Blippar now recognizes cats, other items without AR codes
Augmented reality app Blippar is hardly new (it’s been around since 2012, almost as long the lab!), but it’s back in the bright lights after curiously shifting its focus to features associated with machine learning.
Until the latest update, the U.K.-based Blippar was mainly focused on advertising and content for brands. In a nutshell, Blippar allowed customers to “blipp” (or scan) a logo on its partners’ products to get more information. So, kinda like a QR code, with gusto: Blipps can generate a variety of actions on the partaker’s mobile device, like launching audio or video clips, dialing a phone number, or connecting to a social media page.
Blippar gained quite a bit of traction with its initial concept, partnering with several large brands and media companies including Conde Nast, TIME, and Unilever. But over the past year and a half, and for reasons unknown to us, founder Ambarish Mitra shifted Blippar’s focus towards machine learning, even going so far as to move his team from the U.K. to the Silicon Valley.
With the most recent update, Blippar gained the ability to recognize objects that don’t include a logo – such as dogs, apples, and cars. And as Mitra puts it, in an interview with Re/code,, the technology is still in the early stages, like the brain of a six-year-old. It can recognize “car,” but not “Prius;” an item of clothing, but not the label.
So naturally, we took it for a spin to see for ourselves how the technology works.
When I aimed my phone at Raya the cat, sitting in the windowsill, a flurry of words swirled around my screen like a tag cloud. And initially, the app seemed to have some difficulty distinguishing between species. It got “mammal” right away, but seemed to think my cat was a dog (to its credit, she does play fetch and growl at the mailman.) Finally it caught on and started bringing up cat-related words like “curiosity,” “kitten,” and “tabby.”
An icon of a cat appeared on the screen and when I tapped it, more icons appeared with different actions – giving me links to buy pet food, watch cat videos, and donate to the Humane Society.
But, in contrast to most apps that tie into e-commerce, Blippar wasn’t able to read barcodes when we tested it (however, it did spout a bunch of words like “savings” and “finance” when I aimed my phone at a barcode.)
Next, I stepped outside to go see what Blippar made of the chickens. As soon as the flock appeared in view, Blippar blurted another jumble of words, like “farm,” “food” and “nature.”
Impressively, the app even seemed able to distinguish between the hens (which it called “beautiful,” and we have to agree) and the rooster, zeroing in on Caesar’s tail with the word “cockerel”:
Back inside the house, it thought it saw a “squash racket” in the kitchen and initially mistook a pair of scissors for a table knife, but then quickly got it right. When I pointed my iPhone at an orange, it immediately displayed an icon of an orange followed by a bunch of juicy descriptors:
In general, the app did a remarkably good job of recognizing anything I put in front of my iPhone lens. Until I got back to my desk, that is. When I aimed my phone at the glass of water sitting next to my computer, Blippar declared it happy hour.
“Vodka!” “Cocktails!” Even whisky and wine – it must have chimed in with every type of alcohol (and juice) — but didn’t once mention water.
It’s Thursday morning, Blippar
Thinking the Blippar app might be confused by the fact that I was drinking water out of a pint glass with the words “hard cider” on it, I filled a plain water glass instead. But as I focused on the glass of water with my work still in the background, it did the same thing.
It’s only water. Honest!
Then a glass appeared on screen with a bunch of options, and I thought Blippar might have some sort of crowdsourcing feature that could help it learn the difference between water and whisky. Alas, no, but it did give me the opportunity to shop for water glasses online, learn about how to safely dispose of a broken glass, and watch a video of how to pour the perfect beer.
Aside from the fact that I felt a bit like the app was peer-pressuring me to pour a cocktail at the beginning of a workday, the revamped Blippar is surprisingly entertaining – particularly when you take it outside for a walk – and we’re interested to see how its machine learning evolves over time, and what can be done with it.
We can think of plenty of possible uses down the road (for example – describing the view through the lens to visually-impaired people). But in its current state, Blippar doesn’t provide much more than entertainment and a few links to buy things online. Is Blippar just a blip on the radar, or will we see it expand into something more useful? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Starry-eyed surprise: The rise of wireless Internet startups?
