Hands On With The Node, A Sensor-Packed Smartphone Dongle


As a scientist practicing actual, bonafide science, I have often found myself in need of immediate g-force readings or barometric pressure analyses for my scientific problems. Whereas before I had to use my sextant and trident and thermowhozzit, I can instead use the Node.

The Node, originally a Kickstarter project, is basically a tube of sensors. Most of the sensors are built into the tips of the tube and they include accelerometers, barometers, thermometers, and gyroscopes. You can then connect the Node to a smartphone via low-power Bluetooth 4.0 and take and record readings.

Initially created as a Kickstarter project, the Node blossomed into a fairly complete sensor array. The iPhone app, for example, offers readouts for all major sensor inputs and the readouts change dynamically as the sensors receive input. You can even record sensor inputs for a time, allowing you to see data changes in real time. They also offer an Android app.

The entry-level model is called the Kore and costs $ 149. Additional modules, including a thermometer and flashlight, start at $ 25. The platform is open source as are the apps and there is a full developer site. You can see some example measurements of me futzing around with it below. For example, I took temperature readings of stuff around me and then of my body.

Click to view slideshow.

Who needs this? Well, with the thermometer built in you have an extremely handy way to spot measure temperatures in machinery and the flashlight is bright and really cool. The Kore features themselves are great for hobbyists and the barometric measurements could be helpful to those who are into barometry. Sadly, I’m not smart enough to figure out all of the potential uses but each module has a helpful description. For example, the Kore can be used for:

Motion mapping for animation or physical therapy
Motion-based cues like telling when the washer stops or the door opens
Impact testing
Use as a gesture-based remote control
Multiple, simultaneous data streams…

Obviously this takes a bit of hacking, but that’s the fun, right? I could personally see this as being useful in, say, a model rocket launch to sense the forces applied by rapid acceleration in a physics classroom or as a method to alarm my refrigerator door so my kids don’t steal my beer. Either way, it’s pretty darn cool.

The Node is available now.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

OLPC Project Puts Tablets In The Hands Of Formerly Illiterate Children With Amazing Results


The story sounded far-fetched: OLPC researchers, working with a team of technicians in Ethiopia, created a special “hut” covered in solar panels where the children of a few distant towns could go to recharge some toys they were given. The toys were boxed Motorola Xoom tablets and every child between the age of four and eight got one. The researchers were expecting the children to play with the boxes and potentially open them in the first week but instead they turned them on in less than an hour and a few months later were modifying the settings and singing ABC songs. It was, at once, a triumph of technology and of the human capacity to learn.

The hut became a focal point for the town’s children and the kids loved their tablets so much that they slept with them. One kid would learn how to launch a Disney movie and the others would follow. Another kid learned how to unlock the built-in camera. It was a form of viral education that we see, under the surface of many childhood interactions, ever day. They learned without learning.

We first heard this story last week in Boston when we were touring the MIT Media Lab and it sounded too good to be true. The thought that children cut off from education by dint of their physical location were able to learn, without teachers, the rudiments of English and how to manage a complex tablet device, was wild. Luckily MIT’s in-house magazine, Technology Review put together a very nice story about the project and I have to say I’m impressed.

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

The experiment is being done in two isolated rural villages with about 20 first-grade-aged children each, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa. One village is called Wonchi, on the rim of a volcanic crater at 11,000 feet; the other is called Wolonchete, in the Great Rift Valley. Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them, Negroponte said.

I’ve been down on the educational value of “throwing” electronics at kids for years. However, this example of a positive outcome is inspiring. Sadly, these children would presumably have no education at all if they didn’t receive these tablets and the fact that they far surpassed the researcher’s expectations proves, categorically, that modern technology has moved from the realm of the technical to the realm of what can be called conversational. I’m reminded of William Gibson’s comment on going to the movies for the first time.

But I remember being taken to my first film, either a Disney animation or a Disney nature documentary (I can’t recall which I saw first) and being overwhelmed by the steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve: in that hour, I learned to watch film. Was taught, in effect, by the film itself. I was years away from being able to read my first novel, and would need a lot of pedagogy, to do that. But film itself taught me, in the dark, to view it. I remember it as a sort of violence done to me, as full of terror as it was of delight. But when I emerged from that theater, I knew how to watch film.

What had happened to me was historically the result of an immensely complex technological evolution, encompassing optics, mechanics, photography, audio recording, and much else. Whatever film it was that I first watched, other people around the world were also watching, having approximately the same experience in terms of sensory input. And that film no doubt survives today, in Disney’s back-catalog, as an experience that can still be accessed.

Reading a book, he wrote, was hard. It required years of education and training and a concentration that many children don’t possess. But, thanks to advances in technology, he and every other child can understand a film, or in this case, a tablet. The skills needed to open a Xoom, turn it on, and play with it have been subsumed deep within the technology. In short, the tablet hides complexity so completely that anyone with a finger and a good head on their shoulders can learn from it. This is a triumph but it is double-edged. On one hand it creates a grave disconnect between the nuts and bolts of the OS and the user and on the other hand it encourages projects like the Raspberry Pi which aims to bring the bare metal back into computer interaction.

Teachers are important. Technology, thankfully, can replace some of their skills. I doubt that dropping a dozen tablets on a remote village in Ethiopia or – and this is true – rural Georgia is the end of our responsibility to these children. It is, however, a promising beginning.

