January 3, 2012
Seeing that one of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish what I start, here’s Part II of the ABCs of 2012, a list of innovations you’ll hear more about this year.
In case you missed it, here’s Part I.
Near Field Communication (NFC): A wonkish name for the digital voodoo that will let you buy things with your cell phone. As yet, most smartphones don’t have the NFC chip they need to communicate with digital readers in stores or restaurants. But a lot of people think that will start to change this year, especially if the iPhone 5 comes with an NFC chip, as expected.
Open Graph: Remember when Like buttons started popping up on websites everywhere. That was Phase 1 of Facebook’s plan to encourage everyone to share everything they can about themselves. Phase 2 of its “Open Graph Protocol” came last September when mobile apps made it possible for your friends to see on Facebook, in real time, what you’re listening to on Spotify or watching on Hulu. Phase 3 begins this month when websites will be able to replace their Like buttons with any combo of verbs and nouns, such as “Hiked this trail” or “Read this book.” Mark Zuckerberg calls his “frictionless sharing.” Sounds so painless, doesn’t it?
Pinterest: While we’re in share mode, here’s the hottest property in the social network universe. Pinterest is a website and app where members—you have to be invited by another member—share photos of things they find interesting, usually organized around subjects such as fashion, cars, décor or food. But it could also be cats or quilts or cats on quilts. The idea is to connect, through images, people with like interests. It seems to be working. In November, Pinterest moved into the Top Ten of social websites.
Quantified self: If your idea of a high-tech health device is a thermometer that’s beeps, maybe you should skip this one. Quantified self is a philosophy-turned-movement built around the mantra of “self-knowledge through numbers.” There now are thousands of “body hackers” around the world dedicated to using technology to track what they’re doing to their bodies—whether it’s recording how much REM sleep they get every night or capturing data on their attention spans, caffeine intake, and yes, their sweat output.
Recommerce: Talk about an idea whose time has come. If you have any doubt, look in the closet where you’ve dumped all your antique cellphones, iPads and laptops. Some companies are now making a nice business out of recommerce—taking your old things in exchange for cash or gift cards, then restoring and reselling them. Not only does this keep a lot of stuff out of landfills, but it provides a payoff for our now annual tradition of upgrading our gadgets.
Social robotics: As talented as robots have become—they can pour drinks, make sandwiches, tell the difference between a human’s smile or frown– they’re still pretty clueless when it comes to expressing feelings, or even reading our feelings. So a lot of focus now is on social robotics, namely how robots and humans interact. In New Zealand, for instance, more than 30 robots are working in a retirement community as part of a new study. The good news is that when robots finally get the social thing down, they’ll already have their own version of Facebook. Imagine being de-friended by your vacuum cleaner.
3D Printers: It’s easy to get carried away with the potential of 3D printers. They’re being hyped as the future of manufacturing and the innovation that could bring the demise of our throwaway culture. And now that companies like MakerBot have brought the price down close to $1,000, even the more fanciful notions–kids will start using them to design and build their own toys—no longer seem so far-fetched. As PCWorld put it, this is a technology awaiting its iPad moment.
Ultrabooks: Last year the world went gaga over digital tablets; this year it’s likely to be ultrabooks. They’re the ridiculously thin, light laptops that come with an actual keyboard. They weigh less than three pounds and are only ¾ of an inch high. Plus, there’s that 13-inch screen. Up to now, the MacBook Air has ruled this turf; expect a bunch of challengers to roll out in the coming months.
Voice control: No question that Apple raised the bar on voice control when it trotted out Siri on the iPhone 4S last fall. Now you can have the semblance of a real conversation with a device, one with exquisite deadpan delivery and an impressive awareness of upcoming weather. Android smartphones have their own version of a voice-operated buddy, named Speaktoit Assistant. Already, one new app, Air Dictate, allows you to use Siri on a Mac computer, and another one, named Zypr, will make it possible to give voice commands to other devices, including TVs. But what should really pump up the volume on voice control will be Google’s launch this year of its Siri rival. It’s codenamed Majel, after the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry. Geek alert!
Wearable tech: We now have jeans that can pull pollution from the air, T-shirts that can convert sound into energy and a prototype of a contact lens that can display text or images right in front of your eyes. But wearable tech is also one of the latest fronts in the war between Apple and Google, with the former reportedly creating an iPod that wraps around your wrist and the latter developing peripherals that, when attached to your clothing or body, will be able to communicate with an Android smartphone.
Xbox 360 Kinect: This was designed to be an innovative way to play video games by allowing people to control the action just by moving their bodies. But then hackers took over, pushing the Kinect system in all kinds of new directions, even into hospital operating rooms. Eventually, Microsoft caught on and started celebrating what it dubbed “The Kinect Effect” and not long ago announced “Kinect Accelerator,” a program designed to help developers and startups create original products using the Kinect. And the word is that the next version of Kinect will be able to read your lips and facial expressions and gauge how you’re feeling by the tone of your voice.
Yelp: Not everyone loves this San Francisco-based user feedback outfit, particularly restaurant owners who knock the credibility of its diner reviews. But clearly Yelp has become a favorite of people looking for dining options on their smartphones. In fact, a Harvard Business School study of restaurants in Washington State found that a one-star rise in Yelp ratings can drive business up as much as 9 percent and that growth of Yelp in a market tends to hurt franchise restaurants. And a few weeks ago, BMW announced that BMW drivers will soon be able have Yelp reviews read to them by their vehicles. This year we’ll find out how much all of the above really means when Yelp goes public.
Zeo Mobile: When you consider how much sleep is lost by people worrying about not sleeping, not to mention their anxiety about what kind of sleep they’re getting when they do manage to nod off, you have to like the prospects for a product that lets you track what’s going on in your brain every night. The Zeo Sleep Manager has been out there for a few years now, but it’s mobile version—basically a headband that connects to an app on your smartphone—gives you the same lowdown on your night in the sack, breaking down how much time you spent in REM sleep, heavy sleep and light sleep. And it’s cheaper.
Video Bonus: If you still have doubts about 3D printers, watch this clip of a wrench hot off the printer.
Be innovative this year.
December 22, 2011
I like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as much as the next guy. Well, actually, that’s not true. I think I’d be perfectly fine if I never heard it again. Believe me, I’ve tried to make it part of my Christmas canon. I’m okay with the first few verses, but then it goes all 18th century on me, with the milking maids and the leaping lords, and then I’d rather be listening to dogs barking “Jingle Bells.”
So in the spirit of innovation, I figured I’d roll out a new gift list for the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, assuming your true love lives wants to give you something a little more useful than 11 pipers piping.
Day 1: Yes, you’d be the only person on your block with a partridge in a pear tree, yet, in the end, after all your friends have taken pictures with their cell phones, it would just sit there. If your true love wants to really rock your world, he or she would give you a Pocket Boom, a sweet little device that can turn any surface—a window, a cardboard box, a piece of fruit—into a speaker.
Day 2: Think about it, which would you trust more with your mental health, a turtle dove or a light bulb that can help you get you through those tough times when your Circadian rhythms are out of whack? Sounds like a no-brainer. The latter is an LED bio-bulb and it’s being designed by a Florida inventor to allow you to control the production of melatonin, your body’s sleep hormone.
Day 3: While we’re on the subject of sleep, I don’t think three French hens, even if they can speak another language, are smart enough to explain to you how you slept last night. But a Zeo Sleep Manager can. It tracks how much time you spend each night in REM sleep, deep sleep and light sleep.
Day 4: A confession: For much of my life I thought that on the fourth day the true love showed up with four calling birds. Not that long ago I found out that it’s four colly birds, meaning four black birds. A sleek gift, for sure, but what’s with all the birds. By my count, that’s 10 birds in four days. What are you going to do with 10 birds? Better they should give you something useful, like batteries. Does that sound lame? Okay, not just any batteries, but ones that can charge 10 times faster than ordinary batteries and last 10 times longer.
Day 5: Five golden rings would be none too shabby. Except, once again the song is actually talking about birds, in this case, ring-necked pheasants. Enough with the birds. Personally, I’d rather have something practical, you know, like a gizmo that keeps potato chips really fresh. Now there’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Day 6: I’ve never thought of eggs as a good gift, even if you toss in the geese laying them. It might simplify your breakfast choices, but wouldn’t you rather have a perfect cup of coffee. Now that’s possible with a device called a coffee refractometer and an app that goes by the name ExtractMojo.
