Jeff Gelles: Other tech devices have also smartened up

The Livescribe notebook and smartpen allow users to record what is written or heard and to share it via a "pencast."
The Livescribe notebook and smartpen allow users to record what is written or heard and to share it via a "pencast."
Posted: November 03, 2011

With all the focus on smartphones, tablets, and apps, it can be tough nowadays for other breeds of tech wizardry to garner much attention.

What about that electronic pen that maps every letter and squiggle, while recording what you're hearing as you write?

Or the "smartwatch"? Yes, all you aging Dick Tracy fans: The two-way wrist radio and television has finally arrived, or will soon, in the form of wristwatch-style Android smartphones.

And who knew that wearable cameras were the latest rage - at least among those who find it cumbersome to have to point and shoot, or want to take video while cycling or schussing down the slopes?

It may just be coincidence that iRobot, developer of the spook-the-dog Roomba robotic vacuum and its floor-washing, gutter-clearing, and pool-cleaning cousins, hasn't introduced a brand-new category of consumer robot since 2008. The Bedford, Mass., company has a new surveillance robot out for the military this year, plus a next-generation Roomba and a reinvented floor-washing Scooba.

But it's clear that since the iPhone arrived in 2007, app development has exerted a gravitational pull on consumers, creators, and investors. Even iRobot is getting involved, with a beta version of a robotic platform, called Ava, that can be married with - what else? - a tablet. Thanks to Ava, some apps will eventually enjoy a new kind of mobility.

Still, it can be reassuring to shift the spotlight and find plenty of fascinating inventions beyond the world of smartphones and tablets. Here are a few I found while exploring electronics aisles, online and off. They may not be the newest new things, but they are worthy of attention:

The Livescribe smartpen. Livescribe Pulse and Echo "smartpens" marry the most prosaic of products, the ballpoint pen, with built-in microprocessors and audio technology. The result is a pen, first introduced three years ago, that records what you write, mapping every squiggle, curlicue, and drawing, while recording what you hear.

The pitch is "never miss a word." Take notes in a special Livescribe notebook, and you can re-create or share them via what Livescribe calls a "pencast," or return instantly to the right place in the audio recording. With a third-party app, you can even convert your handwritten notes into searchable text files.

Durable, wearable cameras. At Amazon.com, a Contour "Helmet Camera" ranks Number 38 on the list of electronics best-sellers, and has been in the top 100 for the last six weeks. At Best Buy, a display touts the GoPro HD Hero2 as "the world's most versatile HD camera. Wear it. Mount it. Love it."

These cameras allow amateur athletes and other ordinary consumers to record and share the kinds of experiences that once just had to be committed to memory, or left to professional filmmakers. Want to show off your breakaway from a thrilling bike race, or your maneuver past Elephant Rock on your whitewater trip? Now you can.

Household robots. iRobot Corp. is a market leader in a category that always captivated tech aficionados. Much of the focus is at the high end, where robotics have crucial niches in health care, manufacturing, and the military. But if you want a household robot, iRobot's Roomba or one of its cousins is likely to be your robot of choice.

New this year, along with the sixth generation of Roomba, is the redesigned Scooba, for washing floors in especially tight places.

iRobot's Laura Jakosky says customers "wanted something to clean around really really small and dirty spaces, like your toilet or in a mudroom." The result is a simpler, cheaper ($299) Scooba 230. It won't sweep beforehand. But it does the dirty work you'd rather skip.

GPS devices. Smartphone apps have captured much of the market for casual users. But half a dozen portable GPS units, led by the TomTom XXL 540S in fourth place, are among Amazon's best sellers. The rankings show their staying power, the advantage of their larger screens, and perhaps the benefits of deep price cuts by the leading manufacturers. But this is a category where innovation continues, so don't count it out.

Smartwatches. DeviceGuru.com calls it an "Android smartwatch smackdown!" Two companies, California's WIMM Labs and Italy's Blue Sky, are pitching wearable, wristwatch-style platforms that incorporate Android technology, although DeviceGuru says Blue Sky's "i'm Watch" will need to be tethered to a discreetly stowed smartphone via Bluetooth.

Sure, it's just another platform for apps - and another way to obsess over your e-mail and Twitter feeds. But at least it's Dick Tracy cool.


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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