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Technology

Sony’s electric car is the best surprise of CES

To answer your question: no, you won’t be able to buy the Sony car. Not any time soon, at least. The company has no plans to mass-produce the Vision-S, the car it surprise-announced at the end of its press conference at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, nor does it plan to do a limited run.

Instead, the Sony Vision-S really exists somewhere between a concept and a prototype. Like a concept, it’s meant to showcase the ideas Sony has for the world of cars. But like a prototype, the car actually works.

There’s actually a long list of those ideas on display in the Vision-S. One of the big focal points is, unsurprisingly, the entertainment experience and user interface. That starts with a set of rectangular displays on the dashboard that stretch from pillar to pillar.

Both the middle display and the one in front of the passenger seat are touchscreens. This is where the driver and passenger can access all of the car’s media controls. That included things like — shocker! — Sony-owned movies or Sony-licensed music, but also a tab for games (which wasn’t working) and another for vehicle settings.

The animations of these menus were fluid, clever, and just overall excellent. For instance, a quick L-swipe at the top left of the middle screen moved whatever was currently on display to the passenger screen — an interaction that felt deeply satisfying. There is also more than one way to interact with the user interface. A separate trackpad extends out from the center console, and this can be used to tap through menus, and is capable of multitouch gestures. It’s also where the driver and passenger can change the car’s climate control settings. And below that was a big silver dial dedicated to volume control that could also serve other purposes.

It was a controlled demo, to be sure, but Sony deserves some credit for having the user interface piece of the experience feel so locked in. After all, it was less than two months ago that Ford totally blew this part of the Mustang Mach-E reveal. While it’s still hard to imagine cars with displays that span entire dashboards, I could see how Sony’s idea might be more practical than, say, the massive single screen of EV startup Byton.

Rear seat passengers aren’t left out of this experience, as they each have their own seatback touchscreens. And Sony outfitted the Vision-S with high-end sound equipment including speakers in each headrest, which the company says would make it possible for passengers to watch different things at the same time.

Another idea that Sony infused in the Vision-S is that the company’s camera sensors could make useful components in cars, especially cars with advanced driver assistance features or perhaps even fully self-driving functionality. The company is also using its image sensors to power the side-view cameras that take the place of traditional mirrors in the Vision-S. To that end, the Vision-S has more than 10 Sony image sensors embedded throughout the vehicle, alongside a host of other sensors like LIDARs, radars, and ultrasonics.

Sony could have just shoehorned bits of all this technology into a static concept vehicle. But the company figured the best way to prove to automakers and other industry players that it was serious was to fully embrace the challenge of building a working electric car.

“Through the process of building the prototype, we started to learn a lot about the architecture of the vehicle, we started to think about how our other technologies could be implemented in a vehicle,” Yuhei Yabe, the general manager of Sony Corporation’s AI and robotics business group, said in an interview.

That meant sourcing battery cells (Sony wouldn’t say where from) and packaging them together in what appears to be a fairly full-size battery pack. The company worked with automotive manufacturer Magna to help with the vehicle engineering work, and the result is a car with laudable specs for a first attempt. It can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 4.5 seconds thanks to two 200kW motors (one on each axle), and has a top speed of 149 miles per hour. The company didn’t cite a range figure, though the graphic in the cockpit showed 277 miles remaining with 82 percent battery. Sony says it imagines all these technological underpinnings could be used to power all sorts of vehicles, from SUVs to minivans to more utilitarian people movers.

It’s hard to explain how refreshing it is to see a company approach a concept car this way, especially at a show like CES. Automakers love to trot out what are basically rolling hunks of plastic and LED lighting. They’ll then saddle the glorified prop with their massive ambitions, even if the car might just fall to pieces if you breathe on it too hard.

Sony didn’t have to go and make a real car to show off some tech it thought might be good for the automotive space. But it did it anyway, and the car the company produced is remarkably coherent and downright attractive to boot.

Making cars at any scale is a grueling business, though. It takes a ton of work, and even more money. So it’s probably a good thing for Sony that it doesn’t plan to make the Vision-S — even if people wind up walking away from CES 2020 wanting a Sony car.

Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

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Technology

August’s latest smart lock is smaller, sleeker, and doesn’t need a hub

August has announced the latest addition to its line of retrofit smart door locks: the Wi-Fi Smart Lock. The new lock is similar in appearance to the Smart Lock Pro, but it has a 45 percent smaller volume and is 20 percent slimmer than before. In addition, the new model doesn’t need a separate hub to connect to a Wi-Fi network, as it has the necessary hardware built right into it. It will be available this summer for a similar price as the Smart Lock Pro.

August partnered with famed industrial designer Yves Béhar for this latest lock, though it has a very similar appearance to the company’s prior models. Unlike other smart door locks, which require you to replace the entire deadbolt, the August lock bolts onto the back half of the lock, which allows you to keep the same design and keys on the front of the door as you already have. The new model is roughly the size of a standard doorknob, according to the company.

The Wi-Fi Smart Lock (right) has 45 percent less volume than the Smart Lock Pro (left).
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Though it has a similar appearance as before, August says the new lock has been softened and rounded, with other small details refined. A new illuminated badge indicator makes it easy to see if the lock is closed or open from a glance.

Controlling the lock is done through August’s smartphone app, and it also supports Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple HomeKit. The Wi-Fi Smart Lock is powered by two CR123 batteries, and the company says it will last about the same time as the Smart Lock Pro does with its four AA batteries. A new option in the August app lets you configure Amazon Dash to automatically reorder a set of batteries when it comes time to replace them.

August refined the edges and made everything softer and smoother compared to older models.
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Like prior August locks, the Wi-Fi Smart Lock bolts on to the back of your existing deadbolt so you can use the same keys as you already have.
Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Functionally, the Wi-Fi Smart Lock has many of the same features as the Smart Lock Pro, including August’s Door Sense that alerts you when the door has been open for a certain amount of time. (It still requires installing a magnet on the door frame for this to work.) You can also program the Wi-Fi Smart Lock to automatically lock and unlock based on when you leave and arrive. The one thing that’s missing from the new model is Z-Wave, so it can’t be added to Z-Wave hubs in the same way as the old model.

