Here’s what happens when an Office 365 subscription expires

Here’s what happens when an Office 365 subscription expires

Microsoft’s pay-as-you-go Office 365 is, first and foremost, a subscription. And like other subscriptions — think newspapers (remember them?) or an online storage service — missing a payment doesn’t immediately mean you’re cut off.

Because it’s less expensive to retain a current subscriber than find a new subscriber as a replacement, providers sometimes go to great lengths to keep customers on the rolls.

When a business misses an Office 365 payment, or cancels the service, the applications and data don’t immediately disappear. Instead, Microsoft steps a customer through a three-stage process that gradually decreases both employee and administrator access, but for months leaves the door open to a renewal.

Here are the stages of an Office 365 breakup.

1-30 days after subscription ends: Expired

Microsoft dubs the first stage “expired,” but it could just as well be called “grace period,” since everything works as if the customer’s payments remain up to date.

Users have normal access to all Office 365 applications and services under the company’s plan. Already-installed applications can be launched, no data will be scrubbed from Microsoft’s servers — such as email messages or files stored on OneDrive for Business — and additional applications can be added to a user’s devices.

Note: macOS versions of Office provided via an Office 365 subscription do not include the 30-day grace period; they immediately enter the “Disabled” state. See below for details.

Administrators can access all functions from the Office 365 admin center portal, including assigning licenses to new or existing employees. If the firm plans to depart Office 365, data may be backed up.

The subscription can be renewed by the global or billing administrator during this 30-day span.

31-120 days after subscription ends: Disabled

During months two through four, the subscription sits in the “disabled” state. Another label could be “admin only,” as administrators can continue to access the admin portal. The IT staff can most effectively use this period to back up employee data stored on Microsoft’s servers. Admins cannot assign licenses to workers during the 90 days.

Users are unable to log into their Office 365 accounts and so are blocked from Office 365 services included in the plan, ranging from hosted email to OneDrive for Business. The locally-installed applications will drop into what Microsoft’s calls “reduced functionality,” meaning that most features and tools are unavailable. Files may be opened, viewed and printed, but not edited or saved. The applications may not launch from the desktop, but they will open after clicking on an appropriate document.

A subscription can still be renewed by the global or billing administrator during this stretch.

121 days and up: Deprovisioned

At the Day 121 mark, the Office 365 subscription is not only dead, it’s really, really dead.

No one, administrators included, can access service or applications, so backing up employee data is impossible.

In fact, Microsoft will begin to delete the subscription’s data from its servers starting on this date. The company does not provide a done-by deadline, saying, “You can expect data to be permanently deleted in a reasonable timeframe after the 120 days have elapsed.” Enterprises that want data erased as soon as possible may request “expedited deprovisioning” by calling support. Microsoft will then delete the pertinent data within three days.

Global or billing admins may not restore a subscription — and thus access to the cloud-based data and the Office applications — during this period. Assuming the firm wants to continue using Office, it must purchase new Office 365 subscriptions or standalone, perpetual licenses.

Troy Hunt: Life Is About to Get a Whole Lot Harder for Websites Without HTTPS

Troy Hunt: Life Is About to Get a Whole Lot Harder for Websites Without HTTPS

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re on a rapid march towards a “secure by default” web when it comes to protecting traffic. For example, back in Feb this year, 20% of the Alexa Top 1 Million sites were forcing the secure scheme:

These figures are from Scott Helme’s biannual report and we’re looking at a 5-month-old number here. I had a quiet chat with him while writing this piece and apparently that number is now at 28% of the Top 1 Million. Even more impressive is the rate at which it’s changing – the chart above shows that it’s up 45% in only 6 months!

Perhaps even more impressive again is the near 60% of web requests Mozilla is seeing that are sent securely:

Now that’s inevitably a lot of requests centred around the big players on the web who are doing HTTPS ubiquitously (think Gmail, Facebook, Twitter), but the trend is clear – HTTPS is being adopted at a fierce rate. Back in Jan I wrote about how we’d already reached the tipping point, in part because of browser measures like this:

Hi @Qantas, I just went to login to my frequent flyer account and the browser is warning me that it’s not secure. Is something wrong?

The “shaming” of websites serving login or payment forms insecurely began with Chrome in January then Firefox shortly afterwards (occasionally with rather humorous consequences). And it worked too – soon after that tweet, Qantas did indeed properly secure their site. The indignity of visitors being told that a site is insecure inevitably helps force the hand of the site operator and HTTPS follows.

