HP’s Latest Laptop Reflects a Simpler PC Future

The Spectre x360 has a 360-degree hinge, so you can fold the screen all the way around and use it as a tablet. The Spectre x360 has a 360-degree hinge, so you can fold the screen all the way around and use it as a tablet. HP

Someday we’ll look back on the last three years of the PC industry and remember it as the “throw stuff at the wall” phase.

With manufacturers flummoxed by the rapidly shifting needs of users in the mobile-first landscape, the product design of laptops went in some odd directions. Some models let you detach the laptop’s screen from its base. Others had a screen that does this wild spinny thing and kind of turns into a tablet.

One of these wacky form factors that seems to be sticking around: the 360 hinge. Open up the lid, and it’s a laptop. Keep pushing on the screen and you get a touchscreen with a “tent” stand. Push it all the way around and you eventually get a folded-up tablet, with the bottom of the keyboard facing the back of the screen.

Lenovo started this trend with the Yoga, to great success. Now HP is launching a new device, the most premium laptop in its lineup, with the same hinge: the new Spectre x360.

HP says it’s been working directly with Microsoft on this device, and that the Spectre x360 been a project years in the making. Then you look at, and you wonder, what’s so special about this thing?

HP poured massive resources into improving some of the standard laptop pain points: start-up time, battery life, and Wi-Fi performance.

Yes, it’s pretty, a rounded wedge of a clamshell device made of a silver block of precisely-cut aluminum. It’s simple, elegant, and only slightly full of unnecessary branding—it’s definitely surprising that the price starts at $900, and the fully-specced model is only $1,400. It weighs a little over three pounds, and is a little less than two-thirds of an inch tall.

But there’s nothing dramatic about it, nothing so strange and remarkable you’ve never seen before. And the hinge, the most celebrated thing in the device, is the same one Lenovo’s been making for a few years now. It’s a really good hinge, and I really like the “stand mode” for watching TV while I cook or in bed. But it’s nothing groundbreaking.

Seriously, though, everything about this laptop is great. Everything. The touchpad is gigantic and smooth, the keyboard feels crisp and clicky, the quad-HD screen is accurate and clear. (There’s also a 1080p option.) It’s fast and quiet, too. And HP poured massive resources into improving some of the standard laptop pain points. Those include startup time, which HP says it has dramatically shortened; battery life, which it says is “all day and then some”; and Wi-Fi, which a series of impressive charts say is better in the Spectre x360 than almost any other laptop on earth. It’s designed to be super productive and useful, ever the workhorse and never the showman.

The Spectre x360 is actually HP at its best, in a way. There’s nothing exciting about HP; there hasn’t been in a long time. But HP is about getting shit done, and not taking any nonsense in the process. This is a well-designed PC that’s made specifically to address some of the worst things about other laptops. And that may sound boring, but it’s exactly the right approach. We don’t need our laptops to be exciting, weird, crazy, or innovative. We need them to be great.

The new laptop from HP also just functions very well as a traditional laptop. The new laptop from HP also just functions very well as a traditional laptop. HP

HTC’s New Flagship Phone Looks Just Like Last Year’s

HTC is easy to root for. It’s the perennial underdog in the smartphone wars—the company that was making gorgeous phones while Samsung drowned the world in pieces of cheap plastic. It was the first to ship a truly beautiful Android device, and its design thinking launched a trend toward better-looking phones across the board.

The story of the One M9, the phone HTC announced Sunday at Mobile World Congress, is that if you got it right the first time, don’t mess it up. The One M9 smartphone is mostly the same as last year’s One M8, which was mostly the same as the One M7 before it.

HTC is also taking a bold dive into wearables today—untested waters for the Taiwanese company—with a new fitness bracelet called Grip. But HTC’s smartphone formula is clear and consistent. And damn if it doesn’t still produce nice-looking phones.

The One M9 is gorgeous, refined even from last year’s model. It’s a little slimmer and a little easier to hold—apparently HTC heard its users didn’t like accidentally flinging their beautiful smartphone onto the ground. There’s a slight camera hump on the back, because 2015 is the year of the camera hump, and the power button has (finally!) been moved to the side of the phone. It has great front-facing speakers, a really nice 5-inch, 1080p screen, and a Snapdragon 810 processor. I’ve only spent a few minutes with it so far, but it felt fast and smooth, every bit the flagship phone.

The One M9 is coming to all major US carriers. It’s great, but not surprising. It’s the Grip, HTC’s first-ever wearable, that is the real wild card.

For the first two generations of One, HTC swore up and down that its “Ultrapixel” camera was a good idea. This year, the company has seen the error of its ways, and moved the very bright and very bad sensor to the front of the camera. On the back, there’s a new 20-megapixel camera. All the gimmicks are gone: There’s no crazy refocusing, no weird ideas about light capture, just a straightforward, good camera. And hey, your selfies will be super-bright now.