By Leslie Ellis and Sara Dirkse
In case you’ve managed to forget the tragic tale of Aereo, brace for some flashbacks. Aereo founder Chet Kanojia announced last week that he is introducing a new Internet service – called “Starry” – that uses millimeter wave technology to wirelessly deliver Internet speeds up to 1GB. Kanojia aims to disrupt the business of broadband with this latest venture, a new take on fixed wireless technology.
“It costs the cable guys around $2,500 per home to deal with the construction costs of laying down cable,” said Kanojia on a Jan. 27 phone call with TechCrunch, setting the scene for his next big reveal. “And beyond cost, there are regulatory hurdles that slow down the process.”
We can’t really speak for the legal or regulatory challenges Starry might face (thank the heavens and – heh-heh! – stars), but it’s probably safe to assume that ISPs are already all over it. However, on the latest episode of Re/code Decode with Peter Kafka, Kanojia shared a more optimistic view. “Comcast isn’t going out of business,” he said when asked if he expected another legal challenge. “It is better for them to have a few small competitors in the market so that the government is satisfied.”
Potential legal battles aside, it appears Starry might face some challenges on the technical front too. Re/code’s Ina Fried put together a great analysis of some of the technical stumbling blocks that Starry might face, based on issues that plagued similar ventures in the past.
Here’s the basics: Starry uses technology called “millimeter wave band active phased array technology.” This being Translation Please, indulge us in doing what we endeavor to do.
Starry Beam rooftop module (Image credit: Engadget)
In a nutshell, Starry puts a bunch of little nodes called “Starry Beams” on rooftops in densely populated areas (this might ring a bell with anyone who used Aereo), and gives its customers little receivers called “Starry Points” to stick outside of a window.
Starry Point window receiver (Image credit: Engadget)
The Starry Beam shoots out millimeter waves in a bunch of different directions (this is what they mean by “active phased array”), and these waves bounce off of buildings and other obstacles until they reach your Starry Point. Aereo claims that they can transmit a reliable signal without line-of-sight from the node to the receiver, unlike previous attempts at fixed wireless Internet.
Aereo also offers the optional Starry Station, a $349 Android-powered router with a touchscreen that monitors its own connections, handles parental controls, and a bunch of other tricks.
The (optional) Starry Station (Image credit: Engadget)
According to Kanojia, this approach will save Starry, and its customers, a lot of time and money. “We can deliver faster broadband with no regulatory wait time and it will cost us only $25 per home,” he said on the TechCrunch call.
No word yet on pricing, other than that Starry will be a tiered service based on speed (topping out at 1 GB up and down).
Chet isn’t alone in the landscape of wireless startups targeting larger ISPs. Two San Francisco-based companies, Artemis Networks and Webpass, are working together on a similar service. This one is particularly interesting because Artemis claims to have invented a way to use interference as a channel for transmitting and receiving data – so the more interference, the better the connection. (It all sounds so … Hedy Lamarr!)
We can’t wait to see this one in action – and according to Artemis founder Steve Perlman (yes, that Steve Perlman — former head of WebTV, Rearden Steel and Moxi), we might see it in Boston later this year (assuming the FCC gives the nod).
Plus, Chet’s just an interesting guy to keep an eye on. He started out in cable, founding Navic Networks in the early 2000s. Remember? Microsoft bought Navic in 2008 for a reported $250 million; Chet’s been throwing wrenches at the industry that launched him ever since. Which makes us wonder: Who pissed Chet Kanojia off so bad?
Hmm, that’s interesting…Our latest take on the IOT
One of my favorite duties in the lab is to keep track of the various internet-connected gadgets that pop up on crowdsourcing websites, trade shows, and around the Internet. These generally fall into two categories: “The world needs this” and “Hmmm. That’s… interesting.” (Quite often, the latter is our polite way of saying “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.” But we never want to be unkind…so we stick with “interesting.”)
We encountered a slew of new connected gadgets in 2015, from awe-inspiring to downright unsettling. Here are some of the head-scratching highlights of this year:
Hello Barbie, $75
Hexo+ Selfie Drone, $1,349
This one is equal parts cool, silly, and unsettling. Hexo+ is a camera-equipped drone that uses pattern-matching technology to follow a given target – think “selfie hovercraft.” The idea is, you can use the app to make the drone follow you at a given speed and distance as you’re shredding some singletrack. Or it can hover around you as you dangle off the face of a mountain. Or catch a wave. You get the idea. This way, you can document your outdoor prowess without bothering your friends to photograph you — or break your neck taking selfies. Other potential uses include investigating insurance fraud, stalking (eww), and following your child to the bus stop. The mind reels!
