Mozilla’s new Firefox Reality browser brings the web to your VR headset

Mozilla has launched Firefox Reality, a web browser custom built for use with VR headsets. Version 1.0 is now available for free in Viveport, Oculus, and Daydream app stores.

The goal with this project, which the organization has been working on for years, is to make it easy to enjoy 2D and immersive content on the web as easily as possible. To that end, it supports web search using the mic on your headset so as to negate the need for typing; it also showcases VR games and experiences available online, right on the home screen for easy access.

Mozilla’s been bullish on the immersive web for a while now: It previously created the WebVR standard back in 2014 to help developers craft virtual reality experiences on the web. Following that, it’s drafted a proposal for WebXR, which will support augmented reality content in browsers.

While VR hardware is constantly improving, it’s yet to go mainstream. But it’s good to see that ecosystem is maturing, and the expansion of your choice of browsers is a step in that direction.

Mozilla says that it has a long list of features that it intends to add to Firefox Reality soon, including support for bookmarks, 360-degree videos, and multiple user accounts. If you’ve got the necessary hardware, you can try it now by grabbing the app for Oculus and Daydream; it’s also available in the Viveport store, where you’ll need to search for ‘Firefox Reality’ to download it.

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Samsung might launch its first quad-camera phone on October 11

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Grindr aims to stamp out discrimination on its platform with 'Kindr' initiative

Grindr is attempting to stamp out discrimination.
Grindr is attempting to stamp out discrimination.
Image: grindr

Grindr has long had a problem with discrimination.

It’s evidenced by profiles which are openly racist, with terms like “Black=block,” “no gaysians” or “no chocolate or rice” that are written in these bios.

Now the gay dating app is looking to stamp it out. It’s launched an initiative called Kindr, updating its community guidelines in a stand against racism, bullying, or other forms of toxic behaviour.

The biggest change to the guidelines is the banning of discriminatory language in these profile bios, and those who breach the new rules are subject to review by moderators.

Grindr has also launched a website featuring its diverse user base, along with a five-video series where users talk about the discriminatory comments that they’ve received on the platform.

“If you don’t put ‘no Asians’ in your profile that doesn’t mean you have to fuck Asians now, it just means I don’t have to see it,” comedian Joel Kim Booster, who appears in the campaign, explains.

“Sexual racism, transphobia, fat and femme shaming and further forms of othering such as stigmatization of HIV positive individuals are pervasive problems in the LGBTQ community,” Landen Zumwalt, head of communications at Grindr, said in a statement. 

“These community issues get brought onto our platform, and as a leader in the gay dating space, Grindr has a responsibility to not only protect our users, but also to set the standard for the broader community that we serve.”

It comes after a lawsuit was threatened against the company by Los Angeles user Sinakhone Keodara, who told NBC News the platform “allows blatant sexual racism by not monitoring or censoring anti-Asian and anti-black profiles.”

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TaskRabbit kicks off Canadian expansion

TaskRabbit officially launched in Canada today.

The on-demand network that connects people with “taskers,” or others willing to do their household chores or errands for a fee, is kicking off its Canadian expansion in the greater Toronto area before rolling out in Vancouver in October and Montreal sometime in 2019.

This is the first major move abroad for the company in some time, as well as its first move under IKEA’s ownership. TaskRabbit first expanded beyond the U.S. in 2014, when it launched its app in the UK.

Otherwise, the service is only available in North America.

IKEA bought TaskRabbit 1 year ago as part of a deal that has allowed the company to operate independently from the Swedish furniture retailer under CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot. TaskRabbit, before its exit, had raised $38 million from investors including Founders Fund, First Round Capital and Floodgate.

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Kayak’s new AR feature will tell you if your carry-on bag fits the overhead bin

Popular travel app Kayak has put augmented reality to clever use with a new feature that lets you measure the size of your carry-on bag using just your smartphone. Its updated iOS app now takes advantage of Apple’s ARKit technology to introduce a new Bag Measurement tool that will help you calculate your bag’s size so you can find out if it fits in the overhead bin – you know, before your trip.

