Friday Five: travel in VR and self-driving buses

Zone's Matt Blackwell shares the five best stories on new digital trends, experiences and technologies...

Granary Square

1. See the world without going outside

Try before you buy is a staple concept of the retail world, but now it could be coming to the travel industry thanks to Kayak and the power of VR. The holiday search site has produced Kayak VR, a creatively titled app for Google Daydream that allows users to ‘test drive’ a city without ever leaving the comfort of their home.

I think it’s a nifty idea to give people an overall feel for a location, and having a poke around the hotel could help to eliminate any nasty shocks on arrival. But I can’t help feeling audio tours of landmarks and local attractions defeat the purpose of travelling. Surely part of the allure is doing it for yourself, stumbling across hidden gems and blazing your own trail?


2. China drives ahead with autonomous cars 

While some naysayers believe that truly autonomous vehicles could still be years or even decades away, Chinese tech giant Baidu quietly rolled its 100th self-driving busoff the production line this week, with plans to get the fleet on the roads of China and Japan as early as the first part of next year.

The buses are able to seat 14 people and boast level four autonomy which, for the uninitiated, means that they are able to operate without a human driver in specific conditions and in geo-fenced areas. Many still harbour doubts about the underlying tech and safety of autonomous cars, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Baidu can do to swing popular opinion and win the public's trust.


3. Email data fail for Gmail  

The privacy row that has become synonymous with Silicon Valley of late rumbles on, with Google becoming the next tech giant to enter the crosshairs. The company came under fire after The Wall Street Journal reported that Gmail allowed third-party app developers to scan and read thousands of users' emails.

Google's attempt to quell the controversy was somewhat underwhelming, explaining in a blog post that the company vets all third-party apps and services that have access to sensitive data, before flipping it round to the user by highlighting that it offers strict controls over data sharing. While not in the same league as Facebook's data misdemeanours, the old 'you signed up for this' excuse is pretty poor form. 


4. Making time on social media meaningful 

Less than two months after announcing a new usage insights feature, Instagram has once again embraced the Time Well Spent philosophy. The platform is set to add a ‘You’re all caught up’ warning to feeds and explore prototypes for a Do Not Disturb mode, which will switch off all notifications for a designated time period.

The idea is to help avid grammers avoid overuse of the app and prevent mindless scrolling by telling them when they've seen all new posts from the past two days. I’m a big fan of the Time Well Spent movement, which has seen the likes of Google, Facebook and Instagram acknowledge the responsibility they have towards user wellbeing by admitting that we all need a bit of a digital detox now and again.


5. (Don't) drop it like it's hot

We've all been there. The heart-stopping moment when your smartphone slips from your grip like a wet bar of soap and tumbles to the floor. You bend down with a grimace and pick it up gingerly, bracing for the worst as you inspect the damage.

But all this pain and drama could soon be the thing of a past if one German engineering student has anything to do with it. Philip Frenzel has designed an award-winning prototype that gives your phone its very own built-in 'airbag', which uses sensors to detect when it's falling and deploys eight prongs to cushion the impact. Coming to a crowdfunding site near you soon. Sign me up!

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