The DeanBeat: My holiday tech gift guide for the pandemic

During the pandemic, we could all use some upgrades in our lives. Earlier this week, I recommended some gaming products that I’ve enjoyed during the lockdown. And now I’ve got some suggestions for tech that I’ve used to stay sane during a very difficult time.

I love to write about technology in the service of people. Consumer markets drive the whole of technology forward these days, just as space technology drove the chip industry forward in the early 1960s. We can only get these advances as the volumes associated with games or other consumer tech devices lower costs, drive manufacturing efficiencies, and propel technology forward. It preserves the notion of technological progress at a time when some fundamental technologies, such as Moore’s Law driving chips forward, has slowed down.

It also gives us cool gadgets to talk about. It never ceases to amaze me what kind of devices are becoming possible for everyone, let alone the smaller world of geeks and nerds that gives us the experimentation for testing new ideas. We’re getting data — like what’s going inside our bodies — that we never had access to before. To twist the words of sci-fi author William Gibson, the future is here, and it is being increasingly evenly distributed. Or so I choose to think during this Thanksgiving week.

Here’s the list of non-game consumer tech products that I recommend.

Opté age-spot remover

Above: The Opte in its case.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I’ve waited a long time to get my hands on Procter & Gamble’s Opté age-spot remover. Since I first saw it at the CES event in January 2019, it seemed magical, and it was a good reason that P&G showed up at that consumer technology event for the first time in its then-182-year history.

Opté uses micro inkjet printer technology to spray makeup on your face. It can remove spots on your skin, temporarily, by spraying the makeup only on the right skin spots. It evens out the tone to match the rest of your skin, making the spots seem invisible and your color more natural.

The product is part of P&G’s effort to bring technology to ordinary products and take the reins in leading the disruption of established markets. What is remarkable about this is that Procter & Gamble markets and sells this as a high-end makeup device, not a piece of technology. I like how the company makes technology fade into the woodwork.

After 10 years of development and over 40 patents, P&G Ventures, a startup studio within P&G, has finally shipped the product. It’s not cheap at $600, with $130 refills. But the makeup itself is called a serum, as it has things that are good for your skin including mineral pigments, niacinamide, propylene glycol, sodium hydroxide, acrylates copolymer, and more.

The device has a scanner that detects the spots on your skin, and the Funai Electric microfluidics inkjet only prints picoliter-size serum in the spots where you need it, not the surrounding skin. It works well, but you’ll have to apply a lot of it to your face over and over if you want to cover bigger spots. It won’t cover the biggest of spots, and that’s probably quite alright as we all need to look unique. And I like how it makes us look better while making us seem natural at the same time. You can see it takes a while to cover up the spot on my face in the video. But it makes me look beautiful for my Zoom calls.

Oral-B toothbrush

Oral-B iO

Above: Oral-B iO

Image Credit: P&G

The Oral-B iO is a new kind of toothbrush that features a magnetic drive that smoothly delivers power to the tips of the bristles, allowing the brush to glide tooth by tooth. At the heart of the Oral-B iO is a linear magnetic drive system. It also has a smart pressure sensor that helps you brush correctly by displaying green when you apply the right level of pressure or red if you brush too hard.

A display lets you navigate personalization features. It has welcoming greetings, a choice of brushing modes, language settings, and reminders to change the brush head. The Oral-B iO app provides 3D graphics, with Oral-B iO AI Brushing Recognition technology to make sure you reach all the areas of your mouth. The Bluetooth connection between the toothbrush and your smartphone tells you which part of your mouth you are brushing and which way you are holding the toothbrush. So the toothbrush knows which part of your mouth you’ve been brushing and for how long. It’s one of those inventions that keep you honest in measuring how long you brush each tooth.

It has a pretty strong pressure when it comes to brushing, but that is part of the point in using it. When you spend enough time brushing each quadrant of your mouth, the image of your teeth on the app turns to white. If you don’t spend enough time brushing each quadrant, then it will show up as incomplete, and over time, you’ll see this affect your stats for brushing. In that way, it gamifies brushing and motivates you to do better.

Meural photo frame

The Meural WiFi Photo Frame has a 15.6-inch tall screen. It can display in landscape or portrait.

Above: The Meural WiFi Photo Frame has a 15.6-inch tall screen. It can display in landscape or portrait.

Image Credit: Netgear

Netgear recently extended its Meural digital painting frames with a new line called the Meural WiFi Photo Frame. When this came out earlier this fall, the company said it was approaching the crowded market for digital picture frames with art lovers in mind.

