Grocery shopping might be less painful with this smart cart

Cambridge Consultants, a product development group based in the U.K., is showing off a connected shopping cart that can tell a retailer where you are in a store within three feet. The smart carts are equipped with Bluetooth radios and sensors to track the cart’s location so store owners can offer promotions and eliminate checkout lines. It also means fewer carts will leave the parking lot.

The smart cart design involves off-the shelf sensors strapped to the wheel of an existing shopping cart that are actually powered by the movement of the wheel. So there’s no need to worry about changing the battery inside. The technology is pretty cheap — about £5 ($7.60) — per cart, and should get cheaper with a bit more tinkering and larger orders.

Thanks to the Bluetooth sensors on the cart, beacons around the store, and the ability to track the movement of the wheels and correlate that to the distance the cart has traveled, a retailer can get an incredibly accurate sense of where the shopping cart is inside the store. This is as accurate as many indoor location technology providers and doesn’t require fancy infrastructure, such as RFID readers or a system the relies a customer to have a dedicated app for the store.

Data from the cart is sent to a server on the premise or can be sent up to the cloud for later analysis. But the real value seems to be in taking immediate action to generate sales by notifying customers of promotions when he or she is in front of a display (this would require an app) and then allocating enough staff to reduce wait time when that same customer is ready to check out. There’s also the possibility of offering cool services like generating maps around the store based on a shopping list (another service that would require an app). This could be cool if it tied in with Instacart to help shoppers fill orders faster or even helped fill similar orders at the same time.

Privacy advocates might appreciate that the cart is the item being tracked as opposed to the users’ mobile phone, although those shopping might be frustrated knowing all the data-driven tricks that retailers are using to try to get them to spend more money. The cart is still in the concept phase but Cambridge Consultants is talking to retailers to try to find pilot customers.

Bluewire is a Bluetooth headset with a kitchen sink of features

Bluetooth headsets aren’t the hottest smartphone accessory, but a new Bluetooth headset on Indiegogo, called Bluewire, packs enough features that it’s worth another look even for users who don’t need hands-free calling.

Bluewire looks like a fairly standard, albeit chunky, hands-free Bluetooth headset. But it charges wirelessly thanks to Qi charging support, it uses NFC for quick pairing with a smartphone, and it’s even got an accelerometer built-in. Plus, it can record any phone call or VoIP call that passes through it on its built-in 16GB of memory.

Bluewire Bluetooth headset

The ability to record phone calls — both ends of the conversation, you and the other speaker — is the real draw here. Bluewire records calls “in hardware,” and it can even work if you’re not using the Bluetooth headset in your ear. Users can do a three-way pair and use a preferred Bluetooth speaker or headset — like your car — while still having the Bluewire record your call.

“Bluewire basically takes the Bluetooth signal, splits it for sound, then processes it and compresses it to a WAV file independent of the phone,” founder Avi Gilor said.

You access your recorded calls on a Bluewire app for Android and iOS which organizes your conversations and gives you an easy app for playback. The NFC can also be handy here — with the right phone, a simple tap can automatically send the audio file of your last recorded phone call.

Bluewire screenshot

Of course, call recording might not be legal where you live. For instance, California is a two-party consent state, so you’ll need to get permission from everyone involved in the conversation before you record them. In New York, however, any single party can record a conversation. By default, Bluewire beeps at the beginning of a conversation it records, but the noise can be turned off through the app. However, although Bluewire can record every day conversations (voice memos) that aren’t calls, its limited to five minutes at a time so it can’t be used as a persistent bug.

But although the call recording is the banner feature for the Bluewire, there are enough other functions to keep gadget enthusiasts happy. For instance, the built-in accelerometer isn’t used for step-tracking, but it can be used to find your phone. Simply shake the Bluewire and your phone will ring. It also works the other way — a button in the Bluewire app can make the Bluewire emit noise, making the Bluewire into a lost-item finder.

“The first challenge for us was how to split the data so you can talk on Bluetooth and still record on Bluewire,” Gilor said. “Then I added the dream list, the Swiss Army features, targeted towards gadgeteers in the crowd funding area.”