VVFly Intelligent Snore Stopper, $56
This ear-mounted device from Chinese company VVFly is designed to stop the wearer from snoring, in addition to tracking sleep time and quality. VVFly uses bone conductivity to tell when the wearer is snoring, and then discourages them from doing so with “soothing, gentle voice” in their ear that rouses them just enough to stop the racket. Which is theoretically better than the alternatives: “YOU’RE SNORING!”, or, the elbow treatment. Until they fall right back asleep, of course! We’ll stick with last year’s anti-snoring bed, or just our pointy elbows.
ICPooch Video Treat Dispenser ($100, plus mobile devices)
This device is a prime example of how a gadget can be equal parts brilliant and impractical, depending. The ICPooch treat dispenser was invented by 14-year-old Brooke Martin, and quickly blew past its fundraising goal on Kickstarter. ICPooch provides a two-way video stream between people and furry friends using the companion mobile app (you’ll need a tablet for your pet in addition to your own mobile device in order to do video). You can also dole out treats from afar, using a “drop cookie” button on the app. The dispenser itself connects to WiFi, so you can control it from the app even if the dog’s tablet gets buried in the backyard during your absence.
The concept has a lot of merit — it’s hard to be away from our pets, and ICPooch is a novel way to interact with our furry friends from afar. On the other hand, those of us with very food-motivated pets might think twice about having a fragile screen as the gatekeeper for the dog treats.
This smart garbage can, the brainchild of students at Newcastle University, is designed to analyze and improve trash and recycling habits in its users. Here’s how it works: You throw something away. A camera in the lid of the trash bin takes a photo of your trash. This photo is then sent via Amazon Mechanical Turk — a crowdsourcing marketplace that coordinates human intelligence for tasks that aren’t easily done by computer — to be analyzed by an actual human being (plausibly in a developing nation), to see how much of your trash could have been recycled or composted. While we fully support the mission, we can’t imagine many people paying to have their trash dissected by another person. Oh, and did we mention? BinCam uses Facebook as its platform, so you can easily share (or worry about your trash can accidentally sharing) photos of your garbage with your whole social network.
Um, yeah, no thanks.
Check back next time to see our favorite picks from the best of IoT file!
Refreshing the Stream
Now that Colorado’s epic Indian Summer is officially over, we’re into the season of long nights and TV marathons. And this year, there’s a treasure trove of new OTT content options and refreshed devices to choose sample. Here are some of the new arrivals you might want to check out as we hurtle toward the holiday shopping season:
Apple TV ($199)
Apple TV finally released new hardware this fall — for the first time since 2010 — sticking with a hardware design nearly identical to the last version.
The box is just a fraction of an inch taller, and they’ve given the remote control a refresh too, adding a landscape orientation for gaming. Like all the other devices in this list, the new Apple TV includes a voice search feature – here in the form of the beloved (and/or detested!) Siri.
Google also released an updated version of its popular Chromecast streaming player this Fall, with the same low price point as the original but with a very different design.
The new Chromecast is a complete circle that dangles from a flexible HDMI cable, making it easier to fit into tight HDMI ports. It comes in three color choices (red, black, and yellow) and has three WiFi antennas, for a more reliable connection (the original had but a single antenna).
The new Chromecast also includes a feature called “Fast Play,” which begins pre-buffering videos before you press the play button to cut down on loading times.
Roku 4 ($130)
Roku’s latest flagship device is capable of playing videos at 4K resolution, and also includes a few other features to help sweeten the deal — which is good, because many of us haven’t shelled out for Ultra HD TVs yet, and the 4K content selection is still pretty limited. Our favorite new Roku trick is the way it can page a lost remote control from the Roku 4 box – a big help in houses with dogs, kids, or greedy couches.
The OTT (over-the-top, or available without a pay TV subscription) content selection really took off this year, as did the selection of streaming content available to cable subscribers. HBO and Showtime are now both available as a la carte streaming services ($15 and $11/month, respectively) — a scenario that just three years ago seemed about as likely as a unicorn ride. Here are some other new updates to the streaming content scene:
Playstation Vue ($50/month)
Playstation Vue is a live streaming service that came out in March, but was only available on Playstation consoles . It finally announced expansion to new devices on November 12, starting with Amazon Fire TV devices and expanding to Chromecast in the “near future.” The base package is twice the price of Sling TV, and carries about twice as many channels.
