This is how the Robopocalypse starts

Our robotic future is fun... and a little scary? Photo courtesy of Parrot S.A.

Our robotic future is fun… and a little scary? Photo courtesy of Parrot S.A.

This article originally appeared on CTVNews.ca

Yesterday, at an exclusive event in downtown Toronto, members of the press were invited to the official launch of two new robotic products from Parrot S.A., the French company responsible for popularizing so-called “drones” – remote controlled quad-rotor flying platforms that contain a pair of cameras capable of recording high-definition video.

The company has had enormous success with their AR.Drone (now in its second generation), having sold over 700,000 of the $350 devices since 2010. And though there has been an explosion of growth in the drone market, both in the high-end commercial segment and the budget-friendly toy segment, Parrot has maintained a decisive lead by combining high-quality components and engineering with easy-to-master controls thanks to its use of Wi-Fi equipped smartphones and tablets as the “remote.”

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Parrot’s two new products, part of a line they call “MiniDrones,” follow in the footsteps of the AR.Drone. The Rolling Spider is a $119 miniature quad-rotor flying vehicle that fits in the palm of your hand. Equipped with detachable wheels that give the Spider an angry-bee-trapped-in-a-hamster-wheel appearance, it can roll along floors, up walls and along ceilings without any danger of the tiny propellers coming in contact with nearby objects. Thanks to a plethora of on-board sensors and gyros, The Rolling Spider is simple enough for a child to operate. It even has a high-res, downward-facing camera that can snap still images during flights. The rechargeable and replaceable battery is good for about 8 minutes of continuous flight. You can fly the Rolling Spider indoors or outside, but because it’s connected via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet, the operational range is limited to about 66 feet.

In practice, the Rolling Spider is a hoot to fly. Amazingly stable yet highly responsive, it emits a high-pitched whine that makes comparisons to bees, wasps or even mosquitoes more apt than to a spider.  Horizontal flight is buttery-smooth while vertical lifts and drops happen incredibly fast.  Irritated by a pilot who decides to fly it too close to your head? Go ahead and swat the Spider out of your way – it will right itself and continue on its flight path as though nothing had happened. We can only assume it doesn’t take such acts of aggression personally.

Parrot uses the same flight control scheme from the AR.Drone with the Rolling Spider and it is truly easy enough to learn that you can fly the Spider confidently after a few minutes of experimentation. Getting the Spider to execute an aerobatic 360 degree flip in mid-air requires nothing more than a double-tap on the smartphone’s screen.

Finally, if you can bare to separate yourself long enough from the Rolling Spider to let your kid play with it, they’ll be delighted to find that Parrot has included a set of stickers that can be used to customize the Spider’s appearance. Most of them make the Rolling Spider look like something that’s about to bite you.

Parrot-Jumping-Sumo-minidrones

Their second product in the MiniDrone line is the $179 Jumping Sumo. A quirky blend of remote-controlled car, mobile camera platform and, well, grasshopper, this two-wheeled vehicle has more in common with a Segway scooter than a garden-variety RC car. Equipped with a wide-angle front-facing camera, the Sumo can stream live video of everything it sees back to the smartphone, giving its driver a first-person perspective. The diminutive vehicle can be driven manually, using the on-screen controls and can perform impressive maneuvers such as 90 or 180-degree turns in an instant, or you can pre-program a specific route which can then be executed at the tap of the screen.

But the Jumping Sumo’s most impressive trick is, as its name suggests, the ability to jump up to three feet into the air, with a level of precision that allows experienced drivers to land it on a surface not much larger than the Sumo’s own footprint. The jumps are accomplished via a powerful, spring-loaded piston that can be primed and released in less than two seconds. Flip the Jumping Sumo “upside down” (a hard position to identify when dealing with a robot that doesn’t seem to care which way is up) and it can use the same mechanism to launch itself away from fixed objects, or “kick” loose objects out of its path. In an impressive demonstration of strength, I watched as a Parrot employee put a sizeable dent in an empty pop can using this technique.

