Samsung smart watch

Can the Galaxy Gear change the fate of wearable tech?

"KITT, I need you!" Michael Knight would scream into his watch, and sure enough, his computerized 1982 Pontiac Trans Am would come screeching in for a quick rescue. When I was growing up, the “Knight Rider” TV show was the pinnacle of cool, at least among my geeky friends. The car was amazing, of course, but I really loved the fact that Michael could use his watch to call it. And according to the official Knight Rider Compendium, his watch was the height of modern technology, blending cell phone communications with accurate time measurement.

Fast forward 30 years, and Samsung unveils the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. While not a full phone, it's designed to be able to link up with any of the Galaxy smartphone models, allowing users to make calls, browse apps and even share photos, all without taking their actual phones out of their pockets. CNN got a quick hands-on with the watch at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, and it looked pretty impressive. In addition to acting as a companion to Galaxy phones, the Gear will have 70 applications when it launches Sept. 25 that it can run on its 1.6-inch screen.

At $299 each, and still requiring an actual companion phone to fully work, I'm not sure this watch will be the next big thing in mobile. Wearable computers have never been that popular, and I'm not just talking about the calculator watch that got me regularly beat up in high school. (By the way, KITT, I'm still waiting for that backup. Guess you didn't get my call.)

No, wearable PCs have tried for years to break into government, or the consumer market, or anywhere really. Back in 1999 we reviewed the Xybernaut Mobile Assistant IV, which was designed to make work easier for government employees. We thought it was the next big thing, but it went nowhere.

At a conference in 2001, representatives from the Army expressed cautious optimism that soldiers would be wearing computers into battle within two years. But that didn't go quite as planned, either. Microsoft, which is among the other companies reportedly working on a smartwatch, actually produced one nearly 10 years ago. It was deemed to be pretty good, too, but it also disappeared.

Some movement in this area was seen recently, with the military again trying to push the ball forward. This time the Air Force wanted a way for its techs to be able to wear a computer in the field. Something like the Motorola HC1 may fit that bill, but the jury is still out.

In one sense, the Gear has a lot going for it. Its limited scope means it can be lightweight, yet still run a lot of applications. And Samsung says the battery will last for a full day without needing a charge. Still, the last major device that needed to connect with a phone to achieve full functionality was the Blackberry Playbook, and while we thought it was perfect for government, not everyone agreed. It was eventually patched to be able to do everything on its own, sans phone.

I'll be sure to pick up a Galaxy Gear for review, though the disappointment when my 2010 Hyundai Elantra refuses to answer my calls may be too crushing.  

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 05, 2013 at 9:57 AM2 comments


Mobile push notifications becoming pushy notifications

Like most people, I have a smartphone. I enjoy it. It brightens my day and enhances my life both personally and professionally. Plus, hey, distractions!

Still, there are times when we can end up regretting having them. There's been a bit of a kerfuffle lately about push notifications for government safety and other alerts coming through phones. Usually taking the name “Amber Alerts” from the missing child notifications — but actually called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) — the system lets government organizations — from the White House to the local level — send alerts about emergencies or imminent threats to WEA-capable smartphones.  The alerts are free, and wireless carriers participate voluntarily — though not all do. And WEA is opt-out, although emergency alerts issued by the president can’t be blocked. Here in South Carolina — I live in Charleston — the most frequent cause of my phone chirping on its own is a warning about possible torrential rains and flooding. Forgive me, but warning me about heavy rains in South Carolina is like warning someone from Washington, D.C., about presidential motorcades. Maybe useful, but hardly critical.

The system is a complement to Emergency Alert System. The government, through the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Emergency Management Agency, rolled out the new wireless system in April 2012. The idea is to send alerts to targeted geographic areas, so people in South Carolina get warnings about hurricanes, and those in Wyoming get advanced word on blizzards, and so on.

The recent murder-and-abduction case in San Diego showed the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Authorities sent alerts the entire length of the state and beyond (a GCN contributor in Washington state got one). Since the abductor was eventually caught in Idaho, and the girl he kidnapped was rescued, it would seem that wide net was called for. But what would someone in San Francisco — or San Diego, for the matter — have made of this message, sent without context up and down the West Coast: “Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert. UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door.

Those alerts, which can arrive at any time day or night, are not like regular text message alerts either, so you won't hear that Funky Chicken Dance you paid an extra 99 cents to procure. They literally scream with tones that mimic the television emergency alert tones, and they can come in at all hours because many people don’t ever shut their phones down, even while they are charging up.

Look, I'm not going to argue against the utility of using smartphones in this way, because alerts can be valuable. Universities have set up campus-wide alert systems that have proved effective, as the VT Alert system did at Virginia Tech University in December 2011.

But reaching out to me with an alert even when my phone is silenced to warn me about something that is of no concern — or even local to me — is something that should require finesse. You know it's only a matter of time until some James Bond gets an Amber Alert that tips off the bad guys when he's skulking around quietly. At least make it opt-in as opposed to the current opt-out model. Most users won't even know they're a part of the network until their phone suddenly surprises them by screeching to life, which is the way many people in California learned about the program.

Meanwhile, agencies might want to be a little more circumspect about issuing alerts. If they cause too much aggravation, more and more people will opt out, and then what good will they do?

Posted by Nate Wooley on Aug 22, 2013 at 7:05 AM1 comments

Fight AIDS @ Home

Cell phones gear up to fight AIDS

Grid computing is nothing new. In one model of this kind of shared computing, people download programs that allow their computers or laptops to donate computing cycles to projects when the machines are otherwise idle. Scientists with big computing problems can upload a computational problem to a central server, and that server then takes advantage of all the idle computers to crunch numbers and work out a solution.

More grid computing

Now, Android phones can help solve the mysteries of the universe

Berkley makes room for the OS on its BOINC grid, so owners can lend their idle computing time to research projects. Read more.

In the past, this kind of volunteer computing has been done with desktops and laptops, because only they had enough power to make things worthwhile.

But now that smartphones are almost as powerful as desktop computers,  the folks over at IBM's World Community Grid and the Olsen Laboratory plan to leverage the power in everyone’s back pocket. They have developed an app  to distribute the computational burden related to finding new drugs that can combat resistant strains of AIDS. To participate in the program, users simply download the Android app and install it on their phone. Thereafter, the smartphone will be sent problems and use its idle processing power to work out solutions.

Even though today's phones are powerful, they still face limitations compared to desktop computers. According to the scientists working on the project, phones will only accept problems when they are connected to a Wi-Fi network, are close to fully charged and are plugged into an AC outlet. That way the project won't drain the battery or rack up usage charges. Basically, the phones will mostly be used at night when they are at home and being charged up.

Although users likely won't notice their phones chugging away, scientists are hopeful that the idle phones will discover the answer to some pretty complex questions. IBM keeps a running total of how much idle time has been devoted to the project. As of this week, over 30,000 people have downloaded the app and more than 288 years of runtime has been logged. If you've got an Android and some free idle computing cycles, why not help to cure AIDS while you sleep?

Posted by John Breeden II on Aug 12, 2013 at 9:33 AM1 comments