Geek Beat: Tech Toy Shopping


This morning, in a special Black Friday segment of the “Geek Beat” on the Hawaii News Now morning show, Burt Lum and I joined half of the Sunrise crew at Pearlridge (the other half was at Ala Moana Center) to share some tech-flavored gift shopping suggestions.

Since many of the biggest retailers started their Black Friday specials on Thursday, the shopping center was busy but definitely not packed at 6:30 a.m. Surrounded by a refreshingly mellow retail vibe, we spent time with Dan Cooke and Steve Uyehara as they moved around between segments to feature different stores. We got to play passed-out shoppers, and even took a ride on the  Christmas train (despite the age and weight limit). We also spent time with the Pearlridge marketing team, which included social media powerhouse Melissa Chang.

Burt chose to feature toys for younger people, while I talked about toys for grown ups. (You’ll have to watch the video to hear how Dan introduced the latter.)

Here were our picks:

Star Wars BB8 Droid

bb8-300“It’s raining Star Wars,” commented one of the Pearlridge reps, and with the new movie coming out on Dec. 18, the franchise will be everywhere this holiday shopping season. (One of the biggest Star Wars displays at Pearlridge was at Sears.) Although the BB8 Droid came out earlier this year, it will undoubtedly be one of the hottest toys of the year. It can learn about and avoid obstacles, respond to voice commands, and record and play back video messages.

It’s made by Sphero, which hints that more features may be coming via software updates. My sons both got the company’s two-wheeled Ollie last Christmas (I posted a video of them playing with their gadgets on YouTube), so I know that the BB8 is solidly made and pretty impressive from a technology standpoint. It’s priced at $150.

Burt also pointed out that there’s another remote control BB8 available from Hasbro. It’s definitely a toy, with simpler controls and fewer functions, but no smartphone is required and it costs $80.

Cubelet Modular Robots

cubelets-300We had previous talked about littleBits, which are kid-friendly, open-source electronic building blocks, but Cubelet robot blocks were new to me. Cubelets seem to be accessible to younger kids than littleBits, recommended for ages four and up rather than eight, and involve easy-to-connect magnetic cubes, each with a different function. The twelve-piece kit comes with a couple of motors, a couple of sensors, a Bluetooth transmitter and receiver, and a battery.

For more advanced users, there is a Cubelet operating system and programming app, and they can even be hacked at the code level.

“There’s no wrong way to build with Cubelets, so it is remarkably easy to transform these blocks into brilliant bundles of robotic curiosity,” the website notes. The twelve Cubelet kit costs $329 (whereas the “Deluxe Kit” from littleBits is $199).

Apple Watch & Wearables

apple-watch-300Having covered both the announcement and the release of the Apple Watch for the “Geek Beat” (and this blog) earlier this year, I knew I was already pegged as a gushing fanboy. But I’ve been interested in this space for a while. Last year I recommended the Pebble, which certainly whet my appetite for Apple’s entry.

I field questions about the Apple Watch from “normal people” on a nearly daily basis, and I have also been surprised to see the Apple Watch embraced by many people who wouldn’t otherwise consider themselves early adopters or gadget fans. (In fact, “normal people” seem to like it better overall than the hardcore geeks.) With unexpected discounts on the Apple wearable turning up this Black Friday ($50 at Best Buy, $100 gift card back at Target), it seemed like a solid recommendation.

Does it have its quirks? Yes. Will there be an even better one out next year? Almost certainly. But it feels like the future, and I love mine for both practical and emotional reasons.

The Apple Watch is just one ripple in the crashing wave of wearables, of course.

Whereas I may have counted Fitbit out a year ago, they still seem to be going strong (I know several people picking up new Fitbits today), and people are buying and loving their Microsoft Band or Misfit Shine. And as far as smartwatches go, the diversity of hardware (and pricing) for Android Wear is impressive. Just don’t buy a Samsung.

Parrot Bebop 2 & Drones

parrot-bebop-300Yes, quadcopters were also last year’s biggest gift trend. But with federal regulators announcing recommended drone rules a couple of days ago, this is probably the last holiday season of the “Wild West” UAV era.

I decided to highlight the Parrot Bebop 2 drone, which was only announced ten days ago, and is a sequel to the first version that came out just this past summer. To be sure, there are much better and more expensive quadcopters out there, but Parrot is going for the broad consumer market with a simpler, cheaper drone — more toy than professional tool.

Instead of an advanced three-axis stabilizing gimbal, the Parrot simply shoots wide-frame video then uses software to stabilize the image. And with a more basic frame, the Bebop is reportedly more resistant to damage from collisions and crashes… something that happens quite often with new pilots.

The Parrot Bebop 2, which lists longer flight time as one of its key improvements, may make for a white-knuckle Christmas morning, with availability set to begin on December 14. It costs $550 (or $800 if you want to use the “Skycontroller” rather than your smartphone).

And since I know my UAV piloting friends are rolling their eyes, I should mention that the pro-am DJI Phantom 3 Standard isn’t much more expensive than the Parrot… regularly priced at $799 but perhaps not coincidentally discounted to $599 right now.

You can watch the full “Geek Beat” segment here. Happy shopping!

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