TIME innovations

Here’s Why a Lawnmower Roomba Wouldn’t Kill Anybody

iRobot Technology
Christian Science Monitor—Christian Science Monitor/Getty The features of the iRobot Roomba are demonstrated by an iRobot employee in a show room at the iRobot offices, on August 24, 2012 in Bedford, Massachusetts.

iRobot is designing it with safety as a top priority

iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.-based company famous for its Roomba vacuum-bot, has been floating the idea of an autonomous lawnmower device for years. But now the company is getting closer to bringing the idea to lawns across America, eliminating yet another tedious household chore.

Most automated lawnmowers available today typically require their owners to install cables underneath their yard to signal to the robots where to stop mowing, an expensive and time-consuming process. iRobot is going about it a different way. The company recently asked federal regulators for permission to use easier-to-install wireless beacons that could communicate with a robotic lawnmower, keeping it from going rogue and threatening your neighbor’s garden gnomes.

Still, lawnmowers are inherently more dangerous than vacuums. Roombas, after all, don’t have spinning death blades. How does iRobot plan on keeping the gardening gadget safe?

“Safety has to be a huge concern,” iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle told TIME, highlighting safety features baked into the Roomba that keep it from falling down stairs. “In order for a lawnmower to be similarly safe, you have to take the same amount of care. So you probably don’t go with one giant spinning blade, you probably go and do other things. You can make blades which are centripetally [designed], they’re lightweight, they’ll move so that they’re enough to cut grass. But if you put a hand in there, it might draw a little blood, but it won’t chop off your finger.”

Roomba needs permission from the Federal Communications Commission to go ahead with its plans because the wireless frequencies its beacons would use are shared by star-hunting astronomers’ radio telescopes. Angle says the FCC process is “ongoing,” but he’s optimistic the agency will support the company’s position that their system would pose little risk to extra-terrestrial science.

“I think the FCC folks understand whether infinitesimal risk of something is real or not, and they’ll go through the process,” said Angle. “We’re hopeful they’ll come out with a positive outcome.”

TIME Companies

Here’s How Many Dial-Up Subscribers Verizon Is Buying

Millions of people still have AOL dial-up

Verizon is buying AOL for $4.4 billion in cash, the companies announced Tuesday morning.

As Fortune’s Erin Griffith rightly points out, the deal is mostly a way for Verizon to get its hands on AOL’s advertising technology and video content operations:

Last year, the company earned $995 million from display and search ads on the media properties it owns. It earned almost as much — $856 million — from selling ads for third party sites. That’s the advertising technology business, and it’s AOL’s fastest-growing segment. It grew 39% between 2013 and 2014. Contrast that with revenue from its in-house media operations during the same period, where display ads fell 3% and search ads grew just 4%.

But if the merger goes through, Verizon will also acquire something more unusual: AOL’s approximately 2.2 million dial-up subscribers. That’s right — up to 2.2 million people still pay AOL to hear this sound every day:

The dial-up business is a mixed bag for AOL. The company’s adjusted operating income from the unit that includes dial-up subscriptions is down 8% year-over-year for the first quarter of 2015. But that unit still generated $126.6 million for the first quarter, compared to $104.1 million for the company as a whole.

Millions of people are still paying AOL for painfully slow dial-up Internet access for a few different reasons. At an average price of $20 a month, AOL’s dial-up is typically cheaper than broadband Internet, making it an attractive choice for poorer households. Meanwhile, 19 million Americans lack access to broadband Internet, per the Federal Communications Commission, meaning upgrading isn’t an option. And some of those AOL dial-up “customers” aren’t actually paying for the service at all. Instead, they’re getting their connection for free after threatening to cancel their subscription.

What Verizon does with AOL’s dial-up subscribers — or the rest of the company, for that matter — remains to be seen.

TIME Companies

Here’s Why Uber Would Spend $3 Billion on Maps

Uber Taxi App In Madrid
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez—Getty Images In this photo illustration the smart phone taxi app 'Uber' shows how to select a pick up location at Cibeles Square on October 14, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.

Maps are essential for driverless cars

Ride-hailing company Uber is willing to pay up to $3 billion for HERE, a Nokia-owned mapping service that competes with Google Maps, the New York Times reports.

Nokia, a Finnish company you probably best know for its trademark and stubbornly infectious ringtone, is undergoing a highly transformative shift. Once a leading smartphone maker, it’s now focusing networking hardware business. The biggest sign of that shift: Nokia sold its handset division to Microsoft for more than $7 billion last year. So it makes sense for Nokia to want to unload its mapping unit, for which it could earn a pretty penny while also increasing the company’s focus.

