Mixed Reality

The term “Mixed Reality” (MR) encompasses the concepts of “Virtual Reality” (VR) and “Augmented Reality” (AR). Just like other Star Trek-like technologies, these are slowly making it into the mainstream, so it’s probably time to introduce you to them.

Virtual Reality immerses you in a 360-degree world with a head-mounted display, optional headphones, and optional controllers (usually some sort of 3D joysticks). Augmented Reality also has these components, but instead of immersing you, it incorporates aspects of the real world around you using cameras or transparent screens. As already mentioned, Mixed Reality loosely describes both.

First and foremost, these technologies are for gamers … immersing them in their virtual worlds. But lately we are seeing more applications that appeal to a larger audience: slideshows, movies, and other art—both produced and homemade—take on a new dimension (pardon the pun) when viewed in 360-degree surround. Cameras that take spherical pictures and videos are now available at affordable prices ($200+), as are 3-dimensional art and design programs, so we are seeing a lot more 360-degree content.

The hardware to enjoy this content ranges from the affordable ($20+ headset with your existing smartphone) to the more serious ($900+ PC with $300+ video card and $600+ headset).

I think the “killer application” for MR will be design collaboration. Whether you are designing programs, cars, or buildings, you can now do it in a virtual 3D environment … and even collaborate with others who live and work in other parts of the world.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, just google videos on “Windows Cliff House”, “Ford HoloLens”, “Fuzor”, “Nvidia Holodeck” … or simply search YouTube for “360 video”. Of course, to fully experience Mixed Reality, you’ll need to get yourself inside a head-mounted display.

eReader and eWriter Devices


By now, most people know what an eReader is: a device that has advantages over computers, tablets, and smartphones when it comes to reading eBooks and eMagazines. Let me recap those advantages.

eReaders have longer battery life and work much better in bright light that those other devices. Some models also have self-lighting options for low-light situations. eReaders are typically smaller, lighter, and less expensive than their tablet counterparts because:

  • they are simpler devices because they are purpose-built
  • their price is somewhat subsidized by eBook purchases you make on them

The eReader has been around for more than 10 years … but now we have the option of the eWriter: a device with many features of an eReader, but with the added ability to act like a paper notebook or notepad. Sony quietly offered one model in 2014, discontinued it in 2016, then re-released it in 2017 as the DPT-RP1. Just this year, a startup company called Remarkable (remarkable.com) introduced a similar product: the RM100.

eWriters are big—roughly the size of a sheet of paper—but also thin, light, and durable. You can work anywhere with them, but they need wifi to transfer documents to and fro. They accept PDFs, and the Remarkable also accepts ePUBs. You can mark up these document types, or initiate your own notes.

These devices are great as oversized eReaders, but also as document markup tools, note-takers, and sketchpads. Think of that busy lawyer who takes notes in meetings and marks up existing documents, but must then get those scribbles off to their secretary for typing/editing. Or that person-on-the-go who is forever writing on scraps of paper … and then losing them. Or any designer who wants to save/share their sketches. eWriters are great in all those situations.

It is important to note that there are fewer distractions with eReaders and eWriters than with other devices. Your smartphone or tablet have similar functionality, but those devices are also bombarding you with email, texts, posts, and advertising.

The eWriter is a great new product, but at $879+, I would suggest most people wait for their prices to drop.

The Next Big Thing?

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t really know what the “next big thing” will be … but I do like to keep on top of the cool new tech.

In summer 2017, I thought Google Home was “it”: a device that can answer simple verbal questions, play music, and control certain devices around the home. It was originally priced at $209, reduced to $179, then to $149, and it still wasn’t flying off the shelves. A few months later, a Google Home Mini was released in Canada for $79. Acceptance is probably the issue here: Are you ready to ask Google questions verbally instead of typing on a keyboard or touchpad?

Another potential “next big thing” is Mixed Reality (MR): a technology that ranges from “Virtual Reality” (VR) to “Augmented Reality” (AR). Virtual Reality is a 360-degree world that blocks out the real world when you don the goggles, while Augmented Reality projects 2D and 3D images onto things in the real world. For some, the challenge may be wearing something on your head that covers your eyes and ears … and holding a motion controller in each hand … all-the-while looking pretty nerdy.

As you might expect, gamers have been the first to accept this technology. I believe the second group will be the designers: those designing programs, buildings, or other complex products, alone or in a team. Aspects of their design can be constructed in different virtual rooms of a virtual building, giving them access to as many 300-inch screens, or 3D models, as their design needs. Discussing aspects of their designs as a team in the same virtual environment as the design will save countless hours of travel and teleconferencing.