The accelerometer can also be used for the Bluewire’s most quixotic feature, the ability to use it as a burglar alarm — if you’re willing to hang your Bluetooth headset on your doorknob before you go to sleep.

Bluewire alarm

The Bluewire is currently on Indiegogo, but it seems like it’s already a fairly developed product, so the Indiegogo is sort of acting like a pre-order. Bluewire is expected to ship in July. Currently, early birds can grab one for $149, but Gilor says that when it eventually goes on sale in stores it will cost $270.




Drop’s kitchen scale was so easy my 8 year old could use it

I am not a baker; we should get that out of the way right off the bat. So when I saw the Drop kitchen scale last winter I thought it was a great idea for mixing cocktails. The connected kitchen scale links to your iPad (must be third generation or above) and measures out your ingredients as you add them to a bowl sitting on the scale.

What’s unique about it is that it will help you adjust recipes down if you realize that you only have one egg instead of the two called for in the recipe or you want to take your recipe for eight people and pare it down to serve six. Those features had me excited about its potential use at the bar, simply because mixing up a batch of cocktails can be tricky and getting proportions right in a drink is so essential.

But the Drop scale is for baking. So when my review unit arrived, I grabbed my trays and mixing bowls.


Let’s get cooking

When I saw the demos of the app I thought it would be ideal for a kid since everything is laid out so simply, so I asked my eight-year-old daughter to help me with the testing of the app. She readily agreed and chose to bake the Quick Chocolate Chunk Cookies from the app’s selection of recipes.

The other thing that the $100 scale does that’s worth mentioning is how it handles recipes. The app breaks recipes down into modular components starting with a list of what you’ll need in terms of equipment and ingredients. Then once you hit start, it takes you step by step through the recipe.

My daughter and I both found the recipes veered more toward the foodie end of the spectrum and were kind of awed by the number of vegan and gluten-free options.

“I feel that the recipes they give you, they won’t give you the normal version, they’ll give you the fancy version,” she told me when I asked her what she’d change. “They’ll give you the cookies with all the accessories, but before I am ready to go onto those I should first learn how to make the basics so I understand how this recipe is supposed to be working.”

We found the most basic chocolate chip recipe offered and went to town. I put her in charge, and she dutifully checked the ingredient list on the screen against the ones we laid out. Once we had everything assembled she clicked the start button and followed the instructions. It was awesome.

A Drop ingredient card.

A Drop ingredient card.

My daughter is a worrier. She worries about doing everything correctly, including scooping out the right amount of flour or butter into a bowl. So after we placed our mixing bowl on the scale and let it zero out, watching her start tossing in the butter with abandon as she kept an eye on what Drop calls the ingredient card fill up toward our goal weight of 10.25 ounces of butter was great. As a parent I rarely get to see her relax at a task because she’s so focused on making sure she’s doing things perfectly.


She added all of the ingredients, although she added too much sugar, because it’s a bit tricky to see when you are going over the limit. The fill line for our first two ingredients was near the top of the card, so we just assumed that would be the case for others. However, when it came to adding sugar, the fill line was about a third of the way down. The fill line was a bit faint, so we went over. When you do that, you get these light pink diagonal stripes that flash as you add more of the ingredient, but it’s the least jarring warning I’ve ever seen.

Neither of us realized what was going on for a few more spoonfuls of sugar, and then it kicked in. So then I had to spoon the overflow out before we moved on. I should also say that for people who don’t like measuring cups, this scale is lovely, because you don’t really need them. Just dump your sugar or flour in until it says stop. I found it disconcerting, but my daughter loved it because it gave her more freedom from my supervision.

“I liked that with this you do it on your own, but you have a guide,” she said. “It lets you move more freely but shows me exactly where I am in the process and the instructions are really clear.”

The final say

The other thing that caused us some consternation was the serving size on this particular recipe. It suggested that the recipe served eight people, but when it comes to cookies, what does that mean? Most cookie recipes give you an idea of how many cookies it will make. I guessed that eight people meant 16 cookies, so I doubled it. We ended up with about 60 cookies. A more experienced baker probably would have just looked at the amount of the ingredients and figured out what they were getting, but I don’t bake.

