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  • $95K Gets You 60 Minute Tour of Earth from the Edge of Outer Space

    Space travel devotees don’t have to wait a moment longer to book their trip. Andrew Nelson, CEO of XCOR, the aerospace company behind the creation of the Lynx space vehicle, announced that Space Expedition Exploration was setting up shop and taking orders for one heck of trip – the first commercial space flights. The company is open for orders, and so far, they have commitments from 70 people paying $95K each for a 60-minute suborbital space flight.   

    The reusable shuttle can take off and land from any normal runway. Initial plans call for takeoff and landing include two separate space ports – takeoff from Curacao, an island in the Dutch Caribbean, and landing in the Mojave Desert. The space shuttle will hold the pilot and one passenger. The quick jaunt lets the passenger experience the G-force of takeoff, the weightlessness of space, and a Google map-like view of Earth’s crust. With a glass canopy providing sweeping views, the Lynx’s trajectory is basically straight up to 100km above earth in about four minutes. That’s followed by a six minute weightless glide and a slow gliding descent back down to the runway. Four booster rockets and a mixture of pure kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel power the shuttle.

    To whet your appetite and give you the full $95K experience, the party starts long before the actual flight. Experiences leading up to the flight include a G-Centrifuge ride, a trip to the Netherlands for a spin in the Desdamona flight simulator and a little jaunt as a passenger on fighter jet are included in the price, as well as a flight suit and vacation in Curacao.

    While the other 99% may wait for the prices to come down to earth, it’s fascinating to see the migration of the space program move from a government initiative to a worldwide private sector experience. SpaceX has a sales force, a heavy Dutch-based management group including support from KLM. Me, I’m afraid I’ll need to wait for the press junket, but my bags are packed.

  • Google+ Hangouts Designed to Make Video Chat More Fun

    Google Hangouts is Google’s new enhanced video chat service. If Google+ Circles is the Google equivalent of Facebook, then Hangout is the Google equivalent of Skype. To make Google’s video chats more appealing than its competition, the company is showcasing apps that are meant to show off the power of video chat. For instance, Cacoo is a very cool diagramming tool, and SlideShare is a presentation-sharing app.

    As far as “family-friendly” apps go, Scoot & Doodle on Hangouts is the only option in the Google+Hangout world, at least for the time being. It offers a chance to doodle on the screen while video chatting. I like to call it “collob-a-draw”. The technology is pretty cool. I chatted with two Scoot & Doodle folks in three separate video chat windows while we all collaborated on a drawing on a shared screen floating above us. The idea, says Scoot@Doodle co-founder Christine Egy Rose, is for families to do something natural together online. 

     

    The tools of the paint box program are still pretty simple – a lovely color palette, a few brush sizes (all round brushes) and an eraser are the major components. A blank screen can be daunting (and not just for kids) – but after a bit you’ll find there’s something zen-like about doodling while you chat. Inventive families could easily create a game of Pictionary or Hangman. There’s no text capabilities for labeling a drawing, no stamps or stickers, and the circular brushes are pretty limiting, but I the company expects to add these shortly. Doodling sessions can be saved and shared to sites like Twitter and Facebook, and unlike the usual my-turn/your-turn sessions of other games, the real-time drawing together provides a unique experience.

    If you’ve got a web camera and internet connection, just set up a Google+ account (do this as an adult, not a child, and be careful to always supervise young children as they play). Start a family hangout with invited friends or relatives. This step lets you video chat. Hit the Apps button within Hangouts and select Scoot&Doodle (or whatever other app you’re into). If you’ve been sitting on the fence about family video chats, it’s well worth the extra steps.

  • The Perfect Storm: Facebook, The FTC and The New World of Web Kids

    On the Internet, if you’re under thirteen years old, you don’t belong in most places.  Sites like Facebook, in particular, have made it abundantly clear that those under the age of thirteen are trespassers, subject to deportation.

     But three things are changing the picture and it’s my guess that we’re about to see kid’s web that’s richer and more robust because of it.

    •        The regulations protecting kids on the Internet have become outdated and are being revisited.
    •        Developers who want to create great web experiences for kids are stymied by existing regulation. 
    •        Parents have become silent scofflaws allowing their kids to join Facebook and other adult sites  even in f the kids are under 13.

