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Gadgets of the year: touching deep

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Gadgetry is synonymous with bells and whistles, but sometimes it’s the personal approach that stands out. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s three gadgets of the year all strike a chord, but for different reasons.

The stand-out gadgets of 2015 each makes its presence felt by touching a chord – although not all in the same way. One speaks to health, one to educational needs and one to sheer entertainment – but in a manner seldom encountered in electronics and gadgetry.

Gadget of the Year: Fitbit Charge HR

It is rare for a gadget that emerges early in the year to become an immediate favourite to win the title of Gadget of Year, but the Fitbit Charge HR made an early claim to the title. It is the market-leading activity monitor, still marginally ahead of the Apple Watch in overall wearable sales, and the undisputed leader in dedicated activity monitors.

The original Fitbit Flex was already a winner in getting people to up their activity levels, but it fell dramatically short in not having its own display. The moment a second device – in this case a smartphone – is needed to make a wearable work, it is not a true wearable, but rather what one may call a connectable.

The Apple Watch does not function truly independently of an iPhone, hence its absence from the selection here. The Fitbit began to come into its own with the release of the Charge, with its own mini-screen and a single control button. It still needs to synchronise with a smartphone or computer for maximum tracking benefits, but is not dependent on either for its core functions.

It does, however, have one gap that is quickly being filled by most smartwatches: heart-rate monitoring. That is an integral element of activity monitoring nowadays and, when included in a wristband, dramatically upgrades fitness use from the clunky old chestbands using radio frequency.

Enter the Fitbit Charge HR. It is as slim as the Charge and Flex, and hence as unobtrusive. However, it includes a heart rate (HR) monitor, so HR was added to the name. It offers exactly what a wearable should: it is low-key, with long battery life, and is simple yet effective.  It measures steps, distance and staircases, and, thanks to a recent software upgrade, can detect exercise modes.

Most smartwatches require daily charging, which tends to be the biggest frustration of Apple Watch owners. The Fitbit runs for up to five days, and then charges fully in less than an hour, meaning little activity is lost while charging.

This is a gadget that can and does change lives, and does so in a manner that seamlessly integrates with users’ lifestyles. It started the year as the frontrunner, and ends as the runaway winner.

Educational gadget of the year: Kano computer kit

The Kano Computer Kit starred life on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site where  someone with a great idea appeals to anyone who wants to buy into the idea to fund its development. It raised $1.5-million from more than 13 000 backers, and is now making its way into online and offline stores across the world.

It is a kit that contains the essential components for building a computer, but geared towards children aged 6 to 12, so doesn’t get too technical. No transistors to solder onto motherboards!

On the other hand, it does take children beyond what even their parents imagine a child with no experience can achieve with a computer. From assembly of plug-and-play componenents through to coding the device to make music and games, it awakens both child and parent to a new world of computing possibilities. Merely the fact that it introduces coding languages like Python and JavaScript in an accessible, child-friendly way is already a major recommendation in a world where coding ability is a major asset.

It comes with keyboard, case, low-cost Raspberry Pi computer, processor, build-it-yourself speakers, cables and WiFi connectivity – along with a storybook that guides the child through construction and coding.  It plugs into any monitor with an HDMI port – and Kano is about to releasen a D-I-Y high-definition display too. Expect this one to make waves in schools in 2016.

Fun gadget of the year: Star Wars BB-8 App-enabled Droid

By now it’s old news that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on its way to becoming the biggest box-office hit of all time. Those who have seen it will point not only to the heroes, the epic tale and the magnificent special effects, but also to the arrival of a worthy successor to the beloved droid, R2D2. The newcomer, BB-8, possesses an astonishing array of attitude and emotion for a robot that has only lights and, err, bells and whistles to express itself.

Even before the movie was released, the toy version of BB-8 was on its way to becoming a gift of choice for the 2015 holiday season. In the wake of the movie, it is likely to be a runaway success. Only a few inches tall, it is a faithful reproduction of the “real” thing. It is controlled from any Android or Apple iOS device, and can be guided around most terrains.

Most astonishingly, the mini BB-8 responds to voice and evolves its attitude and actions the longer it is used. It records and sends “holographic” videos, making it as faithful to the original as current technology allows. However, it is sheer adorable quotient that makes BB-8 a winner. Few electronic toys have the ability to create quite the bond that BB-8 does.

Created by Sphero, makers of last year’s hit toy, the Romo Smartphone Robot, it takes smartphone play experience at light speed into a galaxy far, far away.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Homemation creates comfort through smart homes

Home automation is more than just turning the lights on and off, Homemation’s Gedaliah Tobias tells BRYAN TURNER

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The world is taking interior design notes from the Danish, in a style of living called hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). Its meaning varies from person to person: some see hygge as a warm fire on a cold winter’s night, others see it as a cup of hot coffee in the morning. The amount of “good feelings” one gets from these relaxing activities depends on what one values as indulgent.

