Posts with «software» label

Microsoft's AI tool can turn photos into realistic videos of people talking and singing

Microsoft Research Asia has unveiled a new experimental AI tool called VASA-1 that can take a still image of a person — or the drawing of one — and an existing audio file to create a lifelike talking face out of them in real time. It has the ability to generate facial expressions and head motions for an existing still image and the appropriate lip movements to match a speech or a song. The researchers uploaded a ton of examples on the project page, and the results look good enough that they could fool people into thinking that they're real. 

While the lip and head motions in the examples could still look a bit robotic and out of sync upon closer inspection, it's still clear that the technology could be misused to easily and quickly create deepfake videos of real people. The researchers themselves are aware of that potential and have decided not to release "an online demo, API, product, additional implementation details, or any related offerings" until they're sure that their technology "will be used responsibly and in accordance with proper regulations." They didn't, however, say whether they're planning to implement certain safeguards to prevent bad actors from using them for nefarious purposes, such as to create deepfake porn or misinformation campaigns. 

The researchers believe their technology has a ton of benefits despite its potential for misuse. They said it can be used to enhance educational equity, as well as to improve accessibility for those with communication challenges, perhaps by giving them access to an avatar that can communicate for them. It can also provide companionship and therapeutic support for those who need it, they said, insinuating the VASA-1 could be used in programs that offer access to AI characters people can talk to. 

According to the paper published with the announcement, VASA-1 was trained on the VoxCeleb2 Dataset, which contains "over 1 million utterances for 6,112 celebrities" that were extracted from YouTube videos. Even though the tool was trained on real faces, it also works on artistic photos like the Mona Lisa, which the researchers amusingly combined with an audio file of Anne Hathaway's viral rendition of Lil Wayne's Paparazzi. It's so delightful, it's worth a watch, even if you're doubting what good a technology like this can do. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Apple says it was ordered it to remove WhatsApp and Threads from China App Store

Apple users in China won't be able to find and download WhatsApp and Threads from the App Store anymore, according to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The company said it pulled the apps from the store to comply with orders it received from Cyberspace Administration, China's internet regulator, "based on [its] national security concerns." It explained to the publications that it's "obligated to follow the laws in the countries where [it operates], even when [it disagrees]."

The Great Firewall of China blocks a lot of non-domestic apps and technologies in the country, prompting locals to use VPN if they want to access any of them. Meta's Facebook and Instagram are two of those applications, but WhatsApp and Threads have been available for download until now. The Chinese regulator's order comes shortly before the Senate is set to vote on a bill that could lead to a TikTok ban in the US. Cyberspace Administration's reasoning — that the apps are a national security concern — even echoes American lawmakers' argument for blocking TikTok in the country. 

In the current version of the bill, ByteDance will have a year to divest TikTok, or else the short form video-sharing platform will be banned from app stores. The House is expected to pass the bill, which is part of a package that also includes aid to Ukraine and Israel. President Joe Biden previously said that he supports the package and will immediately sign the bills into law. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Quicken Simplifi subscriptions are half off through April 21

Subscriptions to the budgeting app Quicken Simplifi are half off through April 21. The price has been brought down to just $2 per month, which is billed annually at $24. The deal also extends to Quicken Classic, which adds more features for investments and tracking taxes. This tier now costs $4 per month, instead of $8 per month. It’s also billed annually.

Quicken Simplify is pretty much the budgeting app to beat all budgeting apps. There’s a reason, after all, that it topped our list of the best budgeting apps and our collection of the best apps to replace Mint. We’ve consistently praised the user-friendly interface that makes it easy to get started and keep an eye on things. Users have instantaneous access to various metrics, like top-line balances, net worth, recent spending, upcoming recurring payments and more.

We also loved how simple (pun intended) it is to set up customized savings goals and the like. The UI is clean, yet offers playful visualizations to keep things interesting. It integrates with most financial institutions, including Fidelity. Users can also invite a spouse or a financial manager to co-manage the account.

There’s no integration with Zillow, so people can’t track fluctuations in home value, which is something that competing apps like Monarch Money and Copilot Money offer. It requires manual entry of real estate information, just like any other asset. We also experienced some small errors during use, in which the app miscategorized some expenses, though this was in line with other products we tested. There’s no option for a free trial, so $2 per month is about as close as it gets. Just remember to cancel before the year is up if things don’t work out.

