Friday, January 10, 2014

CES Day 1 - A Future With More Pixels

ATTDevSummitDay one of CES 2014 behind us. For Suz and I, CES actually started yesterday at 3am. We flew out of Oakland at the @ss-crack of dawn to attend the AT&T Developer Summit. After voting for the hackathon winners (great competition, but my by-far favorite, Simon Signs – an app that translates sign language to English – did not win), we attended some sessions to hear about the new AT&T services, APIs and future directions. I learned a lot, and am especially looking forward to trying M2X – their new platform for connected devices (aka “internet of things”).
We followed the sessions with some clubbing and a Macklenmore concert. We finally got to our hotel at midnight.
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Today, we made our way down to Las Vegas Convention Center to see CES itself. We started by visiting with Robert Scoble. I asked him about his latest “Google Glass is Doomed!” post. His take is that pretty soon, Glass would be more acceptable and accepted. Once price drops (his sweet spot price is $399 btw), and more people own it, it and its users will be treated with more respect (right now, people refer to Glass users as “Glassholes” – at least in the bay area). The future, according to Scoble, is that by 2020, you’d be able to ask Glass to get you a car to go to your hotel. Glass will give you directions to a self driving car, and charge you $15 for the ride. He’s aware of current limitations (some intended, and some mistakenly added to the product), but ultimately, we’re going towards a “Glassy” future. I bought a copy of his book “Age of Context” and got his autograph.

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The rest of CES suggests that the future is going to have w-a-y more pixels in it. We spent the rest of the day visiting the large companies’ booths: Pioneer, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Sony – all are featuring 4K displays, curved displays and other UHD monitors and solutions.
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I’m convinced my next TV will have a 4K display, and probably so will my next computer monitor. By far my favorite was a 4K 27” Samsung monitor, that allows you to choose whether to connect to one device at 4K, or 4 separate inputs and view them all at the same time at HD resolution each. The monitor also supports axis rotation, and different color compositions. Definitely geared towards professionals.
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In the phone front, LG grabbed my interest with the G2, Nexus 5, and the curved Flex. Both G2 and the Flex have their main button on the back. To compensate, the phone can be turned on and off by double-tapping the screen (a feature LG calls “Knock”).
The current trend with cell phones seems to be ever growing screen size – completely the opposite of a few years ago, when everyone was trying to shrink technology. The Flex looks amazing, and its self-healing plastic back (you should watch a demo) blew my mind, but it’s just too damn big.
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As if to prove the point, the Alcatel Hero is well aware of its size. Not only does it come with a special cover that uses LED for notifications, but it actually has a small accessory called “Sidekick” – that looks like a phone from 10 years ago – that connects to the Hero over Bluetooth, and allows you to make calls and send texts without pulling the big device out of your bag. BTW, Alcatel reps asked people to not take pictures of the Hero. I guess they completely forgot they were at a show. Next time, if you want to keep a secret – stay at home. So here are some photos of the Hero, and its Sidekick (pay attention to the white LED on the cover):
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ShutterBall
After walking the halls for hours, seeing screen after screen after screen, and hundreds types of cameras, the funniest thing I heard all day came from a guy at a line to see ShutterBall – a selfie button (it's a button that connects to your phone using Bluetooth, allowing you to appear in your own photos): Where do you put all the selfies? On the shelfie


Looking forward to seeing more tech tomorrow. We have 22,000,000 square feet to cover…

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Shrtr

Note: to read the full technical breakdown on developing Shrtr for Windows Phone, see my code blog post.

I made several forays in the past into Windows Phone development. I actually like the platform, and the development tools. Having experienced iOS (XCode) and Android (Eclipse) development environments, Visual Studio looks like it's in a completely different league. I think Microsoft made some major marketing mistakes promoting the platform, but they're getting better, with a lot of community outreach, developers' resources, and hackathons.

Last year I got myself a Nokia Lumia 710, and started hacking in WP7. 5 minutes later, Microsoft announced WP8, along with the enraging tidbit that my brand new phone will not be supported (why? they claim hardware compatibility, I claim greed). I was pissed off, so off to eBay it went, and off to Android development I went.

A year later, I just had to try again, so I got the very well reviewed Lumia 620 (in blue), and looked for an incentive to develop anything. It came in the shape of an invite to a DVLUP hack day at Nokia HQ in Sunnyvale. I became aware of DVLUP, the Nokia developers community, at the AT&T summit I attended last year. This year, they promised a new Nokia 620 (yay! another one), to any developer who builds a WP app, and publishes it to the Windows Phone store within 2 weeks. The challenge was on!

