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Amazon's fitness

Amazon’s Halo fitness tracker will measure your body fat… and tone of voice? – CNET

halo-app-and-halo-band

Amazon has entered the health and fitness world with Halo, a subscription service and accompanying fitness band that unlocks an array of health metrics, including activity, sleep, body fat and tone of voice analysis, to determine how you sound to others. Amazon’s entry into the fitness space is odd indeed, and ambitious. And we’re just getting our minds wrapped around it. 

The band itself looks a lot like a screenless Fitbit tracker, but with a few different elements: It has temperature sensing, much like Fitbit’s newest smartwatch, the Fitbit Sense, and a microphone that continually scans a wearer’s voice to determine emotional tone. Yes, it’s a lot to take in. And the service is immediately available for early access. We haven’t even had a chance to try it out yet. 

The membership part will start at $65 for the first six months ($100 once the early access deal is over) and then $3.99 a month after that. (International prices aren’t currently available, but $65 converts to about £50 or AU$90.) The subscription to Halo includes the basic fitness band that has one button, no screen and tracks your heart rate, steps and temperature. The lack of screen means you’ll have to rely on the mobile app to see all your data, but it does a lot more than just count your steps and log your weight. 

A tone-analyzing, Amazon health band that also lets you scan your body fat may sound like Black Mirror incarnate, but it’s also opening up some ideas in fitness that we’ve never seen before.

http://www.cnet.com/


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Amazon’s Halo takes fitness tracking to new and uncomfortable…



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Body fat analysis with a smartphone camera 

Amazon thinks the concept of weight loss is flawed, and that body fat is a much better predictor of health.

Most of us have been conditioned to obsess over our weight. The entire diet industry was built on it with programs, apps and devices that revolve around ways to lose pounds. 

But weight can fluctuate daily based on factors including humidity, medication, menstrual cycle and illness. Plus muscle is more dense than fat, and a scale can’t tell the difference between the two. You could literally work your ass off building muscle and burning fat, and not see the numbers on the scale go down.

Rather than relying on weight, Halo focuses on body fat percentage, which is less volatile and takes a lot more time and work to change. 

The gold standard in the medical world for body composition analysis is a DEXA scan (dual-energy absorptiometry), which can cost up to $100 at a lab. The Halo app does it all using your smartphone camera. Once you take your photos, the app automatically eliminates everything else in the background, calculates body fat percent based on body indicators, and then creates a 3D model of your body, which is both cool and terrifying. The app requires you to wear minimal form-fitting clothing and trust Amazon to take a picture of you wearing it. The entire process takes seconds. 

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Amazon’s Halo app makes a 3D render of your body to analyze body fat, while the fitness band keeps tabs on sleep and activity. 


Amazon

If you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s not surprising: The idea of body-scanning with a camera is already an awkward proposition. Amazon doing this on a health platform makes it feel more so. The sample body-scan images Amazon showed me look very personal — not necessarily something I’d ever want anyone else to see.

That’s why Amazon promises that the finished body scans stay on your phone and won’t be shared with anybody, including the company, unless you opt into that. According to Amazon, “the images are processed in the cloud, but encrypted in transit and processed within seconds, after which they’re automatically deleted from Amazon’s systems and databases. All scan images are fully deleted within 12 hours. The scan images aren’t viewed by anyone at Amazon and aren’t used for machine learning optimizations.”

Watch that tone! 

Halo also offers a Tone analysis, which has nothing to do with body tone, but rather analyzes the nuances of your voice to paint a picture of how you sound to others. It can let you know when you’ve sounded out of line, weirdly enough. 

The fitness band has two built-in mics to capture audio and it listens for emotional cues. The company says it’s not intended to analyze the content of your conversation, just the tone of your delivery. It takes periodic samples of your speech throughout the day if you opt in to the feature. You enable the microphones by tapping the side button and you’ll know when the mic is off when a red LED lights up on the band. 

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Amazon

The voice scanning pulls out the wearer’s specific voice in conversations and delivers analysis with related emotional-tone words (like “happy,” or “concerned” in the Halo app). The idea, according to Amazon, is to help guide you to deliver better tones of voice and speaking styles, like a vocal form of good posture. It isn’t intended as a form of psychological analysis, but it seems awfully hard to draw the line on a concept like this. 

Amazon’s been exploring the idea of emotional tone-sensing since at least 2018, but this is the first time it’s approached the idea in any device. And according to Amazon, the Tone feature is only available on the Halo band for now. It will be limited to the band’s microphone, but Amazon sounds open to exploring the idea on other devices, depending on how the early access response goes from first-wave wearers. It’s a very odd thing to put on a fitness band, and we have no idea what this is like to use yet.