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Airchat is the latest app trying to make 'social audio' cool again

There’s a new invite-only app going semi-viral among VCs, tech execs and other Silicon Valley personalities. It’s called Airchat and it’s trying to revive the concept of an audio-first social media app.

The premise is similar to Clubhouse, the audio app that had a viral moment at the height of the pandemic in 2021 and inspired copycat features in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Reddit before gradually fading into obscurity. But unlike the original version of Clubhouse, Airchat isn’t built around live audio streams that require users to all tune it at once. It’s more like Twitter or Threads, except posts can only be shared as voice notes.

The app uses a timeline format, and automatically plays audio clips as you scroll your feed. You do have the ability to pause the playback and read text instead — each post is accompanied by an AI-generated transcript — but posts and replies can only be shared by recording an audio clip. There don’t seem to be any time constraints on how long individual clips can be, I found at least one post where a user spoke for a full hour just to see if it would work (it did).

It sounds a bit gimmicky (because it is), but the app has all the hallmarks of the kind of social apps that briefly go viral among a certain segment of extremely-online Silicon Valley nerds. It’s led by a pair of well-connected tech founders: AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant and former Tinder exec Brian Norgard. It’s invitation-only and has drawn a number of well-known tech personalities among its early users: Y Combinator CEO and San Francisco political provocateur Gary Tan, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, OpenAI founder Sam Altman, VC and Elon Musk confidant Jason Calacanis.

Over on X, Airchat’s high-profile user base is building hype and creating FOMO for those who haven’t been able to score an invite. (The app had to briefly shut off invites over the weekend due to “an influx of new users,” according to Ravikant, Airchat’s CEO.)

It’s not clear exactly how many users Airchat has just yet, but it seems to be in the low tens of thousands. The app has been downloaded close to 50,000 times, research firm Appfigures told Engadget, but it’s likely some of those downloads have come from people who don’t yet have an invite. Ravikant, who seems to be one of the most-followed users, currently has just over 11,000 followers in the app.

Using Airchat is, well, noisy and a bit confusing. Upon joining, the app asks to tap your contacts list to find friends who are already on the app, but finding people to follow beyond that can be challenging. The app doesn’t have the equivalent of a “for you” feed with recommended content so your only options are to manually search for users or lurk in conversations that do appear in your feed and check out other users’ posts and follows.

When I signed up, there were four people from my contacts in the app, only two of whom are actual friends. I followed them and the app’s founders and a couple other familiar names. I then began randomly following other users as conversations began to appear in my feed. This was a terrible strategy as my feed was quickly dominated by the voices of a few especially active (but not terribly interesting) posters. With so many new users all joining at the same time, at one point my feed was just a bunch of people talking about Airchat.

It’s also somewhat jarring to actually hear the voices of people you’ve followed on social media for ages but haven’t interacted with IRL. The app defaults to playing back audio at 2x speed, which tends to make people’s speaking voices sound a bit unnatural, but is also kind of necessary for long-winded posts.

The bigger issue, though, is that it’s not entirely clear what Airchat is for. There are a handful of “channels,” smaller groups dedicated to chatting about specific topics like coffee or astrology or AI or war, but conversations are disjointed and hard to follow. There seem to be some corners with spirited discussion. The “coffee” channel has 755 members and has lots of earnest discussion of pour-over techniques and photos of latte art. The channel is also “moderated heavily,” according to Ravikant (Airchat’s moderation policy is “self moderation,” which means they expect you to make good use of blocking and muting features, though an FAQ states they will remove users for “harassment, impersonation, foul behavior, and illegal content.)

More creative users are also finding ways to play with the audio-centric format. I found an ASMR group that consisted mainly of people speaking in breathy whispers that kind of gave me the ick (one person did post a nice clip of their cat purring). I listened to a few poetry readings in the “poetry” channel, but didn’t have the patience, even at 2x speed. There’s also a lot of talk of in-app karaoke, though I have yet to see it actually happen.

