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Rushing to Join the IoT: Web-Enabled Window Blinds

It’s a principle in the startup world: if you see a need for a product and think the technology for creating it is ready, you can be pretty sure you’re not the only one who has that same idea. So you need to get it out fastest, do it best, and offer it at the lowest price—or at least two out of those three.

There’s another axiom in the tech world these days: One day, everything will be part of the Internet of Things.

And, finally, another truism: There is, indeed, more than one way to skin a cat.     

Put these three laws of technology evolution together and you get two companies launching low-cost IoT gadgets that automate window shades but don’t do it the same way. And even if you don’t care about window shades, what happened in San Francisco earlier this month is an interesting story of the way startups get ideas, how the IoT is ripe for picking, and (jargon alert) “market disruption.”

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Will the Internet of Things Speak a Language of Light?

We’ve gotten used to navigator apps telling us what to do when we’re in the car, but as the Internet of Things moves into more and more of our personal spaces, it’s clear that a bunch of objects all over our homes and workplaces babbling away at us isn’t going to work.

Two IoT companies graduating from the Highway 1 accelerator last week are solving that problem by turning to a language of light—one they say we already speak, having been conditioned to associate red with stop, green with go, and yellow with caution. Both intend to use smart objects and light signals to change behavior.

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Parrot Pitches BeBop 2 Drone As “Flying Image Processor”

If you’re already drone crazy, here’s what you probably want to know about the latest Parrot drone, the BeBop 2, introduced today in San Francisco. The 500-gram drone has a 2-kilometer range, a 25-minute battery life (twice as long as its predecessor), a top horizontal speed of 60 kilometers per hour, and can resist headwinds up to 39 miles per hour. The pilotless aircraft, which can operate in first-person view mode, will sell for US $500 when it comes out on 14 December.

If you’re interested in the engineering of this gadget, you might want to know that it includes: a vertical camera that watches the ground to help in stabilization; an ultrasound sensor that measures altitude up to 16 feet (about 5 meters) and a pressure sensor for tracking altitude beyond that; a 3-axis gyroscope, magnetometer, and accelerometer, and a GPS chipset; a graphics processor, and 8 gigabytes of flash memory. Its sensors operate at 1 kilohertz to feed the image stabilization’s software. The BeBop 2’s only moving parts are its propellers.

If you’ve never flown a drone solo before, like me, you certainly would want to know that the learning curve is about 45 seconds, it’s really, really hard to hurt someone because it’s small, light, and has built-in safety features (during my first 45 seconds at the controls those indeed came into play). Once you figure out how to point the gadget towards something you want to photograph you immediately see how having a camera drone could be a lot of fun.

Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux, unveiling the new drone, touted all of its features, including aerial performance, battery life, and wifi range. But, he said, “The most important feature is the camera; [consumer] drones are for taking pictures you can put on YouTube or Facebook. Bebop 2 is built around a camera; everything done to stabilize the image is through image processing. It’s a flying image processing device.”

Seydoux also stressed the drone’s size and weight: “Doing everything through software makes it lighter,” he said. “If it falls down, less opportunity to break itself.” And in a collision, “It doesn’t hurt if it hits someone.” (It also avoids causing injury with a feature that automatically stops all the propellers if one is touched.)

In hands-on testing of three or four drones by journalists who were drone novices—in an indoor ballroom where structural pillars regularly interrupted open space, there were a multitude of crashes into windows and walls. None of the collisions disabled any of the drones. After my first minute, during which I somehow didn’t understand that I could stop the drone by lifting my finger from the touchpad and flew it full speed into a cluster of Parrot staff members and journalists (a staff member calmly reached out and snatched it just before impact), I found it easy and fun to fly. Adding to the fun was the ability to get whatever camera view I wanted on the touchscreen. Definitely a user-friendly gizmo.

Think of it as a pigeon, Seydoux suggested. “A small bird,” he said. “has nearly the same capabilities of very large bird. A pigeon can travel hundreds of kilometers and know exactly where it is; it is as good for traveling as a goose.”

Teaching a 3-Year-Old to Program—Without a Computer Screen

One of my favorite toys when my children were toddlers was the classic shape sorter. If you’ve had kids, you likely know what I mean: a box or canister with cutouts that fit different shaped blocks. The most basic versions have holes that will accommodate a cylinder, a cube, and a pyramid; others get more complex. I spent many happy hours sitting on the floor with my kids as they discovered the thrill of finding the right hole for each shaped block. It was always sad when this toy was outgrown.

So I fell instantly in love with Cubetto from startup Primo. Cubetto, a play set intended to teach basic programming literacy to three-year-olds, was unveiled at Highway1 accelerator’s biannual launch event held last week in San Francisco. I’m not sure if kids that young really need to learn programming—there’s been a fair amount of debate lately about how early to begin pushing STEM education, particularly in Silicon Valley.

My main objection to pushing STEM down to the diaper set is that it all seems to involve screen-based learning tools, and I am sure that little ones don’t need more screen time.  The Cubetto play set takes the screen out of the equation. Says Primo CEO Filippo Yacob: “Programmable toys [today] all function as an extension of tablets and smartphones; the programming only happens on the screen. That may be great for 7-year-olds, but it’s not for 3-year-olds.”