On the software side, there are some really clever new personalization features. HTC’s new Theme app lets you visually tweak every iota of your phone, from icons to menu colors, based on a color, a wallpaper, or even a photo. You can take a picture and convert it automatically, or download a theme from HTC’s store. The company’s even promising to work with designers to make cool themes for your M9.

A new widget automatically alters the homescreen. It watches your location, and using that knowledge, offers up shortcuts to apps you might need right now. So you’ll see one homescreen when you’re at home, another at work, and another whenever your phone notices you’re in an airport.

The phone’s coming to all major US carriers, and will fit nicely where the M8 has been for the last year. It’s great, but it’s not surprising. It’s the HTC Grip, the company’s first-ever wearable, that is the real wild card.

HTC Tries the Wearable Market on for Size

The Grip is a fitness device, not a “life-tracker” you’re supposed to wear all day. It’s more like a sweatband from the future. It’s a rigid dark blue band with a neon lime green inside, and it’s waterproof enough to handle a sweaty workout. It’ll do basic smartwatch things, like sending quick call and text notifications to your wrist, all of which show up on a 1.8-inch display on the band itself. But the most powerful feature it offers is built-in GPS, which means you can collect much more accurate data and even leave your phone at home while you run. (A few high-end devices and watches have GPS, but they’re all bigger and more expensive.) HTC says the battery will last two and a half days of normal use or five hours with GPS on, which if nothing else will be good encouragement to finish that marathon a little quicker.

The Grip’s companion app is Under Armour’s UA Record, which is a brand-new app for hardcore athletes. HTC made Grip in close partnership with Under Armour, and says this is the beginning of a truly beautiful friendship. The company saw a gap left by Nike and the Fuelband, for people who want more than a simple step-counter but don’t want to strap a crazy-looking heart rate monitor to their chest while they run, and made Grip for exactly those people. (Actually, the Grip is compatible with a bunch of chest-strap monitors, so you can get as crazy as you want to.) Grip will track your sleep, too, and HTC says that between its hardware and Under Armour’s software—which has grown in the last year to include massive amounts of data from MapMyFitness and MyFitnessPal—there’s a lot of coaching and collecting it can do about specific workouts and specific people.

HTC has big plans for 2015; executives say they’re nowhere near done yet. Wearables is a clear focus for the company as it looks to expand, but they say Grip is just a first try, a way to ship something and see what people really want. For now, HTC remains first and foremost a smartphone manufacturer. And from the looks of it, still a damn good one.

Samsung’s New Galaxy Phones Ditch Plastic for Glass and Metal

After appearing to not care even a little bit about design for so very long, Samsung has shown signs of change in the last year. And this weekend at Mobile World Congress, the Korean giant debuted what may someday be seen as the first design-forward products the company has ever made: the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge.

These are flagship smartphones through and through, and they look like it. The sleek, sturdy devices—made of Corning Gorilla Glass and aluminum—are beautiful objects. They come in colors like emerald green and blue topaz, and are just artfully made. I know dozens of iPhone users who refuse to give up their 5S because it just feels so indescribably good, and I get the exact same vibe using the S6. It might even be too industrial-design-focused, if the fingerprints I left all over the demo unit are any indication. But it’s beautiful, and beautifully made.

The Galaxy S6 is a standard large smartphone, with a big flat screen on the front. The S6 Edge, on the other hand, has a screen that curves off to both sides. There’s some added functionality on the Edge—you swipe in from the sides to quickly access your favorite contacts, for instance—but there’s not much practical difference, just impressive aesthetic achievements. The original Galaxy Note Edge looks awkward and lopsided, with one size sloughing off into the distance; the new S6 Edge is much cleaner and neater in its design. The phones are almost exactly the same size, and have no meaningful functional differences—your purchase will depend on how crazy you like your screen tech.

Both devices are the result of what Samsung calls “Project Zero,” a total reboot of how the company approaches and integrates design.

Both devices are the result of what Samsung called “Project Zero,” a total reboot of how the company approaches and integrates design. In a press briefing, presenters repeatedly used words like “pure innovation,” “warmth,” and “emotional form.” None of it really means anything, obviously, but from a company that’s always sold its products based on being the biggest, the fastest, or the megapixeliest, it’s a clear change in priorities.

Of course, that’s not to say the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge aren’t big, fast, and megapixely. They are: they’re both powered by Samsung’s brand-new Exynos 7 processor, which it says is both more powerful and more efficient than any other smartphone processor ever. It also has 3GB of RAM, and 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. The processor might be the most important new thing, but the star of the show is the 5.1-inch, 2560 x 1440 display. (If you’re counting, that’s the same resolution as the already-great Note 4, packed into an even smaller display.) It looks terrific.

The camera’s been upgraded, too, with a 16-megapixel sensor and a super-bright f/1.9 lens. Samsung’s focus with the S6 series was speed: from anywhere on the phone, at any time, locked or unlocked, you can double-tap the home button and in a half-second be in the camera app. It’s really fast, as is the camera itself; Samsung says it’s taken a lot of lessons from its NX mirrorless cameras, and it shows. Oh, and speaking of the home button: it’s still a fingerprint sensor, but it seems to actually be usable now.

