Tag Archives: tech

Tech experts band together to issue $10 million challenge against deepfakes

A newly-announced challenge is offering a total of $10 million in prizes to those who can create reliable deepfake-spotting software.

Image via Pixabay.

It’s a good approach in life not to believe everything you see — but it’s a vital skill on today’s Internet. In response to the dangers posed by deepfakes, realistic AI-generated videos of people doing and saying fictional things, a group of technology firms and academics have banded together to find a solution.

The group, which also includes Facebook, announced Tuesday that they’re launching a public race to develop technology for detecting deepfakes.

Fake videos, real prizes

“The goal of the challenge is to produce technology that everyone can use to better detect when AI has been used to alter a video in order to mislead the viewer,” said Facebook chief technical officer Mike Schroepfer.

In total, Facebook is dedicating $10 million to the program. The challenge, called the Deepfake Detection Challenge (DFDC), will have a leaderboard and prizes, which will be given out “to spur the industry to create new ways of detecting and preventing media manipulated via AI from being used to mislead others,” Schroepfer explains.

Microsoft and the Partnership on AI have also thrown their weight behind the initiative. Partnership on AI is an industry-backed group whose mission is to promote beneficial uses of artificial intelligence. It includes members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, University of Oxford, University of California-Berkeley, University of Maryland, and University at Albany. It’s backed by Apple, Amazon, IBM and other tech firms and non-governmental organizations

All in all, the DFDC is likely the single most significant move ever taken against the dissemination of altered video and audio material intended to misinform public discourse. It’s also the first project on the subject of media integrity started by Partnership on AI.

Deepfakes “have significant, global implications for the legitimacy of information online, the quality of public discourse, the safeguarding of human rights and civil liberties, and the health of democratic institutions,” explains the executive director of the Partnership on AI, Terah Lyons.

Facebook said the funds it put up for grabs will go towards research collaborations and prizes for the challenge. Facebook itself will also enter the competition, but not accept any of the prize money. According to the DFDC website, the challenge will run throughout 2020. A winner will be selected using “a test mechanism that enables teams to score the effectiveness of their models, against one or more black-box test sets from our founding partners.”

Microchip.

Google, Intel, Qualcomm, and others stop supplying Huawei after Gov’t ban

Google announced that it is beginning to cut ties with China’s Huawei, as per the US Government’s instructions, according to Bloomberg. Google will stop selling Huawei parts it needs to manufacture smartphones and other electronics.

Microchip.

Image via Pixabay.

Washington considers Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese state-run telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer, as a threat to national security. As such, the Trump Administration moved on Wednesday to bar Chinese tech companies from selling their products in the US and blacklisting Huawei, especially, from buying US components.

Whether this burgeoning trade war is needed or even if it will work, time will tell — but in the meantime, Google announced that it is complying with the Government’s decision and beginning to cut ties with the Chinese company. Although Huawei is believed to have some stockpiles of parts and components, this development could severely hamstring it in the long run. Moreover, it could have meaningful effects for users themselves, as Huawei will no longer have access to Google’s proprietary services — such as Gmail and Google Maps apps — reports AFP citing a ‘source close to the matter’. Other companies are also moving to comply with the ban.

Smartfights

This all stems from growing rivalries between the US and China over the past few years. Given the company’s CEO Ren Zhengfei’s army background and Huawei’s opaque culture, suspicions are mounting that the firm has links with the Chinese military and intelligence services. On Friday, this culminated in the Trump Administration blacklisting Huawei under suspicions of engaging in espionage for Beijing.

The trade ban imposed by the administration extends to U.S. software and semiconductor materials that are essential to Huawei. Although not unexpected, the ban inflicted a terrible blow to the company, which is the world’s largest provider of networking gear and second largest smartphone vendor. Huawei has been listed by the US Commerce Department among firms that American companies can only trade with if authorities grant permission.

Google, who owns the Android mobile operating system (OS), the most widely-used mobile OS out there, is already taking steps to comply with the ban. Like all tech companies, Google collaborates directly with smartphone manufacturers to ensure its systems are compatible with their devices — and amid concerns of espionage, that has to stop.

While this will definitely be felt by Huawei, other companies in the US — such as Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx, and Broadcom — might follow. All of them cutting trade with Huawei is undoubtedly a scary prospect of the Chinese company, as it directly relies on these other suppliers to function. “Intel is the main supplier of server chips to Huawei, Qualcomm provides it with processors and modems for many of its smartphones, Xilinx sells programmable chips used in networking, and Broadcom is a supplier of switching chips, another key component in some types of networking machinery”, according to Bloomberg.

“We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” a Google spokesperson told AFP.

On their official @Android Twitter, the comany further stated that “while we are complying with all US gov’t requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.”

So, what does this mean for consumers? In the long run, probably nothing good, but we’ll see how the situation develops. In the short term, it does mean that Google software and technical services that are not publicly available might stop working on Huawei devices. The Chinese company will only have access to the open source version of Android. Furthermore, it will need to manually access any updates or software patches from the Android Open Source Project, and also distribute the updates to users themselves. A company statement held that Huawei will “continue to provide security updates and after-sales services” to all existing smartphones and tablets globally, including those not yet sold.

“At the same time, the Chinese side supports Chinese enterprises in taking up legal weapons and defending their legitimate rights,” said Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, adding that the organization is actively following developments on the ban.

This isn’t a one-sided battle, however. Huawei does have some influence in the device market that it can throw around. The company is working on establishing itself as a leader in 5G technology, currently offering the most advanced and cheapest 5G capability in the world. It also outsold Apple in smartphones in the first quarter of this year, seizing its second place globally (after Samsung).

The ban could stop Huawei’s ascent, with Ryan Koontz, a Rosenblatt Securities analyst, saying that it could “cause China to delay its 5G network build until the ban is lifted, having an impact on many global component suppliers,” as the company is “is heavily dependent on US semiconductor products and would be seriously crippled without supply of key US components.” The US has also “pressured both allies and foes to avoid using Huawei for 5G networks that will form the backbone of the modern economy,” Bloomberg adds.

So on a macro, geopolitical level, things are definitely heating up. On the micro, consumer level, however, things aren’t that bad right now. Some of you may have to re-think your device purchases, and those who do own Huawei devices right now might find it impossible to use certain apps. The development and implementation of 5G technology as a whole, however, will undoubtedly come bruised and battered out of the trenches of this trade war.

New AI turns simple doodles into photorealistic landscapes — within seconds

Nvidia has released a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm capable of producing stunning photos from only a few lines and shapes. Not only are the results strikingly realistic and quick to produce, but the AI also exhibits impressive adaptive capabilities, generating realistic reflections on water or modifying the sky if snow is present.

Image credits: Nvidia / Youtube.

Called GauGAN, the software is just a demonstration of what’s Nvidia’s neural network platforms have to offer. Its essential purpose is to produce an image as if it were painted by a human, and it seems to work as intended.

