Star Trek’s Fantastic Predicted Gizmos

It’s been a slow tech news week so lets take some time to look at some fantastic gizmos we are actually enjoying now and will be enjoying in the years to come as predicted by my favorite TV series.

For many of us a vision of the future has been provided by one very successful television franchise: Star Trek. And the future, it turns out, is coming sooner than even Star Trek‘s writers could have imagined. Here are 12 technical gizmos used on the Star Trek television shows that are now becoming real.

1. FOOD REPLICATOR

Captain Jean-Luc Picard used to say ‘Tea, Earl Gray, hot!” and it would be replicated instantly. Today’s 3D printers don’t tackle tea, but there are machines that actually can print food. And other printers, like the MakerBot Replicator 2 are quite adept at making small objects—just as they were shown to do on later episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

2. UNIVERSAL TRANSLATOR


In several episodes, we marveled at the universal translator, which decoded what aliens said in real-time—and in the later shows, it was integrated into the communication badges (which explains why basically everyone, regardless of home planet, spoke English). Now, there’s an app for that. Voice Translator by TalirApps understands 71 languages (no Klingon yet, though). You speak in your native tongue and the app translates your phrase into another language.

3. TABLET COMPUTERS


Lieutenant Commander Geordi Laforge—you know, the guy from Reading Rainbow—used a tablet computer (what they called Personal Access Data Devices, or PADDs) to punch in coordinates for the next star system. Other Starfleet personnel used them to watch video and listen to music—just the things we use tablets for today.

4. TRICORDER

In the TV show, a tricorder is a handheld device that scans for geological, biological, and meteorological anomalies. Handy! In 2012, Peter Jansen from McMaster University in Ontario built a working prototype that scans for magnetic fields and other interference. And there are lots of other real-world tricorders, too.

5. HOLODECK

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, you could walk into a chamber onboard the Enterprise and visit your home planet for a quick barbecue, or even have an affair with a hologram. Leave it to a bunch of University of Southern California students to make virtual reality a little more down-to-Earth—Project Holodeck used virtual reality goggles to create a fictional world. (Though no encounters with Minuet were reported.)

6. COMMUNICATOR BADGE

On the original series, Kirk and crew carried handheld communicators. But in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Starfleet personnel wore communicator badges on the left breasts of their uniforms. A California start-up called Vocera has created a similar device you pin to your shirt. They’re used mostly in hospitals to avoid having constant overhead pages.

7. TRACTOR BEAM


Pulling a ship with an invisible tractor beam seems impossible, but two New York University professors are making it so. Their experiment, which uses a light beam to control tiny microscopic particles, is not going to be deployed on the next NASA mission, but shows we’re making progress.

8. NATURAL LANGUAGE QUERIES

In the Star Trek universe, you can talk to a computer (voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, Trek creator Gene’s wife) in casual conversation. These days, we’ve got Apple’s Siri and Google Now, and while they aren’t fully developed systems yet, they are baby steps toward a service like Star Trek‘s computer, which has a complex understanding of context. Google even codenamed their voice-based service “Majel,” in honor of Barrett-Roddenberry.

9. WARP DRIVE

No one in Star Trek ever sits down and explains how a warp drive works in detail, but we know it has something to do with bending space and traveling faster than the speed of light. Doesn’t seem possible, but NASA has suggested that a warp drive is possible.

10. PHASER

Captain Kirk was pretty handy with a phaser, and he didn’t always set his to stun. Ironically, we’ve been using something similar since the first Iraq War. Known as a dazzler, the directed-energy weapon sends a pulse of electromagnetic radiation to stop someone cold in their tracks.

11. TELEPORTATION

To get from place to place, Captain Kirk and company didn’t need an airplane—they didn’t even need a space elevator. Instead, they teleported using the U.S.S. Enterprise‘s transporter (a scenario we all dream about while standing in line at airport security). We’ve already done some teleportation—specifically, of photons and atoms. These particles don’t disappear and reappear, though. According to Forbes, “the information contained in the photon’s quantum state is transmitted from one photon to another through quantum entanglement – without actually travelling the intervening distance.” An exact copy appears on the other side, while the original photon is destroyed. According to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, we consist of 15 trillion cells, so we’ll need to wait a few centuries before we’re teleporting like Kirk. And we’ll still have to destroy the original.

