TechSummit Rewind #009: January 9th, 2014

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the TechSummit Rewind, which puts a pause to the technology newswire.

3D-printed images help the blind “see” Hubble’s photos in space

2060

 

The Hubble Space Telescope has produced some of the most spectacular images known to man, but there’s a large segment of the population who’ve been unable to enjoy the spectacle: the blind. A pair of astronomers from the Space Telescope Science Institute aim to change that, though, by producing tactile “images” of the universe using a MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer. While such prints can be made from almost any objects, the duo faced the challenge of figuring out the 3D structure of objects like galaxies — and then making it possible, through feel, for the visually impaired to picture them in their mind’s eye. So far, they’ve developed 3D prototypes showing stars, gas clouds, filaments and more using lines, raised circles and dots formed in plastic. The group hopes to one day produce tactile pictures for schools, libraries and the public.

Hot Watch shows (almost) final version before it ships to KickStarter backers

hot-smartwatch-1-537x402

The last time the Hot Watch made a public appearance, the wristband was held together with a temporary strip of Velcro. To be sure, it was in good enough shape for us to test its voice-calling feature, but it was desperately in need of some help in the design department. A lot’s changed in five months, however, and now the startup is preparing to ship the watch to Kickstarter backers. We got a chance to check our a (nearly) final version at CES where, indeed, there were a few Kickstarter buyers milling around Hot Watch’s suite, hoping to get a sneak peek. Read on for a rundown of what’s new. And hey, backers, don’t shoot the messenger if it’s not all good news: You backed it, you bought it.

As ever, the watch band has a bulbous module on the end — that’s where the mic and bi-directional speaker live, allowing you to make voice calls. This time, however, the band has a proper strap (finally!) and is made of silicone. Actually, the model we handled was made of a different material, though company reps assured us that the last version will indeed use silicone, and that it will have a softer finish. Also new: a built-in flashlight on the right side, though it’s only included in the highest-end model.

The front of the watch, meanwhile, is as we remember it, with a rectangular face and a choice of materials: a matte black finish ($179), stainless steel ($199) or titanium ($249). At a glance, the stainless steel and titanium are hard to distinguish — meaning, the titanium doesn’t actually look like it should be $50 more expensive than the steel. It is a bit flashier, though: The titanium model has curved, not straight edges, giving it a bolder look.

Perhaps more importantly, the watch’s UI has also received a facelift. Whereas before you traced diagonal lines to toggle through apps, you now swipe in from the right (just like in Windows 8). Also, those four shortcuts above the screen now actually function as shortcuts. Tap right below each shortcut icon to view the clock, date, calendar and some programmable apps (it was tic-tac-toe on the watches we handled, but you can change that to match your tastes). The problem is, the screen is awfully tiny, and the four touch zones for the shortcuts are even tinier. So it can be tricky to find the right spot on your first try, especially if you’re a new user. In particular, shortcut number one was a struggle with its upper-left corner location.

Otherwise, the screen was responsive, particularly when drawing shortcuts to open the clock options, app menu and system settings. And I use the word “drawing” intentionally: You trace an “A” for apps, a “C” for the clock and so on. By the time this ship, titanium edition buyers can write “F” for flashlight.

Speaking of ship dates, the Hot Watch is available now.

Wearable Google Helpouts streaming camera shares GoPro heritage

ambarella google hangouts streaming camera

 

Ambarella isn’t exactly a household name, but the decade-old company’s silicon has long found its way into GoPros and other hardware thanks to its video-compression chops and low-power tech prowess. Word broke in December 2013 that Google commissioned Ambarella to produce a reference design for a wearable camera that would stream to its Helpouts service, which lets folks ask experts for help over video. At CES, the outfit brought along a few samples of the device, and we put our paws all over one.

Inside a plastic housing the size of a chunky matchbox, the manufacturer’s placed a custom A7LM chip that endows the package with the ability to stream 1080p video at 30fps for at least one hour. The housing also comes with a microUSB port, microphone, 500mAh battery, 8GB of flash storage, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, along with power and “connect” buttons up top.