I've already been toying with an app that uses URL shortening services, to allow you posting/sending/sharing manageable URLs (rather than the jumble of random characters URLs have become lately). Since my girlfriend is doing a lot of URL sharing as part of her marketing job, I validated the need, and set to work.

You can find all the nitty-gritty technical details, and dev challenges, in my code blog post, but suffice it to say, I had the app ready within a week. I had to wait another week, or so, for Microsoft to approve the app for the store. In the meantime, I got the domain www.Shrtr.us, and deployed the server side of the app. After successfully publishing the app, I had to wait for 2 more days for the DVLUP site to recognize the app, and attribute it to me. With the help of Paras from Nokia, I managed to accomplish the task in time, and the new Lumia is on its way to me!

I actually think I'll gift a 620 to my mom. She's been begging for a "smart phone" for a while. I believe Windows Phone is the best starter mobile OS - the UI can be turned to Hebrew (or any other language) completely, it has a very simple navigation paradigm - the tiles are big, readable, and self explanatory.  And frankly, you can't "break" anything in it. I'll try it, and report back on my mom's experiences.

Finally, due to the design decisions I took while developing the app, I ended up with the app logic on the server side, allowing me to develop an Android app (to be released later) and a Chrome extension, both using the same URL shortening services. You can download the WP app and the Chrome extension at www.Shrtr.us. Leave me some feedback and comments. Feel free to ask for your favorite shortening service, or feature. I can't promise I'll get all of them, but I'll try.

Final note: as can be plainly witnessed from bot the extension and the app's UI, I lack in the graphical design department. If anyone out there feels they can elevate the state of my UI (in either HTML/CSS or XAML), please let me know.

Download links

Monday, December 16, 2013

Prepping for CES 2014

It's been nearly a long year since I posted to this blog. A year full of great personal and professional events: my girlfriend and I moved in together; I took control of my startup; Several conventions and hackathons occurred; Plenty of new gadgets acquired, and a new laptop arriving soon...

For the third year in a row, I plan to visit the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas on January. This time, I'll be joined by my girlfriend (aren't I lucky she likes gadgets :)), and a new ultrabook that I intend to use to post from the show floor.

Last year, the big stars of the show were 3D printers and robots - and I expect more of the same this year. But I really think wearables will take a more central place, with almost every company releasing a "smart" watch, a band, a shoe - whatever they can to collect more info on your movements.

I do not foresee any big changes in the phone or tablet market - just more of the same Android black squares, with better cameras. Same for TVs, with probably more 4K offerings (although 4K content is still far in the future). In the laptops arena, last year introduced the Asus Taichi as the design coup of the show, and I'm hoping to see something similar this year, but will hold my expectations in check.

Personally, I'm looking forward to meeting the funny people from Pressy - a project I supported on Kickstarter - and looking forward to actually hold in my hand.

I was hoping that the guys from Agent smart watch (another supported KS project) will make it, but they are struggling with release deadlines apparently, and I'd rather have the watch in my hands sooner :). I'm especially excited about the SDK, and pondering developing some watch apps, when it's out.

Another event I'm looking forward to, is the AT&T Developers Summit. This year I'm skipping the hackathon (I already published my first WP8 app last week - I'll post about that experience in my code blog at a later date), but will enjoy the professional sessions, and the party and concert.

Visit CES 2014 virtually

This year I'd like to offer my readers a free service: if you are not capable of visiting CES yourself, I can visit it for you virtually. If you are interested in a particular company, product, trend, release date, etc. - let me know. I'll attempt to visit the booths of the companies you mention, ask the questions you want, and take (blurry, phone-quality) pictures of the gadgets you like.

To have me virtually visit a company/product for you, follow these easy steps:

  1. Locate the company's booth in the list of CES 2014 presenters - I'd need the hall and booth number, to better plan my path
  2. Submit this online form with the company name, product, and location - you can fill it as many times as you like. Alternatively, post a comment with the info (although, for planning purposes, the form will work better for me)
  3. I'll chart a path including (hopefully) all the requested booths, ask all the questions, and post the results to the blog. If you provide an email, I'll personally notify you of a post containing the answers to your questions
And that's it - your chance to virtually visit CES 2014. And now I'm off to plan my Christmas trip to Salt Lake City - more on that next time.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

CES 2013 - The Future in Our Lifetime

I'm just back from a week in Vegas, where I attended the Consumer Electronics Show, for the second year in a row.

