Technology

The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Bit Player

Frequency, Showyou bring order to online-video chaos

Frequency
Deloitte's annual survey of the media landscape, released early last month, reported that 9% of the people interviewed had canceled their pay TV subscriptions in favor of watching shows online, and another 11% were considering it. Those are big, scary numbers for cable and satellite TV operators, as well as for TV producers who haven't found a way yet to make online viewing as lucrative as the combination of advertising dollars and monthly subscriber fees they collect from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.

But there's another phenomenon that should be more alarming to industry incumbents: the emergence of services that capably transform the chaotic jumble of online video into compelling channels of entertainment. Two good examples are Los Angeles-based Frequency, which makes apps for mobile devices, computers and connected TVs, and Showyou, an iPad and iPhone app from San Francisco-based Remixation.

Unlike Clicker, neither company pays attention to the broadcast or cable TV episodes that are online, nor do they offer an index to movies on demand (at least not yet). Instead, they aggregate clips and links from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, among other sources, then organize them into feeds by genre and popularity. They also use social-media tools to create personalized feeds curated by one's Facebook friends, Twitter connections and other users of each app.

They have different strategies -- Frequency is trying to put its app on every device a person might use to watch video, while Showyou is focused primarily on iPads and iPhones -- and their apps have different looks -- Frequency presents multiple channels in separate scrollable columns, Showyou a single array that can be scrolled in two directions. But they have a similar effect, which is to present online video in the familiar, channel-based, lean-back context of television. It's interactive, sure, but without all the effort (or the keyboard).

Continue reading »

CES 2012: New tools for a better home network

Connected devices were a top trend at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, as they have been for several years. But there's no point in having a television that displays Twitter feeds or a refrigerator that can send recipes to your oven if your home network is barely functional. Here are my favorite networking gadgets and technologies from this year's show, based on the dangerous assumption that they all will work as advertised when they actually hit the market later this year:

D-Link DHP-1565 Image_FrontD-Link showed off several intriguing products, including a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that can share files on a thumb drive with the entire network and a sub-$50 router that's designed to bring home monitoring to the masses (by making it easy to access one's home network from anywhere via the Internet). But the one that I liked the most was the DHP-1565 router (shown at right), which offered a novel pairing of wireless and powerline networking. Other Wi-Fi routers have included powerline networking too, but this one monitors the signal quality on each side and automatically shifts data to the less noisy pathway. Nice.

It's due in stores in January at a suggested price of just under $160.

WNDR4700_3-4Lft_LowResNetgear has been selling "network attached storage" devices -- hard drives that can be accessed from anywhere on your home network -- for years, but the category hasn't caught on with the masses. Still, I like the idea of consolidating all the pictures, videos and music scattered around the computers and smartphones in my home, and now Netgear has made the idea more appealing by integrating 2 Terabytes' worth of storage into a router, the WNDR4700. Not only can the router store and deliver all sorts of media to computers, smart TVs, tablets and other devices on a home network, the files on its hard drive can be read or played remotely through the Internet. It also acts as a backup device for the digital home.

Netgear said the router will arrive in the summer at an as-yet undisclosed price.

Skifta moduleQualcomm's Skifta is the software equivalent of a network attached storage device. Its software finds the music, video and image files that are stored on the devices connected to a home network, then enables you to play them on the connected device or devices of your choice. For example, you could use Skifta to create a slideshow on your TV of photos on your smartphone, or to have computers around your house play the same MP3 playlist. At CES, Skifta announced that it will offer manufacturers development kits for modules that can be used to turn products into Skifta-ready wirelessly connected devices. It also showed a reference design for an adapter that could connect existing stereos to the home network so they, too, could play the digital song files stored on other devices. That solves the biggest problem for the connected home: Many of the devices that people own weren't built for connectivity.

Skifta didn't announce a price for the module kits, which are expected to be available in the first half of the year.