Day 7: Seven swans a-swimming can be a charming—for about 10 seconds. After that, it’s boring stuff. It would be different if they did synchronized swimming, but that’s apparently too much to ask. If it’s beauty you’re after, a more contemporary choice would be a “sonic skin cleansing system.” Because your face deserves a system.
Day 8: Sure, it would be great to have eight maids, but not if all they do is milk. No floors, no laundry and, no doubt, no windows. You’re better off with a good old Roomba. And now there’s a device called Brainlink that lets you upgrade your robot vacuum with sensors so it stops running into walls.
Day 9: Ten drummers drumming…what kind of gift is that? Have you sat through one drum solo? Imagine 10. (You know if one does a solo, everyone will want one.) And if you’re into drum solos, your true love should show your ears some love by getting you some cool headphones that keep the sound under 88 decibels. That’s well above conversation levels (60 decibels), but sanely below the sound of jet engines (120 decibels).
Day 10: You get 10 ladies dancing and you’ve got a nice little party going. That’s when you’d realize that what you really need is an EDDIE, Microsoft’s automated party photographer.
Day 11: As much as 11 pipers piping sounds like a lot of fun, I’d rather have a good plumber. At my age, I prefer to focus on what can go wrong. And so often, when things go wrong in our house, a plumber gets involved. My 21-year-old son doesn’t appreciate this level of wisdom, except in one regard. He knows the bad things that can happen to an iPhone. So here I’d recommend replacing the pipers with a LifeProof, the iPhone case that’s waterproof, dirt-proof, snow-proof and shock-proof.
Day 12: Finally we come to the lords a-leaping. Undoubtedly, they had their day, but face it, lords have fallen out of fashion, let alone leaping lords. If, however, you appreciate the athletic commitment a roomful of leapers represents, perhaps I can interest you in a shoe that keeps your feet feeling fresh. It does this because the sweetener xylitol has been added to the soles. Xylitol is a sugar that creates a cooling sensation when it comes into contact with moisture.
That’s right, shoes that makes sweaty feet feel minty. Take that, Five Golden Rings.
Video Bonus: For old time’s sake, here’s version of “12 Days of Christmas” that sounds way better than the one you hear in the elevator, compliments of the acapella group, Straight No Chaser.
Have a gizmo holiday!
November 17, 2011
This past weekend I was awakened by raccoons on the roof. It’s not a happy sound, because I know what they are capable of doing with their little roof-chewing mouths. This made me wonder if there’s anything I can do to ease my sleeping mind, you know, make it a little less twitchy.
Lack of sleep not only can cause us to fumfer through conversation; according to a study released in November, it also can make us struggle to learn anything the next day. Working with brain scans of sleep-deprived flies—now there’s a phrase I’d never imagined writing—neuroscientist Chiara Cirelli found that if they didn’t get enough sleep, their brain synapses, or the connections between neurons, wouldn’t fully reset themselves to be ready to learn. Not sure how many things a fly learns in a typical day, but Cirelli based her conclusion on how the parts of its brain associated with learning were less lit up than in the brains of rested flies.
Other researchers say our brains can be so sensitive that even staring into the dim glow of an iPad at bedtime can throw sleep schedules out of whack. Light from most screens is at the blue end of the color spectrum, which makes it more likely to mess with our circadian rhythms. Russell Rosenberg, head of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine, goes so far as to suggest that if you really want to nod off quickly, you should put all your devices away at least an hour before bedtime. Good luck with that.
Raise that score!
Turns out there’s also a device that can help us sleep, or at least give us a good idea of what’s been happening in our heads all night. Last October the Massachusetts firm Zeo launched what it calls a “Sleep Mobile Manager,” a sleep monitoring, Bluetooth-powered headband that plugs into your smartphone. Using a mobile app available on iPhones and Android phones, it monitors your brain waves, eye movements and muscle tone as you snooze, and then in the morning gives your night’s sleep a rating, along with the amount of time you spent in REM sleep, deep sleep and light sleep.
