This year’s selection of holiday tech gadgets includes both commercial and crowd-funded products — see U.S. 1’s November 25 issue for a discussion of how the Internet is changing the process of raising money. I’ve focused on some innovative gift ideas from both commercial and crowd-funded sources, to make your mobile technology both more efficient and more fun.
Portable Audio. This year’s audio selections obviously start with the Cat Ear Headphones, with LED lighting and external cat-ear speakers. However, the first version of the product does not support Bluetooth wireless features, so it requires an old-fashioned cabled connection.
For enjoying audio on the go, last year I highlighted wireless speakers from companies including Jawbone, Ultimate Ears, and Sonos. These companies have continued to enhance their products, so here are some rather different approaches.
The Creative Sound Blaster Roar 2 portable speaker piles on features and options. It’s powerful, including five drivers with built-in subwoofer plus loudness and bass sound boost modes. It plays wirelessly over Bluetooth (switching between two devices) and NFC, or can use an analog cable, or can be connected over USB to a PC or Mac or PlayStation 4 to serve as an external digital speaker. It has a microSD card slot so you can store music files and use it as a music player, or as an external drive for your computer. There’s also a built-in microphone so you can use it as a wireless speakerphone, or record from the mic or from Bluetooth. Oh, and you even can use it as a phone charger.
Even with all these features, the Roar 2 is relatively small at 2.0 x 7.4 x 4.3 inches, but does weigh a noticeable 2.2 pounds. It runs eight hours on the battery, and is available for $169.
Meanwhile, you will find other interesting ideas on crowdfunding sites that are still in development. These include the SleepPhones Effortless wireless earphones in a headband that you can wear in bed ($57,000 raised on Kickstarter), and the PUGZ tiny wireless earphones ($1.4 million raised on Kickstarter, plus $1.5 million on Indiegogo). Unfortunately, late in the production cycle Apple refused PUGZ permission to charge through the phone, so the project has been delayed a couple months to retool.
Portable Storage. Last year’s focus was on wireless disk drives that allow you to transfer files over Wi-Fi, from laptops and handheld devices. The good news this year in external hard drives has been the wonderful continued redoublings in capacity, even while prices decline and size and weight decrease.
For example, the LaCie Rugged line of portable hard drives features a rugged design wrapped in an iconic orange shock-absorbing rubber sleeve. The original drive size is 9.2 ounces, and the new Mini model is reduced to 8.5 ounces, and 3.4 x 5.3 x 0.75 inches. This is a high-performance disk, with fast USB 3.0 interface, and enhanced shock and drop protection. Even better, the Rugged Mini is now available in a model with an amazing 4 TB of storage for $249, as well as 2 TB for $159 and 500 GB for $89. With this capacity, you would need only five small external drives to hold the estimated size of the entire book collection of the Library of Congress (20 million books in 20 TB).
Portable Power. In previous years I have highlighted portable batteries and chargers from companies including TYLT and Ventev that provide helpful trade-offs between charging capacity (more power!) and carrying size and weight (too bulky!).
Another example of hitting a sweet spot of useful power in a portable size is the MyCharge HubMini Portable Charger ($69). This packs a 3000mAh portable charger with two built-in charging cables (microUSB and Apple Lightning) in a handgrip-style body that is under 3 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 1 inches and less than 3 ounces. You can charge two smartphones simultaneously, for more than 20 additional hours of talk time. Plus, it charges quickly and holds the charge, retaining up to 60 percent of a full charge for up to a year.
There’s also a lot of action in cables — not just pretty colors, but flat and more rugged designs that are tangle-free and can handle the wear of travel. For example, the Ventev ChargeSync Alloy Cables have a sleek brushed aluminum housing and are braided with high tensile wrap ($24 for 4 foot microUSB, $29 for Apple lightning).
One welcome development in cables is the evolution to connectors that can be inserted in either orientation. Instead of having to flip and re-insert a USB cable several times, or visually check the alignment of a microUSB cable, you can just plug in the newer Apple Lightning and upcoming USB-C cables either way.
Wonderfully, cable manufacturers have retrofitted this concept back to standard USB connectors. For example, the TYLT FLYP-DUO reversible USB charge and sync cable just works for any need. One end is a reversible USB connector — no flipping required. The other end has a microUSB connector, plus an Apple Lightning adapter on a tether, so the cable will work for any device. It’s available in several colors at $24 for 1 foot, and $29 for 3.3 feet.
TYLT has expanded its product line by using Indiegogo to fund a larger TYLT ENERGI Desktop Charging Station. This charges up to five devices at a time, with four USB ports plus a removable battery pack that docks to recharge. The campaign ended in October 2015 after raising $104,000 from 1600 funders, well past the original $30,000 goal. The TYLT ENERGI will be priced at $99, but was available to early funders in limited quantities for as little as $35, $45, and $55.
Meanwhile, a professional electrician in Utah named Jeremy Smith decided he had a better idea for installing “guide lighting” (or night lights) in homes, and used Kickstarter to get them to market. His company, SnapPower, makes replacement coverplates for electrical outlets, that snap into place with prongs on each side that draw power from the outlet screws. The first product, the SnapPower Guidelight with two LED lights, was funded in April, 2014, by 9,000 backers who pledged $480,000 — well beyond the $12,000 goal. The new product, the SnapPower USB Charger with a 1 Amp charger for smartphones, was funded in May, 2015, by twice as many backers, who raised $839,000.
