Robots and AI assist in designing and building Swiss university’s ‘hanging gardens’

Architecture and construction have always been, rather quietly, at the bleeding edge of tech and materials trends. It’s no surprise, then, especially at a renowned technical university like ETH Zurich, to find a project utilizing AI and robotics in a new approach to these arts. The automated design and construction they are experimenting with show how homes and offices might be built a decade from now.

The project is a sort of huge sculptural planter, “hanging gardens” inspired by the legendary structures in the ancient city of Babylon. (Incidentally, it was my ancestor, Robert Koldewey, who excavated/looted the famous Ishtar Gate to the place.)

Begun in 2019, Semiramis (named after the queen of Babylon back then) is a collaboration between human and AI designers. The general idea of course came from the creative minds of its creators, architecture professors Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler. But the design was achieved by putting the basic requirements, such as size, the necessity of watering and the style of construction, through a set of computer models and machine learning algorithms.

During the design process, for example, the team might tweak the position of one of the large “pods” that make up the 70-foot structure, or change the layout of the panels that make up its surface. The software they created would then immediately adjust the geometry of the overall structure and the other panels to accommodate these changes, making sure it would still safely bear its own weight, and so on.

Computer rendering of what the final Semiramis hanging garden structure will look like.

Computer rendering of what the final Semiramis hanging garden structure will look like. Image Credits: Gramazio Kohler Research

There are many automated processes in architecture, of course, but this project pushes the boundaries out in the level of final control seemingly given to them. The point, after all, is to make it a genuine collaboration, not just a sort of architectural spell-check that makes sure the whole thing won’t collapse.

“The computer model lets us reverse the conventional design process and explore the full design scope for a project. This leads to new, often surprising geometries,” Kohler said in an ETHZ news post.

Having arrived at a final design, the construction is being accomplished by another human-automation team: a set of four robotic arms operating with one mind to hold multiple heavy pieces (each pod has dozens) in place while humans apply the resin used to keep them together. It’s a step above the technique we saw used a few years ago by the same team when they used robots as automated assistants.

Semiramis is being constructed in the workshop then shipped piece by piece to its eventual home at Tech Cluster Zug. It should be fully assembled and ready to accept soil and seeds this coming spring, so stop by if you’re in the area.

Fairphone hits software support longevity akin to Apple’s iPhone

Fairphone, the Dutch social enterprise dedicated to making consumer electronics (more) sustainable and ethical, including by supporting repairability so that users can hold onto their hardware for longer, has announced public testing of Android 10 for the six-year-old Fairphone 2.

Owners of the modular handset that was first released back in 2015, running Android 5, should expect to be able to upgrade to Android 10 (released date: 2019) in early 2022, Fairphone said today, announcing the beta rollout of the upgrade.

Fairphone stopped producing (but not supporting) the Fairphone 2 back in 2018 — going on to release the Fairphone 3 (in 2019); the Fairphone 3+ (in 2020; also available as a modular upgrade to the 3); and, earlier this fall, the Fairphone 4, its first 5G handset — which it said would be supported until at least 2025.

Given the Fairphone 2’s impending update to Android 10 next year — which will mean it will have been supported for a total of seven years — 2025 looks like a conservative estimate of how long Fairphone 4 owners should expect to receive software support.

Fairphone says it collaborated with its community of users for the Android 10 upgrade project — and with a software developer in India, Bharath Ravi Prakash, which it says worked as a volunteer open source dev — and by doing that says it was able to streamline the process and shrink the time required to carry out the upgrade.

So while the prior Fairphone 2 OS update (to Android 9) took 18 months, this time the process has been condensed to 10 months.

Google, meanwhile, has gone on to release Android 11 (2020) and Android 12 (last month) — for a sense of how far behind the Fairphone 2 upgrades are trailing the latest OS release.

“The company learned a lot from the Android 9 upgrade and although still complex, Android 10 was more predictable than Android 9,” Fairphone notes in a press release which also quotes its head of software longevity & IT, Agnes Crepet, who writes: “Our unique approach to software has allowed us to help our users keep their devices for as long as possible. We’re pleased to be able to provide our Fairphone 2 community with yet another software upgrade, reaching our goal to provide at least five years of support from launch for our phones and with the Android 10 upgrade, we’re going beyond that to seven years of support. We are constantly raising the bar for ourselves and the industry, showing that doing things more sustainably in software is possible.”

Seven years’ support puts Fairphone into Apple iPhone software support timespans. But of course the average Android-based handset can expect fair fewer years of software love — typically Android smartphones only get around three years’ support. So it’s a major achievement.

And while Fairphone may only now be catching up to Apple on the software longevity front it is already years ahead of Cupertino in another respect: Hardware sustainability through repairability via modular construction and offering direct-to-consumer spare parts.

Earlier this month Apple announced that, starting next year, it would kick off a ‘Self Service Repair’ program — shipping spare parts and repair tools to iPhone and Mac users to let them perform basic repairs at home.

It’s by no means full modularity from the company that has — historically — loved a hermetically sealed, stupidly thin, often literally glued shut box but it is a small step in a more sustainable direction. And one that Fairphone has long pioneered.

Belkin’s new 3-in-1 wireless charger delivers speedy charging for the latest Apple Watch and iPhone

Belkin has a new 3-in-1 wireless charger that’s tailor made for iPhone and Apple Watch owners, and that also provides MagSafe 15W charging speeds for iPhone 12 and 13, along with fast charging for the latest Apple Watch 7 series. Belikin also introduce a new standalone portable fast charger for Apple Watch that includes an integrated USB-C cable and also offers fast charge compatibility for Series 7 models.

The Belkin “BOOST↑CHARGE PRO 3-in-1 Wireless Charging Pad” which is too much of a mouthful and will henceforth be referred to as the 3-in-1 charger, has a MagSafe 15W wireless charger for your iPhone as mentioned. It also includes a standard Qi-compatible wireless charging pad that you can use to power up your AirPods, and there’s an adjustable Apple Watch charging puck that supports fast charging as mentioned above. The adjustability of the Watch puck is a nice touch, giving you freedom to charge either lying flat or upright in Apple Watch’s ‘nightstand mode,’ and there’s a clever switch underneath that allows you to tweak the height of the stand to perfectly fit Apple Watch models new and old, as well as a side variety of Apple Watch cases if that’s your thing.

The stand is covered in a rubberized silicone so you don’t need to worry about inadvertently scratching any of your gadgets as you fumble in the night, and it’s all powered by just a single cord that plugs into an included 40W power adapter. I’ve been using this for about a week now, and can confidently say it’s the best option out there for a one-cord, max speed bedside charging solution for Apple fans.

It’s $149.95, sold via both Belkin’s own website and Apple’s, and goes on sale starting today.

The Belkin “BOOST↑CHARGE PRO Portable Fast Charger” (again, terrible, so let’s just call it the Watch charger) is an awesome alternative to Apple’s own little standalone pillow charger for Apple Watch. Thanks to the integrated cable it’s super portable for travel, and again features adjustability to fit various Watch models and cases, as well as offering both flat and upright nightstand charging. Plus, you get the fast charging feature if you have a Series 7. Definitely the charger to beat when it comes to dedicated Apple Watch kit.

