All posts by Tim Anderson

Tiny data projectors using Texas Instruments DLP chips

Remember when data projectors were huge and expensive, and had bulbs so delicate that you were not meant to move them for half an hour after switch off?

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Things are different now. At Mobile World Congress You can hold an HD projector in the palm of your hand or build it into a mobile phone. The projectors I saw were based on DLP Pico chipsets from Texas Instruments, which contain up to 2 million hinge-mounted microscopic mirrors. If you add a light source and a projection lens, you get a tiny projector.

The obvious use case is that you can turn up at an ad-hoc meeting and show photos, charts or slides on the nearest wall, instead of huddling round a laptop screen or setting up an old-style data projector.

Amazon Kindle goes social with Public Notes, Twitter and Facebook integration

A free firmware update for Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader adds several new features, including an element of social networking.

The features are as follows:

  • Page numbers for easier referencing, for example in essays, reviews and discussions. Page numbers must be included in the digital book for this to work. It is not clear how many titles include them; Amazon just says “Many titles in the Kindle Store now include real page numbers”.
  • New newspaper and magazine layout with a “Sections & Articles” view. Each section has its own article list for easier browsing.

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  • Public notes with Facebook and Twitter integration. This is the feature that makes Kindle reading social. You can attach notes to a passage and make them publicly viewable by other readers who choose to follow you, either on a note-by-note basis, or by making an entire book public through the Amazon website. You can also register a Facebook and Twitter account and have specific notes and ratings posted to those who follow you on those networks.

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The advantage for Amazon is that these features should promote books through viral marketing.

It comes at an interesting time, since Apple’s new subscription rules may make it difficult for Amazon to continue supporting iPhone and iPad with free readers. Apple is insisting on a 30% cut of the revenue for all titles purchased through apps, forming a financial barrier for competitors to its own iBooks service.

If Amazon can cement loyalty to Kindle though social network integration, that could help it maintain market share.

 

My question to the Gorilla Glass folk: when is Apple going to call?

I had a brief chat with Corning, makers of Gorilla Glass, who were showing their wares at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

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Gorilla Glass is exceptionally strong and makes sense for expensive devices with glass screens – like many of the smartphones and tablets that are hot right now.

According to Corning, it is strengthened through an ion-exchange process:

Ion exchange is a chemical strengthening process where large ions are “stuffed” into the glass surface, creating a state of compression. Gorilla Glass is specially designed to maximize this behavior.

The glass is placed in a hot bath of molten salt at a temperature of approximately 400°C. Smaller sodium ions leave the glass, and larger potassium ions from the salt bath replace them. These larger ions take up more room and are pressed together when the glass cools, producing a layer of compressive stress on the surface of the glass. Gorilla Glass’s special composition enables the potassium ions to diffuse far into the surface, creating high compressive stress deep into the glass. This layer of compression creates a surface that is more resistant to damage from everyday use.

Fair enough; and I am a fan because it works. My question though: when is Apple going to call? The iPhone 4 has glass panels both front and rear, and is unfortunately rather fragile. I would be interested to know what proportion of damaged iPhones simply have shattered glass. One drop onto a hard surface is all it takes, unless you have a protective case that adds bulk and in my view spoils the design.

Apple’s Bumper case fixes the problem with the antenna design, but does little to protect the glass.

The iPad glass is also prone to shatter if dropped:

It slipped off my lap in a bar in the Portland airport during a particularly long layover. It landed screen-side down on the uneven Mexican tile floor and made a sound that caused the whole room to go quiet. I still feel a little sick just remembering it. It looked a lot like the ones people purposely ran over with trucks when I picked it up.

From what I can tell, Gorilla Glass really is better in this respect.

So how about it Apple?

First look at HP’s TouchPad WebOS tablet

I took a close look at HP’s WebOS TouchPad tablet during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

This 9.7” machine looks delightful. One of its features is wireless charging using the optional Touchstone accessory. The same technology can also transmit data, as mentioned in this post on wireless charging, and the TouchPad makes use of this in conjunction with new WebOS smartphones such as the Pre3 and the Veer. Put one of these devices next to a TouchPad and the smartphone automatically navigates to the same URL that is displayed on the TouchPad. A gimmick, but a clever one.

