January 11, 2013
Since the beginning of mankind, we’ve wanted our kids to get smarter. Since the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve wanted our phones to get smarter.
So when are we going start wanting our TVs to get smarter? Or will we always be content with them being dumb, as long as they’re big and dumb? Okay, maybe not dumb, but most of us don’t yet feel a compelling need to have our TVs think like computers, as long as the picture looks pretty up there on the wall.
Which always makes things interesting at the Great Gadgetpalooza also known as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). For the past several years, the big electronics companies that focus on hardware, such as Samsung and Panasonic, and the big tech companies that focus on software, such as Google, have been rolling out nifty products at the annual Las Vegas spectacle with the promise that this is the year that Smart TV goes mainstream.
Boob tube no more
And so it’s been at this year’s version of CES, which ends today. Samsung has done its part to convince us that the time has come for us to love TVs for their brains by unveiling what it calls its S-Recommendation engine.
It’s software that, as Samsung puts it, not only understands what you like, but recommends things it thinks you’ll like. (Sure, Amazon’s been doing this for years, but this is your big, dumb TV we’re talking about.) And it doesn’t just suggest TV shows, but could throw in streaming programs options from the Web, or even video you’ve shot on your smartphone.
The goal ultimately is to get you to do all those things you’re now doing on your smartphone or your tablet–say, watch Hulu or Skype with a family member or check out your Facebook page–on your TV instead. To encourage that behavior, Samsung has revamped its Smart Hub so you can flip through all of your entertainment options in five different index screens–one that tells you what’s on regular old TV now or soon, another that lists movies and on-demand TV, a third that pulls in photos or music or video stored on any other devices around the house, a fourth where you can Skype or pull up Facebook and a fifth that provides access to any apps you’ve downloaded.
And neither of the above requires pushing a lot of buttons on a remote. The S-Recommendation engine responds to voice commands and the Smart Hub is designed to be controlled with hand gestures.
For its part, Panasonic has rolled out a feature it calls My Home Screen, which allows each member of your family to create his or her own homepage on the TV, where easy access is provided to their favorite digital content, streaming video and apps. Some of the company’s Viera models actually come with their own cameras that tell the TV who turned it on. And as a smart TV should, it dutifully brings up that person’s home screen.
Plus, Panasonic unveiled “Swipe and Share 2.0″, which lets users move photos from a tablet or phone to a big TV screen, where they can then be edited with a touch pen.
But can you love a TV?
So that seals it, right? This must be the year when TVs take back center stage, especially now that they’re finally learning to care about our needs, right?
Maybe not. We’ve built some pretty strong personal connections to our cell phones and tablets. And a lot of people think it’s going to take a while for us to develop that kind of bond with a TV, no matter how smart it is.
As Greg Stuart, CEO of the Mobile Marketing Association told Ad Age earlier this week: “”People don’t have that kind of interactive relationship with their TV. The TV on the wall is a family device. It’s a multi-user device. If I want to share something, its going to be with a personal device, and that’s going to be my tablet or my mobile.”
TV or Not TV?
Here are other recent TV innovations:
- Robert, 6th Earl of Grantham, meet Tony Soprano: One day, thanks to Samsung, two people will be able to watch full-screen versions of Downton Abbey and Sopranos reruns at the same time. By adapting 3D technology, the company has created a TV that can display a different and full resolution image to each viewer depending on whether they’re sitting to the left or the right of the screen. Of course, both people would have to wear special glasses that come with headphones so you can hear only the sound for your show, but is that such a big price to pay for domestic peace?
- Read my lips. No more Gangham style: LG, the other South Korean TV giant, has upgraded its “Magic Remote” so that it now responds to natural language. You say the name of a show or even something like “videos with Gangham-style dancing,” and your choice pops up on the screen.
- I got my MoVo workin’: Also at CES, the Chinese TV manufacturer TCL showed off an HD TV called MoVo that uses facial recognition software to identify who’s watching and then make programming suggestions customized for that person.
