfect for meetings, interviews, and other events where more than one person is talking. The app can capture the audio, transcribe the content, and turn it into an archive that can be easily searched. The app is available on both iOS and Android. There’s a Web interface available as well.

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Facebook Privacy Debacle Continues as Popular Android Apps Found Sharing Data Without User Permission

Facebook Privacy Debacle Continues as Popular Android Apps Found Sharing Data Without User PermissionA bunch of popular apps on Android could be putting your privacy at risk, according to a study conducted by Privacy International. 61 percent of the apps that were tested were sending data to Facebook as soon as the user opened the app. The data was being shared even before the user was asked for their permission. This happened even if a user didn’t have a Facebook account or wasn’t logged into one.

Privacy International studied 34 popular Android apps to see if they send data to Facebook without a user’s permission. The information sent to Facebook included the app’s title, the user’s unique Android ID, and other app analytics.

However, some apps like Kayak were found sending sensitive data to Facebook. This included flight searches, travel timeline if children were being accompanied, and all the destinations that a user searched for. Most of these popular apps are available for free on the Google Play Store.

Some of the apps that were a part of the study included MyFitnessPal, Duolingo, Family Locator, Kayak, My Talking Tom, Shazam, Spotify, and several other popular apps.

The move is being seen as a clear violation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was set up in May this year. Under the new regulation, mobile apps cannot collect or share a user’s data without their permission.

Privacy International claims that the data collected from users’ devices can be combined to connect activities, interests, behaviours, and other activities of a user. Facebook could use this data, later on, to serve ads based on some highly specific demographics.

While Facebook asks app developers to make sure they can lawfully collect, use, or share their users’ data before sending it to Facebook, the default implementation of the Facebook SDK enabled automatic transmission of event data to Facebook.

After GDPR came into effect, Facebook did release a new feature in its SDK to delay the collection of logged events until a user has given permission to the app. But this was around 35 days after GDPR was implemented and currently works only on Facebook’s SDK version 4.34 and above.

Privacy International has put up a detailed analysis of its study on its website. The group has released details of how each app sends data to Facebook along with responses from each app developer.

This isn’t the first time Android apps have been found to share user data. Earlier in October this year, a report claimed that 88 percent of free apps on Android share data with Google.

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This Startup’s New Passenger Drone Is ‘Like a Flight Simulator That You Can Ride In,’ CEO Says

This Startup's New Passenger Drone Is 'Like a Flight Simulator That You Can Ride In,' CEO Says

If Matt Chasen gets his way, there will be a time – in the not-so-distant future – when commuters are able to order an air taxi that whisks them across town in minutes, bypassing traffic-clogged streets below.

For now, however, the chief executive of LIFT Aircraft will have to use his start-up’s electric-powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, the Hexa, for something else: 15-minute flights across a lake outside Austin, Texas, for $249 (roughly Rs. 17,300) a pop.

Though the flights will target a recreational crowd, Chasen sees them as a steppingstone to a new form of convenient urban transportation.

“Today’s regulatory environment does not allow for a transportation use of these aircraft – yet,” said Chasen, a former Boeing engineer with a background in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “We’ll build public trust in the technology. Once that happens, it’s inevitable that people will want to use it for certain types of commuting flights.”

It may take years, Chasen said, but the payoff could be immense, as the race to create autonomous flying vehicles begins, with companies such as Uber, Airbus and Volocopter already developing them.

Unlike with conventional aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration does not require a pilot’s license to operate a “powered ultralight” craft. The agency’s rules require instead that ultralights operate during daylight hours in open areas and limit their use to sport and recreation.

To operate the Hexa, Chasen said, customers will undergo an orientation that includes watching safety videos and training in a virtual-reality simulator for up to an hour. A basic proficiency test will follow, then preflight checks with ground support.

The drone-like aircraft – which is controlled using a joystick in the cockpit and stabilized by a flight computer – weighs 432 pounds, seats one person, and has 18 sets of propellers, motors and batteries. Prospective pilots have to weigh less than 250 pounds. During flight, Chasen said, pilots can see safety information on an augmented-reality display inside the aircraft. In the event of an emergency, he said, flight controllers can take over the aircraft and fly it remotely like a drone. Chasen compared the flying experience to “a flight simulator that you can ride in.”

The aircraft can travel just over 60 mph at top speed and includes air-cushioned floats, allowing it to land on water if necessary.

“Unlike traditional helicopters, you don’t need great skill to fly the Hexa,” he said. “If you completely let go of the joystick, the aircraft just hovers in GPS position hold. It’s programmed so that if battery levels get down to a certain level, the aircraft will automatically return to the launch site.”

LIFT hopes to begin offering flights over a popular lake outside Austin next year. The company announced last week that it is also considering 25 cities across the country for other “aircraft hubs,” which would be located near tourist destinations and entertainment areas. Though the cities have yet to be named, the company is already accepting reservations.

