Toddler Tablet

In the early 90’s I started to write a lot about family computing.  At the time there was a PC on every desk. While there were hundreds of CD-ROMs for kids designed for these machines, eventually they all fell off the map. There are many reasons why, but most important: the kid had to stay tethered to your only home PC, and you ran the risk of having your kids destroy some really important information on your very valuable computer.

Now, in the new digital age, the cloud and mobility have changed all that. Replacing CD-ROMs on the map are kid-tablets. I’m more than a bit amused how quickly this space is growing, but if you’ve ever seen a toddler with tablet you’ll see there’s magic. Pointing, swiping and touching are what tablets do best, and incidentally, so do toddlers.

This holiday you’ll have all sorts of choices, some old, some new:

It’s hard to argue with the beauty and simplicity of the iPad. It’s hard not to gulp at the price. The apps for kids are mature, well-vetted and carefully described. According to an early look by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, children’s content made up nearly half of the 100 top-selling educational apps on iTunes in 2011. To those who own iPad already my advice is simple: get yourself one of the childproof cases to protect it. Think about giving your child the hand-me down and getting the new one for yourself. Go to the Apple Store nearest you and try them out; just be warned, it’s sort of like walking into an animal shelter. It’s hard to leave without one, even at $499.

If you have an allergic reaction to price, your toddlers can still reap the benefits of the digital age.

There are three Android tablets on the market that are actually built with the toddler set in mind. Vinci Genius, the pioneer of these tablets, stands out from the crowd with a strong, tempered glass screen and graspable handles. And unlike the others, Vinci has a prescribed curriculum and set of objectives to accompany the hardware. The lessons are well developed and the 3D animations look great. As in other products like Hooked on Phonics and Baby Einstein, Vinci Genius has a mission to grow a smarter child, and faster. Parents will need to decide whether it’s the right growth path for their child. And at $389, a device that’s meant solely for your kids might be a reach for some parents.

New to the market is PlayBase’s Karuma.  Playbase is a sturdy and relatively inexpensive at $270. Nice touches like rounded edges and a bright rubberized cover make it feel kid friendly. It’s also reasonably powerful, has a built in camera and WiFi, 1G memory, and a good processor.  Where iPads have iTunes, and Vinci Genius has its own curricula, Playbase lets you download apps for your kids from any Android market and even has a market of its own.

Nabi is being distributed exclusively by Toys-R-Us. Its innards are similar to the Playbase, but its user interface makes it easy for kids to read, watch TV or play games. Reportedly, a “mommy mode” will let mom borrow it every once in awhile and play something other than Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja – both of which come pre-loaded on the tablet. For $200, Toys-R-Us is taking pre-orders now.

If Android or iPad tablets seem like a bit of overkill for your toddler, there are other tried and true options made solely for kids. The Leapfrog LeapPad is a kid’s tablet with great features, like two built-in cameras. Unlike the others its apps come on cartridges which cost significantly more than downloaded apps, but Leapfrog has years of experience in building solid kid’s products with a learning curricula. And the tablet is priced affordably at just under $100.  Watch a four-year-old demonstrate on YouTube.

Because reading is also central to a toddler’s development, the new Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet ($250) has a rich selection of kid’s e-books available, runs all of the Android apps, and even has a goodnight story feature where you can record a story for your kids to play when you’re not around.

Is this only the beginning?  I spoke with Lynn Tessaro, creator of the site Tablet for Kids. She “saw it coming” and has been following kids use of tablets on her website. “Kids love them”, she says, “so I think you’ll see more of them”. Tessaro, whose background is in special education, is particularly passionate about the use of tablets for kids with learning issues, calling them “a miracle device”.

Pricey gifts for a toddler? You bet. But on the other hand, these devices all grow nicely with your children. Do the math and you’ll see that you get a tremendous amount for your dollar.


GPS Takes You to Sesame Street

Ever wonder where your GPS got its peculiar speech affect? Ever wonder who would want to listen to Bert and Ernie read their directions out loud? We finally have the answers. Locutio, a UK based company, just announced an agreement with Sesame Street to provide Bert and Ernie as the navigation on Tom Tom GPS devices.

