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New Tactus Case Concept Brings A Disappearing Keyboard To The iPad

It was about this time last year that Tactus — the company behind the amazing disappearing touchscreen keyboard — really started making a name for itself. So what does a buzzy company do to top its previous showing at the world’s biggest consumer tech show? In Tactus’ case it quietly showed off yet another potential game-changer, so we met with Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla on the CES show floor to dig into what the team has been working on.

If you’ll recall, the past few months have been interesting ones for Tactus. The Fremont, Calif., company linked up with Synaptics to cobble together a reference Android tablet and it just recently locked up a hefty Series B round to help it flesh out its relationships with new and existing OEM partners working to embed Tactus tech into their wares.

As it turns out, they’ve been working on some kooky (not to mention awesome) hardware prototypes, too. Ciesla brought one such device for us to peek at, and should it reach production, it could potentially solve one of Tactus’ biggest hangups.

You see, Tactus’ big deal is all about licensing its disappearing keyboard tech to other device manufacturers, which means that all the tablets currently floating around on the market are tablets that Tactus can’t make money off of. In order to fix that, the team whipped up an impressive 3D-printed case prototype within the span of a month that adapts that screen keyboard tech to existing devices. When it’s lashed onto a device (in this case, an iPad mini) the Tactus case pushes fluid into a series of vessels nestled in a thin layer that sits atop the tablet’s screen. The end result? A keyboard that can appear and disappear at will and work on any device.

The case has the sort of rough edges you’d expect a prototype to have, but there’s no denying that seeing a fluid-filled keyboard up and running on an iPad is tremendously cool. Because of the aftermarket nature of the case, there’s no way to coax the keyboard into appearing through software, so a slider on the side controls how much fluid gets pushed into the screen.

Neat as this is, Ciesla was eager to remind me that Tactus has no desire to craft and sell these sorts of devices under its own name. He expects the first batch of Tactus-enabled gadgets to hit the market toward the middle of the year, and with any luck, some smart OEM will bite the licensing bullet and crank these cases out for the masses soon.


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Chris Velazco

January 11th

Gadgets

Mobile

AirDroids Wants To Democratize The Skies With Its Pint-Sized Pocket Drone

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The buzz around drones is undeniable these days — as it turns out, even Martha Stewart uses one to survey her farm — but there still hasn’t been a runaway drone hit that has captured that imaginations of the masses. That’s exactly what a hardware startup called AirDroids is trying to accomplish with the Pocket Drone, a (relatively) inexpensive flying machine that’s meant to give people of all stripes a different perspective.

They’re serious about that “perspective” bit, too. The original vision was simple enough: co-founders Tim Reuter, TJ Johnson, and Chance Roth really just wanted to create a cheap way to tote a camera through the sky. Those ambitions evolved slightly though, and now they’re looking at the Pocket Drone as the ideal air machine to kick off a widespread drone revolution.

“We’re a mission-driven company,” Reuter said. “Our goal is to put flying robots in the hands of as many people as possible. We think it’s empowering to democratize the sky.”

Plenty of rapid iteration formalized the Pocket Drone’s shape — by which I mean marathon 3D printing sessions in Johnson’s basement — and the process seems to have been fruitful. In its current form, the Pocket Drone can tote around a GoPro (or something of similar weight) for up to 20 minutes, and support for GPS navigation and tablet controls means that you don’t have to be an RC fanatic (like some of the co-founders) to maneuver of these things through the air.

And, as the name suggests, the drone is just slight enough to fit into a pocket (albeit a pretty large one). It’s not going to fit in your jeans, but it does slide in and out of a windbreaker pocket without too much hassle. That’s mostly thanks to the drone’s folding design — the three rotors’ arms can fold back and telescope for easy storage. The inclusion of easily replaceable carbon fiber chassis components also simplifies the process of swapping out damaged bits — after all, no matter how skilled a pilot you are you’re probably still going to crash every once in a while.

In the event that you’re itching to take to the skies with a Pocket Drone, the team just recently launched a Kickstarter campaign where you can lay claim to your own unit for as low as $415 if you bring your own remote control equipment. Production is going to take a bit of time though — AirDroids is linking up with a Taiwanese manufacturing concern with operations in Mexico to bring the Pocket Drone to market and they hope to get units on peoples’ doorsteps and in the air by June of this year.