- Okay, who blinked?: Meanwhile, Haier, another Chinese company, has developed a technology it calls Eye Control TV where, yes, you can change channels by moving your eyes.
- Ah, to be 65 and only see ads for meds: It was only a matter of time. A company called Gracenote will soon begin trials on a technology that, based on your viewing habits and personal data, will personalize the TV ads you see. Isn’t that special?
Video bonus: You didn’t make it to the big electronics show this year? Not to worry. Here’s the Samsung demo of its S-Recommendation engine. Remember, people tend to gush a lot at CES.
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December 27, 2012
In the spirit of the post-holiday season, allow me to present my final list of 2012: six innovators who are pushing technology in fresh directions, some to solve stubborn problems, others to make our lives a little fuller.
Watch for more from all of them in the new year.
1. Keep your hands off my robot: We’ve all seem videos of adorably cute robots,, but when you actually have to work with one, they apparently can be less than lovable. That’s where Leila Takayama comes in. She’s a social scientist with Willow Garage, a San Francisco area company that develops robots, and her job is to figure out how to get humans to connect with mechanical co-workers.
She’s seen cases where robots have gotten on people’s nerves so much that they park them in a closet. One of the keys, she’s found, is to make robots seem more fallible. Like having them shake their heads when they fail at something. Oddly enough, Takayama says, a reaction like that can make a robot “seem more competent.”
She’s worked on robots designed to help elderly people, recommending that the number of cameras on the robots’ heads be reduced because too many could make people uneasy. More recently, she’s been analyzing a robot called Project Texai, which is operated directly by humans, rather than running on its own. And she’s discovered some interesting things, such as how people who operate the robot don’t like it when other people stand too close to it or touch its buttons. “There comes a point for a lot of people when they feel as if the robot is their body.”
Another key question she’s wrestling with: Is it better to have a robot at eye level with a person when he or she is sitting or standing?
2. One day even lamp posts won’t be dumb: As Chris Harrison sees it, the world is full of surfaces, so why are we spending so much time touching little screens or tapping on cramped keyboards. Harrison, a researcher at Carnegie-Mellon University, has been a leader in finding ways to turn everyday objects–a couch, a doorknob, a glass of water–into interactive devices.
His approach is to use the natural conductivity of objects–or attach electrodes to those that aren’t–and connect them to a controller that responds to different types of signals. A couch, for instance, could be wired to turn on the TV if someone sits on it in a certain spot. Or you could turn off all the lights in your place by twisting the doorknob or tapping on a table. Almost anything with a surface could be connected to a computer and allow you to make things happen with simple gestures or touches.
3. Finally, a tatt for Grandma: There’s no questions that health tech is booming–although that’s not always a good thing considering that health apps don’t always live up to their hype. But Nanshu Lu, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, has created a product that could have a huge impact on how we monitor what’s going on inside our bodies.
She has refined what are known as “epidermal electronics,” but basically they’re electronic tattoos that can track your vital signs, including your temperature, heart beat and brain and muscle activity. Lu has managed to develop ultra-thin, water-soluble silicon patches that contain tiny sensors and can actually bond with skin. No adhesives necessary. They last through showers and exercise, never losing their ability to gather your most personal data. The hope is that one day her tattoos will be able to treat diseases.
4. In phones we trust: When you’re out on the road or on vacation in a new place, it can get frustrating to have to search for info on your smart phone. Really, if your phone is so smart, shouldn’t it be able to anticipate your needs and feed you info as you need it, based on where you are and what time of day it is?
That’s the premise behind the mobile apps software developed by Flybits, brainchild of Hossein Rahnama, director of the Digital Media Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Flybits is already being used at several Canadian airports and Toronto’s transit system to coordinate with a traveler’s itinerary and provide information that’s both personalized and contextually relevant, such as directions to the car rental counters or the gate to your connecting flight after you get off a plane.