AT&T Developer Conference

On Monday, I attended the AT&T Developer Conference. Some of the tracks were very interesting, including AT&T announcing support for WebRTC - an HTML5 standard that allows screen sharing and video conferencing from within your browser (currently supported in Chrome 23 and FF 18 - IE and Safari are still no-shows); or the extended support for NFC and security; or the announcement of a free developer tool called ARO (Application Resource Optimizer) that scans mobile app's code, and recommends optimized use of network, space and other resources.
But I really liked the hackathon winner: Ruggero from Italy developed, in 24 hours, a headband that "reads your mind" and if it feels you're otherwise engaged (i.e. talking, or stressed) it redirects all incoming calls directly to voicemail. He said he'd be working on the other side of it - not letting you call certain people (your boss, your wife) if it feels you're in an agitated mood. He appeared in stage with a single cat ear on his headband :). Here's his pitch:
The event was finished with several club party, and a killer The Killers concert.

Here are some of the pictures I took during the conference:


And then, it was time for the real CES...

3D Printing hitting the big time

I saw 3D printers last year at CES, but this year they were everywhere, they were printing tons of intricate products, and they were more affordable (relatively speaking).

This innovation, more than anything else I saw, gives me a hope for seeing the future, as predicted by Star Trek's replicator, in my life time: A future in which we could all just print what we need at home (from screws, to electronics, to cloths, and maybe - one day - food). We'll just be paying for the materials (whether it's resin or proteins) and the designs. Some companies already put in place a service model, allowing you to send them your design, and they ship you the final product. One of them was Sculpteo which won a 2013 Innovation Award for their iPad app that allows you to design items like an iPhone case - from your tablet.

Everything's Connected

Another trend that developed over the year is to connect everything to the web. Samsung announced the Galaxy camera: a 21x zoom digital camera, running Android 4.1 (including all apps), connected over 3G/WiFi - a reversal of a typical Android phone with camera. Others showed watches, pedometers and speakers that were connected. I liked Monster's approach to making Bluetooth pairing simpler. We all had those awkward pairing experiences. With the Monster Beats speakers you use your phone's NFC to tap the speaker - and you're done. iPhone users need not apply (at least until the idiots in Cupertino decide that NFC is "magical, wonderful and amazing").

Robots

Robots were everywhere in the show, whether dancing like Michael Jackson, sweeping the floor (a-la Roomba) or giving you a back rub.

For $299, you could buy robots similar to ones used by the police and the army. Put a tablet/phone on them, and you can control the robot from another tablet/phone, see other rooms, and communicate with people remotely. Some models can even climb stairs, and some can take AK47 rounds and continue to function:

Another type of robot I got to see up close was the smart flying AR drone. I first saw them in this TED lecture video a year ago (a must watch). Now I actually got to see them in action. They can fly in intricate formations, flip in mid air, carry out exact tasks, and map indoor locations.

But to my eyes, it was easy to imagine how easy it'd be to replace the camera with a gun.
Bringing to mind this TED lecture about the ethics of using robots in battle.


My "best in show"

What struck me was how about 80% of this year's CES was exactly the same as last year's. The same cables/boxes/speakers/headphones/phone cases/etc. manufacturers were there - with the same stuff they showed last year, and the year before.
TVs were bigger and sharper. 3D was 3d-ier. Tablets and phones were slightly faster. Laptops were thinner. But mostly, it was boring to stroll through more of the same.

Still, here are my favorites of this year's CES, other than the aforementioned 3D printers:
  1. ASUS Taichi - a dual 1080p monitor ultrabook. Close the laptop lid, and you get a tablet. And 2 people can use it at the same time! Problems I foresee: battery life with 2 monitors, the external monitor getting scratched, and the price point (rumored to be $1600 for the 13")
  2. AfterShokz - open ear headphones, using bone conduction technology to get the sound directly into your head. They're safer (your ears remain free), the sound is clearer, and they do not harm your hearing. There were several companies showing this technology, but these cost just $69 on Amazon (or $99 for the Bluetooth model)
  3. Liquipel - one of the many water repelling technologies I saw demonstrated. Coat anything with this stuff, even a tissue paper, and water won't be able to touch it. Allows immersing your phone/device in water for up to 30 minutes.
  4. SafePlug - a power socket that does not allow electricity through, unless the plug inserted has a a specific RFID tag. Think of a baby pushing a fork into this socket...and nothing happens. As a side effect, all such sockets in the house can be remotely controlled from an iPad app. I'm hoping they'll call me when they decide to build the Android app :)
  5. Basis - a watch that includes a pedometer and a heart and sweat sensors. Along with a cool-looking app, it'll monitor your health, exercise goals and sleep behavior. It costs $200 and looks a bit thick for my taste - but I'm sure next year's model will be thinner :)
  6. Panasonic 20" 4k tablet - to call this monstrosity a tablet is to call a MAC truck a compact.
    At 20", running Windows 8 for 2 hours of battery life at 4k resolution, this would probably be used by designers, architects and showroom personnel
Here are some of the photos I took over the week (pardon the quality, they were snapped mostly on my phone, as I got tired of carrying my camera):
And that's it for CES 2013. Already registered for next year's. See you in Vegas, 1/7-10/2014!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Scotland

I just returned from a week-long tour of Scotland, and boy, I wish I could have made it longer. It's one of the best and easiest countries to visit, in my opinion; full of amazing things to do and see, as well as some of the nicest people I ever met.

