Stick It in Your Ear

This is guest review by Stephen Blumenthal.

After breaking my third pair of wired earbuds in the one year, I began to look into alternatives. I have a bit of a reputation for pushing the durability of my gear over time. My dad puts it as “you really use your stuff, don’t you?” I can’t say he’s wrong. Any technology that I invest in, I use often and thoroughly. After some light research, it became clear that it was time to bring myself into the 21st century: wireless Bluetooth headphones. Here’s what I wanted from a new pair of wireless headphones…

1. Stable fit in my ear.
2. Good audio quality. I am a composer and audio engineer, I usually manage my expectations of earbuds because they are consumer products, not professional gear. These aren’t headphones that I’m using for input monitoring in the studio; they are earbuds that I wear while talking on the phone or listening to music while running.
3. A reliable microphone for lengthy phone conversations with my family and friends. Same managed expectations as my previous point; this isn’t for a professional quality recording, this is so people can hear me clearly.
4. Since we’re dealing with Bluetooth here, expenditure of energy of both my phone and the wireless earbuds is something to consider. Also, a reliable connection to whatever device it is interacting with.
5. Bonus points for a streamlined, modest looking design.
JabraEnter the Jabra Pulse.
It came in the mail this weekend. I was so excited! I was watching for the mailman from my apartment window. It finally arrived in some beautiful, well-designed packaging. A box with a smooth texture, and a panel that folds out and is held in its place by a well-concealed magnet. I get the box opened up and lay all of the gear out on my coffee table. In addition to the earbuds themselves, there’s a short micro-USB cable for charging, a brief instruction manual, a couple pairs of soft rubber “wings,” which come in different sizes and interesting shapes, for fitting into the ridges of your ear and small soft rubber cups (I believe the call them ‘EarGels’) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit in your ear. Getting the right fit was a little confusing at first, but once I wrapped my head around how they worked, I had no problems.They all come in a nifty little carrying case, it’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into customer experience and product design.
For a $199 pair of earbuds, my expectations have been met – definitely worth the price.
Not wanting to wait even a second more to bother with charging them, I immediately fired  up the Bluetooth on my iPhone and paired the devices. I skimmed the Jabra instruction manual. Hold down the center button on the control piece on the earbuds with your phone’s Bluetooth turned on, you’re greeted by a pleasant, modern sound to confirm the ‘buds are awake, and then a nice, female voice confirms your connectivity. It feels like something out of the future, something like Cortana from Microsoft’s Halo video game series.
First things first, let’s play some tunes. I start Spotify, and my expectations of audio quality are exceeded. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I’m smiling ear to ear with how great this sounds. I start with playing some Daft Punk, a favorite, and something that I expect to sound good on a product like this. These earbuds seem to be marketed towards people with an active lifestyle, so I expect music that falls into genres like EDM, Rock, R&B etc. to sound great on these. Something to run to, something to lift to, etc.
But what about something quiet and orchestral?
I pop on Nuages from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes. The beginning of this piece is quiet, very quiet. Granted, I’m in my room in my apartment, a very quiet space. My first observation is that I do not have to crank the volume to hear the soft beginning. The quality is impressive, I can hear the instruments and subtle orchestration clearly. Expectations are exceeded here. For a small set of in-ear speakers, I’m hearing a lot more detail than I expected. I’ve studied this work thoroughly, so I have a pretty clear idea of how it’s supposed to sound. There weren’t a lot of missing frequencies here, and that impressed me. While I’m happy to know that the quality is high here, orchestral music is still better on a big pair of loudspeakers, or better, in a live venue.
The range of connectivity isn’t half bad, either. I left my phone in my bedroom and walked to the other side of my two bedroom apartment to the kitchen. The signal didn’t start to break up until I got to my front door, the furthest point from my room.
Phone call test was next, I called my brother. He’s at noisy restaurant waiting in line to order a bagel. He picks up, I can hear him clearly, he can hear me clearly. Very different from my past experiences. I’ve had long conversations using these little ‘buds already, and I’ve had little to no issue with them.
This morning, I took them out for a run. This time, I used Jabra’s complimentary fitness tracking app. It has some pre-loaded workouts, you can make your own workout routine within their app, or you can have it just track your speed, heart rate and distance. I’ve only used this app once so far, but the whole experience is pretty seamless.
I’m very happy with my Jabra Pulse, my expectations were exceeded. Definitely worth the investment.