The tool is handy because the dimensions of permitted carry-on luggage can differ from airline to airline, Kayak explains, so it’s not as simple these days to figure out if your bag will fit.

In the new Kayak iOS app, you can access the measurement tool through the Flight Search feature.

The app will first prompt you to scan the floor in order to calibrate the measurements. You then move your phone around the bag to capture its size. Kayak’s app will do the math and return the bag’s size, in terms of length, width, and height.

And it will tell you if the bag “looks good” or not to meet the carry-on size requirements.

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Plus, the company says it compares all the airlines’ baggage size requirements in one place, so you’ll know for sure if it will be allowed by the airline you’re flying.

Augmented reality applications, so far, have been a mixed bag. (Sorry).

Some applications can be fairly useful  – like visualizing furniture placed in a room or trying on new makeup colors. (Yes, really. I’m serious). But others are more questionable – like some AR gaming apps, perhaps. (For example, how long would you play that AR slingshot game?)

But one area where AR has held up better is in helping you measure stuff with your phone – so much so that even Apple threw in its own AR measuring tape with iOS 12.

Kayak’s tool, also timed with the release of iOS 12, is among those more practical applications.

The company says the AR feature is currently only live on updated iOS devices.

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Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, Javascript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

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Apple’s iBooks revamp, Apple Books, is here

Apple’s new and improved iBooks app, now called Apple Books, has popped up on iPhones across the world today with the release of iOS 12, the software update available to download as of this morning.

The new app has five tabs: Reading Now, Library, Book Store, Search and, for the first time, a dedicated Audiobooks tab.

Apple first previewed it at WWDC in June. The company said its sleek new look was the “biggest books redesign ever.” Cleaner UI, coupled with larger images, gives the app a more modern feel and an overall better experience. More importantly, it sets up Apple to better compete with other audio/e-book apps, like the Amazon-owned Audible.

In the Book Store, users can explore recently released titles and best-selling books, as well as curated collections and special offers; it’s available in 51 countries and free books for download are available in 155 countries.

Apple Books is also a lot smarter than its predecessor. As you download titles and engage with the app, the app will send you personalized recommendations based on your activity.

Indeed, it was time for an update. Audiobooks are more popular today than when Apple first launched iBooks in 2010 and are very much deserving of their own tab. According to Pew Research Center, one in five Americans regularly listens to them — a 28 percent increase from 2016.

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Mumford & Sons beware! An AI can now write indie music

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A fascinating project called Amadeus Code promises to out-Tay-Tay Tay Tay and out-Bon Bon Iver. The AI-based system uses data from previous musical hits to create entirely new compositions on the fly and darn if these crazy robots-songs aren’t pretty good.

The app, which is available from the iTunes Store but doesn’t seem to be working properly, creates song sketches in minutes, freeing you up to create beautiful lyrics and a bit of accordion accompaniment.

The video above is a MIDI version of an AI-produced song and the video below shows the song full produced using non-AI human musicians. The results, while a little odd, are very impressive.

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Jun Inoue, Gyo Kitagawa, and Taishi Fukuyama created Amadeus Code and all have experience in music and music production. Inoue is a renowned Japanese music producer and he has sold 10 million singles. Fukuyama worked at Echo Next and launched the first Music Hack Day in Tokyo. Fukujama is the director of the Hit Song Research Lab and went to Berklee College of Music.

“We have analyzed decades of contemporary songs and classical music, songs of economic and/or social impact, and have created a proprietary songwriting technology that is specialized to create top line melodies of songs. We have recently released Harmony Library, which gives users direct access to the songs that power the songwriting AI for Amadeus Code,” said Inoue. “We uniquely specialize in creating top line melodies for songs that can be a source of high quality inspiration for music professionals. We also do have plans that may overlap with other music AI companies in the market today in terms of offering hobbyists a service to quickly create completed audio tracks.”