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Chris Velazco

January 8th

Gadgets

Driblet’s Smart Water Meter Wants To Track Your Home Water Usage

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Access to clean water is something that most us probably take for granted — after all, it just comes out of taps and faucets and hoses and shower heads with little more than the twist of a spigot. Using all that water can cost a pretty penny (especially in certain foreign countries), but Monterrey, Mexico-based Driblet wants to make sure that people can easily track how much water they’re using in their homes with a device they’re showing off at our Hardware Battlefield here at CES.

The Driblet is a smart water meter that connects to both your pipes and your Wi-Fi network. Meanwhile, a slew of sensors baked into the Driblet box itself constantly keeps tabs on the rate of water flow and all the foreign particulate bits floating around in that water, all of which gets phoned home to the Driblet backend.

Speaking of the backend, the team has made some crucial progress on the software side of things — all of that water quality information can be accessed through a revamped mobile app that also allows users to get water usage goals and forge social connections to see who can be the most environmentally conscious. A bit of a peculiar approach, sure, but a little personal accountability couldn’t hurt.

The TechCrunch historians among you may notice that the Driblet team aren’t strangers to our stage — they showed off a very, very rough prototype of their device at the Disrupt SF 2013 Hackathon to a pretty receptive audience. So what happened from there? Well, the team launched a crowdfunding campaign on Dragon Innovation because of its greater focus on hardware projects, but it couldn’t manage to raise the requested $98,000 to get the Driblet monitor manufactured en masse.

That led to a trip back to the drawing board — the new chassis (seen above) is more attractive and more robust than the 3D-printed prototypes that came before it — and along with it came a pretty savvy shift in vision. The ability to monitor and dig into water consumption tickled some consumers’ fancies but the process of installation and occasional maintenance meant that the end user would have to be at least a little comfortable with getting their hands dirty. This time around though, Driblet is focusing on bigger fish — specifically businesses and buildings that have a vested interest in keeping their hefty water bills low. That’s not to say that they’re giving up on the consumer market though, as there’s room for both approaches to exist. We’ll soon see if this new direction gets Driblet where it needs to be, but the combination of some truly smart hardware and a more refined focus on potential customers means that there’s plenty to like here.


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Chris Velazco

January 8th

Gadgets

Atlas Wearables Takes On Jawbone And Nike With A Smarter Exercise Tracker

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If there’s one lesson to be learned at this year’s CES, it’s that everybody and their mothers are going nuts for wearables. More than a few of these peculiar gadgets are meant to make sure you’re getting enough exercise, but a new fitness tracking hardware startup thinks they’ve got an edge on all the wearable incumbents that have popped up these past few years.

You see, rather than just counting your steps for the day, the Atlas — which is being shown off for the first time onstage at our Hardware Battlefield — is capable of determining exactly what exercises you’re doing to give you a better sense of both your fitness level and your form.

Well almost exactly. Creators Peter Li and Mike Kasparian claim that once the Atlas is lashed to your wrists, it continuously keeps track of its movement in space thanks to a built-in accelerometer. While all that is going on, a finely tuned algorithm chews on all of that spatial data to try and figure out what exactly you’re doing at any given moment. After all, the motion signature of bounding up and down while you’re running should look decidedly different from if you’re knocking out push-ups or standing still(ish) for weighted squats. Meanwhile, the Atlas’ backside sports an optical pulse sensor to determine just how hard you’re actually working out, which when combined with all that other data should yield one of the more thoughtful quantified fitness experiences.

Down the road, Li hopes to build Atlas more of an educational tool too: he and his colleagues are targeting the wrist-worn gadget for a Q4 2014 launch and with it will come the ability to derive a Form Score to give users an idea of how good (or terrible) their bench presses are.

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The reason for the “almost”? In order to accurately determine what exercises you’re doing, the Atlas has to have a baseline reference for the motion data that those exercises generate. And even then, the chances of you having perfect form while you exercise is questionable so there’s a certain level of acclimation involved here as well before you really start to hit your stride.

“You can wear it as a Fitbit for a week to get your basal metabolic rate down,” Li said. But that’s the fatal flaw that Li sees with some of Atlas’ contemporaries — to hear him tell it, the number of steps a person takes each day usually doesn’t vary dramatically so the value of that information is limited. Atlas on the other hand was designed to monitor the full range of person’s fitness activities in the hopes that the people who really care about exercise

At this stage, the company is working with personal trainers in Austin to flesh out the repertoire of exercises that the Atlas is capable of picking up on. In its pre-release prototype form, it’s capable of recognizing two dozen exercises like bicep curls, squats, pushups — you know, some of the perennial favorites — with support for 50-100 to come as Atlas inches closer to its initial release. Interest piqued? The team has just kicked off an Indiegogo campaign, and you can check them out here.


