Tech News: Google Seeking “Conscious Homes”

nest_therm1In Google’s drive for world supremacy, a good number of start-ups and developers have been bought up. Between their acquisition of eight robotics companies in the space of sixth months back in 2013 to their ongoing  buyout of anyone in the business of aerospace, voice and facial recognition, and artificial intelligence, Google seems determined to have a controlling interest in all fields of innovation.

And in what is their second-largest acquisition to date, Google announced earlier this month that they intend get in on the business of smart homes. The company in question is known as Nest Labs, a home automation company that was founded by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010 and is behind the creation of The Learning Thermostat and the Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

nest-thermostatThe Learning Thermostat, the company’s flagship product, works by learning a home’s heating and cooling preferences over time, removing the need for manual adjustments or programming. Wi-Fi networking and a series of apps also let users control and monitor the unit Nest from afar, consistent with one of the biggest tenets of smart home technology, which is connectivity.

Similarly, the Nest Protect, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector, works by differentiating between burnt toast and real fires. Whenever it detects smoke, one alarm goes off, which can be quieted by simply waving your hand in front of it. But in a real fire, or where deadly carbon monoxide is detected, a much louder alarm sounds to alert its owners.

nest_smoke_detector_(1_of_9)_1_610x407In addition, the device sends a daily battery status report to the Nest mobile app, which is the same one that controls the thermostats, and is capable of connecting with other units in the home. And, since Nest is building a platform for all its devices, if a Nest thermostat is installed in the same home, the Protect and automatically shut it down in the event that carbon monoxide is detected.

According to a statement released by co-f0under Tony Fadell, Nest will continue to be run in-house, but will be partnered with Google in their drive to create a conscious home. On his blog, Fadell explained his company’s decision to join forces with the tech giant:

Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home and allow us to change the world faster than we ever could if we continued to go it alone. We’ve had great momentum, but this is a rocket ship. Google has the business resources, global scale, and platform reach to accelerate Nest growth across hardware, software, and services for the home globally.

smarthomeYes, and I’m guessing that the $3.2 billion price tag added a little push as well! Needless to say, some wondered why Apple didn’t try to snatch up this burgeoning company, seeing as how its being run by two of its former employees. But according to Fadell, Google founder Sergey Brin “instantly got what we were doing and so did the rest of the Google team” when they got a Nest demo at the 2011 TED conference.

In a press release, Google CEO Larry Page had this to say about bringing Nest into their fold:

They’re already delivering amazing products you can buy right now – thermostats that save energy and smoke/[carbon monoxide] alarms that can help keep your family safe. We are excited to bring great experiences to more homes in more countries and fulfill their dreams!

machine_learningBut according to some, this latest act by Google goes way beyond wanting to develop devices. Sara Watson at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is one such person, who believes Google is now a company obsessed with viewing everyday activities as “information problems” to be solved by machine learning and algorithms.

Consider Google’s fleet of self-driving vehicles as an example, not to mention their many forays into smartphone and deep learning technology. The home is no different, and a Google-enabled smart home of the future, using a platform such as the Google Now app – which already gathers data on users’ travel habits – could adapt energy usage to your life in even more sophisticated ways.

Larry_PageSeen in these terms, Google’s long terms plans of being at the forefront of the new technological paradigm  – where smart technology knows and anticipates and everything is at our fingertips – certainly becomes more clear. I imagine that their next goal will be to facilitate the creation of household AIs, machine minds that monitor everything within our household, provide maintenance, and ensure energy efficiency.

However, another theory has it that this is in keeping with Google’s push into robotics, led by the former head of Android, Andy Rubin. According to Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic, Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company, as evidence by the fact that their VP of technology is none other than Yoky Matsuoka – a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

yokymatsuoka1During an interview with Madrigal back in 2012, she explained why this was. Apparently, Matsuoka saw Nest as being positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together:

The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that.

In short, Nest is a cryptorobotics company that deals in sensing, automation, and control. It may not make a personable, humanoid robot, but it is producing machine intelligences that can do things in the physical world. Seen in this respect, the acquisition was not so much part of Google’s drive to possess all our personal information, but a mere step along the way towards the creation of a working artificial intelligence.

It’s a Brave New World, and it seems that people like Musk, Page, and a slew of futurists that are determined to make it happen, are at the center of it.

Sources: cnet.news.com, (2), newscientist.com, nest.com, theatlantic.com

The Future is Here: 3-D Printed Candy

chefjet_candyRemember the Easy Bake Oven, that little toy appliance that came equipped with an especially hot light-bulb and allowed kids to bake (a limited array of) edible goods? Well, it just may be that 3-D food printers will give the children of tomorrow that same ability, except with a much wider array of options; not to mention little risk of burning themselves.

