Gadgets – TechCrunch Matt Burns

Welcome to Bag Week 2018. Every year your faithful friends at TechCrunch spend an entire week looking at bags. Why? Because bags — often ignored but full of our important electronics — are the outward representations of our techie styles, and we put far too little thought into where we keep our most prized possessions.

The Osprey Momentum 32 impresses. I used it during a muddy week at Beaumont Scout Reservation and it performed flawlessly as a rugged, bike-ready backpack. It stood tall in the miserable rain and insufferable heat that engulfed northern Ohio during the camping trip. If it can withstand these conditions, it can withstand an urban commute.

For those following along, Bag Week 2018 ended a week ago. That’s okay. Consider this as bonus content. Before publishing a review on this bag, I wanted to test it during a camping trip, and last week’s trip provided a great testing ground for this bag.

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Osprey markets the Momentum 32 as an everyday pack with a tilt toward bicyclists. There’s a clip on the outside to hold a bike helmet and a large pocket at the bottom to store bicycle shoes — or just another pair of shoes. The back panel features great ventilation and the shoulder straps have extra give to them thanks to integrated elastic bands.

It’s the ventilated back panel that makes the pack stand out to me. It’s ventilated to an extreme. Look at me. I’m in my mid-thirties and on a quest to visit all of Michigan’s craft breweries. I sweat and it was hot during my time with this bag. This bag went a long way in helping to keep the sweat under control — much more so than any other commuter bag I’ve used.

There was never a time when I was using this bag that I felt like a sweaty dad, even though the temp reached into the 90s. I appreciate that.

The internal storage is sufficient. There’s a good amount of pockets for gadgets and documents. There’s even a large pocket at the bottom to store a pair of shoes and keep them separated from the rest of the bag’s contents. As any good commuter bag, it has a key chain on a retractable cord so you can get access to your keys without detaching them from the bag.

The bag also has a rain cover, which saved me in several surprise rain showers. The rain cover itself is nothing special; a lot of bags have similar covers. This cover is just part of a winning formula used on this bag.

The Osprey Momentum is a fantastic bag. It stands apart from other bags with extreme ventilation on the back panel and features cyclist and commuters will appreciate.

bag week 2018

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Devices like smartphones ought to help people feel safer, but if you’re in real danger the last thing you want to do is pull out your phone, go to your recent contacts and type out a message asking a friend for help. The Women’s Safety XPRIZE just awarded its $1 million prize to one of dozens of companies attempting to make a safety wearable that’s simple and affordable.

The official challenge was to create a device costing less than $40 that can “autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds.”

Anu and Naveen Jain, the entrepreneurs who funded the competition, emphasized the international and very present danger of sexual assault in particular.

“Women’s safety is not just a third world problem; we face it every day in our own country and on our college campuses,” said Naveen Jain in the press release announcing the winner. “It’s not a red state problem or a blue state problem but a national problem.”

“Safety is a fundamental human right and shouldn’t be considered a luxury for women. It is the foundation in achieving gender equality,” added Anu Jain.

Out of dozens of teams that entered, five finalists were chosen in April: Artemis, Leaf Wearables, Nimb & SafeTrek, Saffron and Soterra. All had some variation on a device that either detected or was manually activated during an attack or stressful situation, alerting friends to one’s location.

The winner was Leaf, which had the advantage of having already shipped a product along these lines, the Safer pendant. Like any other Bluetooth accessory, it keeps in touch with your smartphone wirelessly and when you press the button twice your emergency contacts are alerted to your location and need for help. It also records audio, possibly providing evidence later or a deterrent to harassers who might fear being identified.

It’s not that it’s an original idea — we’ve had various versions of this for some time, and even covered one of the other finalists last year. But they haven’t been quantitatively evaluated or given a platform like this.

“These devices were tested in many conditions by the judges to ensure that they will work in real-life cases where women face dangers today. They were tested in no-connectivity areas, on public transit, in basements of buildings, among other environments,” explained Anu Jain to TechCrunch. “Having the capability to record audio after sending the alert was one of the main differentiators for Leaf Wearables. Their chip design and software was also easy to be integrated into other accessories.”

Hopefully the million dollars and the visibility from winning the prize will help Leaf get its product out to people who need it. The runners-up don’t seem likely to give up on the problem, either. And it seems like the devices will only get better and cheaper — not that this will change the world on its own.

“Prices will come down as the sensor prices drop. In many countries it will require community support to be built,” continued Jain. “These technologies can act as a deterrent but in the long term culture of violence again women must change.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Microsoft’s HoloLens has an impressive ability to quickly sense its surroundings, but limiting it to displaying emails or game characters on them would show a lack of creativity. New research shows that it works quite well as a visual prosthesis for the vision impaired, not relaying actual visual data but guiding them in real time with audio cues and instructions.

