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This novel approach merges facets of e-commerce with the perks of an in-person shopping experience using machine learning, video chat, and more.

Image: iStock/cyano66

In 2017, there were well over 100,000 shopping malls in the US, per Statista data. In recent years, shopping malls have been on the decline as customers shift to online retailers. As a result, so-called “dead malls” spot cities around the US, and research forecasts more of the same in the near future. It’s been estimated that one-in-four US malls could shutter in the next five years, according to Coresight Research, and the coronavirus pandemic may have only hastened the inevitable for struggling brands like JCPenney which filed for bankruptcy in 2020. However, a modern tech-savvy twist on the classic shopping experience, virtual stores, could lure customers back to the brick-and-mortars of the previous century. This shopping format intertwines elements of e-commerce with the perks of in-person shopping. So what is a virtual store exactly?

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“Virtual store itself is one of these rather abstract words, it can mean many things to different people. I think my interpretation of a virtual store, in today’s context of the growth in e-commerce, is really trying to bring the IRL, the in real life experience to an online shopper,” said Adam Levene, founder of virtual shopping app Hero.

Virtual stores exist as a tech-enabled variant of the classic brick and mortar storefront, offering the perks of a physical, in-person retail with the convenience of online shopping.

“We think about Hero as really fusing the best of e-commerce, but also bringing it to best physical store, in real life experience, to create this virtual shopping experience for the consumer,” Levene said.

Today, there are a number of companies operating in this virtual retail space and virtual stores incorporate a vast spectrum of technologies ranging from virtual reality (VR) shopping experiences to video calls and chat. Instead of tapping the burgeoning VR market, Hero uses more readily available technologies to connect customers and brands.

“Rather than using technologies like virtual reality, we make use of technologies that are very familiar to people today. Tools like video calling, like messaging, like chats, like text,” Levene said.

These capabilities allow online shoppers to engage with retail associates at the physical stores. 

In less than 10 seconds, Hero can connect customers with a sales associate across all of its partnered brands, and, oftentimes, the online shopper is paired with an associate at the nearest physical storefront in their area, Levene explained.

If a customer is perusing items online, they can use the virtual store capabilities to interact with an in-person employee, ask them questions, have them send photos of the product, he added.

“We can [also] elevate that to a two-way video call. A little like having a FaceTime conversation that’s live and direct from the brand’s own website,” Levene said.

SEE: 5 Internet of Things (IoT) innovations (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The company is also tapping artificial intelligence (AI) to further enhance the shopping experience in this hybrid virtual brick-and-mortar experience. During communication, Hero uses machine learning to match customers with a particular sales representative, Levene explained.

Instead of a screen of open product tabs and closing the deal with the click of an “add to cart” button, this bridging of physical and digital space affixes another dimension to traditional online shopping.

“There’s that magic moment for the shopper when they realize, one, they’re speaking to a real life human and not a bot, and secondly, when they realize they’re speaking to someone who’s often nearby. So if they do want to enter the store after, they can and often they meet the associate that served them online,” Levene said.

Overall, the virtual storefront blueprint is based around a tech-savvy consumer base as well as physical commercial storefront space, an area that has seen decline in recent years as malls struggle to retain tenants.

That said, Levene detailed a number of ways in which virtual shopping is changing the traditional brick-and-more retail model.

To illustrate inefficiencies in the physical retail space, Levene discussed what he called the “Tuesday at 10 a.m. problem,” where sales associates are on-site inside of an empty mall without customer foot traffic. The virtual storefront enables brands to bring virtual customers into the fold and connect with sales associates already inside the physical stores.

“You can apply this digital layer over the physical store, conceptually, and it suddenly means the store is busy, even if there’s no customers in person there. Suddenly the staff are utilizing their skills to connect with new customers, to showcase the merchandise in the store,” Levene said.

Brands also need to account for both physical store hours as well as peak online shopping times, and some partnering brands are incorporating flex hours at physical locations, according to Levene.

“Typically a website is very busy at 7 or 8 p.m. in the evening, but often the store is traditionally closed, so there’s no associate there to help the online shopper,” Levene said. “We’re seeing many of our partners experimenting with opening their stores later. Even if they’re closed to [the] public in person, they’re still, essentially, virtually open, so they can assist the online shopper.”

This movement has given rise to “dark stores,” according to Levene; a shift he likened to the ghost kitchen trend in the restaurant industry, where a brand operates a kitchen without a pricey storefront and delivers food from this location through delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grub Hub.

“[Dark stores] are not open to the public, but you have store associates working in an environment that looks and feels like a normal store. But really what they’re doing is assisting online shoppers, they’re showing them the products and the merchandise, and then potentially shipping the products directly from the store,” Levene said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce juggernauts have thrived as lockdown measures have closed storefronts, and consumers opt for delivery amid a modern plague. In the competitive online shopping space, Levene believes the ability to offer a human connection to the shopping experience is one way retailers can set themselves apart and compete.