When asked if AI will ever replace his favorite musicians, folks like Michael & Janet Jackson or George Gershwin, Inoue laughed.

“Absolutely not. This AI will not tell you about its struggles and illuminate your inner wolds through real human storytelling, which is ultimately what makes music so intimate and compelling. Similarly to how the sampler, drum machine, multitrack recorder and many other creative technologies have done in the past, we see AI to be a creative tool for artists to push the boundaries of popular music. When these AI tools eventually find their place in the right creative hands, it will have the potential to create a new entire economy of opportunities,” he said.

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Daily Burn plans a new line of fitness apps, starting with HIIT Workouts

Daily Burn, the online fitness brand owned by IAC, launched a new iPhone app today devoted to the popular workout style known as HIIT (high-intensity interval training).

Daily Burn already offers a general training app, but the company says it’s planning a whole series of vertical workout apps, starting with HIIT Workouts. They are “bringing personalized workout training to every member tailored to their interests.”

If you’re wondering exactly what HIIT is, the individual exercises may be familiar, but as a Daily Burn article puts it, it’s all combined into “quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short, sometimes active, recovery periods.”

There’s no shortage of HIIT workout apps, or HIIT workouts in broader fitness apps (for example, I’ve tried out several through my Fitbit Coach subscription). But Daily Burn points to the combination of guided video workouts (so you’re less likely to mess things up) with a specific focus on HIIT. Plus, the workouts are tailored to your goals and endurance levels.

“We spent months researching how people interact with their phones, and combined it with Daily Burn’s world-class fitness and streaming expertise to create a best in class HIIT app that is effective and fun,” said Daily Burn CEO Tricia Han in the announcement. “With personalized workouts led by expert trainers and optimized for mobile, members have access to top instructors, progress reports and a supportive community in the palm of their hand.”

HIIT Workouts by Daily Burn offers a free seven-day trial; it then costs $9.99 per month.

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Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

Instagram is embracing its true identity as a mail-order catalog. The question will be how much power merchants will give Instagram after seeing what its parent Facebook did to news outlets that relied on it. In a move that could pit it against Pinterest and Wish, Instagram is launching Shopping features across its app to let people discover and consider possible purchases before clicking through to check out on the merchant’s website.

Today, Instagram Explore is getting a personalized Shopping channel of items it thinks you’ll want most. And it’s expanding its Shopping tags for Instagram Stories to all viewers worldwide after a limited test in June, and it’s allowing brands in 46 countries to add the shopping bag icon to Stories that users can click through to buy what they saw.

Instagram clearly wants to graduate from where people get ideas for things to purchase to being a measurable gateway to their spending. 90 million people already tap its Shopping tags each month, it announced today. The new features could soak up more user attention and lead them to see more ads. But perhaps more importantly, demonstrating that Instagram can boost retail business’ sales for free through Stories and Explore could whet their appetite to buy Instagram ads to amplify their reach and juice the conversion channel. With 25 million businesses on Instagram but only 2 million advertisers, the app has room to massively increase its revenue.

For now Instagram is maintaining its “no comment” regarding whether it’s working on a standalone Instagram Shopping app as per a report from The Verge last month.  Instagram first launched its Shopping tags for feeds in 2016. It still points users out to merchant sites for the final payment step, though, in part because retailers want to control their relationships with customers. But long-term, allowing businesses to opt in to offering in-Instagram checkout could shorten the funnel and get more users actually buying.

Shopping joins the For You, Art, Beauty, Sports, Fashion and other topic channels that launched in Explore in June. The Explore algorithm will show you shopping-tagged posts from businesses you follow and ones you might like based on who you follow and what shopping content engages you. This marks the first time you can view a dedicated shopping space inside of Instagram, and it could become a bottomless well of browsing for those in need of some retail therapy.