    The regulation is question is COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, created to curtail the collection of data from minors on the Internet.   If you’re going to engage a minor on a web site then parental consent is required.

    Enacted in 2000, the law has been around since before iPads and smartphones, apps, social networks and collaborative tools.  At a recent industry conference,  All  conference, FTC Commissioner, Leibowitz,  Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC said COPPA was undergoing changes.

    The second problem is that the world of kid’s is a god forsaken place for any developer trying to earn a living.   By law, kid’s content developers can’t  allow kids to share information, track their location, or know very much about what they’re doing without parental consent.

    Lorraine Ackerman, who runs the site Moms with Apps, offered that given the instantaneous nature of the mobile environment, this creates an additional friction and should be factored into the sales viability of the app.  Many developers play it safe, keeping the kids in a safe bubble.  For example, sending a drawing to Grandma or offering  personalized/localized activity (let’s say a scavenger hunt) is  “walking a fine line”.  Developers of kids’ apps, unlike others, have very little feedback on what kids like, what’s working and how to engage them further. Kids app developers forgo many of the analytic tools that other developers use to gauge user engagement.   One of the byproducts of regulation is  that developers err on the side of safety and refrain from making more engaging kids’ spaces.

    And then there’s Facebook.  Facebook  is making headlines because the company is toying with technology that would allow kids under thirteen to be Facebook members in some sort of parentally supervised area.  As Facebook goes, so goes the Internet. According to a study reported by Cnet, Minor Monitor, found that.38 percent of the kids on Facebook are below age 13.  That’s over 3.5 million of Facebook’s  monthly visitors in this country alone.  

    Welcome to the perfect storm.  Regulation is being revisited.  Innovation in the kids marketplace is being stymied.   And it’s now possible for social networking technology to let children to talk to Grandma or Aunt Bess, their best friend or favorite cousin, without leaving them exposed to the vagaries of the Internet at large.

    Parents should be prepared to take on more of the burden for managing their kids online lives as these forces collide.  But ultimately, a web where kids can talk to their friends and family, under watchful eyes, with the proper privacy protection can be a really great web for all of us.

  • The Best Gear of Summer

    These days my clothes pack quickly. My gear takes longer. By the time I synch gadgets, coil power cords, juice up batteries and prepare my SD cards and USBs, the clothes seem practically incidental.

    But, these days you are what you carry. For maximizing your travel gear and minimizing the headaches, try a few of these tips…

    THE TABLET

    Tablets are the most multi-functional device in the portable electronics world. Of course you’re familiar with the ubiquitous iPad, but it’s not the only way to go, nor the most functional. 

    A tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Note Tab has a couple of advantages. It’s available in sizes ranging from 5 inches (slightly bigger than a phone) to 10 inches (slightly bigger than an iPad). If you’re planning to use it as an entertainment device for watching movies and TV, the 10 inch tablet is a good choice.

    The second (and much touted) advantage is a stylus which which you can jot down a few notes, sketch an idea or even put a note on top of a photo or map.

    A third advantage, which is huge if you’re serious about photography, is the Galaxy Tab USB & SD Connection Kit, which will allow you to backup and view photos from your camera on your tablet.

    The Galaxy Tab has full HD video recording and playback. It’s your music player, camera (rear and front facing so that you can use it to video chat), e-book reader, email, web browser, and more. And it takes advantage of the high speed 4GS network as well as Wifi and Bluetooth.  

    Word of caution – even the 5-inch tablet is bigger than most phones. You won’t want to be holding this one up to your ear to make a call. Invest in headphones. Make sure you install and download your apps before the travels. Getting apps downloaded at remote wifi hotspots is not fun.

    THE CAMERA

    Even with the built-in cameras on many of today’s tablet and smart phones, you’re going to want a digital camera to step up your game for that once in a lifetime vacation. The two main reasons that digital cameras take better pictures than phones are that they’re optimized for low light, and they usually have better lenses. There are a lot of digital cameras out there, so think a bit about what’s important to you.