Not a Bert or Ernie fan? Locutio also offers up Darth Vader for those occasional drives to the dark side, and an inscrutable Yoda. Sold as “voice skin” for $12.99 each, Locutio supports Garmin and Tom Tom.  Adults should heed the small print warning: These voices are meant for entertainment, and not navigation purposes. We’ll see about that…

And of course, there is a video of the newest duo of voices


Huddle-Ware Turns iPads into Shared Games

The tablet is coming out of solitary confinement. Contrary to popular notions of one tablet per person, tablets are becoming a shared  group experience – lead by iPads.  Some are calling the phenomena “huddleware” since multiple people huddle around to play a game on the same tablet. Some believe that these games will replace board games as the life of the party, but I’m not so sure.

I’ve tested out a few of these retro-high tech games. They’re intriguing, but still rough…and would benefit from a dose of clever content.


GameChanger from Identity Games is one of the more unique offerings. It’s a physical board game with a built-in iPad dock – the iPad acts like the game’s spinner and diseminator of instructions. The game has interchangeable boards so that you get many game play variations for the price of one. Created in the Netherlands, and designed for kids, GameChanger ($80) comes with two different sets of boards in the pack: The Magic School Bus and Animal Mania.  Four colored cubes that interact with the gameboard and iPad serve as the playing pieces. Spin the spinner by swiping the iPad. Move your pieces and then follow the instructions on your iPad.

The scoop: the board play is a surprisingly clumsy. The iPad kept telling me that I hadn’t moved my piece the correct number of spaces. There’s a “Chutes and Ladders” type feel to the games, but I had trouble determining where the chute was taking me. And before you play, you need to download the free GameChanger App – a a sizable app.

As the company brings out new games and perfects the sensing mechanism of the pieces, the play will improve. Meanwhile, it’s a darned original idea.

Phone Frenzy is a board game that combines the old lifeline from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with the mobile phone. Play requires a phone and a few friends who are willing to get random calls from you asking you to do all sort of mobile phone-based antics. To get started, you choose a card from a deck that asks you to call a friend to the rescue. Friends “on call” might be asked to help you out by singing a song, snapping a photo, or answering silly questions. A team challenge might ask you to finish a song lyric. Showdown questions might ask you each to call a contact and ask them to weigh in on an answer. The game costs $22; the phone bills are your own. And your friends…well, they better like being part of the game, even when they’re not. If not, it’s a quick way to lose them – perhaps another idea for another day. Check out their YouTube demo.

Another shared game, GameTable App, lets you turn your iPad into a very realistic looking board for a good game of Checkers, Go, Chess, or Reversi. A game costs only 99 cents, and you’ll never lose the pieces again.

Toca Tea Party is a clever app from Finland combining some adult-friendly jazz music with a tea party that your kids can set up on the iPad screen. Set places, pour tea, serve cake – this app is best shared with other playmates, and redefines “playing pretend”. It costs $2.99.

For years, using tech meant it was you and the machine – others were not invited to the party. These new group experiences – huddleware- may keep us all a bit warmer this winter.


Gadgets: For Your Health (and under the tree)

Arnet offers up a nice gift list of digital health gadgets for the holidays. You’ll see many of them at the Sports & Fitness Tech Summit at CES this January.

Swimming to the Oldies

As you age exercise takes it’s toll on the body. Many turn to non-weight bearing exercises, swimming being the most popular. But listening to the voice in your head can get tedious after a dozen laps. And quite a few older adults would rather not spend their days DJing their playlists for the pool. That’s where Fitness Technology’s UWaterk7 fits. It’s a simple, but small and relatively lightweight waterproof radios with preset stations. Starting at $40, it’s a great holiday gift for the swimmer in your life. Visit the Fitness Technologies booth at CES to see their full line of products.


HP’s 3D in 2D

Just in case you thought 2D printing didn’t churn through enough ink, take a look at HP’s new TopShop LaserJet Pro M275. It can capture physical objects – shoes, jewelry, whatever – in a pseudo-3D way. Not to be confused with true 3D printers that build physical models, HP’s printer has a document scanner that’s mounted on top. The scanner actually contains 6 different cameras that snap a photo of the image from multiple angles.  Then, through algorithmic magic, a 3-dimemsional object is printed (or saved) in 2D, with depth and clarity.

