Friday, July 31, 2015

Memory advance from Intel and Micron

Intel and Micron Technology announced a new type of non-volatile memory this week. They call it 3D XPoint (“cross point”). It’s reported to be 1000 times faster and more reliable than NAND memory (the type that’s used in flash drives and solid state drives - SSDs). It’s also 10 times more dense.

One of the long term problems in computer performance is the time it takes to get data from the processor to and from storage. This memory reduces that time drastically and could mean a big jump in performance.

Intel claims that the technology is price competitive with NAND and DRAM (the kind of memory sticks used inside your computer.) They say that samples will be available yet in 2015. 

I imagine it will first be used in hybrid drives – using traditional NAND for long term storage and XPoint for cache. It should be especially useful for video/graphics processing and modeling/analytics applications.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Interesting device - probably overkill for most...

Earlier this year Amazon announced that they were developing Dash – and it’s available now. It's a dedicated “order me” button that attaches to surfaces. You press it, and it orders the item on its cover from Amazon Prime (see photo.)

The technology is getting cheap enough that these devices are selling for $5 to Prime members. Currently they offer 18 buttons for trash bags, paper towels, toilet paper, bottled water, Gatorade, Gerber formula, etc. – you can change the product within the brand, but they’re really designed for convenient re-ordering of products you regularly need to restock.

At home, we usually keep a common list of things to buy for the next time someone goes to the store, so we probably won’t be using these.

However, as the technology continues to mature and lower in cost, these might be useful in stockrooms, as annunciators / doorbells or remote-control buttons.

What other business value can you see for a simple, one-button device like this?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Windows 10 - gonna do it?

Windows 10 is being released today and if you’ve already reserved a copy, you may be able to install it today (if the Microsoft servers aren’t too busy.)

Why Windows 10?
Here are some of the new features:
- “Metro” apps (now called “Universal” apps) run in windows on the desktop, just like any other app
- Universal apps can run on a W10 phone, Xbox and HoloLens
- No more “charm bar” – now you get an “Action Center” 
- Edge Browser – faster, smaller, leaner than Internet Explorer (IE is still included for compatibility.)
- Performance improvements and easier upgrades
- OneDrive is better integrated
- Security improvements (Windows Hello facial recognition – only works with a new 3D infrared camera.)
- User interface improvments (works well on desktops & tablets)
- Cortana personal assistant
- Cut and paste now works the way it should in a CMD window
- Virtual desktops to separate different types of work
- Scheduled updates/restarts
- Faster 3D rendering

Why not?
If you’re happy with Windows 7, you’ve got a year to upgrade for free. Why not wait until the bugs are shaken out of Windows 10? Also, it’s likely that you’ll have a better upgrade experience if you wait until the initial crush is over…

Are you planning to upgrade? Are you already running Windows 10? What's your take?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stretchable speaker/mic

Sensors and transducers are a necessary component for for wearables and other Internet-of-Things devices - creating one that can stretch has been a goal for many trying to incorporate this technology into fabrics.

Korean scientists have just published their research on a stretchable speaker (that can also be used as a microphone) for use in wearables.stretchable.jpg

The transducer that they call a "Stretchable Acoustic Device" (SAD) uses a liquid metal coil, fabricated by injecting galinstan (an alloy of gallim, indium and tin) into an elastic form with a powerful neodymium magnet.

The speaker/mic could be sewed into clothing or applied to backpacks, hats, gloves, flexible phones, etc. In addition to traditional acoustic signal use, it could also be used for sensing biological signals (say a heartbeat or muscle contractions) or in hearing aid systems.

Here’s a link to the research paper and a video that shows the speaker/mic in action.

Interesting stuff!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chrome and the Physical Web

​I use Chrome for most browsing on Macs and PCs, it’s relatively fast, doesn’t have a lot of fluff and works well with Google tools. But I haven't used it a lot on iOS devices. This may change.

Google just released version 44 of its iOS browser to support the Physical Web standard that connects smart devices directly to Chrome (this feature has been available in Android for some time.) 

How would it work? A bus stop might send a URL directly to Chrome’s Today widget to tell you when the next bus is scheduled to arrive or to make a payment. Or, you could pay vending machines or parking meters using Chrome.

This release of Chrome also provides a new swipe feature to go forward and backward in browsing history.