The AI uses generative adversarial networks (GAN) — a system in which two neural networks contest with each other, most often to produce different types of images. It’s an unsupervised learning technique: you feed a database into it and “teach” the AI how to progress. Of course, there’s much more to it in the actual process. Nvidia used 1 million images, mostly from Flickr’s Creative Commons.

“It’s like a coloring book picture that describes where a tree is, where the sun is, where the sky is,” said Bryan Catanzaro, vice president of applied deep learning research at NVIDIA. “And then the neural network is able to fill in all of the detail and texture, and the reflections, shadows and colors, based on what it has learned about real images.”

It has a simplistic user interface and only three tools: a paint bucket, pen, and pencil. But even with these limited means, the algorithm shows impressive performance. You simply select a tool, and then you click on the type of object you want to produce. Want to draw a tree? Just draw a few lines or a rough shape. Rocks or mountains? A rough shape will do. Waterfall? Yeah, that’s just a line.

To make things even more stunning, it does all this in a matter of seconds — of course, while running on highly performant hardware. But Nvidia developers say that with small tweaks, the algorithm can run on any platform.

The AI can generate thousands of different objects, learning from the real world. It also has a randomness figure embedded into it, so if you draw the same shape several times, the result will come out different each time.

It’s easy to see how this could be used for nefarious purposes like producing fake videos — and we’ve already seen how realistic fake videos can be —  but Nvidia says it wants to use this AI to make the world a better place, enabling anyone to become an artist and improving the workflow of people working in fields like architecture and urban planning; only time will tell.

If only this was around in the Paint days of yore, eh?

Here’s a quick demo of the AI’s capabilities:

An astronaut's view from space. Credit: NASA.

How NASA tech made its way into everyday life

An astronaut's view from space. Credit: NASA.

An astronaut’s view from space. Credit: NASA.

You’ll hear a lot of people complaining that the government is giving too much money to NASA — resources that would be better spent on problems down here, than on space exploration. This sort of rhetoric, however, is severely flawed.

NASA receives 0.4 percent of the $4.407 trillion FY 2019 federal budget, or 30 times less than the Department of Defense. According to a report released by the Space Foundation, every dollar spent on NASA adds $10 to the economy, and more than 60 percent of this came from commercial goods and services created by companies related to space technology.

Then, there’s everyday technology that wouldn’t have been possible without NASA. This includes your phone’s camera, CAT scans, GPS, weather satellites, LEDs, wireless headsets, freeze-dried food, smoke detectors, baby formula, computer mouse, or the portable computer for that matter — and that’s just to name a few!

To make a point, NASA has recently released an interactive mini-site (link below) where you can learn how your tax dollars are being put to good use. There are two parts to the interactive tool, namely ‘home’ and ‘city’, which will teach you how NASA tech permeates various aspects of everyday life.

Below are just a few developments, check out NASA’s interactive tool for more. 

The Five Weirdest Things People Have Tried To Combine With Guns

Guns are ridiculously unfair. That’s a fact of life. Hell, just ask any gamer – more often than not, the most powerful and in-demand weapons are ALWAYS firearms. And why wouldn’t they be? The ability to just stand on top of a building and shoot the heck out of every newbie running around armed with just a knife and unwarranted self-confidence is well worth all of the insults, curses, and accusations of cheating that will inevitably be thrown at you post-fight.

The invention of this little murder-spitting mechanism paved the way for even more ideas on how to improve them (read: make them kill more things faster). Pretty soon, all kinds of guns were developed: sniper rifles, machine guns, shotguns, and even frigging rocket launchers. Apparently, creativity is best fostered in an environment that rewards innovation with a higher body count.

Unfortunately, not all creative ideas are good ideas. Here are five actual gun “enhancements” that really should have been shot dead even before they made it past the design sketches.

Harmonica Gun

A Harmonica

The harmonica gun is the bastard son of a six-shooter and the instrument you say you play when people ask you if you’re musically inclined. It’s a one-handed weapon with a loading chamber that looks like a harmonica instead of the usual rotating cylinder. It was an interesting design that didn’t really catch on, for quite a few reasons. For starters, it was cumbersome to use, as one had to manually slide the chamber after firing a shot. This also naturally meant that, more often than not, the weight of one side of the gun would be heavier than the other, making it hard to aim. Furthermore, the risk of leaving the magazine between chambers and subsequently causing the weapon to fire in rapid succession meant that you might as well have taken a knife and cut your fingers off yourself.

You can’t actually play any songs with it, either, which is kind of a relief, considering that putting a gun anywhere near your own mouth is generally a terrible idea.

Apache Revolver

A Brass Knuckle (and a Knife)

The Apache Revolver, which sounds more like it belongs with the Super Friends than in actual combat, was probably the closest thing we ever had to a bullet-spewing Swiss Army knife. Featuring a knuckle duster that could be folded up into the gun and a small knife that was hidden under the barrel, the Apache Revolver definitely looked like a formidable weapon. Unfortunately, like many “combination” items, it took three weapons of varying efficiency and turned them into a confused multi-tool of mediocrity. It was terrible as a gun because of its limited range and poor accuracy and, while it was particularly lethal in close quarters, it also raised the question of why you’d even consider it over, you know, an actual brass knuckle or knife.

Stinger Pen Pistol

A Pen

Here’s one Power Pen you definitely wouldn’t find in toy stores.

Most likely designed for people who really, REALLY wanted to be James Bond, the Stinger Pen Pistol is a gun that looks rather like a fat pen. It had to be folded into a sort of “gun mode” before it could be used, probably to make sure that you don’t end up shooting off your nipple when you put it in your shirt pocket. First produced in the 1990’s and presumably discontinued soon after, this gun is usually available nowadays as a novelty item, popping up every now and then for a few hundred bucks.

A Key

If you thought gun manufacturers couldn’t possibly figure out more ways to let you accidentally shoot yourself in the crotch, well, you thought wrong. As early as the 16th century, jailers were granted the use of key guns, which were, quite simply, guns that looked like keys, with the key loop serving as the trigger. This was probably handy for jammed locks and rowdy prisoners. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t make up for the fact that people actually thought turning something usually hanging dangerously close to your legs into a functional miniaturized gun was a sound idea.

Facebook

The TrackPoint XS1 is the most technologically-advanced firearm on this list. It’s a “smart rifle” that has a remarkably long range, is capable of auto-aiming, and can even record and share videos on social media. It’s also ridiculously expensive, which is a good thing because this isn’t exactly the kind of gadget you want everyone to have easy access to. This isn’t a business phone or a laptop; it’s a high-powered gun that lets you kill things from a ridiculous distance without even having to aim properly. This is also the perfect gun for you if you’ve ever felt the need to let all of your Facebook friends know that you Like such activities as “Hunting Deer”, “Shooting Bottles from the Other Side of the House”, and “Looking at You Right Now through a High-Powered Scope”.

Wait, oh crap.

On the bright side, humanity has yet to come up with anything even close to the level of Squall Lionheart’s gunblade in the Final Fantasy games. We should always count our blessings.