Not only can the setup stream 1080p footage with just 1 Mbps of bandwidth — albeit with a varying bit rate to adjust quality and compensate for any Internet connection shortfalls — but it also pipes the video directly to Google’s servers over WiFi, removing the need to tether to another device. After a user joins a Helpouts session, the camera will become available as a video source. The hardware can also either be used by one of the pros in Mountain View, or the Average Joe looking for a hand.

When it comes to the cam’s wearable aspect, some of the models on hand sported a clip on the rear or a metal loop up top for a necklace. Having said that, form factor and features will be up to device manufacturers who buy the hardware from Ambarella — that is, if Google goes forward with the idea of cameras that natively support Hangouts.

Ultimately, the draft hardware not only shows that Hangouts may score capable, tailored streaming hardware, but also that those cameras might not be too far off. Details regarding pricing, release dates and manufacturers are still too early to pin down, but we should hear more from Google in this season of the TechSummit Rewind.

Magellan’s Echo is a remote control for your smartphone

magellan-echo

Magellan is a company known for its GPS products, so it might surprise you that its latest smartwatch doesn’t contain any mapping hardware whatsoever. Instead, the Magellan Echo works more like a remote display for your phone, streaming data from apps like Wahoo Fitness, Strava and MapMyRun. Once inside an app, not only can you customize what information is available on your wrist, but you can also assign buttons to control specific features on the phone — like your music player. Considering that it looks as unthreatening as an old-school fashion watch, we imagine there’s plenty of scope for this to catch on.

UK travelers set to get 3G, LTE inside Channel Tunnel

Channel Tunnel

 

For over a year, the 32-mile long Channel Tunnel that connects England to France was regarded to as French territory, at least in regards to the mobile industry. Three major French carriers signed deals with EuroTunnel to offer access on its networks, leaving British travellers in the dark. Nevermore, as UK providers EE and Vodafone announced their intention to supply 2G and 3G access to customers journeying to mainland Europe. Both companies plan on providing 4G services as well, but a little later down the line. While neither company detailed the data speeds you can expect to receive while passing under the world’s busiest seaway, EE suggests you’ll still be able to prepare for meetings, check your emails and watch streamed movies when its LTE service goes live.

SwiftKey’s predictive text input makes its way into your car stereo

swiftkey-clarion-ax1-100114

 

It’s no secret that SwiftKey is one of the most raved about third-party keyboards anywhere, but even we couldn’t predict this one. The keyboard app announced today that its adaptive chops will be integrated with Clarion’s AX1 head unit. It might seem odd at first, but since Clarion’s unit has native apps for email and web browsing, predictive text (compared to a standard touchscreen keyboard) ought to make the device easier to use. SwiftKey is taking everything it’s learned from the mobile environment, and applying it to other areas where it makes sense. In other words, this likely isn’t the last time a third-party keyboard will be seen somewhere other than a phone or tablet. The AX1 is available now for $800.

Toshiba’s Satellite P50t features a 3840×2160 display

Toshiba-Satellite-P50t_1

2K screens have suddenly become old news. While other companies announce laptops with 2560×1440 screens, Toshiba one-upped the competition with the Satellite P50t, a notebook featuring a 15.6-inch, 3840×2160 display. This adds up to a pixel density of 282 pixels per inch, which, as you can imagine, means some onscreen objects are going to be very, very small. Other than the lack of optimized apps — a problem for every high-res notebook — the screen is quite nice, with good color reproduction and decent viewing angles. As for the rest of the spec sheet, we still have a lot of blanks, but we do know that it’ll have a mix of Core i5/i7 processors. We’ll have more details as the TechSummit Rewind continues.

Keecker is an Android-powered robot that projects video to your walls

KEECKER

Sure, you could buy a projector for your apartment, or maybe even a TV; yes, people still use those apparently. Or, be a trendsetter and get an Android-powered projector instead. Solving a problem that not many people seem to have, Keecker is a smartphone-controllable robot that not many people seem to have, Keecker is a smartphone-controllable robot that moves around your home, projecing video on the walls. In particular, it runs Android with full Google Play goodness, allowing you to stream from apps like Netflix and YouTube. (That could be helped by the fact that company founder Pierre Lebeau is a former product manager at Google.)  As you can imagine, Keecker also has a built-in speaker, meaning you could use this as a giant music player if you wanted to.

