Sphero: Roll with IT

Sphero-indoors

Among Michael Bay’s many crimes, first and foremost in my mind is “making robots boring”. Even when I learned as a child that robots existed and mostly put together cars, there was still a fascination with them until Bay managed to make “giant robots fighting” into an epic three-part snoozefest. If only someone could make robots fun again.

Enter Sphero, a delighful app-powered robot for nerds, kids and normal folk (but mostly nerds). Sphero is a robotic ball gaming system that crams a ridiculous amount of technology into one of the simplest toys we have – the ball.

At first glance Sphero is simply a ball and the urge to bounce is hard to resist. Although obviously Sphero is bringing a lot more to the table. How much more? Well that’s actually one of the many interesting things about the device. Sphero is app-controlled and is more of a platform than a singular experience. There are a number of Sphero-related apps in the app store and a small community of nerds tweaking and building more all the time. So there are a whole host of things you could find yourself doing with it. It’s more than just a ball.

Sphero-iPhone

It is also a ball however and one of the simple pleasures of Sphero is hooking it up to your iPhone/Android via Bluetooth and using the accelerometer or on-screen controls to manipulate Sphero across the floor. It took me a while to “master” the control system but it’s pretty enjoyable zipping along between the discarded USB keys and iPhone cases that litter my floor. He also swims although I didn’t fancy running a bath to test this out.

Sphero-Colour

You can also make Sphero change colour and controlling a robotic glowing ball of light darting about my carpet is not how I envisaged spending my evenings.

The open-ended nature of Sphero means it can be played with in various ways. There’s a macro app that enables you to create little subroutines and execute them on the spot. If you’re a bit more hardcore you can download the SDK and make a full blown app. One of the more interesting uses I found was using it as a controller to navigate an R-Type style shooter that was similar to playing with a Wii. I also tried out a fun little augmented reality app that utilised my iPad’s camera. Everyone I showed Sphero too was amazed but a little disappointed that you couldn’t have an onboard camera rolling around – even though I have no idea how this would work in practice.

Sphero-Park

Sphero was fun to play with in short burst and I really got into making little subroutines for it to interact with. It’s somewhere between toy and enthusiasts hobby kit although the price – £99.99 – should warn you that this is a lot more involved than your average app-cessory.

Sphero has just hit these shores and is available from stores such as MenKind and online from Amazon Firebox and Goshpero.com

LiveScribe Sky WiFi smartpens: Joined up thinking

Sky-Wifi

We took a look at the LiveScribe smartpen range over a year ago and I think it’s still one of the most impressive gadgets I’ve had the pleasure of playing with. It’s one thing to innovate with phones, tablets and computers but brining cutting edge technology to something as old and basic as paper was at the time mind blowing. I actually use a LiveScribe pen in my day to day life, taking notes in writing meetings and language classes and can attest to the fact that they are indeed very useful and worth the price.

However, despite being incredibly futuristic, certain elements of the smartpen seemed old fashioned – namely having to plug the pen in and upload data via USB (although I appreciate that that’s pretty new in terms of technological advancements). And getting my notes on to my devices was slower than I would have liked. There was an app but the notebook-to-app path was less than ideal. Fortunately LiveScribe haven’t stood still and have just released the LiveScribe Sky.

The LiveScribe Sky makes smartpen’s smarter as the built-in wifi adds connectivity to your note taking. Logging on to a wifi network is surprisingly easy, and there are stickers you can add to existing notebooks if you have already have older versions of LiveScribe. The stickers let you scan for networks and add passwords with relative ease.

Use is pretty much the same as it was with previous versions of LiveScribe. Simply hit record on the special notebooks and all everything you write and say will be recorded. There’s a sync now button on the special sticker sheet but this is normally done automatically in the background. Taking notes without internet access? That’s fine as the pen will just upload everything the moment you get back online.

The added layer of magic? LiveScribe will now automatically sync with Evernote so all your notes can be uploaded to The Cloud and are available on a range of devices. Evernote are pretty device agnostic so you should have access to your musings on most smartphones and tablets – as well as laptop and desktop PCs.

In practice this works pretty well – although it can sometimes take a little while for notes to appear in Evernote (and it’s doing a lot of work in the background so I probably should be a little less impatient. Having app-based access to notes is great and you can share from Evernote to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter so you can even make fun little pencasts. If you are a casual scribe this is not the pen for you but it you take a lot of notes then you should definitely take a look.