August says the Wi-Fi Smart Lock will be available in either matte black or silver finishes when it hits retail later this year.

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Technology

Yale’s new smart delivery box prevents package-pilfering porch pirates

August has a new, smaller smart lock for the US market, and its parent company Yale is also releasing a few other new products. There’s a home safe, a tiny latch that can be used for cabinets or delivery boxes, and a new smart door lock for Europe and a few other parts of the world.

Let’s start with the door lock, because it actually solves the most interesting problem of the bunch. It’s named after Yale’s founder, so it’s called the Linus Smart Lock and looks like a beefed-up, professionalized version of the regular August Smart Lock. Its chief innovation has little to do with the circuits or motors inside it.

Yale instead had to solve a different problem: making a single lock that could work across the many various standards you’ll find on doors throughout Europe. Different countries have very different door locks, torques, number of turns the deadbolt has to make, and so on. So Yale made a modular system that can work with multiple mounting backplates for each region.

It’s Bluetooth, but if you get a Yale Wi-Fi bridge you can sync it up with a digital assistant. It should retail for €250 (about $277). It will work in “Nordic, Central, Eastern and Southern European countries as well as the UK, Israel, Middle East and South Africa.”

Yale is also releasing a smart safe. The company says lots of people forget their safe pins because they access them so rarely, so having a smart one will make it less likely people will be fully locked out of getting to their valuables.

The last new product will be released globally — including in the US. It’s a tiny smart latch that you can use in multiple contexts. Yale suggests putting it on a liquor cabinet, for example, or on a drawer you don’t want Airbnb guests to access.

The more interesting use case for the little lock comes when it’s paired with a delivery box — pictured up top. It should keep most casual thieves from accessing packages that are dropped off in it.

The hassle, though, is giving delivery people access. Until Yale can form partnerships with delivery companies, it has a different solution. They suggest you leave it unlocked and then, when it detects the lid is open, it will automatically lock itself when it’s closed again. You can of course remotely lock or unlock it if you have more packages coming. It’s not a super elegant solution, but it’s easier than getting UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and the USPS to all agree on a standard for secure delivery.

It’s not a super strong lock, of course. In fact, it has a safety mechanism that releases it if you pull on it with about 100 pounds of force. There’s another safety mechanism: a big button that blinks with a bright green light. You press it and the latch will open. That’s for kids who might climb into the box and get trapped.

All of these products are expected to come out later this year, some as early as spring. They’re all compatible with both Yale’s own app as well as the major digital assistants.

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Technology

Smart tech is coming for your last safe space: the bathroom

There’s no shortage of gadgets at CES ready to invade the last bastion of privacy at home: the bathroom. The intruders aren’t just startups hoping to revolutionize the way we use the bathroom or even companies that manufacture the fixtures we need to get ready each morning. Brands that make personal hygiene products — like Bic, Oral-B, and Charmin — also want in on the action.

These brands want to start collecting data as they get closer to our crevices. In exchange, they offer detailed information about how much grime is on our teeth — or even how much our poop stinks. In theory, users can have more personalized personal time, and the companies can get some more information as they start building their next iteration of devices. But do we really need any of this? Probably not.

Bic unveiled a prototype for an AI-enabled razor and accompanying app on January 6th. The shaver tracks everything from hair density, shaving speed, the number of strokes, time spent shaving, and blade dullness to environmental factors like temperature and humidity. All of that information is supposed to deliver its users a more personalized shave and improve the razors of the future. The company is enlisting people to try out the prototype so that it can gather data to “create its next generation of shavers, perfectly adapted to today’s users, their different skin types and their shaving habits,” according to its website.

While the benefits of Bic’s data collection might still be ahead, a new generation of smart toothbrushes is already vying for a spot in our medicine cabinets. Oral-B and Colgate have toothbrushes on the market that can tell you how to brush better by tracking your movements while you’re in the act. They brought new models to CES again this year. Colgate’s new Plaqless Pro Toothbrush glows blue when it comes across plaque buildup. Just think of it like the blade Sting from The Lord of the Rings in the presence of orcs… if the orcs were fortifying locations in your mouth instead of Middle-earth.

Charmin didn’t take itself too seriously while imagining the bathroom of the future at CES. It showed off a prototype sensor, shaped like its trademark bear, that “sniffs” the air so that it can warn you if the bathroom smells awful. It works by detecting carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide “found in a *toot* or *two*,” according to a press release. Based on the sensor’s reading, a separate display monitor will indicate if it’s safe to enter the bathroom or if you’re in for a doozy. Charmin’s also got a prototype “RollBot,” which is a robot shaped like a bear that you can summon to grab a new roll of toilet paper using your smartphone if you’re ever in a pinch.

“The concepts we’re bringing to CES are a playful way to showcase our relentless obsession with helping people Enjoy the Go now and into the future,” Rob Reinerman, Charmin’s brand director, said in a statement.

Do consumers need brands’ “relentless obsession” with enhancing our most intimate moments? Kohler has a smart toilet, mirror, showerhead, and tub to perfectly set the mood with lights, sound, and temperature controls. But razors, toothbrushes, and toilet paper — stuff we get so up close and personal with — are a different ballgame. Personal hygiene products probably don’t need to worry about getting left behind if they don’t hop on the “smart home” bandwagon. We’ll still need something to wipe our butts.

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Technology

Foldable and dual-screen laptops desperately need Windows 10X

Microsoft officially unveiled Windows 10X last year, alongside its Surface Neo dual-screen device. Windows 10X is an ambitious effort to redesign the operating system for devices that have dual screens and even foldable displays. We’ve started to see some of this hardware at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week, but it’s all lacking the key software element: Windows 10X.

While Microsoft has promised Windows 10X devices from Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Asus, most of the PC makers aren’t ready to show what they’re planning just yet. Lenovo unveiled its ThinkPad X1 Fold this week — a $2,499 PC with a folding OLED screen — but it will crucially ship this year with Windows 10 Pro instead of Windows 10X. Lenovo is promising a Windows 10X version later, but it’s unclear when exactly that will happen.