Tips to Succeed in the Mobile Era

Over the years, there has been a continuous evolution in the strategies and tools that businesses adopt to achieve success. Decades ago, owners put premium on talented and determined team. Today, there are other factors that have to be considered. In particular, the mobile era has significantly influenced the way businesses operate. The continuous development in technological advancements has given market players a lot of opportunities in so far as successfully establishing their business is concerned. mobile-hand-phone However, it does not necessarily mean that they have to avail of all the available technologies in the market today. The type, size and nature of the business are considerations when choosing technological tools to adopt. For small market players such as the small to medium-size businesses, below are some of the tips that they can adopt to become successful in the mobile era: Don’t recruit the closest. Recruit only the best. Decades ago, businesses have to rely on the skills and talent of the people near them. This is a limitation as they don’t have that much option when it comes to the employees that they can hire. This limitation is a result of another limitation – geography. Today, however, the Internet serves as a medium that business can use to hire the best people even if they are on the other side of the planet. It is not also necessary that they apply and report personally at the actual office as there is now video conferencing and virtual office. With these technologies, they can work remotely from the comforts of their own homes. This only requires a smartphone or tablet to have access to HD video. This year, some of the most reliable brand and models of these mobile devices are Samsung Galaxy S4, LG Optimus G, Sony Xperia Tablet Z, and many more. To have a seamless connection, they must adopt the VoIP system. Use apps or tools designed for business use. Among the new technologies that were made possible because of the Internet are the cloud and apps. However, businesses must be critical when deciding which ones to choose and adopt in the business’ operation. One main issue that they have to address is security. So, the best thing to do is to consider apps or tools specifically designed for business use. In this way, owners can have an assurance that their files are protected. Today, there are many developers that offer business apps for free. Before considering these, it is important to assess the apps. In particular, it is a must to know if the tool has security settings made for businesses. If there is reliable security, customer information and business data are safe. But to be very sure, the best thing to do is for the business to create its own app. It is now easy to develop apps as there are now programs that can help businesses even if they don’t have the knowledge and skills. Drive sales by marketing to customers face-to-face. The best way to drive sales is to talk to prospective customers face-to-face. However, face-to-face does not necessarily mean in person. With the numerous technologies, face-to-face marketing can now be done using video conferencing. This can be used to conduct business meetings even if the participants are located in different parts of the country or even the world. As years pass, more and more small businesses are using optimizing the video conferencing technology not just as part of their marketing strategy but also as part of their day-to-day operations. In a market study, it was revealed that more than 52% of small businesses are using different forms of video conferencing. They do this to make business meetings more engaging.

Five Devastatingly Impressive Machines That You Can Buy Right Now

It’s remarkable to see two of the most powerful testaments to man’s technical ingenuity appear in the living room and the battlefield. One look at either would tell you that the greatest scientific minds on the planet are determined to keep pushing the boundaries of technology, mainly because (1) we all want to make life on this planet easier for everyone, and (2) we just really, really like destroying things.

The first of the reasons just entails solving whatever problems we currently have in the most comfortable and efficient ways possible. In some ways, it enables us to get the things we want with relative ease. Meanwhile, the latter reason led to the greatest breakthroughs in technology being developed during wartime. It can’t be denied that the most impressive displays of science in action tend to be the most dangerous ones, too.

Thanks to the Internet, convenience and the power to cause maximum damage have found some sort of middle ground. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), they cost a boatload of money. Take a look at this list of five sophisticated machines that you can own right now, for the right price.

A Tank

Tanksforsale offers, well, tanks for sale. You can choose from an assortment of models to suit your preference and add a little spice to your garage.  Unfortunately, since driving a private tank is illegal on pretty much every road you’d most likely think of driving one on, it doesn’t exactly serve any real purpose aside from being a nice background piece for taking pictures that impress your Facebook friends (and being a very convincing case against making online purchases while drunk).

A Mech

The Landwalker is a 10-foot tall monstrosity that would seem as if it were built with futuristic warfare in mind, if only it weren’t almost completely useless for anything other than being able to tell other people that you own a real-life Hellcat from MechWarrior. For about $ 350,000, you can own this beautiful, bipedal piece of…slow-moving, easily defeated horror. You see, it’s called the Land Walker for a reason: it can’t walk on surfaces that aren’t perfectly flat, and can only go as fast as about a mile per hour. You’d be more likely to die of boredom than of any actual physical danger. It also fires a bunch of soft pink balls, which is significantly less impressive than a robot that shoots Care Bear beams. Still, it’s huge as hell, and would probably cause significant damage by simply walking straight into a wall or something.

An Automated Paintball Gun

Why get a security guard when you can have a gun that bruises your enemy AND ruins his favorite shirt?

The Mercenary is every extreme paintball player’s fantasy come true. It’s a turret attached to a high-powered computer that shoots paintballs, programmable in the sense that it lets you select targets based on color and movement. It also has “predictive logic” (generally making it very hard to dodge) and adjustable aggression settings, making it more than a match for opposing paintball players, would-be burglars, and Spider-Man cosplayers. Hell, all it needs now is a VoIP service for taunting your hapless targets all the way from your living room.

A Jetpack

Join the ranks of Boba Fett, Buzz Lightyear and James Bond as you fly around in your very own Go Fast! jetpack. Well, maybe not yet, as they appear to be a bit behind schedule according to their website. They already offer party packages for demo appearances, though, if you’re willing to trade your money and everyone’s safety and self-esteem for a few minutes of watching a guy flying around in a giant backpack. Unfortunately, not everyone can be eligible for jetpack ownership – the website states that only qualified applicants with appropriate training can purchase a jetpack for themselves, probably because flying wildly through the air can be particularly deadly.

Mini-Guns

The sight of the business end of a mini-gun usually inspires terror in the hearts of war veterans, Fallout players, and, well, I’m not exactly sure what point I’m trying to make here because I’m pretty sure anyone would wet their pants at something so horrifying. Perhaps the most lethally efficient portable weapon in the history of every single weapon in the world ever, the mini-gun is understandably impossible to find in the hands of an untrained civi- wait, what? You can actually buy one of these things? Provided you can find one (and have four hundred grand to spare), you can own your very own mini-gun for… I don’t know, kicks?

Honestly, though, aside from the coolness factor, I can’t really think of any reason why you’d want to own any of these. Then again, I probably just answered my own question.

Augmented Reality: Taking Things to Another Dimension

augmented-reality-fullIn the middle of the hype for Apple’s WWDC 2013, the biggest names in technology gathered in the Santa Clara Convention Center last week for the fourth Augmented World Expo (formerly the Augmented Reality Expo). CNET calls it “the next big thing in tech”, but what exactly is augmented reality?

The World, Enhanced

The dictionary defines augment as “to make (something already developed or well under way) greater, as in size, extent, or quantity.” From that, we can take the concept of augmented reality, or AR, to refer to the enhanced view of the physical environment thanks to computer-generated input. In contrast to virtual reality, AR doesn’t transport you to a simulated world; it only builds upon the world that you see with naked eyes. If it sounds too mind-boggling, just think of Iron Man’s helmet, which supplies him with all kinds of real-time information, from stats to maps.