The researchers, from CalTech and University of Southern California, first argue that restoring vision is at present simply not a realistic goal, but that replacing the perception portion of vision isn’t necessary to replicate the practical portion. After all, if you can tell where a chair is, you don’t need to see it to avoid it, right?

Crunching visual data and producing a map of high-level features like walls, obstacles, and doors is one of the core capabilities of the HoloLens, so the team decided to to let it do its thing and recreate the environment for the user from these extracted features.

They designed the system around sound, naturally. Every major object and feature can tell the user where it is, either via voice or sound. Walls, for instance, hiss (presumably a white noise, not a snake hiss) as the user approaches them. And the user can scan the scene, with objects announcing themselves from left to right from the direction in which they are located. A single object can be selected and will repeat its callout to help the user find it.

That’s all well for stationary tasks like finding your cane or the couch in a friend’s house. But the system also works in motion.

The team recruited seven blind people to test it out. They were given a brief intro but no training, and then asked to accomplish a variety of tasks. The users could reliably locate and point to objects from audio cues, and were able to find a chair in a room in a fraction of the time they normally would, and avoid obstacles easily as well.

This render shows the actual paths taken by the users in the navigation tests.

Then they were tasked with navigating from the entrance of a building to a room on the second floor by following the headset’s instructions. A “virtual guide” repeatedly says “follow me” from an apparent distance of a few feet ahead, while also warning when stairs were coming, where handrails were, and when the user had gone off course.

All seven users got to their destinations on the first try, and much more quickly than if they had had to proceed normally with no navigation. One subject, the paper notes, said “That was fun! When can I get one?”

Microsoft actually looked into something like this years ago, but the hardware just wasn’t there — HoloLens changes that. Even though it is clearly intended for use by sighted people, its capabilities naturally fill the requirements for a visual prosthesis like the one described here.

Interestingly, the researchers point out that this type of system was also predicted more than 30 years ago, long before they were even close to possible:

“I strongly believe that we should take a more sophisticated approach, utilizing the power of artificial intelligence for processing large amounts of detailed visual information in order to substitute for the missing functions of the eye and much of the visual pre-processing performed by the brain,” wrote the clearly far-sighted C.C. Collins way back in 1985.

The potential for a system like this is huge, but this is just a prototype. As systems like HoloLens get lighter and more powerful, they’ll go from lab-bound oddities to everyday items — one can imagine the front desk at a hotel or mall stocking a few to give to vision-impaired folks who need to find their room or a certain store.

“By this point we expect that the reader already has proposals in mind for enhancing the cognitive prosthesis,” they write. “A hardware/software platform is now available to rapidly implement those ideas and test them with human subjects. We hope that this will inspire developments to enhance perception for both blind and sighted people, using augmented auditory reality to communicate things that we cannot see.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

In my endless quest to get geeks interested in watches I present to you the Bell & Ross BR V2-93 GMT 24H, a new GMT watch from one of my favorite manufacturers that is a great departure from the company’s traditional designs.

The watch is a 41mm round GMT, which means it has three hands to show the time in the 12-hour scale and another separate hand that shows the time in a 24-hour scale. You can use it to see time zones in two or even three places and it comes in a nice satin-brushed metal case with a rubber or metal strap.

B&R is unique because it’s one of the first companies to embrace online sales after selling primarily in watch stores for about a decade. This means the watches are slightly cheaper — this one is $3,500 — and jewelers can’t really jack up the prices in stores. Further, B&R has a great legacy of making legible, usable watches, and this one is no exception. It is also a fascinating addition to the line. B&R has an Instrument series, which consists of large, square watches with huge numerals, and a Vintage series that hearkens back to WWII-inspired, smaller watches. This one sits firmly in the middle, taking on the clear lines of the Instrument inside a more vintage case.

Ultimately watches like this one are nice tool watches — designed for legibility and usability above fashion. It’s a nice addition to the line and looks like something a proper geek could wear in lieu of Apple Watches and other nerd jewelry. Here’s hoping.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

If you’ve ever been hiking or skiing, or gone to a music festival or state fair, you know how easy it is to lose track of your friends, and the usually ridiculous exchange of “I’m by the big thing”-type messages. Lynq is a gadget that fixes this problem with an ultra-simple premise: it simply tells you how far and in what direction your friends are, no data connection required.

Apart from a couple of extra little features, that’s really all it does, and I love it. I got a chance to play with a prototype at CES and it worked like a charm.

