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Building a Smart Home From the Ground Up

I’ve been loving my year-old IKEA remote-control lighting kit. And Alexa on the Amazon Echo has been a good friend during our first weeks together.

But I don’t know if I’m ready yet for a truly smart home: learning thermostats, video doorbells, smart locks, Bluetooth-enabled cookers, robot vacuums.

The Internet of Things is growing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up; for someone who is easily overwhelmed by too many options. Smart homes, frankly, scare me.

Don’t let my silly fears over an automated lifestyle spook you, though.

Building your own smart home is easier than it sounds: Like an actual house, you’ll need a foundation—or, in this case, a hub. The Wink Hub 2 connects to a mesh network, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi and works with everything from lighting to cameras to speakers.

Amazon’s Echo family of devices (Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Spot, Echo Show) are a great add-on. User-friendly and expandable, the speakers pair with If This Then That (IFTTT) to create “recipes” for controlling gadgets with your voice.

Establish a routine, for example, that turns off your Philips Hue lights whenever your Nest thermostat goes into Away mode. Or set specific triggers for when you (er, your mobile phone) arrive at or leave the house.

The Apple HomePod and Google Home are also fairly foolproof alternatives.

For do-it-yourself types, Raspberry Pi is a burgeoning option. The tiny computer has been used to power a wearable computer, racing robot, Nerf Blaster (that can ID a target’s face), mini Game Boy, pocketable PC, and nostalgic arcade stick.

Now, you can link it with the open-source Talking Pi extension to manage lights, plugs, and devices via voice commands. Or pick up one of Google’s AIY (“Artificial Intelligence Yourself”) Pi-friendly kits for personalized programming.

And that’s just the beginning. From there, folks can bulk up their smart home with surveillance cams, locks, heating and cooling, lighting, kitchen appliances, sweepers, outdoor tools, and even health and fitness accessories.

For more, see PCMag’s lineup of The Best Smart Home Devices of 2018.

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Mobile App Extends Smartphone Battery 10-25 Percent

Forget world peace and global warming: Researchers have finally found a way to extend the life of smartphone batteries by up to an hour each day.

A team at the University of Waterloo in Canada developed a mobile app that reduces devices’ energy consumption without any significant impact on performance.

But iOS users will have to stick to bulky battery packs and tangled charging cables. According to a study published by the journal IEEE Access, the program is currently aimed only at Android handsets.

Split-view—the most prominent feature in Android Nougat 7.0—allows folks to run multiple windows and files at the same time, as on a desktop or laptop computer.

“This results in unnecessary energy drain,” co-author Kshirasagar Naik, a Waterloo professor of electrical and computer engineering, said in a statement.

“We have developed an app which users can install on their devices and use to reduce the brightness of non-critical applications,” he continued. “So, when you’re interacting with one application, the brightness of the other window goes down, thereby [reducing] the energy consumption on the device.”

In an experiment involving 200 smartphone users, the energy-saving technique extended battery life by 10 to 25 percent.

And while that might not sound like much, anyone who has ever watched their screen go black mid-social media update or lost a call to a dead battery will appreciate that extra boost—which could mean the difference between arriving at your Google Maps destination and getting lost in the dark.

“What happens now is that you put the phone on a charger for the night and when you leave home the next day the battery is at 100 percent, but there is a lot of behind-the-scenes computation and communication going on, and it drains the battery,” Naik explained.

“By midday, charge is reduced to 30 percent, and from the user’s perspective, that is a big pain,” he said. “Due to excess energy consumption, the phone becomes warmer and warmer while the frequent charging reduces the life of the battery. So, batteries that are meant to last for three years may have to be replaced in two years.”

Hey, we’ve all been there. Here’s to hoping this app hits digital stores soon.

Improvements are being made with cell batteries every day. The Samsung Galaxy 9 is apart of that. Read our full hands-on review of the new phone here.

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AI KOs Pro DotA 2 Players in Live Tournament

In another win for artificial intelligence, AI bots successfully defeated a group of professional Defense of the Ancients (DotA) 2 players.

The multiplayer online battle arena mod pits two teams against each other in an attempt to destroy their opponent’s home base, known as an Ancient.

And that’s exactly what OpenAI Five—a set of five cooperative machine learning systems—did during a recent tournament.

The day began with a warm-up: audience volunteers playing the first public match against Five, which won in 14 minutes (an evenly matched game generally takes 45 minutes).

Once limbered up, the AI unit took on—and wiped the floor with—five North American pros: William “Blitz” Lee, Austin “Capitalist” Walsh, Ioannis “Fogged” Loucas, Ben “Merlini” Wu, and David “MoonMeander” Tan.

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Boasting a new ability to draft heroes, OpenAI Five won the first game in only 21 minutes and 37 seconds, and the second in fewer than 25 minutes.

This victory “is a step towards advanced AI systems which can handle the complexity and uncertainty of the real world,” OpenAI wrote in a blog announcement.

For the third match, the non-profit relinquished its greatest skill, instead of allowing audience members to select Five’s characters, putting the machine at a severe disadvantage. It ultimately lost to the humans after 35 minutes and 47 seconds.

“These results,” according to the blog, “give us confidence in moving to the next phase of this project: playing a team of professionals at The International,” held in Vancouver from Aug. 20-25.

Keep an eye on social media for additional game details

But OpenAI Five has dreams greater than DotA 2.

“Ultimately, we will measure the success of our DotA system in its application to real-world tasks,” the firm said.

Founded in 2015 by Elon Musk and Sam Altman, OpenAI aims to promote and develop friendly AI; it also collaborates with other institutions and researchers by making patents and research open to the public.

For all the latest in eSports news head over to our section here.

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Students Build Shoelace-Tying Robot for $600

Over, under, around, and through: Students at the University of California, Davis, engineered a robot capable of tying a shoe.

And it cost far less than any state-of-the-art android.

“This machine,” according to a video published by team member Andrew Choi, “was designed and manufactured with the limitations of only being able to use two motors and a $600 budget.”

Neither compact nor speedy, the device, which uses the Ian Knot (“world’s fastest,” according to its creator), is certainly not going to be part of IKEA’s winter catalogue.

And while DARPA could probably build something faster and sleeker—that also climbs stairs and pulls people from burning wreckage—this contraption is clever, innovative, and, perhaps most importantly: cheap.

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(It remains unclear, however, whether the machine actually works with a foot placed inside the shoe.)

Initially reported on Reddit—posted by UC Davis lecturer Jason Moore (moorepants)—the shoe-tying robot has received a lot of attention since its construction for an annual design competition with Meijo University in Japan.

“We, the professors, come up with machine design challenges,” Moore explained in a statement to Geek. “Student groups in Meijo and UCD work on the machines for about five months independently, and then they come together in Davis to compete.

“The challenges are designed to test the students’ ingenuity, let them make use of their new engineering skills, and to help them learn some about how culture affects machine design,” he continued. “This group did excellent work. It is the only fully functioning shoe typing machine we’ve been able to find on the Internet.”

If this is what a group of five novice engineers can do with $600 and two motors, imagine the possibilities given more money and equipment.

The team includes Choi, Gabriela Gomes, Jacklyn Tran, Stephanie Thai, and Joel Humes.

UC Davis has a history of interesting robots: Biologist Gail Patricelli, of the Department of Evolution and Ecology, recently developed robotic fowl, capable of flirting its way into the hearts of male sage-grouses. The study aimed to learn courtship tactics and analyze coupling decisions.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:50 a.m. ET with comment from Jason Moore.

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