It all started when I ended up with a canceled plane ticket that I had to use within a year. But since it was a very busy year (a new startup - check out ExPOS, if you haven't already), I left the decision to literally the last month. By then, most of the destinations I wanted were over the ticket's limit. Iwanted to visit Scotland for the last 7 years. I've been all over the UK, Ireland and N. Ireland, literally on the border with Scotland, but never got to visit it. Now I had my chance.

I convinced my pilot friend Ohad to join me on this trip. Due to the short schedule, we haven't done all our homework. We did book hotels as anchor points, but decided to improvise some of the trip's contents. And I don't regret the results: I got to see most of what I planned to, leaving ample reason to return again in the future. Here's a short list of what we did, along with some pictures and recommendations:

Day 1


After landing at Glasgow airport and picking up the only automatic car Hertz had (I can drive shift, but shifting with my left hand is another issue all together), we headed for the city of Stirling. Full of history, with a nice town center, we had lunch and proceeded to Stirling castle. 
Stirling castle
The place is full of history and interesting things to see and do. It also hosts some museums covering history, archaeology and military. The vistas from the castle walls is amazing, showing Stirling, the fields, the river and the  William Wallace monument. This is where, with a little planning, we could have saved some money. Apparently you can buy a ticket that covers entry to all the castles we later visited  saving us not only money, but time standing in line. I highly recommend pre-purchasing such a ticket online prior to your visit, if you plan on visiting castles in Scotland.

A short car ride brings you to the William Wallace monument. You can't miss it - it's a tall tower on a high hill.
William Wallace monument
We opted to walk up the hill to the tower (you can take a van) and started climbing the narrow, circular stairs. Every landing has a small museum with more information about William Wallace, his achievements and his death, including a chilling multimedia presentation of his trial. William Wallace was immortalized in Mel Gibson's movie "Braveheart", which doesn't sit well with the Scottish. You see, "Braveheart" was actually the nickname of the king Robert the Bruce, not of Wallace's himself. And the movie is full of other mistakes, as every Scottish tour guide would be glad to specify. However you stand on the matter, it was an interesting visit.

We haven't calculated the distance we had to climb well, and with every landing, we were sure we reached the top. 246 stairs later, we have, and it was well worth it! The top of the tower is open and affords 360 degree views of the area.

From there, we continued up north to the Highlands and Cairngorm park. We booked a hotel at the center of the park, near a little town called Aviemore.

Day 2

We took the funicular up to Cairngorm mountain - the 6th tallest in the UK - to look at the whole park. You can also walk up, if you so choose. We saw lochs and glens all around us, and decided to visit a couple.
Cairngorm park and the Higlands from the top of Cairngorm mountain

We started with the largest, Loch Morlich. You can sail across, rent a boat or canoe, or just swim. We decided to walk around it. While the trail sometimes leaves the shore of the lake, it's easy to find again by just looking towards the water. It affords great views of the lake, flora and fauna. We've seen hikers, joggers, and cyclists on the trail. But mostly, we've seen vista like this:
Loch Morlich
It took 2.5 hours to circle the lake - about 5.5KM, if memory serves.
From there we continued to the town of Aviemore for a spot of lunch. From there we continued to a smaller loch called Loch an Eilein - the lake of the island. In the middle of the lake, on an island, stand the ruins of a small castle with some interesting history.
Loch an Eilein's island
We also got to see some Highland cows, which sadly did not wait around to be photographed. These are big furry animals, fed on grain left from whiskey distillation process - making them the happiest cattle on Earth, I guess.
Highland cow (taken from Google Images)
Photos from day 2 - Cairngorm park

Day 3

We decided to attend some Highland games and found that Clan McPhereson held their annual gathering at the town of Newtonmore, just beyond the park's border. It was a glorious sunny day and the games turned into a great happening, with clan members arriving from all corners of the Earth. It gives them a chance to meet and wear their traditional kilts and suits. And of course, compete.
Kayleigh competition

Some of the games are traditional athletics, such as running, jumping etc. But some are unique to the Highlands: bagpiping, Kayliegh dancing, Caber toss, and the Scottish hammer. We got good seats and pretty soon found someone to cheer for.
Caber toss
After sampling some of the local whiskeys, we headed to the closest distillery, the Dalwhinnie. After learning about the distillation process and sampling some more of the fine fire-water, I was disappointed to find out that one large company now owns most distilleries in Scotland and that the distillery's store now sells single malts from all of them - putting aside years of rivalries and claims for excellence. From what I've learned, all single malts are made from the same 3 ingredients (barley, water and yeast) and the only differences between them are the water quality and the length of the process.