Meural, which was acquired by Netgear, hit the market with a series of lifestyle art-viewing picture frames for your walls in 2018. Last year, Netgear unveiled a new version of the Meural with smaller screens (21 inches or 27 inches tall), starting at $400. These digital canvases are a classy option in a market full of cheap screens and feel like something Apple would do.

This year’s Meural WiFi Photo Frame extends the product into a new space. Priced at $300, it has a sharp display that is 15.6 inches tall by 7.5 inches wide. That’s a lot bigger than most photo frames but small enough to put on a desk to showcase your favorite photos or paintings.

You can place the photo frame vertically or horizontally, and it knows which orientation it is in and will display the images properly. It has a woodgrain trim and an anti-glare screen, as well as tech to make the photos viewable from multiple angles. You can make the frame sit horizontally or vertically. It has an electrical cord that is a bit hard to hide for those who want a more natural look. But the form factor is minimal and so it doesn’t steal attention away from what you are trying to display.

It takes a bit of know-how to get photos to display on it and rotate through images, but it also gives you a lot of choices for how you want those photos displayed. You can give it an album or playlist of images, and you can rotate through them at your own pace. You can also use it to play 15-second videos. The frame has a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. Its integrated sensors monitor the room’s ambient light to ensure images are displayed at the correct brightness, and it can automatically go to sleep when it’s dark. It’s ideal for grandparents who might also be art aficionados, as you can access 100 sample artworks curated from a Meural Art Library of over 30,000 images from leading museums, artists, and collections from around the world.

The full catalog is available if you subscribe to Meural art images for $9 a month. Non-members can store 4 gigabytes of photos, while members can store 20 gigabytes of data. (It has no SD card slots, as the focus is on making it a connected experience.) I like it because it can remind you of better years than 2020, when we could all travel the world as we wished.

TrueContour contour mask

Dean Takahashi wears a 3D-printed mask.

Above: No, this is not a creature from a video game. Dean Takahashi wears a 3D-printed mask from TrueContour.

Image Credit: Marla Takahashi

TrueContour‘s founders noticed the wide variation in the quality of masks that we’re using to protect ourselves during the pandemic. So it created an app that uses 3D imaging from a smartphone camera to determine the shape of your face. Once you scan your face, you send it to TrueContour, and it will use a 3D printer to create a TC1 mask that fits the contour of your face.

I used an iPhone 11 Pro Max to run the app to scan my face in under a minute. You can use the app on the iPhone X or later (X, Xs, Xs Max, XR, 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max). Brooklyn-based TrueContour said it uses AI to generate a model for a mask that will fit your face. It’s a plastic mask that fits your face snugly. When it is in the proper position, you don’t need to worry about the mask fogging up your glasses. Adjustable straps on the side wrap around your ears, and you can tighten these to customize how snug the mask will be against your face.

The mask has two holes in it where you can attach the replaceable filters. These filters pop off quite easily, but once you have the filter in place, you don’t have to worry so much about having them fall out, unless someone punches you in the face. The company said the filters block particles as small as 2.5 micrometers in diameter, but it is not a medical-grade mask and should not be used in a healthcare environment.

It isn’t cheap at $90. But it does get rid of replacing a mask every time you need one, as you can wash the plastic quite easily and get replacement filters. TrueContour’s creators are the same folks who founded Voodoo Manufacturing, a 3D-printing factory company. I used the mask while jogging, and it keeps me from fogging up my glasses during a job. But I do sweat quite a bit, and the water builds up in the mask. That’s not great for comfort. On the other hand, your usual cloth mask typically absorbs this sweat and makes the mask damp. In this case, you can wash the mask and wear it again. You can wear it for a while, but the sweat buildup will eventually make you want to take it off. If you don’t want to see all that sweat, I would recommend painting it.

While this mask isn’t ideal, you can see the innovation and where the tech could go for both better comfort and better protection. That matters because we have such a large population that won’t wear masks. After you place an order, TrueContour will ship your mask to you.

Thryve

Thryve prescribes probiotics for you based on your gut health.

Above: Thryve prescribes probiotics for you based on your gut health.

Image Credit: Thryve

One of the wonderful things about modern technology is the transparency that it gives us for our health. Thryve is one of those modern companies that combines advanced medical testing, an explanatory app, and a customized supplement program that is tailored to your “gut health.” It fits in with the notion of using previously inaccessible data to create personalized nutrition for you that is based on science. And maybe, coming a day after Thanksgiving, more people might want to gain transparency into what’s going on in their digestive systems.

I tried this out by signing up for a test via the mobile app. It’s not a pleasant DNA test, as you have to swab a piece of toilet paper with your feces on it and send that in a sealed package back to the company. But it gives the company what it needs to analyze your insides and any microbial imbalances that can be detected.

