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This Saturday On The TC Gadgets Podcast: Amazon Echo


I could lie and tell you that we recorded a special July 4th edition of the TC Gadgets Podcast, but it wouldn’t be accurate. In reality, we recorded this podcast over a week ago and I accidentally forgot to push the publish button.

But the content still exists, so I felt strongly about sharing it with you guys.

In this episode, we talk about the freshly released Amazon Echo, which is a connected speaker that listens to you, answers questions, and takes commands. And beyond that, Amazon recently opened up developer tools so that apps and services can integrate with the device.

It’s a pretty sick little toy, and has the potential to be the main hub for computing in the home.

This week’s episode of the TC Gadgets Podcast is brought to you by John Biggs, Jordan Crook, and Darrell Etherington.

We invite you to enjoy our weekly podcasts every Friday at 3 p.m. Eastern and noon Pacific. And feel free to check out the TechCrunch Gadgets Flipboard magazine right here.

Click here to download an MP3 of this show.
You can subscribe to the show via RSS.
Subscribe in iTunes

Intro Music by Mendhoan.

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Back Up And Sync Your Files Inside A Mason Jar With Raspberry Preserve


Do you like the concept of backup services like Dropbox or Box but don’t want to relinquish control of your data? Well now you can keep your files safely stored in your own pantry, right next to your jars of fruits and vegetables.

An innovative DIYer has figured out a way to skillfully merge a Raspberry Pi running BitTorrent Sync with a traditional glass Mason jar. The result is a homemade service that keeps files in sync between all of your devices.

In terms of software setup, all you need to do is SSH into a Raspberry Pi and install the Raspberry Pi version of BitTorrent Sync (aptly named Raspberry Preserve), Node.js, and a few other packages. The Pi can also connect to optional LEDs, to blink or stay solid depending on whether data is currently transferring to the device.

While the original creator opted to attach his Mason jar to a wooden base, it is up to you to decide how much effort you want to put into the aesthetics of the device.

BitTorrent Sync was created by the same group that created BitTorrent. An easy way to think of the software is that it is also a peer-to-peer network like BitTorrent, but all of the peers are your devices. The result is that if you place something in a synced folder on your laptop it will be synced to the node hosted on the Pi inside your Mason jar, then shared with your phone, desktop, etc.

Because the whole solution is based on a Pi, the project can basically be upgraded to whatever level desired. For example, you could install an optional hard drive for increased integrated storage in the jar itself, or connect a USB WiFi attachment so the jar doesn’t need to be tethered to an ethernet connection.

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So About That Whole Tech-Eating-Jobs Thing


The argument seems compelling, the logic inescapable. As hardware doubles its density every 18-24 months, courtesy of Moore’s Law, and as software eats the world, technology will replace a broad swathe of jobs outright–from burger-flippers to diagnosticians–and atomize many others from full-time positions into gigs performed by many fungible workers. Tech, in short, will eat jobs.

Oh, it will create new jobs too, obviously. But it seems flagrantly apparent that technology moves faster than society these days, and hence it seems very likely that technology will destroy jobs faster than it creates them. What’s more, those jobs it creates will tend to be in fields that emphasize human creativity–ie “tournament” fields with a few winners and many losers.

All of which would be a good thing–as most jobs are crap jobs–except that our society is not built for a world in which more and more people are unemployed. Not unless we implement something like a basic income.

…That’s the argument, at any rate. It’s one I’ve made repeatedly in this space over the last few years. (Echoing many others, to be clear.) But intellectual honesty compels me to admit: the available evidence does not currently support it at all.

If the USA is the canary in our global coal mine–which seems likely, given its high technology and liberal labor laws–then the workers of the world have little to worry about any time soon. “Robots Seem to Be Improving Productivity, Not Costing Jobs,” reports the Harvard Business Review. Total nonfarm payroll employment is far above where it was ten years ago:

Even the age-adjusted employment-to-population ratio has, crucially, recovered almost two-thirds of its Great Recession losses. The trend is obvious. Yes, the tech-eating-jobs argument still seems to hold logical water. Yes, this may be a sharp cyclical rise masking a gradual structural decline. But right now the evidence indicates that “tech is eating jobs!” is vaporware at best. Opinions are interesting, but evidence is what matters.

This evidence is arguably a bad thing–no, really–because, again, tech eating jobs is an optimistic future … assuming we figure out a new tech-driven socioeconomic structure that shares machine-generated wealth in a decentralized way that still incentivizes productivity and creativity. But it’s also a good thing, because, realistically, as a society, we’re not very good at that sort of restructuring. (Cf my favorite Winston Churchill quote.)