As more and more devices come on line, they need a way to communicate quickly and easily in order to be used effectively. Google Physical Web could help.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Power amplification robot by Panasonic

Panasonic recently announced that they would sell a commercial version of an exoskeleton that their subsidiary, ActiveLink, has been working on. 

It’s designed to increase its wearer’s carrying capacity by 15 kg/33 lbs. This suit uses carbon-fiber, a number of sensors and motors and weighs just 13 lbs. It attaches to the wearers back, legs and feet. They’ve been testing it in warehouses in Osaka and with forestry workers.

ActiveLink is working on a larger version that will enable the operator to carry an additional 100 kg/220 lbs.

Here’s a link to a video of their big exoskeleton in action:

I'd bet, at the right price, big box stores, commercial warehouses and the folks over at Weyland-Yutani would find this useful.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tiny smartphone printer

Here’s an odd but interesting little device. It’s a tiny printer called droPrinter that you can use to print from your smartphone.

The printer automatically pairs with your phone and allows you to “screen print” anything on your smartphone screen, iOS or Android. It’s rechargeable and will print continuously for 7 hours (5 days in standby.) The droPrinter uses thermal paper – the kind you use on a printing calculator - so there's no ink to deal with. And it’s small – about the size of a smartphone, but considerably thicker (see picture.)

Good for printing grocery lists, to-do lists, theater tickets, etc. 

It’s a fully funded Kickstarter project and should be available spring 2016 for around $100 ($50 Kickstarter pre-sale.)

How would you use this device?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Windows 10 HPs

Windows 10 will be out by the end of the month and HP has some cool products coming out that support it.

On the hardware side is their HP Pro Tablet 608. It's an 8” tablet with an Intel Atom-Z8500 processor, 4 GB memory, 128 GB of storage and a USB-C port. Should be out in August for $480.

Several of their newest PC’s support “dual-array microphones” with improved noise-cancelling software for better voice control with Cortana.

On the software security side is a cool feature called Sure Start. It checks the BIOS before boot time and if it finds that the BIOS has been modified, it replaces it with the original. A similar feature is available in Windows Secure Boot – but that just refuses to boot if it detects a problem. Sure Start will be included with Elite notebooks and ZBooks.

If you're looking for a new PC for home or back-to-school, several of the new Windows 10 HP's will be available for purchase ahead of the July 28 release date so that they can be delivered by July 28.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Google beacons

Apple has been using iBeacons in their stores for some time now. Beacons provide a low power signal that identifies them to smartphone applications. Basically, all they send is an identifier via low-energy Bluetooth and it’s up to the application on the smartphone to do something with this identifier. It might look up the ID and then, based on its proximity, display some location-specific information – maybe a special deal on a product that’s nearby, or perhaps offer more information on something you’re standing in front of. The beacon is usually battery powered and very cheap (~$10 or so.) Currently iBeacons only work with Apple devices.

Now, Google is getting into this business, with Eddystone. However they’re basing their beacons on open standards – if you have a Bluetooth Low-Energy smartphone, it should work with their product.

This should open up this space to some competition and provide a platform for retailers, museums, restaurants, public transit and other venues  to provide more targeted marketing information to smartphones in these places.

A differentiator for Eddystone is that it can send different types of data, beyond just an identifier - say a URL. This could be used to open a website in a browser window, similar to a QR Code, but without having to take a picture with a QR app. Another possible application might be for restaurants where a menu could be displayed when you’re waiting in line, or at your table.

Another type of data that could be transmitted is telemetry data including battery charge remaining, beacon health, etc. These could be used to manage “fleets” of beacons.

Radius Networks, a supplier or technology, can update their beacons to run the new Eddystone protocols with a simple firmware upgrade. 

Is there a potential for using a similar technology at our facilities? What business applications could you envision for this technology?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Apple Watch without an iPhone

I did an Apple Watch demo yesterday and one question that several people asked was "Does it work without an iPhone?" The answer is yes & no... I thought I'd provide some details here.

Most Apple Watch apps are really just a front-end for apps running on your iPhone. For example the watch uses GPS on the phone to know where it is. So, while the health app on the watch can track your heart rate and steps, without an iPhone, it couldn't track your course. Also, the watch doesn't have a cell radio to make or receive calls without an iPhone attached. Finally, you need an iPhone to set up the watch in the first place.