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Chris Velazco

January 7th

Gadgets

Sony Doubles Down On Wearable Tech With The Life-Tracking ‘Core’

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LG played up its push into wearable tech earlier this morning, and now it looks like Sony’s turn to do the same. Sony Mobile president and CEO Kuni Suzuki took the stage at the tail end of Sony’s CES press conference to show off what he called “the tiniest gadget Sony has ever made” — the life-tracking Sony Core.

Yes, life-tracking. A considerable chunk of the wearable gizmos currently floating around on the market are centered solely on tracking user activity in a bid to make them more health-conscious. That’s nothing if not a noble goal (not to mention an awfully lucrative one) but Sony’s approach is meant to also fold into your social and entertainment into the mix as well. The Core is indeed capable of tracking your motion in addition how long you sleep, and the ability to keep tabs on the photos you’ve taken, the music you’re listening to, and how often you interact with particular friends. All of that data gets folded into a (presumably non-final) grid-centric app view for easy perusal, though at this point it’s not clear if Sony means to make that companion app available solely for its own devices.

And how does the Core connect to your phone? Bluetooth, naturally. It seems that the Core will occasionally send sensor data updates to the phone at which point it gets mashed together with all that social and entertainment information to complete Sony’s complete lifelogging package. In the event that the connection between the two is lost, the Core will continue to record that data and it’ll vibrate on your wrist as long as you’re within a certain range.

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If this all sounds a little vague, know that it’s by design. Suzuki himself admitted that the Core’s time on stage today was little more than a teaser designed to whet wearable nerds’ appetites. And, as if he couldn’t resist the urge to paint a picture of an ambitious wearable future, Suzuki noted that Sony was engaging in talks with other hardware manufacturers so Core adopters will have a sizable array of accessories (like Sony’s own color wristbands) to pair with their tiny trackers.

You’ll have to forgive me for being just a little skeptical, as Sony hasn’t exactly had the best track record with its recent wearable forays. Its original SmartWatch was either ahead of its time or fundamentally flawed depending on who you ask, and the the jury is still out on whether or not that device’s successor will have any real staying power in a market that will soon be flooded with wrist-mounted displays. The Core is perhaps one of the more thoughtful takes on wearable tracker formula I’ve seen in recent months, but we’ll soon see if Sony’s clout and resources will be enough to convince the masses of Core’s value.

This is a developing story, please refresh for updates.


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Chris Velazco

January 7th

Gadgets

Tactus Raises Series B To Help Bring Its Disappearing Touchscreen Keyboard To Market

There were plenty of media darlings at last year’s CES, but few tickled people’s fancies the way that Tactus and its amazing disappearing tablet keyboard did. The company has spent the past few months crafting reference devices for would-be partners and gearing up to help OEMs bring that impressive keyboard tech to market, but now it’s looking to supercharge those efforts with a newly raised Series B round.

Sadly, the company is keeping most of the particulars under wraps for now — Tactus didn’t disclose the size of the round or the full list of new names that are joining existing investors like Thomvest Ventures. In fact, the only new investor Tactus specifically called out is Ryoyo Electro, a sizeable Japanese OEM (that I’ve honestly never heard of) that the company originally tapped as a strategic partner late last year.

And what exactly does Tactus plan to do with a freshly minted Series B? To expand on what it’s been doing for the past year or so — working with OEMs to fine-tune the Tactus experience ahead of some big initial launches. Naturally, part of that fine-tuning comes in the form of developing different sorts of keyboard layouts for OEMs to implement since the last thing a forward-thinking device manufacturer needs is a killer feature that competitors can pick up and run with themselves.

We’ve seen the traditional keyboard layout in action before: it involves pumping up areas of the screen that correspond to your usual set of alphanumeric keys, but more exotic configurations would see the gaps between keys to bulge instead to better guide users’ fingers where they need to go.

To hear Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla tell it, the first batch of devices with those expanding keyboards should hit store shelves toward the middle of this year, and with any luck that’ll just be the beginning. After all, the company has pointed out in the past that the process of crafting traditional glass cover lenses that sit over tablet and phone displays is tricky and costly enough to make a fluid-filled Tactus layer a viable choice. When asked if Tactus’ ultimate goal was to completely supplant traditional cover lenses, Ciesla cautiously confirmed his ambitions.

