How Google’s New Font Tries to Anticipate the Future

In the photo, you can see the notations made by the design team on an earlier iteration.

In the photo, you can see the notations made by the design team on an earlier iteration. Google

In the beginning, there was Apple. When Steve & Co. were obsessing about how to make computers feel as beautiful as possible, typography was singled out for special attention. They wanted type on the screen to look just as perfect as it could in print—a grand plan to make computer interfaces into crafted objects every bit as beautifully considered as a hand-cut letter or a perfectly proportioned chair. And they won. Today we see more care being piled onto pixels than ever.

But there remains a gap. While so many typefaces have been designed to render beautifully, very few have been designed to perform beautifully. Which is why Google has spent the last year and half sweating over a sweeping overhaul of its UI font, Roboto. This new version is designed to scale across an entire universe of products, from smart-watches to TV’s. It is the star in Google’s ambitious plan to redesign its entire product ecosystem—a visual and interactive language they’re calling Material Design. “UI’s are crafted from images and type,” Matias Duarte, Android’s head of design tells WIRED. “But the idea of having a typeface that’s thought out as a UI typeface—that’s not been done before.”

Friendliness Serves a Function

But the new Roboto is a workhorse, not a show horse. The face itself isn’t designed to grab attention, but rather, to perform well in many contexts. It sports a rounder, friendlier look. Dots in the i and j have changed from rectangles to circles; letters like the B, C, and D now sport softer curves; and the stark angles of some letters, like the R, have been straightened. With this more casual vibe, the hope is to create a face that won’t be jarring when seen blown up huge on a 65-inch TV seen from three feet away, or a tiny screen on your wrist.

Thus, Google’s type team, led by Christian Robertson, labored to anticipate the weird juxtapositions created across platforms. For example, they’ve made sure that bold and regular letterforms sport similar widths, and introduced monowidth numerals, because those textures inevitably get thrown together and contrasted when you’re swiping between screens or clicking between tabs.

How the letters compare, with the new Roboto outlined in red. Black denotes the overlap. Note the increasing rounded-ness throughout.

How the letters compare, with the new Roboto outlined in red. Black denotes the overlap. Note the increasing rounded-ness throughout. Google

“When you design type, all of that work is going to be used by another designer, in contexts and ways that’s hard to imagine,” says Robertson. So they’ve created more weights and styles, judging them together and laying out rigorous usage guidelines, so that the shear number of combinations ensures that interface designers will be able to do everything they need to do without creating chaos.

No Rest for the Weary

Testing all of those font styles against each other was itself probably the most complex part of the process. Each one was viewed on a pile of devices rigged to simulate hundreds of different screen resolutions. And that’s just for tablets, PCs, and phones. In addition, the team tested Roboto for the car, using LCD shutters that testers wear like sunglasses, and which force the wearer to look at a UI in only glance-able fragments—just like you would in a car sporting Android.

“Not only did we have a number of designers, but we had producers and assistants layered on top of those,” says Duarte. “It was bigger than any design project we’ve ever had.” And all for a font. But that’s perhaps not surprising, as type has become one of the hardest working elements in today’s interfaces, which have been stripped of ornamentation in order to create breathing room for the increasingly complex functions they have to perform. The work, of course, isn’t done. You can expect Roboto to keep evolving as Google’s offerings on TV’s and wearables mature—but by building some rationality into the entire system, the hope is to buy as much time as possible before the next big thing arrives.

The full breadth of styles, which is meant to allow for hundreds of possible combinations, on countless devices.

The full breadth of styles, which is meant to allow for hundreds of possible combinations, on countless devices. Google

Airbnb Is Quietly Building the Smartest Travel Agent of All Time


Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco. Emily Hagopian

Airbnb overhauled its logo, its website, and its mobile app this morning. But there’s something deeper going on with the sharing economy’s most popular travel site.

Under the covers, Airbnb has quietly begun an ambitious effort to painstakingly mine the treasure trove of data contained in the site’s customer reviews and host descriptions to create a smarter way of traveling. It turns outs Airbnb is more than a travel website—it’s a stealth big data company.

“For a long time now, Airbnb has been an awesome place to go if you know where you’re going and you know when you’re going,” says Mike Curtis, Airbnb’s vice president of engineering. “But we realized that we have all of this data that other people don’t have. We have travel patterns. We have the reviews. We have the descriptions of the listings. We know a lot about neighborhoods that we can infer from the text in there.”

