TIME Amazon

The Absolute Strangest Thing You Can Now Buy on Amazon

Among other things, Amazon's new service lets you rent grazing goats

There are about 700 professional services listed on Amazon’s new Home Services marketplace, which lets customers find everything from a plumber to a mover. But surely the least essential yet hardest to resist offering? Goat grazer.

That’s right: Some Amazon Home Services customers can hire a goat to come graze on their grass, a seemingly strange but not totally unheard of method of keeping vegetation levels under control.

 Goats
AmazonAmazon Goats

Not sold yet? Consider the free bonus offering: “As they graze, they will likely leave behind some droppings, too, and you’ll get to keep this fertilizer as a friendly parting gift!”

Weirdly, this isn’t Amazon’s first brush with goat-kind. Amazon Japan has used goats on its grounds in Gifu Prefecture, Kotaku reported in 2013.

TIME Video Games

Halo 5: Guardians Finally Has a Release Date

Halo 5: Guardians is due out later this Fall

Microsoft’s Xbox team has announced the release date for the long-awaited next installment in the Halo franchise, Halo 5: Guardians — and unfortunately it will involve seven more months of waiting.

“The Master Chief returns October 27th,” the Xbox team announced on its official Twitter account.

The announcement coincided with the release of a teaser trailer and a new Twitter hashtag, #HUNTtheTRUTH, that will surely be used in the coming months to keep the buzz going. Above. is the first installment of the 7-month-long tease.

Microsoft has estimated the Halo franchise has made the company $3.38 billion in total.

TIME Companies

You’ll Need an Appointment to Buy the Apple Watch

Apple Watch
Josh Edelson—AFP/Getty Images Apple Watches are seen on display during an Apple media event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California on March 09, 2015.

Unless you're buying the $10,000-and-up model

Apple won’t allow walk-in customers to purchase an Apple Watch on the spot, according to a new report. Instead, Apple will funnel the first wave of Apple Watch orders through an online reservation system.

Training documents obtained by MacRumors reveal how Apple employees are expected to handle a customer who wants to purchase an Apple Watch in the store: “Offer the option to try on a watch,” the memo reads, “Then help them place an order online or through the Apple Store app.”

The reservation system will help Apple manage what’s expected to be an initial surge in demand for Apple Watches, which will first go on sale on April 24th. Apple expects to phase out the reservation requirement as inventories stabilize.

The purchasing process for customers interested in the $10,000-and-up Apple Watch Edition models will be more accommodating — those shoppers will be given no-wait access to the devices.

TIME Innovation

Now 3D-Printed Guns Can Fire Even Bigger Bullets

The AR-15's bigger, badder brother comes hot off the presses of a $500 printer

3-D printing hobbyists have managed to print up a functioning Colt CM901 assault rifle, what’s said to be the heaviest caliber rifle to ever roll off the presses of a 3-D printer.

Hobbyists at PrintedFirearm.com posted an animated GIF of the 3-D printed rifle firing off several rounds at a shooting range, according to military blog War Is Boring.

The CM901 fires 7.62 mm rounds, a heavier caliber bullet than that of the AR-15. The gun also recoils with greater force, requiring gunsmiths to print up sturdier plastic parts that can withstand the stresses of multiple rounds. After a period of trial and error, the team claims the CM901 can fire off several rounds “with little to no issues.”

And the most unsettling part: the rifle can be printed using a $500 Da Vinci 3-D printer. That’s a bargain compared with the first 3-D printed firearm, which first rolled off of an $8,000 printer in 2013.

In other words, hobbyists in the 3-D printed arms race, for better or worse, are getting more bang for their buck.

TIME Smartphones

This Could Be Apple’s Plan to Make the Next iPhone Wildly Better

Verizon Store Stocks Shelves With New Apple iPhone 6
George Frey—Getty Images The camera and flash of an Apple iPhone 6 Plus gold, is shown here at a Verizon store on September 18, 2014 in Orem, Utah.