The company has also developed software it calls Flybits Lite, which lets you know friends and other contacts who are taking in the same concert or watching the same movie you are.
5. Do you really want to know how many times you’ve ordered donuts?: It would be easy to dismiss the Memoto Camera as the epitome of 21st century self-indulgence. It’s a postage-stamp sized wearable camera that documents your life by taking two photos every minute, or roughly 2,000 pictures a day.
For most of us that’s one big load of digital tedium. Martin Kallstrom, the man behind the concept and CEO of the Swedish startup Memoto, would acknowledge as much. But he also knows how many memorable moments are missed–”the day your daughter took her first step, or that night you laughed the night away with friends.”
Clearly, he’s not alone in believing that a “lifelogging” camera is an idea whose time has come. He and his partners had hoped to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter. By the time the fundraising campaign ended earlier this month, online backers had pledged more than $550,000.
6. And no, it won’t fetch you a beer: For several years now, Steve Castellotti has been all about brain-powered machines. But his latest innovation, Puzzlebox Orbit, is taking the concept to the public. It’s a little helicopter you control with your mind.
Given that this is not something we do every day, it comes enclosed in a protective sphere so the rotor blades don’t chop up the furniture. It also comes with a device called the Puzzlebox Pyramid, which serves as a combination base/remote control unit for the chopper. But since your mind is doing the controlling, the Pyramid’s role is to wirelessly transmit your brain activity from a headset you wear. It also lets you know how you’re doing–a circle of LED lights on the Pyramid’s face is designed to reflect your level of concentration or relaxation.
Thanks to a funding boost from Kickstarter, Castellotti and his chief engineer and partner Hao Zhang plan to start selling the Puzzlebox Orbit for about $90 next year. But Castellotti believes it won’t become just another pricey tool that ends up in the basement. He sees it as teaching tool that can be used in schools to introduce kids to neuroscience and also as a way for people for people to start to become familiar with the potential of biofeedback.
To spur that process, the company will make its source code and hardware schematics available and encourage developers to hack away. For example, says Castellotti, a “motivated experimenter” might hack the Puzzlebox system so his TV would automatically change channels when his concentration level stays too low for too long. Say so long to vegging out.
Video bonus: Take at look at Chris Harrison’s most recent project, called Skinput, It involves the use of an armband with bio-acoustic sensors that can turn a body into a touch screen.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a Puzzlebox Orbit tutorial that was part of the Kickstarter pitch for its nifty brain-controlled toy.
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December 7, 2012
Yes, this is the time of year for getting together with family and friends and chowing down like you’re eating for all of them. It’s also a time when, during the height of shopping madness, we get a chance to reflect on just how clever we humans can be.
The truth is, though, not all of us got around to inventing something this year. Let the following list serve as inspiration for 2013.
1) Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be tracking you: Sometimes you follow your heart, other times you listen to your wrist. So it goes with the Nike+ Fuelband, a slick little bracelet that tracks every step you take during the course of the day. But it doesn’t stop there. It tracks all of your physical activities and lets you know how many calories you’ve burned–whether you’re doing push-ups or lifting a cup of coffee. You can set a daily target and follow your progress and, if you hold up your end of the deal, you’re rewarded with a big flashing “Goal” on your wrist, which is way better than a corsage.
2) Break a lag: For those whose body clock is out of whack because of jet lag or working overnight shifts or just forgetting about the whole sleep thing, consider the Re-Timer. Invented by sleep researchers in Australia, the Re-Timer is a pair of glasses without the glass, but instead has LED lights that emit a soft-green glow on to your eyes. And that light is of a wavelength, according to the scientists, that has the effect of resetting your body clock so that your circadian rhythms get their beat back.
3) Although probably only your mother would agree to watch it: So if we expect bicyclists to stop at red lights, why shouldn’t they be able to look down at their smart phones while they’re waiting just like everyone in the cars around them. Now they can, thanks to Biologic’s Bike Mounts–there’s one for iPhones and one for Android phones. But this isn’t just some little attachment that connects to the handlebars. It pivots so your phone can shoot photos or video of your ride.