Read the rest of the piece here. Being down on OLPC is fashionable recently, but it’s clearly working.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Hands On With The EOS M, Canon’s First Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera


Canon waited quite a while to get into the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) market, biding its time as competitors like Olympus, Panasonic and Sony built up strong reputations for their own small, slim mirrorless designs. But earlier this year, it introduced the EOS M, its first MILC offering. That camera should hit store shelves by the end of this month, but I got to take it for a brief test drive at an event last night ahead of this week’s PhotoPlus conference in New York.

The EOS M is a surprisingly small camera. It probably seemed even more so because I was using it initially with Canon’s 24-70mm f/2.8 L lens attached via the official adapter ring (which brings with it full autofocus functionality by the way), but with the EF-M 22mm f/2 kit lens attached it’s actually pretty pocketable. It reminds me a lot of a bulkier PowerShot S100, right down to the very nice feeling matte magnesium alloy body. Also, I noticed that the 22mm lens is actually a very dark shade of grey, whereas the body is black. That’s on purpose, a Canon rep told me, and meant to ensure the lens complements both the white and black EOS M body.

One thing about the EOS M that immediately takes a little getting used to is the lack of physical controls, especially if you’re coming from a Canon DSLR. Much of the camera’s settings are managed via its capacitive touchscreen, which is incredibly responsive and provides convenient access to Canon’s well-designed software menu system. That said, pros will find themselves missing all the dials and buttons of their DSLR rigs, and advanced consumers might long for the lens-based control ring of the PowerShot S100 and new S110, but that’s not an issue of the EOS M’s design, it’s the result of design compromises needed to provide a MILC camera that’s uncluttered yet also small enough to be truly portable. Plus, using the touchscreen to review images, with its pinch-to-zoom features, is a much better experience than I’ve had in the past with non-touch digital cameras.

We were working with a professionally lit display space when taking photos at this event, and that means you had a lot of different lighting conditions, but all designed to benefit photographs. And I found that the EOS M did take great pictures with its 18MP APS-C sensor (it shares both this and its touchscreen display with the Rebel T4i), but the camera took a while to find focus in all cases. With autofocus, whether you’re using face detection or tap-to-focus on the touchscreen, the EOS M hunts for a while before settling in – the sensor-based AF just can’t keep up with DSLRs. If you’re looking for a comparable experience, imagine shooting only in live view mode on the T3i or T4i, using the default autofocus settings.

The EOS M’s autofocus system is more geared towards shooting video, and in that capacity combined with the STM kit lens, it works very well. Though I can’t speak to final output quality based on my experience, shooting video was a very good experiences with Canon’s MILC.

Finally, while I didn’t get too much time with the EOS M, it’s a camera that feels great in the hand and that lives up to the expectations of the MILC category. Canon’s big advantage over others in this space may just be the adapter ring, which makes it possible to use the EOS M with Canon’s extensive catalog of EF lenses, a huge selling point for existing Canon DSLR shooters who want something more portable to shore up their collection.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Hands On With The New iMac: Apple’s All-In-One Sheds The Pounds And Packs In The Features


Apple unveiled a redesigned iMac today, one that takes the all-in-one computer and makes it even more of a tightly packed engineering marvel. The rumors proved true, and it got a tapered design that thins out to 5mm at its thinnest point. What you may not have seen from watching the presentation is that it still is fairly thick at its thickest point, but that doesn’t detract from the overall impression, which makes the machine appear surreal at first glance.

Both the 21.5 and 27-inch versions are light – amazingly so if you’ve ever had to lug around their predecessors during a move or redecoration. The weight isn’t so much of a concern with a desktop computer, but all that space-saving means you can cram more stuff on your desk, which is crucially important if you’re a terrible pack rat like myself.

But the slimmed down design is mostly an aesthetic bonus, and the real value of this new iMac comes in the form of the new screen, which is something you have to see to truly get the full effect of. By combining screen and display glass as Apple has done with its Retina MacBook Pro and iPhone, everything on the computer looks that much closer to the surface, which results in a very pleasing effect. The reduced glare is also significant, and even under relatively inhospitable bright lighting and at various angles, the display on the new iMac shines (but not literally, which is the best part). Sure, it’s not technically Retina pixel density, but if you’re actually using one you probably won’t notice.

Another big advantage of the new iMac is that the 21.5-inch version has two Thunderbolt ports this time around, something reserved for the 27-inch version in the past. That means it can power up to two external displays at the same time, and also host a variety of Thunderbolt-enabled accessories. That’s a big handicap removed from the more affordable computer.

Performance with Mountain Lion and Aperture seemed silky smooth on both versions, but that’s not surprising giving their specifications. And using the new Fusion Drive, which combines the speed advantages of flash memory with the capacity of platter hard disk drives definitely seems to speed things up compared to my 2011 27-inch iMac with a 1TB standard hard drive.

If you’re in the market for an all-in-one, this is definitely a good time to look at Apple’s offerings, because the changes in these redesigns are more than just skin deep.


TechCrunch » Gadgets

The iPad Mini And The New 13″ Retina MacBook Pro Strut Their Stuff In Our Hands On Video


I already shared my first impressions of a lot of Apple’s newly announced products today, but we’ve also got video from the time we spent with the iPad mini and the Retina MacBook Pro. Watching these things in action provides an entirely different perspective compared to reading about them or looking at static pictures, and seeing the iPad mini do its thing really does a better job of conveying the value of the device, so check out the video above.

TechCrunch » Gadgets