But why would Uber want a mapping company? Two reasons.

Uber’s backend systems are powered by Google Maps. When you load up Uber’s app and drop a pin for a pickup, that’s Google Maps. When your driver is following GPS directions to your destination, that’s Google Maps too. Uber’s recent moves into shipping packages rather than people signal it’s interested in becoming more of a full-on logistics company, akin more to UPS than your local yellow cab service. For Uber, having its own mapping unit would reduce its dependence on another company — Google — while it continues to evolve.

There’s another factor at play here, too. Uber executives haven’t been shy about their fondness for driverless cars; the company is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University to work on the technology. After all, robots don’t strike for higher wages, nor do they assault passengers.

Driverless cars need two things to work. The first is on-car sensors, which constantly monitor for changing road conditions that require an immediate response, like pedestrians and stop signs. The second is maps, which tell the car where to go on a bigger scale. For driverless cars to be feasible, the maps that power them have to be updated constantly. Imagine a driverless car doesn’t know that construction means a bridge is out, for instance: Dead end. Acquiring HERE, then, would help Uber more quickly realize a future where driverless cars get us all from A to B without us batting an eyelash.

TIME marketing

Why McDonalds’ Hamburglar Makes No Sense

McDonald's Hamburglar
McDonalds McDonald's Hamburglar

The numbers here don't add up

McDonalds sent the Internet into a temporary tailspin Tuesday when it announced it’s bringing back the Hamburglar, prompting a deeply strange discussion over whether or not the personified marketing tactic is effective.

But there’s a more important point to be made: The Hamburglar’s prime motivation— hamburger theft, hence the moniker—makes no sense, economically.

The stuff that’s most frequently targeted by thieves, like money, jewelry and cars, is stolen because it’s high-priced. That’s why smartphone makers are trying to reduce theft of mobile devices by letting their owners brick them from afar for example. If a stolen smartphone gets bricked, it’s no longer worth anything to potential buyers—which should in turn mean less smartphone theft overall.

Stealing hamburgers makes no sense because burgers keep their already low value for one, two hours tops. By then, they’re cold and inedible. (And don’t even try to pull that microwave nonsense, because nobody wants a reheated Big Mac.) Volume is a questionable motivation here too, because the Hamburglar’s method of stashing his burglared burgers in a big sack puts them at high risk of losing their structural integrity. (Speaking from anecdotal experience.)

You might argue the Hamburglar is stealing burgers for his own consumption, Cookie Monster style. But there’s little evidence of that. Just look at the guy—does that look like someone who subsists mostly on Big Macs? Hardly.

Then there’s the chance that, like The Dark Night’s Joker, the Hamburglar just wants to watch the world burn. He’s an element of chaos in McDonaldland, unpredictable and terrifying because his actions aren’t grounded in logic. That would make him terrifying. But until we see proof of that, you can rest easy: Hamburglar is nothing to be feared.

TIME Video Games

Nintendo’s New Game Could Save the Wii U

Paint-shooter 'Splatoon' is at once fun and deeply complex

Splatoon, Nintendo’s new paintball-esque shooter for the Wii U, could be the breakout hit of the summer.

I spent about a half-hour with Splatoon at a Nintendo event Wednesday afternoon. In the best mode of the game, you team up with three other players for a 4v4 showdown, the objective of which is to cover as much of a map’s territory with your team’s color before the clock runs out. To do that, you’re given a weapon that shoots paint, as well as a special attack, like paint bombs. You can also shoot or blow up opposing players, sending them back to their team’s respawn point.

Here’s where things get a little weird. Your cartoonish-looking character can also turn from a bipedal avatar into a squid, letting you swim quickly across ground already painted in your team’s color. While you’re in squid form, you’re much harder to see, and you reload your paint much more quickly—but you can’t attack anyone.

I’m bullish on Splatoon because it has a special balance shared by Nintendo’s best games, like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart.

On one hand, it’s very easy to learn Splatoon’s basics. You don’t even have to shoot other players, if that’s not your thing. You can just focus on laying down paint to help your team win. On the other, the combination of the game’s various weapons, the squid transformation effect and the multiplayer mode I described above combine to result in a complex strategy-driven shooter along the lines of Team Fortress 2.