Chilling with the Fridge

I keep hoping my refrigerator would smarten up, but there it sits just keeping things well-organized and cold. For $600 or so, that’s what the biggest box in my house does all day long.

Ah, but what might $6,000 buy? (Ten refrigerators?) Okay, just one, but it’s pretty amazing.

Click on Flex Zone and you can turn the bottom drawer into either a fridge bin or a freezer bin, and adjust the temperature so it’s ideal for beer, veggies, fish or snowballs.

Adjust the humidity so that the cooling system doesn’t zap the life out of cheese, lettuce, radish greens and the like.

Watch TV. Yup, anything that you’re watching on a smart TV system in your house, you can now watch on the front door of your fridge. Not a big priority for me, but maybe for some people who spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen.

Check the weather. Again, doesn’t come up too often, but sometimes, when I’m scooping ice cream or cutting some bread, I think to myself, gee, I wonder what the weather is like, but my phone and my three computers are too far away, so thank goodness the info is on my fridge!

Listen to the radio, or to any music stream. Yes, this is a nice thing. I can do it with a $200 tablet, but if I’m spending $6,000 on a fridge, sure, why not? Pandora is a standard feature. So are built-in speakers, and if you’d like to spend a bit more money, you can opt for both a sub-woofer and surround sound (wireless surround speakers are best placed above the sink).

Control your automobile until self-driving cars come along. Just tell the fridge where you want to go, and it takes over your car’s computer system to assure a safe journey. Since the fridge is doing the driving, you can sit back and enjoy a cold drink which the fridge places in the accessory cooling chamber in any recent-model automobile.

There are refrigerator apps, too. One is called View Inside, and it allows you to peek inside the fridge using three video cameras. Another allows you or anyone in your family to post digital messages on the refrigerator door, or to add to a family calendar. You can turn the fridge’s panel into a family whiteboard, too. There’s a group shopping list, and a few other apps, too.

And, you can turn the whole thing into a picture frame for family memories.

Your new fridge comes in choice of color (stainless steel silver, or stainless steel black), and in two sizes, one for about 22 cubic feet and the other for about 27 cubic feet (the smaller one fits nicely into an upscale kitchen with counters).

Can all of this be true? Absolutely! I’m writing about Samsung’s just-announced Family Hub [TM].

Also true: I made up the part about the car. And the subwoofers and surround sound, but you probably knew that.

And I do wonder: this box seems pretty cool for 2016, but what the heck are you going to say in 2020 when everyone has something even cooler in their kitchen and you have to explain why you spent $6,000 for a device with features that are now widely available on a $1,200 fridge? Heck, that’s easy! You just buy a new model and ask the robot inside to take good care of the kids while you vacation for a few weeks on Mars.

See more!

fridge-mobile.png

 

Hoping for the Ultimate Lightweight Apple Notebook

Yesterday was Apple’s spring event. I was pretty sure we would not see the rumored 12-inch lightweight portable. I was surprised to see Apple’s new a 2-pound, 12-inch MacBook today. I was ever more surprised about my not-so-impressed  reaction. So: I’m trying to wrap my head around what I was hoping to see. Here goes:

  • Two pounds is good, but that’s twice as much as the iPad I carry every day. The 11-inch MacBook air weighs 2.4 pounds. I want the new–let’s call it the Mac Book Air 3—to weigh about 1.5 pounds.
    • Today’s model: still too heavy for me!
  • 4G and Wi-Fi–if Apple can offer 4G on the iPad, why not on the thin portable, too?
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • A 12-inch retina display is the right thing to do. Lots of visual information in a small space. Good call, Apple.
    • Today’s model: yep!
  • One cable that fits into one connection jack that does it all.
    • Today’s model: yep!…but…
  • I don’t want to deal with a multi-adapter. If we’re going down the adapter path, let’s instead include one connector for power and another to connect a device—but I want some sort of a snap-on dock that’s not going to get lost. An SD card slot would be welcome, too.
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • A keyboard that flips away so I can use the device as an iPad. With a sweeter design than Lenovo’s Yoga or Microsoft’s Surface.
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • $999 price point for the basic model, $1199 for the better one.
    • Today’s model: starts at $1,299—and the better one costs $300 more

