Rivet, a new app from Google’s in-house incubator, wants to help children struggling to read. The app hails from Area 120 — Google’s workshop for experimental projects — and includes more than 2,000 free books for kids, as well as an in-app assistant that can help kids when they get stuck on a word by way of advanced speech technology.
For example, if the child is having difficulties with a word, they can tap it to hear it pronounced or they can say it themselves out loud to be shown in the app which parts were said correctly and which need work.
There are also definitions and translations for more than 25 languages included in the app, in order to help kids — and especially non-native speakers — to better learn reading.
For younger readers, there’s a follow-along mode where the app will read the stories aloud with the words highlighted so the child can match up the words and sounds. When kids grow beyond needing this feature, parents can opt to disable follow-along mode so the kids have to read for themselves.
While there are a number of e-book reading apps aimed at kids on the market today, Rivet is interesting for its ability to leverage advances in voice technology and speech processing.
Starting today on Android and (soon) iOS, Rivet will be able to offer real-time help to kids when they tap the microphone button and read the page aloud. If the child hits a word and starts to struggle, the assistant will proactively jump in and offer support. This is similar to how parents help children to read — as the child reaches a word they don’t know or can’t say, the parent typically corrects them.
Rivet says all the speech processing takes place on the device to protect children’s privacy and its app is COPPA-compliant.
When the child completes a page, they can see which words they read correctly, and which they still need to work on. The app also doles out awards by way of points and badges, and personalizes the experience using avatars, themes and books customized to the child’s interests and reading level.
Other surprises and games keep kids engaged with the app and continuing to read.
According to Rivet’s head of Tech and Product, Ben Turtel, the team wanted to work on reading because it’s a fundamental skill — and one that needs to be mastered to learn just about everything else.
“Struggling readers,” he says, “are unlikely to catch up and four times less likely to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, 64% of fourth-grade students in the United States perform below the proficient level in reading,” Turtel explains.
Rivet is not the first app from Google aimed at tackling reading. An app called Bolooffers a similar feature set, but is aimed at kids in India.
While Bolo was not an Area 120 project, others from the incubator have focused on education, like learn-to-code app Grasshopper, or used speech processing technology, like customer service phone system CallJoy.
Rivet was previously spotted in the wild during beta trials this year, but is now publicly available and a free download on both Google Play and the Apple App Store across 11 countries, including the U.S.
Google’s latest Chrome update delivers ‘largest performance gain in years’
Google is wrapping up 2020 with what it claims are major performance enhancements to the company’s Google Chrome browser. “This month’s update represents the largest gain in Chrome performance in years,” Matt Waddell, Chrome’s director of product, wrote in a blog post. Sounds pretty exciting on the surface, no? Waddell says a slew of under-the-hood changes and optimizations have led to boosts to Chrome on several fronts.
But even opening Chrome should feel faster. The browser now launches 25 percent faster — hopefully to where you’ll notice the difference. It loads pages up to 7 percent faster, “and does all of this using less power and RAM than before.”
Google is also adding tab search, which is exactly what it sounds like and could be a godsend for those of us buried under an avalanche of them. “You’ll now be able to see a list of your open tabs — regardless of the window they’re in — then quickly type to find the one you need.” This feature is debuting on Chromebooks first and then expanding to other desktop versions of Chrome.
The address bar is getting a bit more useful with something Google calls Chrome Actions, “a faster way to get things done with just a few keystrokes.”
For example: when you type “edit passwords,” or “delete history,” you can now take action directly from the bar. Our first set of actions — available initially on desktop — focuses on privacy and security, so you can increase your peace of mind in a few clicks.
And last, you might soon notice “cards” when you open a new tab in Chrome.
To help you jump back into activities like planning a meal, researching a holiday gift, or winding down with a video, we’ll soon add cards to your new tab page in Chrome. Clicking on them will take you to recently-visited and related content on the web, and save you time in the process.”
For now, cards will only appear “for some users” beneath the shortcuts area; Google says it’s planning to add entertainment-focused cards in 2021.
All these things together add up to a significant update for the world’s most popular web browser. And they come on the very day that Apple is being lauded for the speed and efficiency of its new M1 Mac computers. Speaking of which, Chrome for macOS also gets a new icon that’s a better fit for the latest Big Sur release. But if the optimizations actually meet Google’s claims, I’m way more excited about the improved efficiency. The update to Chrome 87 is rolling out beginning today.
Facebook and Instagram are getting Vanish Mode in chats
Ten days ago WhatsApp got Disappearing Messages and now the other two apps with messaging abilities in the Facebook family are adopting it. Both Messenger and Instagram will get Vanish Mode which will delete messages upon closing the conversation window.
Vanish Mode is activated with a swipe from the bottom of the chat. Once a message is sent, it will stay on the screen until it is turned off or the app is switched. Of course, you can always screenshot the message before it disappears.
The new feature will work both in group chats and personal conversations. While they are instantly disappearing, Facebook revealed conversations can be reported, meaning they will remain in the system for up to 14 days, so they are not instantly deleted.
Such features aren’t entirely new in the Facebook universe – there still is “Secret Conversation” for Messenger but it is rather tedious to set up and use and nobody has the time for that. Instagram also has something of a disappearing feature – currently, photos can be sent and set up to disappear once seen but nothing on messages unless you Unsend them.
YouTube went down around the world, but it’s now fixed
YouTube has recovered from a seemingly worldwide outage that prevented videos from loading for roughly an hour. During the outage, many Verge staffers were unable to watch videos, and YouTube confirmed at 7:23PM ET that something was going on:
The issue appeared to affect other services that use the YouTube infrastructure too, including YouTube TV and the movies and TV shows you’d purchase through Google TV (formerly known as Google Play Movies & TV). We couldn’t load them.
Early in the outage, the YouTube website itself seemed to load just fine, but videos themselves would continuously show the loading wheel. One Verge staffer got a video to load after about a minute. As of about 8:00PM ET, though, we saw error screens like this whenever we tried to watch a video:
At 9:13 PM ET, YouTube gave the all-clear:
Things seemed to be back as early as 8:30PM ET, but you might have hit a few quirks. At that point, videos played on YouTube’s website seemed to be working as they normally do. On the mobile app, one Verge staffer saw a few error messages, but those would clear with a refresh. YouTube TV worked on mobile for another Verge staffer at that point after he force closed the app.
DownDetector showed a truly tremendous number of user reports of problems with YouTube, indicating the problem was widespread — the DownDetector graph peaked with more than 280,000 user reports in less than an hour. Numerous users on Twitter reported that YouTube wasn’t working for them, either, and searches spiked for “is YouTube down.”
When reached for comment, YouTube pointed us to the tweet we included in this story.