With Shopping Stickers, brands can choose to add one per story and customize the color to match their photo or video. A tap opens the product details page, and another sends them to the merchant’s site. Businesses will be able to see the number of taps on their Shopping sticker, and how many people tapped through to their website. Partnerships with Shopify (500,000+ merchants) and BigCommerce (60,000+ merchants) will make it easy for retailers of all sizes to use Instagram’s Shopping Stickers. 

What about bringing Shopping to IGTV? A company spokesperson tells me, “IGTV and live video present interesting opportunities for brands to connect more closely with their customers, but we have no plans to bring shopping tools to those surfaces right now.”

For now, the new shopping features feel like a gift to merchants hoping to boost sales. But so did the surge of referral traffic Facebook sent to news publishers a few years ago. Those outlets soon grew dependent on Facebook, changed their news room staffing and content strategies to chase this traffic, and now find themselves in dire straights after Facebook cut off the traffic fire hose as it refocuses on friends and family content.

Retail merchants shouldn’t take the same bait. Instagram Shopping might be a nice bonus, but just how much it prioritizes the feature and spotlights the Explore channel are entirely under its control. Merchants should still work to develop an unmediated relationship directly with their customers, encouraging them to bookmark their sites or sign up for newsletters. Instagram’s favor could disappear with a change to its algorithm, and retailers must always be ready to stand on their own two feet.

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iOS 12 makes your phone faster than ever

iOS 12 could be summed up in one feature: speed. The rest is just a footnote, especially when you compare iOS 12 to iOS 11.

You may remember that iOS 11 was filled with many new features, especially on the iPad. But it was also the buggiest release to date. Even the Calculator app wasn’t working properly. And let’s not forget about messages arriving out of order or your keyboard replacing the letter “it” with “I.T”.

Like many of you, I’ve been using a beta version of iOS 12 for the past few weeks. Even though it was just a beta, iOS 12 is by far the fastest version of iOS of all time. And Apple just released iOS 12.0 today. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s new in iOS 12.

Low level

If you are reading this article on an iPhone or iPad, chances are you’re using iOS 11. Many devices support iOS 11 — the iPhone 5s, the iPad mini 2, the last iPod touch, and everything that Apple released since then.

And the good news is that Apple hasn’t dropped support for a single device with iOS 12. While this might seem anecdotal, it reveals Apple’s mindset with iOS 12.

In the past, Apple usually added new intensive tasks for your CPU, GPU and RAM. And at the end of the development process, those features would be vaguely optimized for older devices. That’s why older phones never got some features. Or some features were simply too demanding. In some cases, your battery life took a hit.

This time, when it comes to performance, Apple started from the bottom of the iPhone chain. For instance, if you optimize app launches and typing on the iPhone 6, newer devices will also benefit from those optimizations. Even after updating my iPhone X from iOS 11 to iOS 12, everything feels much smoother.

Apple didn’t stop at raw performance. The company worked on some much needed refinements for notifications, Do Not Disturb and the way you use your phone.

Android users will laugh at this feature, but iOS 12 finally groups notifications together. Most of the time, your notifications are grouped by apps. For instance, if you receive multiple New York Times and CNN notifications, you will get two stacks of notifications that you can expand or dismiss altogether.

More interestingly, your notifications are now grouped by threads. For instance, you may have some very active groups in WhatsApp. iOS doesn’t just group all WhatsApp notifications together. You can see all the notifications from a specific group in one stack. This way, you can ignore the noise and concentrate on the rest.

While you could already silence notifications in iOS 11, iOS 12 makes this incredibly easier. You can now swipe on a notification and hit “Deliver Quietly”. This option is the combination of multiple notification settings.

If you select that, notifications won’t make your phone buzz and will skip the lock screen. The only way to view them is by manually pulling up the Notification Center. I already use it for most news apps as I don’t need to see the headlines right away.

And if you keep getting spammed from a free-to-play game and never tap on those notifications, you get a suggestion on your lock screen to silence notifications from this app.