12. HYPOSPRAY

In the world of Star Trek, there’s no need for needles (and thus no trypanophobia)—Bones administered medicine through the skin using painless jet-injected hypospray. Recently, MIT created a similar device that, according to Geek.com, “delivers a drug through the skin at speeds of up to 340 meters per second and in under a millisecond. The amount of drug can be varied, as can how deep it is injected. And as far as the patient is concerned, they shouldn’t feel anything other than the tip of the injector against their skin. That’s because the jet is as thin as a mosquito’s proboscis.” It’s not the first, but it does have more control than other hyposprays, which means it could actually be a replacement for needles—and that would make visits to the doctor’s office with your kids much easier.

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Star Trek Invades Alexa

I am a big fan of Amazon;s Alexa devices. These far outpace Siri (Apple) or Cortana (Microsoft) in how they can actually be a useful tool in your home.

Amazon’s Alexa devices are constantly being improved through updates and skills. An now we learn that Amazon has added another Wake Word option.

Wake Words, of course, are the words you can use to cause Alexa to start listening to your requests. Without the Wake Word, Alexa just sits waiting. For privacy nuts, this should be proof enough that Amazon is respecting the customer’s private moments and conversations, but some still suspect she’s listening anyway. Alexa devices provide a hardware button to stop her from listening completely.

Originally, Alexa came with just three Wake Word options: Alexa, Amazon, and Echo. But, now Alexa has a fourth Wake Word as Amazon has added “Computer” to the mix.

Rumor suggests that Amazon is still intent on providing the ability to allow customers to create their own Wake Words sometime in the future.

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Pebbles Gets Round

I have been using a smartwatch for almost two years now and after trying a couple my favorite has always been Pebble. One of the complaints of many about smartwatches is their geekness. However for me this has never really been a problem for me because… well you can probably guess why.

It now appears Pebble is trying to appeal to those who may want to tryout a smartwatch… subtly.

The latest Pebble looks different from previous models of the smartwatch. Instead of a square screen with rounded edges, it bears a circular watch face.

The Pebble Time Round also is thinner and lighter than its siblings, but it’s not as water-resistant. Also the battery does not last as long, lasting a couple of days rather than a week. That earns it a black mark for me, as long battery life is critical for an effective smartwatch in my book. My Pebble Time lasts about a week without a charge!

It does looks to be a little classier than Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel as well as most other smartwatches. There is of course, a new set of watch faces to reflect the new design. Pebble also has a new software development kit that aims to make it easy for developers to switch their apps from square to circular displays.

The watch starts shipping in November for $249.

As I have reported here a couple of times I am already an admirer of Pebble Time but I will probably not be switching to the new Pebble Time Round however I have a feeling it will be very popular.

You can learn more about Pebble here.

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Star Trek’s Communicator Dream Realized

If you are a dedicated reader of this fine technology blog and better yet, if you have gotten to know me you surely are aware that I have been a Star Trek fan since my earliest days on this planet. Of the most magical gadgets from the original Star Trek TV Series (1967-1969) was of course the original communicator. Long before the invention of the smartphone Captain Kirk and his crew were getting around the galaxy with their trusty communicator on their hip.

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Now today it looks like my dream of actually owning and using a true blue Star Trek Communicator may be realized.

It hooks up to your phone using Bluetooth, so it’s not too far from the indignity of a headset in some ways, but when it stars shipping in January 2016, it’ll bring my 40+ year wait to an end.

Since Star Trek: TOS debuted in 1966, fans have wanted to get their hands on an officially sanctioned Communicator. This is the first licensed version to also be fully functional.

It’s being created The Wand Company and is based on structured-light 3D scans of the an original prop. It’s made of pressed and die cast metal, aluminium and textured ABS. It comes with a magnetic charging  stand, which has a multi-coloured LED to indicate charging status.

The makers of the Communicator have put a high quality microphone and speaker into the shell. But while it can play music and make calls when connected to your smartphone, it doesn’t support sub-space frequencies or give you enough range to go on an away mission.

At a retail price of $149.99 I really hope that someone gifts this to me!

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Special 1000th Post! Keep Your Tech Safe at the Shore

I am about 20 days from a much needed vacation at my favorite shore spot. Each summer I take a moment to write a post about keeping your tech safe at the shore. So If you are headed to the beach do not forget these “essential” gadgets.