Hulu’s “No Commercials” plan
Hulu started in 2008 with free, browser-only content supported by ads – and when Hulu Plus launched in 2010, it kept the commercials while other premium OTT services streamed ad-free. Hulu finally introduced a “No Commercials” plan, for $12/month, while keeping the $8 plan available for those of us who don’t mind a break in the action.
*There’s always a catch! Be sure to check out the fine print for a handful of shows that are not available commercial-free.
On October 28, YouTube launched its own ad-free streaming service called YouTube Red, for $10/month. Red gets rid of the commercials, and also allows subscribers to download videos for offline viewing. YouTube Red also includes a few features that are often requested by users, including the ability to play content in the background or with the screen turned off – making it easier to use YouTube as a music player, for example. And on that note, the YouTube Red subscription includes access to Google Music’s streaming catalog of 35 million songs (and vice versa, if you’re already a Google Music subscriber). Heads up, Netflix: Google is gunning for you (again!)
To be sure, OTT video has changed a lot (understatement) since we started the blog 4(!) years ago – and while we’re not seeing a lot of new entrants to the device or service categories these days, we’re still seeing plenty of improvements to the user experience. Stay tuned for more updates, including our annual roundup of brilliant and “oh, that’s… interesting” ideas from the Internet of Things.
Wearable Woes: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
For the past year, we’ve been using various activity-tracking apps for iPhone to see how they interact with HealthKit, and to assess how well they actually work. Lots of fitness-oriented 3rd-party apps are out there, with great features: Argus runs in the background and turns my iPhone 5 into a pedometer, making it easy to obsess over getting 10,000 steps a day.
MapMyWalk includes “yard work” as an activity option, giving me a much better estimate of how many calzones I can eat after a grueling day in the dirt.
And Strava lets me compete with other cyclists for the best time on my favorite bike routes. Best of all, these 3rd-party apps can all automatically write data to Apple’s HealthKit ecosystem, giving me a big picture view of all my activity.
Naturally, I was excited to see how all of this would play out on the Apple Watch – instead of making sure I’m wearing something with pockets, or otherwise affixing my phone to my body, could I instead leave the phone in a patch of shade, and let the Apple Watch track my activity? Could I look at my watch and see how many steps I’ve taken using the Argus app? I assumed that would be the case.
Alas! We’re sorely disappointed. Here, in no particular order, are our gripes with the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.
Differing accounts of activity
One issue we noticed almost immediately with the Apple Watch is that it doesn’t seem to get an accurate read on activity. I went for a quick spin around the neighborhood on my mountain bike with Strava running on my phone, while also logging an outdoor bike ride on the Watch’s native “Workout” app. For the sake of comparison, I also brought along my Garmin bike computer, which uses a combination of GPS, a wheel sensor, and a barometric altimeter. Trust but verify, right?
Garmin and Strava were in almost perfect agreement, clocking me at a little over 12 mph on average. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, recorded my average speed as 6.2 mph (barely fast enough to stay upright.) This may be due, in part, to the full two minutes I spent trying to end the workout on the Apple Watch. Did I mention the touchscreen is not very responsive? Or what a pain it is (not to mention dangerous) to try to jab at the watchface, while riding a bicycle?
The problem with 3rd-party apps on Apple Watch
Currently, 3rd-party apps like Argus and Strava can’t see the Apple Watch’s accelerometer, heart rate sensors, or other hardware features, like the “digital crown” (that’s the little knob that looks like it should wind the watch, but instead is used for navigation).
So for now at least, 3rd-party apps have to rely on the phone for their data, and the Watch is just a mirroring device.
Here’s what that looks like in practice: If I put down my phone and walk around, Argus can’t count my steps – only the Watch’s native Activity app does. But in Apple’s ecosystem, the number of steps isn’t visible on the watch itself — only in the Health app on the connected iPhone, and even then they’re not updated in real-time as they are with Argus.
The 3rd-party apps would be a lot more useful if their developers had full access to Apple’s Watch API (Application Programming Interface) before the watch started shipping.