Samsung wants to make very clear that this is no longer the company that made a smartphone that looked like a Band-Aid.

The big new software addition is Samsung Pay, which will roll out on these two phones later on this year. Samsung Pay is the direct result of the company’s acquisition of LoopPay, which lets you pay with your phone on a really remarkable number of existing devices. Samsung didn’t offer much detail, but expect the Apple Pay competition to heat up quickly.

There’s still a lot of Samsung’s heinous TouchWiz interface on the phone, but it continues its slow wane into nonexistence—there aren’t so many built-in apps anymore, or horrible noises. It’s just a bunch of ugly app icons and strange settings menus. It’s not great, but it’s better.

On one hand, this is just evolution: Samsung’s flagship phone, replaced by new flagship phones with somewhat improved features across the board. The S6 and S6 Edge will be available worldwide, and they’ll sell like crazy, just as every Galaxy S before them has. But this launch feels like it means something more to Samsung. It feels like Samsung trying to prove that even as specs become less important, as taste and fashion become crucial parts of the phone-buying process, that it can still hang. Based on what I saw, in a conference room in a hotel in New York City, maybe it can.

LG Debuts Four New Phones and a Fancy Smartwatch

The LG Watch Urbane. We've seen it before, but LG has now announced the availability of an LTE variant that doesn't run Android Wear, but does make calls without a tethered phone. The LG Watch Urbane. We've seen it before, but LG has now announced the availability of an LTE variant that doesn't run Android Wear, but does make calls without a tethered phone. LG

BARCELONA, SPAIN—Today at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow, LG debuted its latest range of devices, including two wearables and a small fleet of Android smartphones.

Previously announced two weeks ago, the Watch Urbane is an elegant Android Wear smartwatch made with gold- and silver-coated metal. It also comes with a leather replaceable strap that can be replaced with any 22mm-wide band. The Watch Urbane is LG’s third entry into the Android Wear category. In fact, even though it’s designed to look like an everyday luxury timepiece, it has a lot in common with company’s much more sporty G Watch R. Both of them feature a circular, 1.3-inch P-OLED display with 320×320 pixels resolution and 349 pixel density. Both cases house a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 1.2GHz quad-core processor with 4GB of eMMC storage and 512MB of RAM. Even the battery life is the same: two full-days, thanks to the 410 mAh Li-Ion cell. Further technical details include dust and water IP67 certification, 9-axis sensors, barometer and a PPG heart rate sensor.

Here at MWC, LG also demonstrated an LTE variant of the watch with a built-in microphone and speaker. Using this fuction, users can make phone calls without a tethered phone, or hold push-to-talk conversations between devices connected on the same network. In addition to having three physical navigation buttons on the right side, this LTE version doesn’t run Android Wear. For some reason that confuses me, it’s built on LG’s own WebOS wearable platform instead.

Under the hood, this LTE smartwatch still hosts a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset with 4GB of internal storage, but doubles the RAM up to 1GB and adds NFC connectivity, to jump into the mobile payments world. The longer the functions list, the bigger the battery; the Watch Urbane LTE packs an impressive 700 mAh battery, meant to last multiple days.

The Watch Urbane will be available on the second quarter of the year. Pricing has yet to be announced—the G Watch R is $300, so expect the flashy Urbane to be more expensive, with the LTE version likely costing even more. We do know that AT&T has signed on to be a carrier parter for the new watch in the U.S.

Four New Phones

In addition to refreshing its wearable offer, LG has showcased here at the Mobile World Congress four new smartphones—that’s in addtion to the G Flex 2, the second-generation curvy smartphone which was unveiled two months ago in Las Vegas at CES and which LG continues to push here in Barcelona.

The other four devices are mid-range smartphones inspired by LG’s older G3 model. They have modest to decent specs, and are meant to offer top-end design at affordable price tags below $250.

From fanciest to humblest, their names are Magna, Spirit, Leon, and Joy. All four phones have LTE connectivity and come with Android 5.0 Lollipop on board.

All have removable batteries, plastic back covers, and all but the low-end Joy have LG’s signature rear-control buttons. First introduced with the G2 smartphone, the center-rear controls will now be included in every LG phone with at least a 4-inch display.

Magna is the biggest one, with its 5.0-inch display, 1280×720 for 294 ppi resolution, and 2540 mAh battery. Spirit is slightly smaller, with 4.7-inch, 1280×720, 312 pixel density display and 2100 mAh battery. Both Magna and Spirit feature HD curved screens, but don’t expect them to be as bendy as the Flex 2. Their radii are far larger: 3000mm versus 700mm. Both of them, and the Leon as well, pack a 1.2GHz processor with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, and 8-megapixel main cameras.

