Most parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, and so on are united in wishing one thing for the children they care for or about: an entertaining, diverting, possibly even educational activity that doesn’t involve an iPad.
Reading to the kids is one such activity, but it’s labor-intensive—not a complaint, just a fact—and not always practical when the coronavirus variant du jour, or just old-fashioned distance, comes into play.
There was a sweet spot from the 1970s to the 1990s when it was possible to record yourself reading stories into a tape recorder, then give a child a stack of cassettes to shove as required into a Fisher-Price or similarly easy-to-operate player to hear you read.
But then CDs superseded cassettes, making home-recorded bedtime stories far less practical. The coming of smartphones and tablets revived self-recorded bedtime stories as a technical possibility, but letting junior loose with a connected device wasn’t a charming prospect.
A British start-up, Yoto, has been working for more than six years on a screen-free audio player that children can be fully in control of, slotting in at will cassette-like physical media. The Yoto Player has a simple, colorful graphic display, but nothing that can show the inappropriate material kids just adore.
The Yoto Player has been through a couple of iterations, but now, with the latest version and its sibling Yoto Mini, both available globally, they have a near-unique and wonderful product that children we know from ages 3 to 10 or so love.
There is a German competitor, Toniebox, which was developed around the same period and is also widely available, but we prefer Yoto. Toniebox has an odd system whereby the child selects his or her chosen story by physically placing toy cartoon characters on the player. The Yoto system is simpler, more practical, and more elegant.
Yoto’s even bigger plus is that it is more oriented toward self-recorded content. Like Toniebox, it has an extensive library of pre-recorded audiobooks for sale, but we think its killer feature is the blank cards you can buy cheaply: $18 for 10.
The cards are largely symbolic—they don’t have data on board, but slotting them in and out gives the child the same agency as old-fashioned cassettes. (The cards actually pull down from Yoto’s servers specific content you have uploaded. But the child does not need to be connected; the device has the capacity to store 350 hours of such audio without needing Wi-Fi.)
As with all tech products, Yoto encompasses a bunch of features you’re unlikely ever to want, but their effective re-invention of the Fisher-Price cassette player, which the founders look too young to even remember, is a first-rate winner.
However eccentric a well-known person may appear to be, there almost invariably lurks a smarter, more focused individual inside. Success is rarely visited accidentally on the unworthy.
A London tech entrepreneur, Alex Klein, discovered this a few years ago at C.E.S. (Consumer Electronic Show) in Las Vegas, when Kanye West stopped by the booth of Klein’s start-up, Kano, which makes computer kits now sold in many high-end stores. West began asking unexpectedly penetrating questions. He soon became a supporter of Kano’s, then an investor.
“Ye,” as Klein now refers to his friend and collaborator in Stem Player, the pair’s first formal joint business project, turns out to be quite the tech-education evangelist. “He’s very informed, involved, and really a visionary,” Klein says of the Yeezy Tech founder.
The screenless Stem Player looks like a small bodily organ on its way to a transplant operating table. (Ye went through hundreds of shades of brownish pink to come up with its slightly regurgitated color, Klein explains.) The device’s role is not easy to explain to anyone over 25.
Stem Player is a palm-size electronic instrument. Sort of. The device automatically splits an existing music track into four “stems”—a stem being typically all the drum, bass, guitar, vocal, or keyboard files grouped together.
The user can then remix the music in an impressive variety of ways and make their own phoenix version. They might put this mash-up on, say, TikTok and, in the case of some songs already rebuilt on the Stem Player, attract a few hundred thousand listens—the basis of the creator’s future following.
Stem Player comes pre-loaded with Kanye West’s Donda album, and he is happy for it to be used by nascent musicians as building material. There is space for eight gigabytes of any other music you choose to reconstruct.
A perhaps cautionary note is sounded, however, in the 8,000-plus-word terms-of-use agreement buried in the otherwise sparse Stem Player Web site; eagle-eyed early adopters have noted that all audio clips and digital downloads are the property of the seller (i.e., Kanye West).
Legalities aside, however, a music academic we spoke with confirms that this Lego approach to music-making is the coming thing. “Very, very few of the students I teach are happy just to listen passively to music,” says Andy Maclure, head of careers and artist development at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute, in Brighton, England. “The Instagram generation, used to applying filters to every photo they take, wants to do the same to music.”
Artificial intelligence may be a hot topic of 2022, but it remains that the reason we love computers and the Internet most is for their artificial stupidity. Repeatedly scanning a database with millions of entries is a job you wouldn’t give your worst enemy. Yet we command gadgetry to do it a hundred times a day.
With a database, though, the last thing anyone needs is a new one. Every month, it seems, yet another app is launched listing the nearest something to you. One app—remembered unfondly from pre-coronavirus days—pinpointed office lobbies with unprotected Wi-Fi, where you could sneak in and do 30 minutes of work without having to buy an unwanted coffee. Nice idea; pity the app was so nascent. Barely anywhere was listed.
Because a database gets better the more established it is, we are featuring an app that is approaching 25 years old but had somehow escaped our attention.
Happy Cow was founded in Santa Monica in 1999 as a public service to help vegetarians and vegans find someplace to eat. Nearly a quarter of a century on—with meat-free diets growing apace—it is one of the most comprehensive and efficient database apps there is. Flawlessly engineered and kept sharp and up to date by hundreds of thousands of plant-eating supporters, it is exemplary.
Search an area you know, and you should see it’s spot on, as well as probably alerting you to places you never suspected would have plant-based options.
But it’s when you give it a challenge in locations known for their carnivorous predilection that it’s almost an entertainment. How many vegan joints would you expect to find, for example, in Buenos Aires? Our guess would be about two. Wrong. It’s around 50.
How about Houston? Happy Cow lists approximately 20 there, along with another 48 or so vegetarian options. Tokyo, where the preponderance of fish causes vegan travelers to say it’s the toughest city to eat in, has more than 100 vegan restaurants on the app. And the big one, Paris, where vegetarians have been sneered at for decades, has some 147 vegan restaurants and other food outlets. Bon appétit!
TRANSPARENT LIGHT SPEAKER
What better on a winter evening than to wrap up in something warm, go outside, and light the flame of your music player?
Swedish audio brand Transparent has become something of a cult favorite for their high-quality, see-through wireless speaker systems. They offer an immaculately contemporary sustainability promise, guaranteeing that, as technology improves, users will be able to upgrade the hardware in their products.
Transparent says it believes “products should get better with age and that companies are responsible for removing electronic waste from the world.” It’s a trend to watch; a lot of tech companies—even the big ones—are expected to adopt this “modular” approach in the coming decade, rather than constantly launch new versions of their products.
This new Light Speaker is the lowest-priced in the Transparent range and is quite a novelty, even for a novelty brand. It is designed to resemble the kind of lamp they’d give you to take up to your room in a hotel in the Wild West, although you would probably be more likely to use it outside your summer house on the Stockholm archipelago.
The Light Speaker is rechargeable by USB and works for around 10 hours per charge. Its candle-like lamp can be turned up to become quite bright and shed usable light but is most effective turned down low as a flickering accompaniment to the music you Bluetooth to it from your phone.
The faux flame sputters and flutters in time to the music, which is of surprisingly high quality. We tested it with Abba, obviously, and the effect was really rather romantic. You can wirelessly couple two Light Speakers to play in real stereo if you’re going full-on “Dancing Queen.”
The ambiance of the Light Speaker was so effective, meanwhile, that it was surprising—disappointing, really—to find the whole thing, powered by cold-running L.E.D.’s, wasn’t hot to the touch. But thank you for the music, as Abba would say.
Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology