Posts tagged 'Gadgets'

I Hope Apple Improves Voice Recognition…

Here we are on the eve of another Apple press event. There are all kinds of rumors and speculation about what the famous electronic maker will unveil but the one I am most looking forward to is the extensive voice controls supposedly built-in to the core of iOS5.

Voice recognition is hard. Google has had the capability built-in to their devices (and even their browser) for some time. The quality of the interpretation is iffy at best. I have never felt like voice commands were worth the effort. When Google guesses wrong you have to go back and correct it’s shoddy work by pecking at the tiny screen to get the text cursor in the right place and delete all of the letters and retype the word you originally meant to input. Like I said, voice recognition is tough.

I believe voice is the next big computer interaction. Smartphones have taken off because it allowed us to have a computer in our pocket. The same way we could query the world’s knowledge for answers to our mundane questions at our desks is now available most anywhere we are. But voice will certainly not become the primary form of computer interaction (just imagine a group of cubicle dwellers yelling over one another so their computers can hear them). Instead voice will become prevalent in more intimate settings like in your car (see Ford SYNC) where your hands aren’t free or in your own home.

Imagine being able to ask your computer a question from your couch and having the computer speak the answer back to you. When you’re getting ready in the morning wouldn’t it be great to simply ask aloud “What’s the weather out today?” and then get your answer spoken back to you? This will lead to a more passive computing experience, where it’s just there in the background. Smartphones are a stepping stone to this reality, but I predict it will be at least 5 years until a voice aware home is even viable.

What’s Available Today?

There are a couple of interesting voice automation projects out there today.

CMU Sphinx is an open source toolkit for speech recognition. It’s a bit too complicated for me to get up and running so I could at least play around with it. The home automation project, MisterHouse, uses it for some basic voice commands (video demo).

Windows users have the add-on Bill’s Voice Commander for the Active Home Pro software to do similar things.

Samir Ahmed created the open source Iris project, a Java app for utilizing Speech Recognition and Synthesis to make a desktop assistant. It looks like a really interesting proof-of-concept.

Google uses a web service to convert speech to text which Mike Pultz reverse engineered for his own purposes.

Google’s Self-Driving Car Is For Real-Life Crawling

Google revealed a secret project it was working on to make cars that can drive themselves without any human intervention. These aren’t just experiments in a controlled environment either. The cars have “driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control” on real highways, streets, intersections, and even Lombard street in San Fransisco.

The media has picked up on the theme that Google is doing it to improve society with the goal of reducing automobile fatalities and freeing up time spent commuting. These would be very positive things to come from this research but could take several years to come to fruition. I have a feeling Google is doing this for its own reasons.

The Google search engine has web crawlers that follow every link it can find, slurping down the HTML which Google can analyze to determine where that page ranks in its index. These autonomous cars can be the start to real-life crawlers.

Google Street View started when a bunch of cameras were strapped to a car continuously taking photos as it drove through an area. The photos that appear online are several months old at the earliest. If it could make gathering these photos more efficient, it could update the images faster, making Street View more relevant.

Imagine if Google could send out these automated cars to collect data in the physical world that Google could use in it’s local search product. Some of the more practical applications include updating maps when roads are closed, continuously updating stores in Street View that might have changed ownership, or even determining the popularity of a place based on the number of people seen around it at various times of day.

Google wants to start ranking real-life data in conjunction with online data. This is a clear step in that direction. And it should be no surprise that the self driving car project was led by Sebastian Thrun, co-inventor of the Street View mapping product.

Fitbit: The Google Analytics Of Fitness

I was excited for the Fitbit ever since I heard about it at the Techcrunch 50 conference back in 2008. After 2 years following the development, I finally got my own Fitbit. After 3 months of daily use, here is my review.

The Fitbit is a small device that you wear on your hip in order to track your movements throughout the day. As you move, the Fitbit will count your steps just like any other pedometer. The device has one button on the front which will cycle through different stats with each push. When out and about you can check your total number of steps, the number of calories burned, distance traveled, and a flower representing your growth and overall healthiness for the day.

At bedtime you put the Fitbit into a soft wristband and you can track how long and the quality of your sleep. Holding the button down for a few seconds starts the sleep tracker and you have to remember to stop it when you wake up in the morning. As you fall in and out of sleep, the Fitbit tracks your movements and can tell how long it took you to fall asleep, how many times you woke up throughout the night and the actual time you were asleep vs the time you were in bed.

But what makes the Fitbit different happens when you get within a couple of feet of the base station.  The data is automatically uploaded to Fitbit.com where you can analyze your data with the help of pretty graphs. Not fussing with manually syncing the data yourself makes it a system that easily fits into ones life. You can build up a history of your daily activity without even thinking about. It’s like Google Analytics for your fitness!