But per the title of this post, life is about to get a whole lot harder for sites that aren’t already doing HTTPS across the board. Here’s what you’re going to see in only a few months’ time:

Let’s dissect what’s going on here: at the time of writing, we’re at Chrome 59 which behaves the same as Chrome 58 in the image above so non-secure sites have no visual indicator suggesting this (at least not unless they contain a login or payment form). However, once we hit version 62 all websites with form fields served over HTTP will show a “Not secure” warning to the user. Think about what that means – for example, this site will start to show a warning:

It has a search page therefore an input field. An insecure form means that the contents of the search may be intercepted and conceivably, that could contain data that the user would prefer didn’t fall into the hands of someone listening in on the connection.

This site will also show warnings:

Yes, it’s just an email field (no, not “eMail”, that’s fake spelling!) but again, when loaded insecurely it’s open to interception.

Now you may not consider information you enter into a route planner to be particularly sensitive, but how does the browser know that? They’re just text fields, anything could be going into them. Besides, this helps drive us forward to making everything eventually HTTPS which brings us to the other change in Chrome 62.

As indicated in their earlier graphic, all websites served insecurely whilst using incognito mode will show a warning. Chromium quite rightly explains that folks browsing incognito have a higher expectation of privacy so it makes sense to warn them when this is put at risk. But don’t think that this will just remain the domain of incognito, this is going mainstream:

Eventually, we plan to show the “Not secure” warning for all HTTP pages, even outside Incognito mode

Here’s an important observation on all this: at present, we know secure pages are secure because the browser tells us so. We know non-secure pages are not secure because the browser doesn’t tell us that they’re secure. Get it? It’s the principle of being insecure by default and that’s what we’re increasingly moving away from. Remember also that this applies to any website the browser loads so merely being behind the firewall browsing the intranet won’t keep the warnings away. If you’re not serving all those internal business systems over HTTPS then your internal users are going to be told that they’re “Not secure” too (and no, telling them to ignore warnings is not a behaviour you want to encourage).

The bottom line is this: if you’re serving anything over an insecure connection you need to be planning how you’re going to go HTTPS by default now. There’s a great appetite to go secure by developers themselves too; a few months ago I published a new Pluralsight course on What Every Developer Must Know About HTTPS and it went straight up into the Top 10 in a library of more than 6,000 courses. If you’re embarking on the journey to a secure transport layer, that’s a great place to start.

It’s taken us a while, but finally we’re getting to a “secure by default” web!

Report: Symantec looking to offload troubled certificate business | CIO Dive

Report: Symantec looking to offload troubled certificate business | CIO Dive

Dive Brief:

  • Symantec Corp. is reportedly contemplating selling its website certification business, according to a Reuters report, citing sources close to the matter.
  • The company is in talks with a few potential buyers and private equity firms, according to the report. Symantec declined to comment.
  • The move comes after some struggles with its certificate business. Earlier this year, Google said Symantec failed to properly validate at least 30,000 Secure Socket Layer (SSL) /Transport Security Layer (TLS) digital certificates over the last several years and that it planned to gradually remove trust in old Symantec SSL certificates and reduce the accepted validity period of newly issued Symantec certificates.

Dive Insight:

Being on Google’s naughty list is not good for any company. At the time of Google’s report, engineers stated that they “no longer have confidence in the certificate issuance policies and practices of Symantec.”

Google has worked to increase its policing of certificates used in its browser. Earlier this week, Google said it plans to fully distrust certificates issued by Chinese Certificate Authority WoSign starting with Chrome 61. Google accused WoSign of a number of violations.

For Symantec, Google downgrading trust in the company was a blight on its reputation, so offloading that business could potentially help Symantec move on. But the move could also be indicative of a broader shift for Symantec.

Large established security vendors — including Symantec, Cisco, IBM, Check Point and Intel — have a harder time competing against emerging vendors like Palo Alto Networks, Fortinet, Trend Micro, FireEye and Forcepoint, according to a Technology Business Research (TBR) report released in February. Symantec could therefore be looking to streamline its business and find a new niche where it can compete more effectively.

With two recent acquisitions — Skycure, a company that focuses on mobile threat defense, and browser isolation company Fireglass — in less than a week, Symantec is working to diversify its portfolio.

