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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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I’ll admit it: I still use a BlackBerry. I also use an iPhone and an Android phone, but I don’t mind being teased by friends when I need to crank out a long email in seconds, because the BlackBerry keyboard is still the best. My thumbs can speed along on its tactile keys without forcing me to look down as I walk, and it never makes an embarrassing word change using autocorrect.

But really, typing on glass keyboards — like those found on iPhones, Android phones and Windows Phones — should be much easier by now. This week I took a look at a few technologies that gave me hope.

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BlackBerry 10 | The keyboard on RIM’s newest smartphone will suggest words right on the keyboard; swipe up on a word to add it to a sentence.

I tested two apps for Android phones that use very different approaches: the $3.99 SwiftKey 3 by TouchType Ltd., which is available now, and Snapkeys Si by Snapkeys Ltd., which will be available free in the Google Play Store Jan. 16. (Apple doesn’t allow third-party companies to take over core features, like the keyboard, on devices running its iOS mobile operating system.) I also got to briefly try out the smart predictive keyboard technology on Research In Motion’s upcoming BlackBerry 10.

Of the two new apps, I had an easier time adjusting to SwiftKey 3, which uses a traditional on-screen keyboard and guesses what you’ll type next by using a predictive language algorithm. It also incorporates touch gestures, like a right-to-left swipe across the keyboard to delete the last word and left-to-right swipe from the period button to insert a question mark.

Snapkeys Si was a tougher adjustment: It abandons the traditional keyboard altogether, forcing users to type on just four squares that hold 12 letters; all other letters are produced by tapping in the blank space between these four squares. Like SwiftKey 3, it uses some swipe gestures, like a right-side diagonal swipe down to create a period. Snapkeys Si aims to solve fat-finger syndrome, giving people’s fingers bigger targets and guessing the words they mean to type.

The BlackBerry 10 is scheduled to be launched on Jan. 30. I got some hands-on time with its on-screen keyboard, and was impressed by its suggested words, which users can swipe up to throw into sentences. This is designed to make the device easy to use with one hand. The BlackBerry 10 keyboard also reads and learns exactly where a user taps each key to better predict which letter to type, so clumsy fingers make fewer mistakes.

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Snapkeys Si | The traditional QWERTY keyboard layout is abandoned in this app, replaced by just 12 letters displayed in four squares.

SwiftKey 3 for Android is an app that has a healthy understanding of how language is used in everyday conversation, and supports 54 languages, including variations like American, British and Australian English. Creator TouchType scraped Internet language data from around the world to understand how people speak in real-life situations — not by studying a dictionary. It then used this knowledge to create a predictive algorithm that guesses what you’re likely to type next, suggesting three options above the keyboard as you go.

This app can also detect where you meant to add a space, automatically adding it in for you. I found this feature to be a handy time saver as I typed since I could just keep going rather than stopping to tap the space key after each word.

During setup, SwiftKey 3 users can opt to give the app access to their Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and SMS interactions so that it can study a user’s language to further understand how the person talks. For example, if someone always preferred to spell “thanks” as “thx,” SwiftKey 3 would learn this behavior and add “thx” in as a word rather than continuously trying to correct it. A TouchType spokesman says later this year the company may add a feature allowing users to customize the app to write out complete words when they type abbreviations, like typing “abt” to get “about.”

For privacy purposes, the app only stores this data locally on your phone rather than sending it back to the company for making improvements. And you can erase the app’s personalized data at any time in Settings, Personalization, Clear Language Data.

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SwiftKey 3 | This app supports more than 50 languages, and remembers how you use words, like knowing to type ‘MacLaren’s’ above.

SwiftKey 3 is free for the first month, and then costs $3.99 to continue using it. The app will remember all of your custom language settings when you upgrade, so you don’t have to reteach it.

Snapkeys Si, made by Israeli startup Snapkeys, lets you see more of your smartphone screen while you’re typing by using just four squares containing 12 letters instead of the traditional keyboard. Although these bigger finger targets made it so I never accidentally typed the wrong square, it took me a while to get used to knowing where each letter was and which letters weren’t in squares at all.

