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December 2016 Archives

December 10, 2016

360-Degree / VR Video

You're probably familiar with 360-degree panoramic images on the web, from travel sites or when making hotel reservations. You can view a photo on the web page, and then click and drag to slide the view around so you can explore the entire scene.

But 360 is not just for images -- This year has seen a boom in support for 360-degree videos -- Full-motion videos that you can look around in, as they are playing. Now you can experience riding a boat down the Grand Canyon, or standing on stage during a musical performance, or flying up to the edge of space -- not just from the single view that was shot by a camera operator, but with the ability to look around in any direction, at any time.


        Full 360 degree video - HumanEyes Vuze

And even better, getting started with viewing 360 videos is free, or at most dirt cheap.

Head on over to the YouTube 360┬░ Videos Channel or similar sites, and just click to play them in your browser on your computer. There's no extra software to download or buy -- these play as-is in your browser. Just click and drag with your muse to look around in the view.

Plus you can display the same sites just as easily on your smartphone (or tablet). Launch the video from the smartphone browser, and then drag with your finger to change the view. Even better, since smartphones can sense when you change their position and orientation, simply tilt the smartphone to look up or down, and rotate it to look to the sides or even behind you.

So, if you just hold the smartphone in front of your eyes, and move your head and body around, you can begin to enjoy the experience of physically looking around within the space captured on the video.

But for a more immersive experience, you need to split the scene into a pair of separate views for each eye, and use lenses to focus them properly for viewing.

This does require using a VR player app on the smartphone that splits the 360 video into the two separate views, and then adjusts the viewpoint in response to your head motion so that you can naturally look around and behind, up and down.


This is the idea behind the Google Cardboard product design. These are simple headsets that use the smartphone as the display. Just slide the phone into place inside the front of the headset to view it through the lenses. Then start the video playing and look through the lenses to experience a surprising sense of realism.

The basic design is literally made from foldable cardboard, and is available from Google and others starting at $9.99 in kit form.

Or the Vivitar Virtual Reality Glasses are especially inexpensive, at $5.99. This is a more traditional VR headset design, with an adjustable head strap, and is made from more solid plastic. The front can hold a large phone, and uses suction cups to hold the smartphone in place.


Or for a minimalist approach, the Homido Mini VR Glasses for $14.99 are foldable lenses that simply clip on to your smartphone.

A great way to start with viewing VR videos this way is the New York Times VR site -- and its companion NYTVR apps. These provide access to a growing collection of 360 videos from the Times, plus the option to display on your smartphone in full-screen, or with dual views for a Google Cardboard or other viewer.

The good news here is that you can get started with 360 / VR videos with minimal effort and zero or minimal cost. If you'd like to make your own videos, you'll need a special camera, typically with a spherical lens and/or multiple lenses to shoot the entire surrounding scene. But prices are falling, and editing 360 videos is quickly becoming accessible with video editing software (see earlier posts on CyberLink PowerDirector 15 and Pinnacle Studio 20).

See my 360-Degree Video page for links to a selection of fun sample videos and 360 video sites, plus notes and references for more information.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Vivitar VR Glasses and Homido Mini VR Glasses on Amazon.com

December 14, 2016

Fitbit Charge 2 with Heart Rate Monitoring

Fitbit continues to enhance its line of fitness trackers to help monitor and encourage your activity and health.

You can start with small pocket trackers like the Fitbit Zip and One ($59 and $99) that track your walking steps, stair climbing, and even sleep activity.

Or wear a fitness wrist band like the Fitbit Flex 2 and Alta ($99 and $129) that also connect with your smartphone to display incoming texts and calls and calendar alerts (along with the time).

And there are fitness watches like the Fitbit Blaze and Surge ($199 and $299), with a larger watch face, deeper smartphone integration to control music playback, and even built-in GPS to track movement even when you do not have your smartphone.


The Fitbit Charge 2 ($149), kindly loaned by Verizon Wireless for my Holiday Tech coverage, is an interesting new addition -- It's still a relatively low-profile wristband (0.84" wide), but also adds an optical heart rate monitor.

The Charge 2 has a bright OLED display that automatically lights when you turn your wrist to show you the time (with your choice of clock faces). Or you can tap to cycle through displays of your fitness measurements. The bands are also interchangeable.

It also connects to your smartphone, to display call, text, and calendar alerts on your wrist.

As a fitness monitor, the Charge 2 tracks steps, distance, calories burned, floors climbed, active minutes, and hourly activity. It also can encourage you to stay active by providing reminders to take at least 250 steps each hour.

It also tracks your sleep, reporting how long and how well you sleep so you can see your restless periods. And it has a silent vibrating alarm to wake you up peacefully.

But the big addition is heart rate monitoring, using LED lights on the back of the display to detect blood volume changes as your heart beats and your capillaries expand and contract. These are mapped into three heart rate workout zones: peak (high-intensity exercise), cardio (medium-to-high intensity), and fat burn (low-to-medium intensity). (Be aware that these devices are not scientific or medical devices, the precision of the readings is in dispute, and the reading depends on wearing the band correctly.)

With this data, the Fitbit app can help explain and guide your fitness level. For example, it can track different kinds of workouts, plan an interval workout with alternating periods of high-intensity exercise and recovery, and even provide calming guided breathing sessions. You also can link with your smartphone GPS to provide real-time stats like running pace and distance, and to record a map of your route.

The Charge 2 has local memory to save up to 7 days of motion data by minute, daily totals for 30 days, and heart rate data at 1 second intervals during exercise tracking and at 5 second intervals at other times. It also syncs wirelessly and automatically to iPhone, Android, and Windows devices using Bluetooth LE.

