Chris Danielsen fidgets with the cell phone, holding it over a $20 bill. "Detecting orientation, processing U.S. currency image," the phone says in a flat monotone before he snaps a photo. A few seconds later, the phone says, "Twenty dollars." Danielsen of the National Federation of the Blind is holding the next generation of computerized aids for the blind and visually impaired. The Nokia cell phone is loaded with software that turns text on photographed documents into speech. In addition to telling what a bill is worth, it allows users to read anything that is photographed, whether it's a restaurant menu or a phone book. While the technology is not new, the $2,100 NFB device combines functions in one smart phone, said James Gashel, vice president of business development for K-NFB Reading Technology Inc., which is marketing the phone as a joint venture between the federation and software developer Ray Kurzweil. About 10-million blind and visually impaired people are in the United States, a number that is expected to double in the next 30 years as baby boomers age. The phone "is the next step, but this is a huge leap," Gashel, who is blind.
Site lets users bet fake money on news
Nigel Eccles, a news junkie and former online betting site employee, wanted to try pursuing both interests at once. Thus was born Hubdub.com - a new Web site Eccles and three colleagues in Edinburgh, Scotland, assembled - where customers bet for fun, not money, on the outcomes of real news stories. Here's how it works. After signing up, you'll get 1,000 "Hubdub dollars," play money that works only on the site. You can look at stories about, say, who will win a state primary. Guess right, and you'll win more Hubdub dollars. Lose, and your account will draw down. You'll get 20 Hubdub dollars every day you log in. Eccles says Hubdub may adopt a business model like that of a fantasy sports league, where participants pay a fee to join and win rewards.
Design school tries 'serious' games
A new research lab at the prestigious Parsons design school in New York (www.parsons.edu) aims to develop video games with a conscience - called "serious games" - and study whether playing them can be a force for social good. The games, which aim to educate, appeal mostly to a niche market and are used to train public officials, students and professionals in various fields. Director Colleen Macklin hopes research at Parsons the New School of Design's PETLab, launched in December and made up of students and faculty, will make serious games more mainstream. It is funded by a $450,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. PETLab has partnered with nonprofit Games for Change (www.gamesforchange.org), which supports designers.
Last.fm music site adds free tracks
Last.fm has been a popular Internet music player, despite rarely playing exactly the music you want. You tell it what artist you like, and it plays music from similar artists. The idea was to give users a way to explore new music. CBS Corp., which bought Last.fm last year for $280-million, announced this has changed. Visitors will be able to play a specific song three times before they're prompted to buy it through partners like Apple's iTunes or Amazon.com's Web site. Last.fm co-founder Martin Stiksel said the company is making 3.5-million songs available for on-demand play. Last.fm isn't the first site to provide free, ad-financed major-label music on demand. Competitors include Imeem.com and SpiralFrog.com. CBS says Last.fm has 20-million monthly users.
It's getting easier to recycle electronics
We're used to recycling paper and plastic, but electronic detritus is harder to deal with. However, companies from Apple to Best Buy to Staples assist, whether it's picking up the cost of shipping for old electronics or setting aside space in stores for customers dropping off decommissioned equipment. Thea McManus, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency's municipal and industrial solid waste division, said consumers should consider donating computers and mobile phones to charities. The EPA's Plug-in to eCycling program has information on donating and recycling at www.epa.gov/plug-in. McManus said consumers should erase personal information before donating equipment and include original software and licensing information.