Perhaps the most recognized product of AR technology is the Google Glass, a wearable computer with a head-mounted display. This souped-up eyewear functions similar to a smartphone, allowing you to capture images and videos, receive messages and notifications, and lookup directions, among other things. However, Steve Mann, recognized as the pioneer of wearable computing, says that Glass is just the first stage of wearable AR devices. According to Mann, “Google Glass is a third eye off to the side, but what’s coming is a generation of glasses whose information becomes immersed in your reality.”

Meet the Players

Meta, a Y Combinator-funded startup, is one of the companies attempting to take AR technology one step further. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for Meta 1, a 3D augmented reality headset that actually lets users interact with the virtual world using their hands. Their video demonstrates the possible applications of this hardware/software kit, from allowing shoppers to try on digital versions of clothes before buying to providing architects the tools to manipulate 3D models of their designs. Meron Gribetz, the founder of Meta, claims that they are “architecting the future of interaction…creating the keyboard and mouse of the future”. It’s a lofty goal, but judging by the fact that they’ve already surpassed their funding target, people are excited to see this technology in the market.

Another startup that’s making waves in the AR scene is Atheer. Like Meta, they want to create that digital layer—what could be called the fourth dimension—that people can interact with like they do with their smartphones and tablets, only on a bigger, three-dimensional scale. In the case of Atheer, they’re developing a mobile 3D platform that will run on Android and eventually, other operating systems. Aside from this, they plan to work with other developers on more applications of their platform. CEO Sulieman Itani says that their goal is “to create a portable device you can put in your pocket and the interface is as big as possible.”

The Future of Reality

In his article for CNET, Dan Farber discusses how the technology of wearable computing will be more and more integrated with the human body over time, evolving from glasswear to high-tech contact lenses to bionic eyes. There’s already been a lot of controversy regarding Google Glass, with businesses and lawmakers trying to establish rules for its use. Some have gone to the extent of lobbying to get it banned—and it isn’t even on the market yet. Is the world ready for more technology, especially one that brings us farther from the reality that we know? It’s amazing and exciting to think of, but it’ll have a big consequence on the way we live and how we interact with each other.

What do you think? Are you ready to throw out your keyboard for a virtual one?

Graphene

Miracle Material Will Spur New Era in Technology

The experiment that led to its discovery in 2004 consisted of nothing more than a pencil and some scotch tape, but scientists claim this new wonder material will one day revolutionize technology and change the way we live.

The excitement is easy to understand.  Graphene is a million times thinner than a single strand of human hair, and a thousand times more conductive than silicon.  Perhaps even more bewildering, the two-dimensional honeycomb structure of its atoms makes this transparent, easily bendable material 300 times tougher than steel.

While attempts to manufacture large amounts of graphene have so far been unsuccessful, many claim it is only a matter of time before the material is produced on an industrial scale.  Research into graphene’s unique properties has been intense, with scientists and corporations in every part of the world already claiming patents for various industrial and commercial applications.

But just what should we expect from this miracle material in the future?

Airplanes, antennas and high-speed electronics

The possibilities are as varied as they are mind-boggling.  Graphene-plastic composites could one day replace metal in aircraft and cars, making them lighter and more fuel efficient.  At the same time, graphene wireless antennas will permit near instantaneous terabit downloads, allowing you to grab and transfer hundreds of high-definition movies onto your phone within a few seconds.  The material’s two-dimensional structure could also lead to a fabricating process that produces diodes and transistors based on single-layered architecture.  This could mean two-dimensional high-speed electronics for next generation computers, and a whole new range of ultra-sensitive chemical sensors, among others.

“So much of the fundamental interest in graphene is coming from the fact that there is no material like it,” said Sankar Das Sarma of the University of Maryland, who led the effort to calculate the vacuum polarization of graphene.  “With graphene comes the prospect of an enabling technology that could transform civilization.”

Solar panels, LCD screens and batteries

Because it conducts electricity better than any other material available today, manufacturers are likely to use  graphene for a wide range of consumer electronics and communications devices — from flatter LCD screens to ultra-thin mobile devices and IP phones.  “There very first application where graphene is going to be used is probably as a replacement for (the relatively inexpensive) metal indium selenide in solar panels,” Tom Palacios, head of MIT’s graphene research department, told CNN recently. “After that, I think we will see a new array of communication devices that don’t just use graphene but which also use other two-dimensional materials.”

Palacios believes the miracle material will be used for phones and LCD screens that are embedded into walls and window panes, perhaps even integrated into paper and clothing. “To do this, we need very thin materials that are also transparent and graphene could be that material,” he said.

This early, some analysts claim graphene-based energy storage devices will soon replace conventional batteries in everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. The energy research company, Nanotek Instruments, for example, is now in the process of commercializing graphene-based electrode materials for a new generation of supercapacitors.  Nanotek’s electrode technology is said to offer the energy density of a modern battery, but is fully recharged in under two minutes.

A new era in technology

Throughout history, our command over the materials around us has determined the extent of our technology — shaping not only the way we work, but also the character of human civilization.  Perhaps this is why we have always looked back at history with an eye for the materials that have influenced technological progress.  Anthropologists and archeologists, for instance, divide human pre-history into periods named after tool-making materials: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age.

We may be at the threshold of yet another era today. “I am completely convinced graphene is going to end up changing our lives,” Palacios asserts. “Exactly how, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone can know for sure but there is nothing thinner, stronger or more suitable to conduct electricity and that has to be useful for many important things.”

Geek Activities

3 Awesomely Fun Activities for Geeks Like You

Wait, geeks have fun? The geeky idea of fun is so far from the rest of the world’s pleasures, that normal people would raise an eyebrow when the words geek and fun are in one sentence. In the remote past, geeks were freak show performers in carnivals (think eating live chickens for a living). Thankfully, history and language has become a bit kinder to our geeky brothers and sisters. While the term still has negative connotations (like being inept and foolish), it’s also levelled up to something with more positive implications. Today, geeks are considered – permit me to use the euphemism — “enthusiasts”. They’re generally considered smart, but with a specialized knowledge on nonconventional interests like anime, comics, technology, or science fiction. They’re the people who let their babies don Plutonium Creepers, discuss the benefits of Asterisk opposed to hosted virtual PBX, and elucidate how the atomic structure of graphene makes bendable smartphones possible. Used self-referentially, the term can now even be a source of pride. I like how Ask Yahoo explains it, these are the people you make fun of in high school and later work for as an adult.
If you can identify with the definition above, then chances are, you’re a geek. It’s hard to bore a geek, because they’re just so enamored with their current interests. Even if geeks since the 60’s have exhausted all possible Star Trek topics (the conversation has now reached the pinnacle, folks – Star Trek uniform socks and President Obama nearly losing his Star Trek card are the latest), geeks will be able to come up with new and viral content. That’s how smart and obsessed geeks are. Still, the hype in current geeky undertakings is hard to resist even if you’re already fixated on a different interest. Here are some fun activities you or your geek friends might want to check out:
Astrophotography
Mix art, technical ability, and a penchant for astrology and one of the products will be astrophotography. As the name denotes, Astrophotography is a special type of photography dedicated to taking pictures of astronomical objects and large areas of the night sky. Astrophotography has been around since the first photo of the moon was taken in 1840, but current advancements in technology have made it much easier for enthusiasts to take more detailed photos. Astrophotography is a huge and difficult topic. Says web designer and photographer Forrest Tanaka, it will take a lifetime to perfect the technique. You’d need to think about the telescope, camera, lens, trackers, and other equipment you’d have to use. Of course, you’d also have to practice with focal length, shutter speed, and ISO, so you can minimize star trails or make the objects more visible. Sounds like something geeks would love, right? Here are some high resolution photos of space on YouTube:

Brickfilming
Like astrophotography, stop motion animation has been around for years but has become increasingly popular because of new technology. Stop motion animation is a series of still pictures taken with a camera and streamed together very fast to create a movie. Brickfilming is stop motion animation but with the use of Lego blocks or a similar construction. How geeky is that? Aside from stop motion animation, you can also use traditional animation or CGI techniques to make a brickfilm. Storylines can be inspired by comics, movies, and other random topics. The hobby has become so popular that there are even brickfilming festivals you can attend. Or you can simply do a YouTube search to get your daily fix of brickfilms. Check out this Doctor Who Spin-off by a repellingspider to see a sample of brickfilm:

LARPing

What’s cooler than role-playing games? LIVE ACTION role playing games (LARPing)! As a Ragnarok fan, it has been my not-so secret desire to turn into a Priestess or at least a cute Poring. Imagine the happiness when I discovered the LARPing community. It’s not as expensive as astrophotography; just pick a character and get into gear. You can be as resourceful as you want in your costume, so you don’t spend as much. Afterwards, you can create quests, exchange items, go into a forest for a swordfight, and more with a local LARPing community. Sure beats just clicking a mouse and typing on a keyboard, don’t you think?
What other geeky interests can you share with fellow geeks? Sound off in the comments!

Alexandria in the Ether

The vision must have been — in its own way — almost terrifying: every book ever written, every thought ever committed to writing, all the knowledge in the world, stored within the walls of a single, gleaming edifice.  Experts agree that what we know today about the Royal Library at Alexandria is half history, half myth.  Demetrius of Phaleron, the Greek statesman and orator, is said to have conceived of the Temple of the Muses and its legendary bibiliothekai while living in exile under the protection of Ptolemy I Soter of Alexandria.  The library is believed to have been destroyed by a succession of wars and fires — one of them famously ordered by Julius Caesar.

People have since built libraries and universities after this ancient paradigm in every major city in every part of the world.  Many of these modern public libraries and places of learning house collections that are nothing less than spectacular, but none come close to the mythic vision of the original.

New technology for an ancient vision

Today, the establishment of a truly universal library is within our grasp.  The technology is certainly available.   The worldwide web already makes massive stores of information accessible to anyone connected to the network, and e-mail and RingCentral VOIP services allow people to communicate and exchange documents with no more than a few clicks of the mouse.  All that needs to be done, in fact, is to digitize the books already stored in the world’s great libraries.

In 2010, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society proposed to do just that, announcing a massive and ambitious project to coordinate the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).  As originally conceived, the DPLA website would have offered online access to the vast and diverse collection of books stored in major libraries, creating a free, open and democratic online library in the process.  But the visionary endeavor has since been bogged down by legal issues, frustrating scholars, observers, and the many millions who would have benefited from the project’s completion.

Legal impediments

The  DPLA’s legal troubles stem from copyright restrictions which disallow most books published over the last 100 years in online databases.  Apparently, these books have yet to enter the public domain.  This is after recent legislative measures introduced amendments to relevant copyright laws.  “Early copyright legislation guaranteed that no book would remain under private control for very long,” according to Nicholas Carr in an article written for Technology Review.  Carr says this changed beginning in the 1970s, when — under pressure from Hollywood and various entertainment companies — US Congress passed a series of bills that dramatically lengthened the term of copyright for books written throughout most of the last century.

“Some scholars believe copyright restrictions will frustrate any attempt to create a universal online library unless Congress changes the law,” Carr writes.

A dream on hold

The democratization of knowledge is among the most enduring aspirations of mankind.  For centuries, access to education and knowledge was bestowed only on a selected few.  These few, favored by birth or wealth, would have continued their now discredited system had it not been for the labors of those took up the banner of reform, arguing, in turn, that all men have the right to learn, and in learning become free.  With the internet, that dream has come within tantalizing reach of people in practically every part of the planet; the worldwide web lends itself easily to the sharing of knowledge on a broad, sweeping and inclusive scale:  a farmer from Kenya or a cabbie from Brooklyn gets no less Google or Wikipedia than — say — Bill Gates.  And that is a good thing.  Many are hopeful that America’s best libraries will one day be allowed to expand on this spirit of equity.

Until that day comes, however, it appears the DPLA will have to put on hold the fulfillment of a dream that humanity has cherished for well over 2,000 years.

Scientists Build Computer That Never Crashes

Scientists and researchers at the University College of London (UCL) have built a self-healing computer that may end computer crashes forever, according to the New Scientist.

Called a “systemic computer,” the machine — which is being developed by computer scientist, Dr. Peter Bentley, and UCL research engineer, Christos Sakellariou — is now operating, apparently crash-free, at the UCL campus.

New Scientist reveals that the core design of the computer takes its cue from “the apparent randomness found in nature.”   The machine can instantly recover from crashes by repairing corrupted data.

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Mission critical

Observers have noted that the UCL computer’s revolutionary design may one day prove useful for systems that rely on computers to perform mission critical tasks — such as those in hospitals, aircraft, and various phone services also offered by RingCentral in calamity-prone areas.

The new technology can have a similarly beneficial impact on business and banking systems, which rely on massive computer networks to manage their financial transactions.  The Royal Bank of Scotland, for instance, had to set aside more than £100 million to compensate the cost of the customers who lost money when the bank’s computer system crashed in June last year.

One at a time

Typically, computers will course through data in sequential order.  They execute one instruction at a time, fetching data from the memory and executing its command before storing the computation in the memory.  The process is repeated again and again until the list of instructions is completed.  Computers perform this process under the control of a sequential timer called a program counter.

This sequential system is excellent for crunching numbers, but does not lend itself well to tasks that require simultaneous operations.  “Even when it feels like your computer is running all your software at the same time, it is just pretending to do that, flicking its attention very quickly between each program,” Dr. Bentley told the New Scientist. 

Nature isn’t like that

Dr. Bentley asserts that, because the typical computer operates on a sequential system, it is ill-suited to modelling natural processes, such as how neurons work and how bees swarm.  “Nature isn’t like that,” Dr. Bentley says.  “Its processes are distributed, decentralised, and probablistic.  And they are fault tolerant, able to heal themselves.  A computer should be able to do that,” he adds.