4) Why deal with the added stress of watering a plant: It’s safe to say that most people know how to water a plant but, strangely, so many are unable to pull it off on a regular basis. That’s why the self-watering flower pot from Click and Grow is such a godsend. It has sensors, batteries, a pump and a water reservoir that delivers water to the otherwise neglected plant as needed. If it needs a refill or the batteries run out, a light on the pot blinks. Think you can handle that?
5) Look, I’m just a cup but even I wouldn’t eat this: While we’re on the subject of products that remind us of how lame we can be, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a measuring cup that talks. That’s right, it tells you how much of an ingredient you’ve added because why should you have to look for yourself?
6) Are your toys smarter than a fifth grader?: In today’s gaming world, just how cool could a set of little cubes be? In the case of Sifteo Cubes, very cool, because each cube has it own small LCD screen and a built-in acceleromenter and they interact with you when you shake or flip or tilt them. Or they’ll connect wirelessly to each other, exchanging info, like numbers and colors, so you can play puzzle games or take on number equations. They’re supposed to be for kids, but we know better.
7) But let’s draw the line at handkerchiefs: In most places these days, every day is casual Friday. But every man still has a few occasions when a team jersey just won’t do. And that’s why a business like Tie Society just might make it. Started in Washington, D.C. last year, it’s been described as the Netflix of ties. We’re talking rental ties. It works like this: For a monthly fee, starting at $11, a person can select ties and keep them until he wants to trade them in for a new set.
8) Does a man tweet in the woods?: Just because you’re out in the woods doesn’t mean you need to act crazy and let your gadgets lose power. The Biolite CampStove not only allows you to avoid lugging cannisters for cooking–it burns twigs and pine cones and anything else combustible you find lying around–but it also converts the heat from your fire to electricity that can recharge your stuff.
9) Rock faster, grandpa, I need to shop: Sure, it’s relaxing, but killing time in a rocking chair can seem oh-so-unproductive. No more. Zurich-based Micasa Laboratories has come up with a way for grandpa to contribute to household peace by doing his part to keep the old iPad charged. The iRock looks like a rocking chair and works like a rocking chair, but it’s also a charging station. The back-and-forth motion actually creates enough power to juice up an iPad. Okay, so it costs $1,300, but we’re talking Christmas miracle here.
10) Video bonus: Ready for liftoff? Maybe this is the year you’ll finally get that jet pack you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Neiman Marcus can get you the the Jetlev R200 for under $100,000. Such a deal.
December 4, 2012
It was a moment that would have brought a smile–a sardonic one, of course–to the face of Bones McCoy.
Last week, the California-based firm Scanadu announced that by the end of next year, it will begin selling a device called Scout. The little gadget, which fits in the palm of your hand, will, in conjunction with your smartphone, be able to tell you your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the level of oxygen in your blood–all within 10 to 15 seconds.
In other words, it will be the closest thing we’ll have to that bulky but nifty tricorder that McCoy wielded so deftly as chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise back in the glory days of Star Trek. Which is the point, because Scanadu is one of the competitors for the $10 million award in Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize.
Scanadu is already making comparisons to the innovation of the family thermometer back in the 19th century, an invention that gave people the opportunity to gather health data at home. They may be right about that.
Most doctors would certainly agree that this is a good thing, in that it will make it ridiculously easy for a person to check his vitals every day. In theory it would, like the thermometer, let people know if they have a health problem without attempting to explain what it might be.
But then there’s this tagline on the Scanadu website: “Sending your smartphone to med school.” Sure, it’s meant as a clever, pithy pitch. But it also raises a notion that makes a lot of people in the medical community very uneasy about where this boom in health and medical apps is headed.