W continued down the winding road to Loch Laggan, but the nagging rain ruled out a walk. 
By the way, if you don't like rain - stay away from Scotland. It rains all year long (even if the temperature remains warm). As I was told by at least 3 different people (which makes it an official Scottish joke,  I guess): "Summer? oh yeah, that was last week. We called it Wednesday".
The second famous Scottish saying is: "it's not rain, it's liquid sunshine" :)

Day 4

Today we headed up to Inverness, the Ness river and Loch Ness. There's a highly recommended museum at the village of Drumnadrochit, explaining the history of the loch and the "monster" sightings. It explains how even you can mistake something on the loch for a monster's neck - a point that was driven home when I later took this picture of a duck on the lake:
The Loch Ness (duck) monster rears its head
We took a cruise of the lake. It is quite deep and gets very deep very close to shore. The loch looks very mysterious, with mist coming down from the hills, and Urquhart castle overlooking it.
Mist on Loch Ness
You can feel the history and the weirdness of the locale, driving people to believe in the loch's supernatural qualities, as far back as the 6th century.
Urquhart castle overlooking Loch Ness
 We proceeded to visit Urquhart castle itself - well worth the visit, as you learn about life at the castle and the several battle held and lost there.
We then proceeded to drive down to Edinburgh - Scotland's capital - through a torrential rain.

Photos from day 4 - Loch Ness and Urquhart castle

Day 5

We reached Edinburgh in time for the Fringe festival: the streets were choke full of street performers and people giving out leaflets for their shows. Here's one, where a husband and wife, tied to a post, try to convince the audience to take their side in an argument:
Who's right? Husband, or wife? Edinburgh Fringe Festival
We took a walking tour of the city, and saw many of the interesting spots in old town. We then proceeded to the National museum and learned a bit more about Scotland's history and contributions to the world, including a nice communications exhibition, Dolly the cloned sheep and some old vehicles. The roof of the museum provides great vistas of Edinburgh and the castle.
Dolly the sheep at the National Museum, Edinburgh
We previously purchased tickets to the Military Tattoo - the world's most famous military parade, held at Edinburgh castle annually. I recommend buying those online well in advance as good seats run out fast. Although by the time of the show it rained cats and dogs, we enjoyed a great show. Here's a video of the Swiss drum corpse, called "Top Secret" performing one of the best parts of the show:



Photos from day 5 - Edinburgh and Military Tattoo

Day 6

Today we took the time to tour Edinburgh castle in full - a 3-4 hours trip. Prepare for a 45 minutes wait for the ticket line (again, order tickets on the internet to avoid). Another great castle, with tons of history and things to see and do.
Edinburgh Castle
There are actors re-enacting some of the castle's famous inhabitants, such as a very funny audience we had with "Queen Mary" and her castelan at the castle's great hall.
An audience with "Queen Mary" is granted
And with that, we headed west to Glasgow, to prepare for our separate trips back home the following morning.

Photos from day 6 - Edinburgh castle

Map


View Scotland Trip in a larger map

The tech corner

But this post can't be complete without adding some tech to the travel. A week prior to my trip, I bought a Google Galaxy Nexus phone. At the time of the writing, it's the first and only phone to support penta-band GSM radio, and Jelly Bean (Android 4.1). It cost $350 and comes unlocked, with the promise it would work everywhere on Earth. And it delivered big time.

At Stirling I bought a local SIM card for a provider called '3' for 15 pounds ($22). I got a month of unlimited 3G data and 300 minutes of talk. This allowed me to use the phone as a GPS everywhere, use it's tethering capabilities to get internet service for my iPad, and use Skype to call peoples' phone in the US and Israel. All in all, much better than what other cell providers here call "roaming" (and I call extortion).

Another great feature of the phone is panoramic shooting. If you look at the albums mentioned above, you can see some images like this:
Panoramic view of Edinburgh
Do yourself a favor: get an unlocked phone, get a pre-paid, no-subscription program with data (this phone, for example, works with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, and any other network on Earth) and use a local SIM card wherever you travel. Much cheaper than the alternative, and you are not bound to greedy, outdated corporations.