The original idea, says Zeo CEO Ben Rubin,was to create a device that would wake you up during a sleep cycle when your brain’s ready to be aroused. It does that, but since it also gives you a snapshot of your sleep, people are able to see how their sleeping brain reacts to too much caffeine or a day of heavy exercise. And they’ve found that if they change a few habits, they can raise their sleep score.
Hey, I’m a competitive guy. Maybe keeping my sleep score high is all the motivation I need to sleep through the raccoon samba.
Here are some of the other ways to see what your sleeping body’s been up to:
- The pitter-patter of little beats: A California firm named Bam Labs has developed a mattress pad that tracks your heartbeat, breathing and movement as you sleep.
- You’re not too sexy for this shirt: There’s also now a nightshirt embedded with fabric electronics that monitors and processes your nighttime breathing patterns. They tend to be more irregular when you’re REM sleeping.
- Your phone never sleeps: And there are more basic sleep-tracking apps, such as Sleep Cycle for iPhones ($1) and Sleep Bot Tracker for Android (Free). Both work by setting an alarm and placing your smartphone under your pillow. The apps track your movement while you’re asleep and use that to figure out the phase of sleep you’re in. When you’re in a light phase and it’s time to wake up, the apps will gradually fade in an alarm.
Bonus video: While you’re sleeping, your brain waves are building mountains. Watch and be awed by what goes on while you’re just lying there.
Today’s question: Would you go to bed with a headband on if it meant you could see how you’re sleeping?
July 27, 2011
To treat almost any injury, I heard my father say “Rub dirt on it” often enough that, against all logic, I still believe in the healing power of soil. As for preventative medicine, in my family, it meant avoiding lepers and trying not to eat a whole cake by yourself.
Let’s just say we weren’t exactly forward-thinkers when it came to taking care of ourselves.
So I’m fascinated by those intensely self-involved geeks known as “self-quantifiers.” Put simply, they want to know everything about themselves, at least everything that can be expressed in data readouts.
They walk around wired, tracking the obvious stuff—weight, heart rate, blood pressure, footsteps. But some wear headbands every night to keep tabs on how much REM sleep they get. Or they take photos of each meal and the caloric content is automatically logged into a file. Others capture info related to their attention spans, caffeine intake, sweat output, even sexual habits. People truly committed to their “Inner Me” talk of the day when we will be able to routinely take readings of our urine to alert us to vitamin deficiencies.
Too much information? Not at all, says Tim Chang, a Silicon Valley investor quoted recently in the Financial Times. He sees “body hacking” as a leap forward in understanding what’s really going on inside us—which is why he’s putting money behind some self-tracking devices.
That said, there’s often a wide chasm between what’s possible and what’s convenient. Most of us are in no hurry to get wired up and read a bunch of printouts. But as the technology becomes less of an imposition—say, when the bathroom mirror is able to take our pulse or sensors in our clothes let us know when we need a checkup (just two of the digital medicine innovations that the physician-scientist-inventor Daniel Kraft recently postulated) — would we really want to know everything our bodies are up to?
Why not? It has to be a good thing to know our digital vitals, right? How can we become finely-tuned machines unless we know what to tune? Or more realistically, isn’t this the kind of intelligence we need to make us realize that preventative medicine means more than using handi-wipes.
I think about how many years we’ve known about the nastiness of tobacco, but the FDA still feels it needs to slap hideous images of dead bodies and charred lungs on cigarette packs to get people to stop smoking. The ugly truth isn’t enough; you need to show the ugly.
Seems there’s a lesson here to carry with us into a future of personal quantification. For most of us, data won’t be enough. We’ll need visual jolts.
So here’s my idea. Let’s say that electronic magical mirror is refined to the point where it can gather all your key data through just a touch. Why not display the results in one of two modes, “Show” or “Tell”?
“Tell” would give it to you straight—a simple, numbers-happy printout.
But “Show” would ratchet up the drama. If your numbers are good, you’d see a different you in the mirror, one who’s 10 years younger. But if the news is grim, you’d be face-to-face with a version of yourself that’s, well, a little bit dead.
In that future, mirrors would lie a little. But they’d still be brutally honest.
What say you? Would you want to hack your body? And would that motivate you to take better care of yourself?