Technologizer

Neil Young on PonoMusic, the Third Biggest Kickstarter Project of All Time

Neil Young
Neil Young is honored at a Grammy Week event in Los Angeles on January 21, 2014 Michael Buckner / Getty Images Entertainment

"The MP3 era is in for a shock," says the rock icon of his no-compromises portable player

Back in 2012, when legendary musician Neil Young started talking about Pono–his effort to build a portable player with an emphasis on audio quality above all else–it wasn’t particularly obvious that the idea had legs in the 21st century.

For a lot of us, after all, music has become something we listen to on our smartphone, streamed from a service such as Pandora, Spotify or Rdio at whatever quality the service in question chooses to give us. To riff on William F. Buckley’s memorable description of the conservative movement, Young seemed to be standing athwart tech history, yelling “stop!”

PonoMusic

Pono still hasn’t hit the market. The wedge-shaped touchscreen gadget–bigger than an iPod, but smaller than a Bluetooth speaker such as the Jambox–will sell for $399 when it shows up. (Once expected to ship last year, it’s now due this fall.) But enough people are excited about the concept to have made PonoMusic the third biggest Kickstarter project of all time. The campaign hit its goal of $800,000 in ten hours, then went on to raise a total of $6,225,354 from 18,220 backers, who pledged anywhere from $5 (for a thank-you) to $5000 (for an invitation to a VIP dinner and listening party, plus a Pono).

I chatted with Young as the campaign was rocketing past its original target. He told me that idea that became Pono has been kicking around inside his head for years, and didn’t always involve a new portable player.

“First of all, I thought this would be an Internet thing, then I realized that’s not going to happen,” he explains. “The bandwidth isn’t there. We’d have to go back to the original model of the iPod, but with really, really top quality.”

With typical services, he says, “music has been downgraded to ‘content,’ It’s a Xerox of itself. When you see the original art compared to the Xerox, the difference is startling. Whatever the artist creates is what you hear when you hear Pono.”

Although Young talks about Pono as a movement as much as a business enterprise, and sought grassroots funding through Kickstarter, it is in fact a company, with veteran executives and technologists on board. “I’m pretty much the vision of it,” Young says. “I drive the purity and the quality and the transparency of the original artists’ intent.”

Part of Pono’s Kickstarter success was due to its artfully managed campaign, which involved the ability for backers to reserve limited-edition PonoPlayers with the engraved signatures of musicians who back the concept: Everyone from Elton John to EmmyLou Harris to Foo Fighters to Herbie Hancock to Pearl Willie Nelson to Young’s own groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

“They get it immediately,” says Young of the response to Pono by other musicians. “There’s no learning curve. They’ve been waiting for something like this for a long, long time.”

But he says he’s aiming for mass-market success: “Anyone who thinks this is only for nerds and audiophiles is in for a surprise. Anyone can hear the difference. That’s why we’ve priced it low.”

The era of purely digital music got underway in the late 1990s with the arrival of apps such as Winamp and gadgets like the Diamond Rio, the first successful MP3 player. (I still have audio files I ripped from CD back then, opting for absurdly aggressive compression to conserve precious storage space on my 32MB Rio.) Today, some level of compression–the rate varies widely–is still standard practice for digital music. Which means that there are adults who may be largely ignorant of music in its pre-MP3 form.

Will those folks care about Pono? “The MP3 era is in for a shock,” Young says. “They’re going to realize what they’re missing when they hear this. 100 percent of the time it happens. They hear it and can’t believe it: ‘I’m hearing things I’ve never heard in songs I’ve heard many times before. How can it be?’”

Pono is not without its critics and skeptics. They argue that the platform’s use of super-high-resolution data–it uses lossless files in the FLAC format, at up to 192 kHz and 24 bit sampling–is a pointless exercise in specsmanship, because going beyond CD quality doesn’t result in a difference which human beings can actually hear. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s the last word on Pono, since focusing on audio quality might allow a company such as this to design hardware that’s capable of better audio reproduction than your average phone. And PonoPlayer will be able to work with CD-quality files as well as higher-resolution ones.