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Phone-to-phone gaming and more with Alljoyn

The disruptive power of gesture and voice recognition

Two approaches to indie movies for connected TVs, devices

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Credits, top to bottom: D-Link, Netgear and Qualcomm

CES 2012: The disruptive power of gesture and voice recognition

Bodymetrics virtual fitting room

At a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, Mike Masnick of TechDirt noted that we typically don't recognize disruptive technologies until after the fact. He's probably right, but sometimes you really can see a technology rocking an industry in real time.

That's the case today with gesture and voice recognition. These aren't new technologies, but judging from CES, they are finally poised to metastasize. Microsoft's Kinect motion sensors, of which more than 18 million have been sold, have prompted industries far removed from video games to rethink how people will use their products and services. Similarly, Apple's Siri virtual assistant has taught manufacturers and software developers that voice recognition has moved beyond recognition and into comprehension.

Together, these developments reflect an accelerating shift from mechanical interfaces to natural ones -- from typing on a keypad or thumbing a remote to pointing, asking and telling. And that's happening largely as a consequence of the rapid increase in microchip processing power, said Aviad Maizels, founder and president of PrimeSense, which designed the Kinect's chips.

"We didn't have a technology when we started. We had an idea," Maizels said. It took a while for chips to have enough horsepower to perform the near-instantaneous analysis of moving images that even basic gesture recognition requires. They've since crossed that threshold, and continued improvements in processing power are enabling more sophisticated gesture recognition tools.

"Moore's Law works for us," said Adi Berenson, PrimeSense's vice president of business development and marketing.

Continue reading »

CES 2012: The bumps on the road for connected cars

Subaru's technology relies on its drivers' smartphones
Like television makers, leading automobile manufacturers want application developers to imbue cars with some of the energy and innovation seen in smartphones. And like their counterparts in the TV industry, they haven't settled on a standard way of doing so. The mishmash of approaches means that drivers may have to wait longer for their favorite apps to become available in the models of their choice, as different manufacturers follow divergent paths toward the connected car.

The differences surfaced at this week's Consumer Electronics Show, where a host of car brands demonstrated the entertainment and information offerings they're developing. Mercedes-Benz typified one approach, showing off a customized app platform built in-house and curated by its apps team in Silicon Valley. Subaru exemplified the opposite strategy; it chose the apps platform that Aha, a subsidiary of Harman, is developing for car makers and aftermarket car-stereo manufacturers.
Executives at both car companies say they want to take advantage of app developers' work on mobile phones. But they also note that their top priority is safety, which shapes their choices of apps to make available and the way drivers interact with them.

Mercedes is atypical in one important respect: It embeds the equivalent of a 3G Verizon phone into its cars, rather relying on the driver's smartphone for connectivity. The latest version of its telematics software, called mbrace2 and due in April, is the company's first that can be updated remotely. That means new apps can be added while they're still new, instead of subjecting them to the industry's torturous three-year development cycle -- a delay that can render an app obsolete by the time it makes it into a car, said Sascha Simon, Mercedes' head of advanced product planning.

VIDEOS: 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

It's not an open platform, however, and Mercedes will not publish its programming interfaces for developers, Simon said in an interview this week. But it is making available through mbrace2 a wide variety of apps and services that are relevant and enhance the driving experience -- 60 so far, and the number will grow.

Continue reading »

CES 2012: Phone-to-phone gaming and more with Alljoyn [Video]

Some times the coolest new things you see at the Consumer Electronics Show aren't gadgets or apps or even 55-inch OLED TV sets (although, admittedly, those are cool). Sometimes they're just technologies, which is what digital stereoscopic displays and gesture recognition were before they became 3D TV sets and XBox Kinect.

IMG_0055

A good example this year is Alljoyn, an open-source software project coming out of an innovation lab run by Qualcomm. Alljoyn enables nearby users of an app to interact with each other, even when there's no local data network. Multiple people in the room can join the activity, whether it be playing a game, taking turns in the virtual DJ booth or working on an electronic whiteboard. And unlike collaborating through a congested Internet, there's little or no delay -- the users' devices are seamlessly synchronized.