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold

Lenovo’s X1 Fold looks like a primary candidate for Windows 10X, but the Chinese PC maker is pressing on with a launch without it. That either suggests Microsoft is behind on Windows 10X or Lenovo is pushing ahead aggressively and likely prematurely.

Windows 10X is key to a device like the X1 Fold because Microsoft is building in a variety of ways to handle apps across multiple displays directly into the operating system. Lenovo has instead built its own software to sit on top of Windows 10 to make it more friendly for separating apps, but that’s exactly what Windows 10X is supposed to offer natively.

Microsoft has been working on 10X for years, mindful that Intel and other OEMs were pushing toward foldable and dual-screen hardware quicker than Windows could keep up. Microsoft wants Windows 10X to be ready for PC makers to take advantage of this new wave of hardware, but it’s clearly still months away from being ready.

Windows 10X
Image: Lenovo

Asus, Dell, and HP have also not yet revealed any dual-screen or foldable Windows devices, but most of them are playing around with some prototype ideas. Dell introduced concept foldable and dual-screen laptops this week, and Asus introduced a smaller 14-inch dual-screen laptop. All of these devices, including Intel’s folding concept, are also running a standard version of Windows 10 that’s not designed with this new hardware in mind.

It’s fair to say that Windows 10 looks janky and awkward in dual-screen and foldable hardware demonstrations. It reminds me of the early days of touchscreen laptops, back when Windows 7 wasn’t designed and built around screens you could touch. Microsoft then went all-in on touchscreens with Windows 8 to much criticism, and is now taking a careful approach with Windows 10X.

PC makers look set to announce more of these foldable and dual-screen devices this year, but any haste will be met with the realization that these machines desperately need something beyond Windows 10. During my brief time with the Surface Neo, it was clear that Microsoft has solved a variety of potential pain points with this hardware by running Windows 10X. PC makers and Microsoft also have to weigh up what multiple displays do to battery life, how apps run, and the pure weight and thickness of a device.

Microsoft’s Surface Neo
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

We’ve already seen Samsung rush to market early with a foldable Android device that needed to be re-engineered before it even hit store shelves. If PC makers like Lenovo rush into foldable and dual-screen hardware without Windows 10X, they need to have some stunning software alternatives to avoid souring the market.

A lot rests on Windows 10X being a success for these devices. There’s no guarantee it will even be good enough for this hardware, or get the app support it requires. Microsoft needs to deliver the software and experiences that make dual-screen and foldable hardware shine. We’re still waiting to hear more about 10X, but 2020 has only just begun and Microsoft’s Build developer conference kicks off in May followed by Computex in June. For now, all of the potential hardware for 10X looks lost without it.

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Technology

Segway’s S-Pod looks weird, but it’s a lot of fun to drive

Segway’s newest self-balancing vehicle looks strange, but what’s new? Segways have always made riders look like technological fools. At least in Segway’s newest vehicle, the egg-shaped S-Pod wheelchair thing, you can wave at your haters from a comfortably seated position as you roll on by.

And I’ll tell you what: looking cool was the last thing on my mind when I got to drive the S-Pod around at Segway-Ninebot’s booth at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, because this thing is actually a lot of fun.

The S-Pod was announced late last week ahead of CES, and it serves as a sort of more relaxed spiritual successor to the original Segway and its many iterations. It allegedly has a mind-boggling top speed of 24 miles per hour, though the unit I drove on the show floor was speed limited to 7.5 mph. And it’s slated to be released in the second half of 2020, likely in fleet form first before any direct-to-consumer sales ever happen.

I found the S-Pod to be more fun than a stand-up Segway because there was almost no learning curve. There’s no need to find your balance, since the S-Pod is controlled with a joystick on the right side of the seat. Push forward to go forward, back to go in reverse, and to the left or right to spin in place. Moving the joystick between 10 and 11 o’clock or 1 and 2 o’clock will let you turn left or right, respectively, while maintaining speed. Overall, the S-Pod is somehow pretty nimble despite being what must be a relatively heavy piece of equipment.

Like its predecessors, the S-Pod has just a few “features.” There was a light strip over my right shoulder that communicates the battery level, and there are more lights on the back that serve as turn signals. The colors of these lights can be customized using a tablet that pops out of the left armrest. There’s also a horn button, though that didn’t work on the prototype I drove.

But the most impressive thing about the S-Pod is that it is rock solid despite the fact that the giant chair sits on just two wheels. It never once felt like the S-Pod was going to tip over in any direction, regardless of whether I was stopped or taking turns around sharp corners. From the moment I turned on the S-Pod and it lifted me up into the active position, it was easy to feel Segway’s many years of experience with self-balancing gyroscopic technology.

Alas, this is CES, and things tend to go wrong with even the best prototypes. At the very end of my ride, the joystick came loose, and the Segway egg (and I) crashed into the wall. Thankfully, there was no great fall.

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Tutorials

9 Clever Ideas for Small Space Organizing and Storage

Small space living has it’s perks, but trying to keep things organized in a tiny house is not one of them. 

Use storage with a small footprint. 9 Clever Ideas for Organization & Storage in Small Spaces. #blanketladder #storage #ideas #organization

Whether you actually live in a tiny house though, OR it just feels like you do, getting a whole house organized can feel a bit intimidating.

But it doesn’t have to be – with a few small changes, you can tame that clutter in no time. So today I’m sharing 9 tips and tricks for organizing your home, to make things just a little bit (read: a whole lot) easier for all of us.

9 Clever Ideas for Small Space Organizing

Looking for bedroom organization ideas? Living room storage ideas? Or maybe just simple DIY organization ideas? Whatever it is, I have you covered!

Even if you’re house isn’t exactly on the ‘small’ side though, there are still plenty of great take aways here! Because small home or not, we could all use a little help in this department every now and again!

1. When it comes to seeking out storage, go high whenever you can.

You may not have a ton of floor space, but usually there’s no shortage of vertical space.

Installing a simple set of brackets and a piece of plywood is an affordable and easy way to bring order to closets and living areas. Add cute boxes and baskets to hide winter clothes, unused toys, and guest linens. (Image via Avenue Lifestyle)

One of the easiest solutions for home organization is to add storage under your furniture. To up the aesthetics, choose opaque woven containers or wood crates instead of clear plastic bins, and you won't even have to keep them hidden. #organization #organized

2. Can’t go high? Go low!

One of the easiest solutions for home organization is to add storage under your furniture, especially when it comes to bedroom organization ideas. Hello, under the bed storage!