To do this, the company has formed an eight-person Discovery team. Their mission? To build language processing software that mines Airbnb’s data and figures out what’s really happening out there in the travel world. In other words, Airbnb is building a kind of omniscient, machine-powered travel agent of the future.

‘We realized that we have all of this data that other people don’t have. We have travel patterns, we have the reviews, we have the descriptions of the listings.’

You can see the early hints of this in the new recommendations that debut on the site today. Airbnb figures out where you’re from, and then drops you a few travel ideas. “We try to figure out exactly where you are and who the people are around you and where they like to travel,” says Surabhi Gupta, an engineer on the Discovery team.

If you’re booking from Knoxville, Tennessee, for example, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll want to take in the sights in Washington, DC. If you’re from the San Francisco or Brooklyn, you may very well be looking for a booking in the same city (folks in these places are more likely to be using Airbnb to book accommodations for friends or relatives).

Airbnb's Discovery yeam, from left: Phillippe Siclait, Nasseem Hakim, Frank Lin, Gauri Manglik, Surabhi Gupta, Lu Cheng

Airbnb’s Discovery team, from left: Phillippe Siclait, Nasseem Hakim, Frank Lin, Gauri Manglik, Surabhi Gupta, Lu Cheng Airbnb

The Discovery team figures this out by extracting interesting words from the site’s reviews and descriptions. An open-source tool called the Stanford Part of Speech Tagger comes in handy for this. It then uses custom-build algorithms to assign 150 different attributes—beaches, hiking, sunsets, and so on—to different locations.

What you see on the homepage is a start, but Airbnb wants to get to the point where it can give very specific recommendations based on who you are, not just where you live. “A lot of what we’re doing is the foundational work for user-level personalization,” says Lu Cheng, another Discovery team engineer. That means, in a few years, you may very well be using Airbnb to not only book your next vacation, but to figure out where the heck you want to go.

Why Airbnb’s Redesign Is All About People, Not Places

Today, Airbnb is pulling the wrapper off of a redesign that encompasses the company’s entire digital footprint, including the logo and branding, the mobile experience, and, in particular, the desktop. And while these tweaks are individually quite small, Airbnb is quick to emphasize they’re all grounded in a new focus that they hope will broaden the company’s horizons. The first thing you’ll notice: On the homepage, and in the app, they’re intentionally emphasizing fewer of the homes you might stay in, and more of the lifestyle you might have.

Thus, the site is now papered with short videos of people grilling out or lounging on the couch—the beauty shot is no longer an image of some insanely expensive or kooky vacation home. Meanwhile, the community of Airbnb hosts has become central to the experience. You’ll see smiling host faces on every house listing you see. “This is part of the larger story we’ve been talking about,” says Katie Dill, Airbnb’s recently appointed head of design and a former Frog creative director. “We want users to understand the experience and the relationships behind it.”

That’s a squishy concept, but for Airbnb, there is a thorough-going rationale. The company is still hellbent on being defined not just as the second-coming of the hotel, but as a lifestyle brand with all the potential product offerings that entails. And that plays out in the redesign.

A New Logo

Look at the new logo and you’ll see an upside down heart intertwined with the outline of a place pin. There are a few layers of corporate mythmaking in there. The pin shows what Airbnb does; the heart evokes this new, more readily surfaced emphasis on community and personal experience; and the outline of the whole thing harks to the “A” in Airbnb’s very first logos. “We wanted to develop a symbol of belonging,” says Dill. “You’re staying in someone’s home and sometimes with someone as well, and making a connection.” Airbnb calls the new mark a “Bélo”—short for “belong.”

As part and parcel of trying to make the symbol ubiquitous, Airbnb is creating a marketplace where hosts can create decals and such for their guests–the Airbnb equivalent to all the branded hotel swag that might grace a Four Seasons, for example. As Dill says, “You’re going to see that carried out in every part of the brand.” Which brings us to the actual user experience.

The new homepage. Note that none of the pictures are actually of spaces, per se. They're all of people and activities—an art direction that's part of a push to make Airbnb a lifestyle brand.