Dr. Bentley and Sakellariou have designed the UCL computer so that data and instructions are combined.  The instructions are stored redundantly across the machine’s various systems.  Each system, in turn, is self-reliant and has memory containing context-sensitive data.  This means it can only interact with other, similar systems.

The New Scientist notes that, while other operating systems crash when they fail to access a bit of memory, the same is not true for the UCL systemic computer.  The UCL machine’s design precludes crashing.  When one system is damaged, the machine can instantly repair itself by accessing the necessary data and instructions from other systems in the pool.

Mimicking Mother Nature’s Randomness

Rather than relying on a program counter, the UCL computer uses a pseudo-random number generator which is designed to mimic nature’s randomness.  The systems that comprise the pool then carry out instructions simultaneously, with no single system taking precedence over others.

“The systems interact in parallel, and randomly, and the result of a computation simply emerges from those interactions,” Dr.Bentley explains.

The UCL computer doesn’t sound like it should work, the New Scientist observes, but it does —  and it works much faster than expected.  Dr. Bentley and Mr. Sakellariou are presently working on teaching the computer to rewrite its own code in response to changes in its enviroment, through machine learning.

How Wise is Dating a Gamer?

They are a growing breed, and they seem to be getting hotter (at least when they apply themselves and manage to take a shower) in a way that Seth Rogen or Jason Segel can be hot. They take the form of a middle management executive or a graduate student who is adorable and funny; a strategic thinker with excellent hand-eye coordination. Yes, I am talking about the new league of gamers – connoisseurs of mysterious quests, modern warfare against terror, and unabashed murder in virtual platforms.

Despite portrayals on TV and film that typecast gamers as unaffected zombie-types whose passions are reserved for upgrading weapons, unlocking achievements, and gaining experience points, in real life they can be sweet and caring partners – the kind that surprises you with lunch picnics at the park and sticks love notes on your car windshield. Realistically speaking, though, this lot can get pretty absorbed in their hobby, so much so that they can be disconnected from the real world to the chagrin of a broken-hearted significant other.

In an effort to give these guys a fair break, here is an unscientific guide for assessing how wise dating a gamer is:

1.       Give gaming time, take ‘Me’ time (+4)

Sometimes, having that extra hour to scour the racks a second time is all it takes to find that perfect dress for the winter wedding you have to attend. That extra hour is what you will have if you let your beau enjoy an afternoon with ‘The Cave’ (development: Double Fine Productions; digital distribution: Sega), a platform adventure game that explores a magical cave where three characters are chosen to solve a series of puzzles, often requiring their use in tandem.

2.       Gaming as new bonding activity (+10)

Finding your inner gamer can be an exciting time for you and gamer partner, since a shared interest in video games means that you can hang out more without one of you constantly checking the clock and praying that it’s time to do something else. Furthermore, your effort to take interest will definitely score high in the ‘being an open-minded and accepting partner’ scale. Try learning a complicated game like ‘Devil May Cry 5’ (development: Ninja Theory; distribution: Capcom), a beat-em-up game about Dante, a young man with supernatural powers being chased by demons. Apply yourself, try your hardest to kill a demon or two, and watch him swoon.

3.       Ignores you while playing (-50)

You’re on your way home from an afternoon at the mall when you remembered that the frozen chicken must be thawed in time for dinner prep. After several calls to the boyfriend – whom you left at home to his new video game – have gone straight to voicemail also offered by RingCentral, you are fuming. The second you get home, he excitedly shows you his level at ‘Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch’, an anime-style role-playing game reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli movie (which is a collaboration between the famous animated film house and game developer Level 5). Of course you don’t care because all you care about is that the chicken is hard as rock.

We all need our little diversions in life, something to take our minds off things that trouble us and give us some time to focus on the good things and the reasons why we’re soldiering on in the first place. We can all understand this need. However, the line gets drawn right before this little diversion becomes the center of one’s world, with everything else falling at a distant second place. I am quite sure there can be a sweet, caring person inside that gamer, but I will refuse to be a part of a relationship where I’m a runner up to a gaming console.

4 Awesome Gifts for Your Geeky Valentine

Congratulations! Now that you’ve found the Han Solo to your Leia (or the Uhura to your Spock), it’s time to say goodbye to Singles Awareness Day and hello to Valentine’s Day, the most romantic holiday of the year. And because geeks do it better, there are certain things that are expected of you even if it’s just participating in what some would call a mere Hallmark holiday. So what do you give that special geek in your life? Do you settle for flowers, chocolates or a cheesy card that says ‘XOXO?’ Before you try that tired old tack, check out these five romantically geeky gift ideas first.

#1 Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

Said to be the best e-reader on the market today, the Kindle Paperwhite comes with a front-lit screen that makes reading a more pleasurable experience. The increased contrast is said to “come much closer to the ideal of blank ink on white paper,” which we think would make any hardcore real book advocate reconsider. And unlike other tablets, the Paperwhite has a flat matte screen so your sweetie wouldn’t be distracted by the reflection of his/her lovely visage while reading his/her favorite e-book. It’s also lightweight, with a long battery life and is reasonably-priced at $119.

#2 Pen Sized Scanner

You may have heard of the pen being mightier than the sword, which we don’t actually subscribe to since we own a pretty badass Master Replicas Yoda Force FX Lightsaber. But we’re willing to admit that there are cases where, indeed, the pen could be as amazing as any toy sword. Enter Hammacher Schlemmer’s Pen Sized Scanner that can record voice memos and take pictures. Boasting 1GB of storage, this nifty gadget has a five-megapixel image sensor combined with an autofocus lens, which your beloved can use to take photos of anything from receipts to letters and highly classified documents. It also has an integrated microphone so your adorkable sweetheart can record wonderfully awkward love notes and more in WAV format.

#3 i’m Watch

Why give your dearest a Rolex when you can give him or her a smartwatch with 4GB of built-in storage? Sure, it’s not the sexiest watch you can give a special someone; it’s a bit bulky, and some may even find it uncomfortable to wear. But it’s the perfect companion to your honey’s iPhone or Android phone— aside from being a functional time-telling device, of course. With its touchscreen interface, users can easily answer calls, receive text messages, emails, and other notifications. It can also perform as a speakerphone, run its own apps, and even access social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s a bit pricy though, and it can set you back $1049 if you get the Titanium version. You can, however, get the most basic i’m Watch at $349. It’s still pricy and we wish that it comes preloaded with a RingCentral call forwarding app; but given its other capabilities, we are willing to bet that your darling will love it.

#4 Classic Nintendo USB Controller

Simon Pegg once said that being a geek is “basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult.” And if there’s ever an authority on geekiness, we would trust the guy who co-wrote Shaun of the Dead and played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in STXI. Now, speaking of emoting on a somewhat childish level, we are quite sure that a Classic Nintendo USB Controller is one of the best ways for your baby to relive some of the classic games of our childhood such as Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Punch Out.  Not only does it work for both PC and Mac, it also features convenient plug-n-play USB connectivity, and is powered by generous gobs of nostalgia.

Does The Microsoft Surface Have A Future?