It’s not meant to measure whether you have any illnesses, such as cancer. Rather, it provides a picture of your microbiome, or the billions of bacteria that are inside your stomach and intestines. The test focuses more on your large intestine, CEO Richard Lin said in an interview. Then it suggests a supplement program — based on the advice of experts from MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Purdue, and UC Davis — with the right probiotic strains of bacteria that will be good for your gut. Roughly 30 trillion to 50 trillion microorganisms live in our gut, and those come from more than 1,000 species of bacteria — some that are good for you and some that are bad.

Lin said that, beyond our digestive systems, our gut microbiome maintains many other aspects of health, including our immune system, heart, weight, skin, digestion, mental health, energy levels, weight loss, and more. He said our unique microbiome essentially acts as an organ in our body’s function, and houses 95% of the serotonin in the body. The other 5% is found in your brain. Due to the vast neurotransmitters in the gut, scientists have started calling this your second brain. This is important, as an estimated 70 million people are struggling with digestive problems in the country.

When I got my test back, the app showed me my gut health was generally good at 86 out of 100. The test results themselves consisted of a spreadsheet full of scientific descriptions of what was in my gut. But I didn’t need to interpret that myself. Thryve suggested some supplements for me that could improve my microbial diversity, and I could buy them for a subscription fee of $35 a month.

Lin himself went through a serious struggle with chronic autoimmune pain for years. It flared up after taking antibiotics for a cold, and it caused more problems. During that process, he learned his gut microbiome was key to healing. So he started the Redwood City, California-based company in 2016 and it has now 20 employees. The research team includes doctors with training in the science.

The goal is to provide a directional tool, rather than a medical diagnostic that requires approval from the Food and Drug Administration. To date, the company has helped more than 50,000 customers to date. Over time, a premium package will include an analysis from a doctor for a brief conversation. Figuring out how to make this information actionable is a moving target, but crowdsourcing the data has been very helpful, Lin said.

Kimberly Griffith, a doctor at Thryve, told me that my general gut health was good. Lin said maybe a single person scored 100 out of 100. Griffith said that the diversity of bacteria is important to your gut health, as all the different microbes have different jobs to do. It’s like a rainforest, she said, where the goal is a diverse and strong ecosystem. She noted that while my lactose intolerance wasn’t bad, she said my gluten intolerance could use another evaluation. That was news to me. The suggested probiotic strains for me will target any bad bacteria growth detected.

And that’s more about my insides than I’m sure you wanted to know.

Molekule Air Pro

Above: The Molekule Air Pro is $1,200.

Image Credit: Molekule

Molekule has been a quest to reinvent air purification, and its latest Molekule Air Pro is a professional-grade air purifier for commercial spaces. While it may not be affordable for many in the home, it should help businesses frequented by consumers as those businesses try to keep the air in their indoor spaces clean.

Demand for the filter, which has three times the airflow of earlier models, has been growing in places like California that continue to battle wildfires. Those fires have abated now, but the need for clean air is still high. These filters can attack viruses, mold, and bacteria, according to research by Aerosol Research and Engineering (ARE) Laboratories. If you want something that can actually attack the coronavirus, you may have to consider something like this Dynamics Nanowave Air, which costs $3,450 and uses ultraviolet light for sanitation. Molekule does not say that it can kill the coronavirus in particular.

The Molekule Air Pro can clean greater volumes of air than its predecessors — the Molekule Air Mini, the Air Mini+ — and it uses the same patented photoelectrochemical oxidation (PECO) technology that was developed by Dharendra Yogi Goswami, who is chief technology officer at the company. What’s good about this new one is that it can give you a strong signal about the quality of your air, like it’s good or bad. It often signals bad air when I’m cooking, but that’s not bad to think about. But when it’s clear you should close your windows and put this machine to work, you’ll get a strong hint from the screen on the device.

PECO represents a big update to the industry-standard High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter created in the 1940s. Unlike traditional air purifiers that trap pollutants on a filter, where they can continue to grow and be released back into the air, PECO promises to destroy pollutants, eliminating them completely. It breaks down the pollutants at a molecular level, something most filters don’t do, and eliminates particles that are 100 times smaller than those captured by HEPA filters.

The new Air Pro has more sensor capability to break detected particles down into three sizes, from PM10 (pollen) and PM2.5 (dust) to smaller than PM1 (smoke) and down to particles 0.3 microns in size. It can also increase people’s understanding of the particles in the air they breathe. You can control the airspeed with an app and check your air particle levels and filter status. The app can also tell you when it’s time to change your PECO filter. Each Air Pro is designed to clean 1,000 square feet of space. The Air Pro retails for $1,200, while filter subscriptions cost $100 for a six-month supply.