It is sweat, rain and splash proof, but it is not water proof for swimming or showering. It has up to a 5-day battery life, and recharges in 1 to 2 hours.

The Fitbit Charge 2 is available starting at $129, in different styles and sizes.

See Holiday Tech 2016 for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Fitbit Charge 2 on Amazon.com

December 23, 2016

Amazon Echo Dot and Alexa Digital Assistant

We're entering the era of digital personal assistants -- voice-controlled devices that provide information, keep notes and reminders, and even carry out actions for us.

Smartphone-based systems like Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana can retrieve information, play music, provide travel assistance, and also control device actions, including making phone calls, reading and replying to text messages, and launching apps.

And then there's the Amazon Alexa digital personal assistant. While Amazon does not have a smartphone line, Alexa is available on its Fire tablets and on its Fire TV service, and, most visibly on its stand-alone Echo line of wireless speaker products.

The Amazon Echo speakers with Alexa voice commands are designed to be placed in your home to provide assistance whenever you want it, without even needing to pull out your phone.

Amazon has recently reduced the prices of the three Echo products -- The original Echo (now $139) is a cylindrical Bluetooth speaker with Alexa built in, and the Tap ($89) is a somewhat smaller speaker that you tap to speak.

The new 2nd generation Amazon Echo Dot shrinks down the size to only 3.3 x 3.3 x 1.3 inches.

Since the Echo Dot is now priced at only $39, the idea is that you can have one in every room.

Just say "Alexa" as the wake word, and a ring around the top of the Echo Dot lights up as it starts listening to your request.

The voice isolation is very good -- the light ring indicates the direction from which it heard the voice, and it typically understands your request even with different voices, from across a room, and with music and other sounds in the background.

The Echo then sends a recording of the voice to Amazon's server for analysis, and sends the response back to you -- for example, by speaking the information you requested, starting music playback, or controlling a smart home device in your house.

The Echo Dot has a small built-in speaker to respond to your Alexa requests, plus the ability to connect to external headphones over Bluetooth or through a 3.5 mm audio cable to play music or to read books.

While the Echo products do not have local storage for your music and other media like smartphones, they do provide access to the Amazon online services and cloud storage.

You can play music from your personal Amazon library, play streaming music and radio from services including Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, and play selections from the Amazon Music service. With Alexa, you can ask for music in general ways, including by lyrics, era, and style.

You also can have Alexa play audiobooks from Audible and Kindle Unlimited, and read books out load from your Kindle Store purchases or borrowed from Kindle Unlimited.

Amazon is not surprisingly also focusing Alexa on providing shopping services, both from Amazon (i.e., reordering more paper towels) and via third-party plug-ins -- Over 3,000 add-on Alexa "Skills" are now available, so you can order pizza from Domino's, request a ride from Uber, track your fitness with Fitbit, order flowers from 1-800-Flowers, and find flight information with Kayak. And you can set a password to avoid having kids and visitors accidentally placing orders.

Alexa also provides strong integration with smart home products, for example to provide voice control for your lights and heating. This supports devices including Philips Hue, TP-Link, ecobee, Belkin WeMo, Samsung SmartThings, Insteon, Lutron, Nest, Wink, and Honeywell.

Alexa is focused on providing voice responses, but Amazon does have a companion smartphone app that you can use to review the results of Alexa requests, and provide training and feedback.

The Amazon Alexa service is quite useful, and the Echo Dot is a nice low-profile way to access it. It's particularly helpful in this season to settle disputes about holiday traditions, and to turn the Christmas lights on and off.

See my Holiday Tech 2016 coverage for more on digital assistants, and for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Amazon Echo Dot on Amazon.com

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December 27, 2016

Google Assistant on the Google Pixel smartphone and Google Home speaker

The Amazon Echo Bluetooth speaker with the Amazon Alexa digital personal assistant is designed to integrate voice-based personal assistance into your home (see previous post).

And smartphone-based assistants like Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana make sure the same easy access to information and entertainment is always at hand.

The original Google Now voice assistance service grew out of Google's search tools and developed into the full-fledged Google app for Android and iOS.

Earlier this year, Google announced Google Assistant as its next intelligent personal assistant, which is evolving to support two-way dialogs so you can clarify requests instead of using only a single command and response.

Google Assistant is currently available on the new Google Pixel smartphone, the new Google Home voice-activated speaker, and the Google Allo smart messaging app.

The Google Pixel smartphone, available from Verizon Wireless, runs the latest Android 7.1 Nougat.

It features an impressive 12.3 MP main camera with f/2.4 Aperture that can shoot great photos in low light or bright light.

It is rugged, with curved edges from the aluminum unibody and 2.5D Corning Gorilla Glass 4 face.

The battery provides up 13 hours of Internet use or video playback, and charges rapidly -- providing 7 hours of use after 15 minutes of charging.

The Google Pixel is priced starting at $649 with a 5 inch display and 32 GB of storage. Or add $120 for the XL model with 5.5 inch display, plus $100 to expand from 128 GB of storage.

The Google Home is Google's answer to the Amazon Echo line -- a voice-activated speaker with Google Assistant that can integrate with your Google accounts to provide even more personal assistance. It's priced at $129.

It's a Hi-Fi speaker, with a 2" driver plus dual 2" passive radiators. And since it is a Wi-Fi device, you can control music playback on multiple speakers all around your house.

The Google Home is 3.79 inches in diameter and 5.62 inches high, and weighs 1.05 lbs. You even can customize the base with seven colors to fit your decor.

See my Holiday Tech 2016 coverage for more on digital assistants, and for more fun holiday ideas from the mobile digital revolution.

Find the Amazon Echo Dot on Amazon.com

Manifest Tech Site

About December 2016

Entries posted to Manifest Tech Blog in December 2016, listed from oldest to newest.

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