If fans of more hardcore shooters like the Call of Duty series can put aside (or, better yet, embrace) Splatoon’s cartoonish look, they’ll find a deeply involved, fully entertaining game awaiting them. One piece of strategy I learned early on, for instance: Players wielding a sniper rifle can cover a lookout post in his or her team’s color, then take the high ground in squid form, hiding from enemy players. When they spot an unknowing target, blam, back to the respawn point they go.

While there are no “classes” here per se, it’s easy to see them evolving organically. In a 4v4 “turf war” bout, a wise team might pick two close-range gunners, one sniper and one painter, who carries the game’s massive paint roller. The roller’s job would be to grab as much territory as possible, while the others keep him or her alive.

In a rarity for Nintendo, Splatoon also boasts—indeed, focuses on—online multiplayer, a necessity if Nintendo is after the multiplayer shooter demo.

But don’t let me paint you too rosy a picture of Splatoon just yet. The local multiplayer is limited to a 1v1 mode, a bummer if you’re looking for a good party game. And the demo I played forced me to use the Wii U GamePad’s motion controls to aim, which I couldn’t get the hang of. A Nintendo rep told me more traditional aiming would be an option when the game drops May 29 for Wii U only.

That exclusivity could be a hangup for the game, too. While Splatoon is destined for many a Top Wii U Games list, Nintendo’s console hasn’t sold as well as Microsoft’s Xbox One or Sony’s PlayStation 4, so the number of people who might enjoy it is capped from the get go. If Splatoon really takes off, it could single-handedly bump Wii U sales—but that’s a tall order of any one game.


We’re Finally Getting a Middle Finger Emoji

Middle Finger Emoji
Microsoft Middle Finger Emoji

It's coming to Windows

The long-awaited middle finger emoji will be included in Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system, according to Emojipedia.

The emoji is officially called “Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended.” The one-finger salute emoji has been available for tech companies to pack in their products for almost a year — emoji are an industry standard set by a non-profit group; individual tech companies like Apple and Google are free to adopt and interpret the group’s selections largely as they see fit. No major tech companies have yet adopted Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended.

Windows 10, Microsoft’s upcoming cross-platform operating system, is due out sometime this summer. It replaces Windows 8.1 — Microsoft skipped a number for undetermined reasons.

Read next: Microsoft’s Next Version of Windows Will Be a Free Upgrade


Why I’m Giving Into My Feelings This Star Wars Day

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I'm calling it now: The Force Awakens is going to be amazing

In the 2009 comedy Fanboys, a group of estranged high school friends reunite over their shared love of all things Star Wars, then set off to steal a pre-release copy of The Phantom Menace because one of them, it turns out, is expected to die of cancer before the movie’s release. Their mission is semi-successful: Director George Lucas lets the sick friend see the film, while the others have to wait until May 19, 1999—release day. As one film ends with another’s beginning, a friend turns to another in the theater and mutters: “What if the movie sucks?”

With 228 days to go until Star Wars once again graces the silver screen, that’s long been the fear in the back of my mind. Us Star Wars fans have been here before, after all. Phantom is widely regarded as the worst of the Star Wars films, while the following two installments aren’t much better. The litany of complaints runs long: Reducing Darth Vader, the most menacing figure in the galaxy, to a whiny brat. Midi-chlorians. The entire existence of Jar-Jar Binks.


Should we give in to the Star Wars hype, this time amplified millions of times over by the power of the Mouse House? Or should we ready ourselves for another disappointment, because nothing can ever live up to that first time we were kids and watched Luke barrel down the Death Star trench before getting a Force-text from Obi-Wan, turning off his targeting computer and blowing the evil Empire’s hideous creation into smithereens?

This Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You!), I’m giving in to my feelings. I think this movie is going to be fantastic. Just look at the first two trailers for The Force Awakens. Badass new villain with a three-bladed lightsaber! The Empire is still around! BB-8 looks adorable! Hi, Han and Chewy!

But my faith doesn’t come from trailers alone. It’s rooted in the film’s director, J. J. Abrams. His work on Star Trek shows he knows how to resurrect a moribund film franchise. And even if some hardcore fans didn’t dig his approach, those two movies got a whole new set of people to care about Trek—not exactly a no-win scenario, but a tough feat nonetheless.

Now Abrams has been given the same opportunity with a universe far, far away. Everything he’s said about the movie so far—especially his disdain for overusing computer graphics and his willingness to drive the fanbase a little bit nutsgives me cause for confidence, not doubt. Ultimately, the trick will be staying true enough to the original films while introducing us to a whole new cast of heroes, villains, aliens, droids and ships. But if anybody’s the right person for the job, it’s Abrams.