    If you simply want to point and shoot and get a great shot, you’ll enjoy the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ7/SZ1. It’s a slim camera with an impressive 10X optical zoom lens that gets you close to the action on the beach or at a soccer match. Plus it captures full HD video. The camera has an image stabilizer that helps you get a clear shot even when you’re zoomed in all the way.

    If you’re tough on your camera you might want the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX20. It’s compact and waterproof (up to 16 feet), dustproof and shockproof. It’s a great choice if you want to take photos of the kids while standing in the surf, or if you want to bring a camera with you while doing water sports. And it’s a good choice if you’ve always been a bit rough on the gear.

    Those who can never remember where they took their shots should look at the Casio Exilim EX-H20G. It’s got one of the best camera/GPS mapping features with a one-touch globe button that records where you took the photo.

    Travelling alone or with the very hip? Try the Casio Tryx – its rotating body lets you do all the self-potraits you crave. A similar option is the Samsung DV300F, with a front-facing LCD display so you can see the camera image even when you’re facing the lens.

    For keeping the camera extra steady the pros grab a travel tripod like these from Joby. A tripod is also great for self-potraits using the camera’s self timer.

    If you’re going somewhere where you might not be able to recharge the camera every evening, invest in a 2nd (or 3rd) camera battery. eBay is a great place to get extra camera batteries on the cheap, just search for your camera model plus “battery”. For longer trips, consider getting a 2nd (or 3rd) SD card, so you have lots of space. eBay is also a great option for memory cards.

    ALL THE OTHER STUFF…

    Phone Chargers: Phones and vacations are not a match made in heaven.  The Mophie Juice Pack Air is a slim iPhone case that also acts as a charger, and can nearly double your phone’s battery life.

    Schoshe flipCharge Burst ($45) is a tiny emergency battery and charging unit that promises up to 30% of an iPhone charge or up to 70% of an iPod charge, depending on the model – enough juice to get you back up and running in a pinch.

    Hands Free Calling and Streaming Internet Radio: Livio Radio makes a number of car add-on kits to let you make hands-free calls and stream thousands of Internet radio stations to your car’s radio.  And it’ll even charge your phone as it plays.

    Action sports in your plans? Check out Otterbox. The new reflex series cases are rugged but not rigid. They’ll protect your phone taking a blow or force in a flexible way.

    And how to get all of this stuff through TSA without missing your flight? That’s your problem. 

  • Best Buy Can Turn into Mobile Experts

    Some blame Apple. Some blame Amazon. Either way, it’s clear that Best Buy is taking a beating both in the online and physical worlds of mobile electronics sales. What to do? Look to the mobile market. While the iPhone is a beaut, the world of Android and possibly Windows Mobile are both pretty aggressive. And the carriers all need a refresh on customers. Best Buy could become the new strong mobile player by cashing in on their dual online and physical presence, and by offering multiple carriers and multiple hardware solutions, thereby catering towards a larger client pool.

  • An Appendix of Kids Apps

    My friend Stanley, a poet and inventor, calls it the “App-endix” of kids apps. Like any true curmudgeon, he says the app-endix, just like the real one in your body, will cease to be useful through the process of evolution. There are lots of reasons for Stanley’s gloom. An overcrowded field with too many tepid entries and no real organizing principles make it hard to find quality kids apps. Free apps often bring in advertising and who knows what other computer dangers and annoyances. Apps that cost are inexpensive enough (the average kid’s app is just over $2), but parents are reluctant to spend any money on something that they haven’t seen and have to search through the piles for.

    Parents are also a bit reluctant to indulge their kid’s already over-voracious screen time habits. The result? App fatigue.

    But, I’m more optimistic about an Appendix being the supplemental guide (usually at the end of the book). Apps can be a kid’s appendix – offering inspiring explorations that make being a kid even richer. I spent the last 2 days in a deep dive app-experience with a group of talented, dedicated folks at the Dust or Magic App Camp. Some of the work that I looked at was like finding the hidden gem in a video game. If you’ve been unsuccessfully searching through the pile of rubble that we think of as kids apps – flash cards, connect the dots, and horrid voices telling you to try again – feast your eyes on these.

