Holiday Gifts 2007

This year's roundup of gadgets and gizmos

Run Silent, Run Cheap

What do you get for the friend who has everything? How about a personal submarine from U-Boat Worx of Breda, Netherlands?

Now, you might want to quibble with our headline, because the C-Quester 1 submersible costs about US $130 000, which many would say is anything but cheap. Then again, it's a submarine, and that means it takes you where no other commercial product can go.

”This is a fantastic toy, and it's very easy--anybody who can drive a car can drive this little thing,” says Tom Juijn, who early this year became the first person to purchase one. Juijn, a professional diver who operates a marine salvage company in Cartagena, on Spain's Mediterranean coast, likes the sub so much that he has become U-Boat Worx's designated retailer in Spain and the Middle East.

Juijn takes us through the machine's paces. First off, he says, ”there's no need for a diving suit--you can get in wearing a tie and a Sunday suit, and sit on a normal chair,” which puts your head in an acrylic dome that affords 360 degrees of visibility. Next you turn on the computer and check the safety data, including carbon dioxide concentration, air pressure (which always stays at 1 atmosphere), and temperature (which remains at whatever level you've set the air conditioner to). ”Then you push the joystick forward, and you go forward; push it left or right, and you go left or right.” The stick controls a rudder in the back as well as side thrusters, which can rotate through 45 degrees. You can power your way up and down, also, but for serious vertical motion you can always blow out the air tanks in order to dive or release ballast in order to rise.

The sub is 2.8 meters long, weighs 1030 kilograms, and works off three electric motors that draw on good old-fashioned lead-acid batteries. The oxygen supply and the CO2 filters could, in an emergency, keep a person alive for 36 hours.

Juijn and his company's employees have taken their sub to speeds of 2.5 to 3 nautical miles per hour for as long as 2.5 to 3 hours, two figures that together define its range of about 6 nautical miles. It can descend as far as 50 meters, ”which is fine, because most of the interesting stuff is under 20 meters,” he says. That diving floor is not a suggestion but a requirement: try to go lower and the submarine's depth-control system will stop you.

Photo: U-Boat Worx

You might think an undersea voyager could just sneer at the weather, but that is not the case, Juijn says. You need to be able to get into and out of the sub without getting swamped--which means sailing only when the short waves (as opposed to long swells) measure less than half a meter.

The natural customers are marine biologists, environmentalists, and tour guides. Guides will be particularly interested in a $190 000 two-seat model, the CQ2, which is in development.

Of course, the truly wealthy may enjoy such a bauble if they can use it to entertain a guest: ”Perhaps you would like to see my little underwater operation before I kill you, Mr. Bond.”

One thing affluent owners will be able to afford is a crew to maintain the sub between dives and to watch over it while it's running. Nobody should ever dive without a surface vessel and crew standing at the ready with a crane and other rescue equipment, Juijn says. A pilot who loses wireless contact with the surface crew must surface immediately--a person who gets stuck has no way to get out. --Philip E. Ross

 

The C-Quester 1 costs about US $130 000, plus taxes, import duties, and registration fees. Contact the manufacturer at http://www.uboatworx.com.

 

Backseat Driver

You've just piled the family into the car for the much-awaited summer vacation, and you're barely out of the driveway when your older son declares he forgot to charge his PlayStation Portable. Next your daughter complains that her cellphone is on its last bar. Then your younger son throws a tantrum over the electrical state of his iPod. With your blood pressure rapidly escalating, you pull onto the expressway, only to realize that you are also part of the problem, because you neglected to charge the laptop you had planned to use to finish a last-minute report once you'd turned the driving over to your spouse.

Avert that painful scene by equipping your car with the Coleman Powerworks 225-watt inverter. It is simplicity itself: you plug it into the cigarette lighter, and it transforms the car's 12-volt dc current to standard ac, which goes to a power strip with two wall-type outlets. It can also feed power into a device's USB port. That way you can charge any device without needing a unique adapter to fit the lighter jack.

The inverter comes with straps and Velcro strips so that it can be conveniently hung from a headrest or attached to the dashboard. All that, plus reduced stress and enhanced family happiness, from a company best known for handy and reliable camping equipment.

--William Sweet

 

The 225-watt Coleman Powerworks sells for US $41 at http://www.compsource.com.

 

Clocks That Multitask

 

One of the most popular programs on MTV is a show called ”Pimp My Ride,” in which mechanics transform beat-up, marginally functional automotive eyesores into rolling works of art, laden with loads of new features--practical or not. Alarm clock makers, no longer content with waking you up, are performing similar magic with their products.

