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Videotelephony

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Goully Sandro Kopp

At some point in everyone's lives, Pooh Bear and Piglet lose their appeal and turn from adored comfort objects to raggedy reminders of childhood – something to be chucked into the back of a cupboard or shoved away in an attic. But where Sandro Kopp once asked his portrait subjects to sit for him over Skype, he's now requested their cuddly toys, which form the basis of his new work, Fiercely Loved, which opens for a private view tonight at Timothy Everest. Using oil paint, Kopp restores the solemnity and gravitas of these childhood tchotkes, seeking out the material imprints of their owner's personalities and adolescent memories – and reminding us of the toys we leave behind as we enter adulthood.

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Say you want to quickly transfer a file, like a photo or a contact entry, from your smartphone to a friend’s. Most people would email or text the file. But a number of technologies have come along to make the process quicker and simpler.

On some Android phones, you can “beam” files like photos from phone to phone by tapping one phone to another, or bringing them very close. But that requires that both phones have a special chip, called NFC, which isn’t yet universal on Android phones and doesn’t exist at all in iPhones.

Another approach is to use an app called Bump, which transfers files between iPhones and Android phones when those holding them do a sort of sideways fist bump. It works pretty well, but you have to make contact with the other person.

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With the Xsync iPhone app, you select an audio file, photo, video, contact or calendar appointment by tapping on the simple icon that represents each one.

This week, I’ve been testing a different approach — an iPhone app called Xsync. It doesn’t require any special chip and instead uses a free app and a hardware feature almost every smartphone possesses — the camera. While it is primarily meant, like Bump, for transfers between phones in proximity, it works over long distances. I was able to almost instantly send and get photos, videos and songs using Xsync between two iPhones held up to computer webcams during a Skype video call.

The key to Xsync is the QR code, that square symbol found seemingly everywhere these days—online, in print newspapers and magazines, on posters and other places. These codes typically just contain text—often, a Web address. But Xsync, a tiny company based in Seattle, generates QR codes that initiate the transfer of whole files, or in the case of photos, even groups of files. It has a built-in QR code scanner to read these codes using the phone’s camera.

The biggest drawback to Xsync is that it is currently only available for the iPhone. An Android version is planned for sometime this quarter. Meanwhile, you can use an Android phone with any QR code reader to receive, though not send, files sent via Xsync.

The Xsync app is something of a teaser for the underlying technology, which the company calls the Optical Message Service. The company’s goal isn’t to build its own apps, but to license the technology to cellphone makers so it becomes a built-in way to transfer files.

Here’s how it works. Once you install Xsync on your iPhone, you select an audio file, photo, video, contact or calendar appointment, each of which is represented by a simple icon. The app creates a QR code representing the intended transfer of that file and temporarily sends the file to Xsync’s server. Your friend uses Xsync to scan the QR code you’ve created with his or her iPhone’s camera, and the files are sent to your friend’s iPhone.

In my tests, it was easy, quick and reliable. I successfully used Xsync to send and receive all the included types of files with an iPhone 5, an iPhone 4S and an iPad mini. I was also able to receive files on an Android phone, a Google Nexus 4, via a QR code generated by Xsync.

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The app generates QR codes that initiate the transfer of whole files, or in the case of photos, even groups of files.

You can even generate a QR code using Xsync that will allow you to transfer money from your PayPal account to another person’s, though that requires an added authentication step for security. But it worked, and would be a good way to, say, split a bill at a restaurant. (This PayPal feature of Xsync doesn’t work with Android, for now.)

The company says the file transfers are secure, for two reasons. First, they are encrypted. More important, each code is generated for a specific transfer and expires after a relatively short time. For instance, codes for photos expire after 24 hours, according to the company.

You can use Xsync to transmit certain kinds of files — including documents — you’ve stored in your Dropbox account, though, oddly, the Xsync app hides this document-transfer feature under an icon for sharing calendar appointments.

And you don’t have to be close to make the transfer. In addition to my Skype example, you can send a QR code generated by Xsync via email or text message, or even post the code to Facebook. Another person can then scan the code to get the file.

Xsync can generate codes that represent either existing files on your phone, or files you create on the spot. If you don’t want to use an existing one, the audio, photo, video and calendar icons in the app invite you to create a new file to be transferred.

On the iPhone, the receiving device displays the transferred files right within the Xsync app. If you’re using an Android phone to receive, you get a Web address that leads you to the file on Xsync’s server.

If you have an iPhone, Xsync is an effective way to transfer files like photos, songs, videos and more between phones.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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If you’ve ever had to dial in to a videoconference for work, you know what a painful experience it can be. Staring at the backs of people’s heads and struggling to see presentation materials doesn’t make for a fun time. But one company is hoping to change that by thinking outside the box — literally.