For more info www.livescribe.com

“Witch With No Name” App Review

A-Witch-With-No-Name

It was with some trepidation that I offered up the app The Witch with No Name to my six year old. Anyone with a six-year-old will know why – one minute they are asking to take a bunch of cuddly toys to bed with them, the next they eschew anything that isn’t aimed at teenagers at the very least.

And I feared that the Witch With No Name would be dismissed as ‘babyish’ from the off. But surprisingly, despite its lack of branding, ‘rude’ words and toilet humour, it has been a big hit.

The premise of what is essentially an interactive storybook, is that the witch has to set off in search of her name, and along the way needs to pick up some key ingredients and other items (including a stinky sock and a giant’s nosehair – now I see why this was so appealing to my six-year-old!) to make this happen. The storybook is cute, with some neat interactive features and fun games to play.

The games range from target throwing, to puzzles and matching games – and the levels can be set to accommodate children from the ages of four to 10.

If you like a game where your child will be stimulated in a variety of different ways, with different mini-games and puzzles that will get them thinking, as well as entertaining them while you’re waiting in a long queue or in the car, this is a pretty good choice. It has the added bonus that it can be read in French or English, which adds an extra educational dimension to the whole thing.

Plus there’s a great surprise at the end – but I won’t spoil that for you!

The app is available for iOS and Android at $4.99.

Sifteo: Can you beat the cubes?

Teaching kids maths has gone high-tech – and hopefully fun – with the Sifteo Cubes – as long as you have a couple of hundred quid to splash out. Unlike most games offerings for children, the Cubes don’t feature touchscreens – instead the players move the blocks around and touch them against each other to create patterns and solve puzzles.

Sifteo

It’s an interesting use of near-field communications (NFC) technology – something that often appears in the latest mobile phones but generally fails to have much in the way of real-use applications as yet.

The cubes have in-built accelerometers, so also know when they’re being tilted. All the information is sent back to a nearby computer via wireless USB.

There are a number of games to play (three are included with the six pack starter kit set). Puzzle games, for instance, ask the player to match colours and move dots – think Tetris but with another dimension. There are also maze games that require the player to combine pieces of path to move around the games’ character, and word games. Extra games cost around £5 each.

At £200 a pack, the Sifteo Cubes are rather pricey for your average family (although I guess you might ask how much you paid for your games console?). But the cubes might well be attractive to schools and educational groups – the makers say they are ideal for special educational needs learning.

Also, children learn in different ways, and if your child is a tactile/kinesthetic learner, and prefers to learn by experience (touching, moving, doing) you may be particularly interested in the Sifteo Cubes.

For more information head to www.rmeducation.com/Sifteo

Fun and Educational Gadgets

If you’re loath to fill your house with a load of plastic tat that either gets broken or ignored come Boxing Day, or want to win brownie points with parents, chose a gift that has some educational value. Here are a few to choose from…

Leapfrog

LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer

This appears on just about must-have toy list this Christmas. The LeapPad Explorer builds on the success of 2010’s award winning handheld; Leapster Explorer. And if you know a small person who has been hankering after your iPad, this might do the trick, as the LeapPad Explorer combines the latest technology, educational content and entertainment features, specially tailored for young learners with a robust and durable design.

Onboard are 100-plus learning games, videos, e-Books, flash cards and more, featuring children’s favourite characters. Fully compatible with the existing Leapster Explorer library

Parents will be pleased to see subjects from spelling and maths to creativity, science, music, geography and more included. The nifty stylus also lets children perfect their writing skills

This is also the first tablet device for children with a built-in camera, video recorder, microphone and animation studio, allowing for creative exploration that can be shared with family and friends

It also automatically adjusts the learning across all 100+ experiences so children can learn at their own pace

The Explorer comes in green and pink.

Price: £79.95

From: www.leapfrogstore.co.uk

Huddlestones

Huddlestone’s Classic Learning Alphabet Flash Cards

Huddlestone’s ABC flash cards are a set of beautifully hand drawn alphabet cards designed to appeal to iPhone and iPad users who want something a bit different for their children or grandchildren. This simple but elegant interactive application delivers a nostalgic approach to the flash card game, with beautifully illustrated, vintage-style cards, which feature phonics for each letter and audio for each picture. Perfect for a bit of quiet time after all the chocolate and excitement!