In a post from November 29, 2012 on The Official Microsoft Blog, details were released about Microsoft’s latest offering: Surface, equipped with Windows 8. Here is what the general manager of the device, Panos Panay, said:

“…Surface with Windows 8 Pro would be available in January 2013.

Microsoft Surface

Today, I want to share a bit more detail about the growing Surface family of products and Surface with Windows 8 Pro, specifically around pricing. In January, Surface with Windows 8 Pro will be available in two versions and pricing will start at $899:

· 64GB standalone version at $899

· 128GB standalone version at $999”

“On the inside, Surface with Windows 8 Pro will come with Intel’s third generation Core i5 processor. This chip will give Surface with Windows 8 Pro a graphics boost for its 10.6” 16:9 ClearType display that runs at a 1920×1080 full HD resolution. Surface with Windows 8 Pro also includes a full-size USB 3.0 port. Its Mini DisplayPort can drive an external display up to 2560X1440 resolution. And, as I mentioned above, Surface with Windows 8 Pro will support Pen input. This is an amazing feature for all you note-takers or document editors out there, especially since it has expanded capacitive and digitizing technology we’re calling Palm Block that will prevent your handwriting from getting interrupted if you accidently place your palm on the screen as you write. This feature is pretty cool, and allows for a great inking experience alongside a great touch experience when needed.

Surface with Windows 8 Pro will run your current Windows 7 desktop applications – it’s a full PC AND a tablet.

And all this in a PC that will weigh less than two pounds and be less than 14 millimeters thick.”

 

It may sound incredibly promising but is it a device you can trust with your business? According to Geoffrey James over at Inc.com, this may not be the case. In his article about the Microsoft surface, he relays what he calls “A Typical Horror Story” about his efforts to get rid of a virus that his months-old desktop computer powered by Windows 7 had acquired. He says that the desktop always had full virus protection and automatic updating, as well as installing only legitimate software. He was told by two technicians that “there is no way that any anti-virus program can completely protect your computer.”  His bottom line was that since the Surface was powered by Windows, it would be prone to the same glitches experienced by computer users, making it rather unstable.

 

Even the earliest reviews have been lackluster. The most positive review came from Wired, written by Matthew Honnan. This was his say:

 “This is a great device. It is a new thing, in a new space, and likely to confuse many of Microsoft’s longtime customers. People will have problems with applications — especially when they encounter them online and are given an option by Internet Explorer to run them, only to discover this won’t work. But overall it’s quite good; certainly better than any full-size Android tablet on the market. And once the application ecosystem fleshes out, it’s a viable alternative to the iPad as well.”

However, that is one positive review out of many others that were not as enthusiastic, saying that the device was “not quite there,” and “technological heartbreak.”

What Happened in Mobile Tech Last 2012

Another year has passed and another step towards mobile technology evolution has been taken. It looks like the world is going digital right before our very eyes and this trend is expected to continue until 2013.

From smartphones and tablets to cloud technology, 2012 has been a year of advancements and improvements.

To give you more idea, here are some significant things that happened in mobile tech last 2012:

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Android Catches iOS

The Android vs. iOS debate has been going on even before 2012 but Apple’s iPhone and the iPad has always been the standard that other OEMs have looked up to. But when the Samsung Galaxy S3 came out, the game changed. Suddenly, there is a phone that is not only good enough to compete with the iPhone, but also has the brand name to attract consumers. After that, more people gave Android a chance which gave other devices like HTC One X more attention. And with the underwhelming improvements of the iPhone 5, iPad 4 and the iPad Mini, and the success of Google’s own Nexus brand complete with the latest Jellybean updates, the debate over which OS is better has become more heated than ever.

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Windows is back in the Game… Sort of

Windows tried to make a big splash with their new operating systems for mobile devices. First there is the Windows phone 8 OS for smartphones. Though it was also featured on other devices like HTC Windows Phone 8+, it was really the Nokia Lumia 920 that represented the new operating system. Nokia and Microsoft banked on it to bring them back to contention but the sales have been modest. Same goes for Microsoft’s first foray to the tablet market. Unfortunately, the Surface RT was not the iPad killer Microsoft has touted it to be. A lot of it can be attributed to the confusion over what Windows RT is in the first place, especially when people were expecting a full out Windows 8 device. That said, though Microsoft is still a step behind both Android and iOS, I think they made enough splash to get some attention to their brand. What they do in 2013 should be interesting.

 

Hardware and Software under the Same Roof

Looks like a lot of the major players are following the Apple route, which is developing software and hardware under one company. As mentioned above, Microsoft has already produced their own tablet in Surface, much to the chagrin of some partners like Acer. Google is following the same route as well. Though their mobile devices were produced in partnership with other manufacturers, it already carries their Nexus brand. And with the acquisition of Motorola, Google might be poised to produce their own devices in-house in 2013 or 2014.

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The Rise of Cloud Technology

Cloud technology has been around for a long time but with the rise of mobile technology through tablets and smartphones, there are now more and more cloud providers popping up to provide different services. From online storage apps like Box and Dropbox, to online PBX services like RingCentral, it seems like hosting and creating your own solution is really turning to something impractical and expensive. And with the frankenstorm Sandy hitting the East Coast and disrupting a lot of business operations, it looks like third party cloud service providers will be a common business technology route for a lot of companies from here on out because it can be accessed anywhere as long as there is Internet connection.

 

 

3 Stocking Stuffers for Techies for the 2012 Holidays

We all get it perfectly – even if we want to give each and every one our loved ones and friends the gift of tech, it’s just downright unrealistic, especially in these trying economic times. You can’t possibly buy six units of the iPhone 5 in a huff – one for each family member – lest you want to use up all your life’s savings for this one single holiday. And let’s face it – even if you want to get the latest Galaxy Note for your two BFFs, it won’t be practical unless you’re a Zuckerberg or a Bieber, perhaps.

But ultimately, you don’t need to give up on Christmas just yet. You can opt for “stocking stuffers” to keep up with your techie inclinations in giving gifts. There are a number of low-priced tech items that are interesting and useful enough to pass as little gifts for friends and family. With this list, you will have no problem filling those Christmas stockings this year. Now, some people would raise their eyebrows at this list, because they could already consider these “stocking stuffers” as real serious gifts – but really – if you can buy yourself the iPad mini or the iPad with Retina display a mere seven months after buying the iPad 3, then maybe you’re just being stingy! Don’t be a scrooge this Christmas by sharing the gift of tech, because such gifts can still be friendly to the wallet.

iPhone 5 cases

Since of your folk already have or are having plans of getting the iPhone 5, you can give them the iPhone 5 cases or protectors found on eBay or Amazon for cheap (they can go as low as $5 but the more decent ones go for $10 and up). Not only will you help them guard their precious, precious phones from scrapes and shocks but you will also be able to help them express themselves through their phone if you choose something that befits their personality. What’s even more interesting is that you can acquire discounts for bulk purchases since these stores usually want to exhaust all stocks towards the yearend.