Amazon promises that Tone voice samples are encrypted and stored only on a wearer’s phone (shared from the band via Bluetooth with the encrypted key), are deleted after analysis and won’t be shared to the cloud or used to build machine-learning models.

Sleep analysis with temperature tracking

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The sleep analysis includes a body temperature to detect variations that may impact sleep. 


Amazon

The app provides a comprehensive sleep analysis with a breakdown of the different stages of sleep and overall sleep score, much like other fitness trackers. It also goes beyond the basics by keeping track of your overall body temperature during sleep and creating a baseline for each person. It then charts your average temperature each night relative to your baseline to help you identify variations that could affect your health and the quality of your sleep. 

The Halo band won’t provide a specific body temperature, similar to the way other temperature wearable devices like the Oura Ring already work.

Temperature has become a trending wearable metric in the COVID-19 era: The Oura Ring has one and Fitbit’s newest Sense watch has one too. Amazon’s Halo team is pursuing research for COVID-19 symptom detection on its wearables, much like other health wearable companies, but no specific studies or plans have been laid out yet.

Activity tracking: A week at a glance 

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The activity app is based on a weekly point system. 


Amazon

Halo also does basic fitness tracking based on the information from the band. It can automatically track walks and runs, but you’ll have to go into the app and tag any other workouts manually. 

It rewards you for any type of movement or activity, but gives more points for more intense workouts and subtracts points for sedentary time. And it doesn’t keep a daily tally of your activity, your score is based on the points you accrued during the entire week. The entire picture of exercise, sedentary time and active time is combined into one tally.

Amazon’s sleep and activity scores and other AI tools will require an Amazon Halo subscription; otherwise, the band will default to more basic tracking data. Much like Fitbit and its Premium service, this looks to be continuing a trend of fitness devices that expect a subscription model as part of the package.

A lot of labs and partners, but no Google or Apple integration

A Labs section of Amazon Halo looks similar to what’s on Fitbit’s Premium service, with a lot of multiweek health and fitness goals to opt into, and partners lined up from OrangeTheory to Weight Watchers. Amazon promises these challenges are scientifically vetted, but it also sounds like these challenges will keep being added to over time. 

But at least at launch, Halo will not tie in to Apple’s HealthKit or Google’s Fit App which puts it at a disadvantage with people who are already deeply invested in either for health tracking. Amazon is leaning on Weight Watchers, John Hancock Vitality wellness program, and a few others that will be able to hook into Amazon Halo health data.

The looming privacy question

There’s a lot of process in terms of features, and while some seem interesting and innovative, the biggest barrier to entry is privacy. Sharing any kind of health data (let alone unflattering seminudes) requires next-level trust, and you might not be prepared to give Amazon that trust. The company doesn’t exactly have the most pristine track record when it comes to keeping user data private. Alexa-enabled devices have been in the hot seat for storing private conversations “for machine learning purposes.” And Amazon’s Ring doorbell has had a series of privacy dust-ups. 

Halo puts privacy in your hands by allowing you to opt out of data sharing with Amazon and third-party apps as well as disable the microphone on the band, but it’s still going to be an uphill battle. That is unless its features prove to be earth-shattering and worth the privacy risk, which remains to be seen.

Amazon is late on arrival

The lack of connection to Apple or Google is telling. Amazon’s making a play in the health and fitness data space, and with Google, Fitbit and Apple already deep in, it’s a big question as to how Amazon will make waves. Or, where Amazon Halo will go next. It’s a platform as much as a wearable, and it sounds like Halo’s early-access experiment may just be the tip of the iceberg.

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Amazon's Night

Amazon’s “Vast of Night” is a Richard Linklater, sci-fi, “All the President’s Men” thriller mash-up – Salon

Brace your brains! Among May’s streaming movies is “The Vast of Night,” director Andrew Patterson’s nifty 1950s sci-fi mystery that “operates on the frequency caught between logic and myth.” That is part of what makes this film, written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, so compelling. It pays affectionate homage to TV shows like “The Twilight Zone” and other series of that ilk, (“Tales of Tomorrow” and “Out There”) as well as radio broadcasts from the bygone era.

