Photo: Simpit Technologies
Virtual-reality goggles promise great things, but they do have an inherent drawback. Because they completely block the wearer’s view, all but the simplest hand or gesture controllers are impractical. If you enjoy zipping through simulated realities in even a moderately complicated vehicle—whether a race car, airplane, or spaceship—you often need at least an entire keyboard’s worth of buttons. The $3,125 Icarus 180–Avenger “sim pit” may be the solution, with a semicircular screen 1.7 meters in diameter that’s fed by two HD projectors (the price quoted includes the pit, projectors, and software). You’ll need to add your own PC gaming rig, but most software should run without modification, letting you turn a patch of your home into the Grand Canyon or the Orion Nebula. —S.C.
I will admit that when I first saw an early version of the US $950 Ninebot One motorized wheel demonstrated at CES in January 2014, I thought it was a stunt product. When I wobbled around on the show floor the following year, I wondered what lunatics were buying them. But sales in parts of Europe have apparently been brisk, and I’ve even seen one or two zooming around in the hipper areas of New York City, so I guess I should put aside my old-fogeyness and admit that—with practiced riders—it does look kind of fun.— Stephen Cass
The $300 Jamstik+ is intended to be a teaching instrument. Sensors under the Jamstik’s frets detect finger placements; an iPad app displays where your fingers are and where they should be for a given chord. Users can play along to various tunes Guitar Hero–style. And, of interest to circuit benders and other electronic musicians, the company says it is open to sharing the software-development kit for custom projects on request. —S.C.
For those not willing to splurge on a sim pit—and straddling the line between the cheap-and-cheerful $25 Google Cardboard virtual-reality goggles and the sophisticated-but-pricey $350 developer’s version of the Oculus Rift headset—there is the Gear VR (most places are selling it for $100). Also designed by Oculus—in a clear move to stave off having its lunch eaten by low-cost competitors—the Gear VR holds a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Like Cardboard, it uses the smartphone’s screen to generate graphics. However, in addition to having better optics than the Cardboard, the Gear VR also features a touch pad and other controls to make interacting with VR applications easier. — S.C.
Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.
BB-8 by Sphero
This month sees the release of the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movie’s trailers have already created a fan-favorite character: the BB-8 droid, seen rolling around landscapes with a head that seems to float on top of a spherical body. To the surprise of most, BB-8 turned out to be not a computer-generated special effect but a physical prop. And to the satisfaction of many, you can now own a (small) BB-8 for $150. How do they do it? Magnets — S.C.
With memories still fresh of how last year’s polar vortex gripped the offices of IEEE Spectrum (along with most of the eastern United States), electrically heated insoles seem like a very attractive proposition, even with a price tag of $200. This being 2015, the rechargeable insoles are (what else?) controlled by a smartphone app, which allows you to adjust the temperature for each foot individually and track the number of steps walked. —S.C.
Parrot, which helped create the consumer drone market with the 2010 launch of its AR.Drone, has bridged water and air with its $160 Hydrofoil drone. The drone is actually a two-in-one deal, with an aerial minidrone that can fly independently or be seated in a frame to power a hydrofoil hull. —S.C.
Photo: Cambridge University Press
The Art of Electronics, 3rd Edition
It might seem odd to recommend a $120 textbook as a gift, but there are probably few working EEs around today who don’t have a copy of the cherished but somewhat outdated 1989 second edition of The Art of Electronics (Cambridge University Press). The latest edition takes in 25 years of advances, particularly in regard to microcontrollers and programmable logic devices, but it is still written in the same signature style as earlier editions. The book is littered with invaluable practical tips and even has frequent humor (EE humor, but humor nonetheless!). —S.C.
Photo: SparkFun Electronics
The SparkFun Guide to Processing
While more comprehensive books about processing exist, The SparkFun Guide to Processing (No Starch Press, $30) is an excellent primer on this Javaesque language for multimedia art, especially for casual or younger programmers. A quick read through the relevant chapter will have you—within minutes—visualizing data downloaded from online repositories or communicating with an Arduino microcontroller. —S.C.
IEEE Spectrum’s own senior editor Stephen Cass pairs up with Kevin R. Grazier, a physicist and science advisor to productions such as Battlestar Galactica and Gravity, on this highly entertaining yet authoritative account of science and technology as viewed through the lens of Hollywood (Springer, $25). With good humor and abundant enthusiasm, the pair explore the plausibility of dozens of sci-fi scenarios presented in TV shows and film. —Jean Kumagai