Tech review: Adrian Weckler on the latest gadgets
Reviewed by our technology expert this week are the Samsung Gear 360, LG G5 and the Sony Xperia Ear.
Samsung pulls a 360 with new VR camera
Samsung Gear 360
Very few of us currently use virtual reality in our everyday lives. Many don't even know what it is: a tech system that lets you 'explore' an online environment as if you were there, usually with a headset and sensors that make hand and other bodily gestures respond to your online environment. (Think about films such as the Matrix or Avatar, and then dial the immersion back a little.)
I'll admit that I was an early sceptic about virtual reality reaching a mass audience. But with every passing month and every new gadget released to support the technology, I'm seeing it seizing its place.
Whether Samsung's new Gear 360 camera is part of this evolution remains to be seen. But its launch last week by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg shows an alignment of big tech companies that believe in a strong future for virtual reality.
The Gear 360 is about the size of a sliotar. On opposite sides of the sphere it has a 15-megapixel F2 camera that can shoot 180-degree wide-angle shots. Stitched together, this produces a 360-degree video view. This means that it's compatible with a virtual reality experience, where you can turn your head to see a different part of the photo.
The gadget also has a tripod mount, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a USB connection.
Will people start shooting virtual-reality videos anytime soon? That probably depends on how popular the headsets themselves become. Samsung is offering a free Gear VR headset in some markets (not Ireland, naturally) for early buyers of the camera.
But if anyone is influential in the development of the technology as a platform, it is probably Facebook's Zuckerberg. He generally has a decent track record in predicting the next big thing (think of his acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, both derided as wasteful by critics at the time). And he's putting his money where his mouth is. Facebook owns Oculus, the virtual-reality-development company that's out in front with the Rift headset and VR technology, generally.
Gaming is already starting to turn a very focused eye on VR, with other areas ripe to follow.
"At some point, VR is going to be more ubiquitous than today's phones," Oculus founder Palmer Luckey recently told me in an interview.
"The cost is going to come down, the quality is going to go up and the form factor is going to shrink from being a big set of goggles to being more like a pair of sunglasses. Virtual reality is going to become something you either always wear or something that you at least carry around with you all of the time and occasionally use."
It's not clear from Samsung when the Gear 360 will launch here in Ireland, but it is slated to be available by the summer.
LG goes for Samsung's crown with gorgeous G5
Rating: 4 stars
The most interesting part of following Android smartphones is how quickly the leadership chops and changes. For more than three years, Samsung ruled the roost, partially because it was the only one offering large-screen handsets. That leadership isn't clear anymore - with rivals such as Huawei and Motorola now showing us high-quality smartphones at lower price points.
LG has been overlooked in Ireland, mainly due to shops and mobile operators keeping it out of circulation for their own commercial reasons. But it is putting out smartphones that you'd be foolish not to consider the next time you're thinking of an upgrade.
The new G5, in particular, is a powerhouse that mixes pleasing design with fairly cutting-edge specifications. Its high-resolution 5.3-inch screen is probably the perfect size for those who don't quite want the 'phablet' dimensions of the biggest phones but do want something that can handle the increasing amount of online stuff they now use their phones for.
I really like that LG has put two cameras on the back of the phone, a main 16-megapixel snapper and a second, wide-angle, 8-megapixel lens. It adds a lot to the type of photo you can shoot on this handset.
Unusually for high-end phones, the G5 has a removable battery. This is still a popular thing for many people. Otherwise, it comes with 32GB of onboard storage plus an external memory-card slot for more capacity. It has 4GB of Ram, making it ultra-fast. It also comes in a couple of different colours.
Ear we go for dystopian future
Sony Xperia Ear
Two years ago, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsen starred in a film (Her) that was set in a slightly dystopian near future where most people have personalised digital assistants based on artificial intelligence. The AI element was delivered via small in-ear pieces controlled by voice commands.
Someone in Sony has clearly been watching the movie on a loop. Because the Japanese company is releasing a gadget that is eerily close - both in appearance and intent - to the technology underpinning Her. The Xperia Ear is a small Bluetooth earpiece that aims to help you through your day by giving you prompts about dates, appointments, directions and the weather. But that's just for starters. In time, Sony hopes that the system will develop into a full-blown personal assistant that becomes as indispensable to you as your phone is now.
For now, it also lets you connect to calls (as any regular Bluetooth headset would). Sony has an uphill struggle with this one. People generally don't like wearing tech on their heads, unless it's to play music.