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Posts tagged Gadgets

Alexa: How to secure my Amazon Echo?

My feature on how to secure your Amazon Echo was published in TechRadar last week. Here is my take on why securing these intelligent home hubs is of vital importance.

Muting your Amazon Echo

Hear no Evil? Muting your Amazon Echo (Credit: Flickr / Rob Albright / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Voice-activated intelligent virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are starting to play an important role as the hub of our connected homes.

Buttons are obsolete. Simply by conversing with my Alexa I can control my central heating and the lighting around my house and garden; I can buy products with my voice, check my personal calendar, set alarms or reminders, update my things to do list, read my favourite book or play any song, album or playlist on Spotify. With my voice.

Hear no Evil

The convenience this offers is staggering and, in a little over three months since I plugged it in and powered it on, my Amazon Echo has already changed many behaviours in our household. For the better? I think so. However…

With convenience comes compromise, especially when it comes to security. We should never be blinded by the utility of any new piece of technology.

I made one mistake in extolling the virtues of our Amazon Echo above. You see, all of these amazing things and more can be commanded not only with my voice, they can be asked by anybody’s voice.

Voice Recognition versus Speech Recognition

While Alexa has enviable speech recognition – the ability to understand and interpret natural language input by speech – she has yet to learn the skill of voice recognition. Often confused, voice recognition is the ability to uniquely distinguish between different people’s voices by analysing physical and behavioural characteristics.

With voice recognition Alexa would know whether it was me (ie authorised) ordering that Nintendo Switch console from Amazon Prime, or if it was my Mario Kart-loving daughter trying her luck (sorry, denied). Did I just ask Alexa for a 2am alarm call or was somebody outside my living room window attempting to play a prank?

Amazon has no plans to introduce voice recognition into the Amazon Echo just yet. Nevertheless, there are steps that Echo owners can take to make sure they enjoy the convenience of a virtual assistant without the worry of being woken up by a 2am prank alarm call.

Pop over to TechRadar to read my 8 top tips to lock down your Alexa.

Speech Recognition – Rip Off Britain: Live

Among the topics I cover in this series of Rip Off Britain: Live on BBC1 is speech recognition. In Tuesday’s show I went to Liverpool to investigate how viewers are talking to their tech to help make their everyday lives easier.

According to researchers at Stanford University we can talk three times faster – and with 20% more accuracy – than we can type or swipe on a mobile phone.

Proof that it’s good to talk, right?

It was no surprise, however, to find that many I spoke with were initially sceptical about the effectiveness of speech recognition. But I had a hunch that their lack of confidence was misplaced, with judgements on poor comprehension based on older generations of the technology.

Our day of filming in and around Liverpool proved my point: I found that Apple’s intelligent personal assistant Siri was better than even I was at comprehending commands, irrespective of accent or background noise.

Speech recognition technology – and Siri is far from the only or even the best example at present – has now reached a level of useful maturity. What is needed next to help more to benefit from it is further accessibility and behavioural change.

In the main Rip Off Britain series in September I also took a look at how voice biometrics are being used by major service providers as an authentication factor to make logins to our online accounts safer, simpler and more secure.

Check out further clips from this series of Rip Off Britain here on the BBC website.

The Metro

Putting DACs On Test in Metro

A challenge as a technology journalist is making sure more complex material remains accessible to your audience without compromising accuracy. With a daily UK readership of 1.895 million the Metro newspaper’s audience is broader than most, so when writing here I’m at pains to check that I’m maintaining clarity without sacrificing substance.

An example: faced with an assignment on Digital-to-Analogue Converters for this week’s Connect section of the paper I pitched hard with my editor to include an introductory paragraph to give some background. The format doesn’t normally allow for this, and even though we knew we would lose word-count elsewhere in the piece she agreed. It was the right decision.

A bit more about DACs:

A DAC or Digital-to-Analogue Converter takes the 0s and 1s from your digital music source – a CD, mp3 or Spotify stream for example – and pumps out the analogue signal necessary for speakers, subwoofers and headphones to function*. You’ll find them in phones, PCs, TVs, DVDs, games consoles, even digital radios – anything that plays audio from a digital source.

While this sounds like it should be a consistent digital activity there is variation in the specification of DACs which can result in audio quality differences. Bluntly, the DACs integrated into our devices may not be making the most of the audio source, particular if from high-resolution or lossless audio formats.

That’s where an external DAC comes into play, squeezing as much detail as possible from good quality digital audio files. They can also add some extra power to the output too – I for one find the volume on my Apple iPhone 6 Plus a little too soft when on the train, tube or in other noisy environments. There is additional significance here for iPhone owners given that Apple has pulled the plug on the ubiquitous 3.5 mm headphone jack in its newer phones – something these jack-equipped headphone amps can help to work around.

Anyway, that’s the background to an On Test piece in which I test drive three class-leading high-end, mid-price and great value DAC options.

DACs On Test in The Metro

I did try to name the feature ‘What’s Up DAC?’ but my editor overruled me. A shame, but once again it was probably the right decision : )

* I was curious to discover whether purely digitally-driven speakers exist: it turns out they do in theory but are impractical for mass adoption – there are precious few resources online but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about them.

What Britain buys? Dashcams.

The convergence of car tech and consumer tech is something I’ve spoken and written about in the past, so when Channel 4 asked if I’d explain more to Mary Portas in her new show What Britain Buys I was only too happy to oblige.

Mary was particularly intrigued by the emergence of the dashcam as the must-have in-car accessory for 2016. That said, she was somewhat preoccupied with what happens when the camera faces into the car rather than out front – mercifully our own carpool karaoke didn’t make it into the final cut.

