Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Health, fitness and wearables

Muse brain-sensing meditation headband
More info:

Life can get pretty stressful, and sometimes even the best intentions on eating well, exercising and other de-stressers might not be in the cards for you. Many people swear by meditation and its benefits, but a lot of times trying to start this on your own can be a challenge. I don’t like taking classes, and self-starter meditation programs and apps often leave me falling asleep after I close my eyes.

The Muse meditation headband, however, has technology(!) behind it. The headband wraps around the forehead and rests behind each ear. Sensors in the front of the band and on the sides (near where it’s resting on the outside of the ears) help detect brain waves to determine whether your mind is active, resting or neutral. Working via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, the headset guides you through meditation exercises to get you into a restful state without you having to feel like you need to sit on a blanket on the floor while chanting “Oooooohm”.

Basically, the app plays some soothing sounds as part of a mediation (a beach, a jungle, a desert). When the headband detects that your brain is distracted, the sounds get louder and more active, reminding you to focus on your breathing and get back to the quieter state. It’s not hard to get started with this, and you can program how long you’d like to meditate (I started with five-minute sessions). You also get regular reports and statistics on how you’re doing.

The system does require that you use your own separate earbuds or headphone with the device, so it’s imperative that you have something that is comfortable, otherwise you could be distracted by how much your earphones are bothering you.

-- Keith Shaw

ScotteVEST – Cotton Hoodie ($80) and OTG Jacket ($215)
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Since 2000, ScotteVEST has been providing cool apparel for men and women where they can hold their gadgets in the clothes instead of carrying around an additional item like a briefcase, backpack or (shudder) a man-purse. If you love pockets, zippers and lots of hidden compartments, chances are that ScotteVEST has something up your alley.

This year, the company sent me two of its newer offerings that fit more into my clothing lifestyle (casual frumpiness) – the OTG Jacket and cotton Hoodie. The OTG (stands for Off The Grid) Jacket includes 29 pockets, with two front Rapid Access Panels that can hold a full-size laptop without it looking like you’re pretending to be pregnant or shoplifting. The Jacket is designed for cooler environments, so you’ll probably wear this most in September, October and early spring (April, May). Additional pockets include the company’s Clear Touch pockets (an inside pocket that lets you access your smartphone without getting it out of the pouch) and an RFID-blocking pocket (if you are concerned about thieves stealing your data via RFID). The jacket was really comfortable to wear and felt good, not too bulky.

The Hoodie lets you fit right in with today’s top Silicon Valley executives – it’s a zip-up style with 10 pockets, including two large interior pockets that close up via magnets. ScotteVEST makes a microfleece version, but I’ve always been a cotton man myself.

If you have someone on your list who is carrying a lot of gadgets in a backpack or purse and you want them to just wear their devices, these products (as well as others at the ScotteVEST site) are worth a look.

-- Keith Shaw

AfterShokz Sportz Titanium (with mic) bone conduction headphones
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Headphones that use bone conduction technology really need to work on another phrase that describes what they do. Instead of sound waves traveling through your ear canal, these headphones utilize bone conduction to have the sound go through the BONES IN YOUR HEAD (they do eventually hit the ear canal). Something about that terrifies me (irrationally, I know).

Perhaps something like “open-ear headphones” would work better, because this is a concept that I can get behind. With nothing covering the ears, you can listen to your music and still be aware of your surroundings, whether that’s a co-worker asking you a question or an ambulance coming up behind you while you’re on your daily run.

The Sportz Titanium headphones from AfterShokz are designed for workouts – the company makes other bone conduction models as well (including a Bluetooth wireless version). This particular model utilizes a wire to connect to your music device, but also includes a microphone in case you want to take a phone call during your workout. The bone conduction part fits on each side of your head, right in front of the ear, and then are connected behind your head with a flexible cord. It’s also held in place by looping around the top of your ear.

The company promises up to 12 hours of music and phone battery life on a single charge (since it’s not wireless the battery will last longer), and the cord and bone conduction areas are all sweat resistant.

In my tests, I was able to hear music at a decent enough volume without disturbing my co-workers, and could still hear other conversations at the same time. The fit around the back of my head wasn’t perfect, so some slippage occurred – it would have been nice to be able to adjust the cord for a tighter fit.

For the most part I prefer to have earphones or headphones that completely cover my ears, but I’m also a person who doesn’t like outside distractions, and I don’t run enough where I need to be worried about that runaway ambulance. For someone who does a lot of running, however, these could be a lifesaver.

-- Keith Shaw

Dog & Bone Locksmart Mini Keyless Bluetooth padlock
More info:

One of the big rites of passage for kids is that first time you get a school locker and you have to memorize your combination in order to access your books and such. Years later, I find myself using combination locks for the locker at the gym – and half the time I forget the combination because (a) I’m older and (b) there are stretches where I don’t go to the gym, and end up forgetting it.

Wouldn’t it be much easier to just have a lock that unlocked via a small command from your smartphone? Yes, it would! There is such a lock – the Locksmart Mini Keyless Bluetooth padlock from Dog & Bone. There’s not much to explain here – you download an app, connect it to the lock via Bluetooth, and then press a button to unlock it. Pow. Done. No more memorizing numbers and how many times you have to turn the lock around.

Additional features include the ability to have shared access (multiple people can open the lock with their phones), tracking (know when and who has opened the lock), and up to two years of battery life before the lock needs to be recharged. The lock is weatherproof (if you want to lock up something outside), and includes 128-bit advanced encryption, with a 256-bit cloud generated private key for additional security if needed.

Of course, $70 for a padlock that you use only occasionally might be a bit costly, but if you want to protect items that are even more valuable (a bike, things in a shed, etc.) and have something where multiple people have access (instead of duplicating keys or giving away combinations), it’s worth a look.

-- Keith Shaw

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