However, developers are evidently getting access. On June 8th, Apple previewed the second edition of WatchOS , finally granting developers access to the various sensors embedded in the watch. The new OS will roll out sometime this fall, so don’t count on seeing better functionality in time for Century Season and summer hiking trips.
But we can hold out hope that someday the Apple Watch might play nicer with 3rd-party apps.
Apple’s apps take priority
For me, the most frustrating thing is that Apple Watch’s native apps automatically overwrite the data from other apps in HealthKit – so when I logged 200 calories burned during a 45-minute bike ride on Strava using my phone, and the Apple Watch calculated the ride as 0 minutes of activity and 53 calories, guess which version got recorded in the Health app? Same goes for that ride where the Watch cut my average speed in half, plus that full day of yard work that resulted in 0 active minutes.
This is not likely to go over well with anyone who cares enough to track their activity — let alone competitive athletes, for whom activity tracking can become a compulsion. (Just ask us.)
On the bright side, because the Apple Watch calculates motion while strapped to your wrist, it’s fairly easy to make up the difference while eating, drinking, or even sleeping (I wore the watch to bed one night and it didn’t track my sleep, but it did log 54 steps.)
In a nutshell
As a fitness device, the Apple Watch isn’t good for much more than reminding you to stand up and move around every once in a while. (Even when you’re driving, and using the watch for navigation!)
We sincerely hope that the Apple Watch will get better as 3rd-party developers finally get their hands on the tools they need to develop compelling apps for it.
As it stands currently, the Apple Watch still feels like a beta test and pales in comparison to other, less expensive activity trackers – and what’s worse, it completely throws a wrench into the HealthKit ecosystem by automatically overwriting the data from other apps.
Every time I attempt to track a workout on the Apple Watch, I can’t help but feel like Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave. But at least he’s getting activity points for it!
For part one of our Apple Watch series, click here.
Apple Watch First Impressions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
We jumped on the bandwagon recently and ordered an Apple Watch for the lab. Here are our first impressions after a couple weeks with the device – check back for an in-depth review of the Watch’s potential as a fitness tracker, and also a medical device.
Useful in certain (indoor) settings
The Apple Watch uses Bluetooth 4.0 to communicate with the iPhone, which means you can only get about 30 feet away from your phone before losing the connection. This also means that using the Apple Watch will drain your phone battery before lunch. Taking the Apple Watch out for a day of hiking? Don’t forget your phone, and a portable charger (or two).
Things are a bit better at home, when the Apple Watch can use a known WiFi network to improve its range slightly. This means that when your phone connects automatically to your home WiFi network, it can send signals to the Apple Watch over that network instead of Bluetooth. For practical purposes, this means I can leave my phone charging in the house while I’m out tending the garden; as long as I stay within WiFi range I can take calls from my watch.
Perhaps the most useful thing about the Apple Watch is that it can page your missing phone (as long as it’s within Bluetooth range). Of course, it’s just as easy to do this from any Apple device using “Find my iPhone,” so it probably doesn’t justify dropping $500 on a watch for that feature alone.
Too tethered to the iPhone; not really useful as a timepiece
The Watch has little functionality when the phone is out of range, or locked. All too often I look at my wrist to see this:
As a timepiece, the Apple Watch is hardly useful, because the screen goes black after a few seconds. There’s no discreetly checking the time during that meeting that you didn’t think was going to go so long on an Apple Watch – it requires an almost dramatic twist of the wrist (and sometimes a poke with the other hand) to wake up the screen.
Twice the alerts
While it’s handy to be able to answer calls on the watch when your phone is out of reach, I found it incredibly stressful to have two devices ringing whenever a call came in. And I started wondering: Are we really without our phones often enough to justify such a cacophony of alerts every time? I can only imagine how this will play out in office buildings and movie theaters.
Too many noises; not enough context
For me, the defining moment with the Apple Watch came shortly after I strapped it on my wrist and headed down the interstate. I started navigation from my phone, and the Watch picked it up and started making turn signal noises every time I approached a turn. The layering of sound effects over my own turn signal, coupled with the verbal directions on my phone, was irritating to say the least — and even though the Watch displayed the next turn on its screen, the small size made it difficult to see while driving.
And then, it got worse. While hurtling down I-25 at 75 mph, I felt a buzz on my wrist and glanced at the watch:
Maybe I expected too much from the Apple Watch, but I think a device that a) is giving me directions down the freeway and b) contains an accelerometer, ought to know better than to cheerfully remind me to stand up at that particular moment.