Today, Altia Systems, a start-up based in Cupertino, Calif., introduced a new video camera called PanaCast. It takes videoconferencing beyond a stationary, rectangular screen by providing a real-time panoramic view of the room and giving users the ability to pan and zoom the scene from their computer or mobile device.

“We felt that if we could bring a new experience that is as simple as the normal human experience of talking in real time, it could be really powerful for users,” said Aurangzeb Khan, co-founder and CEO of Altia Sytems, in an interview with AllThingsD.

PanaCast uses a system of six cameras to capture HD video at 60 frames, and a custom-developed video processor that synchronizes and stitches all the images in real time to create a single, 200-degree panoramic view of the room. (PanaCast also runs the Linux operating system and features a dual-core ARM 11 processor.)

Altia’s server then uses a low-latency encoding process that allows you to stream the video over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, unlike some videoconference systems that require dedicated bandwidth.

Remote participants can view video using the company’s Mac or Windows app or on their iPhone or Android devices. On mobile devices, you can use familiar touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping left or right, to zoom in on notes written on a whiteboard or to pan over to a speaker on the other side of the room.

“The experience you get with PanaCast is much more natural than current videoconferencing systems,” said Khan. “You get to interact with it in real time, and it makes a difference because you’re not a passive viewer anymore. You’re engaged in the discussion and how you want to participate in the discussion.”

I got a hands-on demo of the device last week (the company was originally scheduled to show PanaCast at our D: Dive into Mobile conference, which was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy), and I was actually surprised at what a difference the panoramic view made. It made for a better visual experience, and it was also helpful to see who was saying what, instead of hearing a faceless voice from one corner of the room.

Occasionally, I noticed some lag in the video, but the panning and zooming motions were very smooth, and worked well. One thing to note is that PanaCast does not have a built-in microphone.

Conference organizers will still need to use either a speakerphone or Polycom system. The PanaCast apps will have integrated VoIP audio, so participants can listen and talk using the app.

Altia says another benefit to its PanaCast system is cost. The company did not reveal exact pricing, but did say that it would be less than $700. Altia is launching PanaCast on Kickstarter, and the first 25 pledges of $399 will get a camera, with an estimated ship date of January.

The apps are free, and there is no subscription fee for up to two simultaneous remote participants. The company has a fundraising goal of $15,000 by Jan. 1.

Altia Systems was co-founded by Khan, CMO Lars Herlitz and CTO Atif Sarwari. The company has received $3 million in series A funding from Lanza TechVentures and private investors Dado and Rey Banatao.

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Denki Puzzle

Designer Yuri Suzuki wants to help us understand how our gadgets work. To that end, he's worked with Technology Will Save Us to create the Denki Puzzle kit, a collection of printed circuit board pieces whose form indicate a particular function. Pin the pieces together as a sort of physical circuit diagram and you'll be able to build working electronics, like the working radio demonstrated at the London Design Museum. Here's a video describing Suzuki's inspirations, and his other projects as one of the Design Museum's current Designers in Residence.

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photoshop

Using Photoshop to improve images for magazine covers is a widespread practice, and The New York Times looks at several examples and where different publications draw the line. From minor color corrections and smoothing crow's feet to completely changing the color of a model's top and entirely removing Tom Cruise's braces, there's currently no standard governing the ethics of photo editing. As for why the practice is so common, The New York Times cites technologies that make the retouching process easier and readers' expectations for a "heightened version of the truth." Although the article focuses on editing that happens after the images are shot, rather than in-camera editing techniques like color balance, it's a very interesting...

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Continental Post-Crash Braking

Automotive technology firm Continental has announced a new automatic post-crash braking system for cars, aiming to reduce the likelihood of "secondary collisions." Set to be integrated into its ContiGuard safety suite, the new technology uses data from the vehicle's airbag to determine that a crash has taken place before attempting to slow it to a stop. If pressure is reapplied to the accelerator pedal during the crash, the system automatically returns control to the driver.

According to figures from ADAC Accident Research, almost 25 percent of German car accidents resulting in injuries to the driver or passengers involve multiple crashes — Continental provides a comparison image (above), showing how a simple collision with a crash...

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silicon valley reality show

If you were curious about just what's up with the upcoming Bravo reality series Silicon Valley, a new piece in the New York Times provides an update on the show's current status, while delving a little deeper into what we can actually expect from it. Silicon Valley — which is still just a tentative title for now — is currently filming and unsurprisingly there's still quite a bit of controversy about how the show will represent the start-up community. You'll be able to check it out on Bravo sometime this winter, and at the very least it should be a good chance for some start-up related product placement.

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