For the rest of us, our interest will grow over time. Want to escape to your virtual mountain chalet to sit by the fireplace and read? Want to meet people (via their avatars) from around the world in a virtual tropical paradise? Or would you like to take in a dome-theatre movie without having to drive to the nearest Omnimax theatre? Slip on your HMD (head-mounted display) and escape!

This will all be part of Windows 10 with Microsoft’s Fall Creators Update. For more info, google “Microsoft VR announcement” and look for any mention of their 03Oct2017 announcement date or 17Oct2017 release date, particularly the related videos.

Smart Lights, Outlets and Thermostats

It seems like the electrical industry is trying to catch up with the electronic industry.

Technologies like those mentioned in my last two articles (Logitech Harmony and Google Home) are part of the slow movement toward home automation. I says “slow” because home automation has been a catchphrase for decades … a technology that seems perpetually “on the horizon”.

Now that we have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart thermostats, and other smart devices, the next step is smart lights, outlets, and thermostats. Oh, they’re out there now, but their price will have to reduce substantially to make them affordable enough to entice you to replace their “dumb” equivalents.

With smart lights, you currently have a couple of choices:

  • you can get smart light systems that includes a “bridge” that wirelessly connects each smart bulb to your home network
  • you can get smart light switches/dimmers that replace your existing switches/dimmers and wirelessly connect to your home network

With smart outlets, you simply plug a wifi-enabled outlet into an existing outlet and join it to your home network.

The going price for smart light switches is around $50/switch, and smart outlets are around $40/outlet. Philips has a smart light system called “Hue” that needs their bridge, but you can control up to 50 of their smart lights with that one bridge. Their starter kits (that start at $70) come with a bridge and 2 or 3 smart bulbs. Philips Hue lights have the added bonus of colour and dimming control.

The beauty of smart lights/outlets is: you can control them locally or remotely using a smartphone app, you can control them by voice by using Google Home, or you can program them to go on/off on a timer to make it appear that you are home. Some will even monitor the amount of power you are using with connected devices.

With smart thermostats, you can put one in place of an existing thermostat and connect it to your wifi. From that point, you can wirelessly/verbally perform the functions you would manually, including adjusting scheduled temperature changes. These devices are still in the $220-$320 range.

“OK Google, submit article.”

Smart Speakers

We live in a Star Trek world.

  • Early flip-phones looked surprisingly like Star Trek communicators
  • Virtual Reality is here (future article) … with similarities to Star Trek’s Holodeck
  • China reportedly teleported (“beamed up”) particles 500km into space earlier this year
  • And now, we can speak to “smart speakers” the way they speak to the computer in Star Trek

For a while now, you have been able to ask Google or Siri questions verbally on your computer/tablet/smartphone and get verbal responses. A few manufacturers have now put that technology into standalone devices that require only power and a wifi Internet connection.

Think about it. Instead of typing your question into a device and reading the response, you can speak it and get a verbal response! So far, there are a lot (but limited) number of questions that these devices can respond to, but something they do very well is offer verbal control of music. Both their hearing and their fidelity are very good … they can even “cast” to connected audio/video systems!

The only smart speaker product currently available in Canada is the $179 “Google Home”. (Amazon has similar products, but they’re not available in Canada yet. Apple plans to release the HomePod in US/UK/Australia in December, and the rest of the world in 2018.)

I have been playing with the Google Home for a few weeks now, and I like the functionality … even at this early stage. This doesn’t seem to be a ploy to sell more products and services, although the Google Play Music service ($9.99/month) does integrate nicely.

How these smart speaker products tie into my recent series of articles is that these devices can theoretically control other smart devices in your home. (I say “theoretically”, because this feature unfortunately isn’t available in Canada yet.) With a Logitech Harmony remote, you can ask Google to “turn on the TV”. With a ChromeCast, you can ask Google to “play my kitchen playlist on the kitchen speakers”. With certain lights, thermostats, or door locks/openers, you can ask Google to turn them on/of, up/down, lock/unlock.

But even without any other smart devices, you can ask Google to turn the music up/down/off, ask it to remember/recall something (like calendar entries), ask it facts, and even play trivia games with it.

Beam me up, Scotty!

Next day update: As of this week, Google Home can make phone calls to/from USA and Canada.

10-week update: As of this week, Google Home can now talk to Logitech Harmony remote. I have no website reference … just my own personal experience. Once paired, you can verball perform any Harmony functions with commands like “OK Google, ask Harmony to turn on the TV”.