How to Get All Your Gadgets Ready for the Beach this Summer

If are unable to leave your gadgets behind while on vacation (just like me) you might as well keep them safe. Between the sun, the sand and water you should take good care of your tech because if you don’t your vacation could cost you even more cash.

E-Book Reader or Tablet

You’ll want reading material. Sure you can bring real books and real magazines, but that’s a lot to carry.

I prefer e-readers over tablets for e-books because e-readers work better in direct sunlight and don’t come with such distractions as Facebook updates. Amazon has the best readers out there.

At $119, the Paperwhite is the best option for reading anywhere, even with the sun shining.

For digital magazines, you’re better off with a tablet because e-reader screens typically lack color. I like Apple’s iPad for its size and shape. You can also read e-books on the tablet, too, but e-readers offer a better, glare-free experience.

Battery Chargers

You’ll probably have to crank up the brightness on your tablet and phone to overcome all that glare in direct sunlight. That will drain the battery quickly. Bring a portable power pack, which is essentially a battery for recharging the battery on your gadget.

Mophy is my favorite charger solution out there and they have many shapes and sizes to choose from me.

The dual-cord chargers will be overkill for many individuals. Mophie makes not just battery packs but also phone cases with extra power for leading phones. The drawback is you need a new one when you switch models, though I’ve found batteries tend to wear out over time anyway.

There are lots of others to choose from. Some battery packs have Apple or Android cords built-in, while others have a USB port, which means more flexibility, but also cords you need to bring. A higher price tag usually means more charging capacity.

Dealing with Beach Traffic

The Waze mapping app won’t eliminate traffic, but it might shave off time by finding a quicker route. In some cases, that means getting off a congested highway an exit or two early and using local roads. Users report traffic conditions through the app to let Waze find the fastest routes.

Mapping apps from Apple and Google, which owns Waze, do factor in traffic conditions, but it feels special to be getting that from fellow motorists. In the rare times that I drive, I’ve found Waze to be spot-on. It doesn’t work well when there are few other Waze users to report traffic, but traffic-heavy destinations such as the beach should draw plenty of users and traffic data.

Getting Wet?

Waterproof gadgets might be overkill unless you’re a lifeguard at the beach every day. Same goes for waterproof cases and pouches, which also make gadgets more difficult to use. The only time I’ve found a waterproof case useful is when I’ve gone snorkeling with a point-and-shoot camera.

Ziploc and other re-sealable plastic bags can help protect gadgets from inadvertent splashes. A small amount of liquid usually won’t kill a gadget. Jumping into the ocean or pool with the phone in your pocket is another matter. Use common sense.

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A Quick Look at the New Pebble Time

Today, as the Pebble Time arrives the smartwatch landscape is very different then it was back in 2013 when Pebble released their initial model. Now that Apple has released their Apple Watch, survival in this emerging smartwatch arena will be tougher then ever before. This all being understood I have used a Pebble Smartwatch since its debut in 2013. I have tried a couple along the way, such as the Galaxy Gear and quickly gave up and returned to the trusty little Pebble.

My Pebble Time finally arrived at the end of last week and I have only been using it for a few days so I wanted to give this quick review.

Pebble Time is a lower-end product when compared to the likes of the Apple Watch or LG Watch Urbane. It has huge plastic bezels, a non-touch screen and a default band is a stretchy and rubbery. However if do not want to go into the poorhouse to have a smartwatch this can be forgiven.

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Not to be outdone by the Apple Watch, there is a great Mickey Mouse watchface available here as well!

This smart watch is a happy reminder of what made Pebble a major player in the smartwatch arena in the first place. First, this new watch looks better than I thought it would. Do not misunderstand, this is not elegant, luxurious or jewelry-like in any way – but it has a simplistic view that many will appreciate. Not everyone wants to scream out, “Hey look  at me,I have a smartwatch!”

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For me I just dig this Star Trek LCARS watchface. Just look at all of that information displayed on the screen!

The thick lines of that bezel and the border surrounding the screen bleed into the software’s visual theme – making the design feel less like a cost-cutting necessity and more like a choice (which could be an illusion, but at least it’s an effective one).

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All of the basic functions of a good smartwatch are here. Notifications appear on the watch with a vibration and they are easy to read at a glance.

Its software is now organized as a timeline. From the main watch face, the down button (again, it relies on four physical buttons, as there’s no touchscreen) moves forward in time, while the up button moves back. It’s logical, but it might only make sense for people with busy schedules full of lots of calendar events. The process of getting back to missed notifications is actually a bit less straightforward than it was on older Pebbles.