So, what can the watch do without your iPhone nearby?

  • One feature I couldn't demo in 3D was the ability of the watch to be used for Apple Pay. Once it's configured, you don't need to be connected to an iPhone to use Apple Pay.
  • You can use your watch to board airplanes (if the boarding pass has been previously downloaded from your phone.) Electronic tickets can also be used for theaters, etc. if you have previously downloaded them.
  • You can listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks previously stored on your watch using a Bluetooth headset. 2GB is reserved on the watch for this kind of thing.
  • If you have a Bluetooth-enabled smart lock or PC lock you should be able to use the watch to unlock it.
  • You can track your workout on your watch - then sync it up with the Health app later.
  • You can control your AppleTV or iTunes on your Mac or PC using the "Remote" app on the watch.
  • The watch, stopwatch, timer and the alarm functions all work without being connected to the iPhone.
  • You can read previously downloaded emails and text messages without the iPhone connection. 
  • You can view your calendar without your phone connected.

I hope this helps - if you have other questions, just ask!

Friday, July 10, 2015

iOS 9 Beta

Here are some notes on the iOS 9 Beta released yesterday.

If you’re using it, please comment with your impressions. If you’re considering it, I’d recommend installing it on a secondary device – not one you use every day. Here’s a how-to:

Home Button
Double tap home button shows the new app switcher. You get a layered set of “cards”, one for each app that’s open on your device in order by last used.

Keyboard enhancements
The keyboard has dedicated cut and paste buttons – swiping two fingers give you more accurate cursor placement (rather than the touch-and-hold-for-a-while method.)

News reader
Not much info on this new app – sounds like Feedly or Flipbook.

They’ve added public transit maps for several major cities.

Windowed apps
On some models of iPad a swipe from the right edge brings up a “Slide Over” menu – you’ll get a list of Apple apps that you can window. For example if you want to check a map while reading an email just slide and pick. (Currently this works on Air, Air 2, Mini 2 and Mini 3 devices.)

Settings search
Helps find things in Settings.

Context awareness
On the home screen you can left swipe to get a search screen that offers different options, depending on what you’re doing. It apparently monitors your routine to try to predict what it is you’re looking for. Siri is also a bit more context aware.

Power-save mode (iPhone only)
Drops some power hungry apps into low-power mode to get you more time before recharging.

Notes update
You can now draw in Notes, store checklists and photos. Great for back-of-an-envelope drawing - without the envelope…

Your favorite new features?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Satellite comms for IoT

One of the challenges of natural disasters is that they often knock out key infrastructure – like cell phone service, land lines, power, etc.

Terran Orbital is developing systems based on “nano satellites” that should be able to help.

One such system would put fuel monitors on emergency backup generators' fuel tanks to track who needs fuel and where in the event of an emergency.

The system could also be used for tracking shipping containers, planes, boats, etc. Or for things like environmental monitoring/tracking – watching oil spills, airborne contaminants, smoke, lava flows, tsunamis, floods, etc.

Existing satellite communications use geostationary satellites parked 20,000 miles up – requiring relatively high power to communicate with them. The nano satellites will fly at only about 400 miles, reducing power requirements, but with lower speed signaling (about 1Kbps.) The idea is to trade off reliability for performance.

The satellites could cost less than $100 each (vs millions of dollars for traditional comms satellites) and deliver service much cheaper than current technology. 

Customers pay a subscription fee to use the ones currently in orbit - US military and undisclosed commercial enterprises, so far.

As low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites get cheaper, expect to see them used in other Internet of Things applications.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Multi-display for your laptop

At home, I've used a couple of monitors for more on-screen "real-estate" - this is particularly useful when you're doing software development or other work where you need lots of windows open at once. At work, I hook up a large screen desktop monitor to my laptop for a larger viewable surface. While this is useful, it just doesn't work while traveling.

There's a new device on Kickstarter called "Sliden'Joy" that adds one or two HD displays to your laptop. They're light, thin and will offer 3 sizes: 13", 15", 17" so that you can take them with you when you travel to have the multidisplay experience.

The prototype is less than 2 cm / 0.8" thick - the production version may be a little thinner. It attaches magnetically to the back of your display and the extra displays slide out from either side.