The Watch charger is just $59.95, which is a steal relative to Apple’s own dedicated magnetic charging dock, and also is available to order starting today at both Belkin.com and Apple.com

Misty-eyed and bushy-tailed: Meet Hai, the world’s smartest shower head

If you had “my shower head needs a small turbine, a Bluetooth connection, an app and a fine-spray mist” on your 2021 bingo card, congratulations, you win the prize. The prize is knowing that Hai exists — and this fine news story, which will tell you all about how the company raised $6 million to get all up in your biz. And we’ll probably have some good, clean fun — i.e. shower puns — thrown in for good measure.

A propos good measure, that, in a nutshell, is kind of the point of Hai. The founders claim that your daily de-grimification routine is one of the biggest users of water in a residential context. A lot of people care about the environment, but how do you know how much water you actually blast through on your way to a haven of godliness-adjacency? The answer is some really expensive electronics, or this (possibly equally expensive) $250 shower head. Hai is designed to be easy to install and remove using just your hands. Aimed in particular at apartment-dwellers who want “a spa-like shower experience” that they can take with them as they nomad their way from apartment to apartment, the Hai shower head is somewhat of a platform.

“During my 20s I moved to a new apartment every year. One of the things that I looked at every time I moved was the shower. I’m quite tall, and it was very important for me to have a shower that was tall enough — and the pressure was obviously important,” Leah Stigile, co-founder and CEO of Hai reminisced. “I’m a mom to two small children, and the time that I get in the shower every day is crucially important to my personal well-being. As I talked to other people, I realized the ritual of showering is super important to other people as well, but for a whole variety of different reasons. I was inspired to be a part of building a company that delivered an amazing experience but also helps you be mindful of the resources that you’re using.”

It appears that a gaggle of investors agree with the Hai team that this is a space worth exploring in more depth. Trousdale Ventures led the $6 million round, and is joined by Will Smith’s Dreamers VC, A-Rod Corp, The Najafi Companies (owners of the Phoenix Suns and McLaren F1), Amity Supply (Jesse Derris), social media stars Josh Richards and Griffin Johnson, Noah Beck’s Animal Capital (Marshall Sandman), former board member and early investor in Peloton, Howard Draft and Local Globe.

“We invested in Hai because they have created an innovative, high-quality showerhead that meets consumer demand for sustainable home products,” said Phillip Sarofim, founder of Trousdale Ventures. “We believe that Hai delivers the best shower experience as consumers continue to shift toward personalized and environmentally conscious products.”

“You are looking at a $9 billion market. In my calculation when you look at the size of the space, there’s room for five or six big new entrants in this market. The interesting thing is that the $9 billion has been carved out by the same five companies for the last 75 years. What is interesting is that brand was almost irrelevant in the space,” explains Leonard Brody, co-founder of Hai. “More than 85% of millennials said the shower was the most important self-care ritual in their home, but the vast majority of them couldn’t tell you the brand of shower head they stood under every day. That is highly unusual in a consumer space. I bet you 60% of the same people could tell you what toilet paper brand they use.”

Hai’s shower head was super easy to install — taking the old shower head off took longer than installing the new one. Best of all: No leaks and no tools required. Photo by Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

So, with a huge market and no clear winner, we’ve seen a number of new companies enter the fray. It seems like the newest dribble of companies started with Kickstarter darling Nebia pre-selling $3 million of fine-misting shower heads back in 2015, before raising investment from, and later getting swallowed up by, bathroom giant Moen.

“One of the largest wastes of water in the shower is actually when you flip on the water and you wander away and are busy while you’re waiting for it to warm. The shower is running and before you know it you’ve done three loads of laundry. We’ve developed a little hydropower Bluetooth turbine and it does a couple of things. First of all, it powers the LED light on the shower that will notify you when the water is warm and ready to get in. Also, if you’ve wandered away, it’ll send you a push notification to your phone,” explains Brody. “Secondly, with a partner app that we developed, it will you can set the number of gallons of water that you want to use during your shower. The average shower is about 20 gallons of water. You can configure that, of course, but our product default is set to 20 gallons. When you hit that limit, a little light will notify you, reminding you to wrap up and hop out of the shower.”

The device tracks your water consumption over time, which takes care of one of the first challenges of awareness; namely, awareness. The company suggests that by measuring your baseline and then setting goals for yourself, you can do your bit for the environment and use a bit less water. The company also wants to use the data it gathers to make the shower experience more custom.

“The next step on the roadmap for us that’s coming in early 2022, we are taking our product and adding a layer of consumables. First up, we have what we’re calling infusions. We’ve developed a single-use no-waste pill that can be added to a capsule that fits onto the existing showerhead,” explains Stigile. “You can infuse aromatherapy or hair and skin treatments directly into the water. That really helps deliver that spa experience that we are trying to create in your home bathroom. And then the next step beyond that is filtration. With the sensors we have, we can actually be quite sophisticated about telling you what’s in your water delivering, a very personalized experience. We can even take the temperature you like to shower at into consideration and recommend the consumables that are best for your particular use case. That’s a huge opportunity there for us.”

The company only started shipping its products a few weeks ago, but so far they’re off to a lather good start, with promising sales through its direct channels and retail presence on the Bed Bath & Beyond website and its New York flagship store.

Gift Guide: 20+ STEM toy gift ideas for aspiring young builders

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2021 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’ve got lots of them. We’re just starting to roll out this year’s gift guides, so check back from now until the end of December for more! 

For this year’s STEM toy gift guide we’ve split out our recommendations by age for easier navigation. The 20+ gift ideas (below) run the gamut from train sets controlled by colorful blocks, to robots that can draw, all the way up to a cute DIY handheld gaming console that’s really an experimental platform for teens to build on.

Gifts we’ve selected hit a range of price points — starting at $15 and topping out at just under $550 (for all the educational LEGO your kid could ever need!), with a spectrum of price-points in between.

The learn-to-code category as a whole continues to mature, showing a strengthening (and welcome) focus on art and design, not just pure engineering. At the same time, it’s clear that sustaining a business selling educational gizmos/games is challenging, with a number of players winking out of existence (or taking an exit) since we last checked in. Product novelty also feels like it’s diminishing, even as maker hardware itself is flourishing (thanks to the likes of the Raspberry Pi). But, in general, the category’s experimental ‘Cambrian explosion’ moment seems to have passed — and the programmable robots have (mostly) taken over.

Consolidation remains a big theme in the space. As do pivots (see: Kano’s new jam, for example). After all, kids are fickle and even the fanciest toy can soon be discarded for a newer, shinier thing. Plus, it feels like some of the earlier hype (and loud claims) — around gizmos that ‘teach coding’ — has faded to a more practical/realistic and less flashy projection of potential educational value.

One extra challenge for STEM toy makers is the (now) high concern over kids’ screen time. Hence lots of products feature marketing that loudly touts ‘screen-free’ alternatives to teaching coding (such as by using physical blocks/cards/buttons etc). Meanwhile some others that do require a screen to work are trying to distinguish what they’re offering as ‘good screen’ time vs the addictive ‘digital sugar’ of non-learning-focused games and/or social media… whether parents buy that remains to be seen.