“Every brand in the world, that isn’t Amazon, the one thing they have that Amazon doesn’t is their human edge, their ability to connect with shoppers and to empathize, and to provide great customer experience,” Levene said.

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Apple TV+ Free Trial Subscription to Be Extended Till July for Eligible Customers: Report

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Apple TV+ free trial subscription will reportedly be extended once again for existing free trial users. All Apple TV+ users whose one-year free trial was going to expire sometime before June, will now instead be able to enjoy free access till July 2021, a new report suggests. The one-year Apple TV+ free trials were offered with new purchases of the iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV. All free trials of users who initially subscribed to the service when it launched, were set to expire on November 1, 2020. This deadline was extended to February 2021 last year, and now Apple has further extended it till July.

9to5Mac reports that the delay for this extension could be due to postponement of shooting Apple TV+ originals due to the pandemic. Customers who availed this free trial when the service launched, will now enjoy additional nine months of free access to Apple TV+. This new additional six month of extension is reportedly done by Apple to introduce new series in its content catalogue and increase the value proposition, before it begins to ask for a fee.

As mentioned, this is the second extension announced by Apple of the free trial that was slated to end last year in November. The report says that all eligible customers will be notified of this extension via email in the next couple of weeks. Existing paying subscribers will reportedly be compensated with store credit refunds to offset the cost of subscription.

Apple TV+ upcoming titles include Cherry starring Tom Holland, season two of popular series like For All Mankind, The Morning Show, and even See. All of these should release some time this year, after inevitable production delays last year due to pandemic restrictions.

Even now, Apple TV+ is offered for free for one year when you purchase an Apple device and redeem the offer within 90 days. Monthly subscription of Apple TV+ in India is Rs. 99 per month. It is also bundled with an Apple One subscription.

Is HomePod mini the best smart speaker under Rs. 10,000? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.

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The 8 best microphones to help you sound better in your next video meeting


There’s plenty of technology available to help improve the quality of our virtual calls. A top-of-the-line microphone is a great start.

In recent weeks, there’s been a surge in video conferencing as many teams operate remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Needless to say, it only takes a few Zoom calls to realize that a standard laptop microphone simply cannot deliver high-quality audio. While some companies have provided employees with a stipend to upgrade their home office setups, many were not as lucky.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of tech to improve the quality of these virtual conferences and an aftermarket microphone is a smart way to immediately give your audio a healthy boost. Ranging from high-end broadcast-style microphones to lightning port audio accessories for recordings on the go, there’s certainly no shortage of models to choose from. Without further ado, here are some of the best microphones for the home studio.

Image: Amazon

When it comes to top-notch microphones, Blue is one of the heavyweights in the market. The Blue Yeti USB microphone is one of the manufacturer’s more versatile devices. This model comes with four different pattern modes from optimal sound quality in a host of situations. For example, those who are recording music or simply tuning in for a conference call may prefer the cardioid mode to capture the audio produced immediately in front of the unit. To more aptly record conversations between two people in the same room, the bi-directional mode captures audio from the front- and back-side of the microphone. Anyone in the market for a high-end microphone for the home studio should give this well-rounded, multipurpose mic a long look.

$130 at Amazon


Image: Elgato

The Elgato Wave:3 is a versatile microphone for remote workers, gamers, and musicians alike. The microphone has a steel external grill that protects the internal components and uses a cardioid polar pattern to capture audio. The back of the device features a USB Type-C port and a headphone output. The front-facing dial adjusts headphone volume, input, and more. The stand features a u-mount for easy adjustments, and the padded base keeps the unit firmly in place. A mute feature allows you to cut the audio as needed, and Elgato offers a pop filter (sold separately) to further minimize audio disturbances.

$138 at Amazon


Image: HyperX

The HyperX SoloCast USB microphone is a great option for frequent Zoom conference attendees; especially those who enjoy gaming and streaming after the workday. To prevent audio mishaps, the model features a dedicated mute button as well as an LED indicator to ensure the mic is muted or unmuted as intended. For added functionality, the model is also compatible with PS4 and popular streaming platforms.

$60 at Best Buy

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With a steel body, matte chrome finish, and zinc die-cast elements, the HEiL Sound PR-40 certainly looks the part of a first-rate microphone. Also, the internal technology backs up the image. The cardioid pickup pattern is ideal for broadcast-style audio capturing sound directly in front and to the immediate sides of the microphone. A built-in Sorbothane shock mount reduces the risk of interference and this design includes a pair of mesh screens to improve sound quality. For additional peace of mind, this particular model comes with a limited three-year warranty.