It’s no shocker that Young is dismissive of the Pono opponents, pointing out that they’ve reached their conclusions without having listed to the still-unreleased player. “They don’t have to waste their time. They can get another MP3 and keep on rocking.”

If Pono is erring on the side of lavishing music with more tender loving care than it may really need, that seems to me to be more admirable than giving it short shrift, as has often happened so far in this century. Other companies have tried to build a business on super-high-quality music and failed, such as MusicGiants; if nothing else, Young’s ambitious, high-profile effort should be the definitive test of whether there’s a market for this.

And it’s not just about the player and whatever music will be available at launch. He talks about, well, just about every song eventually being available for Pono: “The goal is to keep doing it until we’ve got it all—get the new stuff out there and the older stuff that’s still available to get.”

Young calls music “a window to the soul” and “a reflection of civilization.” Sounding like an archivist as much as a purveyor of hardware and software, he says that Pono’s mission “is to create an ecosystem that preserves the history of music for the world in its highest possible form. It’s something that the technological era we live in, the 21st century tech, is capable of delivering.”

“We wouldn’t have a museum where people listened to Frank Sinatra on MP3. It’s the 21st century’s most obvious idea.”

Technologizer

This Animated GIF of a 3D Bear Has a Secret

Spoiler: He's not as digital as he looks

I’ve become obsessed with the below animated GIF, which I discovered over at Amid Amidi’s Cartoon Brew. Stare at it, and you might be obsessed, too, at least for 30 seconds or so.

Bear Walking
Blue Zoo

It looks like something I might have seen as part of a 3D animation demonstration by a computer scientist when I attended the SIGGRAPH conference back in 1989. But here’s the remarkable thing: It isn’t computer animation. That bear may be made out of polygons, but he isn’t made out of bits. He’s a physical object–or, more precisely, 50 of them.

Two London-based companies, DBLG and Blue Zoo, created the animation, Bears on Stairs, which did begin with a computer-designed ursine protagonist. But rather than just rendering a bunch of frames, the companies printed out the sequence as 50 models. Then they photographed them as a stop-motion sequence, using the same basic technique studios such as Rankin/Bass used long before computers had anything to do with animation.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes video:

As Amid points out, the idea of using 3D printing to meld computer and stop-motion animation isn’t new. Laika (the studio behind Coraline and the upcoming Boxtrolls) is already doing it. But normally, the goal is for it all to be so seamless that the viewer doesn’t know or care that computers were used. What’s clever about “Bears on Stairs” is that it evocatively flaunts its use of computers–so much so that almost anybody would assume that it was a purely digital production.

Google

Google’s Microcamera Contact Lens Is Coming to an Eyeball Near You

Forget those glasses. The tech giant has filed a patent application for a lens with a built-in micro-camera which could be controlled by blinking and would process data to help blind people "see" and link to smartphones

+ READ ARTICLE

After Google Glass, the next “moon shot” Google product might very well be a contact lens with a built-in micro-camera.

The tech giant has filed a patent application on a smart lens with sensors that could detect light, pattern of colors, objects and faces.

Those wearing the contacts would command the device through a sophisticated system of unique blinking patterns, as explained by the blog Patent Bold.

Google’s latest breakthrough could help blind people see certain moving objects around them, according to Patent Bolt.

“For example, a blind person wearing Google’s contact lens with a built-in camera may be walking on a sidewalk and approaching an intersection. The analysis component of the contact lens can process the raw image data of the camera to determine … that there is a car approaching the intersection.”

The lens would also have wireless capabilities to be hooked up to smartphones.

In January, Google revealed a prototypes of contact lenses that will make it easier for diabetes patients to monitor their blood sugar levels and stay healthy.

 

Gadgets

Verizon Offering Discounts for Bringing Your Own Phone

Verizon
Bloomberg / Getty Images

Verizon is finally willing to give you a discount for bringing your own device to its network. The company announced that starting Thursday, April 17, compatible phones brought to Verizon will qualify for its lower, no-contract Verizon Edge discount rate on a new MORE Everything plan.

For individual users, the savings amount to $10 per month discount on your monthly line access fee with your own phone. Under the Edge plan, one line with 250MB will cost you just $45 per month (albeit with nasty data overage fees looming).