    WindoSill by VectorPark 

    These folks didn’t  attend the app camp but were selected by a panel of kids-in-residence as a favorite. Windosill is a whimsical adventure puzzle; your mission is to get through doors by solving them various bits of logic machines. The entire game has an Alice in Wonderland meets Pablo Picasso feel to it. Beautifully rendered art, puzzles, logic, physics and a very responsive multi-touch system all make the play super-fluid. I hate people who say that you have to play it to understand it, but in this case that’s the truth. Try the first levels for free at the site.

    Leonardo daVinci by TouchPress App

    More like a PBC special than a kid’s app per se, TouchPress Apps is all about making beautiful books about beautiful subjects into exploration apps. The company has created books on the Solar System, Elements and Skulls, and one of their latest is on the anatomy works of Leonardo DaVinci. Of course you knew that Leonardo, in addition to being a great artist, was a super-skilled anatomist, right? This app lets you explore that piece of DaVinci. The app renders these anatomical drawings glorious 3D rotations. The text is engrossing, the artwork stunning, and of course includes Leonardo’s famous backwards writing. ($13.99)

    The Numberlys 

    Created by some ex-Pixar talent, the Numberlys begins as a black and white “Metropolis” where numbers are in command with letters still unborn. It’s an epic story, with a look and feel that gives a nod to great films of the past from King Kong to Flash Gordon to The Wizard of Oz. Players will get to birth numbers by spinning and multi-touching away. To get a feel for the game, visit the website. ($5.95)

    Noodlewords

    They say that kids learn by watching and doing, by engaging with all their senses, and through their hands. Noodlewords introduces words with raucous giggle-producing action. Unlike so many kids apps that use hum drum or action overdoses or art, this one concentrates on having kids delight in a specific action/reaction. Too adorably engaging bugs dance, bump, and otherwise teach those action words through their carefully crafted antics. ($2.99)

     MathDoodles 

    This whimsical work by Daren Carstens is a dotted landscape of special touches. From his love of “doodles” to his reasoning that simple math drills can be playful and fun – kids will through in every number system from money to binary to Roman Numerals. Once you create stacks of sums (there is no right answer), the numbers shake and dance, and glorious words of encouragement appear on screen. Daren includes a bit of his own motivations for creating the app by telling of his own discovery that math is fun. The fun is evident in his work. ($0.99)

  • Have an App-y Summer

    Smartphones in summer are far from perfect. The screens are hard to see when you’re out of doors, they tend to run out of batteries at inopportune moments, and it seems you’re always in a no-cell area when you need one. Still, your smartphone can be your summer companion on the road or in your own backyard. Try these apps for the glory days of summer.

    In Your Own Backyard

    Start by looking at the sky. Google SkyMaps (free, Android) identifies celestial beings from your point of view. Point the phone at any location in the sky and the app will tell you what you’re seeing. Planets, stars, constellations – are all unveiled. Apple users who want a prettier map can download SkyApp from Celestron (iPhone/iPad).

    A surprisingly handy app, Flashlight (iPhone/iPad) transforms your phone screen to a bright white light. For reading menus, finding a keyhole or just getting somewhere in the dark, it’s a handy addition.

    Gardening fanatics have a huge number of app choices. Those who prefer an encyclopedic approach will enjoy Botany Buddy ($9.99, iPhone/iPad). It provides an almost overwhelming description of every plant and shrub in existence – all searchable by name, location and description. Cooks should look at iPlant ($1.99, iPhone/iPad), a culinary guide. If your garden is infested, you need Garden Insects (iPhone/iPad), the 99-cent guide to garden insects.

    For getting in shape, use your smartphone as a pedometer with Pedometer Pro GPS+ ($2.99, iPhone/iPad). Since it knows your location through its GPS, it can calculate how far and fast you’ve walked and run, through what kinds of terrain. Set your personal goals and get started.

    Weather buffs and outdoor party planners might download WeatherUnderground’s free app (Android/iPhone/iPad), where local folks like you contribute weather information in real time. Crowd-sourced weather at its finest!

    Looking for a local event to pass the time? From movies, to concerts, to fairs and art, Eventful (free, iPhone) lets you follow upcoming concerts, performances and other live events through the site. Eventful goes a step further by giving fans a place to demand an event. 

