Easy Bloom gets a green thumbs up

imageOne of the surprise hits at the Pepcom press event this week was Easy Bloom —  a unique combination of technologies designed to provide gardeners with a “plant’s eye” view of the world. It includes sensors for moisture, temperature and humidity.

Nestled inside its stem is a USB port (because if there’s one thing we all need more of in our gardens, it’s USB ports). As explained in a video, by plugging it into your PC (or soon, Mac) you can learn plants that will grow well in a particular patch of soil or even a diagnostic of why certain plants are ill.

Easy Bloom is clearly one of those products that is well-suited to alternative distribution channels such as home speciality catalogs and even department stores. At $59, this looks to be high on the list of best novelty electronics for this holiday season. And it’s certainly on the dwindling list of products that have no competition to fear from the iPhone.

BigStage’s avatars serve your virtual vanity

imageThe bemused bits you see to your right compose one frame of the animated output of BigStage, a company I saw at a Pepcom media event earlier this week. BigStage generates avatars out of three digital camera pictures of your face pointing to slightly different angles in about a minute.

I thought the results were the most realistic digital me I’ve seen, although the generated hair is a bit more moussed than I usually wear it, the stock glasses are a little darker than my frames, and I’m pretty sure I can’t raise my eyebrow that high in real life. You can also choose from different expressions; an open-mouthed surprised was more realistic than a weakly smiling happy.

Getting the avatar is free, but the company is striking licensing deals as one source of revenue. You can insert your avatar, for example, into clips from old TV shows like The A Team and The Greatest American Hero. It looks comically out of place in film, but could work well in a video game; company representatives showed a convincing blend into Grand Theft Auto.They’ll also, of course, have their own digital goods to keep your avatar in the finest that virtual materialism has to offer. In any case, if you’re looking for a change of face for your Facebook or Twitter pic, it’s a lot of fun.

Intel Mac users get a Pulse as the PowerPC air supply thins

I’ve taken a keen interest in the digital pen space this year, writing columns and posts about the LiveScribe Pulse, IOGear Mobile Digital Scribe and Dane-Elec ZPen. LiveScribe recently announced that it will be bringing the Pulse to the Mac, which should be a good fit for a product category that has natural appeal to students. Indeed, while LiveScribe CEO Jim Maggraff has told me that they exceeded their sales targets for this year, he estimates that the company could have doubled its volumes if had been on a Mac from the start.

Consistent with other Mac applications, LiveScribe Desktop will be able to generate PDFs from within the application, but the application will work only with the Intel version of Leopard; it won’t be a universal binary. I’m sure this is simply an early example of what will soon become a growing library of applications that leave the PowerPC behind. LiveScribe is also following through on its promise to let consumers print their own dot paper at home, but you’ll need your own color laser printer.

I’ve used the LiveScribe Pulse a few times this year at lengthy meetings and have found it particularly useful in situations where I haven’t had a nearby outlet to support a full day of notebook note-taking. It’s also more convenient for entering diagrams than PCs, at least non-Tablet PCs. It would be more convenient, though, if there were a way to combine typed text with input from the LiveScribe within the Desktop application. LiveScribe says to stay tuned.

Through space and time with slotMusic

IMG_2824When 5″ CDs first came on the market, they were considered small compared to their 12″ vinyl forebears. Now, to make slotMusic albums fit in nicely among their optical companions, SanDisk has put the microSD card inside the space required for a standard jewel box.

The result is, as you can see by the accompanying photo of the of the Robin Thicke slotMusic album Something Else, a wee bit of excess space — enough to fit the bundled USB reader, a little carrying case with postage-sized album art, and anti-theft devices all generously enveloped by a whole lot of plastic nothing.

TAMARA HEY: Miserably HappyAnd yet, I found myself in a usage scenario for the fledgling format just this week. On Tuesday, I attended a CD launch concert for my friend Tamara Hey’s new album Miserably Happy. It was a great show and I bought the CD there but, because I was preparing for a trip the next day, didn’t have time to get to a PC, rip it, and transfer it to an MP3 player. As a result, I didn’t get to listen to the album until today.

Alas, though, it looks like I would have been out of luck if I planned to listen to it on a PSP. I tried the slotMusic album with a small Memory Stick Duo adapter branded Kingston from a shop in Hong Kong but the PSP just seems to get stuck reading it. I plan to try it with a Sony Ericsson cell phone as well to see if it fares any better.

A second-screen laptop emerges without SideShow

image When the new MacBooks were announced, I shared my skepticism regarding rumors that its trackpad would become a touch screen citing the impracticality of using the area for both cursor control and secondary controls. Fujitsu though has resolved that conflict by placing a 4″ touch screen between the keyboard and main display of its 16″ n7010 and Laptop seems mostly pleased with the results.

So perhaps there is potential for laptops with second screens, albeit serving a different purpose than Microsoft envisioned with SideShow. Or perhaps he Microsoft concept and Fujitsu implentation could be combined by having the touchscreen swivel 360 degrees so that it could be used as a secondary display/control pad when the laptop was open or as more of an independent quick read of PC information when it’s closed.

It seems, though, that cost is not what has been killing SideShow but rather that master of convergence the smartphone. Need instant access to e-mail, appointments, pictures and music when you’re PC is hibernating in its bag? Check check, check and check. And of course the smartphone also enables you to act on that information performig tasks such as replying to that e-mail.

i always liked the concept of SideShow better as a display detached from the PC such as a digital picture frame.

Datz delivers demanded ditties digitally, dropping DRM

Datz music boxA recent Switched On discussed the latest offering from Lala.com, which is trying to pioneer the dirt-cheap Web song as an alternative to downloads. As part of its new offering, Lala provides hosted online access to your local music library, a feature that led to the demise of longtime digital music gadfly Michael Robertson’s MP3.com.