The peanut-shaped devices use a combination of GPS and kinetic positioning to tell where you are and where any linked Lynqs are, and on the screen all you see is: Ben, 240 feet that way.

Or Ellie.

No pins on a map, no coordinates, no turn-by-turn directions. Just a vector accurate to within a couple of feet that works anywhere outdoors. The little blob that points in their direction moves around as quick as a compass, and gets smaller as they get farther away, broadening out to a full circle as you get within a few feet.

Up to 12 can link up, and they should work up to three miles from each other (more under some circumstances). The single button switches between people you’re tracking and activates the device’s few features. You can create a “home” location that linked devices can point toward, and also set a safe zone (a radius from your device) that warns you if the other one leaves it. And you can send basic preset messages like “meet up” or “help.”

It’s great for outdoors activities with friends, but think about how helpful it could be for tracking kids or pets, for rescue workers, for making sure dementia sufferers don’t wander too far.

The military seems to have liked it as well; U.S. Pacific Command did some testing with the Thai Ministry of Defence and found that it helped soldiers find each other much faster while radio silent, and also helped them get into formation for a search mission quicker. All the officers involved were impressed.

Having played with one for half an hour or so, I can say with confidence that it’s a dandy little device, super intuitive to operate, and was totally accurate and responsive. It’s clear the team put a lot of effort into making it simple but effective — there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes.

Because the devices send their GPS coordinates directly to each other, the team created a special compression algorithm just for that data — because if you want fine GPS, that’s actually quite a few digits that need to be sent along. But after compression it’s just a couple of bytes, making it possible to send it more frequently and reliably than if you’d just blasted out the original data.

The display turns off automatically when you let it go to hang by its little clip, saving battery, but it’s always receiving the data, so there’s no lag when you flip it up — the screen comes on and boom, there’s Betty, 450 feet thataway.

The only real issue I had is that the single-button interface, while great for normal usage, is pretty annoying for stuff like entering names and navigating menus. I understand why they kept it simple, and usually it won’t be a problem, but there you go.

Lynq is doing a pre-order campaign on Indiegogo, which I tend to avoid, but I can tell you for sure that this is a real, working thing that anyone who spends much time with friends outdoors will find extremely useful. They’re selling for $154 per pair, which is pretty reasonable, and since that price will probably jump significantly later, I’d say go for it now.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Josh Constine

Photos, not just video. No yellow ring alerting people to the camera. Underwater-capable. Classier colors with lighter lenses. Prescription options. Faster syncing. And a much slimmer frame and charging case. Snapchat fixed the biggest pain points of its Spectacles camera sunglasses with V2, which launch today for $150. The company only sold 220,000 pairs of V1, with their limited functionality, tricky exports, and goofy hues. But V2 is stylish, convenient, and useful enough to keep handy. They’re not revolutionary. They’re a wearable camera for everybody. 

You can check out our snazzy hands-on demo video below:

The new Spectacles go on sale today in the US, Canada, UK, and France, then in 13 more European countries on May 3rd. The $150 V2s are $20 more than the old version and only available on Snap’s app and site — no Amazon, pop-up stores or vending SnapBots. And V1 owners will get a firmware update that lets them take photos.

After two days of use, I think Spectacles V2 cross the threshold from clumsy novelty to creative tool accessible to the mainstream. And amidst user growth struggles, that’s what Snap needs right now. 

V1 Was To Get People Comfortable

What Snap doesn’t need is a privacy scandal, and that risk is the tradeoff it’s making with its more discrete Spectacles design. They still display a little circle of white lights while recording, but with the permanent yellow ring on the corner removed, you might not notice there’s a camera lens there. That could make people a little nervous and creeped out.

But the company’s VP of hardware Mark Randall tells me he thinks the true purpose of V1 was to get people comfortable wearing and being recorded by a face computer. It certainly wasn’t a consumer success, with less than half of owners using them after the first month. He said he feels pretty good about shipping 220,000 pairs. Yet Snapchat was roundly mocked for taking a $40 million write-off after making hundreds of thousands too many. Randall attributes that to having fragmented sales channels, which Snap is fixing by only selling V2 itself so it can better predict demand.

Snap did learn that users wanted to take photos, get them in less flashy coral colors, bring Spectacles to the beach, pair them quicker with better resolution exports, and hear less wind noise when moving. And most importantly, they wanted something they didn’t feel weird wearing. So Randall’s team essentially scrapped the yellow warning ring, style, architecture, chipset, and electronics to build a better V2 from the ground up. The result rises high above its predecessor.

