Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired Why Your Phone (and Other Gadgets) Fail You When It’s Cold

Hexbyte Tech News Wired Why Your Phone (and Other Gadgets) Fail You When It’s Cold

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired

Denis Kozhevnikov/TASS/Getty Images

Across the Midwest today, hundreds of schools and businesses are closed, dozens of flights and trains have been canceled, and the governors of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan have declared states of emergency as a bone-chilling, breath-taking Polar Vortex bears down on the region. While I slept in Minneapolis, overnight wind chills in the city topped –50 degrees. With temperatures like that, you can’t stay outside for more than five minutes without running the risk of frostbite.

As a native Midwesterner, I’m used to the annual assault of winter weather on the human body, hairless and adapted over millennia to indoor living as we are. Despite our thermoregulatory shortcomings, we’ve managed to survive extreme cold through technology—from insulating clothing to systems that pump hot air and water around our homes.

But much of the tech that facilitates our connected modern lives itself loses functionality as temperatures drop below freezing. Batteries, screens, sensors, lightweight materials—the things that power our modern mobile lifestyles—just don’t work when it gets this cold. Here’s what to expect of your gear.

Batteries

Think about all the gadgets that you regularly plug into a power strip. It’s a lot, right? Besides everyday items like a phone and laptop, you might also have a fitness tracker, smart watch, Bluetooth headphones, digital camera, e-reader, vape pen, drone, or rechargeable bike lights, just to name a few. Most if not all of them are powered by lithium-ion batteries, whose high energy density and ability to handle both low and high currents have made them the industry standard for personal electronics. But those same properties become a problem as soon as temperatures dive below 32 degrees F.

“Lithium-ion batteries suffer so badly in freezing temperatures because they have very little internal resistance,” says Hanumant Singh, an electrical engineer at Northeastern University who builds cold-weather robots for places like Antarctica and Greenland. Less resistance means these batteries generate less waste energy as heat (a good thing in more mild climes). But the absence of waste heat also means they’re more vulnerable when temperatures plummet. The colder it gets, the slower the metabolism of the chemical reaction inside the battery. The battery drains faster as a result. If you’ve ever been texting someone at a healthy-looking 25 percent charge only to have your phone die mid-eggplant emoji two seconds later, you’re familiar with how steep the drop-off can be. “It’s very dramatic,” says Singh. Carrying around a smartphone in any weather colder than –35 degrees F, he says, will kill it completely in 5 minutes—right around the time frostbite would strike the hand holding it.

Such deficiencies are particularly pronounced in devices like smartphones, which are designed to sit mostly inactive for long periods of time throughout the day. Their batteries never draw enough current to heat themselves. But vehicles like drones and electric cars, which demand very high power for shorter periods of time, can generate enough warmth to keep the batteries going, just at a greatly reduced level of performance. While cold weather is a challenge for all electric vehicles, the small size of electric scooters can make them especially vulnerable to failures, as noted by several “juicer” forums on Reddit. Companies like Lime monitor the performance of their fleets, including battery life, but say they are not yet aware of any trends coinciding with this week’s plummeting temps.

The performance of individual products will of course vary based on the manufacturer, battery model, and wear and tear on the device. Apple suggests not operating its phones below 32 degrees F. Amazon says the same for the Kindle. Fitbit, on the other hand, recommends a minimum ambient operating temperature no colder than 14 degrees F for its wellness wearables, which should maintain better temperature control based on continuous contact with your skin. But the same general rules apply to anything that uses lithium-ion battery technology.

So if you have to venture out into the Polar Vortex, store your phone as close to your body as possible, leave the wireless headphones at home, and keep your time outside to under five minutes. If you do freeze your device, don’t plug it in cold. Allow it to slowly come up to room temperature before you recharge it. Failing to do so sets off a different, unwanted chemical reaction that could damage the battery permanently.

Screens

Batteries fare the worst in cold weather, hands down. But a close second are the LCD screens that illuminate our phones, tablets, laptops, digital camera displays, smart watches, and automobile GPS mapping and control systems. LCDs consist of a layer of millions of multicolored pixels, each one controlled by a separate transistor. When turned on, a zap of electricity shocks a tiny, twisted up liquid crystal to attention. In its altered structural shape, the crystal directs light through a pair of polarizing filters and into the pixel, lighting up the desired color. All together these millions of pixels produce all the colors in an image.