Do, or do not, J.J. There is no try.

TIME apps

Uber Rolling Out ‘SOS Button’ That Helps Cops Track Cars

Uber At $40 Billion Valuation Would Eclipse Twitter And Hertz
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Uber Technologies Inc. logo is displayed on the window of a vehicle after dropping off a passenger at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.

The feature is India-only for now

In the company’s latest response to a high-profile rape accusation made in India last December, ride-hailing service Uber is rolling out an “SOS button” in parts of the country that connects passengers with local police when pressed.

When a passenger taps Uber’s new SOS button, they will be immediately connected via phone with local law enforcement. Additionally, their location data as well as passenger and driver information for the ride in question will be transmitted to the police:

 SOS Button
UberUber SOS Button

For Uber, getting the SOS button’s data-sharing features to work requires the cooperation of local police. Uber beta-tested the feautre in Kolkata and is “in advanced discussions with authorities in multiple cities across India to deploy this solution in the coming weeks,” the company said in a blog post Thursday.

Uber’s new SOS button, which expands on a less powerful feature introduced last year, comes after a 25-year-old Indian woman filed a lawsuit against Uber in January claiming the company didn’t do enough to screen out a driver she accuses of raping her last year. Uber has since taken other steps to bolster its safety record in India, including rolling out stricter driver background checks.

However, complaints over the company’s safety record have not been limited to India. Several Uber passengers across the United States have claimed that Uber drivers kidnapped and, in some cases, assaulted them. Uber said in December it would take steps to improve its driver screening process in the U.S. after several lawmakers and regulators across the country began pressuring the company to ensure a safer experience. When reached for comment, an Uber spokesperson said “we have not announced any plans outside of India.”

TIME space

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Space Company Just Tested its First Rocket

Watch the Blue Origin launch here

Blue Origin, the private space company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, test-launched its New Shepard vehicle for the first time ever on Wednesday, it was revealed Thursday morning.

The sub-orbital spacecraft reached an altitude of 58 miles above the Earth before the unmanned capsule separated from the booster rocket and returned to Earth with the help of a parachute.

Blue Origin’s goal is to for the spacecraft’s booster system to land vertically after launches so it can be easily reused, but the company wasn’t able to recover the booster Wednesday because of a problem with a hydraulic system.

More from Blue Origin on the launch:

Today we flew the first developmental test flight of our New Shepard space vehicle. Our 110,000-lbf thrust liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen BE-3 engine worked flawlessly, powering New Shepard through Mach 3 to its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet. Guidance, navigation and control was nominal throughout max Q and all of ascent. The in-space separation of the crew capsule from the propulsion module was perfect. Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return.

Unlike some private space companies focused on delivering astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station — like the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX — Blue Origin’s primary goal is to open space travel to human tourists. However, the company is also working with United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture, to produce the engines for a rocket to replace the Atlas V, which uses Russian-made engines.

TIME Apple

This Is Why Your Apple Watch Didn’t Ship Yet

Toronto Blue Jay player Jose Bautista Tries On Apple Watch At The Apple Store Eaton Centre Toronto
George Pimentel—WireImage A detail view of the Apple Watch while Toronto Blue Jay player Jose Bautista Tries it on at the Eaton Centre Shopping Centre on April 14, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.

A supplier made bad parts

Faulty parts from an Apple supplier are slowing down shipments of the company’s new Apple Watch, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing people familiar with the matter.

The problem lies in the Apple Watch’s taptic engine, a tiny component that allows Apple Watch notifications to simulate the effect of being tapped on the wrist. Taptic engines from one of two suppliers, the Shenzhen, China-based AAC Technologies Holdings, were found to quickly wear down “after mass production began in February,” the Journal reports. Rather than ship potentially bad units, Apple decided to throw away some Apple Watches with the AAC taptic engines.

Apple’s comment to the Journal didn’t directly confirm or deny the report. However, this is most likely Apple’s attempt to explain ongoing Apple Watch shipping delays to frustrated shoppers. While Apple initially said the Apple Watch would start shipping April 24, many buyers have reported estimated shipping dates as far back as June. However, some of those buyers have said their Apple Watch shipments are coming faster than Apple estimated.

“Our team is working to fill orders as quickly as possible based on available supply and the order in which they were received,” Apple told the Journal. “We know many customers are still facing long lead times and we appreciate their patience.”


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