Already, pizza, pancakes, and desserts are all options for food printers, and even Google’s cafeteria has a 3-D printer for pasta. And at this years Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014), 3D Systems unveiled two of their latest designs – the ChefJet and the ChefJet Pro – showcasing printers that use sugar and water to crystallize frosting in real time.

chefjet-sugar-2-hires3D Systems is no stranger to printer technology. At last years CES, they won Best Emerging Tech award for their Cubify printer – a low cost device geared towards kids, artists, and other consumers inexperienced with the technology. And though the reviews coming out of CES are mixed on the nature of the flavor, the colors and shapes it can render into candy form are quite impressive.

The ChefJet only prints sugar or chocolate-colored confections while the Pro takes it up a notch with an inkjet filled with food coloring allowing for a plethora of colorful, and edible, results. These range from spirals and squares to 3-D pentagons and spheres, to incredibly elaborate designs that resemble chorals or casings for cakes. And of course, the candy can come in the form of pure sugar, or as white or dark chocolate.

chef-jet-pro1Other developments in the 3-D printing of food – such as NASA’s research on printing food in space (including pizza!), or printing food with personalized nutritional content – aren’t yet fully formed. ChefJet could be a little easier to integrate into small industries right away, since it has the ability to tailor make frosting in shapes that could easily be added to high-end desserts (like wedding cakes).

Even more exciting is the potential for home applications. Parents could rent a ChefJet Pro for a kids’ birthday party to create cakes or candy in the shape of their child’s favorite characters, or let children customize the Halloween candy that they would hand out. And just like the Easy Bake Oven of old, the result may not be totally tasty, but the process is still fun and gives people a chance to be creative.

The ChefJet and ChefJet Pro will likely be available in the second half of 2014, for an estimated $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. And while you’re waiting on one to become commercially available (and affordable), check out this video of the ChefJet in action at CES 2014:

Source: fastcodesign.com, nasa.gov

The Future of Smart Living: Smart Homes

Future-Home-Design-Dupli-CasaAt this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, one of the tech trends to watch was the concept of the Smart Home. Yes, in addition to 4K televisions, curved OLEDs, smart car technology and wearables, a new breed of in-home technology that extends far beyond the living room made some serious waves. And after numerous displays and presentations, it seems that future homes will involve connectivity and seamless automation.

To be fair, some smart home devices – such as connected light bulbs and thinking thermostats – have made their way into homes already. But by the end of 2014, a dizzying array of home devices are expected to appear, communicating across the Internet and your home network from every room in the house. It’s like the internet of things meets modern living, creating solutions that are right at your fingertips (via your smartphone)

smarthomeBut in many ways, the companies on the vanguard of this movement are still working on drawing the map and several questions still loom. For example, how will your connected refrigerator and your connected light bulbs talk to each other? Should the interface for the connected home always be the cell phone, or some other wirelessly connect device.

Such was the topic of debate at this year’s CES Smart Home Panel. The panel featured GE Home & Business Solutions Manager John Ouseph; Nest co-founder and VP of Engineering Matt Rogers; Revolv co-founder and Head of Marketing Mike Soucie; Philips’ Head of Technology, Connected Lighting George Yianni; Belkin Director of Product Management Ohad Zeira, and CNET Executive Editor Rich Brown.

samsunglumenSpecific technologies that were showcased this year that combined connectivity and smart living included the Samsung Lumen Smart Home Control Panel. This device is basically a way to control all the devices in your home, including the lighting, climate control, and sound and entertainment systems. It also networks with all your wireless devices (especially if their made by Samsung!) to run your home even when your not inside it.

Ultimately, Samsung hopes to release a souped-up version of this technology that can be integrated to any device in the home. Basically, it would be connected to everything from the washer and dryer to the refrigerator and even household robots, letting you know when the dishes are done, the clothes need to be flipped, the best before dates are about to expire, and the last time you house was vacuumed.


As already noted, intrinsic to the Smart Home concept is the idea of integration to smartphones and other devices. Hence, Samsung was sure to develop a Smart Home app that would allow people to connect to all the smart devices via WiFi, even when out of the home. For example, people who forget to turn off the lights and the appliances can do so even from the road or the office.

These features can be activated by voice, and several systems can be controlled at once through specific commands (i.e. “going to bed” turns the lights off and the temperature down). Cameras also monitor the home and give the user the ability to survey other rooms in the house, keeping a remote eye on things while away or in another room. And users can even answer the phone when in another room.