For surviving STEM players, increasing amounts of their time and energy are being directed away from the consumer space and toward supplying schools with learning-geared kit and resources directly — chasing a more reliable revenue stream, although selling to schools is no cake walk, either. Overall, being part of a larger maker marketplace or broader group of educational businesses seems to be where many surviving STEM startups are headed.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Tiny techies: 2-4+

Botzees Toddler – Coding Train Set

botzees toddler coding train set

Image credits: Pai Technology

This colorful Coding Train play-set is touted as teaching tots early coding concepts, puzzle-solving and critical thinking by letting them add disc-shaped action bricks to their train track designs. Four different colored action bricks contain sensors that interact with the battery-powered car — causing it to brake, switch on its lights or generating sound effects. Screen-free play (but there’s an optional 3D building app for designing track circuits).

Age: 2+
Price: $90 from Amazon
Made by: Pai Technology

 

Sphero indi at Home Learning

New from Sphero for 2021 is indi, a robotic car designed to teach kids coding logic through play. Youngsters aged 4 and up can start learning screen-free, using colored cards from the kit to create tracks for the robot car to traverse while also solving puzzles.

indi edtech programmable robot by Sphero shown on colored coding cards

Image credits: Sphero

But that’s not all: a companion app, Sphero Edu Jr, means kids can customize indi’s behavior — via a drag and drop block-based interface —  to reprogram the car’s reactions to the tiles, build their own mazes, or play games and simple songs.

Age: 4+
Price: $100 from Amazon
Made by: Sphero

KIBO 10 Home Edition

KinderLab Robotics' Kibo 10 programmable robot for teaching kids coding

Image credits: KinderLab Robotics

KinderLab is a veteran player in the screen-free STEAM learning space with its programmable robotic toy, Kibo. The learning device is designed for 4-7 year olds to spark creative, educational play — without the need for tablets or apps. Instead wooden blocks introduce coding concepts, while kids are encouraged to customize their bot using a variety of add-ons and sensors — and by incorporating their own artistic creations.

The multifaceted toy is intended to inspire aspiring engineers, designers, artists and writers, as well as coders. KinderLab says its approach draws on two decades of early child development research.

The Kibo 10 Home Edition pack (pictured above) contains the Kibo robot with a drawable face-plate, wheels and motors, and scannable cards for creating Kibo programs.

Age: 4-7
Price: $199 from Amazon
Made by: KinderLab

Coding Critters MagiCoders

Another screen-free play option is Coding Critters MagiCoders from Learning Resources. Each programmable play-set is designed around a cartoon character — either Blazer the Dragon or Skye the Unicorn — which kids control using a battery-operated ‘wand’ that contains directional buttons.

Coding Critters MagiCoders: Blazer the Dragon play set shown in use

Image credits: Learning Resources

A spell button on the wand lets youngsters dive into more involved ‘programming’, with the help of a (paper) ‘spell book’ that contains instructions for triggering a variety of modes (like dance party and patrol guard).

Sensors on the rolling critters allow for further fun interactions.

Age: 4-8
Price: $55 from Amazon
Made by: Learning Resources

 

Itty-bitty builders: 5-7+

 

Ultimate Botley 2.0 The Coding Robot Bundle

Learning Resources' Ultimate Botley 2.0 Coding Robot Bundle

Image credits: Learning Resources

 

Another long time STEM learning toy is Botley the Coding Robot, also from Learning Resources. This Ultimate Coding Robot Bundle comes with last year’s updated robot (Botley 2.0) — which expanded the programmable interactions, added color-changing eyes and night vision for line-sensing in the dark — plus a variety of accessories, including a construction kit and costumes and wraps so little builders can change the look and feel of their bot. Screen-free play.

Age: 5+
Price: $94 from LearningResources
Made by: LearningResources

CodeSpark Academy  

LA-based startup CodeSpark has been making mobile and web games to teach kids coding for years — now as part of the Homer early learning group after being acquired by its parent company, New York-based Begin, earlier this year.

If your youngster already has access to a tablet, CodeSpark‘s pitch for its learning games is “screen time you can feel good about” — saying they cover basic concepts of computing coding (such as sequencing, loops, conditional statements, events, boolean logic & sorting etc) — just cunningly disguised as cartoonish characters and fun-looking puzzles and challenges. So kids won’t even realize they’re learning…

Illustration of how CodeSpark Academy teaches kids coding using games designed for learning

Image Credits: CodeSpark Academy

Since access to the software requires a subscription there are no ads or in-app purchases to worry about. CodeSpark does also offer a seven day free trial to get a taster of its wares. And there’s a dedicated gifting option on its website.

Age: 5-9
Price: $90 (for 12 months access) from CodeSpark
Made by: CodeSpark

 

Osmo Explorer Starter Kit

Indian edtech giant Byju-owned Osmo has been making educational games for tablets for almost a decade. Its big twist is to combine physical (offline) play (pens, blocks, cards etc) with digital on-screen content and interactions.

It does this via a dedicated tablet stand that adds a reflector to the iPad’s front-facing camera so that it gets a view of the physical play area directly below the screen. This means the app is able to mirror/act on what the kids are doing in the physical space. (And the bounded view means the camera only captures tiny hands, not your kids’ faces, so that’s a plus for privacy.) Osmo calls this blend of physical-digital play “embodied learning”.

Osmo Explorer Kit STEAM learning device for tablets shown with coding blocks in play

Image Credits: Osmo

The Osmo Explorer Starter Kit is described as its “most complete STEAM learning kit yet” — with a range of interactive games and art supplies in the bundle (Note: A tablet is not included so you’ll need your own iPad or equivalent). The kit includes a set of coding focused games which let kids manipulate on-screen characters to progress by combining (physical) coding blocks into a set of instructions and tapping the screen to execute their (proto)program.

Age: 5-10
Price: $158 from Osmo
Made by: Tangible Play Inc

 

Robo Sense 

European startup Robo Wunderkind has built a STEM learning business, one modular robotic block at a time. Kids get to learn about circuits and engineering concepts by plugging a variety of its smart blocks together — to build their own robots and make them move or otherwise animate them. Creations can be further extended by adding (actual) Lego bits and bobs.

Robo Wunderkind's learn-to-code STEM toy, Robo Sense

Image Credits: Robo Wunderkind

As well as pure physical play, Robo Wunderkind has a digital aide in the form of a companion app that expands the learning into on-screen coding. Here it offers tiered complexity — with three different levels from coding basics, where kids may just be manipulating colorful icons, to doing drag-and-drop block-based coding (based on Scratch) — which introduces more complex concepts like variables, functions, operators, and input/output handling. Python and Arduino APIs are also supported for more advanced programmers. 

The Robo Sense kit offers a taster of Robo Wunderkind’s approach, with a handful of sensing blocks to play with plus over 30 projects and tutorials to access online or in-app.