As frightening as it sounds, Parrot has even equipped the Jumping Sumo with a “personality.” With a Furby-like set of responses, the Sumo will emit different sounds under different conditions. Perhaps most disturbing is the language Parrot uses to describe these interactions in its marketing material: “Pet its head, pat its body and it reacts to make you understand its affection for you.” Hmm. “Make you understand”… is this merely an awkward translation from French, Parrot’s native tongue, or is it a sign that we are no longer the ones who are in control? If you still have any doubts, consider this: When the Jumping Sumo finds itself in an “uncomfortable” situation, its “eyes” turn from placid green to a menacing red. Stanley Kubrick tried to warn us about artificial intelligence with red eyes…

While it’s clear that these two MiniDrones—which go on sale in August—are very much designed to be toys (parents get ready for the holiday wish-list onslaught), make no mistake, these are highly sophisticated pieces of technology that have more in common with commercial and even military drone applications than their size and price would indicate. With the exception of their operating distances, battery life and perhaps durability, these two “toys” represent cutting-edge technology.

If you’ve ever spent time wondering what your kids will be equipped to do when they enter the job market, perhaps it’s time to introduce them to a MiniDrone. It could set them up for an upwardly mobile career path in our increasingly robotic world.

See the Rolling Spider in action:

See the Jumping Sumo in action:

Living life in 4K: ASUS PB287Q hands-on review

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Over the years, we’ve seen a whole lot of innovation in computing. Faster processors, smaller form factors, touch-screen inputs and wireless data. All of these have had a profound impact on how and where we use technology. And as important as all of these advances have been, nothing has changed our fundamental relationship to these devices as much as improvements to their displays.

Displays are at the heart of how we perceive–and ultimately use—all of our computers, be it the biggest, most powerful desktop or the smallest of smartwatches. It’s the reason that new display technology always leaves me saying “wow.” That was my reaction when I saw my first high-res graphics monitor, when I saw my first colour LCD display and most recently, when I looked upon Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad. These technologies really enhance our use and enjoyment of computers.

So when I was offered the chance to try out ASUS’s PB287Q, one of the first reasonably priced 4K displays on the market, I jumped at the chance.

Continue reading the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Clever, clever Apple

Tim Cook at Apple's 2014 WWDC event in San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Andy Ihnatko.

Tim Cook at Apple’s 2014 WWDC event in San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Andy Ihnatko.

Yesterday’s WWDC keynote was full of surprises. It was notable not only for what it contained (updates to both iOS and OS X) but also for what it didn’t contain (no new hardware). And while most of the commentary thus far has centred around the new features of Apple’s two platforms, I think it’s worth looking a little closer at what these features mean, especially as it relates to the competition.

Blurring the lines between desktop and mobile

Have you noticed that as we’ve embraced mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, we seem to be living in an increasingly fractured world? Yes, it’s true that you can get to social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter easily from any device and there’s no noticeable difference when switching other than screen size, but what about other tasks? We’ve been forced to find workarounds to overcome the fact that our so-called desktop machines (which more and more are laptops, not true desktops) and our mobile devices don’t talk to one another. Evernote. Dropbox. Google Drive and Google Docs. Office 365. Gmail. As good and useful as these products are, they’re band-aids. They exist because mobile operating systems and their desktop equivalents have never really known how to help users transition seamlessly between them.

What’s peculiar is how accepting we users have become of this situation. Signing up for and managing a raft of products, services, accounts and passwords, all so we can keep our digital lives within easy access from whichever device we’re working on.

Well, what if all of that went away?

