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This week, Essential Phone debuts in Canada, Sin City goes all-in for VR, and five groups of Canadian students have qualified for the James Dyson Award. But first, how Waze is helping to keep our kids safe.

School’s back in session, and Waze wants you to slow down in school zones

People need to slow down in school zones. No matter where you are in Canada, the speed limit in a school zone is 30 km/h.

Now maybe the people I see speeding through school zones just haven’t seen the street signs. You know the ones, with the silhouette of a couple of kids walking?

Waze, my favourite navigation app, has incorporated school zone data, and is now sending an alert to users whenever they enter a school zone.

The initiative is supported by Honda Canada, and it’s a fantastic idea. Waze users have no excuse for speeding through the school zones any more.

Essential Phone looks to make a dent in premium smartphone market

While everyone’s talking about the new Samsung Galaxy Note8, released last week, or the new iPhones from Apple that will be revealed on Tuesday, a new high-end smartphone has been quietly released.

The Essential Phone sports an edge-to-edge display, 128 GB storage, dual cameras, and is constructed of ceramic and titanium which, the manufacturer suggests, makes the device strong enough that you don’t need to buy a protective case.

Thinner and smaller than an iPhone 7 Plus, the 5.7-inch screen is actually bigger. Essential has a 19:10 aspect ratio, which makes it more square than the Galaxy S8.

Modular accessories for the Essential Phone, like the forthcoming 360-degree camera, attach to the device with magnets and are hot-swappable: click the camera on the handset and it works; remove it and the functionality turns off.

Essential, the company, was created by Andy Rubin, who founded Android, which was later acquired by Google and became the company’s mobile operating system. His new phone is available in Canada exclusively at Telus. It will cost $290 on a two-year plan, and $1,050 outright.

Virtual reality arena opens at MGM Grand in Las Vegas

Vegas is already a playground, and now you can go to Sin City to fight zombies.

Today, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas opened up a free-roaming VR experience in Level Up, the resort’s gaming lounge.

Up to eight players can be in the 2,000 square foot room. Each player wears a VR headset attached to a backpack computer. The experience are 30-minutes long, and there are three adventures: two of them are shooters in which players fight against either zombies or killer robots, and the third is a physics-based puzzle game.

The VR is provided by Australia-based Zero Latency, which has VR gaming arenas across the U.S. as well as in Madrid, Melbourne, Osaka, and Tokyo.

Level Up sessions cost US$50 per player.

Canadian winners of the James Dyson Award

Projects from five groups of smart Canadian students are moving on to the final round of the James Dyson Award.

Robert Brooks and Justin Wee, two PhD students at the University of Toronto are the Canadian winners. Their project, ForceFilm is a thin material that can be used by surgeons to provide real-time feedback on how much force is being applied through surgical instruments.

You can see how ForceFilm works in the video below.

The four runners-up in the Canadian competition were selected from 41 projects submitted for consideration.

A panel of engineers from Dyson will select 20 projects from the international finalists, and one project will be awarded the grand prize, Can$50,000 for the students and $8,500 for the school.

Canadian scientists, engineers, and innovators tend to do well in this competition. In the past three years, a Canadian team has made the shortlist of 20 finalists.

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This week, geeking out over Star Wars. Plus, geeking out over Destiny 2. Sense a pattern?

Force Friday begins the run-up to The Last Jedi

Happy Force Friday. This is actually the second Force Friday. The first took place two years ago as the world prepared for the first film in the next Star Wars trilogy, The Force Awakens.

Today is, in all honesty, just a creation of Disney and Lucasfilm to mark the beginning of the promotional and marketing push for the next Star Wars film, The Last Jedi.

The movie won’t be in theatres until December, but as of today, you can get all kinds of neat things to satisfy that Star Wars urge.

Augmented reality game for mobile devices

If you’re going to be out and about this weekend, maybe celebrating the last few days before school’s back in session, you can play a new treasure hunting game, Find the Force.

