Howie’s Tech News

Resident ‘Gadget Boy’ Howard takes a look at the month’s news in tech, science, and stuff that he would like people to buy him. Please.

Be sure to scroll down for this month’s top gadgets…

Alexa is listening…

Do you own an Amazon Echo smart speaker? In fact, do you own any smart device that runs Amazon’s Alexa assistant software? If so, you probably enjoy the ease of use that blurting out “Alexa…” followed by the likes of “play that song by that band I like”, or indeed, “turn on the living room lights”, or perhaps “tell me that I won’t die alone.” However, as handy as the ‘always listening’ capabilities of the programme is, you might want to be cautious.

Researchers at infotech company Checkmarx proved that, with a simple bit of coding, your trusted Alexa could be used against you. The company showed that the ‘always listening’ feature could be altered to not just pick up the ‘Alexa…’ command, but all speech, essentially turning the smart device into a smart eavesdropping device.

Imagine it: some cheeky hackers manage to get access to your Amazon account, download some code into your Echo speaker, then spend their evenings listening to you and your family sitting in your living room, arguing. Might sound trivial, especially if all you do is ask each other where the TV remote has vanished to, but the conversations captured could be used for nefarious purposes. What if they heard something very personal, or even hacked in to listen to politicians speaking (for that, the speaker would have to be at a lower level. Around their bums. Ha!).

As worrying as it seems, Amazon are, apparently, on it. They have already issued a discreet fix to your Alexa’s coding and are currently doing more to combat further risks. However, until the day comes when we are totally safe against hackers, I’ve told my family to speak in code while in the living room. Flang debb ibble weq, eronit? Dah, unno shim!

 

iPhone (not a perfect) X

Let’s rip this plaster off right now: I’m not a fan of Apple products. Firstly, they haven’t changed since 2007, prompting that quote by that guy about things that don’t change being a sign of madness (look it up – you’re on the net). Secondly, they always feature technology and innovations that are about six months behind the likes of Samsung, but then package up their new model phones for a huge price. BUT. YOU. KEEP. BUYING. THEM.

Well, if you, like me, are cool and use an Android phone, you’ll be happy to hear this news: Apple are currently panicking because nobody has bought the iPhone X. Released last year to much hurrah, the largest iPhone yet featured a weird notch in the screen, no physical home button, and clever face tracking software. But it cost about £1000. I like technology, but a grand for something that you play Angry Birds on and ignore calls from your mum? No.

Sales in the past quarter haven’t met expectations, mainly because of cheaper (and – this coming from someone who actively reads the ‘specs’ pages on smartphone websites – better) models from Asian companies like Huawei and the aforementioned Samsung, but also because of the bloody price. Even months after release you can get one on the 3 network, with an upfront cost of £79, for £63 per month. £63 for a phone? No.

The question now is whether Apple will ditch production of the handset altogether, to focus on a redesign which will probably be the iPhone 11, or iPhone XI if they’re following the pattern. If so, the X will have been a massive failure and will hopefully act as wake up call to the Cupertino company that the masses won’t just automatically buy their latest thing – not even if it is blessed by Steve Jobs’ turtle-neck’d ghost.

 

Holo-chats

If you thought Skype or Facetime were as good as video chats get, prepare yourself for the holographic revolution. Scientists at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, have created a device that projects the live image of a person onto a cylindrical human-sized shape. The hologram-like projection will move and change as the viewer moves, thanks to a series of clever, motion tracking projectors.

This means that you could be video-chatting to your Aunt Vera who lives in New Zealand, and then get up and walk ‘behind her’ seeing the back of her body. It’ll be like she’s actually there. Which is a shame, because you were sooooo thankful when she left for NZ because she meddles in your life, doesn’t she?

Anyway, this innovation could, after some condensing (it’s currently the size of an entire room) fit into your home, letting you talk to people far away as if they’re sitting next to you. I feel sorry for introverts who have spent several years engineering their lives not to have to sit next anyone during their working day. Still, if it makes life more like Star Wars, I’m in. Lightsabers next please.

 

Life on Mars?

That age-old question was first proposed by David Bowie, but now scientists at both NASA and ESA are working together to answer it. Shame he’s dead, innit?

The two space agencies will collaborate on a special mission to Mars to collect a soil sample and bring it back to earth. The hope is that in analysing the sample, they will be able to determine if microbial life exists on the red planet right now, or if it ever has in the past. Fair play to them.

I’ll be honest, when I read the headline: NASA to bring home alien life from Mars’ I got a little excited that an actual alien had booked a stay on earth to learn our ways and report back to his Martian masters; but teeny tiny little bugs will do just as nicely.

However, as interesting and honourable as the project might be, let’s face it: bringing back an alien life form in a soil sample would make a great, if predictable, opening to a cheap sci-fi movie. Twenty minutes in and all of the scientists have been infected with an alien virus that makes them want to eat cats. Then an hour later, all of humankind is running around wrestling lions and tigers, and creating effigies to the Mighty Nu’uq, Despoiler of Worlds. Fortunately, The Rock is immune and starts to fight back.

This summer… one man… defends cats… against an alien horde of cat-eating brain bacteria.

Actually, I’m off to write that script right now.

 

Gadgets of the month

Tapplock. This smart padlock does not require a key (which you could lose) or a combination code (which you could forget). Instead it needs only your delicate touch to open, recognising your fingerprint. Handy old thing, but just make sure you don’t forget your fingers every morning. £100 from amazon.co.uk

Sobro Smart Side Table. Even furniture is getting smart these days – so smart in fact that side tables can now charge your phone, act like a power outlet, turn on lights when they detect movement, keep drinks chilled, play music, track your sleep, and – get this – store stuff! Well, the Sobro Smart Side Table can. £350 from sobrodesign.com

Beer Ripples. Latte art is a thing, but what about beer art? Actually, what about beer printing? This weird little gadget will ‘print’ a message in the foam of your beer head, allowing you to send a cheeky message like ‘from the guy in the red tie’ or simply ‘BEER!’. Whatever you want your beer to say, Beer Ripples will print it. Yep, weird. But hey, it’s only… $3000 from beer.drinkripples.com

 

Fun gadgets under £20

Snap Remote. Use this teeny tiny gadget to grab handy selfies from a distance, saving your arm. Cheap as cheap chips, too. £9.99 from www.iwantoneofthose.com

Magic Mushroom Speaker. You can have a lot of fun with magic mushrooms… when they’re playing your favourite songs (not making you hallucinate talking wasps). £19.99 from www.firebox.com

 

Kickstart this

I check out a new product currently seeking funding on www.kickstarter.com

LeveTop. This is a very exciting cylinder. Pop out the propellers at either side and use your phone to control this folding, pocket-able drone. Wee! It features a hi-def camera, so you can snap selfies and spy on your neighbours. If you’re a bit perverted. Back it today!

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