A new patent could mean vastly improved iPhone photos

Apple has been awarded a new patent for a digital camera component that could dramatically improve the quality of pictures taken with an iPhone.

The patent details a new design for a “digital camera with light splitter,” a component that’s typically found in high-definition camcorders. The “light splitter” parses red, green and blue light across three dedicated sensors. Current iPhones use a single sensor to detect all three colors, but splitting the light across three separate sensors has the potential to dramatically boost color accuracy, even in a dimly lit room.

Apple has not confirmed if the patented technology, first spotted by Apple Insider, will appear in the next generation of mobile devices. And, of course, just because Apple has patented something doesn’t mean it will appear in actual products at all.

Read more at Apple Insider.

TIME Amazon

Why Amazon Is Hosting a $25,000 Robot Showdown

Amazon Opens Fulfillment Center In DuPont, Washington
Stephen Brashear—Getty Images Amazon Kiva robots, which help fill orders by bringing shelves of merchandise to Amazon Associates, navigate an Amazon Fulfillment Center on February 13, 2015 in DuPont, Washington.

One small step for robots, one giant leap for warehouse automation

Some 25 teams will compete in Amazon’s upcoming robot throwdown, a competition that will test the outer limits of what a robot can see, grasp and pack into a cardboard box.

The e-commerce giant recently awarded travel grants to 25 robot team finalists who will be flown to Seattle this May to compete in Amazon’s Picking Challenge. Each team’s robot will be confronted with a shelf of 25 common household items. It will have to accurately identify, grasp and package the items with care.

Points will be awarded for computer vision — the ability to tell apart a box of Oreo cookies, for instance, from a box of Cheez-It crackers — as well as dexterity. Dropping or damaging an item will result in points deducted, MIT Technology Review reports. The winner will receive $25,000 in prize money.

Robots already play an instrumental role in Amazon’s packaging centers, ferrying 700-pound inventory shelves in and out of storage, but the challenges of handling individual objects with care has posed a persistent challenge for researchers. Amazon says it hopes the contest will “strengthen the ties between the industrial and academic robotic communities and promote shared and open solutions.”

TIME Video Games

Sony Just Made the PlayStation 4 Dramatically Better

Sony Corp. PlayStation 4 As Game Console Goes On Sale In U.S.
Bloomberg—Getty Images A logo sits on the front of a Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) games console, manufactured by Sony Corp., in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K., on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.

You can now pause games as the console enters rest mode

Sony’s upcoming software update for the PlayStation 4 will include a number of “social enhancements” to beef up its online network of gamers, the company revealed on Wednesday.

Software update version 2.50, which Sony has codenamed “Yukimura,” will be out Thursday with a bundle of new features, including a friend finder that enables gamers to search for Facebook friends within the Sony network and connect with a single-step invite. Once invited, gamers can see which friends are online and playing the same games via a new “Friends Who Play This” viewing window.

The update also includes a faster way to jump in and out of gameplay through a new suspend feature, which will pause the action as the PlayStation 4 goes into rest mode. Games will be resumable with one tap of the button.

Read next: 4 Reasons Why Video Game Consoles Will Never Die

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Innovation

Microsoft Is Getting Close to Perfecting a Universal Communicator

Some 40,000 people are using software program Skype Translator in hopes of achieving real-time translation

Gurdeep Pall was confident Skype’s automatic translation program would work. But as Microsoft’s corporate vice president in charge of Skype prepared to hold the first public demonstration of the program last May, Pall found himself worrying about the room itself. “Any sound that goes into the microphone, you basically have logic running trying to figure out what the sound said,” he says. “You can have feedback or you can have somebody coughing faraway that the mic picked up, somebody shifting far away, the squeak from their foot.”