It starts with iCloud Drive

If I were the CEO of Dropbox, yesterday’s keynote would have sent a cold chill down my spine. That’s because Apple’s announcement of an extension to iCloud called iCloud Drive, is a direct competitor. Dropbox is great because it’s simple. It is nothing more than a place in the cloud where you can store your files, retrieve them from anywhere and share them with anyone. The problem with simple though, is that it’s easily duplicated and improved upon. Because iCloud Drive will offer the exact same feature set, but will also be a native component of both OS X and iOS, it will be easier to use than Dropbox. Especially if you work a lot in Apple’s own suite of productivity tools: Keynote, Pages and Numbers (collectively known as iWork). And while Apple’s pricing of iCloud Drive makes it more expensive on a per MB basis that Google Drive, it’s cheaper than Dropbox. Can you guess which company Apple has targeted with this move?

It continues with Handoff

Of course, simply embedding a Dropbox knock-off into the OS isn’t going to change anyone’s world overnight (well, unless you’re Dropbox’s CEO), because being able to store files in the cloud isn’t new and it wasn’t hard to do prior to iCloud Drive. It’s best to look at iCloud Drive as a highway or rail system. You need it to help people get from A to B, but without a car or train, it’s only half of the solution.

The other half is breaking down the barriers between devices. If you’re working on a proposal on your Mac using Pages and you’ve got to leave the office or home to make a meeting in an hour, why should you have to save your work and email it to yourself (if you haven’t embraced the cloud yet) or save it to Dropbox (or even iCloud) and then retrieve that document on your iPad when you’ve boarded the subway? Or what about that detailed email you were in the middle of composing but weren’t quite ready to send yet?

With Handoff—a feature that you will forget about almost as soon as you start using it—as long as you’re signed in with your Apple ID, all of these activities will follow you from one device to another, as though you had never switched at all. At launch, Handoff will work with Apple’s core apps like Mail, Safari, iWork etc., but developers will be able to add Handoff to their apps too.

Multiple, smart environments

Have you noticed the way that Microsoft put such a huge emphasis on making all of their versions of Windows 8 look and work similarly regardless whether you were using a full PC, tablet or smartphone? On the one hand, it creates a familiar environment on all of your devices. On the other hand, it completely misses the point. When it comes to smart devices, we need smart operating systems. That doesn’t mean making all of these machines operate the same way, it means designing operating systems that make using these devices as easy and simple as possible.  To achieve this, function must follow form, not vice versa.

Apple clearly gets this. Instead of doing a full revamp of OS X to make it a desktop version of iOS, or trying to cram a full version of OS X onto an iPad (ahem, Microsoft Surface), it’s letting the devices themselves dictate the right user experience, while silently and invisibly connecting these disparate device in the background.

Continuity is one more reason to buy  a Mac

While I absolutely believe that Apple has made these enhancements to help their customers further simplify their lives and eliminate some of the pesky irritations that our multi-device world has created, they’ve significantly strengthened the Apple ecosystem at the same time.

Because while iCloud Drive will offer easy access to cloud-stored documents for Windows users too, in order to benefit from the full package that Handoff offers, you’ll need to own Apple hardware.

And while it’s true that more and more people are beginning to work exclusively on tablets and smartphones, there’s still plenty more who want a full PC. If that’s you, and you don’t yet own a Mac, Apple’s Continuity (the name they’ve given the suite of products and services that enable this seamless switching process) is a compelling reason to buy one.

One more thing

There’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs that “a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s been true of Apple’s products more often than not. The iPod, iPhone, iPad… few of these were products that customers had been shouting for ahead of their debut, and yet, once they got their hands on them, they realized they were the products they wanted. Apple’s new direction for software, in the form of Continuity, is another example of something that few people realized they needed or wanted (because we’ve all become so used to the band-aids). But I think that once people start using it, they’ll wonder how they ever got along without it.

Hands-on Review: Roku Streaming Stick

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Tons of features, good performance and an unbeatable price make the Roku Streaming Stick by far the best value in the increasingly busy Smart-TV add-on category.

If you already own a Smart TV—a WiFi-connected, app-enabled HDTV—you really don’t need to read this. That’s because the Roku family of devices (to which the Roku Streaming Stick is the latest addition) is for all of us poor shmoes stuck with TVs that have no way of talking to the internet and thus no way to access content providers like Netflix, Crackle, CrunchyRoll or YouTube unless we stretch a very long and trip-hazard-creating HDMI cable from our PC/laptop to our TV sets. Don’t laugh. People do that. For real.