The Ferrari Monza Weather Station , from Oregon Scientific, is just such a multitasker. It provides weather forecasts 12 to 24 hours into the future and indicates whether nearby road conditions are dry, slick, or very wet. The 9.65- by 18.8â¿¿centimeter unit also displays the temperature and humidity of the room it's in and the same information for up to three other locations as far as 30 meters away. You can set the base unit's alarm to go off if a remote unit detects that it is too cold in the baby's room or so damp in your greenhouse that mold will grow on your plants. One battery-powered wireless sensor comes with the clock; you can purchase others separately.

The unit automatically synchronizes itself with the standard U.S. atomic clock in Boulder, Colo., and it adjusts itself for daylight saving time.

Photo: Ambient Devices

Ambient Devices of Cambridge, Mass., which began as a data aggregator, has brought the all-things-to-all-people ambitions of cellular handset makers to bedside tables and desktops with a line of satellite-connected, battery-operated gadgets that also go far beyond telling the time. Its Weather Wizard station displays conditions reported by meteorologists at AccuWeather.com, along with local predictions--including high and low temperatures--for the next four days. It can also give weather readings for any U.S. ZIP code and any major world city. And oh, yes, it tells time, too.

The Ambient MarketMaven allows you to track the performance of the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P 500 stock indexes all at once. You can also customize it to track single stocks. The main drawback is that data displayed on the device lags the market by 20 minutes. Of course, it also works as a clock. --Willie D. Jones

 

The Weather Station costs US $200 at http://www.partshelf.com/osfaw101ak.html. The Weather Wizard sells for $85; see http://www.ambientdevices.com. The MarketMaven costs $130 at http://www.hammacher.com.

 

Must…Mow…Lawn…<click>

A few months ago, I moved to an apartment with a backyard, and I was excited about barbecuing. But one thing stood between me and my kebabs: an unruly thicket of grass all over the yard.

I had never mowed a lawn, and I must say I wasn't thrilled about pushing a machine with rapidly spinning blades under a scalding sun. Then I found something that would do it for me.

No, it's not a goat--it's Robomow . Made by the Israeli firm Friendly Robotics, it promises a ”beautifully manicured lawn effortlessly.” I liked the ”effortlessly” part, so on a sunny afternoon, I unleashed the robot on my yard.

I had already pegged a wire, included in the package, around the edges of my lawn, so that the robot could know the edges of its domain. After setting the mowing height, I pressed the Go button.

The 35.2-kilogram, tortoiselike machine began to zigzag, to the amusement of my neighbor's cats. At first, I thought it was missing some swaths, but later it returned to finish the job.

The robot's blades, spinning at 5800 revolutions per minute, chop the clipped grass so fine that you don't need to rake the lawn afterward. Password protection keeps kids from unleashing the machine themselves, and sensors in the bumpers stop it if someone gets in the way.

The mower did a great job overall, but it missed some grass at the edges along the fence. I took care of that by guiding the robot with its manual controller. My neighbors peppered me with questions, but they were disappointed by the price tag. The RL1000 model (for lawns of up to 2000 square meters) costs US $2000, and the RL850 (for 1500 m2) costs $1500. The RL1000 can be programmed to run at a preset time, returning to its docking station to recharge.

Friendly Robotics says the RL1000's power is equivalent to that of a 5.5â¿¿horsepower gas mower. Its lead-acid batteries last 2.5 to 4 hours per charge, enough to cover 400 to 600 m2. A large lot could require several recharges. And because of its random zigzagging, it takes longer than if a brain were guiding a mower. But why should I care? I'm busy at the grill, flipping burgers.--Erico Guizzo

 

You can buy a Robomow for US $1500 at http://www.friendlyrobotics.com.

 

Etch A Sketch Grows Up

 

Computers, even the laptop variety, aren't yet as comfortable as tablets of paper. Now comes a happy medium--a digital medium, that is--that lets you doodle to your heart's content on a solid, satisfyingly roomy pad. The Pensketch 9x12 USB tablet from Genius purports to serve the professional graphics designer, and indeed its bundled software, including Adobe Photoshop and other standards, allows you to create, edit, and annotate all kinds of art, but it all comes at a price the amateur can justify paying.

The light, cordless stylus reacts to pressure sensitively, acting as a ballpoint, a fountain pen, or a paintbrush. You can begin by writing your signature and plopping it into a letter. The computer seems optimized for Windows, and although it worked on a Mac--a computer often favored by graphics artists-- it was a bit of a pain to install.--Param Bhattacharyya

 

The company's site, http://www.geniuseshop.com, lists the Pensketch 9x12 at US $199, but a number of Internet retailers offer it for less than $145.

 

Turn On, Tune In--To Any Station Anywhere

 

A computer-scientist friend of mine once noted that his computer's sound system was the best he had ever owned, and why shouldn't it have been? He spent more time at the computer than in bed. Still, some audio functions cry out for a stand-alone device.

Internet radio is a great example. Radio, whether coming from your hometown or from the other side of the world, is something you listen to while doing something else--like shaving, eating, or riding an Exercycle.

