The Ego! Smartmouse Combines Hardware Authentication With A Mouse That Doubles As A Motion Controller


A new Kickstarter project called the Ego! Smartmouse blends together some recent trends in computing, including hardware identity authentication and 3D motion control to come up with a unique input device that wears many hats. The Ego! is a mouse in the traditional sense, allowing you to control your desktop or laptop computer, and it also has on-board file storage, can work as an authentication device for various services, and features built-in acceleration and motion detection to work like a Wiimote for controlling games.

The Smartmouse packs its own Linux-based OS into its compact design, with a 400 MHz ARM9 processor and up to 8GB of onboard flash storage. It connects via Bluetooth, has a gyroscope, compass and optical mouse sensor in addition to its accelerometer, and also includes a built-in VGA camera, touch-sensitive surface, vibration motor and notification LEDs. It charges via micro USB, and the project creators say it’ll get a decent amount of battery life thanks to the use of low-power tech.

Created by UK-based design firm Laura Sapiens, the Ego! Smartmouse is the product of a team with strong engineering and interaction design backgrounds. CEO Matteo Modè comes from an industrial and automotive engineering background, and the founding team also includes expertise in embedded security, consumer electronics, computer vision and embedded systems.

As you can see in the demo, the Ego! looks to be equally at home on the desktop, controlling media center PCs from the couch, or working with gaming applications to provide 3D controls. It can also automate routine tasks like opening a browser and logging into an email account, and be used as a presentation tool in combination with a projector. The on-board camera makes syncing the Ego! as easy as pointing the mouse at a QR code displayed on-screen (eliminating messy discovery and pairing procedures), and in an office setting it can be used to quickly and easily transfer files between workstations.

The team is looking for £20,000 in funding, with early pre-orders starting at just £70 for a 2GB black or white version of the Ego!, including international shipping. Higher storage is available for £110 (4GB) and £120 (8GB), both of which also offer up new color options as well.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Andy Rubin: Google Has ‘No Plans’ To Launch Retail Stores


In a roundtable discussion with reporters today, Google’s head of Android Andy Rubin came right out and flatly denied the search giant was considering the launch of retail locations. “Google has no plans and we have nothing to announce,” Rubin was reported as saying by AllThingsD’s Ina Fried. Curiously, Rubin’s explanation for why Google doesn’t need stores was basically the exact opposite of argument from third-party observers about why it does.

Rubin said that consumers “don’t have to go in the store and feel [products] anymore,” according to ATD. That’s a pretty marked contrast to what a lot of people have been saying about why Google might want to get into the brick-and-mortar biz. Just last week, MG suggested that “average consumers are never going to buy [Google’s] projects online without having tried them first,” in fact. Apple has had success providing experience-based shopping environments, after all, which helped greatly in evangelizing and popularizing the concept of the iPad.

But Rubin believes that consumers these days are better served by online tools, including review sites and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and social connections, to the point where a hands-on experience isn’t necessary. He added that he believes Google’s Nexus program is still relatively young, and not “far enough along to think about the necessity of having these things in a retail store.”

Looking at Google’s hardware efforts in the wake of the Chromebook Pixel announcement last week, it does seem that the company is still in a largely experimental mode when it comes to fielding its own devices. A significant retail investment might not make sense until Google decides more firmly what works and what doesn’t with its hardware lineups in terms of meeting current customer needs.

TechCrunch » android

The Super-Slim Xperia Tablet Z Feels Like Sony’s Finest Tablet Yet


After Sony released a string of curious Android tablets that failed to catch on, the company had no choice but to go back to the drawing table and try something different. That something different wound up being the Xperia Tablet Z, easily one of its most conventional designs yet — a choice that may end up paying off nicely. Now that the decidedly non-kooky Xperia Tablet Z is gearing up for an appearance stateside, we tracked one down here at MWC to get a glimpse at what Sony’s tantalizingly thin tab brings to the table.

First things first — if you’re a fan of minimalist industrial design, then you’ll find a lot to like here. Sony’s bright 10.1-inch Reality Display (running at 1,920×1200 no less) is the clear focal point of the device’s face, and there’s nothing else save for a Sony logo, an IR blaster in the corner, and an easily missed 2-megapixel camera. The display is also aided by one of Sony’s Mobile Bravia engines, which means colors can easily take on a lurid cast unless you dial it down. Meanwhile, the back is a matte black slab devoid of any detail other than a small Xperia logo and an 8.1-megapixel camera in the top- right corner. One could easily call it dull, but “understated” feels like a better fit because of how nice it feels.

The Tablet Z weighs in at a scant 1.09 pounds, and its trim waistline is only 6.99mm thick — for a bit of perspective, the iPad mini is just a hair thicker at 7.22mm. In order to keep the weight as low as possible Sony resorted to an almost entirely plastic body. That sounds like the recipe for a chintzy-feeling tab, but that’s definitely not the case here. Despite being very light, the Tablet Z has a remarkably solid, premium feel to it. There’s a little bit of give to be felt if you grab the thing by the sides and give it a twist so it may suffer from some long-term issues down the road, but it’s a far cry from some of the overly creaky, plasticky tablets that still pepper the market.