But how does technology fit into this “art of feeling good”?

We asked Homemation marketing manager Gedaliah Tobias to take us through a fully automated home of the future and show us how automation creates comfort and good feelings.

“The house is powered by Control4, which you can think of as the brain of the smart home,” says Tobias. “It controls everything from the aircon to smart vacuum cleaners.”

The home of the future is secured by a connected lock. It acts like other locks with keypads and includes a key in the event of a power interruption. The keypad is especially useful to those who want to provide temporary access to visitors, staff, or simply kids who might lose their parents’ house keys.

“The keypad is especially useful for temporary access,” says Tobias. “For example, if you have a garden service that needs to use the home for the day, they can be given a code that only turns off the perimeter alarm beams in the garden for the day and time. If that code is used outside of the day and time range, users can set up alerts for their armed response to be alerted. This type of smart access boosts security.”

Once inside, one is greeted with a “scene” – a type of recipe for electronic success. The scene starts by turning on the lights, then by alerting the user to disarm the alarm. After the alarm is disarmed, the user can start another more complicated scene.

“Users can request customised scene buttons,” says Tobias. “For example, if I press the ‘Dinner call’ scene, the lights start to flash in the bedroom, there’s an announcement from the smart speakers, the blinds start to come down, the lighting is shifted to the dinner table. Shifting focus with lighting creates a mood to bring the house together for dinner.”

Homemation creates these customised scene buttons to enable users to control their homes without having to use another device. In addition to scene buttons, there are several ways to control the smart home.

 “Everything in the smart home is controllable from your phone, the touchscreens around the house, the TV, and the dedicated remote control. Everyone is different, so having multiple ways to control the house is a huge value add.”

We ask Tobias where Homemation recommends non-smart home users should start on their smart home journey.

“Before anything, the Control4 infrastructure needs to be set up. This involves a lot of communications and electrical cabling to be run to different areas of the home to enable connectivity throughout the home. After the infrastructure is set up, the system is ready for smart home devices, like lighting and sound.”

“For new smart home users, the best bang for their buck would be to start with lighting once the infrastructure is set up. Taking it one step at a time is wise.”

•    For more information, visit https://www.homemation.co.za/

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Face App grabs SA attention

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South Africans generated more than 100 000 search queries for “Face App” on Wednesday, while only generating 50 000 for “Mandela Day”. The Internet wentcrazy over the two-year-old app, which uses artificial intelligence to create a rendering of what users might look like in a few decades. Face App went viral as users posted their aged likenesses on social media in the #faceappchallenge. Privacy experts, however, warned that the app (made in Russia) may pose a threat to users’ privacy as it stores photos on its servers, with US Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, appealing to the FBI to investigate the app. 

In other top searches on Google this week, “Johnny Clegg” garnered more than 500 000 search queries on Tuesday as the news of his passing broke. The ‘White Zulu’ of Juluka and Savuka fame was an internationally acclaimed musician who was also an important figure in the fight against apartheid. Tributes to Clegg have been flooding media and social media over the past couple of days. Clegg succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

More than 200 000 search queries were generated for “Mark Batchelor” on Monday after the former soccer star was brutally gunned down outside his Olivedale home in Gauteng. Investigations into the shooting are still ongoing. Batchelor played for Orlando Pirates, Wits University, Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns, Moroka Swallows and Bafana Bafana. 

“Jacob Zuma” also garnered more than 100 000 search queries on Monday as he made his first, much-anticipated appearance in front of the Zondo Commission on state capture. 

On Sunday “Macdonald Ndou” picked up more than 10 000 search queries after reports of theMuvhango actor’s arrest made the rounds. Ndou was held on various charges including extortion and kidnapping. The Hawks have reportedly provisionally withdrawn charges against the TV star, but a spokesperson said the decision to withdraw does not mean the charges will not be reinstated.

“Serena Williams” garnered more than 50 000 searches on Saturday as the tennis superstar suffered a 6-2, 6-2 defeat against Simona Halep in a Wimbledon final that lasted just 56 minutes. Williams later told Agence France Presse, “She [Halep] played out of her mind” and “I was like a deer in headlights”.

Last Friday, South Africans produced more than 20 000 search queries for “Duduzane Zuma” as the Randburg Magistrates Court found the former first son not guilty of a charge of culpable homicide. In February 2014, Zuma was involved in a car crash that took the life of Phumzile Dube when his vehicle crashed into the taxi she was travelling in.

Search trends information is gleaned from data collated by Google based on what South Africans have been searching for and asking Google. Google processes more than 40 000 search queries every second. This translates to more than a billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year, worldwide. Live Google search trends data is available at https://www.google.co.za/trends/hottrends#pn=p40 

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