[I am sure services like Let’s Encrypt, which has provided over 100 million free server side certificates, is also eating away from the commercial market.  Starting next year Let’s Encrypt will be providing wildcard certificates.  This allows for the use of one certificate for multiple sites (* covers and Certificate management is a lot easier with them. Commercial certificate services charge a lot for them.]

The Sideways Elevator Could Help Cities Build Higher – CityLab

The Sideways Elevator Could Help Cities Build Higher – CityLab

Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and that number is expected to jump to 70 percent by the end of the century. To accommodate the new urban dwellers, cities will have to build higher—and that will mean doubling down on ways to transport residents from the ground up into the sky.

The medieval town of Rottweil, in rural South Germany, may seem like an odd place to contemplate the high-tech future. (The locale’s claim to fame is breeding the Rottweiler dog.) But Thyssenkrupp, an industrial company based out of Essen, managed to do so last month, at a flashy event promising to change how we design, build, and occupy tall buildings.

“For 150 years, elevators have been dominated by ropes,” says Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO of Thyssenkrupp Elevator. It’s technology that by now, most of the world knows well: cables hoist a car up and down the elevator shaft, making stops along the way.

But with this promise of increasing urbanization, Thyssenkrupp sought to fill an opportunity to make tall buildings more efficient. Their new technology, known as MULTI, throws out the traditional elevator configuration in favor of a ropeless system that can move both horizontally and vertically. The conventional steel rope most elevators run on adds considerable weight to a building, and becomes more strained the taller you build, ultimately restricting a tower’s overall height. By eliminating the cables—and the height restrictions that come with them—Thyssenkrupp executives brag it’s a technology that could send “an elevator up to the moon.” Indeed, it’s the stuff of Star Trek and Willy Wonka—but it could eventually make its way to a city near you.

The company unveiled a functioning MULTI system at Thyssenkrupp’s 807-foot-tall concrete test tower, which has been a proving ground for the system over the past two-and-a-half years. The result is an elevator utilizing the same magnetic technology that moves Japan’s Bullet Train. In this model, elevator cars—not unlike train cars—move along magnetic tracks, uninhibited by traditional cables. Linear motors and a multiple-level brake system replace cables. Cabs are able to change direction from vertical to horizontal thanks to a rotating “exchanger.”

“We’ve been waiting for these developments for a while,” says Roger Soto, a design principal with the global architecture firm HOK. Soto led the design of the Capital Market Authority Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which includes another Thyssenkrupp elevator innovation. When the 1,260-foot tower opens in 2018, it’ll utilize the company’s TWIN elevator system, in which two elevator cabs travel independently—one above the other—in the same shaft.

The elevator is “pretty critical” to skyscraper design, Soto explains, as it makes up the building’s core. But the current cable system takes up more space the higher you go. For the CMA Tower, the TWIN allowed HOK to build taller on a smaller floorplate: “The TWIN system allowed us to actually pack the elevators into the core in a way that made the tower more efficient and economical,” Soto explains.

The horizontal movement “is something I’m still trying to get my head around,” he says. “But I think the elevator can free us from certain constraints we have right now, and allow us to innovate in the way we conceive of towers.”

At the MULTI unveiling event, Antony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, spoke to the shifting trends already happening in skyscraper design. For one, most of the innovation has moved out of North American cities like Chicago and New York, and is happening across Asia and the Middle East. (The world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa, opened in 2010 and extends 2,717 feet in Dubai.)

We’re also using these towers differently. Instead of office towers built to symbolize a single company—the Chrysler and Sears towers, for example—they are often operating as mixed-use “mini cities” with a combination of residential, office, hotel, and public space. As Soto put it, “We’re thinking more about creating social connections in a vertical setting.”

Wood called the MULTI “the holy grail of elevators” to address such shifts. For one, the system allows multiple elevator cabins to operate on a loop, moving more people in a continuous flow. Eliminating the space traditionally reserved for elevator shafts, it also frees up square footage for more apartments or office space. Schierenbeck estimates the system can achieve up to a 50 percent higher transport capacity, while increase a building’s usable area by as much as 25 percent.

But at what point does an elevator become a totally different mode of transit? “This is technology that’s not really distinguishable as an elevator anymore,” says Daniel Safarik, the China Office Director at Council on Tall Buildings. “They’re more like transportation vehicles of some kind. If you can get an elevator to go sideways or diagonally, then what’s the difference between the car, the subway, and the elevator? They start to have a lot of the same properties.”