Age: 5-12
Price: $99 from Robo Wunderkind
Made by: Robo Wunderkind

 

 

 

Doodling devs: 8-12+

Artie Max

Artie Max is the latest programmable robot from Educational Insights. Much like its predecessor, Artie 3000, the STEM toy combines programming and art in a very literal sense: The robot is designed to hold colored marker pens and kids write code that the bot ‘draws’ by moving around on a piece of paper.

Educational Insights' Artie Max coding robot shown with the box, colored marker pens and an instruction booklet

Image Credits: Educational Insights

Artie Max’s main upgrade vs Artie 3000 is that it can hold a bunch of marker pens, not just a single marker — allowing for multicolored designs to be coded. Programming Artie’s movements is done via a drag and drop interface in the companion app or web interface. Other coding languages are supported, along with a visual interface where kids can draw a design on screen that they want the bot to ink out on paper.

Age: 8+
Price: $100 from Amazon
Made by: Educational Insights

 

littleBits At-Home Learning Starter Kit

Sphero-owned littleBits’ approach to sparking interest in hardware hacking involves easy to connect modular electronics. It spices things up with some colorful housings and incorporates a little product design into the mix, through kit-based projects.

littleBits Starter kit shown in action with a maker snapping components together

Image Credits: Sphero

This (screen-free) STEAM littleBits Starter Kit (above) consists of a box of bits and pieces — including a handful of the brand’s customary snap-together components, plus craft supplies and (paper-based) project instructions. The idea is to bundle all the key bits kids need to work through five electronics projects and be budding inventors by brainstorming ideas, either on their own or guided by a parent.

Age: 8+
Price: $65 from littleBits
Made by: Sphero

Magic of LED

Mand Labs' 'Magic of LED' electronics kit for kids, shown open to display all the components

Image credits: Mand Labs

Inspire your little one with actual, real-world electronics with this Mand Labs STEM stocking stuffer. The Magic of LED kit offers an easy intro to hands-on electronics (no soldering required). The box of 30+ components — including LEDs, a buzzer, transistors and capacitors — supports five projects, including a touch-activated switch and an automatic night lamp. An Internet-connected computer is needed to access digital instructions.

Age: 8+
Price: $30 from Mand Labs
Made by: Mand Labs

Code Lab

Shortcut to programming electronics with Code Lab: A board that packs in 60 different components (including LEDs, a speaker, an LCD thermometer, sound-sensitive lights, a random tone generator and more) and hooks up to a computer (by USB) for coding the hardware via a C++ interface.

Code Lab learn to code electronics board shown in use by a boy using a computer watched by his mother

Image Credits: Let’s Start Coding

A variety of learning content is bundled with Code Lab, including walkthrough videos; 100 sequenced project pages (which it says “cover the fundamentals of all coding languages”); and 2,200+ lines of example code that can be modified or tinkered.

Code ‘challenges’ and ‘bug hunts’ further encourage kids to interact and engage with the code to help strengthen learning.

Age: Varies, but they’ll need to be able to follow complex instructions and type well.
Price: $200 from Code Lab
Made by: Lets Start Coding

 

Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code 

You can’t beat a book for screen-free learning. Get your little developer-in-training inspired by the story of early computer pioneer Grace Hopper (not to mention why the word ‘bug’ owes a lot to an ill-fated moth), engagingly told by Laurie Wallmark — with eye-catching illustrations by Katy Wu.

 

A page from the book 'Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code' by Laurie Wallmark, Illustrated by Katy Wu

Image Credits: AdaFruit

Age: 8+
Price: $15.95 from Bookshop.org, AdaFruit and others

 

imagiCharm Smarter Kit

Women-in-tech focused Swedish startup, imagiLabs, has come up with this cute IoT device designed to get girls interested in computing. The imagiCharm is an app-controlled wearable which contains an array of programmable colored lights to inspire coding through customization.

imagiLabs' imagiCharm learn-to-code wearable shown in close up held by a girl

Image Credits: imagiLabs

Your up-and-coming developer will need access to a mobile device in to connect to their imagiCharm so they can program and upload their custom designs — learning Python as they come up with their own twist on classic emoji to adorn the battery-powered wearable.

The imagiCharm Smarter Kit bundles six lessons (roughly 12 hours) of learning content with the hardware for sustained learning opportunities right out of the box.

Age: 8-14+
Price: $100 from imagiLabs
Made by: imagiLabs

 

LEGO Education At Home STEAM Learning Bundle

LEGO has been extending its learning legacy into electronics for years. This massive LEGO Education STEAM Learning Bundle brings together three different kits from its education-focused robotics platform line (for grades 5-8) — the Spike Prime Core Set, Spike Prime Expansion Set and the (sports science-focused) BricQ Motion Prime Set — to really dial up the creative, learning potential.

Lego Education At Home STEAM Learning Bundle

Image Credits: Lego Education

As well as bundling up (lots of)  bricks and components for kids to combine in all sorts of ways, building their own robots and other mechanical and/or sensing creations (as well as offered guided buids), there’s a Scratch-based drag-and-drop coding interface to bring their creations to life. LEGO Education also provides lesson plans for more extended learning.

Age: 10+
Price: $550 from LEGO
Made by: LEGO Education

 

pi-top [4] Robotics Superset

UK-based STEM startup pi-top has had a number of challenges in recent years. Its latest incarnation sees it joining the programmable robotic fray with this Robotics Superset.

All the pieces in pi-top's robotics kit

Image Credit: pi-top

While the pi-top [4] processor that powers the kit is basically an encased Raspberry Pi, the addition of a battery and hard case (plus a bunch of ports) means the mini desktop computer can now go roving and (with the right add-ons) sense stuff in its environment. Components bundled in the Robotics Superset include motors, servos, an HD camera and an ultrasonic sensor.

Kids can get help to program the Pi-powered rover by accessing resources provided through pi-top’s learning platform, called Further, including projects, challenges and courses.

Age: 11+
Price: $399 from Pi-top
Made by: pi-top

NextMaker Box

Give a STEAM gift that keeps on inspiring with MakeBlock’s NextMaker Box: A monthly subscription box of coding and making projects.

Each month kids get a box of bits to build programmable things — robots, IoT devices, sensing hardware etc — and learn at their own pace. An online learning system provides instructions, support and access to a block-based coding interface for programming the build-it-yourself gizmos. Bundled craft supplies add art and design into the mix.

Makeblock's Nextmaker Box subscription STEM kits, illustrated by a boy holding a piece of programmable electronics in front of a laptop showing his block-based code

Image Credits: Makeblock

Projects for kids to build include a voice-operated smart trash bin; a motion-sensing tumbler toy; a smart wearable and more.

Age: 6-12
Price: $40 from MakeBlock
Made by: MakeBlock

 

Techie teens: 12+

mBot Mega Advanced Robot and Electornics Kit for Arduino C, Scratch

Makeblock’s programmable remote-controlled all terrain robot rover, mBot Mega, packs a MegaPi control board based on the open source Arduino electronics platform. So if your teen is keen on learning programming hardware in Arduino IDE or Scratch this could be just the kit to whet their appetite.