Pebble Time also now apparently has voice control, something no previous Pebble could do. I have not had a chance to test this yet but will do do soon.

Another important advantage of the Pebble Time is that it is cross-platform which means that you can use it with any smartphone you have. If you have an iPhone, Android or Windows Phone this will work. The Apple Watch only work with an iPhone. I do not like feeling trapped in any particular eco-system which is one of the reasons I have stayed with the Pebble line and waiting so patiently for this new one.

The Pebble Time is not perfect, but it does handle all of the basic tasks we think of when it comes to a good smartwatch. There are very little bells and whistles and it will not be mistaken for a piece of jewelry but that is not what I am look for from this type of technology.

I will have much more on Pebble Time in my full review, but my early impressions are that it could continue to fill a niche as a less expensive smartwatch with a quiet profile that many will apreciate.

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Pebble Steel Review

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Once setup notifications are actually fairly easy to read as they arrive.

I had been using a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwach for about a year and you can find my early reviews of it here. That particular devices has a couple of really big hurdles hurting it, the biggest being that it is compatible only with a select few high-end Samsung smartphones. It is also larger then is necessary. So with that it mind I decided to check out the Pebble.

Also important to be aware of is that the pebble works across all three major platforms, Apple, Android and Windows phone. This is very important for any wearable technology that hopes to find any success.

A metal wristband with a corresponding finish and a black leather band come with each unit, which look and work like the bands on any high-end watch. You will need an extremely tiny screwdriver that is not included. I simply do not understand why one was not included. Most consumers will not have one as small you this needs. Even with all of my computer tools I actually do not have a screwdriver small enough. Therefore I have been unable to swap out the leather band for the metal version at the time of this review. 

The watch weighs in at about 2 oz. and has 1 button on the left side and 3 on the right side. Compared to the Galaxy Gear this is incredibly small and low profile.  There is also a magnetic charging port on the left side as well. Also compared to the Galaxy Gear this is an improvement. The Gear actually comes with a “charging dock” as where here you simply need the cable. 

Navigating the Pebble

With the recent 2.2 firmware upgrade you can now control the music playing on your device.

The Pebble Steel is not a touch screen, and the navigation can be a little confusing at first, but after a little practice the use of the buttons is easily mastered.

In place of a touchscreen are four buttons, one on the left and three on the right. The top and bottom right buttons let you scroll up or down through the menus, while the middle right and left button both seem to have the same function: they exit and enter menus.

The right button will take you back a screen as well as activating a back light.

With a firmware upgrade you can also now both control music selection and volume directly from your pebble.

Notifications Galore

One of the promises of any smartwatch is that it is “smart” and will obviously display phone notifications and messages on your watch. The idea is that a smartwatch will save you from pulling your phone out as often, perhaps even saving some battery life on your phone. Pebble does this well, but you have to curb it’s apatite for notifications . Out of the box you will either you get every notification, or you get none of them. It’s all or nothing. 

I struggled with this until I found the third party app, “Pebblify” which allows you to select and choose what notifications to receive. Once I installed this and set it up the notifications began to work as expected. I would recommend “Pebblify” to anyone using a Pebble. 

You gotta live my LCARS theme!

You gotta live my LCARS theme!

Watchfaces

There are plenty of great watchface themes available in the Pebble appstore. Some are of course better then others and you can really customize your watch by browsing these.

Battery Life

After three days of continuous use, I usually still have about 30 percent battery life which is good, especially compared to the Galaxy Gear. It is very easy to to snap on the magnetic charger as well. 

Conclusion

The Pebble Steel is a far better-looking watch than the first Pebble as well as the Galaxy Gear. A recent firmware upgrade (2.2) added more features such as the ability to control the music you are playing on your phone as well as controlling the volume. The pebble starts at $150 and you can learn more at www.getpebble.com

Smartwatches are in their infancy and much more improvement is needed before these are as common as smartphones but the Pebble Steel is a step in the right direction.

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HBO Joins FireTV

amazon-fire-tvEarlier this month I picked up Amazon’s FireTV in hope that it would be the only streaming box I would need, replacing both my AppleTV and ChomeTV.

Although I was impressed with much of FireTV I was surprised and disappointed that HBO GO was not included.