Get yourself a SoundBridge Radio Wi-Fi music system from Roku, a company founded five years ago by Anthony Wood, known as the inventor of the digital video recorder. The radio's elegant and compact black form packs excellent speakers, including a subwoofer, and it tunes into local stations in the AM and FM bands as well as to Internet stations, whose signals are conveyed wirelessly over your local area network.

You quickly get used to switching from the BBC to Radio Helsinki to Minnesota Public Radio--a one-handed operation, thanks to the remote control. A number of Internet stations are preset in the radio, and it's simple enough to add more. You aren't limited to the Internet's offerings, because any audio available on your network will register. Your computer's music library will therefore be at your disposal, so long as its files are in MP3 or WMA formats.

There are some limitations. You can't take the radio to the beach, because it hasn't got battery power, and few beaches offer Wi-Fi coverage. The system buffers streaming audio--which means that excessive lag in the Internet will sometimes cause it to interrupt a show while it rebuffers. Also, the controls take a little time to master because Roku packed so many functions into a small number of button combinations. A more intuitive interface would let the user twirl dials and punch buttons instead.

None of the drawbacks matter in the long run, though, because once you've set up the system it's a breeze to get it to do whatever you want. --P.E.R.

 

You can buy the SoundBridge Radio system at http://www.rokulabs.comfor US $300.

Hot or Cold

Because LEDs don't slurp much power and can fit in where no Edisonian bulb can go, designers are trying them in a lot of out-of-the-way places--sides of cars, ends of key chains, soles of shoes. Now they're lighting up tap water as well.

The Faucet Light --a rather tame coinage from a toy maker called Hogwild, based in what it calls ”Porkland,” Ore.--incorporates two LEDs, one red, the other blue. When the water runs cool, the aerated stream glows blue; when the temperature rises above 32 °C, it switches to red. The effect is most striking when you pour yourself a drink in the middle of the night.

Of course, the gadget's mainly meant to make washing more fun for the kids, but it does have a serious side. Pediatric studies have shown that thousands of children, particularly preschoolers and toddlers, are scalded by hot tap water each year, most often in baths but also at the bathroom sink.

The light comes with two adapters that fit most fixtures and with two extra batteries. --P.E.R.

 

Go to http://www.hogwild.comto buy the Faucet Light for US $18.

 

Why, a Child Could Fly This

 

Last year's holiday review featured an electric miniature helicopter that could lift off from the palm of your hand. But because the chopper couldn't stall and didn't need a sensitive hand on the remote control, it was almost too easy to fly--more an executive desk ornament than a toy an actual child would be bound to respect.

The Palm-Z Indoor Flyer , made by Silverlit Electronics of Hong Kong, costs half as much as the copter, which is good, and it is considerably more challenging to fly, which is also good--in a way. The IEEE Spectrum staff took some time just to get the plane to sail in a straight line without going nose up and then dropping; it took even longer to get it to turn smartly enough to make it around office cubicles and other traps.

The pilot controls the speed of the motor with a small console, using a vertically sliding throttle and horizontally sliding yaw control, which broadcast in three infrared frequencies. That means one person ought to be able to fly three models, but with only one plane on hand, we couldn't test this. The manufacturer warns that the infrared signal may get swamped in sunlight, but then again, this product isn't meant for the great outdoors, where any puff of wind would knock it for a loop. With that possibility in mind, the manufacturer has thoughtfully included an extra rudder, probably the single most vulnerable part.

The superlight, plastic-foam plane has a wingspan as long as your hand, a tiny electric motor, and a rechargeable lithium polymer battery, which charges from the same small console used to steer the plane in flight. A full charge keeps the thing buzzing for about 5 minutes. The control works to a radius of about 5 meters. The manual notes that the console will accept an optional infrared signal booster to extend the range to 30 meters, but neither the manual nor the Web sites we checked quoted a price for the booster.--P.E.R.

 

You can buy the Palm-Z Indoor Flyer at http://www.playasia.comfor US $28, plus about $16 for shipping. The charging console requires four AA batteries.

 

In-Your-Face Goggles

Back in the 1950s, stereoscopic movies came and went, first thrilling audiences with gutâ¿¿wrenching effects, then faintly nauseating them with subtly disorienting cues. Today 3-D is back again, this time appearing in controlled, virtual-reality environments where the cues fit more seamlessly. Even so, stomachs continue to churn, in part because most systems still take shortcuts, notably by rapidly alternating views shown to the left and right eyes.

The TDVisor headset from TDVision avoids that drawback by offering continuous views in both the left and right channels. It should, therefore, give gamers and other heavy users less of a headache. It sure made an auto-racing game a lot of fun [see photo] when a few of us tried it here in the office.

What seemed on the flat screen to be a rotating, murky mass appeared in the visor as a revolving medical model, the veins and nerves popping out clearly. A virtual walk-through made a room come to life.