I think the best thing about Molekule is that it gives me more confidence that the air I’m breathing inside my house is safer for both me and my family. I only wish they built houses with this kind of filtration technology so we didn’t have to clean the air room by room.

2020 Ford Mustang

Above: The Ford Mustang 2020 model’s steering wheel.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I guess it might be a stretch to call this a gadget. Yes, I managed to drive a bunch of new cars this year and the one that stayed in my memory was the 2020 Ford Mustang. It symbolized freedom from another era for me, and I enjoyed gunning the engine and hearing and feeling the rumble.

But how much tech is embedded in the cars themselves? I don’t usually review cars for a living. But when I came back from the CES 2019 tech trade show in January I figured it would make sense to start reviewing cars, since companies are packing so much technology into these vehicles. It was interesting for me to drive these cars as we get ready for the days when the cars can drive themselves.

We aren’t there yet, but modern cars have so much embedded technology when it comes to advanced safety features, passenger comfort, infotainment, and general driver assistance. The Ford Mustang’s four-cylinder engine has 330 horsepower that makes it into an ideal sports car, going as far back as 1964. But the new Mustang also has an EcoBoost mode that gets it better gas mileage. It has five driver-selectable drive modes. I liked the old-style steering wheel and instrument panel with aluminum borders. The instrument panel itself is a 12-inch LCD screen, and a separate infotainment screen is in the middle of the dashboard. If you’re shopping, you can look at it from a virtual reality 360-degree view.

It also has FordPass Connect as a standard option on the Mustang for 2020. It allows owners to interact with their vehicles via a smartphone. You can use the phone app to do things like locate their parked car (for the forgetful), lock and unlock the car from afar, and check vehicle statuses, such as fuel, oil levels, and maintenance alerts. For automatic transmission-equipped Mustang models, the system has a remote start feature, so you can get the engine going to freak bystanders out or just heat the car up in the morning. It has voice communications via Sync 3 and AppLink, and it can notify 911 if you need assistance. You can track various system diagnostics in the car. The infotainment system works with apps such as Waze and Alexa, and it has options for SiriusXM satellite radio.

On the safety side, it has a pre-collision warning system with emergency braking, cross-traffic warning, and a lane-keeping system that can alert weary drivers. It can provide you with service alerts and Wi-Fi connectivity for your passengers. It has two USB ports. It starts at $26,670.

Other notable gifts to consider

The serene blue waters of the LED-lit Coway Bidetmega 400.

Above: The serene blue waters of the LED-lit Coway BidetMega 400.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I would also note I’ve come to take for granted plenty of gifts as a part of my daily routine. Amazon Echo with Alexa voice recognition has brought music back into our lives. Apple’s Air Pods are a wonderful invention when it comes to making it simple to listen to Audible audio books (I’m listening to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash now) on my daily jogs, and my Apple Watch is great for easily recording my jogging times and distance. Sleepwatch is a fine app that uses my Apple Watch to track my sleep. And Carb Manager is a wonderful app that told me that the Grande Soy Mocha that I had with Starbucks has just as many carbs as my entire carb intake from the day before of low-carb meals. Zoom has been a lifeline to the outside world, and FaceTime has been my link to my mother in an eldercare facility. And I’ve enjoyed using the Coway BidetMega as a way to keep, uh, myself clean while spending so much time at home. And I love using Otter.ai, which transcribes audio recordings (as best it can) so that you can see in words what people have said in interviews. I also learned some interesting things about my ancestry from 23andMe, which told me I am 3% Korean.

As far as tech for others, I believe the combination of Dexcom G6 glucose monitor and the Omnipod insulin pump are amazing lifesavers in automating the process of getting insulin into the bodies of Type 1 diabetes patients. I only hope that the tech someday becomes cheap enough and widespread enough for all those who need it, including those who are borderline diabetes patients. And I was intrigued at this Moon UltraLight lighting device targeted at black people, who often have a hard time getting good lighting for their smartphone pictures.

If I had a wishlist to solve more pandemic problems, I wish that microphone and webcam additions to desktops were more robust when it comes to working via USB connectors, particularly after you use virtual reality headsets. I hope for simpler ways to set up home security cameras, routers, and printers. I also wish I had a device that allowed me to cut my own hair. But that may be too much to ask. I am also hoping to see and use a lot of these cool devices that I saw from CES 2020 back in January.

Lastly, I wish you a great Thanksgiving and holiday season and much joy with your loved ones.

GamesBeat Black Friday Gift Guide:

Everything we recommend this holiday season


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