But today the BBC reports on Robertson’s new venture Datz, which offers a different take on subscription and music. Like Nokia’s Comes with Music program, the Datz device, a security key that attaches to your PC (Windows-only for now), enables all-you-can-eat access. Unlike the Nokia program, though, the songs are in MP3 format and can presumably be used with any device . The product/service combination costs £100 for a year of access, kind of the digital music version of magicJack, which has done well spreadking its message via infomercials.

Only two of the big four music labels have signed up for now, and of the program is limited to the UK, but it seems like a fresh and winning approach, certainly one that will offer a better value than existing subscription services if Sony BMG and Universal Music come on board and the subscription price after a year stays below $15. I only question why the hardware is needed. What difference does it make if someone is turning on the spigot from only one PC in the house?

Both Lala and Datz are showing that access and ownership are not mutually exclusive ideas, although Datz offers a level of assurance that consumers can continue to use their media should the venture fail.. And Datz not funny (sorry, Dave).

Tweeter gets blown out

Today’s a sad day for the former employees of consumer electronics specialty retailer Tweeter, which was regionally strong in New England. Some questioned whether the store would make it through the holiday season and those questions were answered last night as the chain was sold to a liquidator.

Specialty retailers did well in the early days of flat-panel television, but have struggled as more of that market has shifted into mass merchants such as Walmart, Target and Costco.

TI starts seeing double

With sales of DLP-based rear-projection TVs fading as flat-panel TVs grow larger and larger, Texas Instruments is apparently working on technology that will allow different people watching the same display from different angles to see different images provided they’re wearing special glasses. I saw similar technology from Sharp at CES in 2007 or so and it worked pretty well even without additional eyewear.

I doubt the technology will end the long-running war for the remote in he living room but it could have commercial applications and makes sense for in-dash displays where the passenger might want to watch a movie while he drier might want to see navigation information.

Revenge of the PDA

MID skeptics argue that modern devices that are larger than a cell phone but smaller than a laptop are doomed. They’ve certainly had a rocky road in the past although portable game consoles could be considered an exception. That said, it is even difficult to make the case that a netbook is something that should be carried around throughout the day. Well, at least two companies are trying to address the tweener portable market with mobile appliances — one strictly so — that look like they’d have more potential combined.

imageThe iMovio iKit is a pocket-sized multimedia computer deigned for basic communications tasks and media playback; it’s due in Q1 of next year. It is slated to come with Linux although Android and Windows Mobile are both possibilities. The developers are apparently leaning toward Opera mini as the browser. It will feature an integrated camera and a touch-screen is on target before the end of next year. It sounds a bit like the first-generation Mylo but, like the Nokia N810, will feature Bluetooth (in addition to Wi-Fi) for those who can figure out how to get it online paired to a cel phone. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find some old Clie users show some interest in it.

imageIn contrast, there’s nothing entertaining about the Pomera DM10 Digital Memo (not to be confused with another DM10 note-recording device), a Japan-only product optimized for taking notes. It has a folding keyboard that looks somewhat similar to the long-running Stowaway line. It has a 4″ VGA display that should help it avoid being the blocking presence that laptops are at meetings (although resistance against that social convention is fading). It also squeezes 20 hours of battery life out of a pair of AAA batteries. As you might expect, standard batteries and the folding keyboard make for a bit of a chunky profile, and the Pomera is 30 mm high. In addition to USB, you can transfer your notes to a PC using a microSD card.

So, it’s pretty simple. Let’s get the capabilities of the iKit together with the keyboard of the Pomera device. Have your people call their people. You’re welcome, guys.

HP nails the netbook, but positioning remains problematic

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While I like the product category, I’ve written before about my disdain for the term “netbook.” Fortunately, Dell and HP have used the sexier term “mini” to describe their offerings in the space. And after seeing HP’s Mini 1000, the consumerizd version of its early entrant, the 2133, the company seems to have a winner on its hands.

In addition to disliking the term “netbook”, I’m also not a fan of positioning them for content consumption as opposed to content creation. That dichotomy has long existed for most users of existing PCs. A better approach is to make the case that this is the device to use when your smartphone isn’t going to cut it. And if Intel and friends are trying to reserve that messaging for MIDs, an alternative is to position the MID more for communication while the netbook is more for productivity. I don’t want to say this is starting to become a superficial academic segmentation, but even the angels are complaining about how crowded the head of this pin is getting.

And especially for HP, if netbooks are little more than a pretty screen, why focus so much on the keyboard? The Mini 1000 continues with the best-in-class custom keyboard that the 2133 offered. In contrast, the Sylvania netbook meso g that I’ve recently used has no right Shift key.

Despite maintaining that Linux has is place in portable computing and admiring how HP appears to have done the best job to date of building a superior Linux experience with MIE atop Ubunutu, I continue to be skeptical of the appeal of Linux on these products with only a $20 premium for Windows XP. Windows may be “a devil” compared to the streamlined MIE, but it is the devil that most people know, and has probably even endeared itself more to consumers with all the negativity surrounding Vista.

What’s missing from the Mini 1000? First, I hope the six-cell battery doesn’t protrude as much as the 2133’s did. Second, the true potential of netbooks won’t be realized until we have better wireless broadband options, but the removal of the ExpressCard slot is no deal breaker as Apple has long showed with the MacBook. The flanked trackpad buttons aren’t ideal, but they are a far better compromise than moving keys around the way Dell did on the Inspiron mini 9. Dell shouldn’t have to do that on its 12″ “netbook”, which may just wind up with the highest volumes in the category yet even if it cannibalizes other 12″ laptops.