Typing words with letters that aren’t in squares requires using the blank space in the middle of these squares. So to type the word “wish,” I’d find the first three letters in squares, selecting each of them. But the “h” isn’t in a square, so I’d tap the blank space between these squares. In the case of “wish,” Snapkeys Si got it right, but other words were more challenging to type, which frustrated me. Suggested words appear on the right side of the four squares, and tapping one of them adds it to a sentence. Once a new word is added to Snapkeys Si dictionary, it will be suggested from then on.

Like SwiftKey 3, Snapkeys Si only saves your personalized language settings on the phone.

The space key is to the right side of these four squares, and the backspace key is to the left. I added periods to the end of sentences by swiping diagonally down from right to left, and added commas by swiping diagonally down left to right.

Snapkeys Si is worth a try if you’re looking for a fresh alternative to traditional keyboards. But I found that it was a lot of work to learn after years of using the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout. The app is still in its beta, or first version, and the company says it will continue to improve.

Smart keyboard apps like SwiftKey 3, Snapkeys Si and others make typing on glass less painful and more intuitive. Just beware of the steep learning curve you may have to climb to start using them.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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An anonymous reader writes "This year's Consumer Electronics Show has shown off more interconnected devices than I would know what to do with. Not only are existing devices I use getting modern, Internet-connected interfaces (cars, ovens, and security systems, for example), but companies are now putting out addons for smartphones that replace existing ones (blood pressure and glucose monitors, for instance. An article at the NY Times points out that the smartphone is quickly becoming life's remote control — a portal through with you'll soon be able to control far more of your electric devices than you might expect (or care to). 'For several years, technology companies have promised the dream of the connected home, the connected body and the connected car. Those connections have proved illusory. But in the last year app-powered accessories have provided the mechanism to actually make the connections. That is partly because smartphones have become the device people never put down. But it is also because wireless sensors have become smaller, cheaper and ubiquitous.'"

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360 Video

Google Tech Talk January 4, 2013 (expand for more info) Presented by Tim Conway ABSTRACT GoPano plus uses a specially curved mirror. Its shape gathers light from all directions and reflects it into the lens of your camera. This single image/video shows everything in a 360° ring around the GoPano plus. On your computer, this warped image is transformed ("unwarped") into an interactive scene where anyone can control the view. Once you have the raw photos and/or videos, you'll need software to edit them. We provide PhotoWarp (for images) and VideoWarp Director (for 360° videos). Whether you're shooting 360° stills, panoramic videos, or both, we've got you covered. The GoPano plus has a standard 67mm photographic filter thread base which can be easily adapted to fit almost all the digital cameras, DSLR lenses, and camcorders. GoPano Step Rings can adapt any camera or lens with a filter thread to connect directly to the GoPano plus. SPEAKER INFO: Tim Conway (www.imdb.com Not to be confused with actor in the Dorf videos, Tim Conway has been creating, supervising, and creating unique technology in the field of Visual Effects and Post Production since 1997. His latest endeavor is a camera lens with an attached mirror which allows you to take 360 degree panoramic still images or video. This Tech Talk was presented at Google's LA office.
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Linear Book Scanner

Google Tech Talk May 3, 2012 Presented by Dany Qumsiyeh ABSTRACT See a hardware prototype of an automatic, non-destructive book scanner. The machine turns pages automatically, and captures high-resolution images of each page. It was developed in 20% time, and built in the Google Workshops. There will be a live demo and a short technical presentation, describing the design process. Speaker Info: Dany Qumsiyeh is an engineer on the Google Books team. For more information on this project, see: code.google.com
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Ira Block

9/11: Faces Of Hope

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Thousands of survivors have walked the difficult path of recovery since the September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center.