Really we’re not even good at understanding the problem. Consider Derek Thompson’s long, puzzling piece “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic. He doesn’t seem to get that the point of a basic income is to supplement jobs and tide people over through periods of unemployment, not replace work entirely; and, as Mike Konczal points out, Thompson doesn’t really address either the wrenching transition to such a world, or the vicious inequality that it might feature–arguably the topic’s two most important problems.

It seems that we face one of five futures:

  1. Tech eats many/most jobs entirely. Could be Star Trek, if we reshape our society to fit. Could also very easily be a world of a small, very wealthy rich minority; a barely larger middle class; and a vast impoverished underclass precariat. (Americans tend to think, wrongly, that such a society would be unstable and soon overthrown by revolution. In fact much/most of the world is already structured this way and has been for many years.)
  2. Tech atomizes jobs into gigs, and/or creates new tournament-style Extremistan jobs. Not especially phenomonologically distinct from option 1.
  3. Tech creates great, or at least better, new jobs for everyone. This would be pretty good! Not as idyllic as a future where work is completely optional as long as you accept a low (but survivable) standard of living, but pretty good. A minority of people in today’s world have enjoyable jobs that both challenge and reward them. (I’m one of them.) People who are high-profile, or have high-profile soapboxes, are more likely to be among this cohort … so, I suspect, they think it’s a more likely future than it actually is. But it’s at least plausible.
  4. Global catastrophe, and/or the Singularity, or something else that makes all this irrelevant.
  5. Something much, much weirder.

I actually think Option 5, the “unknown unknown,” is quite likely–but it’s a moot point. The available evidence, to my surprise, is currently pointing towards Option 3. Which is not what I predicted, and is no bad thing at all.

But in ten years’ time? Or even five years’ time?

No one can say for sure, but it seems to me that we collectively face a variant of Pascal’s Wager. It seems to me that it would do us a lot of good, and no harm at all, to at least prepare for the possibility of Option 1 and/or Option 2 — especially now that we have some breathing room.

That’s why I’m watching the increasing experimentation with basic incomes around the world with great interest. True, if jobs keep being created faster than technology destroys them, we may not need that at all. But let’s not put all our eggs in that basket just yet. Moore’s Law, and human ingenuity, are relentless and implacable forces.

Featured Image: Mark Buckawicki/Wikimedia Commons UNDER A Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication LICENSE

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The Incredible 3D Printed Zoetrope


Here’s a wonderfully neat project to perhaps spark some creativity as we head into this holiday weekend: the 3D printed Zoetrope.

Take the concept of a flipbook — a series of frames displayed quickly to trick your brain into seeing an animation — and make it 3D, swapping out the still images for sculptures. Toss in a spinning platter and a strobe light (with the strobe flicker simulating “frames”) and bam — you’ve got a 3D zoetrope.

It’s an illusion that’s hard to capture on video, but truly incredible to see in person. It’s like seeing claymation come to life in front of your eyes.

The concept was conceived by French scientist and inventor Étienne Jules-Marey, and more recently cranked up to 11 by teams at Pixar and Studio Ghibli.

There’s a reason that the best examples of a 3D zoetrope exist as museum showcases for massive animation houses: making a proper, beautiful, complex 3D zoetrope is a labor of love, thus far requiring hundreds of sculpting/painting/engineering hours from some of the most talented animation teams in the world.

Lowering the bar a bit, a team out of the Netherlands has found a bit of a shortcut: 3D printing.

It’s still one helluva project to dive into, but it shows but one of the strange ways 3D printing expands our creative freedoms. Take a short 3D animation, break it into 64 separate frames, 3D print each one and arrange them around a platter. Tada! You’ve got your very own zoetrope.

Want more examples of how damned cool these things can be?

Here’s Pixar’s (from Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim):

and here’s Studio Ghibli’s (from the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan):

If you get a chance to see any of these in person, I’d suggest you go however far out of your way is necessary to do so. It’s really quite incredible.

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Want Google’s Cardboard VR Headset? OnePlus Is Giving Them Away For Free, If You Pay Shipping


Since about 10 seconds after Google launched its do-it-yourself Cardboard virtual reality headset, other companies have been selling pre-made clones — and Google is totally fine with that.

(Wondering WTF “Cardboard” is? The short version: it’s a virtual reality headset that uses your phone as the brains. Fold the headset together, slip your phone into it, and you’re good to go. It’s like a very, very basic Oculus Rift. Google released it as a side project, then opened it up for others to build upon.)

The catch: many of the clones cost upwards of $20-30 bucks, and that’s before shipping. Paying that much for what is essentially a piece of cardboard can feel a bit silly. Looking to capitalize on this, up-and-coming smartphone manufacturer OnePlus is giving away a ton of Cardboard clones for free — you just pay the shipping.