Some might see these kinds of gimmicks as the start of some new paradigm, where people use their voices to unlock new ways of interacting. But all I can think about is how Clubhouse, at its peak, had similar gimmicks: in-app game shows, open mic nights and (very NSFW) “moan rooms.” It was new and interesting at a time when most people were stuck at home with nothing to do, but the novelty wore off quickly.

While Clubhouse’s initial success sparked copycat features from almost every other major social media company, many of those have since shut down due to lack of interest. Even Clubhouse itself is a shell of what it once was. While the app still exists, it’s an entirely different service than the one that briefly captured the attention of bored tech workers. The company laid off half its staff in 2023 and has since pivoted to audio-centric group chats.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

TikTok is trying to clean up its ‘For You’ recommendations

TikTok is ramping up penalties for creators who post potentially “problematic” content and tightening its rules around what can be recommended in the app. The updates arrive as TikTok is fighting for its future in the United States and trying to convince lawmakers and regulators that its app is safe for teens.

Under its updated community guidelines, set to take effect in May, TikTok has added a long list of content that’s not eligible to be recommended in the app’s coveted “For You” feed. The list includes some obvious categories, like sexually suggestive or violent content, but it also adds topics that have previously been a source of controversy for the app. For example, the new guidelines bar videos showing “dangerous activity and challenges,” as well as many types of weight loss or dieting content. It also prohibits any clips from users under the age of 16 from appearing in “For You.”

There’s also a lengthy section dedicated to a wide range of misinformation and conspiratorial content. From the guidelines:

-Conspiracy theories that are unfounded and claim that certain events or situations are carried out by covert or powerful groups, such as "the government" or a "secret society"

-Moderate harm health misinformation, such as an unproven recommendation for how to treat a minor illness

-Repurposed media, such as showing a crowd at a music concert and suggesting it is a political protest

-Misrepresenting authoritative sources, such as selectively referencing certain scientific data to support a conclusion that is counter to the findings of the study

-Unverified claims related to an emergency or unfolding event

-Potential high-harm misinformation while it is undergoing a fact-checking review

In addition to the eligibility changes, TikTok says it will also begin to penalize creators who repeatedly disregard this guidance by making their entire account ineligible for recommendations, not just the specific offending posts. The company will also make their account “harder to find” in search.

Additionally, the app is getting a new “account status” feature, which will help users track if they are running afoul of these rules. Much like the feature of the same name in Instagram, TikTok’s account status will alert creators to strikes on their account and posts that run afoul of the app’s rules. And an “account check” feature will allow users to track if they are currently being blocked from recommendations or otherwise unable to access features like messaging or commenting as a result of breaking the app’s rules.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Nintendo emulator Delta hits the iOS App Store, no sideloading required

It hasn't been long since Apple started allowing retro game emulators on the App Store. We've already seen one notable controversy after the company pulled Game Boy emulator iGBA from the storefront. It turned out that iGBA, which hit the top of the download charts, was a near carbon copy of another emulator submitted for review.

GBA4iOS developer Riley Testut claimed that iGBA was a "knock-off of GBA4iOS" that was packed with ads and trackers. As it turns out, Testut's Delta, a successor to GBA4iOS, is now available for free in the App Store.

The original emulator picked up some buzz a decade ago after Testut found a way for iPhone users to sideload the Game Boy Advance emulator without having to jailbreak their device. Apple eventually closed the iOS loophole and, of course, Nintendo was none too happy about the emulator. However, you can now download Delta free from the App Store directly without having to worry about sideloading.

Along with GBA titles, the app supports NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Color and Nintendo DS games, with the promise of more platforms to come. The app supports third-party controllers, as well as quick saves, cheat codes and data syncing between devices using Google Drive or Dropbox. There's even local multiplayer for up to four players, though you'll probably want to use an iPad or mirror your phone to your TV in that case.

You'll need to supply any games you want to play on the emulator. To stay on the right side of the law, you'll need to dump games that you already own into ROM files.

While iPhone and iPad users outside of the EU can snag Delta from the App Store directly, the process is a little different for those who live in the bloc. Testut is also behind a third-party app marketplace called AltStore, which iPhone users in the EU can now more easily install a version of.

Europe’s coolest alternative app marketplace is HERE!