It will work with either a Mac or PC connecting to the laptop via USB (and powered by USB as well.) The displays can be angled in different directions for desktop presentations.

It looks like a 2 display version will start around $350 and a single display version, around $250. With about a month to go in the Kickstarter, no production/delivery date has been set.

For more info:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Stand-alone barcode scanner

There are loads of barcode scanner apps available for your smartphone – you take a picture of the barcode and the phone gives you information about the cost and where to buy it. Some even help you build shopping lists.

Hiku provides similar functionality, but it’s a dedicated device that scans barcodes and then adds the item to a shopping list in the cloud. When you’re getting low on milk, scan the barcode on the carton and milk will be added to your shopping list - which is available to your smartphone when you go shopping. If you run out of something that doesn’t have a bar code, just speak into the device.

It’s rechargeable and works for ~2 months on a charge and uses WiFi to connect to the cloud. It’s also magnetic so you can stick it to the side of your refrigerator. About $80.

As embedded controllers get cheaper and smaller, expect to see more single-purpose devices like this.

For more information:

Monday, July 6, 2015

iOS 8.4 upgrade

I'm an early adopter - when a new release of an operating system comes out, I upgrade pretty quickly. I've been burned a couple of times, but I usually have more than one way to get things done and serious problems usually get fixed pretty quickly.

Last week I upgraded to iOS 8.4 and it was painless. It was pretty fast and I've done it on 5 iOS devices without a glitch (so far.) But, like I always say, unless you're willing to risk some problems, I'd recommend waiting a couple of weeks just to see if other people report problems you can't live with - I've read about people having GPS problems after the upgrade. I haven't noticed this, but I don't use GPS a lot.

There's an Apple iBook with lots more info on 8.4: 

Here's a brief on Apple Music, included with iOS 8.4, highlighting the features: 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

You're magnetic ink...

A challenge to wearable technologies is that they’re typically not flexible – so they have to be embedded in something that can be strapped to your wrist, arm, head, or carried in your pocket or on a chain. An advance in conductive printing technology could change that.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have designed a flexible conductive ink that can be printed on textiles in a one-step printing process. 

The ink is made of silver, rubber and organic surfactants and solvents. It can be stretched 3X and still maintain its conductivity.

This opens the way to flexible sensors that could be printed on anything that needs to flex – clothing, shoes, headbands or even asphalt or EPDM roofing materials!

Here's a link with details:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Chromebook remote access

This year I took an Asus Chromebook on vacation. I wanted something light, portable and with good battery life to use for reading e-mail, browsing and staying connected with work.  And, I didn't want to risk exposing my MacBook to the salt air.

The Chromebook worked well. I use gmail for most of my email accounts (all but work e-mail). Not surprisingly, Chromebooks do gmail very well. I also use a Chrome browser for most of my browsing at work and at home, and the Chromebook obviously does Chrome very well too.

I’m a VDI desktop user (my desktop is on a server at work) and I typically use a MacBook Air to connect using VMWare Horizon. On the Chromebook I used the new VMWare Horizon client app (thanks to Paul Fortner for discovering it.) I’d been looking for this client for a couple of years – ever since the Chromebooks came out. It was a quick install and worked out-of-the-box.

There used to be a couple of very convoluted methods of accessing VMWare VDI’s using Citrix but the Horizon app really simplified things. I needed to use an RSA token to authenticate, but that’s what I use to connect my Mac at home to my desktop VDI at work, so I was all set.

There were some problems with the resort's in-room WiFi for the first couple of days, but it worked fine in their "business center." I got the WiFi sorted out with the help of the concierge and the network support staff and a couple of tedious phone calls... However, once WiFi was working it only took a minute or two to get connected, and once I was connected it was almost like working from home running Horizon. 

I use a cheap Chromebook (less than $200.) The keyboard isn’t as nice as the Mac’s, but it was functional and after using it for a few minutes, it was relatively painless.

The Chromebook downside is that it doesn’t work without a WiFi connection – but since there’s usually a WiFi connection available almost everywhere I go, this didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. I've found plane WiFi unreliable for this kind of access - but this just meant that I could relax and have some deep down-time on the plane ride there and back...

All-in-all it was a useful experiment. Next time I’m out of town on business, I’ll probably take a Chromebook.