All the pieces of Makeblock's mBot Mega programmable robotics kit

Image Credits: Makeblock

Makeblock promises a detailed construction guide and 20+ online projects to keep curious minds busy. Access to a computer is required for coding the bot. The bot’s hardware can be further extended by adding a Raspberry Pi (not included).
Age: 12+
Price: $130 from MakeBlock
Made by: MakeBlock

 

Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W

For a budget-friendly but endlessly explorable challenge, why not throw your teen in at the deep end by getting them a Raspberry Pi? The low cost microprocessor preempted the current wave of STEM devices — offering a ‘no frills’ approach to getting kids learning coding that combines cheap but powerful hardware and minimal hand-holding. Pi has gone on to become a maker powerhouse.

The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W

Image Credits: Raspberry Pi Foundation

New for 2021 — and costing just $15 — the tiny Pi Zero 2 W (above) nonetheless packs a punch, with a quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 engine clocking in at 1GHz and with 512MB of SDRAM there’s power enough for some serious smart home programming projects. Wireless LAN is also included. Your teen will need access to a computer to program the hardware.

The Pi Foundation has a curated feed of community-built Pi Zero projects to get your kid inspired.

Age: 12+ to infinity
Price: $15 from Raspberry Pi 
Made by: Raspberry Pi Foundation

 

AdaBox

AdaBox is a quarterly (i.e. once every three months) subscription box of DIY electronics projects, curated by AdaFruit. You won’t know what electronics bits and bots you’re getting in advance — but, for more advanced teens with access to a computer this blackbox of hack together hardware could be just the inspiration they need to get building.

AdaFruit's subscription maker box, AdaBox, shown on a table with a variety of components

Image Credits: AdaFruit

AdaFruit says the subscription service is “designed for makers of all levels, with a special focus on folks just starting out”. Tutorials and videos are provided via the Learning System on its website. Access to an Internet-connected device is required for programming the hardware.

Projects in past boxes include building your own Matrix Portal Flow Visualizer.

(Note: There is a dedicated ‘Give’ option for gifting the AdaBox during checkout. However with the holiday season fast approaching, AdaFruit says the first box of any new orders won’t now ship til Spring — so ordering this as a holiday gift will require a little patience in the recipient.)

Price: $60 per box
Sold by: AdaFruit

 

PicoSystem

Why not buy your game-developer-in-training this tiny, Raspberry Pi Pico-powered handheld gaming system from UK-based Pimoroni — which is not just a teeny games console but an experimental gaming platform.

Pimoroni's Picosystem miniature handheld gaming console and experimental games platform

Image Credits: Pimoroni

Games can be coded for the PicoSystem using a variety of languages, including C++/MicroPython (Per Pimoroni: “Our official PicoSystem API is designed to be lightweight, easy to use and to not get in the way while you’re developing games”) — see their tutorial to get started.

Out of the box, the tiny handheld ships flashed with Super Square Bros. by Scorpion Games.

Price: $80 from AdaFruit
Made by: Pimoroni

 

Piper Make Starter + Robotics Expedition Kit

Piper is another long time player in the STEAM toy space — starting out back in 2014 offering a DIY Minecraft computer to teach kids coding. It’s still selling its classic, wooden-cased Raspberry Pi-powered computer kits, but has expanded to sell a range of maker kits.

Including — new for 2021 (and slated to ship this month) — the Robotics Expedition Kit which comes bundled with the requisite Pi Pico (and other starter electronics essentials). Kids get to build a couple of kinetic robots (a walker and a rover) and then get help to write code to get them moving them via Piper’s drag-and-drop coding platform Make. So they’ll need access to a computer or mobile device.

Piper's Robotics Expedition kit shown with kids working on how to program the bots

Image Credits: Piper

Piper’s coding platform includes a virtual representation of the microcontroller and automatic translation of the block-based programming language to text-based CircuitPython to support youngsters to learn the basics of hardware coding.

A variety of other projects are also available via the Piper Make portal — where it says it uses storytelling-based lessons to motivate young learners. Its Make programming software is also available via a mobile app.

Price: $148 from Piper
Made by: Piper

Cognixion raises $12M to build its brain-monitoring headset for people with disabilities

Cognixion, a startup designing an intuitive brain-monitoring headset and interface for people with physical disabilities, has raised a $12M A round to pursue its accessibility ambitions. Armed with this funding, it should be able to complete the long list of requirements necessary for any medical or assistive device to be made widely available.

The company, which I covered in detail in May, makes a headset that uses electroencephalography to detect certain patterns of brain activity, which are then used to guide a cursor and navigate a full-featured interface. It uses an iPhone as its own “brain” and for a display, and connects to accessories like speakers and accessibility devices so that the user can do everything they need to in a single UI.

The advance it’s all built on is a new type of (non-invasive) electrode and a machine learning system that quickly interprets the signals produced by the ones embedded in the headset. While EEGs are useful, they are generally slow and noisy, but Cognixion’s approach makes them quick and relatively precise — enough that a person can reliably navigate a modern UI using their brain.

It’s meant for people with physical disabilities serious enough that a joystick, gaze-tracking device or other common accessibility options aren’t possible. Options for people in that condition are few and far between and those that are available are slow and tedious to use.

Since coming out of stealth mode Cognixion has been hard at work on the various tasks associated with putting an assistive device on the market. While the company has done some pilot tests with early adopters, it needs more to justify the kind of clearance it needs to be covered by insurance, Medicaid and so on, not to mention getting to the level where caregivers are comfortable recommending the device.

“The two big themes recently have been in the areas of clinical and regulatory work as well as optimization and efficiency,” said CEO and co-founder Andreas Forsland. “We have a group of almost 150 users, clinicians and caregivers involved as an advisory council in all of our development processes so we’re constantly getting very rich feedback from that group. We’ve already iterated many times on the hardware but are quickly approaching a final design; moving beyond that, a lot of the rapid improvements we’re seeing right now focus on the user interface and language system design.”

Two new features in particular are underway. First, a predictive speech algorithm that will help users piece together full sentences quickly and adapt to their particular needs. Second is direct Alexa integration. Cognixion has been working with Amazon to empower and integrate into the headset as a true smart device hub not merely a tunnel for common voice commands or queries.

The Cognxion One headset.

Image Credits: Cognixion

“We’re incredibly grateful to Amazon’s Alexa team for their support through this process, and to Amazon generally for granting the exceptions needed for us to get this done,” Forsland said. “The context on it is important; right now there aren’t any augmentative communication tools or even anything in assistive technology generally that interface directly with home automation tools. So it’s a huge first for the accessibility industry, but also a first in terms of universal design in general.”

The $12 million round was led by Prime Movers Lab, with participation by Northwell Health, Amazon Alexa Fund and Volta Circle.

“You would think that Cognixion ONE is something out of science fiction if it didn’t already exist,” said Primer Movers Lab GP Amy Kruse in the company’s press release. “We believe that it will be a fundamentally life-changing and integral blend of an AI software platform with hardware to assist people of all ages who live with speech and motor disabilities, including cerebral palsy, brainstem stroke, ALS and many other conditions.”