Leon and Joy are entry-level phones. Leon has a 4.5-inch FWVGA display with 854×480 resolution at 220 ppi, and a 1900 mAh battery. Joy features 4.0-inch WVGA display with 800×480 resolution at 233 ppi, and it comes with 1900 mAh battery. Depending on the market, you’ll get either a 1.2GHz dual-core processor with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage, or a quad-core chipset with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. Its main camera is 5-megapixel, while the front sensor is VGA.

All these four new smartphones will be available across Europe in the coming months.

Our Director of Engineering on the New WIRED.com

Today, we’re proud and excited to launch the completely revamped WIRED.com.

It’s been a while since our last redesign—8 years, we sheepishly admit—so this overhaul of our site is long overdue. But this gave us the time to build a smarter, more beautiful website that looks to the future as much as our reporting does. It’ll also be more fun for you to read and explore.

Over the last couple of years as we prepared to embark on our major site redesign, Condé Nast has made significant investments in the WIRED Tech Team. We’ve more than doubled in size, adding both product and project management teams. In the past, our team was so small that we spent most of our time scrambling to fix bugs and keep the site from 503’ing. Now we have diverse team of specialists who are devoted to making sure our site meets the growing demands of digital readers like you—people who know a bit about programming and what makes a good website.

Our redesign is here thanks to a big under-the-radar project in March 2014, when we migrated 17 active WIRED blogs into a single WordPress install. If we did our jobs right, you barely noticed that happen. Clandestine though that mission was, it put us exactly where we needed to be to embark on a total design overhaul of WIRED.com.

Now, here’s the part where we get to brag about the most exciting technical improvements our developers spent the past year baking into the new WIRED.com!

Responsive and Mobile-First

Our design team spent months conceiving a grid system that would look beautiful on any device. To make that system a reality, we turned to Flexbox as part of our responsive solution. We plan to extend it even more post-launch, but so far it’s been a great solve for controlling the layout of our card-based user interface. We’re thrilled to no longer have to separately maintain a third-party mobile platform and now have one code base for all devices.

Artificially Intelligent Page Curation

The redesign gives us the third incarnation of our Curator application, which started years ago as a separate Groovy on Grails application maintained by a single Java developer. Curator once consumed articles from 35 different blogs for curation on our homepage. When we migrated our 17 active WordPress blogs into one WordPress install, we also rewrote Curator in Cake PHP to match our WordPress PHP backend. After this, anyone on our team could maintain Curator—but the architecture remained the same and lived outside of WordPress. Using this version of Curator, our web producer team manually constructed the homepage throughout each day as various stories were ready to be promoted.

Our new and improved Curator is now a custom WordPress plugin—and it’s artificially intelligent! This allows our homepage and section landing pages to be both automated and curated at the same time. Stories flow through automagically based on editorial criteria, but editors can take control of the flow by locking stories in certain slots in our card system. This means our homepage and section landing pages are constantly changing with new stories all day long.

The queries we use to build our homepage and section landing pages are intricate (read: slow), so we spent a lot of time making Curator performant by refining our use of memcache to store objects and strategically bust the cache as needed.

Improved Performance

Our performance improvements include the usual best practice recommendations: CSS in the header, JS in the footer wherever possible, all files concatenated and minified wherever possible. We switched to request animation frame for scroll events to optimize repaint/reflow. We ruthlessly axed redundant third party analytics and consolidated the serving of advertising and marketing units. These cuts reduced our HTTP requests by more than 50 percent.

Cloud Computing and Fastly CDN

We’ve jumped aboard the bandwagon with Amazon Web Services. We like the scalable architecture and ease of server provisioning. As part of our AWS migration we also switched to Fastly for our Content Delivery Network (CDN). We like that Fastly is built on Varnish, the page caching solution we were already using. Gaining more granular and quickly implemented control over our configuration is another huge plus.

Solr Search

We know our old, embedded Google search page was regrettable. But starting today, we have blazing-fast search with near real-time updates. It’s a new era.

What’s Next?

We’re starting to incorporate React.js for articles that require live updates. We’re about to roll out our longform feature article builder. We’re looking for more opportunities to shift toward server-side javascript with Node.js. We’re eager to optimize image handling. We’re on the cusp of implementing front end A/B testing. We’re driving towards support of HTTPS. I can’t tell you how excited I am about our roadmap!

Who’s to (git) Blame?

In addition to our amazing colleagues on design and edit, this amazing band of developers:

Zack Tollman on drums (performance), Jake Spurlock on vocals (Curator), Ben Chirlin on bass (Solr), Ross Patton on keyboards (Flexbox), Ian Sayre on guitar (Nav Dropdown), Layla Mandella on electric fiddle (all the DFP), Tony Vongprachanh on choreography (Feature Story Builder).

This top-notch product/project team:

Hayley Nelson as band manager (product strategy), Nicole Wilke on tambourine (product), and Stephen McGarrigle on uilleann pipe (project management).

So What’s Your Stack?