The story concerns Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ at WOTW in Cayuga, New Mexico, and his 16-year-old friend Fay (a fantastic Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, encountering a strange sound on the night almost everyone in town is attending a basketball game. When Everett puts the sound on the radio, Billy (voiced by Bruce Davis) calls in to recount a story that leads the intrepid Everett and Fay to investigate further. It would spoil the delights of “The Vast of Night” to reveal more, but the film, available May 29 on Amazon, will satisfy fans of the genre as well as those who are wary of sci-fi.

Patterson shows real craft in his handling of the materials. He employs lengthy tracking shots, but also fixes his camera on Fay at the switchboard for an extended scene that is quite gripping. The film features excellent sound design, and the period language is terrific — as is the rapport between the hyperverbal Everett and Fay. 

The filmmaker chatted with Salon about his fantastic debut feature film.

Did you make tape recordings when you were a kid, and do you still have those tapes? 

If anyone has those tapes it would be my mother. And she would have kept every scrap of homework and creative endeavor I made if she could. I did have a young fascination with tape recording, and I remember having one in the 1980s. I’d steal chunks of songs off the radio, like every kid. When you realize you can do that, it’s a pretty neat power. I don’t know that I did anything creative on those tapes, but it was a part of my life when I was 5, 6, 7 years old. 

This film is both nostalgic and original. What can you say about the 1950s radio and TV influences?  

The biggest ones by far were the movies and the media that played on people’s fears and curiosities. “The Twilight Zone” did that better than anything. It’s the 20th-century TV equivalent to a 19th-century novel like “Moby Dick.” It has that much power and strength. Every time something dates, you tend to devalue it because we expect something new and shiny every week, but “The Twilight Zone” is an unbelievable milestone because it’s uncanny and it had this strange TV limitation. They made up miniatures and shot on a backlot and had these scripts that were not afraid to end on ambiguity or tragedy. They had these restraints, and that’s what we leaned into for “The Vast of Night” along with radio dramas of the 1930s and 1940s. There’s a “Third Man,” radio show with Orson Welles [reprising] Harry Lime. A lot of movies from the 1940s got turned into radio drama. “Key Largo” had a great 1-hour radio version with the lead actors from the movie. That was a big influence — those movies of the 1940s that were turned into radio shows. We wanted our film to feel like late ’40s radio drama.

The film is all about storytelling — recording one’s own voice, Billy’s story, which Everett says is “good news” for the radio, the gossip about a family, or the tale of a squirrel eating the wire at the gym, and especially Mabel Blanche’s (Gail Cronauer) recitation of her life. What makes a good story and how do you tell it well?

I think with a good story you have a question in the back of your mind and the storyteller knows how to create an irresolution or imbalance that you are waiting to experience. That can be verbal, or visual, or physics playing out — something is on the edge of a table that might fall off. Until you resolve it, people usually lean in and are transfixed. The stories in “The Vast of Night” are things that you are familiar with, or relate to, but the longer stories in the film have an imbalance or irresolution that you’re waiting, as a listener or viewer, to come to a resolution in a satisfying way. In a movie, you can string these stories together for 90 minutes in a way that continues to be engaging. It [depends on] how much you care about the characters telling them. I enjoy hearing stories told, so I wanted our characters to explain their side of things and do it without anybody rushing them.

Can you talk about the sound design and how you used voices?

I learned that from two pretty pivotal movies, and one steals a lot from the former. “All the President’s Men” — if you watch that film, there are wonderful mysteries on the other side of the phone calls. There’s an early scene where Robert Redford starts to unravel really important information and at the same time there is office activity happening over his shoulder. We are locked in on him looking and curiosity jotting down notes during that pursuit [of information]. It is effective. “Zodiac,” 30 years later, is an homage to that. In the middle of that film, a caller holds the movie hostage by calling into TV program. We borrowed that template, and that’s where that inspiration came from.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the power of a disembodied voice.

I don’t know that I have an answer to that. 

What about your visual approach to the film? The palette is almost black and white; there are static scenes, times where the screen fades to black, and the camerawork includes some marvelous long tracking shots as well as fixed frames. How did you conceive of the film visually? 

The color palette was to show how small towns look at night. Browns and greens with only one instance of red at the radio station. Everett is all blue and silver so he’s cold, and Faye is green and gold, so she’s warm. We didn’t want characters under perfect pools of light. We wanted the characters soft and on the edge. With the visual language, I tried to stay away from anything that would date the film in 10-20 years. The violators are the way you light, edit, and the ways the performers behave and act. They have different styles and approaches so we tried to unstick them in time so the film would look lovely and present and new in 2025 and in 2045. We also tried to do something that didn’t require a lot of editing and punchiness to work. But we had to go back to the script to confirm we could have a 5-minute take rather than 30 shots back and forth. We had a handful of distinct scenes that would play out in 3, 4, or 10 minutes in one case. We tried to make it feel a bit more like a play. We tried to build drama in scenes where you watch Everett thread a reel to reel tape over again or Fay working a switchboard. 