But under the bed storage doesn’t necessarily mean those clear plastic bins you can pick up at Target or The Container Store (although those are great options if you want to keep things hidden). To up the aesthetics, try cool woven containers or wood crates instead of clear plastic bins, and you won’t even have to hide them away. (Image via Apartment Therapy)

DIY hat hanging from A Pair & A Spare. 9 Clever Ideas for Organization & Storage in Small Spaces. #hat #storage #diy #hanging #ideas #organization

3. Take advantage of that wall space.

I am a huge fan of this one! Hang some of your favorite items on the walls instead of taking up valuable closet or floor space. A Pair & A Spare has a simple DIY hanging project that’s great for items like all those straw hats you “accidentally” bought this summer.  (Image via A Pair & A Spare)

OR try something like my DIY pegrail for organizing hanging items, nice and neat in a row. Not a fan? What about these DIY wall hooks? They look like wooden bubbles for your wall! And I’m pretty into that, personally.

Still not quite right? What about this hanging wall organizer made of canvas? It’s durable AND cute! Plus, you can use it in so many different ways – in your office or craft space to organize supplies, in an entryway for mail and keys, even in your closet for shoes and accessories.

Create a cool headboard to keep all your bedtime reading more organized. For more organizational tips for taming the clutter, click through. #getorganized #organization #organized #organizationalideas #cozybedroom

4. Head over the bed.

Most of the space over the bed is reserved for headboards and artwork, but what about shelving? Or maybe even a headboard that is also shelving?!

Create a cool headboard to keep all your bedtime reading more organized, like these dramatic floor to ceiling built-ins. So pretty, right? And I love the color too. (Image via Dwell)

 One of the most overlooked places for added storage is the back of the door and the side of the fridge. Adding hanging shelves or towel racks, etc to these areas can help cut down on clutter, especially in the smallest of spaces. #organization #kitchen

5. Maximize unexpected spaces.

One of the most overlooked places for added storage is the back of the door and the side of the fridge. Adding hanging shelves or towel racks, etc to these areas can help cut down on clutter, especially in the smallest of spaces. (Image via Burke Decor)

And honestly, they make some really good looking options now. Like the one in the photo, for example – it’s a magnetic kitchen rack!

Mix hidden and open shelving for easier organization. 9 Clever Ideas for Organization & Storage in Small Spaces. #cabinet #storage #ideas #organization #desk

6. Mix hidden storage with open storage.

So you have a lot of stuff? I get it, so do I!

Try combining storage with doors along with open shelving, so you can hide the practical stuff, but not loose character in your space. Maybe start with an IKEA hack for this one. (Image via Est Living)

Pro organizer tip: One of the keys to success when it comes to small space organizing, is keeping the stuff you use most often in the easiest place to get to. Take the image above for example… A good spot for things you use all the time might be the shelf behind those closed doors that’s at you eyeline. OR it might be the baskets underneath that you can quickly pop in and out.

Check behind the mirror for extra storage. 9 Clever Ideas for Organization & Storage in Small Spaces. #bathroom #mirror #storage #ideas #organization #urbanoutfitters

7. Check behind the mirror.

I’m not talking about those old school medicine cabinets our parents still have (although they are perfect for hoarding those skin products I only use once a blue moon).

There are so many modern bathroom storage solutions that can help keep your vanity clear and organized, like this sliding storage mirror. I bet you could even make your now, if you feel like tackling a DIY. (Image via Urban Outfitters)

Use storage with a small footprint. 9 Clever Ideas for Organization & Storage in Small Spaces. #blanketladder #storage #ideas #organization

8. Stick with small footprints.

If you’re going to use some of that precious floor space, keep it as small and tall as possible.

Blanket ladders, like this one spotted on Homey Oh My (which I also happen to have in my house), have grown in popularity over the years (I had two or three at the studio).

Why are blanket ladders so popular? My guess is it’s because they don’t require much space and are a great way to display your favorite textiles. They’re also a good solution for the not-dirty-enough-for-the-wash-not-clean-enough-for-the-closet clothes that tend to land on the bedroom floor. Haha. (Image via Homey Oh My)

Swap out traditional seating for a trendy storage bench like this one from Avenue Lifestyle. There's tons of room for anything that you want to hide away, plus a cute place to sit and read or take a nap. #organization #organized

9. Work in dual-purpose furniture whenever possible.

Swap out traditional seating for a trendy storage bench like this one from Avenue Lifestyle. There’s tons of room for anything that you want to hide away, plus a cute place to sit and read or take a nap. (Image via Avenue Lifestyle)

What clever ideas for organization in small spaces do you have? What did I miss?

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Neon CEO explains the tech behind his overhyped ‘artificial humans’

The most buzzed-about company at CES 2020 doesn’t make a gadget you can see or touch. It doesn’t even have a product yet. But for reasons I’m still not entirely sure I grasp, the lead-up to this week’s show in Las Vegas was dominated by discussion of a project called Neon, which has emerged from a previously unknown Samsung subsidiary known as STAR Labs.

What Neon has been promising is so ambitious that it’s easy to swing your expectations around full circle and assume the mundane. The project’s Twitter bio simply reads “Artificial Human,” which could mean anything from an AI chatbot to a full-on android. Promotional videos posted in the run-up to CES, however, suggested that Neon would very much be closer to the former.

Yesterday, we were finally able to see the technology for ourselves. And they are, indeed, just digital avatars, albeit impressively realistic ones. We weren’t able to interact with Neon ourselves, and the demonstration we did see was extremely rough. But the concept and the technology is ambitious enough that we’re still pretty intrigued. (To get a clear idea of the tech’s limitations, check out this interaction between a CNET journalist and a Neon avatar.)

After a low-key event on the CES show floor, we caught up with Neon CEO Pranav Mistry to chat about the project.