Air ThinWhat’s a guy to do? Keep using the new iPad Air 2 until Apple catches up with me? Shift to Windows or Android?  (Nope, not for me.) Make my own? (I wish.) Buy the existing 11-inch Mac Book Air for $899 and get most but not everything I want, or the new 12-inch MacBook thin edition for $1,299 and still not get everything I want? Or wait ’til next year?

Meet the Ozobots

I first met the Ozobots last year, right around this time, at Toy Fair. I thought they were the coolest thing at the show.

What’s an Ozobot? It’s a tiny robot, about the size of a ping-pong ball. You can dress an Ozobot in one of several rubber helmets, and that allows you to tell them apart. (Once you own an Ozobot or two, you will almost certainly want more.)

An Ozobot gets its power through a mini-USB that plugs into its back. Where its left ear might be, there’s a power-on/off button. On the base are two tiny wheels and the most important Ozobot feature: the color sensors.

Ozobot sensors read four colors: black, blue, red and green. Ozobot rides along a color path, sensing the colors below by scanning them. You can draw the path yourself, and Ozobot will respond to your commands.

Ozobot Path

If you click on the above, you’ll see Ozobot first moving forward, then encountering the blue-red-blue pattern, which is a coded command that instructs Ozobot to flash color blue, then flash color red, then turn 180 degrees.

Ozobot knows lots of commands. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge).

Ozobot-OzoCodes-Reference

With these commands, you can do all sorts of fun things with Ozobot. Most people probably start, as I did, by drawing lines on papers with the four broad-tipped colored markers, and simply enjoying the ways in which Ozobots follow them. The experience is not unlike watching electric trains in motion (it’s definitely more fun with at least two Ozobots, and even more fun with a whole bunch of the little guys). Of course, electric trains can’t spin around or pretend to be a tornado—so when you add the color signals, as above, Ozobotting becomes a lot more fun than model railroading.

There are plenty of pre-designed Ozobot paths and games now available on the Ozobot website, but that’s just the beginning. For curious kids, Ozobot is a hands-on introduction to computer programming. By employing a limited toolset (four colors in lines and patterns), children quickly come to understand that they can cause Ozobots to obey their commands—and that programming can be a lot of fun.

And then, we move to the tablet. There are several iPad apps — remember that Ozobot reads colors, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be able to read them from an iPad screen instead of paper. This makes the Ozobot so much cooler! There are several starter paths that allow you to see how Ozobot responds—and these come with color tools and pre-defined spot combinations that you can place anywhere so that Ozobot moves very slowly, very quickly, and makes other moves. A second app, called Ozogroove, includes digital dance floors, allowing Ozobot to really show off. (What fun!)

Back to the website, there are paths ready for download (to a flat horizontal screen) or paper (which always lies flat). For example, here’s a game called Mazerunner.

mazerunner

 

Intrigued? Here’s a closer look at an Ozobot:

ozobot-work1

 

An Ozobot costs about $50, but I would suggest that you buy a duo set because it’s way more fun to play with two Ozobots than just one. You can buy them directly from the website or from various toy stores listed on the site. I kinda wish they were selling them in sets of three or four, and I hope the prices will go down. Watching a dozen or more of these guys racing around a hand-drawn track, spinning around, speeding up, slowing down, blinking their little colored lights was so much fun at Toy Fair last year, the onesy-twosy experience pales a bit by comparison. But that the for the future. For now, get started with one or two, have fun, and let me know what you think.

 

 

Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

Post-CES 2014

Sony-wideIn the old days, I used to go twice a year: once to Las Vegas in the winter and once to Chicago just before summer began. There were so much to see!