Next time: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
We’ll need to devote a whole other post to this topic, because let’s face it – there are a lot of problems here, and snark can be fun. With all the excitement about HealthKit and the Apple Watch, we hoped for a device that would seamlessly measure and record data from all our activities.
This isn’t that device. Instead, the Watch is basically a glorified pedometer that won’t register a 10 mile bike ride as exercise, but will award me fitness points for an hour of drinking wine. Stay tuned!
Streaming Stick Showdown: How Different Dongles Measure Up
Google Chromecast, $35
Features we love:
Chromecast’s small form factor and low price created a big ruckus when it launched back in the fall of 2013, even though the content selection was pretty much limited to YouTube and Netflix at that time.
But because it’s relatively easy to add “Cast” support to most iOS and Android apps, the Chromecast library continues to expand quickly and now most of the major video apps are represented – including HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Hulu Plus, in addition to YouTube and Netflix.
We also like the experience of browsing for content on our mobile devices, versus scrolling through titles on a big screen – to a certain point. Which brings us to the next section.
Things we’d change:
The thing that we find most compelling about Chromecast is also the thing that drives us nuts: No physical remote. Initially we found the simplicity charming – just a device that catches whatever streams you throw at it from your phone or tablet.
But the lack of remote really backfires when pausing involves fumbling for a smartphone, closing the email you were typing, etc. Back in September I was still quite enamored with the Chromecast. But I got increasingly frustrated as I battled frequent connection issues that caused the transport controls (rewind, pause, etc.) to stop working.
Fortunately, a recent Chromecast update largely resolved this issue, by allowing Chromecast to accept signals from most TV remotes. This uses the same CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) function that allows you to power on your TV and control the volume using Chromecast, only in reverse. It worked like a charm on my Samsung Smart TV, but may not work with all TV models.
As of today, this feature works with almost all the Chromecast-compatible apps – with the big exception of Netflix. No word on when that update will drop (Netflix is often a little slower to build new Chromecast features into its apps), but by incorporating a remote without adding another one to our pile, Chromecast is back in our good graces.
Roku Streaming Stick, $45
Features we love:
Roku is always near the top of nearly every streaming device roundup we’ve posted over the years, mainly because it has the widest variety of content. It still does, and tends to be on the forefront whenever a new app is released.
We also like Roku’s universal search feature, which ties together all the major content sources so that you can search in a single interface.
Things we’d change:
With all its good features, it hurts us to say that the Roku Streaming Stick falls a bit short. It packs considerably less power than the Roku 3 or the Fire TV. Where Roku 3’s WiFi remote is responsive to every button press, the Streaming Stick lags and seems to have difficulty getting signals from the remote (also WiFi) when plugged in to the back of the TV.
Last Spring, we wrote about the Streaming Stick’s issues with DIAL – the process of casting content from Netflix or YouTube to the TV was buggy, and often didn’t work reliably. This is still largely the case, but it’s true for Chromecast too.
Roku is certainly the winner in terms of sheer content, but that might be a dubious honor. Sometimes all that content can be overwhelming, as is definitely the case when I look at all the free niche channels in Roku’s channel store.
Amazon Fire TV Stick, $39
Back in December, Amazon started offering Fire TV in dongle form. It sports a dual-core processor instead of the quad-core found on the larger Fire TV, but we didn’t notice much of a difference. Content between the two devices is the same, other than the $99 version having access to a larger selection of games (probably where that quad-core processor comes in handy.)
Features we love:
Amazon’s Fire TV devices support a bunch of different video services, but do a particularly excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own video selection (both Prime and additional content to rent or buy.) If you mainly watch Amazon Prime, you’ll enjoy this feature. The Prime content also includes metadata from IMDB, making it easy to browse for other titles that include the same actors or director.
Like Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, Fire TV also allows you to “Cast” content from your phone or tablet – and if you have a premium subscription to Spotify, Fire TV lets you control the music with your phone via Spotify Connect (a feature that is sorely lacking on Chromecast and Roku).
Like all Amazon devices, installation was a breeze. The Fire TV showed up pre-authenticated to the account it was purchased from — you’ll still have to sign in to Netflix, Showtime, and the other services on the box, but you can start watching video right out of the box.