The new homepage. Note that none of the pictures are actually of spaces, per se. They’re all of people and activities—an art direction that’s part of a push to make Airbnb a lifestyle brand. Airbnb

New Ways to Surface the Places You Might Like to Visit

Users familiar with Airbnb will notice myriad smart changes throughout. Legibility in search results has gone up as has utility, thanks to simplified information and a map that accompanies every list showing where each one is in relation to the others; the presence of host head-shots in smart places throughout adds a definite feeling of friendliness to the entire service; and the options available every step of the way towards a booking have been refined and rationalized. None of it is revolutionary, but taken together these make for a more coherent user experience, which Dill points out has been stripped down in many places, to emphasize only the information that users want, at the times they want it.

Airbnb has two main examples of this. The first is that search listings are no longer just by keywords, but also driven by contextual information about your location. In that way, Airbnb is a big data company. They have a growing body of information about what people near where you are like to search for. For example, romantic weekend getaways aren’t as sought-after in searches originating in San Francisco. By contrast good places to hike are at a premium. (Hey, no judgment here, San Francisco!) As my colleague Bob McMillan reports, the listings that Airbnb serves up will take into account that kind of knowledge.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood guides, which were once a central plank in Airbnb’s quest to become less about listings and more about inspiring travel content, don’t exist in their own silo. Instead, information about neighborhoods is surfaced at the bottom of every listing, in a map of the immediate area. Key words such as “hipster,” “restaurants,” and “cafes” are served up in a curated list driven by user descriptions of the neighborhood. Just as with the search results, here’s a case of Airbnb using data not to create new content, but to create the right context for what someone wants.

This new art direction represents a big investment for Airbnb: It commits them to creating a raft of new content that serves as vignettes of life outside a hotel.

This new art direction represents a big investment for Airbnb: It commits them to creating a raft of new content that serves as vignettes of life outside a hotel. Airbnb

A New Art Direction

What dominates the homepage now aren’t photos, but rather short video loops, which Dill calls “living photos.” (It’s like Hogwarts with mustaches and vintage furniture finds!) Again, it ties back to the idea that Airbnb is advertising just a place, but a kind of experience that’s far removed from that of a hotel. “These images have to be immersive and cinematic. It has to be people that are highlighted, and their lifestyles.”

Getting there, for Dill and Airbnb, required a ruthless stripping out of any design details that didn’t emphasize that point. In Airbnb’s searches, it could have surfaced 12 types of information; they ended up just four, one of which is the host. “When a guest or a host interacts with Airbnb, everything has to feel like it’s all a part of the same thing. That type of consistency is what gives you peace of mind, and it makes you feel like it’s a stable place to build a relationship. There’s not much more on many of our pages but imagery that tells a story about a community.”

Team studies immune response of Asian elephants infected with a human disease

Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the organism that causes tuberculosis in humans, also afflicts Asian (and occasionally other) elephants. Diagnosing and treating elephants with TB is a challenge, however, as little is known about how their immune systems respond to the infection. A new study begins to address this knowledge gap, and offers new tools for detecting and monitoring TB in captive elephants.

The study, reported in the journal Tuberculosis, is the work of researchers at the University of Illinois Zoological Pathology Program (ZPP), a division of the veterinary diagnostic lab at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana-Champaign. ZPP is based in Chicago, serving zoos and wildlife in the region and beyond.

More than 50 elephants in captivity in the U.S. have been diagnosed with tuberculosis since 1994, the research team reports. The evidence suggests that humans can transmit the disease to elephants and that elephants also may serve as a source of exposure for humans.

When infected, elephants may appear healthy or only show general symptoms, such as weight loss, that could be associated with a variety of maladies, said Jennifer Landolfi, a veterinary pathologist who led the new research. Most cases are found as a result of routine tests which involve checking the blood for antibodies against TB, or collecting samples from an elephant's trunk and culturing the bacteria it harbors.

But these approaches are problematic, Landolfi said. Culturing mycobacteria takes time and is imprecise, while antibody responses may take weeks to develop and only indicate exposure, not necessarily infection or disease.

"We are always trying to improve and seek out new diagnostics that will allow for earlier, more accurate detection of this infection," she said. "We also need to find ways to monitor the treatment response."

In humans, exposure to tuberculosis rarely results in full-fledged disease. Most people's immune systems eradicate the bacterium or at least keep the disease at bay, Landolfi said.