Pall’s anxiety was for naught. An audience of several hundred reporters and industry insiders watched on as Pall and a native German speaker held a nearly flawless conversation through the company’s prototype of Skype Translator. Roughly a second after Pall Spoke, subtitles in German and English appeared at the bottom of the screen, and a synthetic Siri-like voice read the words aloud to the German caller. The audience murmured in astonishment, but the program didn’t falter as it shot back a translation from German to English. Pall, on the other hand, was flustered as his jitters about the room metastasized to two presenters who were whispering to one another nearby throughout the demonstration. “I’m thinking, ‘Get out of here!’” Pall recalls, laughing.

Researchers working on automatic translation technology like this are familiar with this blend of hope and anxiety. The concept of a universal translator has long been a fixture of science fiction, not to mention a dream of inventors and linguists since long before computers existed. The granodiorite slab announcing the kingly reign of Ptolemy V in Egypt circa 196 BC, better known as the Rosetta Stone, might be considered an early stab at the idea. In the 1930s, two inventors filed patents for “mechanical dictionaries” promising to translate words in real time. And in more recent decades, firms ranging from NEC to Jibbigo have periodically tried to crack the problem. But as practical reality, the idea has been perennially delayed.

Now, advances in so-called machine learning—computer programs that can essentially self-teach with enough exposure to spoken language—hope for a universal translator is increasingly replacing anxiety. What has changed from previous generations is that the underlying technology thrives through use, trial and error, recorded and reviewed, ad nasueam. The current crop of translation software gets smarter, researchers and programmers say, the more it absorbs. “The more data you have, the better you’re going to do,” explains Lane Schwartz, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.

Which is why Microsoft released a preview version of Skype Translator to a limited number of users last December. (The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant bought Skype for $8.5 billion in 2011.) The program is expected to reach a major milestone near the end of March. Late last year, Google announced its translation app for text would include a “conversation mode” for the spoken word. Baidu, the so-called Google of China, has had a similar feature available in its home market for several years. And the forthcoming release of the Apple Watch, a powerful computer with echoes of Dick Tracey’s famous wrist wear, has some speculating that near-instant translation might be the nascent wearables market’s killer app.

That leaves a handful of search giants—Microsoft, Google and Baidu—racing to fine-tune the technology. Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist likens what’s coming next to the space race. “It doesn’t work if you have a giant engine and only a little fuel,” he says. “It doesn’t work if you have a lot of fuel and a small engine.” The few companies that can combine the two, however, may blast ahead.

So Many Fails

There’s no shortage of false summits in the history of translation. Cold War footage from 1954 captured one of the earliest machine translators in action. One of the lead researchers predicted that legions of these machines might be used to monitor the entirety of Soviet communications “within perhaps 5 years.” The demonstration helped generate a surge of government funding, totalling $3 million in 1958, or $24 million in present-day dollars.

But by the 1960s, the bubble had burst. The government convened a panel of scientific experts to survey the quality of machine translations. They returned with an unsparing critique. Early translations were “deceptively encouraging,” the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee wrote in a 1966 report. Automatic translation, the panel concluded, “serves no useful purpose without postediting, and that with postediting the overall process is slow and probably uneconomical.”

Funding for machine translation was drastically curtailed in the wake of the report. It would be the first of several boom and bust cycles to buffet the research community. To this day, researchers are loath to predict how far they can advance the field. “There is no magic,” says Chris Wendt, who has been working on machine translation at Microsoft Research for nearly a decade. But he admits that the latest improvements resulting from artificial intelligence can, at times, be mystifying. “There are things that you don’t have an explanation for why it works,” he says.

Wendt works out of Building 99, Microsoft’s research hub on the western edge of its Redmond campus. The building’s central atrium is wrapped by four floors of glass-walled conference rooms, where Microsoft engineers and researchers can be seen working on pretty much any project they please. The open-ended aspect of their work is a point of pride enshrined in the lab’s mission statement. “It states, first and foremost, that our goal as an institution is to move the state of the art forward,” said Rick Rashid in 2011, twenty years after he launched the lab, according to a Microsoft blog post celebrating the milestone. “It doesn’t matter what part of the state of the art we’re moving forward, and it doesn’t say anything in that first part of the mission statement about Microsoft.”