“It’s not going to be a case going from Q1 2014 where everything is glass to Q1 2015 where everything is Tactus,” he noted. “This is a better interface, it’s more satisfying, it’s lighter, it won’t shatter. It’ll just take time.”

Bold words, but we’ll soon see how right he is — Tactus has promised to show off some updated models when CES starts in earnest next week, so check back to see if these guys (and their partners) can make good on their lofty promises.


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Chris Velazco

January 4th

Gadgets

Mobile

Basis Refreshes Its Fitness Tracker, Adds Improved Sleep Analytics

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The quantified self movement has grown to the point where you could easily bedeck your limbs with thousands of dollars of tracking gadgets, and the race to measure your movement isn’t going to end any time soon. That’s why Basis — makers of an awfully accurate, wrist-worn health gadget — has rolled out a new version of the device just in time for the nerd hordes at CES to ogle it.

Well, perhaps calling it “new” is overstating things a bit. The updated, $199 Carbon Steel edition is a hair hardier than the original B1 and it’s better looking to boot, but the big draw is the addition of improved sleep analytics that can assign personal Sleep Scores and ultimately tell just how soundly a wearer is sleeping.

Let’s back up for a moment first: the original Basis had a leg up on competitors because of the sheer number of sensors packed into it. Rather than just installing an accelerometer to monitor motion, the Basis team tricked it out with sensors to measure a user’s heart rate and galvanic skin response, all in hopes of providing people with a clearer understanding of how hard they’re working. That array of sensors also means that users didn’t have to manually switch into a discrete sleeping mode, which has honestly always been a pet peeve of mine — I’d love to gain some deeper insight into what few hours of sleep I manage to get, but I tend to pass out before flipping the sleep switch.

Thankfully, owners of that first generation model won’t have to lose sleep over a feature disparity, as those sleep analytics will be available for the original B1 later this month.

Modified hardware and improved smarts are neat enough, I suppose, but they’re both indicative of a change in how fitness gadget creators have to approach the very process of designing their wares. As Basis CEO Jef Holove recently told PC World, expanding smartphone feature sets means that the feature bar for dedicated activity trackers has just been raised.

“When Apple released the iPhone 5 with the M7 processor, it became even more clear that many of basic functionalities of trackers would be assumed by users’ smartphones, creating a challenge for health trackers to do something more,” he said. He’s got a point: these days we demand that our smartphones do everything, and the companies that craft them are rising to that challenge. Right now we’re seeing plenty of iterative moves by these fitness-focused wearable tech companies — the mildly-refreshed Jawbone UP24 and Nike Fuelband SE spring to mind — but I suspect it won’t be long before the next generation of quantified self hardware begins to pull away from smartphones in earnest.


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Chris Velazco

January 3rd

Gadgets

Motorola’s Flagship Moto X Gets A Permanent Price Cut

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Let’s be real here: there’s a decent chance that you picked up a new smartphone at some point during the holidays, so you’re off the market for at least a little while longer. As it turns out though, you may have been better off waiting a bit.

In a show of New Years magnanimity (or, you know, a ploy to push more units) Motorola has slashed the prices of its sans-contract Moto X — a fully-customized 16GB model for any carrier will now only set you back $399 rather than the $499 it would’ve originally cost. Sadly, those of you with a woodgrain fetish will still have to pay a premium for those newly-available bamboo backs — $100 to be precise.

Does this ultimately mean you should pick up a Moto X over, say, a Nexus 5? Not necessarily — much as I love what the new Motorola is up to these days the Nexus is still my pick for Android device of the year — but it’s a little heartening to see a big name manufacturer is working to reduce the gap between on and off-contract device pricing for high-end smartphones. If anything, it’s that pricing precedent that seems most interesting here. Between this price cut and the introduction of the wallet-friendly Moto G back in late November, Motorola is positioning itself as a player that can deliver new remarkably solid (and in the X’s case, remarkably thoughtful) smartphone experiences at prices that can seem outlandishly low compared to most competitors.

But where does Motorola go from here? Will it be stuck playing the price game from here on out? It’s possible, but maybe that was the plan all along. CEO Dennis Woodside has mentioned multiple times in the past that he wanted Motorola to deliver cutting edge tech at reasonable prices, and I personally took the Moto G as an affirmation of desire. By slashing the price of its flagship device though, Motorola may be testing the waters to see if it can feasibly move its future products with similarly low price tags. If so, Samsung and rest of the low-cost smartphone leaders really need to keep on their toes.