This year, CES came and went, and although I wanted to be there just for the fun of it, I was surprised because I didn’t notice the usual flood of stories and cool products that I wish I had seen for myself. I suppose there are a few reasons why: many of the products of the past were driven by their own unique hardware needs, so the physical design and functionality of so many products were unique. Now, many of these innovative ideas use the same portable computer—the smart phone or the tablet—so the form factor and the functionality is less original. Often the innovative idea is iterated as software or accessory, not a whole new thing. (On the far side of this timeline, my basement is no longer quite so full of old stuff that seemed like a great idea at the time, and so, my garage sales are less frequent and less thrilling for the neighbors).

In past articles, I’ve written about the new 4K HDTVs, and now, we’re starting to see digital cameras (including a $2,000 camcorder from Sony) that can create content for the new format. New screens are curvy, which is cool, but so far, not so useful. Still, this is among the things to come that we will own within a few years—whether as part of a phone or a living room TV set.

This was supposed to be the year of the wearable computer, and that’s going kinda slowly. Pebble updated its cool smart watch, which is now smaller, heavier (but still okay), and comes with twice the memory (4MB up to 8MB). For details about this Bluetooth device, and a taste of other wearable devices from the same company, be sure to read a very helpful article on The Verge. Their article about Razer’s Nabu wristband is also interesting, perhaps more as a trend report than a piece about something you’ll be buying this summer; ditto for the backgrounder about Nuance, which is bringing Siri-like technology to wristbands another small devices.

Sony A5000Happily, Sony is beginning to regain some of its juice. The image that tops this article is a fun piece about Sony’s CES presentation using 4K technology and a fair amount of hands-on creativity. The company will introduce a new short-throw HDTV projector this summer that will allow, for example, useful projection onto tabletops (though what I really want is the touch-screen desktop surface used on Hawaii Five-O). Sony’s still cameras (which shoot video, of course) are becoming more and more impressive—and smaller. New to the line is the A5000, but if you haven’t checked out the RX-100, I encourage you to do. It’s my favorite camera (right now, anyway).

Lots of heat re: 3D printing, which is increasingly ready for prime time. Once again, The Verge does a superior job in explaining what this technology is all about, what happened at CES, and why this may become important to you in 2014. For example:

Unsurprisingly, everyone at the CES 3D printer zone thinks that consumer-level 3D printing is on the cusp of something big. “It’s just kind of a whole ecosystem that has to be built up, and it’s kind of slowly growing out,” says Abdullah. “I don’t think we’ve hit that tipping point obviously, but I think that we will get there soon.” Chang describes 2014 as “like the year when the Apple II came out.”

Yes, TV sets will become that much larger, and digital cameras will become that much smaller. More of us will be wearing digital wristbands of some sort, no doubt communicating with one another or with some super server as we track what we eat or where we go or how thoroughly we exercise. Somehow, with each passing miracle, these seem to be less newsworthy. And yet, it’s fun to see what the latest Jawbone portable Bluetooth loudspeaker can do, or how successfully Beats is invading popular culture (now with its own music service). So we are we not all completely crazy about the potential of 3D printing or wall-sized video projections? Because we’ve got a 5MP phone in one pocket and a tablet that’s much smarter than most of NASA’s old school gear in the hand that used to tote around a MacBook Pro but doesn’t anymore because that’s just too heavy or too much of a pain to connect using the smart phone’s portable internet hub. We’ve become so sophisticated, everything exciting seems commonplace, or predictable.

Me, I think I preferred the naiveté and twice-annual festival of wonder.

All I Want for Christmas (or immediately thereafter)

Heck, the stores are too busy, and there’s no law that requires all of the good stuff to show up on December 25. Here’s a rundown of fun stuff on the holiday list. And yes, I’m allowing myself just about anything I want, regardless of whether (a) I need it, and (b) something else on the list is, pretty much, the same thing. On Prancer, on Blitzen… (and be sure to scroll down to the Niagara Falls video—it’s amazing!)

Nikon’s new $3,000 Df DSLR, recently announced, available in black or silver. It’s expensive—and it doesn’t include a full-frame sensor, and it’s not 20MP like the best new cameras, but just 16MP instead. Still, it looks really cool, very much like a 1980s era Nikon SLR. There’s all of the expected stuff that you’ll find in most DSLRs costing half or two-third as much, but it’s the holiday, so why not?