    On the Road

    AccuTerra Unlimited (iPhone) is the hardcore map and GPS tracker for hiking, running, biking, and skiing. We’re talking five million square miles of terrain and trail maps. The maps are beautiful and have been optimized for the iPhone. You’ll want to download just the maps that you need to use (the app can get quite large). This all-access pass comes at the hefty price tag of $29.95.

    When you’re off the trail, Where You Go (free, Android) is an app with 500 preset categories that can locate anything from drug stores to restaurants to points of interest.

    Campers and RV enthusiasts should head to Camping Road Trip ($2.99). Available on iPhone and Android, it provides a complete list of 15,000 RV parks and campgrounds and lets you share your notes and ratings with others.

    On the Interstate? Download iexit ($.99, iPhone) and find out what restaurants and hotels are just off the next exit – without ever exiting.

    An app I find especially handy for summer travels is Park n Find ($.99, iPhone). Park your car, take its photo, and the GPS coordinates are captured and reported back to you. You’ll never be the last car out of the lot again because you’ve forgotten where you’ve parked.

    TripIt (free, Android, iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, Windows) watches as you book your flights, hotel , rental car information and turns it into your personal itinerary. Trip Advisor (free, Android phone/tablet, iPhone/iPad, Windows) shares the often very vocal opinion of travelers everywhere. Read before you book. 

  • College Education, The Prices Are Insane!

    Higher-education costs have skyrocketed 450 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard lots of chatter about new online models for higher education. Some critics are outraged by the thought of removing the classroom experience from the equation. Others cite cheating and accountability as major obstacles. Still others, no doubt, recognize the warning sign in the form of a pink slip.

    Techy optimists see online education as the next great Internet democratization. Anyone willing to learn, regardless of how much is in their checkbook, can gain access to the greatest institutions of higher education in the world. 

    From the East Coast bastion of ivy comes the MIT and Harvard salvo. The institutions announced a partnership called edX to offer free online courses from both schools. According to the New York Times, those who complete the courses will get a certificate and a grade, but no course credit. By teaching large numbers of students through a single course, edX hopes to gain insights into the teaching process as well as provide academic opportunities for all types of students.

    In the best amalgam situation, Cousera, founded by two Stanford professors, already offers free online courses compiled from some of the best universities: Michigan State, Penn State, Princeton, Stanford.  Interestingly, Cousera teaches the arts, including history and poetry, as well as smogasboard of computer courses. The courses do away with the traditional lecture; the instructor and assistants play the role of advisors, identifying common problems, offering clarification, and stimulating conversation. Peers and experts perform grading and other course interaction. HackedEducation provides a deeper look into Coursera here.

    Udacity was born when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and two of his colleagues taught a free online AI course to about 160,000 students. Graded by machine, and focused on the computer sciences, Udacity offerings are all no-cost. An ABC interview says that ultimately the company plans to use student data for recruitment purposes, hence monetizing their efforts. Unlike the others, Udacity is not affiliated with any university, as Thrun and his colleagues left Stanford to start the company.

    Together, this trio represents what has come to be known as MOOC: Massively Open Online Courses. Can you learn just as well in a crowd of 100,000 as you can in a small seminar? I suspect that individual learning styles will ultimately create everything from blended models to premium services. Meanwhile, reading through the forums and posts on Udacity and Coursera, it’s hard not to be encouraged by how grateful these far flung students are to be in the midst of this education revolution.

  • A College Education: The Prices Are Insane!

    Higher-education costs have skyrocketed 450 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard lots of chatter about new online models for higher education.  Some critics are outraged by the thought of removing the classroom experience from the equation.  Others cite cheating and accountability as major obstacles.  Others, no doubt, see the writing on the wall in the form of a pink slip.

    Online optimists  see online education as the next great Internet democratization.  Anyone willing to learn, regardless of how much is in their checkbook, is able to gain access to the greatest institutions of higher education in the world. 

    One thing is certain, the ivory towers are crumbling as I write, and the 600 pound guerillas are beating their chests.

    From the East Coast bastion of ivy comes the MIT and Harvard salvo.  The institutions announced a partnership called edX, that will offer free online courses from both schools. According to the NYT, those who complete the courses will get a certificate and a grade, but no course credit. By teaching large numbers of students through a single course, edX hopes to glean insights into the teaching process as well as providing academic opportunities for students.