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From what I saw though, these WebOS devices are fast and smooth, with strong multitasking and a pleasant user interface. Wireless charging is excellent, and a feature you would expect Apple to adopt before long since it reduces clutter.

I still would not bet on HP winning big market share with WebOS. The original Palm Pre was released to rave reviews but disappointing sales, and HP will have to work a miracle to avoid the same fate.

Wireless power at Mobile World Congress: no more chargers?

At Mobile World Congress Fulton Innovation was showing off its wireless power technology called eCoupled. We are accustomed to the idea of transmitting data wirelessly, but less familiar with wireless power. It is possible though, and I saw several examples. One of the most striking but least useful is this cereal box, printed with conductive ink, which lights up when placed on a special shelf – the inset image shows the same packet before the title lit up.

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The technology has plenty of potential though. I travelled to Barcelona with a case full of chargers, and the idea of simply placing them on a charging shelf instead is compelling; this is already possible and I saw several examples. The Wireless Power Consortium has created a wireless power standard called Qi:

It will be no surprise to see Qi stations in the office, hotels, airports, railway stations as part of the normal infrastructure that offers wireless power charging service

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On the eCoupled site you can see some other ideas, like kitchen appliances that work simply by being placed on a powered surface:

eCoupled will one day integrate into the walls and surfaces of your home. If you’re watching the big game, the TV won’t need to be plugged in. Power will be delivered wirelessly via the eCoupled-enabled wall. In the kitchen, a multipurpose countertop will allow you to mix, chop, blend and boil all on the same powered surface. There will be no cords to plug in, or outlets to worry about.

The technology allows data transmission as well, so the glowing cereal box can also report when it has passed its sell-by date. Now that might actually serve a purpose.

Farewell to Bizarre Creations, makers of Project Gotham Racing and Geometry Wars

It is hard to understand why some of the best game studios go out of business, while lesser ones (I am not going to mention names) continue. The last time I felt like this was when Ensemble Studios, makers of Age of Empires, was closed by Microsoft. Today it is the turn of Activision’s Bizarre Creations, based in Liverpool.

There are countless racing games, but when I encountered Project Gotham Racing on the original Xbox I knew it was special. It is a hard game which rewards skill; you will not get far if you simply try to charge round the track. It is also street racing, with superb graphics capturing well-known locations like London and San Francisco. The graphics got better in the later versions of the game, but for gameplay I still have an affection for the first one.

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The other I will mention is Geometry Wars, which started as a mini-game in Project Gotham Racing 2, but came into its own as an arcade game for the Xbox 360. This one cannot be captured in a screenshot: it is where gaming meets art, creating fantastic visions of light and colour as you charge round the screen trying desperately to stay alive.

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Apparently the relative lack of success of the critically acclaimed but poor-selling game Blur, released in 2010, was the beginning of the end for Bizarre Creations.

Laments and memories can be found in the official forum here and also on neoGAF. Farewell video here.

Thank you to Bizarre Creations for some of the best gaming moments of my life.

Motorola Atrix – the future of the laptop?

I took a closer look at the Motorola Atrix on display here at Mobile World Congress. This is a smartphone built on NVidia’s Tegra 2 dual-core chipset. I’m interested in the concept as much as the device. Instead of carrying a laptop and a smartphone, you use the smartphone alone when out and about, or dock to a laptop-like screen and keyboard when at a desk. The dock has its own 36Wh battery so you are not tied to mains power.

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The Atrix has a few extra tricks as well. HDMI out enables HD video. An audio dock converts it to a decent portable music player.

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The smartphone also morphs into a controller if you use Motorola’s alternative dock, designed for fully external keyboard and screen.

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It is a compelling concept, though there is a little awkwardness in the way Motorola has implemented it. The Atrix has two graphical shells installed. One is Android. The other is a an alternative Linux shell which Motorola calls Webtop. While you can freely download apps to Android, the Webtop has just a few applications pre-installed by Motorola, and with no official way to add further applications. One of them is Firefox, so you can browse the web using a full-size browser.