The magic isn't in the short-range communications technology -- Alljoyn runs on top of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. What's special is the ability it gives developers to quickly add proximity networking to just about any app, even if they have no expertise in radio communications. For example, it took programmers at Namco only a week to add Alljoyn capabilities to their Pacman Kart Rally game, according to Qualcomm's Liat Ben-zur.

VIDEOS: 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

The demos at the Qualcomm booth showed how nearby tablets, smartphones and even a tablet and a connected TV could join in games and productivity apps. Because Alljoyn connects apps, not devices, users can collaborate simultaneously with separate groups on different programs, with no overlap -- for example, working on a virtual whiteboard with one team while collaborating on a document with another.

Ben-zur said the potential uses include a wide variety of entertainment, education and business applications. The breakthrough here, she said, is that any developer will be able to make apps that can seamlessly discover and interoperate with related apps nearby. She added, "I believe this is a new Pandora's box for mobile."

-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Photo: Two tablets play an Alljoyn-equipped version of Spud-Ball by Signature Creative. Credit: Jon Healey

CES 2012: ng Connect promotes new uses for broadband

Striker_Front

Broadband speeds have increased steadily in the United States, reaching an average of 5.8 Mbps in mid-2011. That's 50% faster than in mid-2009, and it's likely to keep going up. But aside from streaming movies and doing video chats on Skype, what will people do with all that bandwidth?

Alcatel-Lucent, a leading supplier of networking gear to telecommunications companies, is trying to give the public and broadband service providers a better idea of what connectivity can deliver. Just as important, it's trying to show DSL and cable-modem providers how they could offer new services, giving them more ability and incentive to invest in higher-capacity networks -- and less incentive to cap their customers' usage or bill them by the gigabyte.

It's doing so through an inter-industry coalition it founded called ng Connect, which brings high-tech companies together to brainstorm and combine their technologies into new service concepts. It's been showing off some of those ideas  this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including new approaches to television, fitness, public safety, shopping and healthcare.

On Monday the coalition announced that it had expanded to more than 125 members. New additions include Fitting Reality, whose software creates virtual dressing rooms for retailers; MetaWatch, whose wireless watches can display Web data and alerts from the wearer's smartphone; and Zephyr Technology, which specializes in remote body- and health-monitoring.

The demonstrations at CES included some familiar concepts, such as using a smartphone in a store to gather more information about the products displayed there, or continuously connecting service and public-safety vehicles to all sorts of information sources and devices (see the "Striker" concept vehicle above). But there were also some intriguing new mash-ups of capabilities on display.

For example, there was a prototype of a table for bars or restaurants that combined Microsoft's Surface computing technology, Brass Monkey's cloud-based games, streaming video and advertising, and 4G wireless broadband. And the "Avatrainer" demo combined a fitness game with wireless heart-rate monitors into a cloud-based service that enables travelers to keep track of their workouts away from home.

Jason Collins, an Alcatel-Lucent vice president who leads ng Connect, said the point of the coalition is to help tech companies combine their specialties into services that improve the experience for broadband users. It's also to help broadband providers "become part of the value equation" of the services made possible by their networks.

The demand for what's already available through broadband is ever-increasing. The question is how telecommunications companies will afford the investments needed to keep up with that demand. Obviously, Alcatel-Lucent wants service providers to expand their capacity by buying more of the company's gear. But its interests -- and ng Connect's -- are aligned with consumers' when it comes to finding alternatives to bandwidth caps, metered pricing and similar strategies that broadband providers have been exploring.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Photo: The Striker concept public-safety vehicle. Credit: Alcatel-Lucent

CES 2012: Two approaches to indie movies for connected TVs, devices

FilmFresh

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Netflix, CinemaNow and Vudu seem ubiquitous on the smart TV sets and set-top boxes on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, but they're not the only companies bringing films on demand to the TV, tablets and smartphones. Among the others trying to drum up business here have been two smaller, evolving competitors, Film Fresh and Bigstar, each of which brings something unique to the mix.