Introducing AltStore PAL — an Apple-approved version of AltStore exclusive to the EU

Download now from our website for just €1.50/year (+ VAT) 🇪🇺

— (@altstoreio) April 17, 2024

AltStore PAL is an open-source marketplace that includes Delta as well as another app that Testut developed called Clip, which is a clipboard manager. The latter requires a small donation of at least one Euro to use. Testut noted that he and his business partner Shane Gill plan to open up AltStore PAL to other third-party apps after making sure that everything runs smoothly.

That said, AltStore PAL costs users €1.50 per year. That covers the Core Technology Fee Apple charges for each download of an app marketplace, as well as payment processing. Alternatively, you can use the previous version of AltStore, but you'll still need to use a computer to sideload apps and refresh them once per week.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

TikTok Notes is basically Instagram for your TikTok account

TikTok is experimenting with an all-new app that’s just for sharing photos with text updates. It’s called TikTok Notes, and it’s available now in Australia and Canada.

“We're in the early stages of experimenting with a dedicated space for photo and text content with TikTok Notes,” the company wrote in an update on X. “We hope that the TikTok community will use TikTok Notes to continue sharing their moments through photo posts. Whether documenting adventures, expressing creativity, or simply sharing snapshots of one's day, the TikTok Notes experience is designed for those who would like to share and engage through photo content.”

Based on App Store screenshots, it appears the app will, like TikTok, have two feeds: a “for you” timeline of recommended content as well as a “following” feed. Posts appear to be very similar to what you’d see scrolling Instagram (before TikTok-like video took over the app, anyway): single images or carousels of multiple photos with lengthy captions.

Rumors of the Instagram-like app have been swirling for the last month as reverse engineers unearthed references in TikTok’s code. Some TikTok users had also seen in-app notifications about the new service in recent days.

It’s an interesting moment for TikTok to try to take on Instagram’s central feature. Having a photo-focused app gives TikTok users a new place to share non-video content and potentially reach their existing audience. The company is also facing the possibility its main app could be banned or drawn into a lengthy legal fight in the United States, so having an alternative app could help it maintain users in the country (TikTok hasn’t said when Notes might be available in the US.)

It also comes at a time when many Instagram users are frustrated with Meta about the reach of their feed posts. Instagram’s top exec Adam Mosseri regularly responds to frustrated creators on Threads about why their feed posts don’t seem to reach as many followers as they used to. If TikTok Notes takes off, those creators may actually have a viable alternative for posting photos.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

Snap is adding a watermark to AI-generated images

It's becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is AI-created as tools' capabilities continue to improve. Marking AI-created images is one solution and an option Snapchat is expanding on. The platform is introducing a watermark on AI-generated content that is saved to your camera roll or exported.


In a surprise to absolutely no one, Snapchat's AI watermark will be a ghost with sparkles next to it. There doesn't seem to be any way to control where the icon appears (as is typical with watermarks), but we'll know more when Snapchat adds the feature "soon."

The addition of an AI marker for externally seen images follows Snapchat's steps to label in-app content. There's the extend tool, which creates the effect of a zoomed out image, and has a sparkle icon to indicate it's an AI feature. Then there's the Dreams feature, which uses generative AI to turn selfies into "fantastical images that transform their persona into new identities." Anyone who receives a Dream image also gets a context card explaining its AI use.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

YouTube prevents ad-blocking mobile apps from accessing its videos

YouTube's war with ad blockers is far from over, and it's focusing on tools that enable ad-free viewing on mobile this time. The Google-owned video platform has announced that it's "strengthening [its] enforcement on third-party apps that violate" its Terms of Service, "specifically ad-blocking apps." It's talking about mobile applications you can use to access videos without being interrupted by advertisements. When you use an application like that, you may experience buffering issues or see an error message that says "The following content is not available on this app."

The service says its terms don't allow third-party apps to switch off ads "because that prevents the creator from being rewarded for viewership." Like it's been doing over the past few months since it started cracking down on ad blockers, YouTube suggests signing up for a Premium membership if you want to watch ad-free. YouTube Premium will set you back $14 a month. 