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The Specs Of Spectacles V2

Snapchat isn’t making a spectacle out of the Spectacles V2 launch. There’s no hidden vending machines with cryptic clues leading to long lines. They’re openly for sale today in Snap’s four top markets, with IE, BE, NL, SE, NO, DK, FI, DE, AT, CH, PL, ES, and IT coming next week. This might make sure everyone who wants them can have them before they inevitably stop being trendy and will have to rely on their true value.

As soon as you slide them out of their tennis ball tube package, you’ll notice a higher build quality in Spectacles V2. The yellow case is about 1/3 smaller, so you could squeeze it in some pants pockets or easily throw it in a jacket or purse. The old version basically required a backpack. The charging port has also been moved to the side so it doesn’t fall out so easily. Even with the better hardware, Spectacles are supposed to have enough battery and memory to record 10 videos a day for a week on a normal charge, plus carry four extra charges in the case.

The Spectacles themselves feel sleeker and less like chunky plastic. They come in onyx black, ruby red, and sapphire blue and you can choose between a more mirrored or natural lens color too. Users in the US can order them with prescription lenses through a partnership with Lensabl. Those colors are a lot more mature than the childish coral pink and teal of V1. More transparent lenses make them easier to use in lower light, so you won’t be restricted to just the sunniest days. I could even get by inside to some degree, whereas I was bumping into things indoors with V1.

The box holding the hardware on the hinges is now much smaller, making them lighter and shallower overall. An extra microphone helps Spectacles reduce wind noise and balance out conversations so the wearer doesn’t sound way louder.

It’s easy to long-press for a photo or tap for 10-second video, with extra taps extending the clip up to 30 seconds. Either fires up the light ring to let people know you’re recording, but this is much more subtle than the permanent yellow ring that was there as well on V1. You can only add stickers and drawings after you shoot and export your Spectacles Snaps, so that means there’s no adding augmented reality face filters or dancing hot dogs to what you see first-person.

Syncing goes much faster with Spectacles V2

Snap Inc actually reduced the field of vision for Spectacles from 115 to 105 degrees to cut off some of the fish-eye warping that happened to the edges of clips shot on V1. Videos now record in 1216 x 1216 pixels, while photos are 1642 x 1642. What’s fun is that Spectacles can record under water. Randall doesn’t recommend diving to 200 feet with them, but jumping in the pool or getting caught in the rain will be no problem. In fact it can make for some pretty trippy visuals. Cheddar’s Alex Heath nailed most of these features in a scoop about V2 last month.

Syncing to your phone now just requires Bluetooth and a seven-second press of the shutter button, rather than a shoddy QR code scan. Exports always happens in HD over Specs’ internal Wi-Fi now, and transfers go four times quicker than the old process that required you to sync standard definition (low quality) versions of videos first, then pick your favorites, then download them in HD. Randall says that led lots of people to accidentally or impatiently settle for SD content, which made Spectacles’ capture resolution seem much lower than its potential.

Annoyingly, you can only sync your Spectacles to Snapchat Memories first before exporting videos individually or as one big Story to your camera roll. That makes it a pain to share them elsewhere. If Snap wants to be a hardware giant, it can’t just build accompaniments to its own app. It needs to catch the attention of all kinds of photographers.

What really matters, though, is the how the incremental improvements all add up to something much more livable.

Keeping Snapchat Spectacular

Snapchat may have finally found a way to make Spectacles carryable and wearable enough that people use them as their default sunglasses. That could lead to way more content being produced from Spectacles, which in turn could make Snapchat more interesting at a time when it’s desperate to differentiate from Instagram.

Randall says Snap is just starting to reach out to professional creators, who could prove to people how fun Spectacles could be. Snap neglected them last time around and ended up with few pieces of flagship Spectacles content. This time, though, Snap will focus on showing off what Spectacles can shoot rather than just how they look on your face. It’s even going to run its own in-app ads promoting Spectacles that will let you swipe up to buy them instantly.

Snap Inc calls itself a camera company, but beyond software, that wasn’t really true until now. It could be a half-decade before we have AR goggles for the masses, and Snap can’t wait around for that. V2 is a solid step forward, and Randall says Snap is committed to a long road of hardware releases.

Getting tons of its cash-strapped teens to buy the gadget may prove difficult again, but I at least expect V2s won’t end up dying alone in a drawer as often. These glasses aren’t going to turn around Snapchat’s business, which lost $443 million last quarter. And they probably won’t win over any Instagram loyalists. But Spectacles V2 could rekindle the interest of lapsed users while producing unique perspectives to entertain those who never left. Snap may have broken the Google Glass curse.