While my daughter continued to rhapsodize about the scale, I’m going to complain a bit. I found the use of weights to be frustrating, because when things like butter come in 2 ounce packages, asking for 10.25 ounces just feels aggravating. You can tell the scale you’re done when you get close to having the ingredient measured out with no repercussions, but if you are too far off you can end up with a resized recipe.

The recipe format is very clean, but it is also hard to glance at and get a sense of the steps without clicking through the entire recipe. At a glance you can only see the equipment you need and the ingredients, not the actual step-by-step instructions. For those you have to click through each individual step. It’s a bit of a pain. When I was testing, the ingredient substitution feature wasn’t working, but it did say it was coming soon.

The final result. They were delicious! All 60 of them.

The final result. They were delicious! All 60 of them.

A final complaint that my daughter and I both had was with the size of the scale, or maybe its top. Our big mixing bowl felt a little wobbly on the scale as it filled up with stuff and required us to mix in additional things. Of course, my existing digital scale feels a little fragile compared to the Drop so I’m not sure I’d ever try to mix anything on it.

The Drop scale can be used as a normal kitchen scale as long as you have your iPad handy, as there is no display on the scale itself. You can tap the scale instead of the iPad to move ahead when you are following a recipe, which is a handy feature to keep your iPad clean while you are cooking. There’s an integrated timer on the app, which is a nice feature if you are religiously tapping through the steps at the right place. I’m a bit more laissez faire, but my daughter was ON IT.

My daughter said she looks forward to using the scale again, and I’m set to try a few more recipes before shipping it back, but I’m not sure I’d spend $100 to replace my existing $50 digital scale. Since kitchen scales range in price from about $20 to $60 for an non-connected scale, paying $100 for a connected scale that comes with an app could either be seen as nuts or normal depending on where you fall on that spectrum.

If I didn’t have a scale already I might simply get the Drop because my daughter really seemed to get a kick out of it, and followed the entire recipe on her own. I might also buy one if I were really into baking.

But for now, I’ll wait until the Drop folks come out with something for mixologists.

A Bluetooth beacon in your fridge could help you eat less

Most applications for beacon technology so far have been targeted towards retailers and marketers — for instance, beacons have been used to push coupons for McNuggets when you walk by a McDonalds. Taking a different approach to the Bluetooth Low Energy protocol, a new free app from developer Brian Mueller employs beacons to help you eat less.carrot-hunger-screneshotCarrot Hunger, which launched for iOS on Thursday, has a nifty feature that requires a beacon in your fridge. Like a digital version of a “nothing feels as good as skinny feels” magnet on your fridge, the Carrot Hunger app can push a notification when you’re nearby a iBeacon reminding you to log the food you’re about to eat — effectively, a reminder not to stuff your face. Carrot Hunger recommends sticking the beacon in a fridge, but you can also stick a iBeacon in, say, your office’s kitchen.

carrot screenshot ibeacon

Unfortunately, Carrot won’t provide an iBeacon. You’ll have to bring your own beacon hardware — some iBeacon-capable beacons cost as little as $15 — and configure it, making setup slightly more difficult for the less technically inclined. For instance, you’ll need to know the proximity UDID your beacon is using and input it into the Carrot Hunger app. You might also need to employ trial and error to figure out the best place to stick the beacon in or around a fridge, which can work a bit like a faraday cage.

Carrot Hunger is a calorie counting app. Apart from its fridge alarm feature, users can scan a bar code to enter in a food they’ve just eaten, or users can also enter calories manually from a database of foods. If you go over your daily food allotment, Carrot Hunger will punish you — either by serving fullscreen in-app adds, asking for an in-app payment or broadcasting your failure to social networks.

Carrot Hunger is the fourth Carrot app, joining a to-do app, an alarm app and a fitness app. The thread tying them all together is that they all feature Carrot, an evil (or at least hostile) artificial intelligence character, reminiscent of HAL 9000 or GLaDOS. The Carrot Hunger launch video gives you a good idea about whether you’d be able to live with her and an iBeacon living in your fridge alongside moldy leftovers.