Not everyone’s cup of tea, this printer could be used to add a little intensity to eBay items, appraisals, presentations, sales pitches or any other venture where a more realistic looking image might be helpful. Sadly, I got to try the pre-production version of the printer the other evening and found it not quite up to snuff. I scanned a pedometer and the results were lackluster, to say the least. The saved image file (which can be posted to the web from the printer) was better than the printed image. HP isn’t announcing pricing or availability yet.


Nest: A Thermostat that Raises My Temperature

It’s not easy to get excited about a thermostat. But when you get an eyeful of Nest, billed as the first learning thermostat, your blood will warm. Thermostats, says the company, control about half of your homes’ energy – more than your fridge, electronics and lighting combined. The Nest will learn your preferred temperature routines – when you are home and when you’re not – it programs itself as it learns your routines.

Nest’s founders are Tony Fadell, team leader for the first 18 generations of the iPod and 4 generations of iPhone at Apple, and Matt Rogers, an Apple software veteran. The Apple attention to small design enhancements is obvious: the display turns blue when it’s cooling and orange when heating. It tells you how long reaching your optimal temperature will take. And a leaf icon pops up to show you when you’re saving energy. If you’re using the Nest in a second home, or a home that you’re spending lots of time away from, Nest lets you warm things up before you get there with a remote application.

The company says that the Nest thermostat can be installed by anyone who has an existing thermostat in their home.  You can’t use it in buildings like mine where the heat is controlled by the all powerful building super. Nest’s website has a compatibility check so you can be certain your Nest will work.

Design always comes with a price tag – $249. My quick search of programmable 7-day thermostats was on average, a quarter of the price.  But they didn’t learn your settings or let you change them remotely via phone app.

But for a thermostat that looks better, is more accurate and tries to save you money, the Nest is on my list. The only thing left for it to do is ask me to put on a sweater.


Can the New Nook Tablet Help Reclaim Barnes and Noble Stores as a Destination?

Before the Apple Store became the best “pick up” spot in New York, there was Barnes & Noble. Its spacious square footage quickly became a mash up of date location and library. It seems digital times have made the bookstore – even a giant bookstore – a bit of an albatross. But according to William Lynch, Barnes and Noble’s chief executive, the Trojan horse is the new $249 Nook Tablet announced today to draw readers closer to Barnes & Noble as a destination that understands readers and their needs.

The Nook Tablet represents the evolution of the dedicated book reader and competes, cage-match-style, with the Kindle Fire. The 7” tablet offers a low glare, low reflection hi-resolution read. It weighs under a pound, supports HD video and offers readers extras like pre-loaded Hulu for streaming media. According to B&N the battery can last for an impressive 150 hours of reading, or 9 hours of video.

But the specs are only the dressing, it’s the stocked icons in this Nook that will be most intriguing to reading families. In addition to the complete Barnes & Noble bookstore experience, the tablet ships with Pandora and Netflix. Parents can add their own voice to any kid’s book in the collection and have their children play back the book – a bedtime story for traveling parents.

In addition to appealing to the core reading family, Barnes & Noble is also keeping their platform open and available to other devices, a wise move. Other less expensive tablet readers like the Pandigital Nova are also offering tablet solutions using the Barnes & Noble store.

The new Nook is a tad more expensive than the Kindle Fire, and both rely on WiFi – not 3G service. But as anyone who’s ever looked for a book can attest there are two things that set Nook apart from the Fire. One is the ad-free content. The second is the in-store support. Shopping for a book online is often frustrating. “What was the name?” “No, that’s not the one I meant.” Now imagine you can stop in at the friendly B&N and get some help, or a latte, or a book signing. The Nook at its best will build a reading community that spans the physical and virtual realities. If not, where will the non – bar hoppers have to take their dates?


Welcome to Wild World of…Shopping?

They used to say “be careful what you wish for”. Now it’s be careful what you “tap” for. Shopping is quickly becoming as easy as tapping your phone at the checkout counter.

Imagine this scenario:  You’re walking past Bloomingdales.  They know you love DKNY because of your previous purchases at the store; they know you’re in the ‘hood because of location-based technology in your smartphone. So, they spring into action and pop off a text message offering you 30% off on the new black sweater you’ve been eyeing. You’re late to work, broke, and now stuck in the horns of a dilemma. To shop or not to shop.