WordPress PHP

Stylus for CSS

Vanilla JavaScript and jQuery

Coming soon: React.js


Development and Deployment:


Gulp for task automation

Git hooks

Linting (check out stylint written by our own Ross Patton)



It’s taken a lot of work, but we’ve made huge progress. We’re now thrilled to point at WIRED.com and say, “yeah, we built that!” Finally, WIRED.com is “wired” again. It’s about time.

Welcome to the New WIRED

Welcome to the new WIRED. This site is the culmination of more than two years of work by dozens of super-talented people, people I’m proud to have as colleagues. From the responsive layouts to the improved APIs that make the whole thing work behind the scenes to the journalism itself, we’ve reimagined every aspect of the WIRED experience. And we have improved it.

WIRED readers are the kind of people who want to know more than what. You want to know how and why. To that end, I want to walk you through our thinking on the new site—to tell you about the technology and design innovations that make this iteration of WIRED possible.

Scott Dadich


Scott Dadich is the editor in chief of WIRED.

Back in 1994 we launched Hotwired, the first site with original editorial content created for the web. It was a digital home for reporting on the future of science, business, design, and technology. You’ve come to trust us over the past two decades, but our growth online has sometimes come too quickly and with some pain. When I took over as editor in chief in 2012, WIRED had an archive of more than 100,000 stories. That’s good! But they were spread out over more than a dozen different databases, sections, and homepages tenuously connected by virtual duct tape and chewing gum. The cleanup process—onerous and without a shred of glamour—took almost 15 months. But finally, last year, our engineers rolled out a newly unified site architecture built atop a single streamlined WordPress installation. And you didn’t notice a hiccup. Maybe you saw that pages loaded a touch faster. Stories looked more WIRED.

That’s when the real rock-breaking started. With the site’s foundation now solid, our editorial, design, engineering, and product teams began to redesign for the most important screen in your life—your smartphone. As you can imagine, this was a bit more work than picking a fresh skin for your Winamp (Big Bento, anyone?). We settled on a card-based motif for both its flexibility and configurability.

Once we had that design locked, we found ways to expand it to other screens—desktop, laptop, tablet, and anywhere else you access WIRED. Our award-winning photographs are Retina-ready. Graphics are SVG sprites. I like the cards because no matter what the device, our homepage and section fronts are now immediately scannable, giving you a more accurate preview of the stories that define our world. Crucially, the new structure allows us to deploy WIRED’s signature bespoke fonts and improve the overall typographic fidelity of our layouts. This new WIRED is a more comfortable browsing and reading experience, its stories primed for sharing with friends and colleagues.

“We didn’t design the new WIRED to be perfect. We designed it to be perfected.

But none of that razzle-dazzle matters if you can’t get our pages to load. So we made a significant investment in decluttering and streamlining our code. WIRED’s director of engineering, Kathleen Vignos, has shared a bit more detail in this fascinating post, but I’ll summarize with this bit of good news: In most cases, the new starts loading twice as fast. Our tech team stripped out over half of the browser calls and drastically reducing the need for the browser to repaint our web pages; as a result articles like the one you’re reading now load perceptibly faster. Image galleries and videos appear on demand. We’re even hosted on new state-of-the-art servers.


Even if you don’t notice any of that turboboosting, you’ll see an updated, simpler information architecture and site taxonomy. The original Hotwired was organized under the banner of six bright icons. We’ve picked up on that legacy with our six new section fronts: Business, Design, Entertainment, Gear, Science, and Security. A world-class team of editors and reporters, experts in their fields, runs each desk. Starting today, we’re going to update the site more frequently; the new section fronts should become your dashboards for the day’s news and feature stories. Even our physical newsroom reflects these changes; our offices are set up to facilitate communication and collaboration among our editors, designers, and developers. The team has a new metabolism to power the new site.

But we didn’t design the new WIRED to be perfect. We designed it to be perfected. We’ll continue to make the technology faster and more powerful, the stories more informative and more fun. In the process, I’m sure you’ll find areas we can improve. I hope you’ll let us know about them. We’re trying to make better stuff in cooler ways more often. We believe we’ve created both the tools and the platform for WIRED to grow and evolve as fast as the technologies we cover. And if we’ve done our jobs, we will inspire you—the most connected and influential minds on the planet—to embrace what’s next. Everything is changing. Get ready. Get WIRED.

Feds Admit Stingrays Can Disrupt Cell Service of Bystanders

For years the government has kept mum about its use of a powerful phone surveillance technology known as a stingray.

The Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies insist that the only reason for their secrecy is to prevent suspects from learning how the devices work and devising methods to thwart them.

But a court filing recently uncovered by the ACLU suggests another reason for the secrecy: the fact that stingrays can disrupt cellular service for any phone in their vicinity—not just targeted phones—as well as any other mobile devices that use the same cellular network for connectivity as the targeted phone.

Civil liberties groups have long asserted that stingrays are too invasive because they can sweep up data about every phone in their vicinity, not just targeted phones, and can interfere with their calls. Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies, however, have refused to confirm this or answer other questions about the tools.