While it’ll still be a bit before the ONE headset is available for purchase, Forsland said they’ve lined up a reseller and distributor already that works with practically every research university out there. Things are looking good for this innovative approach to accessibility and hopefully soon it will be on the heads of anyone who needs it.

Mimi teams up with Skullcandy, Cleer and Beyerdynamic to personalize audio

Audio processing startup Mimi promises to make a personalized hearing profile for you, meaning that you can hear well without having to crank the volume up too loudly. This both helps prevent hearing loss, and it helps people who’ve already suffered some hearing loss to be able to hear their content better without having to incur additional damage to their hearing.

In theory, as a science project, that sounds pretty rad, but as a company, there’s an obvious problem: Unless the technology makes its way to the products we use to listen, it’s all a bit academic. You can’t help people unless the technology is available in products. This week, Mimi announced it has a big-name breakthrough on that front, and announced some major partnerships. The company’s tech making its way into household name audio products is a huge win for the company — and for our collective hearing health.

Philipp Skribanowitz, CEO and founder of Mimi, on the TechCrunch Battlefield stage in 2014

Mimi was on the TechCrunch Distrupt stage in New York back in 2014 — and they’ve come a long way since the product was essentially a bright idea seven years ago. These days, it’s an operating company with a number of successes under its belt. And with the newly announced partnerships with Skullcandy, Cleer and Beyerdynamic, the technology is about to be available in a lot of ears near you.

“Skullcandy is dedicated to creating accessible products with meaningful technology for our fans. Supporting individually tuned and healthy listening habits with Mimi will have a positive, lifelong impact on our fans’ enjoyment and well-being,” said Jason Hodell, Skullcandy CEO. “Partnering with Mimi is a wonderful example of this core mission coming to life.”

“We are thrilled to introduce Mimi Sound Personalization into our newest earphones and headphones available through the Cleer+app,” said Patrick Huang, president of Cleer Audio. “The inclusion of hearing optimization and wellness features in our products will certainly bring added value to our products and customers.”

How does it work?

“The auditory system has a frequency resolution. You can think of that like pixels on the screen. If you have good hearing you have a high pixel count, but even then, if two different bits of information get into one pixel and the dominant information is going to dominate. That’s kind of the basis of mp3: because of the limited resolution of a healthy ear, we can throw away tons of this information and get these massive reductions in file size,” explains Nick Clark, co-founder and head of R&D at Mimi. “The unique piece of knowledge that Mimi rolls with is we have individual profiles. So if someone has slightly more compromised hearing, you can compare that with them having larger pixels — they have fewer pixels. And there’s nothing that Mimi you can do about that pixel count because that’s related to the actual hearing of the person. What we can do is that we can process the sound to fit that a little bit better. We can amplify something selectively, and decrease something else selectively to kind of get the most information through. If you do that you give someone a rich experience.”

It’s hardly the most riveting illustration I’ve ever added to a review, but it’s fascinating to see the data that Mimi captures about my hearing. From the app, you can request a CSV export. It seems like the data captured mostly covers at which frequency and volume level I start and stop hearing the beeping sound.

I had a chance to try Mimi’s technology on three different devices; Skullcandy’s $99 Grind Fuel True Wireless Earbuds, Cleer Audio’s $130 Ally Plus II Wireless Earbuds and Beyerdynamic’s $300 Lagoon ANC headphones. The setup process is pretty similar on all three devices: You download the respective manufacturer’s app, then go through the process to create a hearing profile.

The creation of a profile is pretty straightforward; tell it your birth year, and you’re ready to start the test. The hearing test itself is pretty odd — it sounds like they locked a swarm of electronic crickets in a box, and then play a beeping sound over the top. The beeping fades up, and when you can hear the sound, you hold down a button. This makes the beeping sound fade back down, and when you can’t hear the beeping anymore you let go. The beeping happens at various frequencies, and the app uses your input to create a personalized profile. Once you have your profile, you can create a Mimi account and save it — which means you can use your personalized profile on any device that supports Mimi’s tech. Super neat, and it means you don’t have to become too intimately familiar with the box’o’crickets sound — it isn’t exactly a pleasant noise.

My personalization results from the Cleer app (left) were pretty different from those from the Skullcandy app (middle and right). The two Skullcandy results were almost identical, which would indicate that there is at least consistency between the measurements. Image: Screenshots.

The hearing testing component of this product is wildly successful and in wide use. The company has the No. 1 hearing test app in the App Store, and the company claims that around 50,000 people are testing their hearing using their app every month. From the app’s reviews, it seems as if the users are finding that the tests are consistent with professional hearing tests.

“The same technology as our hearing test app is available as an SDK that our partners can build into their companion apps,” explains Philipp Skribanowitz, CEO at Mimi.

The magic in Mimi, then, is applying the results of the hearing test to a personalized profile, and then running this as a signal processor as close as possible to the user’s ears.

“[Our software] can be anywhere where the digital audio passes through. After we have created your hearing ID, you then somehow need to transfer to the processing algorithm to adjust the audio stream before it reaches your ears,” Skribanowitz explains. “We have multiple components and processing algorithms. On headphones, they run on the Bluetooth chip, on a TV they run on the audio chip. But we have also partners in public broadcast testing and streaming applications, along with scientific and smartphone partners.”

Does it make the listening experience better?

The question is: Does it work? Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to tell, and it varied a lot on the devices I tried out.

I tested the Mimi hearing test with three different products, with wildly differing results. From left to right: Skullcandy’s Grind Fuel, Beyerdynamic’s Lagoon ANC, and Cleer’s Ally Plus II. Photo: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

The Cleer earbuds had a curious hiss in them whenever they were turned on and in my ears — even when no audio was playing. When I was playing music, I wasn’t really able to tell the difference between the sound when my personalization was turned on or off. On the bright side, I was able to use the Cleer earbuds to create a profile and a Mimi account, saving my profile. This means that I could, in theory, be able to use it on other devices.

I spoke with the president of Cleer, who assures me that the hissing/buzzing noise is extremely unusual. They sent me out a second set of earbuds, but unfortunately, this set of earbuds also had the same issue. It’s possible that I just got extraordinarily unlucky, but it’s more likely that the company has some work to do before the earbuds are ready for public consumption.

Skullcandy was also having a bad run – the Skullcandy app kept crashing every time after I set up the sound personalization, failing to save my results every time. I wasn’t able to hear the personalization in action. For some reason, Skullcandy also didn’t have the option to log in to Mimi and to use my saved Mimi profile — I had to create a new one. Between the app failing to save my profile, and not being able to use a Mimi profile I had made on another device, it means that I was never able to hear the personalized audio on the Skullcandy earbuds. I talked with Skullcandy’s chief product officer about the issues with the app.

“Skullcandy takes the quality of our products very seriously. The Skullcandy mobile app was rigorously tested using various combinations of mobile devices and operating systems available at the time,” said Jeff Hutchings, chief product officer at Skullcandy. “Since that time, we have discovered that some users are experiencing issues with the brand new Pixel 6/6 Pro running on Android 12. Skullcandy is actively working on an updated release to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”

Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC headphones. Photo: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

On the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC headphones, it was a very different story. Of course, this is a different type of headphone; over-ear, and with a much beefier price tag. With the Beyerdynamic headphones, at least, the personalization made a marked difference. Especially when the active noise canceling is turned on, Mimi’s personalization feels significantly different on these headphones. Sound sounds crisper, and I could hear more details in the music than when the personalization was turned off. Music sounds like it is… more in stereo, somehow? It’s very hard to explain, but it is a good enough difference that I could be convinced to ensure that all of my headphones have Mimi’s integration in the future.