“I could envision a Lift location right from a pier on the Seattle waterfront,” Chasen told GeekWire.

Chasen said he doesn’t think the FAA will certify vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft for commercial transportation until they’re proved safe. Once that happens, he said, a new wave of alternative transportation is likely to quickly emerge.

In five to 10 years, he predicts, aircraft like the Hexa will play a very different role in urban environments, becoming an “alternative to driving” for certain types of trips.

“I think we will be one option among many if it’s rush hour, and you can fly for 10 minutes as opposed to driving for 90 minutes,” Chasen said. “It think it’ll be a niche thing to start out, but at some point, it won’t be surprising to see aircraft taking off from rooftops in cities on a regular basis.”

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Nancy Grace Roman, Astronomer Celebrated as ‘Mother’ of Hubble, Dies at 93

Nancy Grace Roman, Astronomer Celebrated as 'Mother' of Hubble, Dies at 93

Photo Credit: NASA

When Nancy Grace Roman requested permission to take a second algebra course in high school, a teacher demanded to know “what lady would take mathematics instead of Latin.” In college, a professor remarked that he often tried to dissuade women from majoring in physics. And after receiving a doctorate in astronomy, she concluded that a female professor in the field had little hope of obtaining tenure.

Undeterred by the barriers to women in the sciences, Roman found a professional home at NASA. Even there, she recalled in an interview years later, she felt compelled to use the honorific “Dr.”

“Otherwise,” she said, “I could not get past the secretaries.”

After joining the fledgeling space agency in 1959, Roman became the first chief of astronomy at NASA headquarters, a role that made her one of the agency’s first female executives. She remained in that position for nearly two decades before her retirement in 1979.

Roman, who was celebrated as a trailblazer for female scientists and a driving force behind advances including the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, died December 25 at a hospital in Germantown, Maryland. She was 93. A cousin, Laura Bates Verreau, confirmed the death but said she did not yet know the cause.

Roman spent much of her career helping develop, fund and promote technology that would help scientists see more clearly beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“Astronomers had been wanting to get observations from above the atmosphere for a long time. Looking through the atmosphere is somewhat like looking through a piece of old, stained glass,” Roman told Voice of America in 2011. “The glass has defects in it, so the image is blurred from that.”

NASA credited her with leading what it described as the agency’s “first successful astronomical mission,” the launch of Orbiting Solar Observatory-1 in 1962 to measure the electromagnetic radiation of the sun, among other things.

She also coordinated among scientists and engineers for the successful launch of geodetic satellites, used for measuring and mapping Earth, and several orbiting astronomical observatories that offered an early glimpse of the discoveries that might be reaped by sending observational technology beyond the veil of the atmosphere.

But she was perhaps most associated with the early legwork for the Hubble Space Telescope, the first major telescope to be sent into space for the purpose of gathering photographs of and data from the universe. Hubble is widely considered to have yielded the most significant astronomical observations since Galileo began using a telescope in the early 1600s.

The design and launch of Hubble was fraught by scientific, financial and bureaucratic difficulties that Roman worked to resolve. Lobbying for early funding for Hubble, whose price tag reached $1.5 billion, she recalled arguing that every American, for the cost of one ticket to the movies, could be assured years of scientific discoveries.

“During the 1960s and early 1970s there was no one at NASA who was more important in getting the first designs and concepts for Hubble funded and completed,” space historian Robert Zimmerman wrote in “The Universe in a Mirror,” an account of the creation of Hubble. “More importantly, it was [Roman] more than anyone who convinced the astronomical community to get behind space astronomy.”

The telescope did not launch until 1990, more than a decade after Dr. Roman retired, but when it did, its photographs of the cosmos electrified the world.

In 1994, when NASA announced the repair of a faulty mirror and other problems that had caused its early photographs to be blurry, Roman was in the audience, knitting.

Edward Weiler, then Hubble’s chief scientist, surprised her by recognizing her publicly, according to Zimmerman’s account. “If Lyman Spitzer was the father of the Hubble Space Telescope,” Weiler said, referring to the noted astrophysicist, “then Nancy Roman was its mother.”

Nancy Grace Roman was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 16, 1925. Her father was a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey. Her mother was a former music teacher and a nature enthusiast who took her daughter outside at night to view the stars.

Roman, who recalled founding an astronomy club at age 11, moved frequently for her father’s work before landing in Baltimore, where she graduated from high school. She received a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1946 and a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1949, both in astronomy.

After early work at the University of Chicago and the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, she was hired by the Naval Research Laboratory in 1955, working in radio astronomy. NASA was formed three years later, with Roman among its earliest employees. She spent the final part of her career at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she oversaw the Astronomical Data Center.