Larger families can qualify for even larger discounts as long as you purchase a 10GB or larger data plan. Four lines with 10GB of shared data now cost just $160 per month on Verizon Edge, the same cost as AT&T.

For more on getting the best deal while for shopping for a new cell phone plan, check out Techlicious’ recently updated carrier price comparison chart.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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Technologizer

Shocker: In 1980, Motorola Had No Idea Where the Phone Market Would Be in 2000

When you make predictions about tech, prepare to be wrong

Yesterday, I wrote two pieces about the impossibility of making tech predictions–one involving a 1981 magazine cover, and one concerning current predictions about the wearable-gadget market in 2018. I promise to move on to other subjects in a moment, but I stumbled across one more random artifact that’s too good not to share.

Marty Cooper is the legendary inventor of the mobile phone, which he came up with in 1973 while working at Motorola. Over at the website of his company, Dyna, there’s a digitized version of an amazing article about the wireless phone market by H.P. Burstyn, from the November 1980 issue of Electronic Business magazine.

At that point, the wireless phone industry barely existed. The story reports that it may be shaping up as a war between AT&T and Motorola; says that what we later came to refer to as “car phones” would make up the bulk of the market, but that pocket-sized phones could be a big deal someday if they could be made to work indoors; and addresses concerns such as whether thieves would be likely to break into automobiles to steal phones, as they’d done a few years earlier with CB radios. Reading it today, it’s both an endearing period piece and a pretty smart summary of where the market was at the time.

It also features some stats forecasting the number of wireless phones to be sold in 10 major U.S. markets:

Wireless phone projections
Electronic Business

The projections I find fascinating are the ones in the middle column. They’re from Motorola, and they involve the year 2000, which was then two decades in the future.

It’s not entirely clear whether the total figure of 207,399 phones represents cumulative sales or sales in the year 2000 or the number of subscribers. But no matter how you slice the data, it’s wildly off. I don’t have numbers for the 10 markets mentioned, but according to the FCC, when the year 2000 rolled around, there were 109 million wireless phone users in the entire country. That’s 400 times Motorola’s estimate for the markets in its study.

In 1980, the folks at Motorola knew more about wireless phones than anyone else in the world. But they couldn’t see what economies of scale would do to pricing for handsets and service. They weren’t aware that the breakup of AT&T, mandated by the U.S. federal government in 1982, would lead to dramatically increased competition in the communications market. They likely didn’t envision that by 2000, it would be clear that phones and PCs were on their way to merging into one category of device.

Today, as far as I know, no research firm is attempting to estimate sales figures for the year 2034. Bu things move a lot faster than they did 34 years ago, so looking out even a few years is an exercise fraught with peril. And the best way to look smart isn’t to act like we’re capable of predicting the future with any precision–it’s to cheerfully admit that we often don’t have a clue.

Rumors

Report: Amazon’s Smartphone Might Include Eye-Tracking 3D

The e-commerce giant is reportedly working on a smartphone that features eyewear-free 3D interface that tracks users' eyes and face motions. The rumored phone could be available as soon as this year

The Wall Street Journal reignited longstanding rumors about an Amazon smartphone last Friday, when it reported Amazon planned to announce the phone in June, it intended to feature an eyewear-free 3D interface and that we’d be able to lay hands on the device sometime later this year.

Now BGR’s splashing kerosene on the Journal‘s fire with what it claims are exclusive pictures of the phone — a prototype wrapped in a protective plastic shell, to be fair — but representative, according to BGR’s sources. If indeed this is the fabled smartphone, and assuming we’re looking at something that resembles the final product (companies can run anywhere with prototypes, and many never see light of day), it looks pretty much like any other smartphone.

It sounds like any other smartphone, too, spec-wise: BGR’s sources claim the phone includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 2 GB of memory, runs a version of Android comparable to Amazon’s tablet lineup, has a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 4.7-inch screen that runs at 720p. Where this thing starts to differ from other smartphones, however, is that it reportedly employs 3D algorithms tied into six cameras — two in back, and four infrared in front that’ll track your face and eyes — that enable 3D effects requiring neither eyewear nor the sort of parallax screen barrier Nintendo uses to facilitate eyewear-free 3D in its 3DS.