Some might be disappointed by the 1280×800 resolution (especially with a target price of $4,000 to $5,000), but the 1,000-lumen light is at least bright enough that you can watch even with the lights on. The thing is, even with clear picture quality, the robot is kinda big. At 16 inches wide and 25 inches tall it has a relatively large footprint, so it’d be a stretch to argue that this offers any space-saving benefits, per se. If you buy this, it’s going to be because you want the freedom to watch TV on any wall in the house, or because you like the idea of having a projector with streaming apps built-in. At any rate, Keecker is available now.

Confide is Snapchat for business, without the pictures

confide-app

The written word has a nasty habit of sticking around (as evidenced by a certain Sony hack), surfacing in hacked email accounts, accidental forwards and the untrustworthy lips of your peers. That’s why former AOL executive Jon Brod created Confide, an iOS texting app that erases sensitive messages as soon as they’re read. It’s designed to make private texts as fleeting s a whispered secret, retained only in the person you confided in; hence the name Confide. To protect itself against the iPhone’s handy screenshot function (which plagues its most-common comparison), the app only reveals a few words at a time, blocking the rest out with an orange sensor bar until the user’s finger glides across the screen. Unlike Snapchat, however, the app doesn’t support sharing pictures. The app is live now on the App Store, you know, in case you need a fresh way to share company secrets.

ModiFace uses Kinect to give you a digital nose job

ModiFace anti-aging beauty mirror

ModiFace has been giving digital makeovers for a while now, with its iOS and Android apps, but now it wants people to start scrutinizing themselves in public, too. The company announced the “Anti-Aging Beauty Mirror,” which in actuality is just a Windows PC with a Kinect sensor mounted on top, allowing shoppers to try on makeup (and experiment with brow lifts) while they’re in-store. As with the existing app, you can try on eyeshadow, lipstick and blush, only this time, you’ll see the brand and color overlaid in the upper left-hand corner. (Maybe it’s the technology, or my choice of green eyeshadow, but I looked like a clown.) You can also experiment with anti-aging (plastic surgery) effects like nose reshaping and a cheek lift. There’s even a before and after view, reminding you that your real jaw line isn’t as strong as you think it is. The ModiFace Anti-Aging Beauty Mirror is rolling out now — not that it’ll deter women from trying on the real makeup and then high-tailing it out of the store.

 ZTE’s modular smartphone could make part-swapping a reality within two years

ZTE Eco-Mobius

Smartphones with interchangeable parts is the future… at least according to companies like Motorola and ZTE. Both manufacturers are  working on prototypes of modular smartphones. Such devices, if they find a way to market, will give customers a few benefits: the change to customize their phone exactly the way they want, the ability to upgrade specific parts (modules) of your device without having to upgrade to a completely new version, the option to buy and sell individual modules to others, and less electronic waste left over as a result. Neither company has exactly been keeping their efforts secret, but what we’re unsure of is when we can expect to see real hardware in stores. Fortunately, ZTE showed off its first concept device (unfortunately under glass) on the CES 2014 show floor, and we should plan on seeing this concept come to fruition within the next year, according to company representatives.

 

The phone, known as the Eco-Mobius, looks a lot sleeker than what we’ve seen of Project Ara (as of this point), and is swapped into four separate swappable modules for LCD, core (processors, RAM, and ROM), camera and battery. This comes in quite handy to enthusiasts of all types who want to take advantage of different modules: if you’re into photography, you could theoretically take multiple camera modules with you, each one with its own strengths and weaknesses — a macro lens module would do some good for specific shots. Perhaps you want to change the side of your screen, depending on whether you’re at the office, at home or a party? No problem. Need a stronger battery for those long days traversing the CES show floor? Sure thing. In addition to making this kind of phone a reality, its designers are also putting together a platform in which users can buy, sell and trade modules with each other.

 

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Author: Andrew Okwuosah

I am a technology junkie with a love of writing. Follow me everywhere at about.me/andrewokwuosah

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