And like Roku, Amazon also offers a (nearly) universal search feature. You can search across Amazon and other services like Showtime and Hulu Plus – just not Netflix. Which brings us to the next section:
Things we’d change:
If you like to get your content from multiple sources, the Amazon-focused UI on the Fire TV can be a bit over-the-top (see what I did there?). Most of the screen space is devoted to layers upon layers of Amazon content, with the other services jammed into a single row.
Netflix titles are conspicuously absent both from the search feature and the IMDB recommendations, which is annoying, if somewhat understandable. Sure, Amazon would probably prefer that I pay $2.99 for an episode of Mad Men instead of watching it on Netflix at no extra charge – but I wouldn’t.
Also worth considering, if you’re a premium cable subscriber in the market for a new streaming device: While all three devices have apps for HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, not all of them will let you sign in. If you’re a Comcast or Charter subscriber, you won’t be able to watch Showtime or HBO on your Fire TV until they strike a deal – and in the case of Roku, that process took years.
So which dongle is our favorite?
We get this question a lot, but it’s never an easy one to answer. The Fire TV stick is currently getting the most screen time in my farm lab, and at the lab-lab, and at Leslie’s house – but the Roku Streaming Stick still has a solid content selection. Chromecast was falling short, but controlling it with the TV remote is a game-changer. One thing we know for sure is that these services and devices can look very different in a year, or a few months. Stay tuned for our next update.
Spring Streaming Update: 2015
As the first tulips of spring poke their way through the snow, we’re looking back at some of the recent developments in the world of OTT video. And despite a brief lull in the action, we’re once again seeing new services pop up, just as others vanish. So without further ado, here’s our Spring Streaming Update for 2015:
Shuttered Services: Samsung Video Hub, Redbox Instant, and Target Ticket
The shutdown started with Samsung, which closed down its Video Hub on August 1, 2014. Video Hub streamed only to Samsung smart TVs and mobile devices, and allowed users to purchase and rent movies and TV episodes.
A few months later, on October 7th, Redbox Instant closed its doors. The service, a joint venture between Verizon and Redbox (part of Outerwall), bundled unlimited streaming video with Blu-ray and DVD rentals from Redbox kiosks. But Redbox Instant failed to gain traction with customers, in part because it was slow to roll out to new devices and the streaming catalog looked an awful lot like Netflix, only with fewer titles.
Target Ticket soon followed suit, with the retailer announcing it will cut off the transactional streaming service on March 7th. Target’s service didn’t offer any unlimited streaming – like Walmart’s VUDU, it offered streaming titles to rent or buy only. But with the exception of parental guidance ratings from Common Sense Media, there wasn’t much to differentiate Target Ticket from its more established competitors.
For customers who purchased video from these services, you should still be able to access your content — but it may be a tricky process. Redbox Instant and Video Hub are making subscribers’ video purchases and credits available via M-GO, and Target Ticket will be sending its customers to CinemaNow (the streaming venture that Best Buy picked up back in 2010).
At best, customers will need to sign up with another service just to get access to the titles they already own. But different services often have different agreements with studios, so there are no guarantees that every title you purchased through a cancelled service will be available through its replacement.
The End for UltraViolet?
On a somewhat related note, we’ve been hearing rumblings for months now that the UltraViolet initiative may be winding down. When we wrote about UltraViolet nearly three years ago, the service – which acts as a “digital locker” to let you access copies of movies you purchase – had buy-in from all the major studios except Disney and MGM. Instead of joining UltraViolet, Disney introduced a competing service called Disney Movies Anywhere back in February 2014, and now UltraViolet’s studio partners are reportedly in talks about joining forces with Disney.
But at least as of last December, UltraViolet was optimistic, adding new studio partners and anticipating new growth as it expanded to more countries. It’ll be interesting to see how the spin shakes out on this one…
New OTT Streaming Service: Sling TV
And finally, lest you think this post is all about services closing their doors, we do have a new addition in the form of Sling TV – a new web TV service from Dish Network, which launched to the public February 9th. Back in 2012, Dish partnered with Sling Media, makers of the Slingbox, to bring out-of-home streaming to the set-top boxes known as “The Hopper.”
The new Sling TV service is delivered purely OTT, with live TV and VOD from a lineup of about 15 cable networks for $20/month (with more being added, including AMC last week). We’ve been testing out the new service and will be back shortly with an in-depth review. Stay tuned!
