Top 9 Tech Updates: Photosynth, Geocaching, Google Earth, and More
I’ve been writing World Wide Wade for almost a year now; this is the 44th installment. A year is a long time in the technology world—long enough for many of the gadgets, services, and websites I’ve covered in the past to evolve cool new features. So I thought I’d revisit a few of my previous columns and fill you in about what’s changed.
1. Beyond megapixels. In my April 4 and June 6 columns, I wrote about the Gigapan community site, where you can upload super-high-resolution photos stitched together from lots of regular digital shots. In January of this year, a new company called GigaPan Systems introduced a $379 robot camera mount that puts gigapixel imaging within the reach of hobbyists. It takes care of the tedious part of gigapixel imaging by guiding your camera through hundreds or thousands of individually-angled shots, with just enough overlap to give the stitching software something to work with.
2. News aggregators on steroids. Last April 11, I wrote about my favorite news-tracking tools on the Web, including Netvibes and Alltop. Netvibes hasn’t changed much in the last year, but Alltop, a cool aggregator that uses pop-up windows to squeeze a lot of news onto a single page, has exploded beyond all bounds. It had about 55 categories of RSS feeds when I last wrote about it; now there must be well over 500, on everything from Atheism to Zoology. And for tech-news enthusiasts, there’s a site called TechFuga that recently got a nice overhaul that makes it more competitive with the uber-popular but somewhat tired TechMeme. The new features at TechFuga include Twitter searching, reflecting the fact that more and more people are getting their news from each other via the red-hot microblogging service. (Speaking of Twitter, you can follow me there at “wroush“.)
3. Earth as you’ve never seen it. On April 18, I wrote about Google Earth 4.3, which featured improved navigation and a larger crop of 3-D buildings. The latest version of the world’s most popular geo-browser, Google Earth 5.0, came out in the middle of last month. The coolest improvements: a fantastic view of the ocean floor, the ability to delve back in time and see aerial imagery from the 1980s and earlier, and imagery for Mars as well as Earth and the Moon.
4. An art museum in your living room. If you’ve got an HDTV already, there’s no reason to buy one of those expensive digital photo frames. My April 25 column talked about GalleryPlayer, a company that provided software and imagery for turning your TV into a digital art exhibit. Unfortunately, GalleryPlayer went out of business in July (though founder Scott Lipsky, an ex-Amazon exec, hinted that it had merely been sold and might re-emerge). Luckily, there are still plenty of ways to find and display high-resolution images on your big screen. DeviantArt is a great place to browse and download free HD-resolution images created by professional artists and photographers. And if you hook up your computer to your TV, you can use software like Slickr or FlickrFan to display those images—or your own—in the form of animated slide shows.
5. An elephant never forgets. My July 18 column was about Evernote, a fantastic cross-platform system for storing and tracking all the info-flotsam in your life: Web pages, photos, receipts, you name it. I still add material to my Evernote account every day, and the company just keeps making the software better and better. There’s now a version for Android phones (on top of the existing Web, Windows, Mac, Windows Mobile, and iPhone versions). In December, Evernote (whose logo is an elephant) added a file synchronization feature, so you can use it to keep copies of important Word files, PDFs, PowerPoints, and other electronic documents, and more recently, it rolled out a vastly improved version of its Web Clipper, which is the tool I use most often. A feature I plan to try soon is the recently-announced Shoeboxed, a service that will scan that pile of business cards and receipts on your desk and put them right into Evernote. And if you used Google Notebooks—which Google gave up on in January—you can easily import all of your notes to Evernote and pick up where you left off.
6. Cutting the cord. In my July 25 column, I threatened to give up my cable TV subscription and switch to watching my favorite shows online, via video aggregators like Hulu. Well, it took me a while to gather up the courage, but last week I finally made good on the threat, and dropped my $80 digital cable package at Comcast in favor of a $10 lineup of about 23 local channels (which I kept just in case I ever feel the need to watch live news). While I was at it, I canceled my land line, which only telemarketers ever called anyway. Now we’ll see what life post-cable is really like—I’ll let you know how it’s going in a future column. Fortunately, there are now convenient video-on-demand services from both Netflix and Amazon; the Roku Player, which now taps into both services, gets good reviews. And I’ve got four seasons of The Wire waiting for me on DVD.
7. Scene stealer. On August 29, I wrote about Photosynth, an amazing visualization tool from Microsoft Live Labs. Photosynth lets you upload up to 300 photos taken in a single location (say, Boston’s Copley Square) and then organizes them into accurate 3-D arrays that you can explore almost as if you were walking through the actual scene. The big news here is that Greg Pascale, a former Microsoft intern, just finished a free Photosynth viewer for the Apple iPhone called iSynth. It works great—in fact, it’s better than Microsoft’s regular online Photosynth viewer, because the iPhone’s multi-touch interface provides such a natural way to interact with the images.
8. Cache is king. My September 19 column about geocaching, “GPS Treasure Hunting with Your iPhone 3G,” was pretty popular. But at the time, doing any serious geocaching required switching back and forth between different applications—one such as Geopher Lite for looking up geocaches and their locations, and another such as GPS Kit for actually navigating to the specified locations. In January, the company that invented geocaching and acts as the official clearinghouse for the sport—Groundspeak—came out with an all-in-one geocaching application for the iPhone 3G. I’ve tested it in the field, and it works great. It’s well worth the $9.99 price tag.
9. Spring forward. My November 21 column was about Springpad, an online notebook service launched last year by Boston’s Spring Partners. This Web application lets you create task-oriented Web pages (called springpads) that include text notes, to-do lists, contacts, calendar events, maps, photos, and other media. Interestingly, rather than pitching Springpad as a general organizational tool—the way Evernote does with its service—Spring Partners has chosen to roll out its technology in stages, starting with a series of specialized springpads with seasonal themes. The first custom springpads were designed to help with holiday shopping and meal planning. And last month, Spring Partners founder Jeff Janer told me about the new springpad designed for date planning (which appeared in early February, in time for Valentine’s Day) and an upcoming wedding-planner springpad.
Janer says the service has been gaining traction among four groups in particular: productivity addicts, including devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done time-management method; cooks, who use the popular meal-planning springpad to organize their trips to the grocery store; “mommy bloggers,” a surprisingly large contingent, who use springpads as workbooks to plan upcoming posts; and 25-to-35-year-olds, who appreciate the date planner. “Our core idea is to find repeatable types of activities and events and help people get things done faster and easier,” Janer explains. Coming soon: mobile versions of specific springpad features such as to-do lists.