A $350 Tascam DR-60D 4-channel linear PCM recorder, or, in short, a digital audio recorder that mounts on a tripod just below your DSLR, it and can record up to four microphones simultaneously. It records with 4 AA batteries.

A Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter—not the one for $350 that takes a GoPro camera (though that’s cool, too), but the FPV model that costs over $1,000 (FPV = “first person view”). It can fly for nearly a half hour, and the wireless controller (an app for your iOS or Android device) can be 1000 feet from the remote helicopter in flight (but it must be line-of-sight). The app allows you to start and stop video recording from afar. With all sorts of cool stabilization features. This is easily the coolest gift on the list. The more I learn about it, the cooler it seems. Take, for example, this little film made ABOVE Niagara Falls…

Sony’s $800 DEV-3 Digital Recoding Binoculars. I’ve often wondered why most or, at least, many binocs don’t include a video sensor and some storage. Here’s the start of a whole new thing…you can record in HD, or shoot 7MP images, record on SD cards, and enjoy 10x magnification. Is it a camcorder with a 10x zoom? No, better than that. Is it kind-of-like a digital still camera with a pair of 10x lenses? Well, that’s probably closer to it, but the long-term viewing experience through a pair of binocular lenses is far superior to a camera experience. It’s a very good pair of binoculars, and also, a high-quality camera.

For just $200, Røde’s iXY stereo microphones snaps into a iOS device for much-improved sound recording. It’s a much better way to record music, meetings, etc.: a pair of crossed half-inch cardiod condense captures and onboard  analog-to-digital conversation in a small package. And, of course, it’s all controlled by an app. You can record up to 24 bit / 96 kHz with the device (warning: a paid app upgrade here for better recording—an odd way to charge customers for quality.)

In the “I already have one, but maybe you don’t” department: you can now buy Zoom’s H4n portable digital recorder for about $170, and that’s about $100 less than before. It’s a terrific little recorder, well-suited to all sort of professional needs. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it a year or two ago.

Finally, I think I’d like to experiment with a Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera, and the starting place might be the $1000 Pocket Cinema camera. The key here is 13 stops of dynamic range, and my ability to use existing micro four thirds lenses (and legacy lenses via adapter). The result of the extended dynamic range (and other features): that irresistible film look. It’s a pocketable camera that can be used to shoot an independent film. Then again, I think I might prefer the $2,000 model. Or, perhaps, because it’s the holiday time (the best time of the year), maybe one of each. Here’s the start of a three-part review worth watching. at least for those who want every possible detail.

Old Reliable for Holiday Gifts

Formula One SpeakerWhen I wrote my weekly newspaper column, I always wrote an article about the newest goodies in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. It’s a retailer whose history precedes the U.S. Civil War—not many companies still around from those days (Brooks Brothers is one, another good story for another day). The old New York store was gone for a while, but last week, it reappeared. So, too, did the company’s paper catalog, something I haven’t seen in a decade or more. Nice to find it in my U.S. mail.

Flip open the first page, and there it is, something goofy that I can’t imagine ever buying, but I’m happy to know that you can buy a pair of iPhone Binoculars. “The view through the eye piece transfers to the iPhone camera’s lens, turning the phone into a viewfinder for sharing the sights with friends or taking pictures of the action.” It costs a hundred dollars.

Next page, an iPhone slot machine, complete with the one-arm pull-down level. For $40—phone not included—it’s a fun thing that you might not find anywhere else. That’s always been the magic of Hammacher. One more iPhone thing and then we’ll move on: The Tricloptic iPhone Camera Lens. Huh? It’s a set of three lenses on a wheel that attaches to the back of the phone: a fisheye, a wide angle and a telephone lens, also for $100.

The 50-Foot Snowball Launcher looks tame here, but in the field, it’s a cold, powerful weapon.

The 50-Foot Snowball Launcher looks tame here, but in the field, it’s a cold, powerful weapon.