Even at a youthful-looking 38, Mistry is a tech industry veteran who’s worked on products like Xbox hardware at Microsoft and the original Galaxy Gear at Samsung. “It was completely my baby, from design to technology,” he recalls of the early smartwatch. As VP of research at Samsung he later moved on to projects like Gear VR, but with Neon he’s now spearheading an initiative without direct oversight from the parent company.

“Right now you can say that [STAR Labs is] owned by Samsung,” Mistry tells me. “But that won’t necessarily always be the case. There’s no technology relation or product relation between what STAR Labs does and Samsung. There’s no Samsung logos anywhere, there’s nothing to do with Bixby or any other product that’s part of Samsung. Even what we’re planning to show at CES — no-one at Samsung other than me knows about it or can tell me not to do it.”

Mistry speaks at a thousand miles an hour, and one day I would very much like to sit down with him for a longer chat conducted at a less breakneck pace. At various points he invoked Einstein, Sagan, and da Vinci in an attempt to convey the lofty goals he was aiming to achieve with Neon. It was never less than entertaining. My focus, however, was on figuring out how Neon works and what it actually is.

Neon CEO Pranav Mistry on stage at CES 2020.

The Neon project is — or as the company would say, “Neons are” — realistic human avatars that are computationally generated and can interact with you in real time. At this point, each Neon is created from footage of an actual person that is fed into a machine-learning model, although Mistry says Neon could ultimately just generate their appearances from scratch.

I asked how much video would be required to capture the likeness of a person, and Mistry said “nothing much.” The main limitation right now is the requirement for a large amount of local processing power to render each avatar live — the demo I saw at CES was running on an ultra-beefy PC with two 128-core CPUs. Mistry notes that commercial applications would likely run in the cloud, however, and doesn’t see latency as a major hurdle because there wouldn’t need to be a huge amount of data streamed at once.

The CES demo featured a Neon employee interacting with a virtual avatar of a woman with close-cropped hair and dressed in all-black. I’d seen video of this woman, among other people, playing around the Neon booth ahead of Mistry’s presentation — at least, I thought it was video. Mistry, however, swears that it was entirely computer-generated footage, albeit pre-rendered rather than captured in real time.

Well, okay. That’s not necessarily impressive — we’ve all seen what deepfakes can do with much less effort. What’s different about Neon is the promised real-time aspect, and the focus on intangible human-like behavior. Multiple times, the avatar I mentioned before was told to smile on command by the employee conducting the demonstration. But, according to Mistry, she’d no more produce the same identical smile each time than you would. Each expression, action, or phrase is calculated on the fly, based on the AI model that’s been built up for each Neon.

This is all by design, and Mistry even says Neon is willing to focus on humanity at the expense of functionality. For example, these avatars aren’t intended to be assistants at their owners’ beck and call — they’ll sometimes “get tired” and need time to themselves. According to Mistry, this cuts to the core of why Neon is using language like “artificial human” in the first place.

“I feel that if you call something a digital avatar or AI assistant or something like that, it means you’re calling them a machine already,” Mistry says. “You are not thinking in the terms of a friend. It can only happen when we start feeling the same kind of respect. I’ve been working on this for a long time. In order to design this thing I need to think in those terms. If they are human, what are the limits they will have? Can they work 24 hours and answer all your questions? A Neon can get tired. Programmatically, computationally, that will make you feel ‘Okay, let me only engage in certain discussions. This is my friend.’”

The obvious question, then, is what’s the use case for an artificial human AI with artificial flaws? On stage, Mistry mentioned possible implementations from personal assistants to foreign language tutors. Then again, he literally said “there is no business model” a few minutes later, so I had to follow up on that point.

“There are a lot of people in the world that people remember,” Mistry says. “I was an architect and a designer before, and there are a few people that are remembered like that like Einstein, or Picasso, or some musicians in India, and we know their names not because they were rich but because of what they contributed to the world. And that is what I want to end up being, because I have everything else. Do I have enough money to live with? Yeah, more than enough. What I want to give back to the world is something that’s remembered after I go. Because you don’t know how rich Michelangelo was — no-one cares!”

“But you’re going to be selling this technology to people, right?” I say, somewhat bewildered.

“Of course. What I’m pointing out is that we believe Neons will bring more human aspects and maybe we will license that technology, or not technology as a license but Neons [themselves] as a license. Just to make a point, of course we are not saying we’re a philanthropic company. But the goal is not to build around data and money and so on. Because I want to get a good night’s sleep after 20 years.”

The concept of ultra-realistic, entirely artificial humans with minds of their own raises obvious questions of nefarious use cases, particularly in a time of heightened fears about political misinformation, and very real examples of AI being used to create non-consensual pornography. I asked Mistry whether he’d considered the potential for negative side effects. “Of course,” he said, comparing Neon to how nuclear technology generates electricity while also being used for weapons of mass destruction. “Every technology has pros and cons — it’s up to us as humans how we look at that.”

Will Neon limit who it sells the tech to, then? Mistry says the company will “more than limit” the tech by encoding restrictions “in hardware.” But he’s not clear what restrictions would be encoded or how.

Neon still has a long way to go. Even allowing for the unfavorable network environment of a CES show floor, the demonstration’s responses were delayed and linguistically stilted. As someone with an interest in AI and natural language processing, I could see that there’s something to hype here. But I could also see that the average layperson would remain underwhelmed. It’s also worth reiterating that Neon isn’t allowing private demos at CES beyond its staged presentations, reinforcing the idea that the technology is far from ready.

Still, even if the “artificial human” pitch is a little over-egged, Neon is actually more ambitious than I’d assumed. And, despite the pre-CES hype, Mistry is entirely open about the fact that there’s basically no product to show. The message right now, in fact, is to come back in a year and see where Neon is then. If real progress has been made by CES 2021, then, maybe we’ll get excited.

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Sonos’ Google lawsuit says what every smaller tech company was thinking: working with big tech sucks

It’s the first “official” day of CES, when glitzy keynotes are replaced with grungy, sweaty crowds shuffling from booth to booth set up on the hideous carpets of the Las Vegas show floor. I love it.