3D — that is, stereoscopic 3D, an idea as old as View-Masters — is one of those features-looking-for-an-audience that’s never worked for me. I don’t care for it in movie theaters, nor fiddling with handhelds like Nintendo 3DS or HTC’s EVO 3D. You’ll hear a lot of people use it and “gimmicky” in a sentence, partly because it typically involves clumsy equipment and/or restrictive eye-positional trickery, and partly because our brains already interpolate 2D content as three-dimensional, making it superfluous. It’s so rarely used non-superfluously that the exceptions — Hugo and Gravity are the only two that come to mind in film — prove the rule, at least for me.

So part of me hopes these claims turn out to be wrong, while the other part hopes that if they’re not wrong. It’d be nice if Amazon figured out how to do something no one’s thought of with 3D — something that’s more than a whiz-bang gimmick, like iOS 7′s pointless parallax scrolling, or the way most 3DS developers relegate Nintendo’s handheld to glorified shadow box-dom.

Remember the days when “holograms” were cool? When you could tilt a flat piece of material this way or that to make different images appear and we called it “incredible”? I don’t. But then I’m ready for anything. Surprise us, Amazon, if indeed we’re not straw-manning you. Show all us stereoscopic 3D naysayers the error of our ways.

Technology & Media

Twitter Has a Massive Plan to Conquer Your Data

Social Media Site Twitter Debuts On The New York Stock Exchange
Getty Images

Step 1: Buy data firm Gnip

Twitter is purchasing its long-time data partner Gnip in order to sell more sophisticated products built from the Twitter dataset. The social network has historically sold access to its so-called firehose—the never-ending stream of all public tweets—to a few select companies, who then license that data to businesses and academics.

By purchasing Gnip, Twitter will be able to directly cut deals with the companies that want to use its data. “We want to make our data even more accessible, and the best way to do that is to work directly with our customers to get a better understanding of their needs,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “Together we plan to offer more sophisticated data sets and better data enrichments, so that even more developers and businesses big and small around the world can drive innovation using the unique content that is shared on Twitter.”

Gnip currently provides its customers with access to data from a variety of online platforms, including Twitter, Tumblr and Foursquare. It’s not clear whether Twitter will renew contracts to access these companies’ datasets, or whether these companies will allow it. Gnip’s current customers, such as the Library of Congress, will continue have access to Twitter data, the company said in the announcement of the deal. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment; no deal price was disclosed.

Twitter made $70 million in 2013 selling access to tweets to Gnip and other data resellers, up from $47 million in 2012. Corporations like IBM and Oracle pay tens of thousands of dollars per month for access to the Twitter firehose, Gnip CEO Chris Moody told TIME last fall. LinkedIn, which directly offers businesses access to all of its users’ resumes through its Recruiter tool, has proven that licensing social data can be extremely lucrative. By bringing data sales in-house, Twitter may be hoping to imitate that success.

The company, which posted a small profit for the first time in the fourth quarter of 2013, has faced a slumping stock price in the last two months due to investor worries about slowing user growth and an overall decline in the tech sector.

technology

Amazon Says It Won’t Accept Bitcoin

Amazon
Bloomberg / Getty Images

America’s largest online retailer has no plans to hop on the Bitcoin bandwagon. Amazon’s head of payments told Re/Code that the company has no current plans to accept the digital currency. “Obviously it gets a lot of press and we have considered it,” he said, “but we’re not hearing from customers that it’s right for them.”

Despite widespread media coverage, Bitcoin is not currently accepted by many traditional retailers. Overstock.com is one of the largest online stores to accept the currency. Several vendors of digital cift cards, such as Gyft and eGifter, do accept Bitcoin, so people can buy cards through those channels and then spend them at Wal-Mart, Target and other big stores.

The value of Bitcoins has fluctuated wildly in the last week on conflicting reports that Chinese government is planning to ban the country’s banks from working with Bitcoin-related businesses. The currency was valued at $495 early Tuesday.