Price: £1.49

From: iTunes

Magellan-GEO-caching

Magellan eXplorist 310: Geocaching device

Geocaching is a real-world outdoor treasure hunting game, where players try to find hidden containers, using GPS-enabled devices, then share their experiences online. It’s rather like a technological version of letterboxing, if you are familiar with that.

Geocaching is great for children (it’s popular with Scouts and other youth groups), as it gets them out and about, and learning all kinds of skills, such as exploration and navigation. The waterproof boxes that are hidden usually contain a logbook, sometimes a stamp to record your find, as well as small toys and trinkets for trading and swapping.

Global GPS brand Magellan has just launched the eXplorist 310, a high quality hand-held GPS device which combines high-sensitivity GPS, an intuitive user interface and easy-to-read mapping.

Whether hiking, climbing, backpacking, geocaching, hunting, fishing, mountain biking or sailing, the eXplorist 310 has been designed to allow adventurers to navigate to outdoor destinations worldwide, capture geotagged photos along the way and share their experiences online when they return home.

As the younger brother of the 510, 610 and 710, the eXplorist 310 is set at a lower price point, enabling all outdoor enthusiasts to make the most of this advanced GPS device.  A good opportunity to make that family walk on Boxing Day that bit more interesting.

Price: £179.99

From: www.magellan.gps.com for stockists

Laser Pegs

If your child enjoys constructing models with Lego, Meccano and so on, they’re going to love Laser Pegs. It has already taken the US toy market by storm and has now launched in the UK. This is a lighted construction set where each piece feeds the next piece a low voltage current which, when attached to a power source, allows children to build creations that illuminate in a brightly coloured, LED light display.

There are five kits  – Dune Buggy (31 pieces), Tractor (30 pieces) and Mini Monster Bug (36 pieces) each have a power unit, an instruction booklet and sample model designs, each can be used to create over 9 different models. They cost £27.99. The Laser Pegs 3 in 1 Kit has 72 pieces, one power unit, an instruction booklet and sample model designs and Laser Pegs 4 in 1 Kit, has 60 pieces, two power units and an instruction booklet, also with model examples. They each cost £49.99.

Model building ideas can be downloaded from the websites at www.laserpegs.com and www.laserpegs.co.uk

Suitable for children aged 5 and older, Laser Pegs run on three AA batteries or a separately available AC wall adapter.

Price: From £27.99

From: www.laserpegs.co.uk

KidsBoat

6-In-1 Solar Kit

Find out all about Solar Power and create some cool models at the same time. This 6 in 1 Solar Kit is the perfect way to get a proper to introduction solar energy and just how it all works. It comes with everything you need to build your very own solar powered robot, a dog, a car, and a boat, with three other designs also possible.

Great for budding engineers or scientists.

Price: £12.95

From: www.gadgets.co.uk

The kitchen that teaches you French

Okay, so we have long had it drummed into us that French chefs are the best in the world and British cuisine is utterly comical – especially our gravy. But really, a kitchen that teaches you French? Is this going just a step too far?

French-Kitchen

Don’t worry chaps, it’s not some subtle Gallic ploy to convert us all in Francophiles – no, in fact it has been developed by a team of computer scientists and language experts at Newcastle university (which strikes us as being a bit more Hairy Bikers than Jean-Christophe Novelli, but hey).

The kitchen tracks your actions with motion-sensor technology (rather like a Nintendo Wii) and speaks to you like a sat-nav device, while you prepare your classic French dish.

It builds on the provem technique (we’re taking the language experts’ word on this!) of Task-Basd Language Leraning (TBLL), where students are prompted by instructions in a foreign language to carry out specified tasks. TBLL has never been used in cooking before – but given its enormous popularity in rei Bake-Off, Hairy Bikers, River Cottage et al) it is hardly surprising that the boffins came up with the idea.

On a tablet or laptop computer incorporated into the kitchen, the user first selects the French recipe they want to follow. Digital sensors built into utensils, ingredient containers and other equipment then communicate with the computer to make sure the right instructions are given at the right time, or to give feedback to the user if they go wrong.

At any time, the user can ask for an instruction or a piece of information to be repeated, or translated into English, simply by pressing the touch screen.

All grammar and vocabulary has been carefully selected to ensure that using the kitchen adds to basic proficiency in understanding French.

After a session, the user can test what they have learnt by carrying out a short test on the computer.