Activity tracking aside, Fitbit.com also has a food log for tracking calories.  I don’t use this feature because you still have to measure the food and add it manually. If there was something that calculated nutrition information as it went into my mouth, I would be all over it. The Fitbit isn’t that good… yet.

Overall I’m really happy with my Fitbit. The only downside I can think of is the long order time (oredered one for my Mom in October and it didn’t get here until mid January). It is easily worth the $100 price tag in order to painlessly build up a history of my physical activity and sleep history. I don’t need this information right now, but one day I might, and this tool will come in handy.

Other Reviews

Google’s Nexus One Will Be $530

…according to a recent leaked screenshot courtesy of Gizmodo.

The $530 price tag is for the unsubsidized, unlocked version. There is one other option of plunking down $180 with a 2-year T-Mobile contract which is attached to a special $80 a month plan including unlimited text + web and 500 minutes. Specifically Weird.

I think the unsubdized rate of $530 is a fair price for a top of the line smartphone. This isn’t like your traditional cell phone, it’s a mobile computer. Here is how the math works out for both options after two years:

$530 phone + $60/month (cheapest plan with unlimited text + web and 500 monthly minutes) x 24 months = $1,970.

$180 phone + $80/month (only available plan with this deal) x 24 months = $2,100, a difference of $130 compared to the unsubsidized plan.

Now this may be completely and utterly wrong. Google’s already officially announced an Android event for January 5th, at which point all will be revealed. Even if these rate plans are real, I’ll still be placing my order as soon as I can. My 3 year old T-Mobile Dash is already shaking in its holster.

Oh and the first hands-on video review of the Google Phone has made its way to YouTube.

Who Needs An Apple Tablet?

Rumors that Apple is building a tablet computer have reached a fever-pitch over the past six months. The basic gist is it will have a 7 inch screen and run a version of the iPhone OS making a good chunk of the apps available to also run on this new tablet. But why do we even need such a thing?

This thing sounds too big to be carried around with you wherever you go like an iPhone or iPod Touch but too small for long periods of work. It almost seems like it is aimed at two lifestyles: 1) Frequent flyers, 2) a TV watching companion device. This sounds just like the MacBook Air which was introduced on January 15, 2008.

I wonder, how long the battery will last in order to power a 7 inch display? And what extra functionality will this bring to our lives? According to one rumor blog, Apple Insider,

“The tablet is expected to be portrayed as a multimedia device capable of browsing the Web, watching movies, and reading content.”

Wow, you mean just like my laptop of today? Again, why is everyone getting worked up over this?

There have also been rumors swirling that the iPhone is coming to Verizon, which seems less likely from a technical stance (CDMA vs. GSM). I think if we ever see an Apple/Verizon partnership it will be for a data plan for this tablet device so you can use the web wherever you go. Verizon currently does this with a few netbooks, though it is a horrible deal. $199.99 + a 2 year contract of at least $39.99 per month ($1,159.75 total), all for a dinky, underpowered netbook that retails for $399.99 on HP’s own site.

So the idea of an Apple tablet looks lackluster from my point of view pre-announcement. Maybe Apple has a card up its sleeve when it announces the device and the world will wonder how we lived in the pre-tablet era. Perhaps this post will go down in Apple fanboy history just like all the negative reactions when Apple first introduced the iPod in October, 2001. Or maybe the Apple Tablet will just fade away into gadget history just like the Apple Hi-Fi.

“Great just what the world needs, another freaking MP3 player. Go Steve! Where’s the Newton?!”

—WeezerX80′s reaction to the announcement of the iPod.

The Google Phone Cometh, A Timeline Of Events

The blogosphere exploded with rampant speculation about the latest Android phone to poke its robot head out.  Here is the sequence of events that led up to what we know now.

The first mention of a Google phone came from The Street.com on October 20th.  Michael Arrington from Techcrunch heard similar rumors and really got the speculation started with their post The Google Phone Is Very Real. And It’s Coming Soon on November 17th. A leaked HTC phone roadmap gave us the specs for the Bravo on December 6th, which has also gone by another codename Passion.  The specs listed sound very impressive squashing any complaints of slow and pokey Android phones that have been released to date:

  • Snapdragon QSD 8250 1GHz CPU
  • HD 720p Video capture
  • 3.7″ WVGA AMOLED screen
  • 256 MB RAM or 512MB RAM
  • 16GB MicroSD card in-box
  • 1400mAh battery

Things were fairly quite over the next few weeks until all hell broke loose when several Googlers got their own employee version of the Google phone and tweets started flying out about the sleek device. @lhawthorn had the first say. It was being described as “A sexy beast. Like an iPhone on beautifying steroids” (@GreatWhiteSnark). All of the commotion and rumor-mongering caused Mario Queiroz, Google’s Vice President of Product Management, to put up a post on the official Google Mobile blog about how Google likes to “dogfood” its products for quick feedback.