"Less than 10 percent of the people who are exposed actually develop the disease," she said. In those cases, an inadequate immune response is almost always to blame. "Our hypothesis is that something similar is happening in the Asian elephants."

To test this, Landolfi and her colleagues looked at protein mediators that are part of an elephant's immune system. These small signaling molecules, called cytokines (SIGH-toe-kines), spur a cascade of cellular reactions that help the body fight infection. But detecting cytokines in elephants is difficult because antibodies that target elephant cytokines are not available.

"Instead of trying to detect the cytokines using antibodies, we said, 'why don't we take a step back and detect the nucleotides that code for those proteins?'" Landolfi said. "We're talking about messenger RNA (mRNA), which is used by the cell to synthesize these proteins."

After developing the tools to detect cytokine mRNA in elephants, the researchers collected blood from 8 TB-positive and 8 TB-negative Asian elephants, and isolated the white blood cells. They exposed the cells to proteins associated with TB and then analyzed the cell culture for expression of certain cytokines.

Their analysis showed that TB-positive and TB-negative elephants differed in their immune responses after exposure to TB bacterial proteins.

"The cytokines were at higher levels in the positive animals," Landolfi said. "That suggested that those animals had more of an immune reaction when they were exposed [to proteins associated with TB] than the animals that were negative."

If confirmed in future studies, the findings suggest a faster and more reliable way to diagnose TB in captive elephants, Landolfi said. The same kinds of tests are already used in humans.

"That is something that we want to move towards with elephants," she said. "Most of the elephants don't show us a lot of signs of disease, and even when they do appear to be sick, it's very non-specific."

This makes it difficult to diagnose them and to determine if treatment is working, she said. Having a new way to monitor the elephants' immune response would improve both tasks, she said.

CRISPR system can promote antibiotic resistance

CRISPR, a system of genes that bacteria use to fend off viruses, is involved in promoting antibiotic resistance in Francisella novicida, a close relative of the bacterium that causes tularemia. The finding contrasts with previous observations in other bacteria that the CRISPR system hinders the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

The results are scheduled for publication in PNAS Early Edition.

The CRISPR system has attracted considerable attention for its potential uses in genetic engineering and biotechnology, but its roles in bacterial gene regulation are still surprising scientists. It was discovered by dairy industry researchers seeking to prevent phages, viruses that infect bacteria, from ruining the cultures used to make cheese and yogurt.

Bacteria incorporate small bits of DNA from phages into their CRISPR region and use that information to fight off the phages by chewing up their DNA. Cas9, an essential part of the CRISPR system, is a DNA-chewing enzyme that has been customized for use in biotechnology.

F. novicida infects rodents and only rarely infects humans, but it is a model for studying the more dangerous F. tularensis, a potential biological weapon. The bacteria infect and replicate inside macrophages, a type of immune cell.

Researchers at the Division of Infectious Diseases of the Emory University School of Medicine and the Emory Vaccine Center were surprised to find that when the gene encoding Cas9 is mutated in F. novicida bacteria, they become more vulnerable to polymyxin B as well as standard antibiotic treatments such as streptomycin and kanamycin. They were able to trace the effects of the mutation back to a defect in "envelope integrity." Cas9 regulates production of a lipoprotein, which appears to alter membrane permeability.

"The mutant bacteria are more permeable to certain chemicals from the outside," says David Weiss, PhD, assistant professor of medicine (infectious diseases) at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. "That increased permeability also seems to make them more likely to set off alarms when they are infecting mammalian cells."

Graduate student Timothy Sampson, working with Weiss, found that Cas9 mutant bacteria may be more likely to leak bits of their DNA, a trigger for immune cells to get excited. This is a large reason why Cas9 is necessary for F. novicida to evade the mammalian immune system, a finding published in a 2013 Nature paper.

The regulatory role for Cas9 does not appear to be restricted to F. novicida; Weiss's team found that a Cas9 mutant in Campylobacter jejuni, a bacterium that is a common cause of human gastroenteritis, also has increased permeability and impaired antibiotic resistance.