    In the best amalgam situation, Cousera, founded by two Stanford profs already offers free online courses compiled  from some of the best universities: Michigan, Penn, Princeton , Stanford.  Interestingly, Cousera teaches the arts , including history and poetry, as well as smorgasboard of computer courses .  The courses replace the traditional lecture but the instructor and assistants play the role of advisors , eyeballing common problems, offering clarification, and stimulating  conversation. Grading and interaction is done by peers as well as experts. One of the deeper looks into what’s behind Coursera can be found at HackedEducation.

    Udacity was born when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor and two of his colleagues taught a free online AI course to about 160,000 students. Graded by machine, and focused on the computer sciences, Udacity offerings are all computer science classes and are all free.  An ABC interview  says that ultimately the company plans to use student data for recruitment purposes, hence monetizing their efforts.  Unlike the others, Udacity is not affiliated with any university as Thrun and his colleagues left Stanford to start the company.

    Together, this trio represents what’s come to be known as MOCC or Massively Open Online Courses.  Can you learn just as well in a crowd of 100,000 as you can in a small seminar?  I suspect that individual learning styles will ultimately create everything from blended models to premium services.  Meanwhile, reading through the forums and posts on Udacity and Coursera it’s hard not to be encouraged by how grateful these far flung students are to be in the midst of this education revolution. 

  • Can Tech Help Change Your Kid’s Behavior?

    You betcha! B.F. Skinner, the father of psychology’s behaviorist movement, would be giving electronics manufacturers the high five right now. It turns out that 1) kids like working for rewards and 2) technology is a really good motivator. A few examples…

    Zazoo Kids Alarm Clock: Do your kids wake up at 6AM on Saturday morning believing you should be up too? Do they hop out of bed before the naptime whistle? Zazoo’s charming little alarm clock ($89) helps retrain little bed-jumpers by offering four different sets of background images that tell your child it’s ok to “get up” or time to “stay put”. A moon and dark background say “stay asleep” while bright sunny sunshine says “rise and shine”.

    The clock doubles as a digital photo frame, and can play video clips and music – and you can set it so the kids wake up to anything from your voice to their favorite song or video. It has both USB and SD inputs so it can really serve as a little one’s first multimedia machine. The only caveat is that it’s not a touch screen. Parents will have to use a system of menu and arrow buttons on the back of the clock (much like a traditional alarm clock) to set it appropriately. 

    GeoPalz could be the best-kept secret on the planet. It’s a $25 pedometer made especially for kids. It comes in all sorts of fun designs like flowers, peace signs, and devils, and is made to be worn on shoes, belts, a pocket, wherever. Each GeoPalz has a unique serial number – kids go about their day, rack up the steps, and when they log onto the GeoPalz website, there’s a payoff. For every step walked, they gain points for prizes. And the prizes are from places the kids love like Target, REI, Xbox Live and others. There are games and challenges, and (of course) a virtual world to explore. Rewards for exercise are a good way to start building a kid’s consciousness about how exercise makes them feel.

    Tykoon is a website created to encourage children’s financial literacy. Assign your kids chores or assignments with the opportunity to earn some type of reward. Each task is assigned a frequency by the parents and then checked off when the task is done. Parents can pay cold hard cash or they can decide on a reward system like staying up late or watching a TV program if they’d rather.

    Kids are encouraged to set long and short term goals – college, an ice cream, a charity gift – it’s all there for your family to choose how to allot. As your children saves, a graphical view displays how they’re progressing toward their goal. Many parents will take advantage of the “Giving” part of the site to ingrain the importance of charitable giving (the sites partners include Make a Wish, ASPCA, Toys for Tots and others). And of course they get to spend. The site is also a kid’s “shopping mall” (parents need to ok the purchase) filled with kid friendly items from bicycles to video games.

    Of course anytime the “bank” is right next to the “store”, you might wind up with the whining tyke-oon, but this is a site that lets families discuss their financial beliefs and gives them the tools to instill those beliefs in their children.

    BF Skinner would be smiling from his grave to know that his reward theory for behavior modification is alive and well in the digital age.

     

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