Film Fresh began as an outlet for downloadable international films, which it made available for sale or rental. It eventually added films for sale from selected Hollywood studios -- Sony, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate -- because "we learned that you can't sell the long tail without the short-tail films," said founder Rick Bolton. "You need familiar films."

This week Film Fresh relaunched its site, switching to a more widely compatible format (dropping DivX in favor of Windows Media) that's more acceptable to the bigger studios. The switch enables Film Fresh to make those studios' movies available for rent, not just for purchase, and it opens a pathway to more devices. It plans to launch on Android tablets in a few weeks, followed eventually by Apple devices. It also opened a store this week on Facebook.

The company also added a nifty mood-based recommendation engine called "Film Finder" (pictured above). The first set of suggestions comes from the company's staff of film buffs, and the rest are generated by technology from The Filter. The recommendations help users navigate the company's library of nearly 6,000 films, most of which are titles you'd never see promoted on a bus or in a theatrical trailer. "For us, the holy grail is discovery," Bolton explained, adding that Film Finder is designed to give the site a "corner video store vibe."

With CinemaNow owned by Best Buy, Blockbuster owned by DISH and Vudu owned by Wal-Mart, Film Fresh is promoting itself to device makers as the Switzerland of online film retailers. "We're the last independent film download service with independents and Hollywood content," Bolton said. Miami-based Bigstar, meanwhile, is offering unlimited movie streaming for a monthly fee of just under $5 -- the Netflix model, only cheaper.

It can afford to do that, founder Xavi Dalmau said, because it works only with indie film studios and distributors that are willing to forgo guarantees and advances. Instead, the site pays its 150 content partners half the revenue it collects from subscribers. (Most of its more than 4,000 titles are included in the subscription price, but a few hundred are available only on a pay-per-view basis.)

Bigstar has only about 5,000 paying members at this point, despite having attracted 300,000 potential subscribers over its history. It's had much more success winning a place on connected TVs and set-top boxes; it is or soon will be available on TVs by Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio, Roku players, iPads and devices that run the Android operating system.

As a result, only about 10% of the site's streams are delivered to Web browsers. "Our top platform is the iPad and the iPhone," Dalmau said, adding that the segment with the fastest growing usage is connected TVs. And unlike many of its competitors, Bigstar has the rights to stream most of its movies globally.

"We felt that the independent world was a way for us to prove our model," he said. The company hopes to gradually add deals with bigger studios, but not for blockbusters. The hits don't fit into a business model built around $4.99-a-month subscriptions. Instead, Bigstar is focused on overlooked titles -- for example, indie movies that make a splash at film festivals but don't go on to a wide release. That's a common fate for festival fare, most of which never makes it to the multiplex, Dalmau said.

"All along we wanted to make the platform to give it to the filmmakers to be able to show the great movies that they make, year in and year out. A curated library has always been one of our goals. We spent a lot of time figuring out what to put in and what not to."

The privately held company's not making money yet, Dalmau said, but it hasn't been trying to. Instead, it's been building its platform and acquiring content, albeit "without spending the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars" on major Hollywood fare. With a huge supply of long-tail films gathering dust in archives, along with unheralded foreign films, documentaries and shorts, "there's a lot out there that we can get our hands on that we feel people want to watch," Dalmau said.

[For the record, 1:10 p.m. Jan. 12: The original version of this post stated that Film Fresh had just been added to Roku's set-top boxes. The company says it is talks with Roku with the goal of having its app on the device later this year.]

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him @jcahealey

Credit: Film Fresh

CES 2012: TV makers offer simple ways to share content

At the Consumer Electronics Show 2012, several major brands unveiled cloud-based services that push content sharing beyond the boundaries of the home

Consumer electronics manufacturers have talked up the idea of sharing photos, videos and music across devices for the better part of a decade. At this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, though, several of the major brands took the concept a step further, unveiling cloud-based services that pushed content-sharing beyond the boundaries of the home.