Of course, that made me wonder why the Cleer and Skullcandy earbuds didn’t have that pronounced a difference. I was wondering if I could use the profile I had made with the Beyerdynamic headphones, and use them on the others? It doesn’t appear that Skullcandy’s app lets me log into Mimi’s account, so that didn’t work. There was no way for the Cleer app to load the other profile once I had created one already. In the end, I had to delete the Cleer app from my phone, re-install it, and then log back into my Mimi account. I appreciate that not a lot of users will have the exact use case I’m describing here, but it’s pretty frustrating not to be able to copy a profile that’s already on the Mimi servers, when that’s one of the use cases Mimi’s founders is excited about.

Profile copying kerfuffle aside, with the Beyerdynamic profile, I could just about detect a difference on the Cleer earphones: the sound sounds as if the stereo channels are separated better (not unlike the “sounds more in stereo” description above), but I wouldn’t say that, on the whole, there was a dramatic difference. It’s certainly not the “woah, that’s cool!” reaction I had with the Beyerdynamic headphones. And nothing like my experience with the most obvious competitor in this space — Nuraphone.

It would be strange not to compare all of these headphones with the Nuraphone headphones. They cost a lot more — $399 — but they take a different approach in how they measure your hearing: Instead of putting the burden on you to figure out when you can and cannot hear the tones, the headphones actually measure your ears directly. The downside of this approach is that this only works in very specialized headphones, and the profiles aren’t transferable to non-Nura headphones. The result is spectacular, though — and even five years after I bought them, Nura’s Nuraphone headphones are my go-to for immersive music experiences.

On the whole, it’s exciting for the Mimi team to create these partnerships and to get their technology into people’s hands.

Ultmately, that’s the challenge with reviewing personalization technology: I can only review how these headphones land on me personally, and perhaps my hearing is uniquely good or bad, which would make Mimi’s tech less useful to me. You may have different results. To me, on higher-end headphones, it makes a world of difference, and I would certainly look for Mimi’s tech in the next set of high-end headphones I purchase. As for the earbuds; well; I only have a small sample size, where it didn’t work at all on one set of earbuds, and it was underwhelming on the other. Overall, it doesn’t really seem worth it for me, but then, if the Mimi tech doesn’t increase the price of the headphones, or degrades the audio quality in other ways, I can’t really see the harm either.

Review: Kobo’s Sage and Libra 2 e-readers improve displays but compromise on design

The latest pair of e-readers from Kobo provide a modest but noticeable upgrade to the display, stylus support, and Bluetooth for listening to audiobooks, but take a step down in build quality from the admirable Forma. But the new capabilities may be worth the upgrade, and the Libra 2 especially makes for an attractive little package.

The devices are successors to the Forma and Libra H2O, the forma of which (forgive me) has been my daily driver since I cracked the screen of my beloved Boox Poke 3. The main differences between the two new readers is size; most of the other features are the same. At $260 and $180 the Sage and Libra 2 aren’t cheap, though I think that least the latter is worth considering if you use an e-reader regularly, and like audiobooks and Pocket.

The most visible new feature is the screen, which is the latest Carta 1200 E Ink display. Both readers have 300 PPI, which is more than enough to make the text look sharp. Comparing the older Forma to the Sage (as they have very similar builds) I was surprised to find that the new screen really does make a difference; the contrast is noticeably improved and the Forma’s letters seemed slightly grey next to the much darker Sage’s. Both look excellent, to be clear, but the new screen is an improvement.

Operation is much the same as previous devices, though the upgraded internals mean these are a bit quicker to wake, navigate, and reorientate when you flip them. Once in a book, page turns took about the same amount of time as older devices, which is to say nearly no time at all even when skipping a few at a time. But when loading a whole new part of the book I found the old Forma is actually faster. All of this to say it’s fine but don’t expect iPad-like fluidity out of these or any e-reader.

A Kobo Sage e-reader on a leather couch with a stylus next to it.

Image Credits: Kobo

The audiobooks are a new thing for Kobo and the new devices have Bluetooth connections to make it possible — no speakers. Syncing a pair was as easy as it is on any other device, and from there I listened to a bit of one of the included books from Kobo’s store (you can’t load your own, for now) and it was pretty much as expected. You can speed up and slow down playback, skip forward and backward, and it keeps your place if you disconnect or shut it down. Audio quality was fine, apart from the usual small glitches that happen with accelerated playback.

Using a stylus on a device this size has never seemed practical to me, but I can certainly see it might be useful for an editor or something who likes to mark up their books. I found on the Elipsa that the functionality is… well, functional. Nothing fancy, just a few ways to directly mark up your books and documents. A symbol or notation-based way to add notes you can reference later (like Sony’s stars) would be nice, but they’re just getting started. At any rate the stylus works just fine, but since there’s no place to put it you’ll probably lose it in short order.

The Sage ereader on a table next to a laptop.

Image Credits: Kobo

Both devices have gotten thicker than their predecessors, presumably to accommodate the new hardware and stylus detection layer. It’s not an improvement, in my opinion, and the devices feel cheaper than the Forma and to a lesser extent the Libra H20. The body feels more like molded plastic than something sculpted, partly because they did away with all the decisive angles and wedges that made the Forma such an interesting shape. The new readers are also heavier than the old ones, which weren’t among the lightest to begin with.

Kobo has never been good at buttons, and these are no exception. The page turn buttons, especially on the Sage, are soft and indecisive and its recessed power button, while an improvement over the Forma’s awful side one, is still not great. The smaller Libra 2 fares better, with clickier but not too clicky buttons.

I’m not a fan of the changes, as you can tell, but it’s not like it ruins the whole thing. But I hope that Kobo reclaims a bit of that premium feel in its next generation, because this has definitely been a step back.

The SleepCover makes it and/or breaks it

The Kobo ereaders in their sleep cases.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The recommended accessory for both devices is a $40 SleepCover or PowerCover. These leather-esque (not sure if real or fake, but it feels nice) folio covers attach securely and, like others on the market, wake your reader or put it to sleep when you open or close them respectively. These new ones add an origami-like fold system that lets them stand up at an angle.

I prefer my e-readers naked, so I wasn’t expecting to like these — . And on the larger Sage, I didn’t. Already rather large, the Sage with the case becomes even larger with the case, the folding bit seemed too loose, and it covered up the power button — even though it’s kind of superfluous, this bothered me. Yet without it the Sage seemed a bit fragile and lackluster.