I intentionally kept my calendar as open as possible so I could go experience the full spectrum of what’s on tap here this year. I saw everything from the neon-lit horde in Samsung City (what we call its massive booth) to the locker-room-smelling funk of “Eureka Park,” where the tiniest of businesses rent the tiniest of kiosks, all crammed together by the thousands.

Employees from every part of that spectrum are out tonight and I feel very confident in saying that many of them are raising a toast in thanks to a company that isn’t here: Sonos.

As often happens at CES, the biggest news of CES didn’t happen at CES and yet was nevertheless custom designed for maximum impact at CES: Sonos has sued Google for allegedly stealing smart speaker tech.

The New York Times story that broke the news contains many eye-popping details if you’ve followed the saga of getting the Google Assistant working on Sonos speakers. It was a process that took seemingly forever, and despite asking many, many times why it took so long, nobody could give a satisfactory answer for why.

I asked Google for comment on the Sonos suit and got the same one as before, however this time with a new line, emphasized below:

Over the years, we have had numerous ongoing conversations with Sonos about both companies’ IP rights and we are disappointed that Sonos brought these lawsuits instead of continuing negotiations in good faith. Google’s technology was developed independently by Google — it was not copied from Sonos. We dispute these claims and will defend them vigorously.

That new line is Google explicitly saying it didn’t copy Sonos’ technology, but it doesn’t address Sonos’ claims that it told Google it was infringing Sonos’ patents four times since 2016. And not copying something on purpose doesn’t mean you haven’t infringed the patents, especially if the patent owner keeps telling you there’s a problem.

Nilay Patel has pointed out that Sonos has already won a case against Denon with at least two of these patents. So I wouldn’t expect either Google or Sonos to stand down quickly on this lawsuit. I am very far from qualified to talk about the merits of the lawsuit itself, but I think the reason the news hit so hard is that it tonally feels right.

Likely because it could affect the proceedings, Sonos executives weren’t directly quoted in the NYT outside of a prepared statement from CEO Patrick Spence. They seem to have spoken bluntly with Jack Nicas and Daisuke Wakabayashi about what’s been going on, however. This paragraph in particular rings true to me:

Like many companies under the thumb of Big Tech, Sonos groused privately for years. But over the past several months, Patrick Spence, Sonos’s chief executive, decided he couldn’t take it anymore.

This (in addition to some off-the-record comments from another company’s executive from that were relayed to me) is why I am quite confident that a lot of people are thanking Sonos for forcefully saying (forcefully suing?) what they’ve all been thinking for a long time.

This all relates to the theme I wrote about earlier this week: that CES is seen to not matter because only smaller companies bother trying to make a splash here anymore. Over the course of years, more and more types of gadgets have become vassals of an ecosystem run by a bigger company.

This trend has only accelerated with the rise of digital assistants. Where before the gadgets that were beholden to big platforms tended to be phone accessories, everything is now supposed to work with Alexa, the Google Assistant, and Siri.

So CES is, in some ways, a convention where tens of thousands of people from thousands of companies meet to show off how they intend to survive in a world ruled by the big tech companies. No wonder it’s less relevant than ever.

Will this open a floodgate of other companies coming out and saying publicly what they’ve felt privately, that they’re increasingly spending their time thinking about Amazon and Google instead of their customers?

In some places, smaller tech companies already are. They’re just speaking in places with stronger regulatory protections to curb Big Tech, places like the European Union. Spotify’s lawsuit against Apple’s App Store “tax” comes to mind.

Here in the US, the step before going public is likely all of those people talking to each other about it, probably over drinks in Las Vegas. Sonos perfectly timed its announcement so that it would be the talk of the show, one hour before the doors opened. Usually at CES, the awkward thing you say when you don’t know what to say is “How is the show for you? Seen anything good?” Yesterday, it was “Did you see the news about Sonos? Whoa.”

The other thing that rings true in the NYT story is the detail that Google told Sonos it would pull Google Assistant support if Sonos enabled simultaneous wake words. That’s the feature which lets speakers listen for both “Alexa” and “Okay Google” at the same time. Google really comes off looking like a bully.

Amazon doesn’t come out of this story cleanly, either. Apparently Amazon also threatened to pull support at one point, and according to the NYT, the only reason Sonos didn’t also sue Amazon was that it can’t afford to take both companies on at once.

It all could put a radically different spin on Amazon’s motivations for forming an alliance to get companies to make their assistants to interoperate. An alliance Google hasn’t joined, by the way, and neither have Apple or Samsung.

In an interview with Chris Welch of The Verge last night, Amazon hardware boss Dave Limp said that “we would never ask any company for exclusivity.” But he dodged a bit when asked if Echoes hurt Sonos’ chances in the market, saying:

As long as they and others continue to differentiate, customers will find them. It’s not about at any given time, a price point or a set of features. It’s about how do you define your brand and what your brand stands for and how it’s differentiated. And I’m very optimistic that Sonos can navigate that path.

Chris’ full interview with Dave Limp will be up on The Verge later this morning, keep an eye out for it.

Four years ago I wrote a piece warning that the move to digital assistants would mean that a lot more of what we see “online” (if that term even applies to talking to a smart speaker) would be determined by backroom deals. It turns out I wasn’t pessimistic enough: those same deals are also determining what kind of gadgets get made and what they’re allowed to do in the first place.

It’s no wonder so many of the people here at CES feel like they need a drink.


CES News

Listen to The Vergecast’s first CES 2020 episode

We’ll do a couple of Vergecast chat shows this week — this was the first and only one we did live. Always love doing a podcast in front of a live audience. Thank you to all who came!

Also: I know I promised category roundup and they’re coming, but have decided to leave them to our reporters who are best suited to each one. In the meantime, here’s what happened yesterday.

I tasted Impossible Pork at CES 2020

Well, not me. Liz Lopatto and Becca Farsace did. Apparently it’s pretty accurate but really salty. Don’t miss the video.

Inside Intel’s Ghost Canyon NUC, the incredibly small modular desktop PC

Intel is taking two different ideas it’s been working on for awhile and crammed them together to make something genuinely interesting. The idea is to make your CPU and motherboard as easily replaceable as any other part. Intel has some other manufacturers on board with the idea, too.

Razer’s first desktop gaming PC is the stunning modular Tomahawk

…like Razer, for example.