When does gathering data slide into making diagnoses or even promising cures? And if it does, who’s going to ensure that any of this is based on real science?
Apparently, a lot of what’s out there now isn’t. Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting released the results of its analysis of 1,500 health mobile apps that cost money. It’s not a pretty picture.
The reporters found that more than 20 percent of the apps they reviewed claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of those 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Others promised results using a cellphone’s light and a few pitched the power of phone vibrations. Scientists told the journalists that none of the above could possibly treat the conditions in question.
There’s no longer an app for that
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon announce how it plans to regulate medical apps. It’s not likely to worry about the thousands of health apps that allow people to track their workouts or their daily calorie counts or how they slept. But it will look closely at apps that are promoted as a way to diagnose or treat a disease or condition.
By its latest count, there are now almost 18,000 health and fitness apps and more than 14,500 medical apps. As cautious as the feds have been has been about getting into the business of regulating software, they haven’t been able to ignore a few of the more egregious examples of mobile app magical thinking.
Last year the Federal Trade Commission banned the sale of two apps that promised to cure acne.
And that’s why they call it a smartphone
Here are other recent examples of mobile tech transforming the field of medicine:
- Is it the blue pill or the red pill?: Microsoft has jumped into the medical apps business by joining with NextGen Healthcare to develop, for Windows 8, an app called NextGen MedicineCabinet. It will allow people to create and store a detailed digital record of their prescription medications and be able to share it with doctors and hospitals when necessary. It also will let health care providers identify potentially harmful drug interactions.
- Will it tell you if you’re watching “Cops” too much? California startup Lark Technologies has launched a product it calls larklife–wristbands with sensors that work with an iPhone to track your daytime activities–calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, food eaten–and your nighttime–how you slept. Then it provides you with tips during the day based on what your data says. For instance, if you don’t sleep as much as usual, it might point out that it’s a good idea to eat breakfast. Or it might congratulate you for a big fitness accomplishment, such as walking 1,000 steps in one day.
- Because it’s so hard to show surgery on stick people: A company called Visible Health has created a product called DrawMD, a series of free iPad apps that allow surgeons to explain surgical processes to their patients. Instead of scratching out a crude pencil sketch on a notepad, doctors can use digital anatomical images in the apps, which they can sketch or type on to illustrate a medical procedure.
- Is there a doctor in the house? HealthTap, with a large searchable doctor directory–complete with ratings, peer-reviews, and the ability to book appointments–plus a popular health Q&A feature, has been a player in the medical apps world for awhile. And last week it got even bigger, buying Avvo Health, another medical Q&A service with a network of physicians. That expands HealthTap’s Medical Expert Network to more than 30,000 American doctors and dentists.
- But does it send an alert when he needs a massage? It’s about time. Last week Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced the launch of Wandant, a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and keeps track of how many steps it takes during a day. It also measures the dog’s temperature and comes with an online diary where owners can record what their furry overlord has eaten, what it weighs and the condition of its stool.
Video bonus: Yes, there are a lot of fitness videos out there, but few make running as much fun as Zombies, Run! Hear from the diabolical minds who created it.
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November 30, 2012
A little refresher:
Back in late 2005, the guys running a small San Francisco startup named Odeo were feeling desperate. They had planned to make it big in the podcasting business, but Apple had just announced that iTunes would include a podcasting platform built into every iPod.
So the Odeo group started scrambling to come up with a new plan. One of the employees, a guy named Jack Dorsey, came up with the idea of a system where you could send a text message to a number and it would be delivered to all of your friends.
Someone came up with the code name twttr–a takeoff on Flickr–and when they looked up twitter in the dictionary and saw that it meant 1) A short burst of inconsequential information and 2) Chirps from birds, they agreed, Dorsey recalls, that the name “was just perfect.”
Such a tool
This is just to remind all of us that Twitter was born not as a grand vision, but more an act of desperation. And that it was originally meant as nothing more than a cool way to send reports of your status to all of your friends at once.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that these days Twitter is being hailed as everything from a barometer of the nation’s emotional health to a conduit for the flow of linguistic invention to a tool for urban planners to map travel routes.