Check out the video of the Smart Home demonstration below:


Other companies made presentations as well. For instance, LG previewed their own software that would allow people to connect and communicate with their home. It’s known as HomeChat, an app based on Natural Language Processing (NLP) that lets users send texts to their compatible LG appliances. It works on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Nokia Asha, and Windows Phone devices as well as OS X and Windows computers.

This represents a big improvement over last year’s Smart ThinQ, a set of similar application that were debuted at CES 2013. According to many tech reviewers, the biggest problem with these particular apps was the fact that each one was developed for a specific appliance. Not so with the HomeChat, which allows for wireless control over every integrated device in the home.

LGHomeChatAura, a re-imagined alarm clock that monitors your sleep patterns to promote rest and well-being. Unlike previous sleep monitoring devices, which monitor sleep but do not intervene to improve it, the Aura is fitted a mattress sensor that monitors your movements in the night, as well as a series of multi-colored LED light that “hack” your circadian rhythms.

In the morning, its light glows blue like daytime light, signaling you to wake up when it’s optimal, based upon your stirrings. At night, the LED glows orange and red like a sunset and turn itself off when you fall asleep. The designers hopes that this mix of cool and warm light can fill in where the seasons fall short, and coax your body into restful homeostasis.

aura_nightlightMeanwhile, the Aura will send your nightly sleep report to the cloud via Wi-Fi, and you can check in on your own rest via the accompanying smartphone app. The entire body is also touch-sensitive, its core LED – which are generally bright and piercing – is cleverly projected into an open air orb, diffusing the light while evoking the shape of the sun. And to deactivate the alarm, people need only trigger the sensor by getting out of bed.

Then there was Mother, a robotic wellness monitor produced by French inventor Rafi Haladjian. This small, Russian-doll shaped device is basically an internet base station with four sensors packs that track 15 different parts of your life. It is small enough to fit in your pocket to track your steps, affix to your door to act as a security alarm, and stick to your coffee maker to track how much you’re drinking and when you need more beans.

mother_robotAnd though the name may sound silly or tongue-in-cheek, it is central to Haladjian’s vision of what the “Internet of things” holds for us. More and more, smart and sensor-laden devices are manifesting as wellness accessories, ranging from fitness bands to wireless BP and heart rate monitors. But the problem is, all of these devices require their own app to operate. And the proliferation of devices is leading to a whole lot of digital clutter.

As Haladjian said in a recent interview with Co.Design:

Lots of things that were manageable when the number of smart devices was scarce, become unbearable when you push the limit past 10. You won’t be willing to change 50 batteries every couple of weeks. You won’t be willing to push the sync button every day. And you can’t bear to have 50 devices sending you notifications when something happens to them!

keekerAnd last, but not least, there was the Keecker – a robotic video projector that may just be the future of video entertainment. Not only is this robot able to wheel around the house like a Roomba, it can also sync with smartphones and display anything on your smart devices – from email, to photos, to videos. And it got a battery charge that lasts a week, so no cords are needed.

Designed by Pierre Lebeau, a former product manager at Google, the robot is programmed to follow its human owner from room to room like a little butler (via the smartphone app). It’s purpose is to create an immersive media environment by freeing the screen from its fixed spots and projecting them wherever their is enough surface space.


In this respect, its not unlike the Omnitouch or other projection smartscreens, which utilizes projectors and motion capture technology to allow people to turn any surface into a screen. The design even includes features found in other smart home devices – like the Nest smoke detector or the Spotter – which allow for the measuring of a home’s CO2 levels and temperature, or alerting users to unusual activity when they aren’t home.

Lebeau and his company will soon launching a Kickstarter campaign in order to finance bringing the technology to the open market. And though it has yet to launch, the cost of the robot is expected to be between $4000 and $5000.

Sources: cnet.com, (2), (3), (4), fastcodesign, (2), (3), (4)

Top Stories from CES 2014

CES2014_GooglePlus_BoxThe Consumer Electronics Show has been in full swing for two days now, and already the top spots for most impressive technology of the year has been selected. Granted, opinion is divided, and there are many top contenders, but between displays, gaming, smartphones, and personal devices, there’s been no shortage of technologies to choose from.

And having sifted through some news stories from the front lines, I have decided to compile a list of what I think the most impressive gadgets, displays and devices of this year’s show were. And as usual, they range from the innovative and creative, to the cool and futuristic, with some quirky and fun things holding up the middle. And here they are, in alphabetical order:

celestron_cosmosAs an astronomy enthusiast, and someone who enjoys hearing about new and innovative technologies, Celestron’s Cosmos 90GT WiFi Telescope was quite the story. Hoping to make astronomy more accessible to the masses, this new telescope is the first that can be controlled by an app over WiFi. Once paired, the system guides stargazers through the cosmos as directions flow from the app to the motorized scope base.