And although I began documenting this horrific event shortly after the attacks, focusing on the people who emerged from the burning twin towers alive proved to be not only a daunting, but also a highly emotional task. Previously, I shot a story on the efforts to rebuild the downtown area and I also photographed the Twin Towers of Light on the six month anniversary of the attacks, but this was a different challenge.

I started by photographing the personal objects that were carried out of the towers and also the items that were salvaged during the clean-up process from the rubble. A pair of men’s loafers worn during the escape from a crumbling tower, a framed family picture carried by a woman whose thoughts were of surviving for her children, a crushed fireman’s helmet discovered buried under debris, all speak of the personal experiences that keep the memory of history vivid and fresh, even as the immediacy of tragedy fades.

Taking these pictures was a very emotional experience for me, knowing that some of the items I was shooting belonged to people who had perished. I had access to Hangar 17 at Kennedy International Airport, where some of the large pieces of the Twin Towers were being stored. Photographing what were once the two tallest buildings in the world, now reduced to fragments of metal was unnerving. I began to realize that documenting personal items and pieces of the Towers was not giving me the mood I wanted to achieve. It was too somber, too devastating. Ten years after the tragedy, my goal was to focus on the positive. To achieve this, I shifted my perspective to the living.

If these photos have a mission, it if this: to capture the images of the survivors, those who have moved forward anchored by faith, fortitude or family and those who still struggle with a healing process that remains painful, drawn out and elusive. Each has a story to tell.

Following the 10 year anniversary of the attacks, these photos were exhibited at Fotocare in New York City.

 

Bio

Ira Block is an internationally renowned photojournalist, teacher, and workshop leader who has produced over 30 stories for the National Geographic Magazine and its affiliates N.G. Traveler and Adventure.

He began his career as a newspaper photographer, earning numerous press club awards. As an expert in lighting, Ira is sought after for assignments ranging from shooting ancient artifacts in Greece to photographing dinosaur fossils in the Gobi desert and documenting Moche mummies in Peru. His momentous coffee table book “Saving America’s Treasures” was a collaborative effort among the Clinton White House, National Geographic Society, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ira’s unique vision and outstanding lighting skills have made him the “go to photographer” for complex assignments.

He taught the first creative, digital photography class at the School for Visual Arts in New York City and is frequently called upon to review and critique the latest digital cameras and lenses. He works closely with National Geographic Expeditions lecturing and teaching photography around the world. Ira has also taught workshops in Bangkok and Maine, Abu Dhabi and San Diego, Boston, Seattle and New York City.

In addition to his editorial work Ira shoots commercial and corporate images, portraits, promotional materials and advertising for leading institutions. He also produces corporate digital webcast videos. His photographic exhibit “Faces of Hope”, portraits of survivors and images of objects retrieved from the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, are part of the permanent collection of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

His most recent story in the October National Geographic “Earth Before the Ice”, investigates a prehistoric global warming. Ira lives in New York City with his wife and is a frequent blogger on the latest digital camera equipment and gear, lighting techniques, and creative vision in photography.

 

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Ira Block

 

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For years, some people who wanted to store files on remote servers in the cloud have been emailing the files to their Gmail accounts, or uploading them to Google’s lightly used Google Docs online productivity suite, even if they had no intention of editing them there.

Now, Google is formally jumping into the cloud-based file storage and syncing business, offering a service called Google Drive, which will compete with products like Dropbox and others by offering lower prices and different features. It works on multiple operating systems, browsers and mobile devices, including those of Google’s competitors Apple and Microsoft. There are apps for Windows, Mac and mobile devices that automatically sync files with Google Drive.

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I’ve been testing Google Drive, which launches today, and I like it. It subsumes the editing and file-creation features of Google Docs, and replaces Google Docs (though any documents you have stored there carry over). In my tests — on a Mac, a Lenovo PC, a new iPad and the latest Samsung Android tablet — Google Drive worked quickly and well, and most of its features operated as promised. At launch, it’s available for Windows PCs, Macs and Android devices. The version for the iPhone and iPad is planned for release soon.