There’s a $25,000 billiard table built into a 1959 Corvette (actually, it’s not a real Corvette, but it was finished in a body shop and it includes four white wall tires with “genuine steel rims and chrome covers.” And, an $1,800 Super 8 to Digital Video converter. They’ll sell you a Chewbacca or R2-D2 bathrobe ($100 each), but I think the 50-Foot Snowball Launcher is a much better buy for just $30.Then again, the $40 Lexicographer’s Extended Scrabble Board (441 spaces on a 21 x 21 grid, larger than the 15×15 that you have at home) is probably a gift that people would actually use more than once (especially if they’re up for very long Scrabble evenings). The 3D Clue Game isn’t nearly as cool—I wanted to be able to walk my characters into the rooms, and maybe make use of a secret tunnel for real, but “players move their pieces across the tempered glass playing surface with a view down into the chambers.” Bummer.

Also in the category of things to buy for the person who has everything: The Indoor Flameless Marshmallow Roaster, which looks to me like an upside-down fondue setup ($70).

There’s a watch that talks ($99 for “The Best Talking Watch”—I didn’t realize we had options) and a set of two motorized Spinning Spaghetti Forks, a laser chase toy for the cats ($30), and a Handheld Digital Microscope (50x—pretty impressive—for $200).

I could go on, but it’s more fun to browse on your own. First thing I found on their website: the goofy Formula One Speaker Dock ($8,500) that’s pictured at the top of this article.

Your New Digicar Subscription

Ford Model T, circa 1910. Buy it for $850 or rent it for 10 cents a mile.

Ford Model T, circa 1910. By 1916, you could buy one for $850 or rent one for 10 cents a mile.

Robotic cars that drive themselves–that’s the comic book version of the future currently in advanced stages of development at Google, Mercedes-Benz, and, I would guess, just about every significant vehicle and technology maker on earth. Before the end of the 2020s, these cars will be as common as a Toyota Prius. In theory, cars that drive themselves will reinvigorate the automotive industry.

But that’s not the big story.

For a moment, think about your telephone(s). In your pocket or bag, you carry an expensive digital multi-purpose device that multitasks as a telephone, messaging center, emailer, web browser, camera, clock… so on. At home, you may still pay for a relatively stupid device that is little more than an old school telephone. Which one will go away? Easy answer.

Now, transpose that thinking to the car of the future. It’s foolish to impose old expectations on a new paradigm. A digital car will probably reinvent the whole idea of cars as well as our relationship with personal vehicles. We saw the start of this idea with rental cars. ZipCars showed up in the US around 2000, an idea borrowed from Europe. City dwellers and college students are Zip’s best customers because the opportunity to pay a membership fee for occasional use of a car is more sensible than owning, maintaining, parking, and otherwise caring for a physical product. In essence, ZipCar transfers the customer relationship from product purchase to service/subscription.

From last weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

Brace yourself. In a few years, your car will be able to drop you off at the door of a shopping center or airport terminal, go park itself, and return when summoned with a smartphone app.”

Presumably, the new cars won’t crash–saving enough lives to repopulate Newport, Rhode Island or Key West, Florida every year, and then some.

From the same WSJ article:

private vehicles spend 90% of their time parked and unoccupied

Let’s pull together several ideas. Texting while driving is just plain dumb. And yet, for most people, driving a car is less interesting than playing with an iPhone. If there was some way to move from place to place and allow texting (or emailing, playing a game, or learning), that might be preferable to our 2013 status quo. Me, I’m happier reading a book than doing daily battle with aggressive trucks exceeding the interstate’s speed limit. Let my digicar’s radar system, wide-baseline stereoscopic camera, massive processing power (think: computer chess applied to the calculus of high-speed traffic or crazy curvy country roads). Let vehicles talk to one another (“hey, I’m in the wrong lane–would you please slow down so that I can make that right hand turn coming 2.348 feet at longitude X and latitude Y?” “sure, anytime, have a nice day”)

How does EZ-Pass and privacy fit into all of this? For those who still honestly believe that their travels are not easily recorded, stored and compared with every shopping receipt, it’s both another loss of freedom and another realization that privacy is something that one cannot easily or simply protect in a digital age. Certainly, this information could become the property of bad people (or governments or large corporations, who may or may not define ‘reasonable’ as individuals do).