In terms of comuting, Lenovo chose to breathe some new life into the oft-declared dying industry of desktop PCs this year, thanks to the unveiling of their Horizon 2. Its 27-inch touchscreen can go fully horizontal, becoming both a gaming and media table. The large touch display has a novel pairing technique that lets you drop multiple smartphones directly onto the screen, as well as group, share, and edit photos from them.

Lenovo Horizon 2 Aura scanNext up is the latest set of display glasses to the world by storm, courtesy of the Epson Smart Glass project. Ever since Google Glass was unveiled in 2012, other electronics and IT companies have been racing to produce a similar product, one that can make heads-up display tech, WiFi connectivity, internet browsing, and augmented reality portable and wearable.

Epson was already moving in that direction back in 2011 when they released their BT100 augmented reality glasses. And now, with their Moverio BT200, they’ve clearly stepped up their game. In addition to being 60 percent lighter than the previous generation, the system has two parts – consisting of a pair of glasses and a control unit.

moverio-bt200-1The glasses feature a tiny LCD-based projection lens system and optical light guide which project digital content onto a transparent virtual display (960 x 540 resolution) and has a camera for video and stills capture, or AR marker detection. With the incorporation of third-party software, and taking advantage of the internal gyroscope and compass, a user can even create 360 degree panoramic environments.

At the other end, the handheld controller runs on Android 4.0, has a textured touchpad control surface, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity for video content streaming, and up to six hours of battery life.


The BT-200 smart glasses are currently being demonstrated at Epson’s CES booth, where visitors can experience a table-top virtual fighting game with AR characters, a medical imaging system that allows wearers to see through a person’s skin, and an AR assistance app to help perform unfamiliar tasks .

This year’s CES also featured a ridiculous amount of curved screens. Samsung seemed particularly proud of its garish, curved LCD TV’s, and even booked headliners like Mark Cuban and Michael Bay to promote them. In the latter case, this didn’t go so well. However, one curved screen device actually seemed appropriate – the LG G Flex 6-inch smartphone.

LG_G_GlexWhen it comes to massive curved screens, only one person can benefit from the sweet spot of the display – that focal point in the center where they feel enveloped. But in the case of the LG G Flex-6, the subtle bend in the screen allows for less light intrusion from the sides, and it distorts your own reflection just enough to obscure any distracting glare. Granted, its not exactly the flexible tech I was hoping to see, but its something!

In the world of gaming, two contributions made a rather big splash this year. These included the Playstation Now, a game streaming service just unveiled by Sony that lets gamers instantly play their games from a PS3, PS4, or PS Vita without downloading and always in the most updated version. Plus, it gives users the ability to rent titles they’re interested in, rather than buying the full copy.

maingear_sparkThen there was the Maingear Spark, a gaming desktop designed to run Valve’s gaming-centric SteamOS (and Windows) that measures just five inches square and weighs less than a pound. This is a big boon for gamers who usually have to deal gaming desktops that are bulky, heavy, and don’t fit well on an entertainment stand next to other gaming devices, an HD box, and anything else you might have there.

Next up, there is a device that helps consumers navigate the complex world of iris identification that is becoming all the rage. It’s known as the Myris Eyelock, a simple, straightforward gadget that takes a quick video of your eyeball, has you log in to your various accounts, and then automatically signs you in, without you ever having to type in your password.

myris_eyelockSo basically, you can utilize this new biometric ID system by having your retinal scan on your person wherever you go. And then, rather than go through the process of remembering multiple (and no doubt, complicated passwords, as identity theft is becoming increasingly problematic), you can upload a marker that leaves no doubt as to your identity. And at less than $300, it’s an affordable option, too.

And what would an electronics show be without showcasing a little drone technology? And the Parrot MiniDrone was this year’s crowd pleaser: a palm-sized, camera-equipped, remotely-piloted quad-rotor. However, this model has the added feature of two six-inch wheels, which affords it the ability to zip across floors, climb walls, and even move across ceilings! A truly versatile personal drone.

 

scanaduAnother very interesting display this year was the Scanadu Scout, the world’s first real-life tricorder. First unveiled back in May of 2013, the Scout represents the culmination of years of work by the NASA Ames Research Center to produce the world’s first, non-invasive medical scanner. And this year, they chose to showcase it at CES and let people test it out on themselves and each other.