Connected Home for the Holidays
With Christmas right around the corner, you may be looking for a few last-minute things to put under the tree. There are connected gadgets everywhere you look this year; here are a few of our favorites in the smart home and OTT categories:
For sound sleepers: Philips Hue (starter kit includes hub and three LED bulbs for $189)
When we first saw the Philips Hue bulbs at CES a few years back, the novelty factor of these color-changing connected LED bulbs was unmistakable – but they weren’t something we zeroed in on as particularly useful. Boy, were we wrong.
For the stubbornly sound sleepers in your life, Hue bulbs can be a game-changer. I use them with the Sleep Cycle alarm for iPhone ($0.99) and now I wake up to soothing music and the rising sun on my nightstand. It’s so much better than a shrieking alarm clock in a dark room, particularly for those of us that tend to slap the snooze bar and keep on dreaming about the beeping explosive device we just disarmed while the rest of the family wakes up angry. You can also set the bulbs to light up on a schedule, if you prefer your own alarm clock.
The Hue bulbs work with dozens of other applications – and the API (Application Programming Interface) and SDK (Software Development Kit) are open so your favorite tinkerers have the freedom to develop their own apps for the bulbs. There are also frameworks like IFTTT that work with Hue bulbs, turning them into subtle notification devices that tell you when you get an important email, or when your loved ones touch down at the airport. You can also set up geofencing with your mobile device to turn on your lights when you get close to the house.
I could go on all day about the different ways you can use these bulbs, but suffice it to say I picked up my own set shortly after testing them in the lab.
The hue system consists of a hub (which uses a hard-wired Ethernet connection) and 3 LED bulbs, which connect to the hub using ZigBee radios (one hub can support up to 50 bulbs; each additional bulb will cost you $60).
For anyone with WiFi: Belkin WeMo Smart Outlet ($39)
This single connected outlet is a great way to connect dumb objects to the Internet. Just plug it in and set it up on the home WiFi network, then you can use the WeMo app to turn the outlet off and on from anywhere in the world, or set it to operate on a schedule. Perfect for turning off power-hogging devices overnight, remotely controlling Christmas lights and space heaters, and shutting off the iron you forgot to unplug before you left for the office. Like the Philips Hue bulbs, WeMo devices work with IFTTT to connect to other apps and devices – so when you leave the iron on, you can have it send you a text to alert you.
For the person who loses everything: Tile ($25-$180)
These little Bluetooth-powered trackers attach to your stuff and work with a mobile app to help you find the stuff you lose. Stick or keychain Tiles on your bag, your keys, or, in Leslie’s case, her irreplaceable, Lake Erie-sourced “Smiling Rock,” and use your phone to locate them when they go missing.
Leslie’s “Smiling Rock,” with a Tile affixed using the optional adhesive patch.
There are a few notable limitations. Chief among them: Tile’s search-and-find capabilities are powered by Bluetooth, meaning, not GPS. So you won’t be in the luxurious position of harrumping to the luggage claim agent, “I said Oakland, not Auckland!” — because it can only find your stuff if it’s within the Bluetooth range of the app. Rats!) But if you’re trying to zero in on which pile of counter clutter swalled your keys, or where the dog delivered the remote, it’s aces. The Tile app will show you when you’re getting close, and the Tile itself will play a little tune and vibrate until you find whatever it’s affixed to.
The Tile app supports up to 8 Tiles, and you can buy each tile for $25 – but you’ll get a discount for buying packs of 4, 8, or 12 (packs of 12 come out to the best deal at $15 apiece).
For your favorite Prime subscribers: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40)
We got a great deal on this streaming dongle back in October, when Amazon let Prime customers order it for $19. But at $39, it’s still a solid device with a slick interface that is a lot more responsive than the Roku Streaming Stick ($49).
Fire TV — also available as a $79 set-top box, with a voice-controlled remote — will be a welcome addition to any household with Amazon Prime (it also has apps for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Showtime plus some free content). The dongle is super easy to set up, and if you order it through your Amazon account it’ll show up at your door already signed in to your account (order it as a gift or pick it up at a retail store if you’re purchasing it for someone else, unless you want them streaming movies from your Prime account). My parents, the original cord-nevers, ordered one and they love it – in fact, Dad even says he prefers it to the Roku I got them a few years back.
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.