Back in November, YouTube told us that it "launched a global effort to urge viewers with ad blockers enabled to allow ads on YouTube or try YouTube Premium for an ad free experience." It started by showing pop-ups whenever an ad blocker is in use telling you that it's against the website's TOS. Soon after that, you could only play up to three videos with an ad blocker on before you can no longer load any. Google also later admitted that if you have an ad blocker installed, you "may experience suboptimal viewing," such as having to wait a longer period before a video loads. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at

The best budgeting apps for 2024

I recently found myself on the hunt for a new budgeting app. As a former Mint user, I knew I'd be forced to track my finances elsewhere come March 2024 when Inuit planned to shut down the service for good. I used Mint as a trusted place to track all of my accounts, monitor my credit score, follow a monthly spending plan and even set goals like building a rainy-day fund and paying down my mortgage faster. After giving Inuit's other financial app, Credit Karma, a shot and being unimpressed, I decided to immerse myself in the world of budgeting apps. Mint had been around for more than 10 years, but in that time, many other apps popped up that claimed to help you do all of the same things with your money and more. I set out to try the top competitors in the hopes that I'd find a new one that I could turn to for all of my financial needs, and to help you find the best budgeting app for you.

How we tested

Before I dove in and started testing out budgeting apps, I had to do some research. To find a list of apps to try out, I consulted trusty ol’ Google (and even trustier Reddit); read reviews of popular apps on the App Store; and also asked friends and colleagues what budget tracking apps they might be using. Some of the apps I found were free and these, of course, show loads of ads (excuse me, “offers”) to stay in business. But most of the available apps require paid subscriptions, with prices typically topping out around $100 a year, or $15 a month. (Spoiler: My top pick is cheaper than that.)

All of the services I chose to test needed to do several things: import all of your account data into one place; offer budgeting tools; and track your spending, net worth and credit score. Except where noted, all of these apps are available for iOS, Android and on the web.

Once I had my shortlist of six apps, I got to work setting them up. For the sake of thoroughly testing these apps, I made a point of adding every account to every budgeting app, no matter how small or immaterial the balance. What ensued was a veritable Groundhog Day of two-factor authentication. Just hours of entering passwords and one-time passcodes, for the same banks half a dozen times over. Hopefully, you only have to do this once.


What is Plaid and how does it work?

Each of the apps I tested uses the same underlying network, called Plaid, to pull in financial data, so it’s worth explaining what it is and how it works. Plaid was founded as a fintech startup in 2013 and is today the industry standard in connecting banks with third-party apps. Plaid works with over 12,000 financial institutions across the US, Canada and Europe. Additionally, more than 8,000 third-party apps and services rely on Plaid, the company claims.

To be clear, you don’t need a dedicated Plaid app to use it; the technology is baked into a wide array of apps, including all of the budgeting apps listed in this guide. Once you find the “add an account” option in whichever one you’re using, you’ll see a menu of commonly used banks. There’s also a search field you can use to look yours up directly. Once you find yours, you’ll be prompted to enter your login credentials. If you have two-factor authentication set up, you’ll need to enter a one-time passcode as well.

As the middleman, Plaid is a passthrough for information that may include your account balances, transaction history, account type and routing or account number. Plaid uses encryption, and says it has a policy of not selling or renting customer data to other companies. However, I would not be doing my job if I didn’t note that in 2022 Plaid was forced to pay $58 million to consumers in a class action suit for collecting “more financial data than was needed.” As part of the settlement, Plaid was compelled to change some of its business practices.

In a statement provided to Engadget, a Plaid spokesperson said the company continues to deny the allegations underpinning the lawsuit and that “the crux of the non-financial terms in the settlement are focused on us accelerating workstreams already underway related to giving people more transparency into Plaid’s role in connecting their accounts, and ensuring that our workstreams around data minimization remain on track.”

Why did Mint shut down?

When parent company Intuit announced in December 2023 that it would shut down Mint, it did not provide a reason why it made the decision to do so. It did say that Mint's millions of users would be funneled over to its other finance app, Credit Karma. "Credit Karma is thrilled to invite all Minters to continue their financial journey on Credit Karma, where they will have access to Credit Karma’s suite of features, products, tools and services, including some of Mint’s most popular features," Mint wrote on its product blog. In our testing, we found that Credit Karma isn't an exact replacement for Mint — so if you're still looking for a Mint alternative, you have some decent options.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at