TechFresh, Consumer Electronics Guide Isaiah

BV22S Sports Tracker Bracelet

Accurately keep track of your daily activity levels using this sports tracker bracelet ‘BV22S’. Compatible with Android (4.2 and above) and iOS (iOS 8.0 and above) devices, this waterproof bracelet (IP67) is packed with a 0.96-inch 128 x 64 OLED touchscreen, a 64KB RAM, a 512KB ROM, a heart rate sensor on the back for real time heart rate measurement, a built-in 80mAh battery (up to 10 days of standby time) and Bluetooth connectivity.

Not only that, it also comes with G-Sensor, Pedometer, Sleep Monitor, Sedentary Reminder, Calorie Measurement and Distance Tracker. Backed by a 12-month warranty, the BV22S will set you back just $23.85. [Product Page]

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Gadgets – TechCrunch Lucas Matney

When it comes to augmented reality technologies, visuals always seems to be a pretty essential part of most people’s definitions, but one startup is offering an interesting take on audio-based AR that also calls on computer vision. Even without integrated displays, glasses are still an important part of the company’s products, which are designed with vision-impaired users in mind.

Aira has built a service that basically puts a human assistant into a blind user’s ear by beaming live-streaming footage from the glasses camera to the company’s agents who can then give audio instructions to the end users. The guides can present them with directions or describe scenes for them. It’s really the combination of the high-tech hardware and highly attentive assistants.

The hardware the company has run this service on in the past has been a bit of a hodgepodge of third-party solutions. This month, the company began testing its own smart glasses solution called the Horizon Smart Glasses, which are designed from the ground-up to be the ideal solution for vision-impaired users.

The company charges based on usage; $89 per month will get users the device and up to 100 minutes of usage. There are various pricing tiers for power users who need a bit more time.

The glasses integrate a 120-degree wide-angle camera so guides can gain a fuller picture of a user’s surroundings and won’t have to instruct them to point their head in a different direction quite as much. It’s powered by what the startup calls the Aira Horizon Controller, which is actually just a repurposed Samsung smartphone that powers the device in terms of compute, battery and network connection. The controller is appropriately controlled entirely through the physical buttons and also can connect to a user’s smartphone if they want to route controls through the Aira mobile app.

Though the startup isn’t planning to part ways with their human assistants anytime soon, the company is predictably aiming to venture deeper into the capabilities offered by computer vision tech. The company announced earlier this month that it would be rolling out its own digital assistant called Chloe that will eventually be able to do a whole lot, but is launching with the ability to read so users can point their glasses at some text and they should be able to hear what’s written. The startup recently showed off a partnership with AT&T that enables the glasses to identify prescription pill bottles and read the labels and dosage instructions to users.

The company is currently in the testing phase of the new headset, but hopes to begin swapping out old units with the Horizon by June.

TechFresh, Consumer Electronics Guide Isaiah

Z40-Affordable Smartwatch

Check out this affordable smartwatch, the Z40. Compatible with both iOS and Android devices via dedicated App, this smartwatch is equipped with a 1.54-inch 240 x 240 OLED touchscreen display, a Realtek-8762 CPU, a 32MB RAM and a 32MB of internal memory.

Not just that, this smartwatch is also packed with functions for a healthy life including Heart Rate Monitor, Blood Pressure Monitor, Pedometer, Sedentary Reminder and Sleep Monitor. Powered by a 300mAh battery (up to 120 hours of continuous usage time), the Z40 provides Bluetooth for connectivity.

Backed by a 12-month warranty, the Z40 will set you back just $30.02. [Product Page]

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TechFresh, Consumer Electronics Guide Isaiah

Huami Amazfit BIP

Xiaomi’s sub-brand Huami has just released their latest smartwatch ‘Amazfit BIP’ in the US. Compatible with Android and iOS devices, this water and dust resistant smartwatch is equipped with a 1.28-inch 176 x 176 always-on color touch display with 2.5D Corning Gorilla Glass 3 protection, an optical heart rate sensor for real time heart rate measurement, a built-in 190mAh Li-Polymer battery (up to 30 days with regular use or up to 45 days with minimal notifications) and Bluetooth 4.0 LE connectivity.

Not just that, the Amazfit BIP also comes with GPS + GLONASS for route tracking, 3-Axis Accelerometer, Air Pressure Sensor (Barometer) for elevation, Geomagnetic Sensor (Compass), Calls, Messages & Emails Notifications and Multisport Tracking: Track Your Runs, Cycling and More with Mapped Routes.

The Huami Amazfit BIP is available now for just $99.99. [Product Page]

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