The findings add to recent discoveries where Cas9 has been found to be involved in virulence -- the ability to cause disease in a living animal or human -- in various pathogenic bacteria such as Campylobacter and Neisseria meningitides.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Emory Health Sciences . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Amazon Finally Tries Out the ‘Netflix for Books’ Craze


Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

Amazon is already a go-to place for people who love to binge on shopping, TV shows, and music, thanks to its all-you-can-consume Amazon Prime service. And now, it seems, the company wants to lure binge readers too.

According to Gigaom, the e-commerce giant is working on a subscription ebook service called Kindle Unlimited, which would offer unlimited ebook rentals for $9.99 a month. It’s a move that’s very much aligned with where both the tech and the publishing industry are headed.

While Amazon has been slow to build it, enterprising startups have been more than happy to fill that gap.

We tech-savvy consumers have grown accustomed to the unlimited buffet. Pay Netflix or Hulu a flat fee, and we can binge on all the movies and TV shows we could ever want to watch. For music lovers, there’s Spotify. And yet, among the tech giants, Amazon’s Kindle book store, is one of the last a la carte menus left. Users either buy a book at a time or, at best, rent a book a month for free through the company’s Amazon Prime service. As the Netflix model has grown, it’s become increasingly obvious that there should be a “Netflix for books” too.

While Amazon has been slow to build it, enterprising startups have been more than happy to fill that gap. The New York City startup, Oyster, for one, has raised $17 million for its all-you-can-read app. Scribd, which started as a publishing platform for long Web documents, launched a similar service last year. Even some publishers have tried it.

Clearly, Amazon has been listening. Not only is this activity in the startup community proof that the model is becoming popular with readers, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likely sees Kindle Unlimited as a lucrative revenue stream for Amazon. Right now, the company’s big moneymaker is Amazon Prime, which provides unlimited digital music, TV shows, and movies as well as unlimited shipping for physical goods—all at a cost of $99. Kindle Unlimited, by contrast, would cost users $120 a year, if the leaked price is right. Plus, it could also drive the sales of Kindle devices.

That said, Amazon may have to overcome one obstacle it’s not quite used to, and that is, competing with tiny startups. If Kindle Unlimited had launched last year, Oyster and Scribd might never had a chance of survival, as both companies were still building their libraries and striking deals with publishers. One year later, though, Oyster has partnerships with big names like Simon & Schuster, and more than 500,000 titles in its library. Screenshots of Kindle Unlimited’s test pages say the service offers 638,416 titles, not much more than Oyster. Plus, users don’t have to buy another device to get their books from Oyster. They can read them right from their phones.

No matter who wins the space, one thing is for sure: the publishing industry, already changed by the e-reader, is about to undergo another radical transformation.

An Actually Useful Version of Yo Is Warning Israelis of Rocket Strikes

The Red Alert app (left) and the original Yo app.

The Red Alert app (left) and the original Yo! app. Red Alert/Yo

Ridiculed for being gimmicky and useless, the app that was released on April Fool’s Day is now being used to save lives in one of the planet’s most complex conflict zones. Israeli citizens have begun relying on Yo for warnings of impending rocket strikes by Palestinian militants.

The messaging app has partnered with Red Alert, a real-time missile notification service and self-described “propaganda tool” used in Israel. Following the implementation of the Red Color emergency siren system in 2012, there were concerns that people might not hear—or even sleep through—the sirens. Red Alert acts as a complement to the sirens. Yo users can now follow “RedAlertIsrael” to get a “Yo” at the same time that the sirens go off. The user typically receives a warning via smartphone 15 to 90 seconds before a rocket hits.

Without Yo, the Red Alert app simply sends an alert (audio optional) with a potential city-wide location, like Jerusalem or Ashkelon. Working in conjunction with Yo’s push notification service, Red Alert is able to reach a larger pool of citizens who might be vulnerable to rocket fire near Gaza. It’s quickly becoming one of the most popular apps in Israel.

Created in just eight hours by an Israeli-born San Francisco resident, the standalone Yo app sends you push notifications from your friends saying “Yo.” That’s it. Oddly enough, this “one-bit communication” platform took the tech community by storm this Spring, attracting $1.5 million from early investors. Since its debut, it has been downloaded almost 2 million times. The silly app takes on importance when that “Yo” message means a rocket is coming your way.