But LCD technology gets sluggish when it gets too hot or too cold. Liquid crystals work best in a Goldilocks temperature range somewhere between 32 and 120 degrees F. The colder it gets, the slower the response time from electrical signal to pixel transition, which degrades the image, making it blurry. Some fluids can make crystals functional all the way down into the negative 60s, but most consumer LCD screens crap out around 40 below. “It’s a chemistry that doesn’t work well in the cold for a completely different reason,” says Singh, who has resorted to smuggling a laptop inside his parka when he travels to drone launches in the Arctic. He waits until the absolute last minute to expose the machine to the environment and prays that it doesn’t die before his vehicle is in the ocean. “If we were somehow hypothetically not battery-limited, the screen would be the thing that would get us.”

Sensors

Then there are the tiny gyroscopes, oscilloscopes, oscillators, and more: sensors that collect the information that tells us where we’re going, what time we need to get there, how many steps we took, and how many calories we burned to do it. These components track the orientation of a device and how fast it’s moving through space—crucial tasks for navigating, telling time, and logging activity goals. These sensors’ performance also degrades when the temperatures go extreme.

The fancier the sensor, the wider its operating range. “Doing it across a huge spectrum, say –50 to 120 degrees F, is almost impossible,” says Singh. “But that means they’re going to have accuracy issues at these extreme cold temperatures.” To keep costs down, most consumer electronics employ more run-of-the-mill devices.

Take digital watches, for example. Whether it’s an Apple Watch or a Garmin or a $10 cheap plastic number from Walmart, what they all have in common is that if you flip them over, the backside is metal. The oscillator inside any of those watches is calibrated to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and the metal heat plate conducts the wearer’s body temperature to keep the sensor in its most accurate temperature range. Take it off and wave it around a –50 windchill and you might lose seconds if not minutes of your day. Not ideal if accuracy’s your jam, but perhaps that’s one way to race through the coldest day in recent history.


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Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired Just Some Other Totally Legit Microbes That Will Definitely (Not) Make Your Tech Startup a Unicorn

Hexbyte Tech News Wired Just Some Other Totally Legit Microbes That Will Definitely (Not) Make Your Tech Startup a Unicorn

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

The idea spread through Silicon Valley like—well, ironically, like a virus, even though the idea centered around a protozoan. According to an article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, people infected with the microbe Toxoplasma gondii might be more likely to be entrepreneurs, to start up startups or venture their capital on venture capitalism. That’s not what evolution had in mind (evolution doesn’t have a mind; don’t say that) for good ol’ Toxo, which spreads in cat feces or as a foodborne infection. It also makes mice—cat prey—unafraid of the scent of cat urine, so they don’t avoid it, so cats can eat ‘em. In other words: It’s a bug that edits fear out of your brain’s vocabulary. Oh, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 million Americans carry the parasite—almost all without symptoms (except maybe an attraction to cats), but if you’re pregnant or immune-compromised, it can actually kill you.

So a team of biologists and business professors tested a bunch of biz-school students for Toxo, and found that people infected were slightly more likely to be interested in management, entrepreneurship, and starting businesses. Boom! A parasite that makes people seek alpha? A unicorn parasite? Dude. Dude? Dude.

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Snap Kit Will Let Other Apps Use Snapchat’s Features, But Not Your Data

Snap Kit Will Let Other Apps Use Snapchat’s Features, But Not Your Data

Snap’s recent app redesign may have slowed its growth, but that hasn’t stopped the company from trying to entice people to use Snapchat in new ways. Its latest move is designed to keep you using Snapchat even when you’re not in the Snapchat app.

Snap just announced a platform for third-party app developers, called Snap Kit, that lets other apps used Snapchat features, including stickers and Bitmoji. It also turns Snap into an authentication tool app makers can embed in their own apps to let people easily log in—similar to the way many apps let you use your Facebook username and password to gain entry.