LG, for example, showed off "my CloudShare" with a feature called Familycast, which enables remote access from a connected TV set in one home to the digital content stored in another. Samsung displayed "allshare," which enables people to remotely access music, movies and pictures either from their home network or from copies stored online, and a "Family Story" app that shares pictures and messages across multiple homes through connected TVs, tablets and smartphones.

These capabilities reflect the work of the Digital Living Network Alliance, an inter-industry coalition formed in 2003 to promote interoperability among devices in the home. Before the alliance started working on its specifications, manufacturers used a hodgepodge of different and potentially incompatible technologies -- some of them proprietary -- to store information and send it from device to device. DLNA cleared the confusion by picking a common set of standards for file types and communications protocols for devices to support.

The DLNA specs enable TVs, camcorders, smartphones, tablets and other devices connected to a home network to be automatically discovered by and share content with one another. More than half a billion products that meet the DLNA specifications are now in use, by ABI Research's estimates, laying the groundwork for the services that the likes of LG and Samsung demonstrated at CES. (Notably absent from DLNA is Apple, which follows its own muse on home networking.)

The new wrinkle this year is the addition of cloud-based sharing, which manufacturers pitched as a way to share pictures and home movies with friends and distant family members, or to enjoy one's personal music and video collections when away from home. Consumers have been able to do such things for years through their computers; now, the big consumer electronics brands want to make sharing simpler and bring it to more devices.

For example, Samsung's "Family Story" enables people to store photos -- including those snapped by the camera built into selected Samsung TVs -- in the cloud, where they can be viewed by others who are authorized to see them. The Family Story app essentially creates a private social media group through the Internet, with new photo uploads automatically made available to each member.

The cloud-based services on display at CES have the potential to promote copyright infringement, but that's true of any online-sharing application. The manufacturers' main selling point also seems to be sharing family memories, not record collections or Hollywood movies.

For Samsung and LG, at least, there's no revenue attached to the services -- they're free to users. So for now, cloud-based sharing is a feature aimed at selling more hardware, not a route to generating recurring revenue. But with Apple testing consumers' willingness to pay an annual fee for enhanced online storage, will their rivals in the consumer-electronics industry be far behind?

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CES: 4K TVs make their debut, minus the hoopla

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-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Photo: Samsung President Boo-Keun Yoon discussing the company's connected TV strategy at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. Credit: Samsung

CES 2012: 4K TV sets make their debut, minus the hoopla

84-INCH_3D_UDTV_03

With surprisingly little fanfare, the major consumer electronics manufacturers introduced a new category of television at the Consumer Electronics Show this year: 4K TV sets, which cram four times as much picture information onto the screen as the best of the current high-definition models. That's a little over 8 million pixels, compared to about 2 million in a 1080P HDTV set.

LG showed off an 84-inch "ultra definition" LCD set (pictured above). Sony, which already has a 4K projector on the market, said it would continue to develop 4K TVs and promised Blu-ray disc players that upconvert HDTV to 4K. And Sharp took the wraps off not only a 4K LCD TV, but also an 8K prototype. No details were available on prices or release dates, although most manufacturers said they'd have 4K sets in stores this year.

The LG and Sharp sets offered stunningly good pictures, presenting a precisely defined yet silky smooth canvas of images. Yet with so many consumers more than happy with 1080P (and 720P, a less intensive level of high definition), why bother?  4K TV doesn't change the viewing experience as fundamentally as the shift from analog to HDTV, or from 2D to 3D. And although 3D sets are selling well, it's not clear that consumers are buying them because they want something better than HDTV -- they may just see it as a way to future-proof their sizable investment in a flat-panel set.

To some degree, 4K is a natural reaction to the rapid decline in TV prices. Manufacturers are under pressure to offer new capabilities every year in order to push prices back up, at least at the high end of the market. LG spokesman John Taylor added a more practical consideration: On a very big screen, 1080P doesn't provide enough resolution.