Safarik thinks the real innovation of the MULTI is the possibility to send elevators underground, where they could move horizontally to connect buildings and transit hubs. It’s been proposed before. Last year, London architecture firm Weston Williamson + Partners proposed a MULTI system that travelled underneath buildings vertically before descending down to Tube platforms, creating connections between stations. Innovative as it may sound, Safarik sees the “jurisdiction between what’s a building and what’s infrastructure” posing the biggest challenge to MULTI transforming cities in this way.

The stalwarts of the elevator industry have their own concerns. “Tradition still has a strong role here,” says Rick Sayah, vice president of the New Jersey elevator consulting firm Van Deusen & Associates. “The reproducibility of work is how we’re able to maintain safety, training and maintenance.” His questions, too, revolve around what the technology exactly is, and who should regulate it: “Is this an elevator? Is it a vertical extension of the transit system? Will it require a new paradigm of building code?” He believes it’ll be a challenge to build new safety codes around a technology that’s so unlike the traditional elevator.

Schierenbeck says that “in the last five years, Thyssenkrupp developed comprehensive functional safety concepts using a multi-step braking system capable to handle all possible scenarios of operation.” The company, which has yet to obtain a safety certificate for the technology, expects cars can begin testing with people inside in the next few months.

The East Side Tower in Berlin, designed by Netherlands-based OVG Real Estate, will be the first with a MULTI system. The company has released few details on the project, besides an anticipated opening in 2019.

Safarik, of the Council on Tall Buildings, believes the technology is likely to come to the United States as part of a hospital, campus, or government complex, where horizontal elevators can shuttle people from one building to the next. “It’s not particularly freaky to imagine,” he says. “It’s a logical thing, even if it has always been in the realm of science fiction.”

Building a Battery-Free Cellphone – IEEE Spectrum

Building a Battery-Free Cellphone – IEEE Spectrum

Batteries can be a real drag. They’re expensive and must be constantly recharged. Though some battery-free sensors can passively transmit small amounts of data, most consumer electronics today still rely on bulky batteries to store power.

A team from the University of Washington has built a battery-free cellphone that can harness power from radiofrequency (RF) waves sent to it from a nearby base station. The phone not only harnesses the power it needs to operate from those waves, but can also place a voice call by modifying and reflecting the same waves back to the base station, through a technique known as backscattering.

The UW team has shown their device (built from off-the-shelf components) can use harvested power to place a call from a distance of 9.4 meters away from a customized base station. They also built a version outfitted with photodiodes that collect ambient light to passively power the device, allowing them to place a call from a distance of 15.2 meters.

To place or receive a call, the entire device consumes just 2 to 3 microwatts of power. The group’s design supports only voice calls—there’s no data plan—but its creators say it would still prove quite useful in certain circumstances.

“Imagine a scenario where your phone died but you could at least have enough power to make a 9-1-1 call,” says Vamsi Talla, who built the phone while a post-doc in electrical engineering at the University of Washington. “That could be a lifesaver.”

Many of today’s passive sensors transmit data only occasionally–perhaps every minute or so—due to power constraints. Or, in the case of RFID tags, some passive sensors must be very close to a reader to harness enough power to transmit a message.

In a conference paper published earlier this month, Talla, who now serves as chief technology officer of Jeeva Wireless, and his colleagues call their design “a major leap” toward the creation of battery-free devices. Ultimately, they want to build devices that can constantly transmit or receive data and voice calls over long distances without batteries.

“Now we’re showing the world that a battery-free device doesn’t have to be a sensor, but it can be a whole system where in real-time, you can actually do something useful,” Talla says.

Raj Rajkumar, a professor in electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says the research is “another interesting step in the evolution of wireless power transmission.” He also noted that follow-up studies would need to evaluate the safety of transmitting power to mobile devices in this way.

For now, the UW device only works with customized base stations within close range of the user. Being near a base station may not always be possible for users who need to place an urgent call. But Talla says this could change with the anticipated rollout of 5G networks, in which providers are expected to dramatically increase the density of base stations—at least in cities.

He also expects to achieve greater distances at other frequencies. In their initial tests, the base station broadcast a single tone on the 915 megahertz frequency band to the device.