But in the newly uncovered document (.pdf)—a warrant application requesting approval to use a stingray—FBI Special Agent Michael A. Scimeca disclosed the disruptive capability to a judge.

“Because of the way, the Mobile Equipment sometimes operates,” Scimeca wrote in his application, “its use has the potential to intermittently disrupt cellular service to a small fraction of Sprint’s wireless customers within its immediate vicinity. Any potential service disruption will be brief and minimized by reasonably limiting the scope and duration of the use of the Mobile Equipment.”

The document was previously sealed and only came to light after the defense attorney for a defendant in the case filed a motion last year to dismiss evidence collected by the stingray. It’s the first time the ACLU has seen the FBI acknowledge the stingray’s disruptive capabilities and raises a number of questions about the nature of the disruption and whether the Federal Trade Commission knew about it when it certified the equipment.

“We think the fact that stingrays block or drop calls of cell phone users in the vicinity should be of concern to cell service providers, the FCC, and ordinary people,” says Nate Wessler staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “If an emergency or important/urgent call (to a doctor, a loved one, etc.) is blocked or dropped by this technology, that’s a serious problem.”

Stingrays are mobile surveillance systems the size of a small briefcase that impersonate a legitimate cell phone tower in order to trick mobile phones and other mobile devices in their vicinity into connecting to them and revealing their unique ID and location. Stingrays emit a signal that is stronger than the signal of other cell towers in the vicinity in order to force mobile phones and other devices to establish a connection with them and reveal their unique ID. Stingrays can then determine the direction from which the phone connected with them, data that can then be used to track the movement of the phone as it continuously connects to the fake tower.

Although stingrays are designed to recognize 911 calls and let them pass to legitimate cell towers without connecting to the stingray, the revelation from the FBI agent raises the possibility that other kinds of emergency calls not made to 911 may not get through.

Law enforcement agencies around the country have been using variations of the stingray since the mid-90s to track the movement of suspects in this way. The technology is used by the FBI, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Patrol agents and the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as local law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen states.

But the secrecy around their use has been extreme, due in part to non-disclosure agreements that law enforcement agencies sign with the companies that make stingrays.

Stingrays Cloaked in Secrecy

Authorities in several states have been caught deceiving judges and defense attorneys about how they use the controversial technology or have simply used the devices without obtaining a warrant in order to avoid disclosing their use to a court. In other cases they have withheld information from courts and defense attorneys about how the stingrays work, refraining from disclosing that the devices pick up location data on all systems in their vicinity, not just targeted phones. Law enforcement agencies have even gone so far as to intervene in public records requests to prevent the public from learning about the technology.

The revelation in the court document is therefore significant and also begs the question: Who else knew about this capability and for how long? The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for certifying equipment that operates on radio frequencies to make sure that devices comply with certain technical standards and do not cause radio interference. If the companies that make stingrays failed to disclose the disruption of service to the federal agency, it would mean the devices had potentially been approved under false pretenses.

“If an emergency or important/urgent call (to a doctor, a loved one, etc.) is blocked or dropped by this technology, that’s a serious problem.”

The Harris Corporation in Florida—the leading maker of stingrays for law enforcement in the U.S. and an aggressive proponent of secrecy around their use—has already been singled out for a questionable statement the company made to the FCC in a 2010 email. In the correspondence, a Harris representative told the FCC that the technology was used by law enforcement only “in emergency situations.” But according to records the ACLU obtained from the police department in Tallahassee, Florida, in nearly 200 cases that the equipment was used since 2007 only 29 percent of these involved an emergency. Stingrays are regularly used in day-to-day criminal investigations to track suspected drug dealers, bank robbers and others.

The FCC certified stingray equipment from Harris in April 2011 and March 2012.

Asked whether the company disclosed the stingray’s disruptive capabilities to the FCC when it sought certification, an FCC official told WIRED, “We can’t comment on how the devices operate because that information is confidential in accordance with the FCC’s application process.” She said Harris had specifically “requested confidentiality in the application process.”

She also said that if “wireless customers experiencing unexplained service disruptions or interference” report it to the FCC, the agency will “investigate the causes.”

How Stingray Disruption Works

The case in which the FBI disclosed the service disruption is ongoing and involves a defendant named Claude Williams who was suspected of participating in a string of armed bank robberies. In July 2012, the FBI’s Scimeca submitted an application for a warrant to use a stingray to track Williams’s phone.

Although Scimeca was seeking authorization to use a stingray, he referred to it alternatively as mobile pen register and trap and trace equipment in his application. The nomenclature is important because the ACLU has long accused the government of misleading judges by using this term. Pen registers record the numbers dialed from a specific phone number, while trap and trace devices record the numbers that dial into a particular number. But stingrays are used primarily to track the location and movement of a device.

Although Scimeca disclosed to the magistrate that the equipment could disrupt phone service, he didn’t elaborate about how the disruption might occur. Experts suspect it has something to do with the “catch-and-release” way stingrays work. For example, once the stingray obtains the unique ID of a device, it releases it so that it can connect to a legitimate cell tower, allowing data and voice calls to go through.

