Accessory Sunday: Good Grips’ Cord Catch

imageA new feature being tried out here at Out of the Box is Accessory Sunday, which will take a look at some handy little products that purport to make our digital lives just a tiny bit easier. The inaugural product is about as simple an accessory as one can find. It has no moving parts and requires no power. However, the elegantly sculpted Good Grips Cord Catch shows the focus on design that permeates Oxo’s kitchen gadgets.

The Cord Catch will work with most peripheral cables such as USB connectors, and  AC adapter cables . Its chrome dome form has a nice heft resting on its rubber base so it will stay put on your desk (unless an unsavory colleague take it, but of course i can be easily hidden in a drawer). At $7, it is a small inexpensive way to add a touch of convenience and ,cachet to your cables, and it looks as though Oxo is already on to its next computing accessory with the Good Grips Plug-In Charging Shelf.

Introducing Volume Up, my new blog at CNet

For those who didn’t see the announcement on Twitter, I’m excited to share that I’ve started a new column for CNet called Volume Up that will discuss trends in NPD information and how they relate to consumer technology. It will be anchored in longer monthly posts but may include shorter pieces for updates and color as well.

My first post on the future of portable navigation devices (such as those from Garmin and TomTom) in light of rising smartphone penetration and the free availability of turn-by-turn directions via Google Maps.

I extend many thanks to my colleagues at NPD and those at CNet who worked to make this happen.

“Dude, there’s your car”

imageA product debuting at CES that I got to catch up with at Showstoppers at CTIA was Finder Technologies’ Auto-Finder, a sub-$100 device that is ridiculously easy to install by oneself– a relative rarity in the mobile (in-vehicle) electronics market. After affixing the transmitter to some surface in one’s vehicle with adhesive, consumers can use the key fob to find their way to said transportation.

One thing that makes the Auto-Finder noteworthy is its great range. The company claims that the system will feature from half a mile away even in dense areas. Auto-Finder can also indicate vertical directions, for those times when you’re in a multi-level parking garage. The transmitter uses AA batteries and the receiver AAAs, and the company estimates six months of battery life given what I would consider extraordinary usage.As you see, it comes in what seems to be a protective carrying case, which seems odd for a product that will be installed and perhaps never relocated.

I was surprised to learn that the heart of the system is two amplified Bluetooth radios as that is not a technology typically associated with long range, but company representatives said they had to actually dial down the power of the device to ensure that they did not run afoul of FCC regulations, To some extent the product competes with various smartphone apps that allow you to mark your location or the  Bushnell Backtrack, but you don’t have to mark your location before leaving the car with Audo-Finder). Besides, GPS-based devices can be ineffective in, say, underground lots

About the only thing I didn’t like about the product was the annoying and conspicuous beeping that it makes in guiding you toward your vehicle. I suppose that provides an effective and low-cost solution, but I think the product would draw much less attention to itself with a backlit LCD or even an LED array. Still, this looks like a nice gift idea for the easily bewildered who already have a PND.

Simple charging that’s green and keen

EcoCHARGE Energy-Efficient Wall ChargerDilemma: I have no love of bards that include all caps, but I I admire when companies bring thoughtful touches to workaday products. The latter outweighs the former for the EcoCHARGE from the nearly palindronic Ventev. I met with the company at the MobileFocus event at CTIA.

This environmentally conscious charger includes a TI chip to prevent so-called “vampire power” consumption, but is loaded with many nice touches, such as a form factor that won’t cover other outlets in a typical power strip, a large but not overbearingly bright white charging indicator light, a hinge for adjusting the angle of the cord, and an extra, covered USB port. Even the arc of the grip on the plug side of device was explicitly designed to help remove the device from the wall. The only extra Id like to see would be a retractable cable so that the whole charger is more compact, because I plan to take it everywhere I travel, and perhaps support of USB 3.0 for faster charging.

At least two other companies with more ambitious charging systems had a presence at CTIA. The Gadgeteer has a good review of the iDAPT system, and Powermat, the magnetic induction charging system making a big push at Best Buy and Target that I’ll be writing more about.

Zigging when expecting a Zagg

image At Showstoppers this week, I had the opportunity to catch up with Zagg, makers of the Invisible Shield and a number of other neat accessories that the company as showing at the event.. One question I had was how a company that focused on inexpensive mobile accessories such as screen protectors got interested in making a high-end home AV multimedia tour de force such as the mighty Zaggbox.

Zagg’s nonobvious answer is that, in selling so many iPhone accessories, the company amassed a database of digital media enthusiasts who cried out for a solution like the Zaggbox, which is expected to sell for somewhere between $800 to $1,000. In any case, before going out on such a limb, the company plans to float the product and get feedback on it at the EHX trade show, where  it may come face-to-face with its first customers, custom installers.

3D user interfaces in plane sight

imageOne aspect of 3DTV that holds particular for me is the impact that it may have on user interface. For example, 3D could lead to a complete rethinking of the electronic programming guide.. I’ve seen one early demos of 3D information overlay  from cable supplier NDS that show how 3D could affect on-screen information presentation, and have heard many tales of woe about the difficult debates that have occurred in the industry over the proper depth location for closed captioning when watching 3DTV.

Last week, though, I got to see at least one demonstration of a 2D user interface at the Panasonic public demonstration near Penn Station in New York. nVidia was showing off its 3D gaming system using an otherwise unmodified version of Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed racing game. The 3D effect wasn’t too different from playing a racing game without the glasses although the whole picture seemed to be inset within the TV, and the difference really became clear in “cockpit view” where your perspective is through the car’s windshield. The user interface elements floated above the action in a pretty basic but effective way. As games and other content become more optimized for 3D, I suspect we will see more experimentation with translucence and other 3D effects.