The next few articles will keep on the general topic of multimedia and home automation because it is such a fast-changing area. This article will focus on the Logitech Harmony line of universal remotes.

There are few devices that compare with the Logitech Harmony. Introduced in 2004, one of these remotes can replace a handful of remotes on your coffee table, and even simplify the process by grouping multi-step operations into just a few simple activities like “watch TV” or “listen to iTunes”.

The biggest drawback of the early versions, especially for the longer sets of instructions, is that you had to keep the remote pointed at your devices when controlling them … failing to do so could result in only some of your instructions being received.

Logitech’s solution for that has been their hub: a small puck that stays within reach of the devices you wish to control. The hub also gave rise to the Harmony App, from which you can control the hub with your phone or tablet instead of (or as well as) a dedicated remote … effectively giving you multi-room control of your devices.

Logitech wasn’t content with controlling just your audio/video equipment, so now you can use one to control your home-automation devices such as lights, garage doors, door locks, and thermostats. To accomplish this, they have added Bluetooth and Wifi control to their basic Infrared controllers.

You can learn more at www.myharmony.com/en-ca/

A future article will introduce the “smart speaker” … a device that will (among other things) allow you to control the hub with voice commands.

So cool.

Cutting the TV cord – Part 2

Since writing last month’s article about cutting the TV cord, I have come up with two more technologies that may make your choice even easier. These are not new technologies, but you may not have heard of them yet.

The first is over-the-air (OTA) programming. This is not the old “rabbit-ears” analog TV that they stopped broadcasting in 2012 … this is the free digital OTA television mandated by our own CRTC. All you need to pick up the signal is an OTA receiver ($10 and up), and maybe an antenna … with no ongoing fees.

If you want to read more about OTA, simply google “digital OTA TV“.

The second technology has been around for over 10 years, but is even more applicable today than it was back then. Slingbox was the first device I saw that could rebroadcast your TV signal so that you could watch on a device in another room, or in another country, with no extra fees.

And, there are devices that combine those two technologies … allowing you to receive free digital HD OTA TV and rebroadcast to your phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, SmartTV, etc. Two such devices, from a company called SiliconDust, are the HDHomeRun Connect (~$150) and HDHomeRun Extend (~$230). These two products each have two tuners, so you can watch or record two different programs at the same time. The Extend model simply has a better “compression engine” so the resulting video can run smoother. Also note that the newest SiliconDust model, HDHomeRun Prime (~$230) does not do OTA.

With an antenna, you have a chance of picking up more of the channels broadcast from your local broadcaster (43 emanate from our local Mount Seymour). With a computer or a NAS, you can record shows to watch later. QNAP (mentioned in previous articles) just announced support for these devices for recording and playback, which prompted this article.

With an HDHomeRun Extend and $35 antenna now in stock, I can report that setup is quick and easy. Viewing streaming TV from any device on your home network is also very slick. Recording can be done for free with a bit of effort, or for a fee (US$35/year) quite easily. I have not yet determined how to view from outside of your home network, but that should also be possible.

Unfortunately, you can only receive a few channels in our area (Southern Vancouver Island): 5 with an antenna, 10 with a $30 “booster” antenna, and potentially more with a very expensive antenna. The selection is limited, but if want free “local” TV or you like shows from the 60s-80s, then this OTA technology may be a good option for you.

Cutting the TV cord – Part 1

Most of us are tired of TV. Tired of its high cost. Tired of its limited selection. Tired of commercials. Tired of having to buy “packages” of channels to get the one or two we want.

So we have come up with the term “cut the TV cord” to refer to the ending our cable TV service altogether. The author of this article cut the TV cord, more than 10 years ago, with no ill effects: I have always felt current on news and entertainment options, with a high degree of control, and little effort.

Now, with the incredible Internet speeds available and the plethora of media service and device options, it is even easier to cut the TV cord. Most of us enjoy 15Mbps-or-more download speed, which is enough to have one or two high-definition video streams running. Many of us subscribe to Netflix or similar services where we can choose from hundreds of shows and movies.

And the selection of devices keeps growing: computers, smartphones, tablets, smart-TVs, and media players can all link into today’s TV alternatives. You can choose to stream to your small screen, or “cast” to a larger screen … or enjoy directly on your smart-TV or connected media player.

Most of these devices follow the “app” approach to media. You want access a particular media source? Download the app and connect to their service. Some services are free, while some are paid. The selection varies depending on the device you are on, but the general approach is the same as your smartphone or tablet.