A digital car would certainly know where it is going, where it has been, and where it needs to go. And it would know, and record, passenger identities. When traveling, we’ve been balancing time, money and privacy for a long time. Here’s the current situation–consider how similar a digicar service and the “rental” of your airline seat can be:

If I want to travel from Times Square to Hollywood, I can drive for about 40 hours (more, if there’s traffic, but my digicar might know how to circumvent it). If I drive 8 hours/day, that’s 5 days of driving, 4 hotel nights (about $500), and 2,800 miles (100 gallons of gas, or about $400 worth), plus wear-and-tear of about $200 (if all goes well)–5 days of my life plus over a $1,000 of my money. I could take the train for 20 hours and spend about $450, but if I want to sleep on the train, it’s 43 hours and $1,200, plus the time and money required to get to and from the train stations. If I fly, my time expense is about 8 hours door-to-door and my dollar expense is $500 including ground transportation. Train and air travel requires me to surrender personal information about my identity and my precise travel plans; car travel does not (except when I use a credit card to fill the tank, which I will do about 8 times, pay a toll with EZ-Pass, or sleep in a hotel, or eat, making it easy to track my progress).

A long paragraph for a short idea: we routinely exchange privacy for time and money. Are we ready to surrender those expensive machines that sit idle all but 10% of their lives. Is the car of the future more likely to be a product (buy one at your local Ford dealer) or a service (lease one with an app, or sign up for a rental subscription service).

The answer is pretty clear to me. After the vehicle drops me off at the supermarket, I don’t much care what it does or where it goes, and, in most situations, I don’t  care whether it’s Holly, Dolly, Lolly, Molly or Folly The Digital Car that picks me up when I’m ready to go home. I just want to know that it will be there, on time, clean, reliable, capable, and right-sized for my needs (smaller if I have no bags). If I need the car for an extended period, I’m sure I could pay a higher subscription rate, perhaps by the month or year, perhaps by the trip. Will I be able to reserve? Will the vehicle show up? What if we get lost? What if there aren’t enough cars?

How many cars is enough cars? Right now, we’ve got about a billion cars for about seven billion people on planet earth–but that’s only because China’s ratio is about 7 people to one vehicle (in the US, it’s about 1.3 people per car).

More cars, more roads, more paved-over nature, more crowded national parks, more traffic jams, more stress on an interstate infrastructure that’s already stressed. Fewer cars? How about more efficient use of the whole idea of cars? Think about my imperfect math: if every car’s use was doubled in its efficiency, and was used 50% of the time, maybe we could reduce the number of cars on the planet by a third or more. If the cars were smart enough to avoid accidents, there would be no more time or energy spent on drinking and driving, or texting while driving, and no more arguments between teenagers who are probably too young to drive and parents who are terrified every time their child backs up out of the driveway.

For details about specific companies and their progress, click on the Wall Street Journal’s car below.

WSJ Car

Shooting with an iPhone

richardson-featured

So the new iPhone 5s includes an 8 megapixel camera. What can you do with a camera phone?

Turns out, quite a lot, especially if you happen to be an extremely skillful photographer whose credits include National Geographic.

Confirming the “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” theory, have a look at this work, read the article, and take the time to read the comments.

Here, then, is a sample image, a bit of the article in a Nat Geo blog, and a sampling of comments. Find it all here.

The photographer is Jim Richardson.

What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises. They didn’t look like I was having to settle for second best because it was a mobile phone. They just looked good. Nothing visually profound is being produced here, I would have to say. But it feels good, and I even noticed some of the folks on our tour putting big digital cameras aside once in a while and pulling out their cell phones when they just wanted to make a nice picture.

Alex of Virtual Wayfarer.com had this to say:

Not a fan of the either or approach that has been floating around, but definitely love the flexibility of using my phone as a camera. Scotland is incredibly difficult to photograph, so kudos for some wonderful shots. I actually find that with some vistas and views I have a much easier time capturing it accurately with my phone than my Canon. Interestingly, there were a number of shots I took on a recent Scottish roadtrip that were much better on the iphone (landscapes and Panoramas really are great on there if the light is right) than on my dSLR. Kudos!

Not quite convinced? Try the photographer’s Instagram exhibit, where you will find several dozen superb photographs. Among them, this image.

instagram

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