Friday Five: shopping on Insta and genderless voice assistants

Zone’s Matt Blackwell handpicks and shares the five best stories on new digital trends, experiences and technologies…

1. Snap up a bargain on Instagram

Proving it’s good for so much more than humble bragging about holidays and posting pictures of your breakfast, Instagram has continued its foray into ecommerce by launching a beta checkout feature that allows users to buy products featured in posts directly through the app.

The likes of Nike, Zara and adidas are on board, and while only available in the US for now, it’s sure to roll out more widely if successful. It was pretty much a year ago to the day that Instagram launched product tags in a push to create a seamless experience from post to purchase, so if anything, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to introduce the option to buy in-app. Check out a full rundown of the feature here.

2. Google enters the streaming game

Music, cinema and TV have all experienced disruption at the hands of streaming, and gaming could well be next. Google has announced a service called Stadia this week, which has the potential to turn the industry on its head by offering gamers access to a catalogue of titles in exchange for a monthly fee, à la Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Shelling out for gaming paraphernalia can be a wallet-crippling affair, so having the heavy processing done at an off-site data centre and paid for via a subscription model makes a lot of sense. But for the kind of lag-free experience gamers will expect, you’re going to need an internet connection in the region of 25mbps. And for those who don’t speak tech, the average speed in the UK is currently 16.5mbps.

3. Giving diversity a voice

Amazon has Alexa, Microsoft has Cortana. What does each have in common? They’re both given female names. And while you can switch Siri’s voice from female to male on Apple devices, where’s the option for those who don’t identify as one or the other? Enter Q, the world’s first genderless voice assistant.

Giving Q a neutral frequency is a great idea for two reasons: not only does it make tech more inclusive, it also tackles the gender bias of subservient female assistants pandering to our whimsical commands. The kicker? Q isn’t actually available on any platform yet and is instead relying on advocates to lobby the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google to include it as a third option on their devices.

4. AI turns blobs into beauty

Didn’t manage to get away on that all-inclusive trip to the Bahamas? Don’t worry, you can fake it ’til you make it thanks to GauGAN, a new AI tool from Nvidia that turns pretty woeful, blob-like drawings into stunning Insta-ready vistas.

All the program needs is a few blocks of colour and an idea of where you want the beach/clouds/trees to go and it’ll use machine learning to fill in the blanks and create a beautiful scene. Beyond fooling your friends, the real-world implications for the likes of you and me are limited, but GauGAN could be used to generate detailed virtual scenes that are then used to help train self-driving cars.

5. Mighty Morphin meme-makers

Ok, let’s get it straight: deepfakes are generally bad. But occasionally they can be sources of light-hearted entertainment too. And thankfully that’s the side of the divide that a new app called Morphin falls on.

Using image mapping technology, Morphin is able to give users a starring role in some of the most popular GIFs out there. Just snap a selfie and away you go. From brands posting sassy responses to jokes between friends, GIFs and memes have become ingrained in the way we communicate, and to prove it’s no joke, the app’s creators have raised $1m to invest in the underlying tech. Cheers to that, I say.

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