For 3D, Panny in store, Sammy online

image At the sale of the first 3D television at Best Buy in New York’s Union Square, Best Buy representatives agreed with their partners at Panasonic that 3D was an experience best merchandised in the store. In fact, Best Buy would not roll out its Panasonic TVs onto the main selling floor until later in 2010, highlighting the newest technology in the Magnolia home theater specialty section.

Apparently, though, there’s no compunction about selling Samsung 3DTVs online as Best Buy, along with other retailers such as Amazon,  is offering a 55” LED television and offering free shipping when purchased in a bundle that includes the glasses, a Blu-ray player, and Geek Squad setup. The difference comes down to how manufacturers want to manage their channel distribution. While Best Buy can take advantage of selling the Samsung online though, it retains an advantage in avoiding competition with online retailers for the Panasonic.

Cisco’s Chambers risks the wrath of comm

In Bloomberg BusinessWeek, John Chambers argues for a national broadband plan, making the case that it should be considered a key piece of our national infrastructure. It’s not surprising that Cisco would favor policy that helps create more opportunity for networking equipment. But Chambers argues that Cisco would support such expansion for the good of the general welfare even if networking were not its core business.

Indeed, the editorial is somewhat gutsy given that some of Cisco’s largest customers are service providers that risk competition from government-provided broadband. Furthermore, such a plan would likely be wireless, and thus create a managed WWAN that would bypass Wi-Fi, cutting out Cisco’s Linksys router business (although there could be dual-mode devices, such as many handsets or Barnes & Noble’s Nook).

There’s one poor comparison in the piece’s argument, which compares national broadband with putting a man on the moon. Prior to the space race, and indeed not until very recently, there had been no substantive private efforts to put humans on the moon (Ralph Kramden’s threats and Frank Sinatra’s desire to sing among the stars notwithstanding). However, while the U.S. may lag in terms of the percentage of consumers using broadband, private industry has provided an acceptable solution for a high percentage of Americans.

A better example may be the government’s creation of the Internet (or, I would argue, GPS). There were certainly computer networks prior to the Internet, but not one to which they were all connected. It’s that all-encompassing option that the national broadband plan would seek to provide.

Flash on your phone may not preclude Hulu hoops

Hulu is anytime, anywhere enjoyment of some of your favorite TV shows — as long as your PC can be used in those circumstances. With Flash coming to nearly every smartphone save for Apple’s many are looking forward to enjoying their House outside of their home.

But first, there’s the realities of even today’s most advanced smartphone processors and even more limiting wireless networks. Apparently, using the latest Flash beta for the Snapdragon-powered Nexus One, you can get up to about 17 frames per second for standard-definition Hulu content (360p) and that’s using Wi-Fi.

That’s not bad, for as long as it lasts. But there may be issues in preserving compatibility with smartphone Flash as Hulu rolls out new DRM. More serious, of course, is whether Hulu, or its content partners, or its content partners’ cable customers, want you to watch Hulu on your smartphone as Hulu is authorized only to deliver video to the PC. If any of those parties decide that they don’t want Hulu being watched on handsets, we could see a redux of the recently reignited Boxee block.

I suspect it will not pan out that way, but I also would be somewhat surprised to see Hulu negotiating with the carriers or creating their own smartphone applications. Perhaps the networks will go it alone or perhaps they will anoint some new puppet aggregator to manage wireless distribution.

Three iPad accessories I’d like to see

apple_ipad_keyboard_dockFew people know that I had a cameo appearance in one of the live reports covering the launch of the iPad. The reporter sitting next to me recorded my loud cheer when Apple showed off the keyboard dock. I have been calling for dock and Bluetooth input support for the iPhone and iPod touch for years. It certainly makes sense to introduce this functionality on a larger device, particularly one for which Apple is developing a version of iWork, and hopefully it will trickle down to Apple’s handhelds.

Now that we’ve seen the first Apple accessories for the iPad, here are some third-party products that would complement Apple’s slate in descending order of practicality and potential:

  1. Headrest strap. One of the iPad’s less obvious opportunities is in the vehicle, particularly as a rear-seat video system that could serve as a 21st Century successor to the portable DVD player that has seen so much use in vehicles.This accessory could function similarly to those portable DVD cases that can wrap around a headrest – simple, inexpensive and functional.
  2. Clamshell enclosure. This one is the most fascinating to me. Essentially, such a product would turn the iPad into the equivalent of the detachable tablet that is part of the Lenovo U10, which was certainly the product that received the most buzz at CES among computing devices, if not all devices. The Always Innovating TouchBook has a clamshell keyboard add-on for $100, and it adds battery life to boot. It would also be great if this product provided a way to swivel the iPad from landscape to portrait mode, but that could be challenging.
  3. Refrigerator mount/dock. How many concept and high-tech refrigerators have you seen with LCDs that don’t do much beyond serving as a digital picture frame. This idea is also inspired by the Always innovating Touch Book, which has a magnetic back for affixing to kitchen appliances. But it also draws from the Audiovox audio and video message boards that included a 7” digital picture frame and a long wire intended to go over the top and behind the refrigerator to an outlet that can power and charge the screen. The iPad could do a better job at providing all the great functionality of the iPod touch in the kitchen.

So, what do you say, Griffin? Logitech? Belkin? Kensington? Audiovox?