This newfound access for third-party developers comes at a time when data privacy is top of mind for some consumers as well as legislators, and Snap is going to great lengths in its outreach around Snap Kit to assure people the platform is airtight. News about Snap Kit was leaked last month; today’s release makes it official.

Snap has four new software kits for third-party app makers to use: Creative Kit, Login Kit, Bitmoji Kit, and Story Kit. Most of these control features that will live on third-party apps, though some, like Creative Kit, will ultimately bring users back into the Snapchat app (i.e., bringing filters and stickers into Snap’s camera screen). Bitmoji Kit means those stickers can live in other apps—think Bitmoji in Tinder, which is one of Snap’s launch partners—and Story Kit will turn Stories into embeddable pieces of content that can live on other websites. Snap declined to say whether it was using OAuth, a well-known open standard for authentication, as part of its Login Kit, but it sounds like the workflow for using it across other apps will be similar.

In addition to Tinder, apps like Giphy, Pandora, Patreon, Postmates, and SoundHound are included in Snap Kit’s initial launch. Initially, Snap Kit will be invite-only, and Snap executives indicated it could stay that way until the company figures out how to automate the app approval process. For now, Snap says, people from its trust and safety and customer operations teams will be approving all third-party app access. The company says that if those teams have any concerns about an app’s “security or intentions,” it won’t get approved.

Fair Share

Naturally, opening up Snap’s platform to third-party app developers raises questions about exactly how much user data those outside app makers are going to be able to access. Snap says that only display names and Bitmoji avatars are shared when people use Snapchat as a login method, and that additional “user-identifiable information, such as demographic information or friends list,” are not shared with devs.

“Under no circumstance do we allow anyone to ask for your friends list or contacts directly,” says Katherine Tassi, Snap’s deputy general counsel. “[Mobile] platforms do give developers the ability to ask for contacts, but that will be on their own.” Tassi added that third-party developers also won’t be able to see people’s messaging activity—though there is anonymized, aggregated usage data shared between Snap and the developer.

In a proactive move against old third-party apps keeping their hooks in your Snapchat account even after you’ve stopped using them, Snap will disconnect third-party apps by default if you haven’t used them in 90 days. Also, Snap says it will not use any data for ad targeting purposes.

Jacob Andreou, Snap’s vice president of product, says Snap’s app platform has been in progress in some form or another for a few years. That means Snap has had plenty of time to react to the serious privacy concerns that have recently popped up around social networks and data-sharing. However, Snap insists it’s always had privacy in mind, and shot down the notion that its newest bullet points around privacy and security are any kind of adjustment on the heels of the Facebook’s recent fumbles.

Snapchat users will be able to log in to other apps using their Snap username and password in a way that’s familiar and straightforward.

Snap

“We definitely followed the Cambridge Analytica scandal really closely and carefully, as we do all such events in this space as they impact us,” says Tassi. “But our approach to privacy and our principles are firmly embedded in the way we design products, and the way we’ve been developing this toolkit has had that approach all along.” (Snap CEO Evan Spiegel could certainly be described as more reactionary last month, when he jabbed at Facebook directly during an onstage interview at Code Conference last month.)

Tassi and Andreou also said that any precautionary elements of its new software development kit are unrelated to an embarrassing privacy snafu that happened in late 2013, when an anonymous group of hackers were able to reverse-engineer Snapchat’s Android app and retrieve 4.6 million usernames and phone numbers from Snapchat’s servers. The following year, the company had to settle with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that its “disappearing messages” claim wasn’t accurate. In other words, Snap has previously assured users that their data was being kept secure, when in some ways, it really wasn’t.

“For people like me who follow privacy developments, it’s going to be pretty hard to rebuild our trust, technically or through commitments they may make” around its new developer platform, says Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist and director of the Internet Architecture Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “But for most users, I’m not sure they associate Snap with the checkered privacy and security past it has.”

It may just depend on how much people want to use their Bitmoji in other apps, or publicly share their Snapchat Stories to other apps; or how easy Snap makes it to use Snapchat as an authentication tool. As history has shown, consumers sure do offer up a lot of data in exchange for convenience and a little bit of digital fun.


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