A popular term on the interwebs is picture or it didn’t happen and Cory O’Brien holds the honor of posting the first picture of the device in the wild.  The previous tweets about how good-looking and sleek the device looked were confirmed.

First shot of the Google Nexus One phone

John Gruber from Daring Fireball revealed the name of the phone as the Nexus One by looking through logs of web browser user agent strings. Thanks to the name, it wasn’t long before Engadget dug up photos taken with the phone which were found on Google’s own photo sharing site Picasa. This proved a max resolution from the camera phone of 2592×1944 which comes from a 5 megapixel sensor.

Google Nexus One next to a Apple MacBook Pro

I noticed google.com/nexusone went to a different 404 error page compared to something like google.com/notnexusone. The Wall Street Journal published an article stating Google planned to sell its own phone direct to consumers early next year, as well as confirming the name Nexus One.

People weren’t sure which carrier this dream device would land on and initial rumors suggested it was to work unlocked on all 4 major U.S. carriers (quite a hefty feat). Hope for this slowly faded to just the two GSM carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile. The AT&T compatibility was from an anecdote by Jason Howell about how he saw a Google employee playing with it using an AT&T sim card.  Other leaked photos were showing a T-Mobile logo in the upper right. Peter Kafka heard from his sources that Google approached all 4 carriers about the phone but only T-Mobile agreed to help sell the phone.

Google does not intend to sell its new “Nexus One” phone the typical way, sources familiar with the company’s plans say. Instead, it envisions a scenario where customers who buy the handset on a separate Web site are provided with a list of carriers from which they can make a selection menu-style.

By the end of the weekend, Joshua Topolsky of Engadget tried to make sense of it all with a summary post titled The Google Phone: what we know… and what we don’t. He pointed out that there was no hard evidence that this phone was even for sale and postulated it was most likely the 3rd developer phone used for testing Android apps. That would be a major bummer.

Google Nexus One gets an Android facelift

Come Monday morning Engadget confirmed the device is compatible with T-Mobiles radio frequencies thanks to an FCC filing which also mentions the Nexus One name. A nice surprise is revealed that it supports UMTS/HSUPA meaning it is capable of taking advantage of T-Mobile’s faster 3.5G data service. (7.2Mbps down/ 2Mbps up). No mention of AT&T frequencies.

Reuters hinted at a January 5th launch date which coincides with the biggest consumer electronics show on the planet taking place that same leak. Mashable thinks this is going to be a huge CES announcement.

Boy Genius Report got two more shots of the phone in the wild. The first shows off the gorgeous (though still rumored not confirmed) 3.7″ AMOLED screen, while the second shows off the slender Nexus One next to chunky-monkey T-Mobile G1. It is interesting how the trackball sticks out kind of like the nipple on the Apple Mighty Mouse.

Google Nexus One Phone Screen

Google Nexus One compared with a T-Mobile G1

Finally, the Nexus One boot animation made its way to YouTube for all the phone nerds to drool over as they wait for more information to pour in.

So that pretty much sums up how we got to this point. I’m anxious to see what else is revealed as we inch closer to a launch date.

3D TVs? Not For Me

Koreans watching 3D TV

South Korea is poised to launch a broadcast network in full HD 3D. Lots of TV manufacturers are touting 2010 as the year of 3D. I think this effort will fall flat on it’s face just like it did in the 50′s and again in the late 70′s. While there continue to be innovations eliminating the need for funky red and blue glasses, the added value of 3D is slim to none.

I saw the Disney film UP at the theater in 3D. The glasses were fine and the movie was enjoyable. I was in awe at the beginning of the film with the increased depth. The movie was playing the 3D effect up with characters that lunge towards the camera to jolt the audience. But near the end of the film I noticed the 3D less and less. After the initial wow factor, 3D was more of a gimmick rather than an aide to the telling of the story. This shouldn’t be a surprise as the same part of the brain that processes 2D images, also handles 3D images.

The technology behind 3D video still needs to improve to become as seamless as human vision before we’ll see a big pickup in the consumer electronic industry.

Technology At The Altar

This groom just couldn’t wait to tell the world of his new relationship status. He whipped out his Blackberry, just before kissing his bride, in order to update his Facebook relationship status and send out a tweet. Now with my wedding coming up this May, I got to thinking… but Kristina quickly put a stop to that and banning any sort of gadget on our wedding day. Fair enough.