SnapPower continues to focus on keeping the initial products simple, with the low-power charger offering “the perfect blend of function, form and speed to market.” Other obvious enhancements like higher power, multiple outlets, and foreign power formats, would have added risk and development time, and so the improvements will have to wait.
Crowdfunding continues to be a fertile area for charging cables and devices. Some other projects currently in development include the Always Right Cord, with both reversible USB and microUSB connectors ($31,000 raised on Kickstarter), the MagCable that converts your device to a magnetic attachment ($152,000 raised on Kickstarter), and the USB ChargeDoubler, a magnetic cable that promises to double your charging speed ($63,000 raised on Kickstarter and $22,000 on Indiegogo).
Accessories. Another area of innovation from crowdfunding is keyboards, especially for portable devices, from Wood Key Covers to the Kid Lid protective cover — not to mention the Keyboard Waffle Iron (all on Kickstarter).
The FlyShark folding keyboard was funded for $61,000 on Kickstarter in September, 2014. It has just four rows of letter keys, and folds down the middle (between the “H” and “J” keys) into a pocket-sided package. The updated FlyShark 2 keyboard promises to be lighter, has one-year battery life, and enhanced Bluetooth (raised $40,000 in October 2015).
Meanwhile, ZAGG has released the ZAGG Pocket Keyboard ($69) with a different design. It has a full five rows of keys (including numeric), and is 85 percent the size of a desktop keyboard for more natural typing. It then folds in half lengthwise (between the “A” and “Z” rows). The design includes two additional folding elements that form a protective cover when closed, and unfold to a stand with a flip-out holder to prop up your device. It folds to 9 x 2 1/2 x 1/2 inches, small enough to slide in a pocket, and weighs 6.8 ounces.
Heating Up. As another example of the kind of ingenuity that can be enabled by crowdfunding, the Digitsole Warm Series is a “connected heated insole” — yes, a replacement insole for your shoes that’s connected by wireless Bluetooth. These not only have an accelerometer to count your steps like a pedometer (or a fitness band on your wrist), but they also have a built-in heater to keep your feet toasty warm when you’re out in the cold.
Digitsole raised $90,000 on Kickstarter and another $25,000 on the European site Ulule at the end of 2014 to bring the product to market, and it is now available for $199. These cram an amazing amount of electronics under your feet, also including thermostat and battery, and keep working even in a rather humid and jarring environment.
Then to see how cold your hands and feet are, you can use the Seek Reveal Handheld Thermal Camera ($399), which packs an IR thermal camera into a handheld device. It detects energy from -40 to 626 degrees Fahrenheit, at up to 500 feet away, so you can identify hidden hot spots and cold drafts, including air leaks and drafts, clogs and leaks in pipes, and moisture in walls.
The 2 1/4 inch display shows a live camera view, and you also can record still images to a microSD card. Plus it has a bright LED light for when you want to see the usual way. The Reveal has a rugged design in a rubberized casing. It’s 4.8 x 2.4 x 1.3 inches and runs on the battery for around 11 hours.
Radio Control, Smartphone Style. Finally, the continued miniaturization of electronics has inspired new approaches to the old idea of radio-controlled cars, with smartphone-controlled moving vehicles. There’s lots of actions in drones, as discussed last year, as well as fun ground-based devices that also happen to be educational for kids as they learn the basic concepts of programming an object’s action.
For example, the Ozobot Bit ($59) is a tiny one-inch wheeled robot that starts with a stunningly simple idea — it follows the path of lines you draw on a piece of paper. But then you can start controlling it by drawing commands in the form of color patterns, to have it change speed or direction, count down, and execute other pre-defined moves until it is solving mazes. Then you can download apps to control it, and start programming it yourself by linking together blocks on the screen. Even better, Ozobot programming is based on Google’s Blockly tool that can grow with you (and your kids) through five levels of more sophisticated programming.
Ozobot ran a Kickstarter campaign in January 2014 that attracted $64,000 in pledges from 515 backers toward a $100,000 goal. But the overwhelming response the developers received at industry events convinced them that they could instead raise a conventional round of funding, and so they closed the Kickstarter campaign.
Another fun project is the Kamigami robots from Dash Robotics — lightweight handheld origami-style robots that are stunningly fast. They move like animals on six insect-like legs, so they can run at high speed and climb on surfaces where wheels do not work. The co-founders worked in a robotics lab at U.C. Berkeley, and used Kickstarter to fund the final product with a campaign that so far has raised over $55,000 from 635 backers.
Another clever design is the Sphero smartphone-controlled robotic ball that I covered two years ago, which is back from Brookstone as the new Star Wars-themed BB-8 App-Enabled Droid ($149). The BB-8 not only rolls freely, but adds a separate head that is attached magnetically and floats on the ball with small wheels. You can drive the BB-8 from the smartphone app, have it perform pre-defined actions, or set it up to patrol an area autonomously. It charges wirelessly from its base, and runs for about an hour.