Ideally, the Red Alerts should pinpoint the location of a potential attack, but early reports suggest the service has been buggy, or doesn’t provide Yo users with a location at all. Red Alert gets its classified data from the Israeli Defense Force and Homefront Command, co-founder Ari Sprung tells The Times of Israel , then breaks down the potential threats.

More than a week into the current hostilities, Israel suffered its first fatality. Approximately 185 Palestinians have been killed, and more than 1,200 have been injured.

Amidst the chaos, it’s hard to determine if the app has saved lives in the region, or if it’s functioning more as an Israeli public relations tool to reveal the violence in the region to the outside world. Anand Varghese, a program officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace’s PeaceTech Initiative, says it’s probably a little bit of both.

“The fact that Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. encouraged developers to create an English-language version of the app certainly tells me that he sees it as a way to reach people outside the country. As with every technology-based early warning we see in the field, the need to establish mechanisms for early response is the real key. In the larger scheme of their extensive military capabilities, I doubt that Israel is hinging its citizens’ lives on an app that provides 15 seconds of response time before a rocket hits.”

The Red Alert/Yo service is not available for Palestinians concerned about Israeli air strikes. Networks in the Occupied Territories can only provide 2G connectivity as Israel restricts bandwidth. Twitter hashtags remain a popular way for Palestinians to receive alerts and avoid danger.

This Friendly Robot Could One Day Be Your Family’s Personal Assistant



For many families, the tablet has become the central, shared computing device in the home. It’s a hub for learning, for entertainment, and for staying connected. But what if your tablet was even more interactive? What if it woke up when you can home, recognized your face, and suggested a couple of things you might want for dinner? What if, when asked a spoken question, it could tailor its answer directly to you, instead of just offering a blanket response?

A new device called Jibo can do these things, and it could mark the next step in group computer interaction in the home. But Jibo isn’t a tablet at all: It’s a robot.

Specifically, Jibo is a social robot. You talk to it, ask it questions, make requests. It talks back, provides answers, and takes care of grunt work like setting reminders or scouring the web. It’s meant to act as a helper and a partner in a variety of household experiences, much like a physical embodiment of Siri, Google Now, or any of the voice-activated concierge services available on our smartphones or tablets.

But unlike those handheld touchscreen devices, Jibo tries to act like more of a participant than a tool, as if it’s a part of the family. It has a big round head, and a face that “looks” around the room. The foot-tall, bulbous body can rotate to address the person speaking. It even leans a bit when it turns to face you, as though it’s listening more intently.

Jibo is only a prototype right now. The team behind it, headed by founder Cynthia Breazeal, who is also director of MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group, hopes to bring it to market in time for the 2015 holiday season. Curious early adopters can join the crowdfunding campaign that begins today. The pre-sale price tag is $500 for early backers, and $600 for a developer kit. That’s a little more than the cost of a good tablet. And Brezeal is clear about how Jibo is designed to perform the same types of interactions families currently use tablets for, but to do so with a physical presence that fits into human lives in a more natural way than just another touchscreen.

Like a tablet, Jibo can take photos and videos. It can pull up information from the web or an app, it can act as a teleconferencing device, and it can be used to queue up books or videos. Using a mixture of facial and voice recognition (as well as an iOS and Android app), it personalizes these experiences for you. You can ask Jibo to order your favorite take-out Chinese meal after arriving home from a late night at work. Or tell it to display an e-book on its face-screen, turning a storybook into an interactive, theatrical experience for you and your child. It can recognize and greet you when you get home, or remind you to make an important phone call in between the day’s errands.

“We need technology to transcend the world of information into a more humanized realm,” Breazeal told WIRED. The connected home of the future shouldn’t feel cold and computerized, operated with Star Trek-like voice commands, she says. It should be warm and personal, interacting with us on an emotional level in addition to being able to perform useful tasks.

And thanks to the mobile computing revolution, for the first time, sensors and processors are small, efficient, and cheap enough for something like this to take the form of a robot that’s both priced and sized reasonably enough for consumers.

“Something like this is a nice bridge between devices and tablets and robots that we imagine in science fiction,” Breazeal says.

How It Works

One of Jibo’s key features is human and facial recognition. Using a stereo camera system, it can distinguish people from their background surroundings so it knows when there’s a person in the room. In particular, it can recognize faces, so it knows which human it’s talking to. When development is complete, Jibo will also be able to recognize facial expressions so it can guess your mood and cater its interactions to your current state of mind.