Can you discuss incorporating the film’s themes about race, the soviets, the government, surveillance and conformity, and free will?

We lean into heavily the idea of paranoia at the time, and the Red Scare and Communists take over the country and take over the government. We wanted to play up the possibility of that as an alternate narrative to what was going on over the airwaves. It’s a ripe period to have the characters ask and pose things that we could play with without having it take over the movie. The game plan was to ask a lot of questions. With something like race — and I’ve never written or worked on anything that had a minority character — I wanted to have a black character stop the movie for 15 minutes. The two characters, Fay and Everett, are on the forefront of civil rights, so they would listen to someone like Billy, whereas their parents might not. 

You capture the rhythm of the characters’ fast-talking dialogue, the language of the period and even the mindset of a small town. Can you describe how you found the tone for the film? It’s affectionate, and it comes right up to the line without ever being “wink wink.”

We wanted it to feel exciting because anything new in someone’s life that is not violent, or threatening, is filled with wonder and mystery and possibility. We wanted that to be the tone of the movie until that is no longer the case. Driving 90 miles per hour down the highway is thrilling until it goes wrong. We wanted to latch on to the future possibility. That’s how we scored the film. The first two thirds don’t have that wonder. Ideally, the tone changes. One tone begins the movie and a different tone ends the film. I check out of films with only one tone, especially if it’s dread all the way through. 

You limit the special effects and have incredible period design for a low budget. Can you talk about that?

Low budget was true for us. We knew where to put our money. We painted out satellite dishes on buildings, and painting over signs on buildings, and there are the third act visual effects. The team I hired was from Argentina — Rodrigo Tomasso and Marcelo García — who worked on Juan José Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes.” Our colorist and effects guys were all down there in Buenos Aires. I saved 80% of the budget using them. I flew them up, and they scouted and delivered my vision. They were my earliest collaborators. Our production design was headed by Adam Dietrich. A lot of the look was me being the beneficiary of their work.

There is an amusing bit where Fay recounts magazine stories about the future involving electric cars, vacuum tube transportation, and even personalized phones. Your film is set in the past, but what do you think about technology and the time period? 

It’s hilarious, because it’s just like that today. If you subscribe to “Popular Science” and “Modern Mechanics,” you see things that seem impossible that they would exist. It was like that in 1955, 1956, and 1957. Our film is set in 1958, and it’s all hyperbolic. No one predicted the internet. It was all about home appliances, transportation, and communication. Each one of those articles are 100% real. We stole them and found an organic way to get them in the movie and give a sense of Fay.

I like how the film almost boxes the characters into a corner but provides an elegant way out. How did you appeal to sci-fi fans and non-fans? 

I don’t run to watch a sci-fi film. I run to watch human drama. I’m fascinated by people talking, and dramas where each person is connected to someone else by a desire for that person or what they want from that person. That’s a stage play way to write. I wanted to do that here and have it smash into a world we all knew. Richard Linklater [mashed up] with a sci-fi/”All the President’s Men” thriller. I’d not seen that done. I wanted a human drama blindsided by a sci-fi plot. The characters in monster and alien movies are often whittled down to one or two feelings. I wanted witty, humbled, scared, and excited characters. And that’s what wonderful novels and stories do. I was trying to bridge a world you don’t get to see. 

“The Vast of Night” is currently available to stream on Amazon. 


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Amazon's multiplayer

Amazon’s multiplayer Pac-Man game is made for Twitch streaming – Engadget

Amazon Games showed it’s a serious competitor with the new shooter Crucible and has an MMO on the way, but its next game is the one that makes the most sense for Twitch streaming. That’s because Pac-Man Live Studio is not just a variant of the arcade classic, it’s apparently going to be playable directly in its own Twitch channel — perfect for sharing and interaction between streamers and viewers, or just friends teaming up from different locations.

Pac-Man Live Studio - Classic Mode
Pac-Man Live Studio – Classic Mode

Amazon Games

Tonight’s announcement describes three modes, with an Endless mode that allows you and friends to team up and try to progress through as many levels as you can — as long as one person survives, everyone keeps going. A custom Maze Creator will encourage players to make maps and vote up the most popular ones, and Classic mode lets you take on everyone in the world in a battle to stay atop the leaderboard.

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