Fast foreard to today when we learned that Amazon Prime Instant Video members will soon have access to HBO content. The two companies have apparently signed a multi-year licensing agreement.

The first wave of HBO shows and mini-series will be available starting on May 21, and content will continually be introduced in the coming years. The licensing deal includes access to “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” “Big Love,” “Deadwood,” “Family Tree,” “Enlightened,” “Eastbound & Down,” “True Blood,” and “Treme”. In addition previous series will be available as addition HBO shows roll out as the multi-year agreement progresses.

And in addition, and this is key to me, HBO GO will be available on Amazon’s Fire TV by end of the year. This is really good news to me because I need to clear some space in my entertainment center!

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FireTV under Review

If there is one thing I fall for every time is a new gadget for the family room entertainment system. I have tried several streaming boxes during the past several years and really only Apple TV has survived – consistently in service at home. Roku and recently the ChromeCast have basically come and gone for me. Both are pretty good devices but neither one brings enough to the TV center to replace or out use the Apple TV.

So when Amazon announced their own streaming box, FireTV I was a little underwhelmed until I did a little research. Now before I go onto my review know that if you do not have AmazonPrime and if you already have AppleTV or a Ruku3 there probably is no single home run here to inspire you to try it.

FireTV has a easy to use and fast interface. I was impressed with this.

FireTV has a easy to use and fast interface. I was impressed with this.

Setup

One of the coolest things Amazon does is automatically link the Fire TV to your Amazon account. I purchased mine from Amazon of course and my account information was already configured for me!

All of my movies that I had purchased previously through Amazon were already there – in my library. I had even recently purchased the Blu-Ray “Europa Report” and there is was – in my digital library.

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The remote is slightly larger then the Apple TV remote, but not by much and this is probably the result of the built in microphone. More on that shortly. 

The menus navigate quickly and smoothly and are nice to look at.

One of the most innovative features is a voice search. You do this by simply pressing the microphone on the remote, and it listens. In my testing it understood me perfectly, finding TV shows, movies and actors names very accurately.

Content

As I expected, the majority of content is the same as you’d find on Amazon’s website our other streaming apps. The “free” content for Prime subscribers is set apart and easy to distinguish between content for rent or purchase.

You can install both Netflix and Hulu Plus as well. I was glad to see Showtime’s app included but was disappointed that HBOGO was somehow missing.

The voice search feature seems to only search Amazon content which is another disappointment. It really should search the other content you have subscriptions for such as Netflix.

Gaming

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One of the Fire’s reported benefits is its ability to work as a gaming console. The controller was not available when I purchased the FireTV so I was not able to test it. Unlike in my younger days I really have not time to indulge in video games any longer, especially very detail oriented and long playing games. The gaming library here is from Android’s PlayStore so for me this may get me into a little gaming from time to time, but I won’t be sur eabout that until I can get my hands on a game remote.

Conclusion

For a first generation streaming box this is really impressive. Other then the absence of HBOGO I would actually consider retiring my AppleTV. Also considering the recent poor results as far I am concerned with Google’s ChromeCast this if the first true competitor to Apple and Ruku in the streaming arena.

The FireTV is $99 and of course available through Amazon and the gaming remote is another $29.

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Gadgets in the Air – Under Review

One of the rules that has boggled me for years is why when traveling in the air we are forced to turn off our gadgets when landing and taking off. This never really made since to me. Although many of these gadgets do broadcast wireless signals, up again the power of a modern airplane their capability of “interfering” with flight operations to my knowledge has never been proven or explained to the traveling public.

The manufactures of these “gadgets” have tried to work around this crazy rule by adding an ‘airplane mode” option. This option when turned on turns off all wireless activity. However if you ever tried to explain this to a stewardess after being told to turn your Nook off you understand that it is a battle you will not win.

There finally is some hope for us who fly regularly. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is reportedly putting together a group to re-examine current testing procedures and policies airlines have in place for gadgets. However this group will not be considering airborne use of cell phones for voice communication.

Baby steps are better than no steps at all. Especially considering that these policies and procedures are way behind the speed at which we adopt new technology. This newly formed group will look at how these devices are tested for use in the air. In addition the current standards for use of portable electronic devices on board an airplane will be closely looked at.

The group will meet for six months before giving recommendations to the FAA for a policy changes.

The FAA is also seeking feedback from the traveling public. I am very impressed to see the FAA taking this further step. You can read the official FAA document by clicking here.

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