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Gourmet Coffee? High-Protein Insects? There’s a Desktop Gadget for That

The San Francisco Bay Area tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to food trends, and if those trends involve high tech gadgets, all the better.

So there’s usually a smart food or beverage-preparing gadget at hardware launch events—in past years we’ve seen automatic bartenders, robotic stir-fry gadgets, and countless ways to brew coffee.

This month, the HAX accelerator’s seventh class featured two food gadgets—one fairly predictable, and potentially successful, and one I definitely didn’t see coming.

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Remembering Gene Amdahl

Computer pioneer Gene Amdahl, who died last night at age 92, is being remembered today for his pioneering contributions to computer architecture, as a key developer of the IBM System/360 mainframe computer and the Amdahl 470. He’s also known for Amdahl’s Law, a theory used in parallel computing. For me, he was a big part of my introduction to Silicon Valley, and he spent hours back in 1982 trying to help me understand why all these engineers were starting companies, why it was OK to fail, and how to get up again and start over when you did.

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Sculpted Bone Healing, Active Leg Compression, and More from Health Device Startups

It’s only been a couple of years since fitness bands and apps that tracked movement were the latest thing in health and wellness technology. But it’s already easy to forget that they once seemed futuristic.

Today, health tech startups induce yawns if all they can talk about is tracking. Now, the excitement surrounds intervention. Said one founder about his product, though he could have been speaking about them all: “We want to create a line of products that don’t just focus on measurement and statistics, but actively make the body function better.”

Four such startups unveiled their technology in San Francisco this week—three as part of the HAX hardware accelerator’s seventh class of startups, and another as part of Highway1 accelerator’s fifth class of startups.

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Most Tech Professionals Are Happy Campers, Survey Says

Most tech professionals today really like where they live, are okay with the cost of housing, and are impressed with local schools. However, they feel that commutes can be problematic, and that human resources teams are clueless when it comes to how work-life balance efforts are going. That’s the gist of a survey of tech professionals across the United States released today by DICE, a tech jobs site. 

Here are a few of the numbers. Fifty-eight percent of tech professionals are extremely happy or very happy with where they live, and only 34 percent think housing is too expensive. That changes when major tech hubs are separated from less tech-centric areas; only 12 percent of tech employees in major tech cities say there’s enough housing available, and 46 percent of tech professionals in those cities think housing is too expensive. Nearly half of tech professionals in tech hubs say traffic is a problem. Outside those areas, only 32 percent consider traffic an issue.

Although most of the tech professionals surveyed liked their home communities, they don’t have deep roots. If offered more pay, 59 percent of respondents would move.

As for benefits, what 75 percent of those surveyed really want is true work-life balance, and nearly half of the respondents say they aren’t getting that. The study indicated that HR professionals may be missing the boat on this one—67 percent think that perks such as company shuttles that help with commuting are enough to make employees happy with their current work-life balance.

Can Another Bushnell Revolutionize the Way We Play?

More than 40 years ago, Nolan Bushnell started Atari, began selling Pong, the first coin-op videogame, and kicked off a revolution in the way we entertain ourselves. His son, Brent Bushnell, thinks it’s time to reinvent play once again.

Brent has been applying technology to fun and whimsy for years now. He’s worked under contract for advertising companies, for corporate events, in a brief stint as a tech-savvy cast member of the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and just for his own entertainment. (I profiled Brent in IEEE Spectrum’s 2012 Dream Jobs Special Report). But these efforts, for the most part, have been one-offs. Now he’s thinking bigger.

In 2012, Brent joined with fellow engineer Eric Gradman to start a company called Two Bit Circus. The goal: mix technology, games new and old, and a few flames into an event that’s part carnival midway, part arcade, and part Burning Man; then use the event to inspire children to want to create their own games, and realize they needed a good basic STEM education to do so.

Bushnell and Gradman call the project STEAM Carnival (STEAM stands for Science, Technology Engineering, Art, and Math). With funds raised via Kickstarter, they held an event in Los Angeles in 2014, and a second in San Francisco this past weekend.

Just last month, Two Bit Circus announced that it had closed a $6.5 million investment round, with commitments from Techstars, Foundry Group, and Intel Capital. This cash will let the company take STEAM Carnival to four more cities: Seattle, Charlotte, Chicago, and Dallas. But that’s only the beginning. Bushnell says: 

We plan to build an entertainment company; we will be Cirque de Soleil meets Disney. We’ll have smaller home versions of the games, a TV show, and a YouTube channel.

Brent Bushnell, dressed for the San Francisco event as a benign Willie Wonka, and Gradman, sporting his everyday Mohawk, welcomed the crowd of invited adults attending a Friday evening reception. Earlier that day, 4,000 children came as part of school groups. The STEAM Carnival was open to the public all weekend.

“We can reinvent fun,” Gradman told the Friday night crowd. “We are bringing people together with social games, using the next generation of technology.”

“All the fun, has not yet been invented,” Nolan Bushnell assured the group.

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View From the Valley

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Tekla Perry
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