Google Drive, which can be found at drive.google.com, offers users 5 gigabytes of free storage, compared with 2 gigabytes free for the popular Dropbox, and equal to the free offering from another cloud storage and syncing service I like, SugarSync. That’s enough for thousands of typical documents, photos and songs.

Prices for additional storage drastically undercut Dropbox and SugarSync. For instance, 100 GB on Google Drive costs $4.99 a month. By contrast, 100 GB costs $14.99 monthly on SugarSync and $19.99 on Dropbox. Google Drive will offer huge capacities, in tiers, all the way up to 16 terabytes. (A terabyte is roughly 1,000 gigabytes.) And if you buy extra storage for Google Drive, your Gmail quota rises to 25 GB.

But one of Google’s biggest rivals isn’t standing still. Microsoft is expanding both the features and capacity of its little-known SkyDrive cloud storage service as well. That product started out as a free, fixed-capacity (25 gigabytes) online locker mostly for users of the stripped-down, cloud-based version of Microsoft Office, though it also has been available as an app for Windows Phone smartphones and for iPhones. It’s giving away even more free storage than Google — 7 GB, though that is a cut from what it used to offer free. It also is charging less than Google. For instance, you can add 100 gigabytes for $50 a year. And users of the old version get to keep their 25-gigabyte free allotment. I wasn’t able to test this new version of SkyDrive for this column. It also is offering syncing apps for Windows and Mac.

Google Drive is meant as an evolution of Google Docs. While you could previously upload a file to Google Docs using your Web browser, for Google Drive, the company is providing free apps for Mac and Windows that, like Dropbox, do this for you. They create special folders that sync with your cloud-based repository and with the Web version of the product. So, you can drag a file into these local folders on your computer and that file will be uploaded to your cloud account and will rapidly appear in the Web version of Google Drive, in the Google Drive folders on your other computers, and in the Google Drive apps on Android, iPhone and iPad devices. These local apps also sync any changes to the files you make.

One big difference between Dropbox and Google Drive is you can edit or create files in the latter, rather than merely storing or viewing them. This is because Google Drive includes the rudimentary word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and other apps that make up Google Docs.

But there is a catch. If your stored document is in a Microsoft Office format, you can only view it. To edit it, you have to click a command to convert the file to Google’s own formats, or choose a setting that converts Microsoft Office files when uploaded. But this latter feature only works when uploading from the website.

Google Drive also is missing some features of SugarSync I like. The latter doesn’t require you to place files in a special folder; it syncs the folders you already use on your PC and Mac. Also, unlike SugarSync, Google Drive doesn’t let you email files directly into your cloud locker.

Google Drive allows you to share files and folders, and collaborate with others. You can also email files as attachments. People with whom you share files can be allowed different rights: To view, comment, or edit them. You can also keep the files private.

Because Google has run into hot water over keeping users’ information private, some people may be reluctant to trust their files to Google Drive. But the company insists that, while it does process and store your files, no human can see them and, at least today, the files aren’t used to target advertising at users. The company notes no file can be placed in Google Drive unless the user wants it there.

The service does a very good job of searching files, even finding words inside PDF or scanned documents. The company claims it can find images when you type in words describing them, like “bridge” or “mountain”—even if those words don’t appear in the image’s file name. But I found this mostly worked with photos of famous places or people Google has collected via its Google Goggles product. Google Drive failed to find images with generic file names on almost all of my own pictures, even when they included things like mountains or other common objects.

Google Drive did a good job in my tests with videos. It converts nearly every common video format into a format it can play, right inside its website. This process can take some time. While Google Drive can store music, it can’t play it directly via its website.

Google’s new service also works with third-party document creation and editing apps that are built to work with it. I used one, called Balsamiq Mockups, to create a quick wire-frame diagram.

I can recommend Google Drive to consumers looking for cloud-based storage, with the added bonus of integrated editing, at lower prices. But the new Microsoft SkyDrive also seems worth a try.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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