As I wrote in The Metro recently, dashboard-mounted cameras are quickly becoming a must-have accessory for safety-aware, litigation-conscious drivers. Dashcams record video in the event of a bump or prang (or even a malicious key-scrape) with some insurers offering owners lower premiums to counter so-called ‘crash for cash’ and ‘flash for cash‘ scams.

What Britain Buys with Mary Portas is produced by Sundog Pictures for Channel 4.

Videogame Nation

Virtual Reality Challenge

On Challenge TV’s Videogame Nation recently I chatted with presenter Dan Maher about the challenges faced by studios when developing games for Virtual Reality platforms.

Videogame Nation is that rare thing on mainstream television: a show about video games.

Hosted by Inside Xbox co-host Dan Maher, Aoife Wilson and John Robertson, produced by Ginx TV and airing in the UK on Challenge TV, VGN celebrates games and gaming culture with a maturity and intellect that appeals to gamers and non-gamers alike.

In this week’s episode I speak with Dan about a pet subject of mine: virtual reality. We discuss the specific challenges that studios face when developing for VR platforms, and the role that mobile can play in VR’s future.

Here’s a clip from the show where Dan and I talk about the challenges, how mobile will be an invaluable on-ramp for VR, and get hands on with Kickstarter project prototype, Goblin VR.

Hardware is one of the challenges faced by developers – platform fragmentation is already real – and so is grammar: a successful VR experience is not simply a case of lifting traditional a game and dumping it into a pair of virtual reality goggles. The fact is that developers don’t know what works yet; it’s frontier-land all over again which makes VR development a very exciting – if very risky – arena for studios to be working in.

*** UPDATE: Since I wrote this story in early 2016 VGN has, after four series and much critical acclaim, used up all of its credits – much to the disillusionment of gamers all over the internet. Fear not: without too much searching you can still find pretty much every episode of Videogame Nation on YouTube.

International CES 2016

CES – or the International Consumer Electronics Show to give its full name – is in full swing and I’m here in Las Vegas making some sense of the tech gifts we’ll be unwrapping in Christmas 2016 and beyond.

IMG_6150-2

Breaking the ice at CES 2016 (image: David McClelland)

As expected virtual reality, unmanned aerial vehicles (okay, drones), connected home/internet of things and wearables are all well represented here, as is the motoring industry with major announcements on driverless cars, electric vehicles and more from the likes of Ford, Toyota and newcomer Faraday Future.

Here’s a quick hit of one of my live reports for the Mark Forrest show on BBC radio broadcast midway through press day:

ITV Good Morning Britain

Hoverboard Health and Safety – ITV Good Morning Britain

Make no mistake, hoverboards have been the hot technology of 2015.

Fuelled by Back to the Future fever and celebrity spots with Jamie Foxx, Justin Bieber et al, self-balancing scooters (to give them their proper name) have proven so popular with the public that online auction site eBay reported sales of one every twelve seconds earlier in December.

On Thursday I joined the ITV Good Morning Britain team to talk through the hoverboard phenomenon and the growing safety concerns that have led retailers around the world to stop selling and start refunding.

Negotiating an obstacle course on a hoverboard in windy conditions while answering Ben Shephard’s questions live on national television? No sweat!

There are two powerful safety angles to this story:

Scoot Safely

First up, hoverboards are heavy, powerful vehicles requiring skill, balance and practice to master. Unlike a Segway – considered the hoverboard’s forebear by many – there are no handlebars here, it’s just a motorised sideways skateboard.

Like the Segway, however, it is illegal to ride hoverboards on public streets and pavements in the UK. When the Crown Prosecution Service issued a statement reinforcing this guidance in October some argued the law (derived from the Highway Act of 1835 in England and Wales) was overbearing and heavy-handed. Then, last week, a 15 year-old lost control and was killed, run over by a London bus after losing balance on a hoverboard.

Electrical Hazard

The other safety angle is the construction of the boards themselves. Leaping aboard the lucrative coat-tails of the hoverboard craze far-east manufacturers have mass produced hoverboards to lower price points with inevitable corner-cutting. Sadly, these short-cuts have been potentially lethal, with basic safety standards and common sense all but ignored. The main flashpoint has been the electronics.

One problem is that lithium-ion batteries used are notoriously unstable unless properly shielded. Major airlines are refusing to carry hoverboards in hold or checked luggage for risk of the batteries catching fire mid-flight. The other problem is that to keep costs low manufacturers are choosing to ship hoverboards with inferior quality poorly-shielded batteries, without thermal cutout circuitry or fuses in their plugs. Outcomes have included spontaneous explosions and fires and have been well-documented in various social media and the mainstream press. National Trading Standards claims to have examined thousands of self-balancing scooters at UK borders since October, with 88% (15,000) assessed to be unsafe and detained.

Eager to avoid a PR horror story major retailers have been quick to ground hoverboards, pulling stock from shelves and issuing health and safety advisories faster than you can say Great Scott. Amazon has been issuing automated refunds to customers and advising to dispose of hoverboards in WEEE approved sites.

Manything

Smart Home Security in The Metro

This autumn I’ve been busy talking about cybercrime, data breaches and online safety, but let’s not forget about the need security in real life too.

October is National Home Security Month, the last week of which is Smart Home Security Week. Writing once again for The Metro newspaper I revealed six app-connected cameras for your connected home that give you piece of mind and, if necessary, help to catch crooks red-handed.

Amongst those I reviewed were flyaway Kickstarter success story Canary, home security heavyweight Piper nv and the innovative app-only Manything, which helps you to put to old smartphones to good use.

David McClelland tests the best connected cams to help you catch crooks red-handed

Image: The Metro, 30 October 2015

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