The kitchen has been designed to be installed in schools and universities – even in homes. It has been trialled in the catering kitchens at Newcastle College.

The kitchen is slated for release by the end of 2012 – and portable versions are already being taken out on the road to be demonstrated at schools in the North East. One will be installed at the Institut Francais, a London charity dedicated to teaching the French language.

For more details head to www.youtube.com/user/EPSRCvideo?feature=mhum)

The Wild Jam Maker App: Possibly the most ‘fruitful’ app in existence

From apps that can turn your iPhone into a stethoscope so that you can listen to your own heartbeat, to an app that encourages you to lick the screen to curb pangs of hunger, there’s an app for just about anything these days, although the latest app press release to arrive in the LG inbox takes some beating – the Wild Jam Maker App.

Download the Wild Jam Maker onto your iPhone and it identify berries, fruits and plants in the wild so that you can pick them and make jams, jellies or any other fruit-filled delight you might fancy.

Jam-Making-App

So what’s wrong with the good, old-fashioned method of searching for hedges laden with plump and juicy blackberries to go home with your clothes and hands stained purple but with a bulging bag of fruit to make a pie so tasty that Mr Kipling would be proud of?  Well it’s not ‘21st century’ enough is it? Like almost every app, the Wild Jam Maker is devoted to making your life easier and if you are an ardent jam maker, then this app could prove fruitful – no pun intended!

Created by cooker manufacturer Stoves as part of its sponsorship of the world’s biggest jam festival, the 2011 Real Jam Festival, this highly inventive app combines berry foraging advice, including descriptions, uses and photographs of the most commonly found plants, with jam making recipes.

The BBC are even getting in on the Wild Jam Maker action, with Countrylife foraging expert Chris Bax praising the merits of the new app as being a positive contribution to a campaign dedicated to encouraging the British public to make the most of its abundant wild berry life by preserving it into jam.

“Jam-making and foraging go hand-in-hand and the Wild Jam Maker app is a fantastic way to find information about wild plants and berries at the touch of a button whilst on the go. With this year’s expected bumper fruit harvest due to the cold winter and warm spring, I’d urge people to download Wild Jam Maker,” said Chris Bax.

Being free, the Wild Jam Maker is surely deserving of a download, if not to help teach my children what berries than can and cannot eat!

British Library Treasures smartphone and tablet app

Technology can often be useful in furthering the cause of education (and ignorance if you casually glance over oh I don’t know most comment threads on the internet) and its always interesting to look at new gadgets, developments and applications that help broaden the mind – we were quite fond of the iMinds app here at LG Towers.

British-Library-app

Well the studious folks at the British Library, which you should really visit if you ever have the chance, have embraced the Brave New World that hath such smartphones in it and have produced an iOS app for iPhones and iPod touches as well as an HD app for the iPad. For all you Google-phone owners about to let out yet another disappointed sigh don’t worry – an Android app is also available.

So what does a British Library app entail? Created in conjunction with Toura, a leading technology platform for mobile guides, the ‘Treasures’ app, will present a rich selection of the items featured in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, providing the opportunity for interaction with the Library’s collections at home, on the move or within the Gallery itself. It’s not a substitute for going and seeing the collection – but it’s certainly a nice supplement.

Through the app users will experience an up close and personal experience with some of the Library’s most unique items, such as the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the world’s oldest bible Codex Sinaiticus, Nelson’s Battle Plan, written before his victory at Trafalgar, Galileo’s letters and Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. Expert commentary is provided on many of the items and users can watch, for example, videos of explorer Ben Fogle talking about Scott’s Diary and Linguist David Crystal discussing the 1,000 year old poem Beowulf.

Literary highlights include Charles Dickens’s handwritten draft of Nicholas Nickleby and Jane Austen’s teenage writings, while key historical documents include 2000-year-old Oracle Bones from China and an original Magna Carta of 1215. The section devoted to music includes manuscript scores from some of the best-known classical composers, such as Handel, Purcell, Mozart and Schubert, alongside hand-written lyrics by The Beatles.

Treasures will be available for download globally on iPhone and iPod Touch, in the iTunes App and in the Android Marketplace for £2.39 (US $3.99). The HD version is available for download globally for iPad for a price of £3.49 (US $5.99).

The Library is also offering an introductory price of £1.19 (US $1.99) for iPhone, iPod Touch and Android smartphones, and £2.39 (US $3.99) for iPad until 24 Jan.

More information can be found at here.