Generic cables

If you want to give people something they’d really use, then you can buy them generic cables for their phones (or other USB devices). It’s always an ideal gift because you’ll never know when your personal mobile (slash) business phone will drain its battery down to nothing. A spare one – one that you’ll never have to share with anyone, will always come in handy whether you’re in the office or meeting with your business partners in a café. Be careful in buying stuff like these though, as they can get really tricky. They’re relatively cheap; but as prices go lower, the quality may be compromised as well. Grab your cables only from decent accessories suppliers, and not those run-of-the-mill sellers you’d usually stumble upon online.

Tablet joystick

Tablets are aplenty in today’s highly touch-centric market, and products like the iPad and the Galaxy Tab are used heavily for video viewing, media playing, and even console gaming. ThinkGeek’s popular Joystick-It arcade stick for the iPad will help bring gaming on your slate to levels of epic proportions. All you have to do is attach the $7.49 accessory anywhere on your screen and start playing your touchscreen-based games with ease – without having the need to use wires or batteries. And don’t worry about having dents on your device’s screen because they’re easy to remove and reposition whenever desired.

So, can you suggest some other stocking stuffers for your fellow geeks at heart and technology lovers? Sound off in the comments section!

Hot Gift Ideas for the 2012 Holidays

The holiday season has finally begun. As you read this, I’d probably be out in the mall finding presents for friends, family – and of course – myself. Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, flew by so fast – these three usually kicks off the holiday shopping season. I’d like to believe that I’ve officially prepared myself for this, as I’ve written down and carefully weighed in the latest gadgets that I believe would make for great gifts this Christmas.

Phones

Perhaps the hottest item Christmas shoppers are eyeing today is the iPhone 5. There’s nothing really outstanding or revolutionary about this latest release from Apple; it’s just that many people already have it on their wish lists as early as, say, its September 12 unveiling in San Francisco. While most features remain the same, the iPhone 5 is sporting a new OS (iOS 6), a new processor (A6 chip), and a taller and bigger screen. Fans have gone head-over-heels with the feather-light new version of the phone, too.

Although the iPhone 5 tops a lot of wish lists this year, it’s highly likely to end up in the “wishful thinking” lists of people instead. Terrific wallet-friendly alternatives like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, the Samsung Galaxy S3, and the HTC Droid DNA, however, can make up for the high-end appeal people eyeing the iPhone 5 are after.

Tablets

In this specific gadget arena, Apple once again reigns supreme with its outrageously popular iPad. Its two latest incarnations, the iPad 4 (with Retina display) and the iPad mini, are currently the hottest tablet devices in the market. Just the same, competitors such as the Nexus 7 from Google and Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite are not too far behind, selling like pancakes due to their respective price tags. If you’re considering gifting yourself or a loved one a tablet and you’re on a strained budget, perhaps you could get the cheaper tablets so you’ll have more money to spend for other gifts.

Laptops

There are three general preferences for laptops this season: ultra-thin, hybrids, and touch-enabled laptops. The trend could be largely attributed to the release of Windows 8, the latest OS offering from Microsoft, which is basically carried by every new laptop from any given manufacturer (except for the ones from Apple, of course). If you’re after a device that perfectly fits the ultra-thin, sleek, and slim bill, then HP’s Envy Spectre XT will undeniably be a good buy. For those looking for “hybrids” or convertible laptops, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 which bends up to 360 degrees or the slider-style Toshiba Satellite U925t are automatic shoo-ins.

Others

Aside from the usual smartphones, tablets, and laptops, here are other tech gifts surely worth checking out:

  • Cameras. Olympus Stylus Tough TG-1 rugged compact camera, Nikon’s D3200 entry-level DSLR, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 all-around point-and-shoot, and the Canon PowerShot S110 Wi-Fi digicam.
  • Audio. Klipsch Image S4i earphones, the weird-looking yet improved earphones Apple recently released called Earpods, and the bang-for-the-buck Audio-Technica ATH-M50 professional studio monitor headphones that never goes out style.
  • Games. NBA Live 2K13, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored, and Halo 4 are just some of the hottest multi-platform games out there.
  • Paid Services. Gift your friends with subscriptions to useful services such as the Insync Google Drive backup and sync tool, RingCentral Office business phone solution, a Flickr Pro account, or a Chatter Plus account for collaborative messaging efforts.

Shopping for the holidays can be a tough task; but with a little knowledge of what’s in and what’s hot in the tech marketplace, decision making would be a tad easier. Now the only thing that’s left to do is to procure the funds needed to buy even one of these drool-worthy gadgets.

Is Microsoft Surface a Dud?

During the key shopping spree period of Black Friday, iPads sold like hotcakes, as usual. At the other end of the spectrum from Apple’s pet moneymaker is the contender from Microsoft—the Surface tablet. At one of the busiest times of the year where retailers get a good chunk of their revenue, Microsoft put up a big, fat stinker—and at its core is the Microsoft Surface.

Feels Like Trial and Error

Many of the comments from people who have ordered the Surface with Windows RT—including some who have subsequently chosen to return the device—complain about not having a fully functional product on their hands. It is not lost to them that Windows 8 is a big jump from Windows 7, given the revamped interface and touchscreen sensibilities.

That said, it would seem that Microsoft’s first foray into the post-iPad tablet landscape is merely trial and error for the software giant. Of course, one might even go to say that there’s really more trial and a lot more error involved. It’s a first device, so you can’t really expect a flawless design, but to come up with such an incomplete and sorely lacking product is another matter entirely. There’s just no justification for letting down the people who believe in you.

The Hype Machine

In the months leading up to the reveal of the Microsoft Surface tablet, there was really a lot of hype being generated for the device. It was going to change things, they said. Microsoft is on to something here, they said. Fast forward to today, and Surface just isn’t selling quite that bit. It’s not even generating much conversation because of the sheer lack of people who want some other product—mostly iPads, but there are still others who want their Nexus tablets, other Android offerings, and even other Windows 8/RT slates.

Hamstrung by its own Hybrid-ness

With the Surface, Microsoft tried to fully bridge the gap between the tablet PC and the laptop. It went beyond your run-of-the-mill combo of having a tablet and then just letting third-party companies make accessories like keyboard docks. It’s not actually the first attempt; Asus did admirably well with its Transformer line of Android slates.

However, what Microsoft sought to accomplish was to bring the desktop experience to a portable form factor that isn’t a full-fledged laptop. This is problematic in many ways. For starters, a desktop will always be a desktop, which is why there are still so many people and enterprises relying on it. Second, the functionality and resources aren’t there just yet—the tablet lacks 3G/4G connectivity for mobile web browsing and on-the-go VoIP services, it lacks a competitive app store as of this writing, and the OS takes up a huge chunk of the published internal memory space—to maximize the potential of what Microsoft is trying to do with this product.

 

Well, at the very least, Microsoft managed to get people talking about its new product. If the product ended up not catching on because of a mix of factors, so be it. However, it is important for the Redmond-based company to make sure that the successor to the Surface is more polished, more useful, and just amazing overall if it plans to become a serious player in the tablet market.