On-board hardware includes a 360 degree mic array so the robot can perform sound isolation, identifying when it’s being spoken to even if the person talking is not right next to it. Dual speakers supply its voice and other audio. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios keep it connected. A quad-core ARM processor act as the brains. On its face is a circular LCD touchscreen, and its plastic “skin” is also touch-responsive. A 3-axis motor system allows the top section to spin all the way around on the base. While it’s meant to stay plugged in the majority of the time, it does include a battery so you can move it around the house for short periods.

Interface and Design

Though Jibo is still a prototype, Breazeal’s team developed a demo to show what the robot will eventually be fully capable of in terms of looks and behavior. The appearance is close to final. Jibo actually looks a lot like Eve from the movie Wall-E, at least in the prototype I saw. The body is shiny, circular and white. The head is spherical, though a chunk is cleanly sliced out of it so a flat LCD display can act as its face. “For a while, we were excited about curved displays, but we realized that the technology wouldn’t be ready and robust enough,” Breazeal says.


Jibo turns to look at you when you talk to it.

The head and body can both rotate 360 degrees, so the robot can rotate to look at whoever is speaking to it, or just swivel and twist animatedly as it responds and interacts with you (kind of reminiscent of the Keepon robot).

As for the onscreen user interface, Breazeal added a character animator to the team to handle that task. Instead of some sort of app or list menu as an interface, or a human-like face, Jibo’s screen displays a simple, white sphere. This ball can morph into other graphical elements: a clock, an illustration of the weather, a heart, a smile. It’s designed to be dynamic and easy to read from across the room. It comes across as friendly, familiar, and expressive, all without being too cute, or verging anywhere near the uncanny valley. It’s technology humanized, but not necessarily in humanoid form.

While the prototype is expectedly rough around the edges—the LCD is low-res, and the robot’s movements are sometimes too abrupt and swift to seem natural—the potential is clear.

Jibo takes what we’ve learned from smartphone and tablet experiences, specifically from voice interactions in systems like Google Now, and builds on it. It does much of what the software on your devices can already do—learn your preferences, predict your needs—but it does everything with more personality. And whether Jibo succeeds or fails depends a lot on how that personality jibes with the humans who have to live with it.

6 Design Concepts From IDEO That Rethink Aging

Our world is aging rapidly, but we’re also aging for longer. Globally, the average life expectancy has increased by six years since 1990, which is more significant than it might sound. As life expectancy changes, the way we think about getting older is changing, too. Problem is, there’s very little attention being paid to that fact in the design world.

For its most recent of DesignsOn, IDEO asked its offices to come up with a series of designs that addresses that problem. DesignsOn started in 2008 as an internal challenge for IDEO designers to address tricky issues like global warming, food, birth and now aging. It’s an exercise in thinking blue sky and conceptually about a problem, a chance to answer hard questions without the constraints of a client. Like, for instance: How can you improve the aging process through good design?

The 19 resulting concepts are a varied collection of answers from designers around the world. “We originally did this because we felt like for all the talk and statistics and buzz, things weren’t really getting designed,” says Gretchen Addi, a partner at IDEO who headed up DesignsOn Aging.

The way we experience our age is different now than a couple decades ago. Today, people are less concerned with a number than life stage. “In my parents’ generation, the expected lifespan was 75 years old, max probably,” says Addi. “When they reached 50 or 55 they were thinking differently than someone today who thinks about their life at 50 or 55.”

IDEO’s designs look at the issue through the lens of: How can we make it easier, more fun and, most importantly, more relevant to get older? Check out the slideshow for some of their ideas.

New Game Disney Tsum Tsum Is the Cutest Little Money-Devourer


Disney Interactive

Disney doesn’t want you to play its new iOS game Disney Tsum Tsum; not exactly. What it wants is for you to have played it.

Why? Because it’s a free-to-play game of the sort that will not generate any money as long as you’re actually engaged in the act of playing it. It’s a lightning-fast puzzle game that demands far too much of your attention to hit you up for purchases mid-game. So the design of Tsum Tsum is carefully engineered to get you out of the core game as fast as possible and back into the menu screens, where it has multiple opportunities to remind you of how badly you just did, and how many different ways you might be able to spend some money to improve on that.