There is obviously a better way. It took a few years for electronics companies to figure it out, but simple WiFi add-ons are finally here.

Roku’s Streaming Stick takes the best part of Roku’s earlier efforts, namely the amazing collection of hundreds of “channels” that give the Roku its ability to deliver streaming content, and pairs them up with a dead-simple receiver and an included remote control, all for the rock-bottom price of $59 CDN.

Read the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Review: Sony SRS-X9 ultra premium personal speaker

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Despite creating a beautiful, feature-rich and well thought-out wireless speaker, Sony’s SRS-X9 fails to deliver consistently high quality sound over its wireless and wired inputs.

The wireless audio phenomenon in consumer tech is huge and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. It’s into this already crowded category that Sony is throwing three new contenders for your wireless speaker dollars. The biggest and baddest of the three is the SRS-X9, a sophisticated-looking all-in-one affair that straddles the line between bookshelf speaker and home theatre sound-bar.

Competition

The SRS-X9, which retails for $699 CDN, is priced at the high end of the wireless speaker market, placing it in competition with the Sonos Play:5 ($499) or possibly the Sonos Playbar ($749) as well as offerings from Pioneer,BoseBowers & WilkinsPolk Audio and Marantz.

Set-up and Connectivity

As you would expect from such a device, it offers a wealth of connectivity including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, line-in (via mini-jack), Ethernet and USB. It’s also DLNA and AirPlay compatible.

Continue reading the full review on Canadian Reviewer

Review: Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet

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Sony’s latest Android tablet is a worthy successor to the Xperia Z, with unique features, an incredibly thin and light design and a gorgeous screen. But battery life is not as good as it could be.

The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet ($529 16GB) is a remarkably thin and light device. At 426 grams, the Z2 is significantly lighter than the comparably equipped Apple iPad Air (469 grams) even though it has larger overall dimensions.

The chassis exterior is coated in a rubberized finish on the back and uses edge-to-edge scratch-resistant glass on the front. The sides (what little there are of them) is finished in a metal-look plastic material. Unlike the iPad, there is no metal shell.

Although this results in an amazingly light device, the problem with this design is that the Xperia Z2 gets all of its rigidity from the internal framework and the glass screen itself. Which it to say, you can actually flex the tablet without exerting much pressure at all. I suppose this isn’t necessarily an issue of quality – I wasn’t able to come even close to damaging it through normal use—but it doesn’t give you a tremendous feeling of confidence.

Keep reading the full review at Canadian Reviewer

What Nike’s exit from the wearables race means to an industry

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A scant two years after Nike launched the FuelBand – a fitness tracker designed to be worn on the wrist and used in conjunction with a smartphone like the iPhone – rumours are rampant that the mega-sports brand is shutting down the FuelBand hardware division and ceasing production of any future FuelBand models.

This is (if the rumours prove true) a dramatic turn of events in the nascent wearables industry.

Wearables are by far the hottest category in the consumer electronics space and it has seen massive expansion since getting its first mainstream products three years ago when FitBit released its FitBit One, the first activity tracker that used Bluetooth as its syncing technology (previous models required a manual connection for charging and sync). Now the field has many more players including Samsung, Polar, Nike, Jawbone, Google, TomTom, Motorola, and it goes well beyond single-focus of activity tracking.

So if wearables are so hot, why has Nike decided to cede the race so early in the game?

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from two other tech races.

The pocket cam

Remember Flip Video? After its debut in 2007, the tiny solid-state memory-only camcorder went on to capture 13% of the camcorder market, at least as far as Amazon.com sales were concerned. It also inspired a whole wave of imitators with everyone from Sony to Toshiba to Samsung joining the fray. Then, less than two years after Cisco bought Flip Video’s parent company for $590 million, they abruptly shuttered the entire business, leaving fans and industry watchers alike scratching their heads.