Video Games

Get the Xbox One April Update Today, Including Kinect Tweaks and Friend Notifications

Larry Hryb / Microsoft

And you can finally (finally!) run manual system updates by poking around in system settings.

Larry Hryb, Microsoft’s director of programming for Xbox Live, writes that the April Xbox One update started rolling out last night, and that the following list of features should be live now, or available “over the next few days.”

Along with the the usual presumptive bug fixes, the update adds a feature Xbox 360 owners have been enjoying forever: friends list notifications; when friends sign into Xbox Live on Xbox One, you’ll now see an alert.

This was one of the most frequently requested features, so we made it a priority to include it in this update,” writes Hryb, adding that friends in multiplayer will now be identified as such in the list. I’m not sure why this wasn’t present at launch. Maybe the company worried these kinds of notifications were annoying (and they can be, especially if you have a big list of very active Xbox Livers, thus I assume the new notifications can be disabled, too).

Microsoft’s still chipping away at Kinect’s uneven gesture-recognition algorithms, which Hryb says the company’s updated “to reduce false positives on non-hand objects triggering gesture commands.” Voice recognition has also been fine-tuned “for quality and reliability.” Speaking of audio, the controller and headset firmware’s been updated to “reduce audio static and improve wireless connectivity.”

If you’ve had trouble keeping track of large game or application saves and updates, there’s now a game save progress bar that’ll keep you apprised of what’s what, and Hryb says you’ll be able to easily identify what’s being updated (or been updated recently).

Xbox One’s GameDVR feature — the ability to capture gameplay video clips, then edit and share them via Upload Studio — now offers better video quality using an improved compression algorithm, and Microsoft’s tweaked its Blu-ray player to support 50 Hz video output (which, as I understand it, essentially means you’ll be able to watch region-free imports, e.g. Europe-originated content). Hryb adds that Microsoft plans to update the Xbox One’s Blu-ray Player app “in the coming days” to “round out these improvements.”

Last but not least, Microsoft’s finally added an option to manually update the Xbox One in system settings (Hryb says it’ll only be there if there’s an update in the wings — you won’t need to click it to check, in other words; you’ll know there’s something available simply by its presence). I’ll golf clap to that.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

Gadgets

Tiny New Laptop Charger Could Be Mistaken for a Cell Phone Charger

FINsix_Dart
The FINsix Dart is a 65-watt laptop charger that's about the size of a cell phone charger. FINsix

Back at the CES gadget show in January, yours truly laid eyes on FINsix’s pocketable laptop charger. As someone who hates — hates — stuffing a bulky laptop charger into a bag full of modern-day, svelte gadgets, to say the idea of this charger was intriguing to me would be an understatement.

The charger was developed by a few MIT alums, using a patented MIT technology known as very high frequency (VHF) conversion that shuttles power from wall sockets to devices at a much higher frequency and more efficiently than standard chargers, allowing FINsix’s version to be scaled down to its diminutive stature. The charger also sports a USB port for good measure, which you can use to charge your phone or other small devices.

The group used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200,000 for production of the charger, which is now being called the Dart. That goal was met within 24 hours, with 1,000 early backers getting in at $79. Back at CES, FINsix told me the retail price would be around $90, and it looks like there’s an $89 option that’s still available to potential backers.

When the charger was first unveiled, it was shown off with a MacBook-compatible MagSafe adapter — the connector that magnetically attaches to a MacBook and can quickly detach without damaging the computer if someone trips over the cord. The problem was — and still is — that Apple doesn’t license the MagSafe technology to third parties.

FINsix has found a way around this hurdle, but it doesn’t come cheap: If you want a Mac-compatible Dart, you’ll need to shell out an additional $79, which is used to purchase an off-the-shelf MacBook charging kit from Apple in order to get access to the magnetic connector. The Dart can also only charge laptops up to around 65 watts, which means the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros and the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display aren’t compatible.

PC users have it easier, as the Dart is compatible with most major brands (see this PDF here for the full list). Just make sure you have a machine that draws 65 watts or fewer at between 18 and 21 volts.

FINsix is aiming to start shipping the chargers out to backers by the end of the year.

Dart: The World’s Smallest Laptop Adapter [Kickstarter]

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