But the visor worked best of all when juggling fast-motion video, as in a clip a TDVision employee made riding a roller coaster. That footage had been taken with an associated product, a weirdly alert-looking, two-lens camera that easily fits into one hand.

The film-it-yourself feature is important, because until Hollywood embraces 3-D, users will have to generate a lot of the content themselves. Games, of course, will be the biggest draw for customers, because their programs calculate motion in space by design, just to render scenes on a regular display.

The company, in Naperville, Ill., is still in the start-up phase, so it can't begin mass production until it gets enough preorders. Therefore, to prime the pump, it is now courting early adopters. If you tell the company you're an IEEE member, it will sell you a preproduction model that offers 800- by 600â¿¿pixel resolution, with the option to trade up later to a planned 1280-by-768 model. In other words, TDVision's elves will make the visor for you by hand.

TDVision has already sold about 40 such handmade units, most of them to people doing research in virtual reality, says Ethan Schur, the company's director of product marketing.

The company says its standard is compatible with most video equipment. What's more, it lets you watch something coded in 3-D while the same video runs in 2-D on a conventional display; that way, you can still watch with the goggles off. It won't work, however, with systems such as Nintendo's Wii, that use an analog rather than a digital signal.

The eyepieces are optically adjustable, and there's enough room inside the goggles to accommodate spectacles. The 142-gram visor rested lightly enough on the brow, but the heavy user probably will want to push it up on the forehead once in a while to rest the nose. --P.E.R.

 

The 800-by-600 TDVisor is priced at US $1000; the upcoming 1280-by-768 TDVisor HD can be preordered for $1500 at http://www.tdvision.com/preorder.html.

 

Hi-Fi, Low Price

Class-D amplifiers are known for their superhigh efficiencies and precise, detailed sound, and much of their growing success can be credited to a single remarkable product: the Universal Class D (UcD) amplifier module designed by Bruno Putzeys of Hypex Electronics, in Groningen, the Netherlands.

It's used in high-end amps from Channel Islands Audio, Meridian, Kharma, MM Audio, and Exodus, and it's gotten raves from the audiophile press. But at prices in excess of US $1000 for a stereo setup, the sound has been enjoyed by a relatively small community of cognoscenti.

Now you can build yourself the Hawk Audio D-402 amplifier kit for less than half as much. Hawk, of Ledegem, Belgium, sells two kits featuring the Hypex UcD: the basic D-402, which retails for $445, and a new high-grade version that goes for $575. Both come with a power supply that delivers 40 watts per channel into 8-ohm speakers. The $575 model has improved input circuitry and more vigorous decoupling of the power supply from the signal paths.

I built the basic version and connected it to my Grande 8 speakers from Omega Speaker Systems of Norwalk, Conn. I fed it with output from my Sony NS999ES universal disk player, which I use as a transport that sends bits to a separate digital-to-analog converter unit based on the Analog Devices AD1853EB board. After a few minutes of listening I became a true believer in Class D, preferring it to the two amplifiers I'd used in the same setup--both tube amps that had cost me several thousand dollars to build.

The plastic case of the D-402 is a bit tacky, and the simple, ganged carbon potentiometer volume control will make some audiophiles cringe. Get over your distaste. Hide the amp in a closet if you must. My only regret is that I discovered Class-D audio so late.â¿¿--Glenn Zorpette

 

You can buy the Hawk Audio D-402 kit for US $445 and the high-grade version for $575; see http://www.hawkaudio.com.

 

It's Not a Key, It's a Window

 

Just as you might stuff important computer functions into handy toolbars, the Optimus Mini 3 packs a toolbar into a stand-alone keyboard. The imaginative design, from Moscow's Art. Lebedev Studio, gives you the option to use its three keys to convey information in both directions: as commands to the computer and as visual output to the user.

That's because the keys use organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) to show images, static or animated. You configure the keys to do whatever you want. It runs on Windows 2000, XP, and Vista and on Mac OS X.

When not actively using the device, you might have the buttons display general information such as system status with free memory and CPU usage graphs, or the time in any city. Then, when you press the Control, Shift, or Alt keys, or combinations thereof, on your computer keyboard, the buttons might serve as an extension of the toolbars in a browser or as a remote control for a PowerPoint slide show (complete with a preview of the previous, current, and next images). One enterprising programmer used the provided development tools to knock together code that previews video on the OLED screens. I can see how the OM3 could provide a novel way of interacting with users where a full screen and keyboard are not desirable, say an interactive session at a museum exhibit or in a schoolroom.

The keys can present a dynamic image that refreshes three times per second. The rather low refresh rate means that it's not the best of video screens, but that's not what the OM3 is about.

--Christopher J. James

 

You can buy the Optimus Mini 3 at http://store.artlebedev.comfor US $149.

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