While Cisco never offered a concrete explanation for their decision (other than the desire to focus on their core business) the prevailing belief at the time was that pocket-cam market share had already reached its zenith and would soon see slow but steady attrition thanks to the increasing ubiquity of high-quality video cameras in cellphones. In hindsight, this has proven mostly true as the camcorder industry as a whole has been attacked on two sides (the smartphone and the inclusion of video capture in high-end dSLRs).

Could it be that Nike has seen a similar fate on the horizon for fitness trackers and decided to get out now, before the impending bloodbath?

The BlackBerry

Even though analyses of the failure of Waterloo’s favourite business have become more common than hipsters at the local fair-trade coffee shop, it’s worth taking another look at BlackBerry’s trajectory in the context of the wearables industry.

The current conventional wisdom on the subject goes something like this: BlackBerry started with a killer product. It grew like crazy until Apple came along and launched a product with a similar set of capabilities but in a far more consumer-friendly package. Apple then doubled-down on their success by developing an ecosystem around the iPhone that remains the envy of the industry to this day. Meanwhile, believing that they simply needed to take a few pages from Apple’s (ahem) playbook, BlackBerry tried to jazz up their product line with tablets and new smartphones with a more consumer-y feel to them. This new direction, as logical as it was, has failed to reverse the company’s hardware business. The latest rumours suggest that BlackBerry, under new leadership, will finally give up on trying to please average consumers and focus once more on the enterprise – and mostly from a software perspective.

Could it be that Nike sees the wearables hardware space as one that will ultimately be dominated by companies like Samsung and Apple, and has chosen to quit the business before they get handed their defeat by these tech giants?

Just a fad?

There is of course, a third possibility. But if you’re a fan of fitness trackers you might not like this one at all. What if the whole fitness/activity tracker thing is a fad?

I’ve used the FuelBand. I wore one for a month after its Canadian launch. Like many other users, I was initially obsessed with my Fuel points and steps taken and calories burned and I enjoyed watching the companion app on my iPhone keep a running tally of these stats. I also enjoyed the celebratory animation whenever I reached my pre-determined daily activity goal. But then I stopped caring. I quickly learned that on the days that I went to the gym, I would achieve my goal. The days that were spent only going to work and back and doing normal activities, would only get me about 50 per cent of the way. So why did I need to keep wearing and syncing and charging the FuelBand? I now knew exactly what it would take for me to maintain a certain level of activity (as if I didn’t already know), which as far as I was concerned, was the only real reason to wear the FuelBand.

Last year, I was sent a demo of the Polar Loop, a virtually identical product to the FuelBand. Thinking perhaps I hadn’t given the FuelBand a decent try, I began using the Loop. My experience was no different. As soon as I learned what kind of day would yield me the activity level I desired, I stopped caring what the Loop had to say.

Maybe I lack the competitive urge to gradually increase my activity goals and then strive to meet them, regardless of the reality of my daily schedule. Perhaps I’d be more interested if these products tracked other stats such as sleep patterns which the FitBit Flex is designed to do. Or maybe, our interest in these gadgets is merely a by-product of our curiosity. It’s the first time we’ve been able to strap a small device to our bodies and learn about the numbers that describe what we’re up to in the real world and we’re keen to hear that story… at least for the first few tellings.

Ultimately, I just don’t think that the current batch of activity trackers offer enough value to the average person to warrant the expense and maintenance of owning yet another gadget. True fitness buffs are of course a different breed. But they are also a niche. A fairly small one at that. And Nike, just like every other major marketing machine, isn’t interested in niche. It wants the mass. According to NPD, the entire tracker market was only worth $330 million in 2013. Nike’s share? Just 10 per cent.

So whether Nike thinks its FuelBand runs the risk of becoming a BlackBerry when other, more experienced consumer tech companies jump into the segment, or they think that newer devices will squeeze pure-play trackers out of the market, or they’ve acknowledged that it’s only ever going to interest a niche audience, leaving the hardware race might just be the smartest move they can make.