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Chris Velazco

January 1st

Gadgets

Mobile

LG May Be Taking Another Stab At The Wearable Activity Tracking Formula

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CES 2014 is just around the corner, along with enough new gadgetry to fill several lifetimes. Last year we saw a glut of activity trackers pop up in the wake of notable hits like the Fitbit and Jawbone’s UP, and now it looks like LG is taking yet another stab at the wearable fitness formula with its newly leaked (thanks to @evleaks) Lifeband Touch.

Wait, hold on, another stab? Let’s not forget that LG showed off an awfully familiar looking quantified self contraption at last year’s CES, a device that never found its way to store shelves. That earlier unit was capable of connecting to certain compatible LG smart TVs in addition to just tracking your movement, which has to be one of the savvier approaches to building a wearable I’ve seen yet.

After all, if you’re going to insist that people wear your wrist-worn doodad for days on end, what better way to go than to connect it to more things you’re likely to interact with often anyway. Sadly, there are precious few details to go on at this point so the Lifeband is

If we’re being honest, the Lifeband’s existence doesn’t come as much of a surprise — LG has already confirmed that it’s continuing to work on wearable devices, and some recent rumors pointed to a health-conscious angle. The real question, though, is whether or not these things will ever actually see the light of day.

The quantified self market is still a relatively young one, but it’s already got its fair share of big-name incumbents that seem to get the lion’s share of attention from the press and consumers alike. Then again, the Galaxy Gear seemed like one of those kooky vaporware projects for a while before Samsung (for better or worse) decided to push it out the door — maybe LG will throw caution to the wind and release this thing after all.


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Chris Velazco

December 31st

Gadgets

Apple Slapped With $667K Fine For Trying To Influence Taiwanese iPhone Prices

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Chances are that if you’re reading this, you didn’t recently buy an iPhone in Taiwan. As it happens, that may be for the best — according to a Wall Street Journal report published earlier today, Apple has been fined NT$20,000,000 by Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission for attempting to influence iPhone sale prices. That may sound like a lot, but the reality is considerably less dramatic — that figure only works out to about $667,000. The price tag for further noncompliance raises the stakes a bit more though, as Apple would have to shell out an additional NT$50 million (~$1.6 million).

Pretty soon we’ll be talking about real money.

As the story goes, Apple insisted on signing off on iPhone pricing plans for three of Taiwan’s largest telecom companies — Chunghwa Telecom (far and away the biggest of the lot), FarEasTone Telecommunications, and Taiwan Mobile. Under Taiwanese law, those companies should be free from any sort of corporate interference once they have purchased the rights to distribute said iDevices from Apple, which sadly doesn’t appear to be the case.

The WSJ’s report goes on to note that Apple has the option to appeal the commission’s decision, but at this point there’s no word if the company plans to avail itself of that option. I’ve reached out to Apple for comment, but seeing as how it’s Christmas, I’m not holding my breath for a speedy response.

Now if we’re being honest, this isn’t the first time a major smartphone player has been caught playing hard and fast with Taiwanese law. Samsung has also been party to its share of legal imbroglios in Taiwan in 2013, as it kicked off the year by getting slapped with a NT$300,000 (roughly US$10,389) fine for running ads claiming that its Galaxy Y Duos smartphone had an autofocusing camera with a flash. It didn’t. Samsung also came under fire later that year for crafting a astroturfing campaign that saw paid flacks attack Taiwanese competitor HTC’s products online.

And the kicker? The campaign probably wasn’t even necessary. I’ll gladly admit to being a fan of HTC’s wares, but there’s no denying that company is still facing its share of financial woes.

If we’re being totally honest, the sorts of fines that get levied on these tech titans are unlikely to cause any lasting shift in behavior. Let’s not forget that Apple has something like $150 billion (probably much more) tucked away neatly in its cash reserves. Naturally, Samsung too is well-equipped to absorb regulatory fines as it gets hit with them — revenues for the chaebol as a whole continue to account for nearly a fifth of South Korea’s GDP, with a considerable chunk of that coming from its lucrative (and prolific) consumer electronics division. Let’s consider that Samsung astroturfing case again. As Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt adroitly pointed out when this all went down, the NT$10 million fine doesn’t amount to much more than a rounding error when you consider that Samsung’s 2012 marketing budget weighed in at a whopping $5.3 billion.

Did the whole rigmarole actually work? Who knows. What is clear though is that some very prominent companies seem to think it’s easier — and perhaps more lucrative — to say sorry and take a (very) mild financial drubbing than it is to play by the rules in the first place. They might not be wrong.


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Chris Velazco

December 25th

Apple

Gadgets

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