That’s the new reality as Near Field Communications (NFC)-enabled smartphones enter the fray. Near Field Communications technology can transmit secure data over short distances, so your phone can talk to their cash register.  Pundits agree that NFC-based mobile payments will total over $750 billion worldwide by 2015, and many predict they will soon begin to replace a typical credit card transaction.

Buying something is as simple as tapping your phone against the cash register. And it doesn’t stop with the purchase of an item. Your phone stores your transactions and can mind your budget. Your loyalty points are accrued. You get to choose your preferred method of payment. The whole thing snowballs and eventually shopping offers, frequent flier miles, loyalty cards, gift cards, and more will all stored on your phone. Hopefully it will be the tidiest wallet in the world – freed of dozens of credit and loyalty cards in your pocket.

On the vendors side, it means being able to reward customers for shopping with them by understanding a shopper’s history and targeting their preferences. It also means upgrading the vendor’s current payment systems to accept mobile payments, but the movement is happening, and quickly.

The three technologies I’ve been watching are Google Wallet, PayPal and Square. They’re dominant at moment, but others are flocking to the space including large organizations.

Google Wallet is available today from Sprint on the Nexus s4G. It supports Citi MasterCard or a virtual card that you load up with any of your credit cards.  While the choices of handset, carrier and credit cards supported are certainly limited today, Google wallet can replace bulging physical wallet’s offers, loyalty cards, and credit cards.   In my NYC area stores like Gristedes, RiteAid and RadioShack are already accepting Google wallet payments.  To pay all you need to do is tap your phone against the POS cashier.  Your wallet is locked with a special pin code for security.

PayPal recently announced a similar service that will be available after the first of the year. Like Google wallet, you tap your enabled phone up against any equally-enabled POS. The demonstration that I saw in NY at Paypal’s showroom showed a few really cool extras. For one, if you’ve bought something with your VISA card but realize that your balance is getting low, you can simply transfer the purchase to another card. It’s not quite a “buyer’s remorse” option but at least you can make sure your bases are covered. You’ll also be able to comparison shop online, and receive special offers from stores that know you and your purchasing habits. Buy a Weber Grill for instance and the next time you walk by the store you might get an offer for cedar chips or a nifty BBQ set sent to you via text message. Not hedging its bets, PayPal is also launching a credit card that’s sort of a like a pocket full of credit cards.  A single PayPal card can hold information about all your cards, and all you need to do to enter one of your cards is take a picture of it with your phone’s camera or read the bar swipe.

What’s most interesting to me about Google Wallet and Paypal is not so much the technology provided, but the convenience of buying at retail is greatly enhanced.  Walk by your favorite lunch joint, and get the discount of the day. Store up your loyalty points with your hairdresser or grocery store. If the offers are relevant and service is good, retail stores may be the biggest beneficiaries. And that means that cities can thrive again because of their customer relationships on Main Street.

Square is a completely different solution with some profound effects on shopping, too. The company, named for its square-shaped device attached to the headphone jack on your iOS or Android devices. The Square swipes credit cards – Visa and Mastercard. Anyone can be a seller with a Square and a smartphone. Even a kid with the local lemonade stand can be their own store – taking credit instead of quarters. More than the other two, which are designed with POS sales in mind, Square opens the world of mobile commerce to farmers markets, food carts and more. A new version of Square called Card Case for iOS and Android sheaths your device and transforms it into a contactless payment service.

Shopping is about to get very interesting, just be careful where you tap and swipe.


Fit and Fun: My Life with Gaggle of New Body Monitors

Set to ship next year, Basis, incorporates sensors that monitor everything from steps taken to your galvanic skin response.

If you’re not wearing a body monitor that senses your moves and tallies up your daily energy expenditure, then your workout may be missing it’s pizzazz. Or at least its brains, because I’m telling you, these smart monitors are pretty smart. Unlike myself, who must look really dumb for wearing them off of every belt loop, pocket and arm I own.


So, what is a “body monitor”, other than machines that track vital signs in the hospitals? To one degree or another, they are like the free cereal-box pedometer, but on steroids. Some can tell whether you’re climbing or walking; others can give you vital sign insta-feedback. Others give you personalized incentives to exercise more. They’re great for kicking up the pace of whatever you do, from grocery errands to training for a marathon.