The disconnect between Android and Webtop is mitigated by the ability to run Android within Webtop, either in its own smartphone-sized window, or full screen.

Personally I prefer the idea of running Android full screen, even though it is not designed for a laptop-sized screen, as I do not like the idea of having two separate sets of apps. That seems to miss the point of having a single device. On the other hand, Webtop does enable non-Android apps to run on Atrix, so I can see the value it adds.

Leaving that aside, I do think this is a great idea and one that I expect to become important. After all, if you do not think  Tegra 2 is quite powerful enough, you could wait for some future version built on the quad-core Tegra 3 (name not yet confirmed), which NVidia says is five times faster, and which may turn up in Smartphones late in 2011.

The LG Optimus 3D is amazing

Today I got to see the LG Optimus 3D here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I was impressed. Of course I cannot really capture it in a pic; but here it is anyway.

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It really is 3D, which is amazing after a lifetime of 2D screens, and with no spectacles required.

The trick is that there are two screen images. When you look at the screen, your right eye gets a slightly different angle on the screen than your left eye. The technology uses that different angle to deliver a different image to each eye. At least, this is how it was explained to me.

There is also a dual-lens camera so you can take your own 3D pics and videos. The Optimus 3D has a 1GHz OMAP4 dual-core processor, and HDMI output for connection to high resolution external displays.

3D is cool and makes for some immersive games. But how much extra will customers be willing to pay for 3D on a Smartphone? Interesting question.

HTC’s new Android tablet has a stylus

A big surprise here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: HTC’s new tablet, the HTC Flyer, comes with a stylus. “People can rediscover the natural act of writing,” says the press release.

My first reaction is that this a mistake. I have had tablets with pens before, and while I like the ability to take notes, I also find the pen a nuisance. They are awkward in confined spaces like an economy seat in an aeroplane, and expensive to lose. HTC’s pen is battery powered, so I suppose you could also have the annoyance of a pen that runs out of juice. HTC’s stylus does not clip into a bay on the device, but does have a dedicated pocket in the case.

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On the plus side, you can write, draw and annotate content using the pen, which has a variety of settings for colour and tip. For some tasks, a pen is the ideal implement.

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The device does have other attractions. The pre-release devices have Android 2.4, but HTC says it may well run Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, which is designed for tablets, by the time it is launched in Q2 2011 or soon after. It has a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset; 7” screen; 1024 x 600 resolution; 1GB RAM and 32GB storage, expandable with micro SD cards. Battery is said provide 4 hours of video playback, which sounds less than ideal. HTC will also offer a video download service “HTC Watch”.

A feature which will be familiar to OneNote users is called Timemark. This lets you take notes which synch to an audio recording, so tapping a word in your notes takes you to that point in the audio. Notes also synchronize with Evernote, a cloud-based note synchronization service.

Viewsonic ViewPad 10 Pro does Windows and Android – but Windows first

Viewsonic has announced the ViewPad 10 Pro, a 10” tablet that runs both Microsoft Windows 7 and Google Android 2.2.

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I saw the ViewPad 10 Pro briefly this morning here at Mobile World Congress. Specs include Intel Oak Trail chipset, 2GB RAM, 32GB storage, and front-facing camera for conferencing.

The big appeal of the ViewPad 10 Pro, successor to the ViewPad 10, is that it runs Android as well as Windows. Just tap a button, and Android appears in place of Windows.

Sounds good; but as Viewsonic explained how this works I became doubtful. Apparently Android runs in a virtual machine on top of Windows. I have nothing against virtualization; but this approach does suggest some compromises in terms of Android performance and efficiency. No matter how clever Viewsonic has been in its implementation, some resources will still be devoted to Windows during an Android session and battery life will be less good than it might be.

I can see more sense in running Android first, for the sake of its speed and efficiency on low-power hardware, and Windows in virtualization for when you need to dip into Excel or some other Windows application.

The upside of this approach is that you can switch between the two without having to to do a hard reboot.

Viewsonic says you will be able to get one of these in your hands around May 2011.