Her honors included the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award and the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award. She helped promote professional opportunities for women through the American Association of University Women and spoke frequently in schools to encourage children to take on the challenges of science.

Roman resided in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the time of her death and had no immediate survivors.

In 2017, Lego released a set of figurines honouring four pioneering women of NASA: Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space; Margaret Hamilton, a computer programmer who created the software necessary for the Apollo missions; and Roman.

“I am glad,” she once told Science magazine, “I ignored the many people who told me that I could not be an astronomer.”

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NASA’s New Horizons to Fly Past Ultima Thule Tonight, Here’s How to Watch

NASA's New Horizons to Fly Past Ultima Thule Tonight, Here's How to Watch

To ancient explorers, “Ultima Thule” was what lay past the northernmost edges of maps, beyond the borders of the known world.

So when NASA chose a target for its New Horizons spacecraft that was farther than anything explored before, “Ultima Thule” seemed a fitting moniker. The far-flung space rock is an inhabitant of the Kuiper Belt, the ring of debris that encircles the icy outer reaches of solar system.

Ultima Thule is so dim and so distant that scientists aren’t even certain what it looks like. Some of their only information about its size and shape comes from a series of coordinated observations last summer, when astronomers measured the shadow it cast as it passed in front of a star.

But New Horizons will finally fly by its target just after midnight on January 1, taking close-up photographs and sophisticated scientific measurements of what it sees. By the time the first images and data stream back to Earth, the borders of the known world will have expand once more.

“This is just raw exploration,” said Alan Stern, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator for the mission. “No one has ever seen a Kuiper Belt object as anything but a point of light. No one has ever seen an object that’s frozen almost to absolute zero. There are a lot ideas and every one of them might be wrong.”

He took a breath. “We’ll find out Tuesday.”

NASA is celebrating the record-setting encounter with the solar system’s nerdiest New Year’s party. At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft, scientists will count down to the moment of New Horizons’ closest approach, at 12:33am. Eastern, then reconvene 10 hours later to watch first signals from the flyby stream onto their screens. (It takes more than six hours for light to travel from Ultima Thule back to Earth.) NASA’s vaunted social media operation, which had fallen silent during the partial government shutdown, has been temporarily restored to cover the event. The countdown, signal acquisition and subsequent news conferences will be streamed live on NASA TV and YouTube.

Alice Bowman, New Horizons’ mission operations manager at APL, said the spacecraft entered “encounter mode” on Wednesday. This configuration limits the spacecraft’s communication with Earth, commanding it to quickly address any technical issues on its own, then get back to science. Though nerve-wracking for engineers, encounter mode ensures that New Horizons makes the most of its brief time near Ultima Thule.

“Because this is a flyby, we only get one chance to get it right,” Bowman said.

New Horizons left Earth in January 2006; it was the first mission designed to explore the most distant part of the solar system. Nine years and 3.5 billion miles later, it took the first-ever close up photos of Pluto, revealing a complex and colorful world mottled with methane mountains and a vast, heart-shaped nitrogen ice plain.

After that flyby, Stern and his colleagues set about searching for a new target in the Kuiper Belt, which extends from the edge of Neptune’s orbit out to about 5 billion miles from the sun.

Until the 1990s, no one knew what hid out here, where sunlight is 0.05 as faint as it is on Earth. Now, the Kuiper Belt is thought to include millions of icy objects, unused planetary building blocks left over from the earliest days of the solar system. These bodies are time capsules, preserved in a deep freeze for the past 4.6 billion years. NASA says Ultima Thule is likely the most primitive planetary object ever explored.

The Kuiper Belt object was discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Subsequent observations suggest it is small –¬†no more 20 miles across – and peanut shaped. Astronomers believe it is a contact binary, comprising two objects touching each other, or perhaps even a binary system, in which two objects are orbiting one another.

The encounter with Ultima Thule will be brief and technically demanding, even more so than New Horizons’ Pluto flyby. Whereas Pluto is roughly the size of the United States, Ultima could fit atop Washington, D.C. This means New Horizons has to get much closer to the little space rock to examine it, and the encounter will be over much more quickly.

Twenty-four hours before closest approach, Ultima Thule still takes up only two pixels in images taken by New Horizons’ camera screen. As New Horizons speeds through space at 9 miles per second, it will take less than a day to turn Ultima Thule back into a speck in the rear view mirror.

But New Horizons’ performance so far suggests it is ready for the challenge, Stern said. Measurements taken Saturday showed that the spacecraft was within 20 miles of its intended flyby distance from Ultima Thule, and that the timing of the encounter will be within 2 seconds of what was expected.

“We’re rendezvousing with something that’s a mountain draped in black velvet in almost pitch dark conditions and we’re screaming up to it … within 2 seconds of perfection,” Stern said. “You can’t get any better than that.”

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