To place a call, the battery-free phone uses an electret microphone to generate an analog signal. An electret microphone contains a diaphragm with a fixed electrostatic charge. Within the microphone, the diaphragm forms a capacitor with a metal plate. When a person speaks, mechanical vibrations from their voice cause the diaphragm to change shape relative to the metal plate. This affects the capacitance of the device and generates a small voltage.

The microphone connects to an antenna through a RF switch. The voltage from the microphone travels to the antenna, where it directly alters the amplitude of the single tone embedded in the RF wave. The altered signal is then reflected back to the base station using backscattering techniques. These methods reduce the phone’s power consumption by three or four orders of magnitude compared to a traditional radio.

The phone’s design was inspired in part by the Great Seal Bug, a passive surveillance device planted in the desk of the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow by Russian authorities in the late 1940s. The UW phone is also half-duplex, which means a user can either listen or talk, but can’t do both at the same time. A microcontroller manages the RF switch, connecting the microphone to the antenna when a user presses a button to talk, and connecting the earphones when the user wants to listen.

To minimize power consumption, the team moved much of the processing that would typically be performed on a phone to their customized base station. Smartphones today contain components that convert analog sound to digital signals before transmission, and other components that convert the digital signals received from a base station to analog sound.

In the UW system, the base station performs these conversions and connects to the nationwide cellular network, forwarding calls or sending signals it receives back to the user. Talla says the group will continue to refine the technology through a licensing agreement with Jeeva Wireless.

The Best Keyboard Ever Is Back


The Best Keyboard Ever Is Back

You may not know the Model F by name, but you know it by sound—the musical thwacking of flippers slapping away. The sound of the ’80s office. The IBM Model F greeting the world in 1981 with a good ten pounds of die-cast zinc and keys that crash down on buckling metal springs as they descend. It’s a sensation today’s clickiest keyboards chase, but will never catch. And now it’s coming back.

The second coming of the high-quality Model F (not to be confused with its more affordable plastic successor, the Model M) isn’t a throwback attention grab from IBM, nor a nostalgia play from Big Keyboard. Instead, it’s the longtime work of a historian in love with the retro keyboard’s unparalleled sound and feel, but frustrated by the limitations of actual decades-old tech.

The Model F Keyboards project, now taking preorders for the new line of authentic retro-boards, was started by Joe Strandberg, a Cornell University grad who’s taken up keyboard wizardry as a nights-and-weekends hobby. He started as a collector and restorer of genuine Model F keyboards—originally produced from 1981 to 1994—a process that familiarized him with their virtues and their flaws.

“The first family computer we had was an IBM PC,” Strandberg told me. “And, I know from this from watching old home movies: The first keyboard I typed on was a Model F.” It’s a simple story, and one that’s familiar to plenty of nerds of a certain age (including me). But it’s not rose-colored glasses that make you remember that 1980s keyboard fondly. It really was the best.

All keyboards work by the same basic principle. When you press a key, you engage a mechanism that completes a circuit, telling the computer to put a character on the screen. Most modern day keyboards, like those you find on a laptop, are “membrane” keyboards. These keys are thin plastic slabs suspended over rubbery domes that squish when you depress them, completing the circuit. They can be made well, but have very short throw (the distance the keys travel down before they bottom out) and virtually no click. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any keyboard nerd that’s particularly fond of them.

Modern-day mechanical keyboards are different. Instead of rubber domes, they tend to use individual switches with innards made of plastic and metal. Cherry is the brand name to know in this world, offering switches of varying design to provide different feelings—stiffer sprints for firmer pushback, and, of course, keys designed to clack. The modern-day standard for “clickiness” are Cherry’s Blue switches. Each one contains two plastic parts that smack against each other on the way down, offering a signature click.

But both of these mechanical solutions are a shadow of their predecessor, IBM’s buckling spring. As detailed in the now-expired 1978 patent, these keyboards use a spring that buckles (go figure) as the key atop it is depressed. This buckling motion then torques a small plastic paddle beneath it, and the paddle slaps into the printed circuit board (PCB) and metal plate underneath. It’s that thwacking that both completes the circuit and gives a buckling spring keyboard its irreproducible sound.

It’s a sound and sensation Strandberg has spent years dissecting, and it shows in his lyrical description: “You’ve got huge pieces of steel, the flippers slapping and resonating between two metal sandwich layers. It’s a musical kind of interaction.”