Tsum Tsum is a matching game, so it’s sort of like Bejeweled except instead of every matchable niblet being lined up in neat 90-degree grids, they’re a bunch of oblong, stylized Disney character heads resting in an unstable manner in a wide bowl. So you can match things up just as long as they’re sitting relatively close to each other, and if you want to put some English on it you can tilt your phone to roll them around a little.

You might think that with this much fudge factor in the design, it might be very easy to link up huge chains of matching Eeyores, and you’d be right but for the game’s stringent timer. Each game lasts exactly 60 seconds, which doesn’t give you much time to sit back and plan out chains of combos. You can extend your time, but only by a few seconds and only if you create a seriously massive chain.

Happy with your final score? You won’t be, not once you see what your friends scored. Tsum Tsum is very much a social game, except instead of being connected to your Facebook it’s connected to Line, the Japanese chat application that’s all the rage in many Asian markets these days. (My wife’s whole extended family is on it, to give you an idea.) So you can see your Line friends that are playing, and note that their scores are higher than yours.

How to increase it? You could practice, but that’s only going to take you so far. Plus, you can only play if you have Hearts, and those regenerate at the sluggish pace of one every 15 minutes. So you could not go on a Tsum Tsum bender even if you wanted to.

Fortunately, Tsum Tsum, having created a new problem in your life, now gives you the tools to solve it. You can spend as much money as you like on temporary bonus items that give you a boost during a single game, such as spending coins for the opportunity to get more experience, points, or (yes) coins from your next game. You can’t buy coins with dollars, but you can buy rubies with dollars, and buy coins with rubies, and by that point you’re hopefully not thinking about how many dollars a coin represents. (You can earn coins and rubies through normal gameplay, but it is agonizingly slow.)

But the primary money pit is in the acquisition of more Tsum characters. You can set a character to be your MyTsum, and each of these carries with them a special power into battle. You begin with Mickey Mouse, of course. Mickey Mouse sucks. His power is to eliminate a small handful of characters from the middle of the board, which gives you few points and doesn’t necessarily make the situation any more advantageous.


Disney Interactive

But if you buy different characters, perhaps their powers will help you do better! But of course one does not simply buy more characters. In the grand gacha tradition, you have to spend days’ worth of coins to buy a blind box that contains a random character. The truly great characters are locked away in the Premium Boxes, which cost 30,000 coins (about $6, I think; who can truly know?).

In my experience, the best 10,000 coins I ever gambled was on a regular box to get Dale the chipmunk. He and Chip are the best characters we’ve found so far: They turn an entire line of characters into chipmunks, all of which can be matched up whether they are Chip or Dale. So with some good luck and strategy, but mostly luck, you can drop the chipmunk bomb at the opportune time to put together an insane combo.

Once you’ve achieved a relatively high score, Tsum Tsum attempts to open up your wallet one last time. This is the most devious of all: At the end of a round, if your current score is close to your high score, it asks you if you wouldn’t like to spend 5 rubies (50 cents or thereabouts) to give yourself just a few more precious seconds of time.

The devious part is that it isn’t even done tallying your score yet, and odds are that once the end-of-round bonus points are added in, you may have actually already beaten your high score! And adding a few more seconds, which is only enough to make another couple of matches, likely won’t bump your score up by that much.

I have a confession to make. I did it anyway. Not with real money but with a significant of the tiny stash of free rubies I’d acquired. I actually had a colossal match lined up on the board when I ran out of time, and… well, I knew I was pretty close to rocketing past my wife’s high score. And her sister’s. And everybody’s. So I fell for it. (It was “research” for an “article,” I told myself.) It totally worked, and I boosted my score by at least 20 percent.

But they wipe the scores away every week, so now I’m on the bottom of the leaderboards again.

Disney Tsum Tsum is a fun game in small doses. The touch controls work well, the music is pleasant and it’s just fun to shoot down a whole pile of Piglets when they fall perfectly into place. And to be honest, the gameplay is probably too shallow to hold up as anything more extensive than a 60-second frantic burst of quick strategy. So if you need a timewaster, this could be it.

And if you find yourself too addicted, just take heart: It’s an online application that you’re logging into, so whenever Disney decides to shut it down, it’ll just disappear forever, with no evidence it ever existed.