Click to view slideshow.

A quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset and 2GB of RAM are tucked away inside the Tab Z’s waterproof chassis, and my time with the Tablet Z was largely lag-free. When faced with the prospect of putting out tens of devices for public consumption at Mobile World Congress, most companies typically try to do something to keep we nerds from mucking around with them too much. Not so here — I was able to download and install Quadrant from the Google Play Store to get a slightly better idea of what the Tablet Z is capable of. Over the course of three trials the Tablet Z consistently put up scores in the low to mid-7,000s and topped out at 7601 — devices like the Nexus 10 and Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 usually hover around the mid-4,000s.

Granted, this is a synthetic benchmark and doesn’t provide a complete picture of performance, but it’s clear that Xperia Tablet Z is no slouch.

I only really have one gripe with Xperia Tablet Z — the custom UI that Sony has loaded on top of Android. Longtime readers may know that I’m an avid proponent of leaving Android untouched, and Sony’s implementation just doesn’t do it for me. In fairness, it’s lighter and less cumbersome than some of the other overlays currently clogging up other Android devices so you may disagree, but the occasional bit of visual stutter while rifling through menus, and the fact that background images were distorted when set, raised some flags. That said, Sony has added some neat features to help make up for it, such as a universal remote app that doubles as a programming guide, and a revamped new gallery that displays geotagged photos on a globe.

At an early morning press address yesterday, Sony Mobile CEO Kuni Suzuki pointed to a renewed focus on bringing the company’s “cutting-edge technology and resources” to Sony Mobile, and confidently called 2013 a “breakthrough year.” Naturally, it’s too early to tell if that actually pans out, but certainly not impossible. The Xperia Tablet Z is a (hopefully not so) rare return to form for Sony, and here’s hoping that the rest of 2013 is full of products as well-executed as this one.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Opera’s CEO On Innovation And Privacy, And A First Look At Its New WebKit-Based Browser For Android [TCTV]

opera mobile android webkit

Web browser company Opera Software, now 300 million users strong, caught the world off guard the other week when it announced that it would be ditching its own Presto framework and moving instead to Google’s WebKit to power its mobile and desktop browsers. In an interview with TechCrunch today, Opera’s CEO Lars Boilesen said that the decision has freed up the company to innovate in a way that it hadn’t for years. “By moving, it meant that we no longer had to have to have 200 engineers working on the core-level product,” he said in an interview with TechCrunch. “That meant they could work on new stuff. We could go on the offensive.”

Oslo, Norway-based Opera is in Barcelona this week and has been showing off a build of its browser to those who ask. We have a video of how it looks below — with a walk-through of new features, as presented by Opera’s head of product and SVP business development, Nuno Sitma.

We also took the opportunity to talk to Boilesen about what “new stuff” the browser would contain, and other topics like those Facebook acquisition rumors.

He says that the company was laser-focused on launching new features in the WebKit-based browser, which is due out in a matter of weeks. “When you switch code you have to come out with products really quickly,” he said. He even made a deal with his engineers — they played the wager — that he would run 40 kilometers if they could ship all the features they wanted to include in the new build by the time they announced their news earlier this month. He’s now training for a marathon.

Boilesen says that Opera’s move to WebKit and away from Presto was because Opera’s own core platform has ceased to be as essential in the industry. “Opera ported to different platforms. Opera was the engine that could run where no one else could,” he said. Times have changed, though. Together, Android and iOS accounted for 90% of the smartphones shipped in Q4 2012, according to Gartner. Fragmentation has ceased to be an issue for Opera. “There is no fragmentation in the market,” he told me, flatly. But the change has not been fast for them. He says that it was as early as 2009 that Opera could see the logic of moving away from Presto, when “everyone switched to Android.”

Indeed, there is a sense that while switching to WebKit may have made sense from an operational point of view, there was also a cultural nostalgia behind it. Boilsen was employed as employee number “sixteen or seventeen” in 1999. “Back then we were still in the startup phase,” he said. “Now we have nearly 1,000 people and are public, but we still want to feel empowered.” He says he uses Google as a model: “a good example of how you can remain innovative even when growing big.”

The new browser, as you will see below, runs smoothly and with good response, as a “native UI” experience in Boilesen’s words. (this was a live test using crappy network in the over-congested show floor of MWC).

One of the key features is two modes of network browsing. Effectively, Opera has embedded the Opera Mini browser as a proxy browser into its smartphone browser, which it calls “server mode,” designed to be used when you are on slower networks to bring down the time it takes to render pages. (This is in a popup menu that you can see in the video below.)

(Interestingly, he notes that for now the actual Opera Mini browser will remain on Presto — although eventually it and the company’s desktop browser will also be migrated.)