Most game consoles can also act as a media player, but not all of us are into games or the cost of these consoles. Smart-TVs have some nice features, but have a hard time keeping up with the rapid changes of the industry and the demands of ever-improving apps. This is where a media player can fit in: it can make your dumb-TV, or not-so-smart-TV, into a real performer for (roughly) $40 – $240.

One media player that stands out for me is the Minix Neo U9-H. Release in Feb2017, it is currently the one to beat for price/performance. It comes in a few configurations depending if you want no remote (i.e. control it with your phone), simple wireless remote, or one of a few fancy wireless keyboard remotes.

Shapes and Sizes


Personal computers come in wide variety of shapes and sizes. What started as a choice of one—the desktop—has become a broad spectrum that includes “stick” computers, NUCs, ultrabooks, 2-in-1s, and all-in-ones. This article will outline some of those choices, and point out some their strengths and weaknesses.

In the early 80s, IBM and Apple each came out with their ideas of the desktop computer. Even today, with all our other electronics, the idea of a non-portable computer isn’t dead. It is true that many of the functions of a desktop PC are now done by portable devices or purpose-built devices, but for some, there is still a place for the power and expandability of a desktop computer, in their many different forms. I’ll get back to desktops later in this article.

Shortly after the introduction of the desktop came portable computers, the earliest of which I like to call “arm-stretching luggable” (I still have mine from 1983). As technology advanced, these became laptops: portable computing power complete with screen, keyboard, and pointing device. These devices tended to have less computing power, and fewer choices for expanding … but they made up for it in their portability. Today, the power and price of laptops make them a strong contender against most desktops. Ultrabooks are simply fast laptops without the extra bulk of a CD/DVD drive.

Over the years, many attempts were made in the area of “tablet” computers, but it took a while to develop the screen and computing technologies required to achieve this goal. Initially, we were satisfied with the PDA, or Personal Data Assistant, but fast forward 30 years and we now have incredible power at our fingertips. A true tablet has no physical keyboard, so many of today’s tablets are actually “2-in-one”s … a tablet with touchscreen when “undocked” from the keyboard, but a laptop when you have a keyboard attached. This is currently the most popular computer form-factor.

Back in 1984, Apple transitioned to an all-in-one desktop design—called the Macintosh—that merged the desktop with the monitor. We now have the iMac, and many Windows all-in-one computers. The advantage of this design is “fewer cables” at the expense of upgradeability: generally speaking, it is more difficult to upgrade all-in-ones, and there is more to throw away as parts die or become obsolete.

Which brings us back to the desktop. They come in many shapes and sizes themselves. The smallest is called the computer-on-a-stick, or stick computer, that simply plugs into USB for power and HDMI for audio/video … they are hugely underpowered, but have their place in some cases. Next, in terms of size, is the NUC (which stands for Next Unit of Computing) … these can be very powerful, even game-worthy, so there’s a good chance this could be your next desktop computer. Then there are the SFF (Small Form Factor) desktops … these can often have issues around cooling and lack of standards, so beware.

Which brings us back to the good old desktop. Not dead. Only fading away.

How to recognize a scam

Scams have been around since the dawn of time … yes you millennials, even before computers! But computers, and the Internet, due to their complexity and universality, have given scammers huge opportunities to swindle us. And, I am sad to say, they have taken these opportunities and made them into big business.

I will identify some of the approaches that scammers are taking, and say how to recognize a scam.

We can encounter scams via email (spam), web ads (side-bars and popups), malware, cold calls, and support-centres-gone-rogue.

The hardest spam scams to identify are those that appear to be from legitimate sources. Watch out for typos, poor spelling/grammar, incredulous claims/offers, suspicious links, suspicious attachments, and combinations of the above. I got an email (actually 3) from CRA today that passed all the tests, except for the attachment: it had a Word document with active content that I was not about to enable. Suspicious links point to websites not reflected by the link text. Suspicious attachments are file types like ZIP, EXE (executable), JS (JavaScript), or DOC/DOCX (Word). Just opening files of these types can run malicious code on your computer.

Be wary of any phone call or popup that suggests your computer is infected with malware. You should only trust your antivirus (know its name!), or your local technician, to report infections. Do NOT call the number listed on the scam window … ignore the content of that window and either close it (End Task or Force Quit), or reboot to see if it reappears.

I feel I need to explain, again, that there are phone call scams—where they call you—and SCGR (support centers gone rogue) scams—where you called them but they aren’t who they purport to be. Please, please, please … Unless you are getting specific support for a specific issue from a known remote source, do not hand control of your computer over to someone you don’t know!

Please pass this on to your friends, neighbours, and relatives so we can reduce the proliferation of these scams.