Monthly Archives: November 2014
What Video Engineers Advise About Buying a 4K/UltraHD TV This Season
It’s the week that ends with Black Friday Crazy, which means it’s time to start thinking about holiday gifts. To assist you in your list, we asked our tech-side sages for advice.
Specifically, we asked the video engineering brain trust this simple question: “What are you telling your family and friends, when they ask you if they should buy an UltraHD / 4K TV?”
The overwhelming majority (24 of 40+ responses) replied with variations on “wait.”
Here’s a sampling:
“Wait. Set prices are still too high, programming still too limited. But hey – if you’ve got money to burn, knock yourself out.”
“Buy one only if you’re a gamer. Otherwise wait a year.”
“Watch the color space specs to determine when to jump. I want one now but I’m making myself wait.”
“Wait for price drop. Wait for 10-bit panels and High Dynamic Range,” wrote one broadcast-side engineer, who, like many content-side technologists, likes to point out that 4K television isn’t just about resolution.
The #2 most repeated response: Not enough content created in 4K exists to feed the sets. (Note that almost all 4K/UHD sets contain within them ways to add bits to the picture, known in the lingo as “up-rezzing,” which exercises the resolution of the picture. Note also that content-side people sniff at this. “It’d be like you painting a masterpiece,” one snarked, “then handing it to the guy to hang it on a wall, who proceeds to add more paint to it.”)
“Just say no. No content,” wrote one engineering pal.
“If you like watching YouTube videos in 4K, then go ahead. Otherwise there’s pretty much no video content — a few things on Netflix soon, but definitely not ready yet.”
Other notable observations: “Don’t bother. Go get one of the last remaining plasmas while you still can and enjoy a good picture.”
And, as sustained proof that engineers are pretty funny people, this dandy: “If you really want to confuse them, tell them to wait for 8k.”
My personal favorite, from pal Stewart Schley: “I mostly like to gently suggest not watching television at all, even in standard definition. But that’s just me…”
Happy Thanksgiving and may your television acquisition quests be suitably informed.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
IFTTT: A Nifty Framework for the Internet of Things
A while back, we started playing with an Internet of Things (IoT) framework called IFTTT – it rhymes with “gift,” and it stands for “IF This Then That.” IFTTT is free to use, and works with an increasing number of apps and gadgets to let you create sets of triggers and actions, known in the IFTTT vernacular as “recipes.”
Happy to report that what started as typical lab fiddling quickly evolved into something we use on a daily basis. Here are a few examples:
As I type this, I just got a text message from IFTTT notifying me that a package I’m eagerly awaiting is on the truck for delivery. I’ll get another one shortly after it’s dropped on my doorstep. I set up a recipe using “Boxoh Package Tracking,” where I paste in any tracking number – UPS, FedEx, USPS, DHL – and it texts me any time there’s a status change for that tracking number. I could have just as easily set it up to send me an email, update my Google calendar with the scheduled delivery date, blink my lights, or a bunch of other actions.
IFTTT also came in handy as Colorado’s warmer-than-average fall suddenly took a dive into record-breaking low temperatures this week. With my tomatoes still hanging on, I scheduled email alerts telling me to cover the plants when the temperature was forecast to drop below freezing the following night (it’s been arctic-cold for the last few, so, the tomato alert is now moot.)
Now that we’re tumbling into subzero temperatures, we can tell IFTTT alert us when it’s cold enough to worry about pipes freezing, as it did last night.
IFTTT is also good at finding and compiling useful information. It works with Craigslist, so if you search for something and then paste the search URL into IFTTT, it will alert you every time there’s a new ad that matches your search terms. Just for fun, I tried setting it up to email me whenever someone posted an ad for a free rooster (it sure didn’t take long to flood my inbox with that one.)
If you’re using a Fitbit or Jawbone fitness tracker, you can have IFTTT automatically put your sleep and exercise data into a Google Docs spreadsheet for you. Or it’ll save it to Evernote, or just text you congratulations if you meet your distance goal for the week, or manage to sleep a full 8 hours.
And if you use Square to take payments for your business, you can have IFTTT send all that data to a spreadsheet for you too.
IFTTT works with a bunch of connected gadgets, including the Philips Hue bulbs (which have some other applications of their own, but that’s another post). A lamp on my desk glows purple whenever I get a new email from Leslie, and it turns yellow if someone tags a photo of me on Facebook. This makes for a great, fairly unobtrusive notification system when I’m swamped and not checking my inbox frequently, but still want to know right away if there’s an important email or a potentially embarrassing photo. On a related note, I’d like to have a few words with the person who started #tbt (for the blissfully unaware, this stands for Throwback Thursday, and it involves old photos of your awkward high school self suddenly appearing on Facebook for all your acquaintances to see).
IFTTT also lets you publish the “recipes” you’ve created, so there are piles of premade recipes to browse for any given trigger — and some pretty interesting ideas in the mix. For example, one mother put SmartThings door sensors on the liquor cabinet and set IFTTT to call her cell phone if that cabinet opened when the teenagers were home alone. For frequent travelers, another user set all the Hue bulbs in his house to start playing a color loop to let his family know when he touched back down on home soil (using the Life360 app).