All told, the Scanadu Scout can measure a person’s vital signs – including their heart rate, blood pressure, temperature – without ever touching them. All that’s needed is to place the scanner above your skin, wait a moment, and voila! Instant vitals. The sensor will begin a pilot program with 10,000 users this spring, the first key step toward FDA approval.

wowwee_mip_sg_4And of course, no CES would be complete without a toy robot or two. This year, it was the WowWee MiP (Mobile Inverted Pendulum) that put on a big show. Basically, it is an eight-inch bot that balances itself on dual wheels (like a Segway), is controllable by hand gestures, a Bluetooth-conncted phone, or can autonomously roll around.

Its sensitivity to commands and its ability to balance while zooming across the floor are super impressive. While on display, many were shown carrying a tray around (sometimes with another MiP on a tray). And, a real crowd pleaser, the MiP can even dance. Always got to throw in something for the retro 80’s crowd, the people who grew up with the SICO robot, Jinx, and other friendly automatons!

iOptikBut perhaps most impressive of all, at least in my humble opinion, is the display of the prototype for the iOptik AR Contact Lens. While most of the focus on high-tech eyewear has been focused on wearables like Google Glass of late, other developers have been steadily working towards display devices that are small enough to worse over your pupil.

Developed by the Washington-based company Innovega with support from DARPA, the iOptik is a heads-up display built into a set of contact lenses. And this year, the first fully-functioning prototypes are being showcased at CES. Acting as a micro-display, the glasses project a picture onto the contact lens, which works as a filter to separate the real-world from the digital environment and then interlaces them into the one image.

ioptik_contact_lenses-7Embedded in the contact lenses are micro-components that enable the user to focus on near-eye images. Light projected by the display (built into a set of glasses) passes through the center of the pupil and then works with the eye’s regular optics to focus the display on the retina, while light from the real-life environment reaches the retina via an outer filter.

This creates two separate images on the retina which are then superimposed to create one integrated image, or augmented reality. It also offers an alternative solution to traditional near-eye displays which create the illusion of an object in the distance so as not to hinder regular vision. At present, still requires clearance from the FDA before it becomes commercially available, which may come in late 2014 or early 2015.


Well, its certainly been an interesting year, once again, in the world of electronics, robotics, personal devices, and wearable technology. And it manages to capture the pace of change that is increasingly coming to characterize our lives. And according to the tech site Mashable, this year’s show was characterized by televisions with 4K pixel resolution, wearables, biometrics, the internet of personalized and data-driven things, and of course, 3-D printing and imaging.

And as always, there were plenty of videos showcasing tons of interesting concepts and devices that were featured this year. Here are a few that I managed to find and thought were worthy of passing on:

Internet of Things Highlights:


Motion Tech Highlights:


Wearable Tech Highlights:


Sources: popsci.com, (2), cesweb, mashable, (2), gizmag, (2), news.cnet

Michael Bay’s Meltdown at CES 2014

CES2014_bayThe annual Consumer Electronics Show has once again kicked off in Las Vegas. And Samsung Galaxy thought they had scored a coup when they managed to land director Michael Bay to come on and extoll the virtues of their new Curved 105-inch UHD TV. Unfortunately, a problem with the teleprompter caused Bay to lose his place, and things went a little awry from there.

Naturally, Bay tried to wing it, and even acknowledged his mistake. But after several seconds of tense silence, he gave up, apologized and left the stage. Immediately thereafter, every social media and video-sharing site around the globe began broadcasting the one-and-a-half minute gaff, referring to it as Michael Bay’s CES “meltdown”. And thanks to a friend of mine, who’s there as we speak, I learned about it a bit early.

samsung-curved-tvs12_2040_verge_super_wide_large_verge_medium_landscapeAnd almost as quickly, Bay responded. Returning home to blog about the experience, he described the gaff humbly, and declared his endorsement for the technology:

Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES. I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.

But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.

It made for an extremely awkward moment, and an embarrassing one for Samsung, which loaded the conference with its usual bevy of product announcements in a number of different areas. And it managed to show just what kind of waves an event at CES makes – particularly from a high-profile company such as Samsung. Unfortunately for Bay, these weren’t the kind of waves anyone wanted to make.

EurekaCloseUpSUPA9895But of course, Bay’s come back from worse. Remember Transformers II, his little online tiff with Megan Fox, or the news of his abortive attempt at remaking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Yeah, he’ll be fine. And there will be plenty more news coming out of Vegas in the coming days, and I intend to be writing about it aplenty!

And in the meantime, check out the video of this embarrassing, but entirely forgivable, blunder:


Sources:
ces.cnet.com, ca.ign.com