Oh, and earlier this week, a young mother reportedly named her newborn daughter “Hashtag.”
There are those, of course, who think way too much is being made of Twitter’s capacity for capturing the zeitgeist. But there’s no question that it’s gaining status as an analytical tool. Here are just a few of the ways it’s being taken seriously:
1) It’s not the tweet, it’s emotion: Last month tech giant SGI rolled out something it calls the Global Twitter Heartbeat, a Big Data analysis of 10 percent of the roughly 500 million tweets tapped out every day.
The tool takes geotagged tweets over a period of time and converts them into a “heat map” designed to show the tone and intensity of what’s being said where. It’s first big effort was during Superstorm Sandy.
2) Pocket of politeness? Or pool of profanity?: The company Vertalab created its own Twitter heat map a few months ago, but that one focused on the use of two particular phrases on Twitter. While many weighed in with a conventional “Good morning,” a surprising number posted a two-word phrase rhyming with “duck flew.” .
True to form, the well-mannered tweets tended to bubble up from the South, particularly parts of Texas and Tennessee, while the cursing flowed freely around New York, Toronto and especially Los Angeles.
3) I hear ya, bruh: Researchers at Georgia Tech analyzed 30 million tweets sent around the U.S. between December 2009 and May 2011 and concluded that new words, at least on Twitter, tend to first pop up in cities with large African-American populations, then spread.
One example they gave was “bruh,” a Twitter version of “bro,” that first appeared in several cities in the U.S.’ Southeast, then leap-frogged to California.
4) The roads most traveled: Data-mapping expert Eric Fischer tracked millions of tweets from around the world and laid them over maps of highways to get a sense of how many people are heading where. He thinks urban planners could use this kind of data to fine-tune existing transportation systems and figure out where new routes are needed.
5) Exit polls are so last century: Go ahead and scoff, but some think Twitter analysis can even help predict an election. Barack Obama’s victory in the recent presidential race didn’t come as a big surprise to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed 2,500 online conversations in the two months leading up to the election. It found that a much higher percentage–58 percent–of the comments about Mitt Romney were negative, while 45 percent of the tweets about Barack Obama were harsh.
At the same time Twitter did its own analysis of which tweets by both campaigns provoked the strongest responses in which states. One key indicator: Obama had a high engagement level in the key swing state of Ohio–determined by retweets and favorites–while Romney had only a moderate engagement level there.
6) When military intelligence is not an oxymoron: Three U.S. Defense Department units are field-testing a software called the Dynamic Twitter Network Analysis (DTNA), to see how effective it is at gauging public opinion in political hot spots around the world. The software pulls in data from the public Twitter feed, then sorts it, live, by phrases, keywords or hashtags. The hope is that intelligence officers could use the software to understand people’s moods about a topic, or hopefully prevent or respond faster in any future U.S. embassy attacks.
7) I’m not a doctor, but I play one on Twitter: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were pleasantly surprised to see that people are using Twitter to share information on medical subjects that wouldn’t seem the stuff of tweets, such as cardiac arrest and CPR. Their analysis of a month of tweets found more than 15,000 messages that contained specific and useful information about cardiac arrest and resuscitation.
8) When short stories aren’t short enough: And finally, it is here at last, the first annual Twitter Fiction Festival. Since Wednesday two dozen authors from five continents have been posting their mini-stories in five different languages. The fare ranges from Iowa writer Jennifer Wilson posting photographs of gravestones, then writing “flash fiction” in response to epitaphs submitted by followers, to French fantasy novelist Fabrice Colin writing a serialized story of five strangers trapped on a bus. Stop by at the Fiction Festival website–it will be over before you know it.
Video bonus: Here’s another SGI heat map, this one tracking Obama and Romney-related tweets during election week.
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