4K probably won't come to 42-inch sets because it's not needed in that size, Taylor said. But over time, U.S. consumers have gravitated toward ever-larger sets, attracted by thinner and lighter designs and plunging prices. So while 42 inches may be the sweet spot now for many buyers, especially those who grew up on 25-inch analog sets, the demand for bigger displays is likely to grow.

The nontrivial problem for 4K, though, is that there's nothing to watch in that format. As bad as the shortage of 3D programming has been for home viewers, the supply of 3D dwarfs the availability of 4K material. That helps explain why the new 4K sets received so little attention during the manufacturers' press blitz Monday, even though they will be making their debut in 2012.

"There is no 4K broadcasting," noted Panasonic's chief technology officer, Eisuke Tsuyuzaki. And given that the quality of 4K is equivalent to a pristine copy of a 35mm film print, piracy-conscious studios may think twice before agreeing to let any truly valuable content be broadcast in that format, Tsuyuzaki said.

He envisioned a demand for a few thousand 4K displays for medical use (for example, assisting surgeons) and in computer graphics and design. But for the living room? "It's going to be a while," he said. "It's not a technical issue.... The biggest issue is the content."

Then again, TV stations don't broadcast in 1080P, either. That format is limited mainly to Blu-ray discs and video-on-demand services. So if upconverted broadcasts have been good enough for 1080P, perhaps that will be enough to justify the purchase of a 4K set -- for those whose homes are big enough to fit one in.

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-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Photo: A model poses with a new 4K TV from LG. Credit: LG

CES 2012: Vlingo turns smartphone into voice-activated TV remote

Feeling overwhelmed by the array of remote controls in your living room? At CES 2012, Vlingo says it has an answer: a smartphone application that cannot only perform many of the functions of a remote, but also help you search for the programs you want to watch. And you control it with your voice, not your thumb.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vlingo develops voice-controlled personal assistant technology for iPhones, Android phones and BlackBerries -- think Siri, but without the witty repartee. (Nuance, the voice-recognition company that provides some of the technology behind Siri, recently announced a deal to buy Vlingo.) At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, the company announced that it had adapted its technology to work with pay-TV services and "smart" Internet-connected TV sets.

The technology hasn't been deployed yet, but Vlingo Chief Executive Dave Grannan said the company was working with a number of cable operators and set manufacturers. The app should be on the market by late this year, Grannan said.

Several set makers have revealed plans this week to add voice recognition to their remote controls in a bid to simplify them, along with gesture recognition. That makes sense -- TVs have so many channels, inputs and services available today that simply turning everything on and off can be confounding, let alone finding the program you're looking for.

But enabling a remote to understand someone's voice isn't enough. The remote and the TV (or set-top box) need to be smart enough to understand how to translate "Launch Netflix" or "Tune to HBO" into the series of commands that brings the right content or channel to the screen.

That's where Vlingo comes in. Its smartphone app works in tandem with a Vlingo app inside a pay-TV set-top box or smart TV to translate what a user says into the equivalent of a series of button presses on the right remote. That's just for starters, however. The app also can tune in to or record shows just by name, with no reference to the channel or network they're on. And it can search through program descriptions to find shows by actor, genre or director.

Grannan said users will also be able to broaden the app's searches and functions by authorizing it to look for programs in the Netflix queue or other online services. That way, he said, the app could control multiple devices connected to the TV -- for example, a cable receiver and a Roku box.

The price of the app will be up to the service providers and set manufacturers that deploy it, Grannan said, but he doesn't expect them to charge for it. Vlingo's business model is similar to a search engine's: It offers businesses the chance to buy sponsored links that push their offerings to the top of search results. It's easy to imagine how users searching for TV shows might be annoyed by that kind of promotion. But Grannan said the company always marks the sponsored items, so at least users will be able to tell the ads from the rest of the search results.

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-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Video: Vlingo

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