On the smaller Libra 2, though, I loved the cover. It turned the somewhat plasticky device into a much more premium-feeling one, and the red color is actually quite attractive (plus the power button is accessible). Not only that but the fold-out piece is great for both setting it down and holding it — gives a bit more shape to it, like folding back the first half of a paperback. And the recessed screen (I prefer a flush one) is protected from grime as well. While I still prefer the Boox’s ultra-compact, ultra-smooth design, the Libra 2 quickly ascended to second place for times when I’m not so worried about the space it takes up.

There are “PowerCovers” for more money, but if your device already lasts weeks, I don’t see the utility in adding more weight and bulk just so you can last a couple more weeks.

My final recommendation here is to skip the Sage and the PowerCovers — if you want big, go big and get an Elipsa or reMarkable. If you want Kobo and you want audiobooks, grab the Libra 2 and a SleepCover, you’ll love it. If you don’t need audiobooks, you can still grab a Forma. All the devices and accessories are available now.

Tobii’s TD Pilot brings gaze-based typing, text-to-speech and app navigation to iPad

Tobii is bringing its eye-tracking tech to the iPad with TD Pilot, a case meant to turn Apple’s tablet into a powerful all-in-one tool for people with physical impairments. Equipped with TD Pilot, users can launch and use apps, type quickly, and speak with a synthetic voice using nothing but their gaze.

iPadOS 15 brought native integration of eye-tracking hardware to these popular devices, and Tobii is probably the most familiar name in that space. I’ve checked out plenty of their devices, both all-in-one slates and standalone peripherals for PCs, and they’ve always worked very well. But because of limitations on Apple’s side, eye-tracking has primarily been on Windows machines. I wouldn’t mind, myself, but some people prefer iOS and will now have the same access opportunity on that platform.

Front and back view of the TD Pilot ipad case

Image Credits: Tobii

TD Pilot is a large case that includes the eye-tracking gear up front (which is actually remarkably small — a little strip with cameras built in), and behind is not only a set of stereo speakers but a small screen for displaying text. So the device’s user can communicate via text or audio, sending either though Tobii’s own TD Talk text-to-speech app or another of their choice. (Not just speech — they can be the DJ too if they want.)

The device comes with access to the rest of Tobii’s little suite of apps as well for configuration, symbol-based communication and all the rest.

“It is medically certified, and has been certified to meet Apple performance standards,” said Tobii Dynavox CEO Fredrik Reuben. “With that, users know that they can rely on market-leading technology that will continue to be updated and supported, and they can avoid insecure ‘one-time hacks’ that may be developed for popular technologies.” This is no doubt a thinly veiled reference to other eye-tracking solutions for earlier versions of the OS that didn’t support the feature natively.

Tobii’s eye-tracking devices can be purchased by anyone, but they’re often, as the company explained, prescribed by a person’s doctor or therapist as part of a larger set of solutions catering to their individual needs. As such it is frequently covered by insurance, but of course your mileage may vary. I asked for a specific cost but Tobii did not provide one.

Hopefully for those who would be most empowered by an eye tracking solution, however, insurance or other methods will suffice to equip them with this useful gadget. It’s shipping today, so no need to wait.

Nintendo’s Zelda Game & Watch is another worthwhile stocking stuffer for retro collectors

I have in my hands the Legend of Zelda Game & Watch, the second in Nintendo’s line of whimsical throwback handhelds clearly meant as stocking stuffers for those who already have (or can’t find) a Switch. It does a fine job, and the three old-school Zelda games included are great options for Nintendo-hard adventure that actually fits in a pocket.

Announced a couple months back, this $50 gadget is very similar physically to last year’s Mario Game & Watch, the first in the series based on Nintendo’s pre-Game Boy line of handhelds. The only difference is the addition of the start and select buttons, which are actually used in the Zelda games.

The games themselves are the inimitable original, The Legend of Zelda; its brutally hard side-scrolling sequel The Adventure of Link; and cherished puzzle box classic Link’s Awakening, recently remade in style. There’s also a recreation of a classic monochrome Game & Watch from the ’80s, though its entertainment value is, frankly, limited.

You can play each straight through, or hit the Game button to switch to another, saving your progress. There are no save states beyond that, though, so get ready to die a gazillion times in Zelda II.

The display is nothing fancy but matches the game resolution well, looking as clear as can be expected at that size. It’s definitely harder to play on this handheld than on a TV but very doable. For the record, these close-up pictures show more pixelation than you notice when playing, there’s definitely no screen door effect as you see in the shot below. In a nice little bit of attention to detail, Link’s Awakening has an aspect ratio adjustment option; the original Game Boy screen was narrower than 4:3, so you can switch between them on the fly. Notably this is the original monochrome version, not colorized.

Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch game selection screen.

The screen actually looks very clear, the grid effect is an effect of the camera.Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The “watch” portion consists of a clock and now also a timer app. The clock is quite fun, actually: At midnight and noon Link begins his quest in the original game, starting out by collecting his sword and progressing rather haphazardly through the game, repeatedly killing the endlessly spawning monsters on a screen for a minute at a time — and sometimes dying himself, only to likewise be revived — before moving on to the next one. It’s not recorded by a simple AI playing the game, so you won’t see the exact same thing happen over and over.

At 7:59, for instance, he is clearing a green dungeon room of Stalfos, and as the clock strikes 8 he always advances into the boss room, where he plays the flute to reduce Digdogger, slaughters the poor shrunken thing, and collects his 5th piece of the Triforce. At 11:30 he enters the final dungeon and at midnight effortlessly dispatches Ganon in a bit of an anticlimax — and the cycle repeats, albeit with a different color scheme. The dungeons and overworld are not exactly as in the original game but have been modified in various ways to allow for the clock. Still, you get a sense of progression as this Sisyphean Link progresses through the game, collecting the various tools and treasures over and over.

Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch in its combination box and stand, showing the time..

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The timer is a limited but helpful little item which does exactly what you might expect, counting down from any full minute increment under an hour. Link battles waves of enemies in Zelda II style, and seems to have as much trouble as I do killing those stupid blue knights. It tracks his highest “score” for a given time, so you can set it to three minute rounds and take bets on how he does.

Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch showing a timer with Link fighting monsters.

You can do it, Link! (Again, the moire effect here is exaggerated, to the eye the display looks very clean)

The hardware, as I said, is largely unchanged, but the addition of the start and select buttons means that A and B, already rather far down the device, are even lower. I think it has graduated from “not ideal” to “uncomfortable” if you plan to play for longer than a few minutes and have average-size hands or larger. Nintendo, we can shift those up half an inch, can’t we? Fortunately the device is very light.

On the rear of the Zelda Game & Watch is a little Triforce that, for no reason at all, lights up very dimly. It’s a sweet little totally unnecessary detail and indicative of someone over there really loving this thing.

Battery life will likely depend on how bright you make the screen, but it’s at least 5 or 6 hours and likely more. I’m testing it right now and will update this post later.

Another fun detail, and perhaps I missed this on the Mario one, is that the box it comes in doubles as a little stand; you fold out cut-out legs and it holds the device at the proper angle to be seen — the viewing angle isn’t great, so leaving it flat or propped straight up isn’t ideal.

All in all the Zelda Game & Watch is a fun little gadget that any lover of the NES and Game Boy classics will appreciate. The only question is whether you’ll be able to get hold of one.