In other words, if Microsoft’s researchers want to tinker with strange and unproven technologies, say motion-sensing cameras or holographic projectors, nobody is likely to stop them. In the mid-2000’s, there were few technologies quite as strange and unproven as “deep neural networks,” algorithms that can parse through millions of spoken words and spot the underlying sound patterns. Say, “pig,” for instance, and the algorithm will identify the unique sound curve of the letter “p.” Expose it to more “p” words and the shape of that curve becomes more refined. Before long, the algorithm can detect a “p” sound across multiple languages, and exposure to those languages further attunes its senses. “P” words in German (prozent) improves its detection of “p” words in English (percent).

Those same lessons, it turns out, apply to volume, pitch or accents. A lilt at the end of the sentence may indicate that the speaker has asked a question. It may also indicate that the speaker talks like a Valley girl. Expose the deep learning algorithm to a range of voices, however, and it may begin to notice the difference. This profusion of voices, which used to overwhelm supercomputers, now improves their performance. “Add training data that is not perfect, like people speaking in a French accent, and it does not degrade overall quality for people speaking without a French accent,” says Wendt.

The results of deep neural network research in language applications stunned Microsoft’s research team in 2011. Error rates in transcription, for instance, plummeted by 50%—from one out of every four words to one out of eight. Until then, the misunderstood word was one of the most persistent and insurmountable obstacles to machine translation. “The system cannot recover from that because it takes that word at face value and translates it,” explains Wendt. “Employing deep learning on the speech recognition part brought the error rate low enough to attempt translation.”

Speaking into Skype Translator, the commercial face of all of Microsoft’s linguistic research, shows how far things have come. The sound of your voice zips into Microsoft’s cloud of servers, where it is parsed by a panoply of software developed by the company. The team that developed those green squiggly lines under grammatical errors in Word documents laid the groundwork for automatic punctuation, for example. The team that created Microsoft’s translation app, which is currently used to translate posts on Facebook and Yelp, provided the engine for text translation. The team that developed the voice for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri, helped develop the voice for Skype.

When Microsoft’s researchers debuted a prototype of Skype Translator at the company’s version of an annual science fair, they enclosed it in a cardboard telephone booth, modeled after the time-traveling machine from the Dr. Who television series. Co-founder Bill Gates stepped inside and phoned a Spanish speaker in Argentina. The speaker had been warned that when the caller said, “Hi, it’s Bill Gates,” it wasn’t a joke. It really would be Bill Gates. What did Gates say? Pretty much what everyone says at first, according to the team: “Hi. How are you? Where are you?”

My Turn

I posed the same questions to Karin, a professional translator hired for a hands-on demonstration at Microsoft’s Building 99. She answered in Spanish, and paused as Skype’s digital interpreter read a translated reply: “Hello, nice to meet you. Now I’m in Slovakia.”

The program has the basic niceties of conversation down cold, and for a moment, the Star Trek fantasy of a “universal translator” seemed tantalizingly within reach. But then a few hiccups emerged as the conversation progressed. Her reason for visiting New York was intelligible, but awkwardly phrased: “I want to meet all of New York City and I want to attach it with a concert of a group I like,” from which I gathered that she wanted to see a concert during her visit. I asked her if the program often faltered in her experience. “In the beginning,” came the translated reply, “but each time it gets better. It’s like one child first. There were things not translated, but now he’s a teenager and knows a lot of words.”

With some 40,000 people signed up to use Skype Translator, it has been getting a crash course in the art of conversation, and those words could work wonders on its error rates. An odd quirk of machine translation systems is that they tend to excel at translating European Union parliamentary proceedings. For a long time the EU produced some of the best training data out there: a raft of speeches professionally translated into dozens of languages.