These little devices are chock full of sensors. Lots of sensors: accelerometers, gyrocsopes, heart rate monitors and other sensory tools are thrown in to report back on how far you’ve gone, how fast and how many calories burned. And don’t forget about some form of communication (Bluetooth, etc) to your smart phone or PC. Basically, you’re hitting the streets wearing a tiny, space-age device that provides a data dump and real-time feedback about what your bodies been up to.

FitBit is the granddaddy of these devices, and the new FitBit Ultra is the second generation.  FitBit monitors everything you do, both moving and sedentary. You can even find out how much (or little) you sleep each night. Slap on the FitBit wristband, and log the time you hit the pillow – and it’ll monitor how many times you wake each night. During the day you can clip it just about anywhere on your person.

The Ultra, like many of the newer monitors, has an altimeter that can measure your climb as well as your steps. Steps are converted into calories burned, an overall fitness score, and distance travelled. FitBit has no display screen. You transmit your data wirelessly to a base station attached to your PC. Plus, a new mobile app lets you track your food consumption, and creates a full circle look at your inputs and outputs. Pick up your own FitBit Ultra for $100.

Striiv is one of the newest entries and it’s all about making exercise fun. As it tallies the “results” of your exercise into points, you can decide to spend your winnings by donating the converted points to charity, or reward yourself with some game play – set in a land of enchanted make-believe.

Striiv looks a lot like an iPod Nano – sleek and small, with a beautiful touch-screen display (the touch-screen function can be a tad finicky at times). You can carry it in your bag, clip on your belt or wear like a necklace. Striiv asks for a few vital stats and then gets you off and running. You can find out exactly how far you’ve gone or how many calories you’ve burned with a single click. The device doesn’t sit as close to your body as the FitBit, but there’s almost no end to the fun. It’ll compare your accomplishments (miles walked, for example) to things you can wrap your head around: a “large fries” equivalent or “climbed more steps than in the Statue of Liberty”. Get the Striiv on their website for $99.

BodyFit Media uses an armband to track movements, which means it has the advantage of getting some upper body input. This little device measures activity states from sleeping to floor mopping to ice skating. While it lacks display screen readout, BlueTooth connection lets it communicate with your smartphone. As an added bonus, the armband has an impressive battery life – lasting for days without recharging. BodyMedia’s first iteration was a bit bulky, but they’ve just introduced “skinny-ed” up new version. The company partners with everyone from Jenny Craig to Jillian Michaels to get the word out and add workout options. On the downside, it’s the most expensive at $179, plus a subscription fee for online activity manager.

NewYu is the lightest body monitor of the bunch and it’s also versatile and cost effective. NewYu attaches up close and personal – the least obtrusive of the bunch.  It doesn’t have a built in display but there are a series of onboard lights to gauge your effort. The manufacturer says that the monitor uses advanced pattern recognition technology to recognize specific workout activities like biking or elliptical training.

And there’s more cool gadgets to come in the world of self-monitorification. In the new few weeks I hope to be wearing these up-and-coming devices:

MyBasis may be the lightest weight, elegant and versatile monitor yet. It tracks everything you do, and adds blood flow, galvanic skin response, body temperature, and stock quotes (OK, I’m kidding about that last one). That means it’ll also analyze stress levels and overall fitness to a degree that may be more than you really want to know.

MotoActv is a cool-looking wristwatch-style device that combines music with running, walking, cycling and your other movements – it learns what music best suits your output of the moment. MotoActv has built in GPS to track where you are, and it’s ruggedized for outdoor workouts. It’s also the most expensive of the crew, beginning at $250. The various mounts (bike, belt, etc.) are additional, as is the Bluetooth headset that tracks your heartrate.

The new Jawbone Up from Aliph is a really cool-styled bracelet. The sensors are embedded in the bracelet and all the requisite smartphone apps/diet monitoring/sharing are included. You’ll see it in stores later this year. Jawbone Up is listed at $99 on their website.

Phew, 10,000 footsteps and 1,000 words later – I’m pumped. Workouts AND grocery shopping just got a rush of adrenaline.