Another one we haven’t seen but seems imminently useful: You’re hearing impaired, and you live in the tornado belt. The bulb turns red whenever the Emergency Alert System broadcasts a tornado alert.
Clearly there are more potential use cases for IFTTT than we have space to write about, so you can check out more recipes here.
And as much as we like the framework, there are a few things we’d like to see change (and given the recent mentions of a paid service, hopefully these will be addressed soon.) While the simple IF This Then That clause has its merits, we should really have the option to create some more detailed recipes – i.e. IF This AND This (but only when it’s raining outside), Then That.
Or, in Leslie’s case, to set the Craig’s List trigger to only send her information about the kind of car she wants, when it is a manual transmission — automatics need not apply.
More importantly, most triggers run on 15-minute schedules, so you won’t typically receive notifications immediately – there is a delay of anywhere from 5 seconds to 15 minutes. When you’re just getting an alert about a package delivery, this is not a big deal. But if you set up a phone alert for your Nest smoke detector, your house might already be toast by the time you get the call about the fire.
Limitations aside, IFTTT makes for some fun tinkering that has the potential to do some really useful things. Chances are, this will only get better as more apps and devices hook in to the framework. And if there’s a premium version with better functionality in the works, count us in.
Technology Nobody Needs
Along with tracking the more promising gadgets and technologies gracing the Internet of Things, we keep a notebook in Evernote titled “The Book of Bad Ideas.” That is where I send all of the eye-rolling, cringe-inducing nightmares that crop up during my daily web scrape. Here are a few of the highlights:
Selfie Sombrero (Acer x Christian Cowan-Sanluis) $980
This glittery, obscenely expensive pink hat-and-tablet combo, which first appeared at London Fashion Week, was designed by the young Dutch designer Christian Cowan-Sanluis. It rotates 360 degrees, allowing you to find your best selfie angle. In case you were wondering, this was inspired by a similar outfit (minus the dangling tablet) that the designer created for Lady Gaga last year.
Quirky Egg Minder ($49)
If you have egg anxiety, fear not: The Quirky Egg Minder is here. This connected egg tray works with a smartphone app to track how many eggs you have, when each individual egg was placed in the tray, and when each egg is set to reach its expiration date. You can even check on your egg tray from the grocery store to see if you need to buy more eggs, and receive text alerts when your eggs are about to expire! As an urban chicken keeper, I strongly recommend investing in the low-tech solution of a few backyard hens and an egg skelter instead.
Sony Smart Wig (prototype only, price TBD)
This one may never see the light of day, but it’s so wonderfully ridiculous that we just can’t leave it off this list. Sony filed a patent at the end of last year for a smart wig, capable of such functions as navigation, health monitoring, and EEG tracking. Even better, Sony’s patent covers a Presentation Wig, designed for use with PowerPoint. The wig allows the user to control a laser pointer with a wiggle of the eyebrows, and advance to the next slide by tugging on the sideburns. Sadly, we’re not joking.
We:Ex Navigate Jacket (price TBD)
The designers of the Navigate jacket are very concerned about the risks of pedestrians using GPS on their phones. Citing an increase in pedestrian traffic accidents involving smartphones, they’ve developed jackets that will lead you around town using LEDs on the sleeves and vibrating shoulder pads. Because we can safely assume that all those smartphone-related pedestrian accidents involve someone intently staring at Google Maps, rather than checking Facebook or emailing the boss. And while you can use earbuds to get audio navigation cues from your phone, surely it will aid your exploration of the city if your sleeves are flashing and your jacket is abuzz with haptic feedback.
Aside from being ridiculous, the Navigate jacket is city-specific, meaning you can’t buy one and use it wherever you go — currently there are versions being tested for New York City, Paris, and Sydney. We don’t have a price tag just yet, but we think the idea of purchasing a distinctive-looking electronic jacket just to get directions to the Louvre is absurd. If you want to stand out as a tourist, this is probably a good bet.
airVR, by Metatecture, is a virtual reality headset that completed its round of funding on Kickstarter on October 16. This project “leverages iOS Retina hardware that is already in millions of peoples’ hands.” In other words, it involves strapping an iPad Mini to your head.
To be fair, it seems this device might actually have a few practical uses – one of the apps, diplopia, claims to help correct lazy and crossed eyes. But we just can’t get over the image of this guy cavorting around with an iPad strapped to his face.
Oh, and they make one for iPhone too:
Satis Smart Toilet ($4,000 no longer available)
This connected toilet, made by Lixil (now owned by American Standard) is no longer on the market – and for good reason. The toilet connected to a smartphone app via WiFi and Bluetooth, though we’re still not clear on why this was a selling point. In case you want to track usage? Or flush from your phone? (Never mind, we don’t really want to know.)
But the steep price tag and questionable utility were not the worst things about the Satis Smart Toilet. A Bluetooth PIN of “0000” was hard-coded into the app, making it possible for anyone with the MySatis app to control any toilet within range. According to a security advisory issued in August of 2013, “an attacker can cause the toilet to repeatedly flush, raising the water usage and therefore utility cost to its owner. Attackers could cause the unit to unexpectedly open/close the lid, activate bidet or air-dry functions, causing discomfort or distress to user.” We’ll just leave you with that mental image….