It’s wildly difficult to reproduce. Some keyboard enthusiasts have endeavored to squeeze the buckling spring mechanism into a modern form, but to lukewarm results. They face engineering challenges but also rightful skepticism as to whether it’s even possible. Strandberg is certainly wary of such an approach. “There really is no buckling spring self-contained switch,” he says. “A self-contained switch would lose the richness from the steel plates.”

Strandberg takes a more holistic tack: build the physical form of an old Model F Keyboard in its entirety, exactly like they used to be made in the 1980s, or at least as close to that standard as possible. Working with a factory in China, Strandberg has carefully overseen the reproduction process one step at time, from the springs to the unique powder-coating on the keyboard’s zinc case. Despite the expense (Strandberg estimates spending $100,000 to revive the tooling necessary for the production run), it was the only viable option given the kind of abuse your average keyboard takes on a daily basis. “With 3D printing,” he says, “the keyboard wouldn’t last a year.”

But manufacturing is a painstaking process that has lead to continuing delays. In fact, the most recent preorder deadline just slipped from the end of June to the end of July. “I was initially expecting to get these shipped out at the end of last year and we’re probably looking at the end of this year,” Strandberg says. “They had to figure out how to do the powder coating to make it look like the old, bumpy, splotchy, IBM powder coating on the cases. That took them about two or three extra months. And the standards that IBM had for the keys were so precise that it’s taken them a few extra months to get the key molds precise.”

That attention to detail matters because quality is a Model F calling card. The first keyboard of its type to be released by IBM, the Model F made no compromises. It weighed nearly 10 pounds thanks to its metal case and cost a whopping $600 when debuted, which translates to some $1,700 today, the cost of a top-of-the-line gaming rig. It’s a number that will, maybe, help nerds (and their frustrated spouses) swallow the new Model F’s more modest $300 price point, which reaches up towards $400, depending on various optional embellishments.

It’s a cost plenty of people are willing to pay. Strandberg’s got preorders for more than 500 new keyboards, totaling a quarter of a million dollars in sales, all that with little more to show for his work so far than some videos of prototypes. The first prototypes off the assembly line only just made their way underneath the fingers of enthusiasts at a recent keyboard meet-up, to good initial reviews.

For anyone who longs to have the buckling spring back again, the options are limited. Authentic Model F keyboards go for hundreds of dollars online and require extensive modification before they’ll work with modern computer. Its successor, the Model M, is more readily available and easier to attach to today’s PCs and Macs, but has a cheaper plastic body.

Even thrift-store adventurers who find a functioning antique will be hamstrung by the ancient firmware that powers these old-school boards, firmware that doesn’t support modern features like programmability or the option to reassign keys. In fact, this arcane firmware was the bane of retrocomputing enthusiasts until just recently, when one endeavoring hacker managed to reverse-engineer the decades-old code by digging through IBM patents and released a modernized version as an open-source project. It was an act that effectively unshackled buckling spring technology from some 35 years of cyber-bondage. “It was the main thing that made the project finally feasible,” Strandberg says.

This new breed of Model Fs will be limited in number, though the deadline for ponying up for keeps slipping back due to the manufacturing delays. New Model Fs will be made, yes. But not in perpetuity. “Every run has enormous overhead,” Strandberg says. “Even if you have the molds already, you’re still paying the factory to configure all their machinery to make your parts.” Fortunately, Strandberg is planning on two runs. One for early birds, who are content to hop on board even with test units sight unseen, and a second run a year or two down the line for people who are perhaps a little more skeptical or skittish about the price.

To Strandberg, and the kind of people who would shell out a few hundred dollars for a limited edition keyboard, the case for the splurge is clear. “If you’re a writer, a programmer, someone who works in front of computer, you’re going to be there a good part of your day so why not type on the best? This is something that IBM spent millions of dollars developing, getting the perfect layout, getting the perfect shape and technology.” The original Model Fs have lasted for decades and many of them are still kicking, and Strandberg hopes his new ones—built meticulously in their image and with eyes set on the future—will last for at least that long, and beyond.

You can pre-order your own Model F until July 31st. Just remember to save a few bucks to buy some earplugs for your coworkers.

Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments TMC0281 Speech Synthesizer – IEEE Spectrum

Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments TMC0281 Speech Synthesizer – IEEE Spectrum


If it weren’t for the TMC0281, E.T. would’ve never been able to “phone home.” That’s because the TMC0281, the first single-chip speech synthesizer, was the heart (or should we say the mouth?) of Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell learning toy. In Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster movie, the eponymous flat-headed alien hacks the toy to build an interplanetary communicator. (For the record, E.T. also uses a coat hanger, a coffee can, and a circular saw.) Today, we’re increasingly accustomed to our consumer electronics talking to us; the TMC0281 was the first step toward our world of ubiquitous synthesized speech.

Released in 1978, the TMC0281 produced speech using a technique called linear predictive coding; the sound emerges from a combination of buzzing, hissing, and popping. It was a surprising solution for something deemed “impossible to do in an integrated circuit,” Gene A. Frantz told IEEE Spectrum. Frantz, one of the four engineers who designed the toy, retired from TI in 2013. Variants of the TMC0281 were used in Atari arcade games and Chrysler’s K-cars. In 2001, TI sold its speech-synthesis chip line to Sensory, which discontinued it in late 2007. But if you ever need to place a very, very-long-distance phone call, you can find Speak & Spell units in excellent condition on eBay for about US $50.

Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments Digital Micromirror Device – IEEE Spectrum

Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments Digital Micromirror Device – IEEE Spectrum

On 18 June 1999, Larry Hornbeck took his wife, Laura, on a date. They went to watch Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace at a theater in Burbank, Calif. Not that the graying engineer was an avid Jedi fan. The reason they were there was actually the projector. At the heart of the projector was a chip—the digital micromirror device—that Hornbeck had invented at Texas Instruments. A DMD uses millions of hinged microscopic mirrors to direct light through a projection lens. The Phantom Menace screening was “the first digital exhibition of a major motion picture,” says Hornbeck, a TI Fellow. Today movie projectors based on this digital light-processing technology—or DLP, as TI branded it—are used in thousands of theaters. It’s also integral to rear-projection TVs, office projectors, and tiny projectors for cellphones. “To paraphrase Houdini,” Hornbeck says, “micromirrors, gentlemen. The effect is created with micromirrors.” For his efforts, Hornbeck was ultimately awarded an Oscar—unlike The Phantom Menace.

Watch HERB the Robot Butler Take the Oreo Cookie Challenge – IEEE – The Institute

Watch HERB the Robot Butler Take the Oreo Cookie Challenge – IEEE – The Institute

This month as part of our special report on assistive technology we featured HERB (home-exploring research butler), a robot developed by Senior Member Siddhartha Srinivasa and his team the Personal Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. The two-armed, three-wheeled robot is designed to help people with paralysis perform simple tasks around the home. It can, for example, unload a dishwasher or prepare simple meals.

In 2013 it was faced with a different, yet equally complicated task: separating an Oreo sandwich cookie without breaking it. Until that time, the cookie was the smallest and most delicate object that HERB had handled. Watch the video to see how HERB and his team of roboticists stand up to the challenge.

A Colonoscopy Robot and Other Weird Biomedical Tech From IEEE’s Biggest Robotics Conference – IEEE Spectrum

A Colonoscopy Robot and Other Weird Biomedical Tech From IEEE’s Biggest Robotics Conference – IEEE Spectrum

A host of bizarre biomedical robots turned up at ICRA 2017, IEEE’s flagship robotics conference, which took place earlier this month in Singapore. We saw swallowable robots that poke the stomach with needles and worm-like robots that explore the colon. Equal parts unnerving and fascinating, these bots aim to help people—perhaps in ways we hope we never need. After sifting through this year’s presentations, we’re bringing you the five most terrifying and inventive video demonstrations. ​

​1. Swallowable biopsy robot of doom

This capsule robot innocuously tumbles around inside your stomach—until it reaches suspicious-looking tissue. Then, like an EpiPen on steroids, the soft-bodied bot whips out a needle and jabs that spot inside your stomach in ten fast pumping movements. But this swallowable needle doesn’t inject anything. Instead, it suctions up samples of tissue that doctors can analyze for signs of cancer or other disease. Then it moves on to other suspicious spots inside the stomach—jab, jab jab!

The biopsy technique, called fine needle aspiration, is typically performed from outside the body. This capsule robot, designed by researchers at the physical intelligence department at Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, in Stuttgart, Germany, moves the technique inside the body. Thanks guys.