SmartThings’ next-generation hub will support Thread and the OIC

Samsung’s B.K. Yoon, the president of its Consumer Electronics group, gave an inspiring call to openness for the internet of things in a keynote speech at International CES on Monday night that also happened to contain a few tidbits of news about the SmartThings smart home platform that Samsung purchased last summer.

In a conversation last night with Alex Hawkinson, the CEO of SmartThings (shown above with the version 2 of the hub), I found a bit more about the next generation hub planned for April as well as the new premium service tier that will also be coming out in that time frame. I also learned that while the hub will support “legacy” standards like Z-wave and ZigBee while adding Bluetooth Smart, SmartThings is looking ahead to new standards and is planning to support Thread, the mesh-radio protocol that Nest and others have proposed as well as Intel’s Open Interconnect Consortium.

Hawkinson said that if the devices come, they would also support AllJoyn as well. But let’s focus on the hubs for a moment, because that’s what the die-hard smarthome folks are most interested in. First off, the second generation of the hub is about the same size, although square with rounded edges and heavier than the current hub. That’s because it has a set of batteries in there so when your power goes out your hub stays on.

There’s also room for a cellular USB stick if you wish, so you can also have backup internet (See correction note below). Hawkinson said it has always bothered him that given his reason for starting SmartThings — the flooding of his Colorado vacation home — the current version of the product wouldn’t have actually helped because the power was out. Now, the version two of his product would have actually helped.

Alex Hawkinson and BK Yoon onstage at CES

Alex Hawkinson and BK Yoon onstage at CES

That brings us to the premium service level announced. Hawkinson said that people wanted things that the infrastructure couldn’t provide without costing SmartThings money, such as video storage (the hub didn’t have video capability either, but the new one will) and alert escalation. So now when an alert happens, users can set up chains of contacts that can take a call or texts. If a child coming home from school doesn’t trigger an alert a parent might get a text and then a neighbor. If a leak is detected, maybe the escalation goes to a plumber.

This isn’t just a revenue opportunity in terms of charging the customer, it’s also a way to get service providers like HVAC repairmen, plumbers and others involved in the smarthome. Imagine if when you are setting up your SmartThings smarthome and you activate your water sensor and you get a list of local plumbers to call as part of the escalation service. If they get a call, SmartThings gets a referral fee.

It’s like AdWords for the real world. What if when you sign up for this, your home insurer gives you a discount? It might offset somewhat the fee that SmartThings charges. It might not. Hawkinson was mum on the fees for the new hub, the premium service and any other pricing.

Other things to note about the launch are that several new devices and products will be supported by SmartThings, such as Chamberlain garage doors, Honeywell Thermostats, Nest Thermostats, Philips Hue lights, Netgear products, August locks, the previously announced Samsung appliances and new apps for the Gear S and Samsung Smart TVs.

The app will get an update too with more suggested use cases while still letting people program crazy ideas if they want. The sensors will also shrink to about a third of their current size and we’ll see SmartThings eventually move to use Samsung’s Tizen OS according to SmartThings co-founder and CTO Jeff Hagins.

That last tidbit is especially interesting when you consider that Samsung said that Tizen would be the OS for all of its Smart TVs going forward, and that Yoon said that Samsung plans to eventually make every device it sells into a hub for the internet of things.

It sounds like Samsung may be trying to push Tizen as the OS for the internet of things after losing out on mobile to iOS and Android.

Correction: The original article stated that the version 2 SmartThings hub “has room for a SIM card” for backup connectivity. The article was updated at 3p.m. PT to correct that it does not have room for a SIM card, but a cellular USB stick can be used for backup cell connectivity.


The bestselling Beats headphones are going wireless

Here’s a product likely to be on countless Christmas lists: On Wednesday, Beats announced a new pair of headphones, the Solo2 Wireless, an updated version of its bestselling Solo2 on-ear headphones that connect to your music player through Bluetooth.

5 trends coming to the smart home in 2015

The internet of things is humming along, and thanks to our Structure Connect show last week, I feel confident predicting a few things you’ll see next year in the smart home.