But Microsoft is rapidly accumulating its own record of casual conversations. Users of the preview version are informed that their utterances may be recorded and stored in an anonymous, shuffled pile that makes it impossible to trace the words back to their source, Microsoft stresses. The team expects the error rate to drop continuously as Skype Translator absorbs slang, proper names and idioms into its system. Few companies can tap such a massive corpus of spoken words. “Microsoft is in a good position,” says Wendt. “Google is also in a good position. Then there’s a big gap between us and everyone else.”

For now, the Skype team is focused on adding users and driving down error rates, with the long-run goal of releasing instant translation as a standard feature for Skype’s 300 milllion users. “Translation is something we believe ought to be available to everybody for free,” says Pall.

That raises an awkward question for professional translators like Karin. “Do you feel threatened by Skype Translator,” I asked her through the program. “Not yet,” was her translated reply, read aloud by her fast-developing, free digital rival.

Read next: Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Apple watch

Your Apple Watch Will Turn Your Lights On and Off

Apple Debuts New Watch
Stephen Lam—Getty Images A collection of the new Apple Watch are seen on display after an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California.

Smart lighting brand Philips Hue is working on an Apple Watch app

An upcoming Apple Watch app will enable the wearer to switch a lightbulb on, tinker with its color and brightness, or flip it off without ever having to leave the couch, according to the developers behind wireless lighting solution Philips Hue.

“Yes, we are working on an app for Apple Watch that will allow Hue customers to control their lighting,” a company spokesperson wrote in a tweet.

The Apple Watch is slated to launch on April 24 after a preview period beginning April 10.

TIME Microsoft

Here’s Why Microsoft Is Giving Pirates the Next Windows for Free

Satya Nadella Delivers Opening Keynote At Microsoft Build Conference
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

It's all about getting a bunch of users hooked on Windows

Bill Gates was famously sanguine about the rampant theft of Microsoft’s intellectual property in China. “As long as they’re going to steal” software, he said during a 1998 town hall at the University of Washington, “we want them to steal ours.” He predicted that Microsoft would convert the free riders into paying customers within a decade.

Not quite. By 2011, Chinese software piracy had so thoroughly undermined Microsoft’s sales that former chief executive Steve Ballmer revealed that the Netherlands, population 17 million, was a greater source of revenue than China, population 1.3 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Ballmer has since stepped aside, and now it’s CEO Satya Nadella’s turn to take a whack at the piracy problem. His strategy is an offer bootleggers can’t refuse: The chance to upgrade from an unlicensed, outdated version of Windows to the latest version for free.

“We are upgrading all qualified PCs, genuine and non-genuine, to Windows 10,” Microsoft executive vice president Terry Myerson said in an interview with Reuters Wednesday. Windows 10 should be out this summer as a free download for anyone with Windows 7 or newer already installed on their computer.

Why the sudden freebie? In part, it’s because Microsoft is making a strategic play to get as many users hooked on the Windows 10 platform as possible. Once on board, users can be lured into paying for premium services, such as apps at the Windows Store or a subscription to Office 365, Microsoft’s productivity suite. The more users Microsoft gets now, the more services it can sell downstream — and it’s hoping even pirates can be flipped into paying customers.

It’s a gutsy play for a company that has historically relied on Windows licensing fees for roughly a quarter of its revenue, totaling $18 billion in 2014. Shareholders tend to get antsy at any sign that historic cash cow might be faltering. A 13% drop in Windows licensing sales last quarter prompted a panicked sell-off of Microsoft stocks. It’s hard to predict how patiently investors will wait for Microsoft to accumulate new users without collecting payment up front.

In any case, Microsoft will only gamble on this experiment in the short-run. The Windows 10 giveaway ends within one year of its release, and Microsoft has made clear that pirates who have upgraded to the new operating system will not be considered legitimate customers.

“If a device was considered non-genuine or mislicensed prior to the upgrade, that device will continue to be considered non-genuine or mislicensed after the upgrade,” a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in a statement to TIME.

In other words, pirates can take advantage of a temporary amnesty from licensing fees — but Microsoft will extract payment eventually.

Read more: Here’s What It’s Like to Use Microsoft’s Amazing New Holographic Headset

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