$322 at B&H


While a more rudimentary microphone with minimal audio accouterments might fly for some, others might want to go all-in on a full home studio microphone setup. This FIFINE model includes a quality mic as well as many standard accessories for under $100. The home studio kit comes with an adjustable scissor arm for added versatility and precision placement. The included double pop filter is designed to reduce airflow immediately toward the instrument minimizing audio “pops” during recording. The package also comes with a microphone tripod stand for those so inclined.

$62 at Amazon


Image: Amazon

The Shure MV5 is a solid compact microphone packaged in a vintage master of the airwaves build. Three separate preset modes (instrument, flat, and vocals) provide optimal sound quality based on the task at hand. The microphone itself easily detaches from the aluminum mount for a more low-profile tabletop fit. As is the case with other MOTIV products, this microphone also comes with the ShurePlus MOTIV app enabling users to more precisely fine-tune their recording quality and share these files.

$100 at Amazon


Image: Amazon

Not everyone in the market for a high-quality USB microphone is looking for a personal home studio. This JUNIVO model acts as an excellent no-frills microphone with plenty of thoughtful design touches. The adjustable gooseneck mic body provides excellent maneuverability and the included noise-cancellation technology keeps audio crisp and clear. A central LED-equipped mute button along the base allows you to quickly cut the mic without searching from the digital button in the Zoom room. This is the perfect feature for those with pets roaming the home office.
At just four inches in diameter, the model is also appreciatively compact and ideal for desktops with limited space.

$26 at Amazon


IMAGE: Shure

There are many situations where we need to record an audio clip on our portable devices. In fact, some professions depend on leveraging a cell phone as a modern dictaphone. Unfortunately, the low-quality onboard microphones on these devices can make transcription difficult and render live musical performances painfully inaudible. The MV88 is an exceptional microphone option for devices with Lightning ports and an adjustable joint along the mount allows users to focus the microphone closer to the sheets of sound. The aforementioned ShurePlus MOTIVE Audio apps grants users greater control over these audio files including trimming, sharing, and fine-tuning clips.

$150 at Amazon

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Studying Chaos with One of the World’s Fastest Cameras

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There are things in life that can be predicted reasonably well. The tides rise and fall. The moon waxes and wanes. A billiard ball bounces around a table according to orderly geometry.

And then there are things that defy easy prediction: The hurricane that changes direction without warning. The splashing of water in a fountain. The graceful disorder of branches growing from a tree.

Studying Chaos with One of the Worlds Fastest Cameras

A so-called chaotic optical cavity is designed in such a way that a beam of light reflecting off its interior surfaces will never follow the same path twice. Image credit: Caltech

These phenomena and others like them can be described as chaotic systems, and are notable for exhibiting behaviour that is predictable at first but grows increasingly random with time.

Because of the large role that chaotic systems play in the world around us, scientists and mathematicians have long sought to better understand them. Now, Caltech’s Lihong Wang, the Bren Professor in the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering, has developed a new tool that might help in this quest.

In the latest issue of Science Advances, Wang describes how he has used an ultrafast camera of his own design that recorded video at one billion frames per second to observe the movement of laser light in a chamber specially designed to induce chaotic reflections.

“Some cavities are non-chaotic, so the path the light takes is predictable,” Wang says. But in the current work, he and his colleagues have used that ultrafast camera as a tool to study a chaotic cavity, “in which the light takes a different path every time we repeat the experiment.”

The camera makes use of a technology called compressed ultrafast photography (CUP), which Wang has demonstrated in other research to be capable of speeds as fast as 70 trillion frames per second. The speed at which a CUP camera takes video makes it capable of seeing light—the fastest thing in the universe—as it travels.

But CUP cameras have another feature that makes them uniquely suited for studying chaotic systems. Unlike a traditional camera that shoots one frame of video at a time, a CUP camera essentially shoots all of its frames at once. This allows the camera to capture the entirety of a laser beam’s chaotic path through the chamber all in one go.

That matters because, in a chaotic system, the behaviour is different every time. If the camera only captured part of the action, the behaviour that was not recorded could never be studied, because it would never occur in exactly the same way again. It would be like trying to photograph a bird, but with a camera that can only capture one body part at a time; furthermore, every time the bird landed near you, it would be a different species. Although you could try to assemble all your photos into one composite bird image, that cobbled-together bird would have the beak of a crow, the neck of a stork, the wings of a duck, the tail of a hawk, and the legs of a chicken. Not exactly useful.

Wang says that the ability of his CUP camera to capture the chaotic movement of light may breathe new life into the study of optical chaos, which has applications in physics, communications, and cryptography.

“It was a really hot field some time ago, but it’s died down, maybe because we didn’t have the tools we needed,” he says. “The experimentalists lost interest because they couldn’t do the experiments, and the theoreticians lost interest because they couldn’t validate their theories experimentally. This was a fun demonstration to show people in that field that they finally have an experimental tool.”

Source: Caltech

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