Do Not Disturb is also receiving some minor but important improvements. You can now use 3D Touch to turn on Do Not Disturb for an hour, until this evening (or the next morning), until the end of an event or until you leave a location.

Many people never use Do Not Disturb because they forget to turn it off. And yet, it’s one of the most powerful tools when it comes to using your phone less.

Talking about digital wellbeing, Apple is going all in with a bunch of new features. Screen Time sends you a notification every week to help you understand how you use your phone. You may know that you spend too much time on Instagram, but seeing that you spend an hour or two every day in the app might be an eye-opening moment.

In the Settings, you can now configure Downtime and App Limits so that only the most essential apps remain accessible at night, such as Messages and Phone. You’ll have to bypass the restriction screen to keep using other apps. It’s pretty smart as it works across your devices and also recognizes if you’re trying to access a social network in Safari for instance.

Medium level

A new version of iOS also means new features. Competition with Android means that Apple needs to keep pushing forward on the feature front.

If you have an iPhone X or later, the big new thing is Memoji. In Messages, you can now create your own Bitmoji-style avatar. You can then use your digital face in selfies, use it as a sticker and record audio messages. There are also new Animojis.

The Photos app is getting a new “For You” tab and an improved search experience. There’s not much to say about this except that it works better than before. It’s easier to look for a specific location, events and more. Photos already had some smart albums, but the “For You” tab make them more prominent.

The Stocks app has been redesigned with better looking charts and business news headlines. Apple News has also been slightly redesigned, especially on the iPad. And Voice Memos now works with iCloud. You can record a memo on your iPhone and find it on your iPad or Mac.

Apple Music now supports lyrics and features new artist pages that look more like Spotify. And Apple Books (the new name of iBooks) is getting a visual redesign similar to the App Store redesign from last year. It looks great.

Finally, if your car supports CarPlay, Google Maps and Waze are working on navigation apps for your car. You won’t be limited to Apple Maps anymore.

Apple was supposed to add group conversations in FaceTime, but it isn’t available just yet. Apple says it will be available later this fall.

Top level

Now that the most straightforward features are out of the way, I’d like to talk about Siri, Shortcuts and Siri Shortcuts. While those three names sound similar, those are three different things in iOS 12.

Siri is the voice assistant of iOS 11 that you know and (rarely) use. It can do some basic things reasonably well, such as weather reports and setting timers. And it has also become quite good at understanding your voice and turning it into a text query.

In many cases, Siri understands what you say but can’t answer your question. That’s why many people now rely on an Amazon Echo or Google Home for voice queries.

Apple found a clever way to solve that by leveraging its developer community and acquisition of Workflow. Developers can now add new features to Siri through their apps. Those extensions to Siri’s brain are called Siri Shortcuts.

For instance, you can configure Carrot Weather and ask for hyperlocal weather forecast using Siri. You can start a playlist in Overcast and listen to your latest podcasts on your HomePod. You can open a specific note in Ulysses much more quickly. All you have to do is set up customized phrases to run the Siri Shortcuts.

But expert TechCrunch readers like you can also go one step further and create scripts in the Shortcuts app. It looks and works just like the existing Workflow app.

For instance, you can create a “Going to Bed” shortcut that turns on Do Not Disturb, turns down the brightness and ringtone levels, turns off Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and your Philips Hue lights, and sets Low Power Mode on.

Shortcuts also work with many third-party apps. The ability to chain actions together has changed the way I use my iPhone and iPad. This is not new if you were already using Workflow. But many more users will use Shortcuts now that it is deeply integrated in the operating system and with HomeKit.

Conclusion

iOS has grown immensely over the years. At first, it was a mobile operating system with no support for third-party apps. I’m sure the first release of iOS (iPhone OS 1.0) was much faster than iOS 12. But systems on a chip are also an order of magnitude faster.

That’s why the combination of hardware improvements with software optimizations make iOS 12 a great release when it comes to user experience. For this reason alone, there’s no reason not to install the update.

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