The best part of the OnePlus Concept One isn’t the disappearing camera

Add another concept to the pile I wrote about yesterday. Really happy with how this video turned out.

Delta will add a ‘binge button’ to its inflight entertainment screens

Everyone, including me, is assuming that dozens of people trying to pair Bluetooth headphones to their seatback entertainment systems will be a disaster. But what if it just sort of turns out to not be that bad? It’s not like Bluetooth pairing is a wonderful experience anyway.

Delta recently started retrofitting its planes with new wireless seatback screens, which frees up more room underneath each seat. These new screens will also allow passengers to use Bluetooth headphones during their flights. … The screens will also be able to mirror your smartphone, and Delta says other new features will be added at a quicker pace than in the past.

The Google Assistant will be able to read articles out loud in 42 languages and will finally let you schedule actions for later

Phone accessories are still a thing

Insta360’s One R shape-shifts between a 360 and an action camera

Becca Farsace has been using this completely modular and completely endearing camera system for a little while. You can swap out camera modules, adjust the screen to face the direction you want, and take it underwater to boot.

Pretty much every modular gadget in recent memory has been a bust. For whatever reason, I feel like this one makes enough sense that it could have a shot. It’s really quite clever. Becca has full impressions of what it’s like to use.

Razer made another Switch-like mobile gamepad, but this one works with Android and iOS

Gamepads you attach to your phone have until recently felt like weird curiosities. They still are in some ways, but with Apple Arcade, Microsoft xCloud, PlayStation Remote Play, and Google Stadia maybe that could change.

PopSockets made its own wireless charging pad so you don’t have to take the PopSocket off your phone

I know know if this will get me to become a PopSocket person, but I do know that the wireless charging hassles was blocking me from becoming one before today. Really good idea and glad to see the designs aren’t boring.



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Facebook’s deepfakes ban has some obvious workarounds

We’re used to social networks waiting until the damage has already been done before announcing a cleanup effort. When it comes to the synthetic media known as “deepfakes,” they’ve been notably ahead of the curve. In November, Twitter announced a draft policy on deepfakes and began soliciting public input. And on Monday night, Facebook announced that it would ban certain manipulated photos and videos from the platform. Here’s the blog post from Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president of global policy management:

Going forward, we will remove misleading manipulated media if it meets the following criteria:

– It has been edited or synthesized – beyond adjustments for clarity or quality – in ways that aren’t apparent to an average person and would likely mislead someone into thinking that a subject of the video said words that they did not actually say. And:

– It is the product of artificial intelligence or machine learning that merges, replaces or superimposes content onto a video, making it appear to be authentic.

This policy does not extend to content that is parody or satire, or video that has been edited solely to omit or change the order of words.

The move comes ahead of a planned hearing Wednesday about misinformation at which Bickert is scheduled to speak.

The change represents a significant step forward at a time where anxieties over deepfakes, and their potential role in shaping the 2020 election, are running high. The technology is improving at a steady clip: see these companies selling synthetic (but convincing) people to populate dating apps. It’s not hard to imagine an unscrupulous campaign posting synthetic videos on Facebook or Instagram of their opponent saying or doing something they didn’t. As of today, that’s officially against policy.

Notably — and contra to what Facebook initially said — the policy will apply to advertisements as well as regular posts. Create a phony video of your opponent clubbing a baby seal and Facebook will make (yet another) exception to its policy against fact-checking political speech in advertisements, and remove anything found to be fake.

Still, some doubts lingered. Nina Jankowicz, who has a book coming out this year on Russian disinformation operations, said she is “still more worried about cheap fakes than deep fakes. Crudely edited, deliberately misleading videos and images are still effective, and they’re still allowed on most platforms.”

What’s a cheap fake? Something like this video of campaign workers doing a corny dance in support of presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. In reality, they aren’t campaign workers at all — they’re audience members at an improv show filming a bit for a comedian, who shared it on a Twitter profile he had edited to make it appear as if he worked for Bloomberg. The ruse was exposed relatively quickly, but plenty of people still fell for it.

There are all sorts of ways to trick people like this. You can also grab an old video and put a new date on it, or just tweet it as if it’s brand new. You can Photoshop. You don’t need a state-of-the-art media lab to wreak havoc. That’s one reason why, even as the technology improved, information operations haven’t yet seemed very interested in deepfakes, as my colleague Russell Brandom wrote last year. “Uploading an algorithmically doctored video is likely to attract attention from automated filters, while conventional film editing and obvious lies won’t,” Brandom wrote. “Why take the risk?”

There’s one last workaround to Facebook’s new rule: comedy. For good reason, Facebook permits people to post satire and parody. Unfortunately, this rule is often exploited by fake-news purveyors and other sites adept at straddling the line between comedy and misinformation. Last week, in the wake of the military strike in Iran, an article titled “Democrats Call For Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast To Grieve Death Of Soleimani” was posted to a site called the Babylon Bee. From there, it was shared more than 660,000 times on Facebook.

Surely some of the people who shared the article knew that the Babylon Bee is a satirical site. But read the comments in the original Facebook post and you’ll see that just as many seem to believe the article is real. In the flattened design of the News Feed, where every shared article carries equal weight, it can be hard to tell.

All these many asterisks help explain why Democratic politicians seem mostly unimpressed with Facebook’s deepfakes ban. “Facebook wants you to think the problem is video-editing technology, but the real problem is Facebook’s refusal to stop the spread of disinformation,” said a spokeswoman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the unwitting star of a famously misleading (though not deepfaked) viral video last year.

Joe Biden’s campaign struck a similar note: “Facebook’s policy does not get to the core issue of how their platform is being used to spread disinformation, but rather how professionally that disinformation is created.”

Still, Monday’s action doesn’t preclude the company from addressing some of these nuances down the road. And the more we see this sort of thing in 2020, I suspect that it will. In the meantime, one of the big platforms has established at least a partial bulwark against the infocalypse — though its strength will depend entirely on how strongly Facebook defends it. Policy, as ever, is what you enforce.