Previous swallowable biopsy robot designs only scrape at the surface tissue, they argued at ICRA. Doctors need a tool that will really get in there, and this design will do it. They tested it out on fresh pork fat placed in a plastic human stomach model. The capsule is equipped with a magnet, allowing the researchers to guide the robot’s orientation and jabbing motions while inside the stomach. Of course after the job is done, the robot, with tissue sample inside, has to be retrieved. Its inventors suggest pulling it back out of the throat by a tether. Thanks again, guys!

2. Smashable Fingers

Sure you can make an electronic prosthetic hand that is controlled by person’s nervous system, but can you make one that can survive getting smashed by a hammer? The Bretl Research Group, led by Timothy Bretl at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided this was a necessary feature of prosthetic fingers. So the group fabricated an insanely flexible model hand, hooked it up with sensors, and, using various finger torture devices, smashed, twisted and bent the fingers in every direction (with the video camera rolling). You might wince, but the deformed digits just bend right back into shape.

The key was to eliminate the weak spots common in commercial prosthetic hands. That would be the pin joints—the hinges around which rigid prosthetic fingers bend, but often break. So the Bretl group eliminated the fragile part, replacing it with flexible materials. For each finger, they 3D-printed the “bone” with a flexible polyurethane material, routed it with pressure sensor wires, molded a silicone skin around it, and then inserted three layers of pre-stressed spring steel. The thumb is made similarly, but equipped with a motor. After being smashed with a hammer, the hand can pick up that hammer—or a glass of wine or a pair of scissors—and use it like nothing happened.

3. The colonoscopy robot you never knew you wanted

This robot moves like a worm, inching its way up the rectum and around the entire colon. And yes, someday people may elect to put this device in their bodies. It’s meant to serve as an alternative to traditional colonoscopy, an uncomfortable procedure in which a physician snakes a thin, flexible colonoscope through the large intestine to look for signs of colon cancer and other diseases. A small, controllable robot equipped with a camera and tools to collect tissue samples could do the same job, with less discomfort. I suppose that’s some consolation.

Several research groups have built prototypes of colonoscopy robots, each with their own ick factor. There are “legged” capsule robots and “treaded” capsule robots. This one, developed by the Rentschler Research Group at the University of Colorado, Boulder, falls in the “worm” robot category. It has three body sections that scrunch up and expand, propelling it along the intestine in a peristaltic motion. Each body section of the robot contains three shape memory alloy (SMA) springs, which compress and expand, and are cooled by forced air flow. It can move 15 centimeters in 6 minutes. Perhaps it’s less painful than a colonoscopy, but this worm robot might be a tough sell until someone gives it a better name.

4. Laser-assisted robot arm tries not to be a bull in a china shop

It’s a little awkward and slow, but this robot arm will grab and retrieve that hard-to-reach object you need. All you have to do is aim a laser beam at it. (And hope that you don’t bump into anything else along the way.) The invention, developed by researchers at the Robotics Lab at University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Helping Hands Lab at Northeastern University, aims to aid people who use mobility scooters. Home robotic arms are expensive and often challenging to operate, and this team of engineers wanted to make something simple enough that any scooter rider could use it.

So they mounted onto a mobility scooter a robot arm, and equipped both the scooter and the arm with depth cameras similar to the Microsoft Kinect Sensor, which is used with Xbox. When the user aims a laser beam at the object she wants, the robot arm moves to that object, the camera scans it, and the team’s grasp detection algorithm determines how to maneuver itself in order to pick it up. The contraption got it right about 90 percent of the time, the team reported at ICRA. Unfortunately the thing is huge and the arm tends to collide with other stuff in the room. That could be resolved by adding more depth sensors, the team reported.

5. Wearable vision system takes the ouch out of canes

A blind person walks into a crowded room and has a dilemma: He needs to find an empty chair to sit in, but doesn’t want to go around bopping ankles with his cane as he tests all the occupied chairs first. To help, researchers at MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory came up with a guiding system based on vibration feedback. The system includes a depth camera, an embedded computer, a vibration belt, and a brail system. The user wears the camera and computer around his neck and the vibration belt around his torso. Based on the vibration feedback, he can discern the location of obstacles in the area before testing them out with his cane. It can even tell him which chair is empty. To test the system, the engineers sent blind volunteers wandering through the halls of their buildings and into mock-up spaces. The volunteers were more hesitant and walked more slowly when they wore the feedback system, but they were able to navigate without using their canes.