For all of the orders I’ve seen, the shipping fee comes in at $5.

OnePlus’ clone is based on the latest version of Cardboard (v2.0, which just debuted at Google I/O last month), but they’ve made a few tweaks:

  • The cardboard is thicker, for the sake of durability
  • The folded project ends up around 20% smaller, while still playing friendly with most devices up to 6″ — be it an iPhone, a OnePlus One, or any other Android phone you might have sitting in your pocket.
  • They’ve coated the exterior bits with a dirt/oil resistant film. As anyone who has used an original Cardboard unit before can tell you, they tend to get pretty greasy in about 5 minutes because people are gross.

So what’s in it for OnePlus? Why give away something for practically nothing?

Writes the company:

“This is not a product; it’s an initiative. We aren’t making any money by offering OnePlus Cardboard. In fact, we are losing money with each one.”

But in the end, it’s a marketing promotion — and one that fits well within the company’s messaging to date.

OnePlus plays the goodwill card and caters to its fanbase like few other new companies have managed, limiting initial device sales to its most devout fans, hashing out how new features will work with its forumgoers, and more.

With this promo, they’re making new fans and getting their branding out there for the cost of a sheet of cardboard and some plastic lenses. When heading off against giants like Samsung and LG, that’s a pretty damned reasonable customer acquisition cost — particularly with OnePlus being just weeks away from debuting its second handset.

You can order one of OnePlus cardboard headsets right over here. If you get a “Sold out” message, try again later — they seem to be releasing these in waves.

Still wondering what the heck this thing is? Here’s a video of me tinkering with the original V1 Google Cardboard:

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Experiential Commerce Is The Next Billion-Dollar Opportunity For Developers


Technology has transformed entire industries over the past decade, from travel and transportation to media and real estate. While commerce has enjoyed some innovation, its transformation is far from over. The next frontier is “Commerce Everywhere,” which blends online and offline experiences to let you make purchases wherever and whenever you want.

This transformation in commerce won’t be led by consumers or even by brands, but by developers. Empowered by new resources in the growing API economy and platforms that take care of business basics, developers will charge ahead. New apps and experiences will start on the bleeding edge and gradually make their way into the mainstream — forever altering the way retailers sell and consumers buy.

This new kind of experiential commerce has the potential to turn traditionally mundane customer experiences into moments of delight. It can also remove any friction from the buying process. Making a purchase is something that you’ll be able to do while in the flow of other activities, like doing the dishes, watching TV or tracking fitness goals.

Examples range from everyday items to high-end fashion. In Rebecca Minkoff’s flagship SoHo location, shoppers can now interact with a huge wall display to browse styles and send them to the dressing room. On the other end of the spectrum, Domino’s lets you order a pizza by tweeting a pizza emoji and Amazon’s new Dash Button lets you re-order dish soap while doing the dishes.

These present-day examples are just a hint as to what the future of commerce will look like. The most exciting experiences will be powered by technology that we haven’t yet considered, and sprout from teams of developers based anywhere in the world.

Back-End Tools Are Accelerating The Pace Of Innovation

Developers are able to take the lead on innovation thanks to an abundance of APIs and platforms that dramatically shrink the cost and time it takes to build, test and sell new products, features and apps. Both APIs and platforms take care of the complicated and time-consuming back-end tasks, enabling developers to make a greater impact with their creativity.

Stripe is a prime example of a back-end tool moving commerce forward. Legacy payment solutions were cumbersome: they lacked APIs, documentation and client libraries. Stripe takes care of the heavy lifting for payment processing so developers can now add more intuitive and elegant checkout experiences into their apps.

Through APIs, established platforms have been another opportunity to accelerate commerce innovation and opportunity. A commerce platform takes care of all the transactional basics, such as payment processing, providing storefronts, customer communication and shipping.

Building on top of a platform gives a developer virtually instant access to a well-developed and active user base. It means developers no longer need to spend huge amounts of time trying to market and monetize their apps. This is why small developer teams have found so much success building for platforms, including Google, Evernote and Zendesk.

Small Developer Teams Will Drive The Future Of Commerce

The democratizing force of APIs and platforms ensures that any developer team — no matter size and location — has the chance to build the next big thing for tomorrow’s shopping experience.

There will be increasing collaboration between small businesses and small development teams. Smaller merchants are hungry for new ways to create memorable connections with their customers, both online and off, in order to compete with everything from Amazon to countless other small retailers like themselves.

If you’re a developer, or part of a small dev shop, the market opportunity for innovative commerce is enormous. Retailers and shoppers think in terms of what’s possible today, but developers will plot the course for the future. The next big thing in commerce is just around the corner.

Featured Image: Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

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