Update

Before the break, I reported here that Pinterest had cut contractors’ vacation benefits, forcing them to work over the holiday if they wanted to be paid during Christmas week. After I published that piece, employees were upset, and the company reversed course. Contractors got their paid week off after all, just like Pinterest’s full-time employees. “We realized our communication of this change may have come too late in the year for people to plan accordingly for this holiday season,” a spokesman told me.”

Not much more to say here, other than that journalism is the best job in the world and don’t let nobody ever tell you different.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Facebook fundraisers have generated $37 million for fire relief in Australia, the company says. Actor Celeste Barber’s fundraiser alone raised $30 million from 1.1 million people, and is now the largest fundraiser in Facebook history.

Trending sideways: Facebook is setting up a new engineering team in Singapore to focus on its lucrative China ad business. The news comes as CEO Mark Zuckerberg has ramped up criticism of the country over human-rights issues.

Trending sideways: Shares of Google hit an all-time high yesterday, closing out at $1,397.81 per share. Apparently, investors are unfazed by the ongoing antitrust investigation into the company, as well as employee unrest.

Governing

The FBI asked Apple to help unlock two iPhones linked to a shooting at Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida last month. Apple said it has been cooperating with the government and had already handed over all the data in its possession. Here’s what the company told Pete Williams at NBC:

“We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and have always worked cooperatively to help in their investigations,” Apple said in a statement. “When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago, we gave them all of the data in our possession and we will continue to support them with the data we have available.”

A law enforcement official said there’s an additional problem with one of the iPhones thought to belong to Alshamrani, who was killed by a deputy during the attack: He apparently fired a round into the phone, further complicating efforts to unlock it.

A leaked Facebook memo shows longtime executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth told employees that the company has a moral duty not to tilt the scales against President Trump in the 2020 election. Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac from The New York Times have the scoop:

In a meandering 2,500-word post, titled “Thoughts for 2020,” Mr. Bosworth weighed in on issues including political polarization, Russian interference and the news media’s treatment of Facebook. He gave a frank assessment of Facebook’s shortcomings in recent years, saying that the company had been “late” to address the issues of data security, misinformation and foreign interference. And he accused the left of overreach, saying that when it came to calling people Nazis, “I think my fellow liberals are a bit too, well, liberal.”

Boz then shared the memo in its entirety from his own Facebook page. Read it.

The White House unveiled 10 principles that federal agencies should consider when devising laws and rules for the use of artificial intelligence in the private sector, but stressed that a key concern should be limiting regulatory “overreach.” (James Vincent / The Verge)

The 2020 election is likely the most anticipated event in US history when it comes to digital security. Russia still poses a massive threat, as do Iran and China. Experts are also warning that it’s not just the general election that is at risk — the primaries will be a target, too. (Joseph Marks / The Washington Post)

Experts warn that the United States needs to be prepared for cyber retaliation from Iran, which employs different tactics than Russia. Iran has spent years building an online influence apparatus that uses fake websites and articles meant to mimic real news and disappear quickly. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

Sonos sued Google, seeking financial damages and a ban on the sale of Google’s speakers, smartphones and laptops in the United States. Sonos accused Google of infringing on five of its patents, including technology that lets wireless speakers connect and synchronize with one another. (Jack Nicas and Daisuke Wakabayashi / The New York Times)

A researcher dove into the narratives surrounding the death of Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, on one of Iran’s most popular social media platforms, Telegram.

As Taiwan gears up for a major election this week, officials and researchers worry that China is experimenting with social media manipulation to sway the vote. Voters are already awash in false or highly partisan information, making such tactics easy to hide. (Raymond Zhong / The New York Times)

Violence erupted at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India last week, after members of a student group — apparently coordinating through WhatsApp — attacked fellow students and teachers. An investigation into the group revealed who the attackers were and how they coordinated the violence. (Meghnad S, Prateek Goyal and Anukriti Malik / Newslaundry)

Industry

Politicians, parties, and governments, are hiring dark-arts public-relations firms to spread lies and misinformation. One firm promised to “use every tool and take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.” Craig Silverman, Jane Lytvynenko and William Kung have the story:

If disinformation in 2016 was characterized by Macedonian spammers pushing pro-Trump fake news and Russian trolls running rampant on platforms, 2020 is shaping up to be the year communications pros for hire provide sophisticated online propaganda operations to anyone willing to pay.

Also — the threat isn’t limited to the US:

Most recently, in late December, Twitter announced it removed more than 5,000 accounts that it said were part of “a significant state-backed information operation” in Saudi Arabia carried out by marketing firm Smaat. The same day, Facebook announced a takedown of hundreds of accounts, pages, and groups that it found were engaged in “foreign and government interference” on behalf of the government of Georgia. It attributed the operation to Panda, an advertising agency in Georgia, and to the country’s ruling party.

AI start-ups are selling pictures of computer-generated faces that appear to be real people. They offer companies a chance to “increase diversity” in their ads without needing human beings. They’ve also signed on dating apps that need more images of women. (Drew Harwell / The Washington Post)

The new trick to going viral on Instagram is making an Instagram filter, as seen by the bewilderingly popular “What Disney Character Are You?” sensation. This story breaks down how it works. (Chris Stokel-Walker / Input)

Michelle Obama launched an Instagram video series about students navigating their first year of college. The former First Lady partnered with digital media company ATTN: to launch a video series on IGTV, Instagram’s video platform. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

The CES gadget show in Las Vegas is all-in on surveillance technology, from face scanners that check in some attendees to the cameras-everywhere array of digital products. (Matt O’Brien / Associated Press)

And finally…

Woe unto the big tech executive who uses an extended metaphor about Lord of the Rings without checking his facts. Here’s Chaim Gartenberg on the Boz memo:

As part of his argument, Boz makes the comparison by citing none other than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to explain his decision. Facebook, Boz argues, is akin to Sauron’s One Ring, and wielding its power — even with noble intent — would only lead to ruin. […]

In Tolkien’s books and the film adaptations, Galadriel is concerned about the power of the Ring corrupting her — as it does all, save the Dark Lord himself. But not once does she contemplate using its power for good. “In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night!.. All shall love me and despair!” Tolkien writes.

Later, nerds.

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and Lord of the Rings analogies casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.



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