But I did want to live stream the ceremony. I was thinking of setting up my laptop with its built-in camera streaming everything across the Internet with something like ustream.tv or justin.tv. The venue has wifi and the computer can be near a power outlet. Since my venue is a music center, they should have a decent sound system that I can route to my laptop for a good quality sound source. Kristina and I will be miked-up so everyone can hear our vows and all that.

To top it off, it would be neat if I could get a small, pinhole camera to discretely embed on my tuxedo which could also stream to the laptop and eventually out to the Internet as a second angle. That way viewers could choose the locked down wide angle shot as well as everything going down from my point of view. How cool would it look to see the crowds reaction as we turn and face them after being pronounced man and wife? That would be awesome. Plus, I would record all the footage locally to the hard drive just in case the Internet craps out we’ll still have a copy.

After Googling around for a good mini spy cam, the Mini DV AEE-MD90 seems to be highly recommended. Here’s a good video review of it.

The only problem is there’s no way to stream the live video from it to a computer. The sound is also crap but that doesn’t really matter. Does anyone know of anything like this that would fit the bill? Has anyone done something similiar like this before? Any tips?

Which Android Phone Is For Me?

Android has been really gaining steam these past couple of months. Yesterday, Techcrunch posted a thorough list of Android phones covering everything current through the rumored ones.  It’s great to see everything laid out in one place which highlights one of the platforms strengths: diversity. Some are big, some are small, some have keyboards, some are all screen. The downside is finding the right phone which encompasses everything I want.

Android Comparison Chart

Nearly a year ago I said all I wanted was “a Dash form factor running the Android OS with 3G support.” A lot has changed since then, including my expectations of phones. It is clear the Dash form factor won’t be coming with Android anytime soon. Rectangular screens are the norm which is better for web browsing and typing messages. Every Android phone being released from now on has 3G support since smartphones are built with higher-margin data plans in mind. Carriers like that. So it should be no problem finding an Android phone for me, right?

Wrong. The only Android phones available as of this writing are the G1 and the myTouch3G, both of which are on T-mobile. They both have been labeled as “slow” and somewhat clunky. I played with the myTouch3G for a bit and realized the screen is too small for a phone with no keyboard. The upcoming Motorola Cliq looks like it could be the phone for me. Reviewers deem the keyboard quite good, solid build quality, and great social networking integration. The biggest problem I see? It uses the same Qualcomm 528MHz ARM11 processor the other two Android phones use. Engadget has an excellent overview of mobile processors powering all these Android devices which sheds some light as to why this processor is less than ideal.

Comparison of ARM chips

If I get the Cliq, I’ll be locked into a 2 year contract based on current plans offered by T-mobile (this could change soon thanks to Project Dark.) Between now and then I expect to see a heck of a lot more powerful phones come to market and I would have to pay a lot more to get out of my contract in order to upgrade. As phones get more powerful, widgets will start to become more demanding as they take advantage of this power. I just don’t think now is the time to commit to a phone being pushed out with past-prime tech that barely runs now. Perhaps I’m just being a bit too critical.

But alas the Verizon Droid is being touted as the first real iPhone competition from the Android camp. It uses a newer processor design, comes with a huge display, includes a physical keyboard, and it will be the first phone to come out with Android 2.0 and all the new features that come with it. This phone should be available to the public in November. The downside to this is Verizon plans are expensive, especially their data plans.

So in the end, I’ll continue to sit out of the Android game and squeeze more life out of my T-Mobile Dash running on the ancient Windows Mobile 5. As soon as I’m about to make a decision rumors swirl that something better is just around the corner. Sure it will always be like that, but Android is still in it’s infancy and competition is starting to heat up.  One of these days, some company will find the right combination.

HTC Hero With Sense UI Takes On Apple’s iPhone

Big news in the cell phone world this week. On Monday T-Mobile announced the MyTouch 3G as the follow-up to the G1. This morning HTC, maker of the MyTouch 3G as well as a slew of other phones, announced a new device called the Hero. While the two devices both run Android and sport nearly the exact same specs (MyTouch 3g specs, HTC Hero specs), the Hero gets a sparkling new interface which will make even Apple die-hards drool:

The MyTouch 3G will go on sale in the US in August while the superior Hero device will only be available in Europe and Asia by the end of the summer. There are rumors that the Sense UI will be available for the MyTouch 3G, but that could be a long time. While this could be my next phone I might just wait to see how some of the rumored Android phones pan out like the Samsung Bigfoot, Motorola Morrison, and the Samsung i7500. At least there are finally phones to choose from now.