“As each phone tries to connect, [the stingray] will say, ‘I’m really busy right now so go use a different tower. So rather than catching the phone, it will release it,” says Chris Soghoian, chief technologist for the ACLU. “The moment it tries to connect, [the stingray] can reject every single phone” that is not the target phone.

But the stingray may or may not release phones immediately, Soghoian notes, and during this period disruption can occur.

Disruption can also occur from the way stingrays force-downgrade mobile devices from 3G and 4G connectivity to 2G to get them to connect and reveal their unique ID and location.

In order for the kind of stingray used by law enforcement to work, it exploits a vulnerability in the 2G protocol. Phones using 2G don’t authenticate cell towers, which means that a rogue tower can pass itself off as a legitimate cell tower. But because 3G and 4G networks have fixed this vulnerability, the stingray will jam these networks to force nearby phones to downgrade to the vulnerable 2G network to communicate.

“Depending on how long the jamming is taking place, there’s going to be disruption,” says Soghoian. “When your phone goes down to 2G, your data just goes to hell. So at the very least you will have disruption of internet connectivity. And if and when the phones are using the stingray as their only tower, there will likely be an inability to receive or make calls.”

“A Grave Threat to Privacy”

Concerns about the use of stingrays is growing. Last week, Senator Bill Nelson (D—Florida) sent a letter to the FCC calling on the agency to disclose information about its certification process for approving stingrays and any other tools with similar functionality. Nelson asked in particular for information about any oversight put in place to make sure that use of the devices complies with the manufacturer’s representations to the FCC about how the technology works and is used.

Nelson also raised concerns about their use in a remarkable speech on the Senate floor. The Senator said the technology “poses a grave threat to consumers’ cellphone and Internet privacy,” particularly when law enforcement agencies use them without a warrant. He also noted that invasive devices like the stingray will inevitably force lawmakers to come up with new ways to protect privacy.

His combative speech marks the first time a lawmaker has called out the controversial technology in the public chamber. But his speech was also remarkable for another reason: Nelson’s state of Florida is home to the Harris Corporation, and the company is his second biggest campaign donor.

Finding the Melodies Hidden in Traditional Embroidery

This hand-cranked music box translates embroidery patterns into tunes. This hand-cranked music box translates embroidery patterns into tunes. Soundweaving

Were Hungarian embroiderers of centuries past encoding secret musical messages into their decorative textiles? Nope! But Zsanett Szirmay is decoding them anyway.

The designer’s latest project, Soundweaving, translates patterns from Eastern European embroidery into gentle, tinkling melodies. By translating the motifs from pillows and folk costumes to punch cards, and then running those punch cards through a hand-cranked music box, Szirmay finds the music that’s effectively been trapped in the textiles all along.

It’s not as convoluted a process as you might expect. Szirmay looked at patterns from pillows and traditional garb, treating each cross-stitch like a note. With the help of a composer named Bálint Tárkány-Kovács, she hand-punched the patterns onto cards. It was a relatively straightforward bit of musical translation. As soon as you move them off fabric, the pixel-like embroidered patterns start to look just like notes in a music software step sequencer.

The punch card itself was the inspiration for the unlikely project. Beginning in the early 19th Century, punch cards were used in mechanical looms to automate the production of complex patterns. When Szirmay, a second-year masters student at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest, encountered some of these cards in her school’s weaving workshop, she was reminded of the barrel organs she’d encountered as a child. The instruments had worked pretty much exactly the same way.

The results are surprisingly tuneful. Or actually not that surprising, as Szirmay points out. While Hungarian embroiderers weren’t setting out to make music with their pillows and bodices, they did so inadvertently. Both musical composition and embroidery share some principles, Szirmay says, like prime form, inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion. At base, it’s all math. In other words, things that look pretty will often sound pretty, too.

How to Use GIFs to Teach Computers About Emotions

Kevin Hu makes faces in his GIF mirror at the MIT Media Lab. Kevin Hu makes faces in his GIF mirror at the MIT Media Lab. Jon Christian

Deep in the bowels of the avant-garde, glass and metal MIT Media Lab, graduate student Kevin Hu is making faces into an ornate mirror.

He opens his eyes and mouth as wide as possible in a caricature of shock. A hidden webcam analyzes his facial expression in real time, digs through a vast database for GIFs that convey a similar emotion, and projects them on the surface of the mirror, against Hu’s reflection. In quick succession it spits out a series of disparate images: a surprised anime character, an affronted Walter White, and then a man in a crowd with an astonished, wide-open mouth much like Hu’s own.

Next Hu contorts his face into a rictus-like grin (“I can smile,” he mutters) and an exuberant basketball player appears on the mirror before being replaced by Snow White, who claps her hands in delight. She’s not emulating Hu’s face exactly, but when it comes to finding a GIF for every mood, she’s a fairly decent simulacrum.