Opera has also overhauled discovery on its app, taking some cues from the use of its Smart Page social features — offering social recommendations by integrating with Facebook, and letting you share links that you like with others — that it launched last year. “We have 30 million users of those Smart Pages every week, and we found that people do want things recommended in the browser.”

But perhaps another lesson learned is that not everyone actually wants to be social in their discovery. “We now think Smart Page is not [quite] the right thing. It should be lean back surfing,” he says. “Things come to you.”

This part of the site — which looks a little like a simplified version of Flipboard in the video below — is not based on your browsing history. “We don’t want to know about your browsing history. We don’t want to spy on your history,” he says. “We base this on an algorithm and our database.”

Here’s how it works: while Opera does not track your browsing history, what it does do is read all the words on the pages that you view. These it feeds into an algorithm, which then searches the web for more content that fits the same profile. On top of that, it uses your location to further customize searches.

Given the move away from social signals, and the talk of maintaining privacy while still offering recommendations got me thinking about Facebook, and all those reports that Opera was in acquisition talks with the social networking giant — triggered by the latter company’s clear interest in mobile, and clear lack of mobile browser, and Opera’s large base of mobile users particularly in emerging markets.

Unsurprisingly, Boilesen gave no comment, just a laugh and an uncomfortable look away. Too hard to read into this. And this: “We have 240 million mobile users, 32% of them (85 million) on smartphones. That means we are playing in the big league.” Similarly, he was unable to explain why co-founder Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner was suddenly selling off shares — he owned 10% and could have blocked a sale. (One other theory: he liked Presto and didn’t agree with the decision.)

But if there ever was a sale on the cards, it’s off the cards now. “It’s true that in Norway if you have more than 10% you can block an acquisition, but at Opera we are not thinking about selling,” he said. “I think things are going well. We’re profitable and continue reinvesting and things have never gone better. And, we just acquired Skyfire. You don’t do that if you are selling the company.”

Skyfire, which Opera bought earlier this month for a price of up to $ 155 million, specializes in video optimization and monetization technologies. Boilesen says it will be a “two to three year” project to integrate it into Opera. It points to more focus for the company, which also recently consolidated all of its advertising operations into a single Mediaworks brand.

The new Opera for Android will be out “very soon,” with and iOS app to follow “right after,” and then “all tablets,” says Boilesen. After that it will turn to the desktop but not before the summer. Opera Mini, as we said above, will remain on Presto for now.

TechCrunch » android

BlackBerry Launches BBM Money Pilot In Indonesia

BBMMoney - three images

BlackBerry may be launching a new platform in certain markets to try to win back users, but it’s focusing on service additions in other places where the BlackBerry install base remains strong. Today it’s officially launching BBM Money in Indonesia, in partnership with PermataBank and Monitise to bring real-time mobile payments to BlackBerry’s platform-specific social network and messaging service.

The service (tipped late last year) allows BlackBerry users to create a mobile money account attached to their BBM identity, and use that to transfer money to other BBM contacts, as well as purchase airtime credit for their device, or move money to bank accounts. The mobile payments play will mean that million of Indonesian BBM customers will be able to quickly conduct business transactions right in the service where many of them already communicate on business matters, and allow merchants and others to quickly accept payments with the devices they already own without requiring the involvement of any third-party device or software.

Market saturation of phones overall in Indonesia is high, and BlackBerry is the number one selling smartphone in the country, which makes it a logical place to launch a mobile money service that requires both parties to have BlackBerries to work. Monitise Group Strategy Director Richard Johnson went into more detail about just why the Indonesian market was such a perfect fit for this launch.

“BlackBerry Messenger is the dominant short message communication platform in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world with 240 million people,” he said in an interview. “There is also the country’s 90 percent mobile penetration and the fact that BlackBerry is the number one selling mobile smartphone there – more than half of all smartphones sold in Indonesia are BlackBerry devices. At a global level, what is really exciting here with real-time chat evolving through real-time engagement, is that you are effectively taking a social network and turning it into a payment network.”

Users aren’t charged for sending money between BBM contacts, or topping up their airtime minutes on a prepaid SIM using the service. They do incur normal banking and mobile rates, however, depending on their specific bank’s policies regarding fund transfers, and on their mobile plan. It work with any device running BlackBerry OS 5 or higher, with BBM 6 or higher, though it isn’t available on BB10 (which is of little consequence, since it has yet to launch in Indonesia anyway).

BBM Money does two key things for BlackBerry: It helps entrench the service in markets where BlackBerry is still the smartphone platform of choice, and it offers yet another opportunity for service differentiation to continue to help evolve BBM into something more than similar offerings from Apple (iMessage) and third parties (Kik, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger). Should the pilot go well, I’d expect to see further launches in other markets where BlackBerry needs to dig in to help keep its lead, like Nigeria and South Africa.

TechCrunch » Gadgets