Hu and collaborator Travis Rich, a PhD candidate at the Media Lab, built the mirror to demonstrate a remarkable ongoing project meant to find a whole new use for one of the Internet’s favorite toys. Back in March, the two launched a site called GIFGIF, which had a modest premise: Show people a pair of random GIFs, and ask them which better expresses a given emotion. For instance, it might ask you whether Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth or a gloomy Kurt Cobain seems more surprised. Or it might show you a bowing Robin Hood from Disney’s 1973 animated feature and a shrugging Donald Glover, and ask which better expresses pleasure. Sometimes the answer is clear; if it isn’t, you can click “neither.”

The goal was to harness crowdsourcing to map emotions, a task at which computers are very poorly equipped. Eventually, Hu and Rich hope, all that subjective data will make it easier to write programs that deal with emotional content.

“There are all these things that have meaning to us,” says Rich. “But it’s hard to translate those into code.”

The GIFGIF site asks users to determine the emotional content of GIFs. The GIFGIF site asks users to determine the emotional content of GIFs. Screengrab: WIRED

Giving Programmers Tools to Help Machines Understand Feelings

After its launch, GIFGIF quickly went viral—helped along by mentions in, among others, USA Today and The Washington Post —and the corresponding explosion in traffic jumpstarted a database that has since grown to include more than 2.7 million votes. That trove of GIFs, each tagged with weighted emotional characteristics, opens up some unprecedented possibilities. For example, you can query it for a GIF that’s 60 percent amused, 30 percent disgusted, and 10 percent relieved, with results that often show startling insight. These capabilities make it a potential goldmine for everyone from researchers who study facial expressions to app developers who want to suggest content based on a user’s emotional needs.

It’s with those sorts of applications in mind that Hu and Rich are now preparing to release two tools that build on GIFGIF. The first, an open API being released this week, will let anyone with an app or website query the dataset to return a GIF with particular emotional content. It’s already opened up new avenues for researchers. “Travis and Kevin are doing some awesome work,” says Brendan Jou, a PhD candidate at Columbia University who recently published a paper on predicting perceived emotions using an alpha version of the GIFGIF API.

But it’s the tool that’s coming after the API, a platform they call Quantify that they’ll be releasing later this month, which opens up even deeper possibilities.

The idea behind Quantify is to let anybody start a project like GIFGIF, including for things other than GIFs. A project about food, for example, could build a dataset of which meals or dishes respondents see as appropriate for specific contexts and slowly build an index of food concepts for various scenarios. For example, you probably wouldn’t eat mashed potatoes and gravy on a warm summer morning, but you likely crave ice cream when you’re sad or want home-cooked dinners when you’re lonely. With enough responses in a campaign about food, a programmer could write an app that recommends grub based on your emotional state. It could even glean respondents’ relative locations using IP addresses—information that can be used to determine if those recommendations should be different based on the user’s region.

Broader Applications

Quantify also presents tantalizing possibilities for marketers. An automobile manufacturer, say, could create a project that showed conceptual dashboards or steering wheels to respondents in order to develop data on what consumers associate with nebulous concepts like safety or luxury. Though they won’t divulge who, Hu and Rich say they’ve already had discussions about Quantify with several high profile corporate sponsors at the Media Lab.

“Now, instead of having a designer that knows all of these things, you can sort of programmatically say, ‘OK, it’s for a Chinese market, and they prefer this mixture of luxury and safety so we’ll design it this way,'” Rich says. “Because we have all this human data that’s being collected and IP located, we know what German preferences are and what Chinese preferences are and what Brazilian preferences are.”

There are also broad applications in the social sciences. To test Quantify, Hu and Rich helped Carnegie Mellon professor William Alba develop a project called Earth Tapestry, which shows pairs of locations (Mount Kilimanjaro, the Large Hadron Collider, Stonehenge) and asks which better expresses various properties (durability, nobility, delightfulness). If all goes according to plan, the dataset collected on Earth Tapestry will be laser-engraved on a sapphire disk and sent to the Moon on the Astrobotic lunar lander by 2016.

“I wrote Travis and Kevin last May because I had been seeking a method that would translate individual pairwise choices into a ranking,” Alba says. “They went light-years further than I had hoped.”

And that’s just a taste of what they’ve tried so far. Rich and Hu say being able to teach computers how to recommend based on feelings and emotions could have applications in fields from psychological and behavioral studies to artificial intelligence. It just depends on how programmers want to use them. One app Rich says he’d love to see is one that analyzes the text of an instant message and suggests a GIF that matches its emotional palette. (No more searching “Beyoncé side-eye” when your friend tells you about a bad date!)

Back in the Media Lab, Hu again steps in front of the mirror and tries an even more exaggerated look of astonishment. The mirror goes blank for a moment, then it loops a GIF of a wild-eyed skydiver waving his arms in free-fall.

“That’s a good surprised one,” Rich says to Hu. “Were you trying to be surprised?”