You need the Star Wars app to play, and when you’ve got it up and running, you can use it to find up to 15 Star Wars characters who will appear on the screen of your smartphone through augmented reality.

The characters can be unlocked by scanning special Find the Force graphics that will be posted at some 20,000 retailers around the world, including The Bay, Best Buy, Toys ‘R Us, and Walmart in Canada.

You can also find the graphics at various places online.

Collect 5 or more of the characters, and you’ll unlock digital rewards.

There are also augmented reality surprises for people at a handful of landmarks around the world, including New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The two Canadian locations are the CN Tower in Toronto and Niagara Falls.

Apple Retail Stores celebrate Force Friday II all weekend

Apple stores around the world are spending the weekend hosting exclusive Star Wars sessions of the popular Today at Apple learning events, teaching kids how to code and how to make their own Star Wars trailer using iMovie.

Sign up for a session.

New Lego products feature ships and characters from Episode 8

I love Lego because it teaches kids how to read diagrams and interpret schematics, all while conveying engineering and building principles. Plus, it’s just fun to invent and imagine with.

Today, a bunch of building kits based on The Last Jedi hit store shelves, including Kylo Ren’s TIE fIghter, a Resistance bomber, and a First Order assault walker. There’s also a new posable action figure of Rey.

Kits range in price from $25 to $180.

Star Wars drones to fly over your house

It was only a matter of time before some company was going to come out with drones modelled after the iconic ships from our favourite science fiction stories.

In stores today are three drones from Propel:

  • An x-wing (T-65X-Wing, to be exact)
  • A TIE fighter (TIE Advancedx1)
  • 74-Speeder Bike

These things are cool. They have blades on the bottom of the models that are used for propulsion and steering and you can actually engage in battles against other Propel drones. Kind of like high-tech kite fights.

The drones are rechargeable and can get flying times of six to eight minutes after a 30- to 40-minute charging cycle.

Propel’s Star Wars drones are $249 and can be found at the Bay, Best Buy, London Drugs, Indigo, Staples, and Walmart.

Next week it’s back to school, except for all those kids skipping so they can play Destiny 2

Destiny 2, the sequel to the popular first-person shooter developed by Bungie and published by Activision, comes out on Wednesday next week.

Few people complained about the first game’s mechanics and core experience, but there was a case to be made that Destiny lacked a compelling narrative and character development.

The sequel appears to have remedied that. You still get to play as a hero, you still get to save the world, and as you’ll see in the live action trailer that debuted yesterday, you may get to save some puppies while you’re at it.

I’m so glad there’s nobody who can tell me I need to go to bed so I can function in class.

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Mike Smyth was in the chair for Charles on Friday for a spirited discussion about Samsung’s new Galaxy Note8 handset and Nintendo’s sales strategy with the SNES Classic Mini console for which preorders were sold out in about 5 seconds last week. Also: the ReplyASAP app which forces recipients to acknowledge your message.

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This week, a look at the new Samsung Galaxy Note8 handset, and Samsung’s Bixby digital assistant gets voice support. Also, a new app that forces message recipients to acknowledge it.

Samsung announced a new Galaxy Note8 mobile it hopes will make you forget last year’s disasters

At a press event in New York earlier this week, Samsung revealed the Galaxy Note8, a new version of the tech company’s phablet (smartphone/tablet).

In the past, what’s really distinguished the Note devices has been the screen size, but that’s no longer the case with the Note8. It’s got a 6.3-inch display with a similar tall and narrow form factor that Samsung introduced with the Galaxy S8 smartphone family. That makes the Note8 just a bit bigger than the Galaxy S8 Plus.

So what makes the Note8 different?

It has 6 GB of RAM, compared to 4 GB for the two S8 models, for one thing. And the Note8 is equipped with a S-Pen stylus that fans of the device love because they can use it to take notes and to draw. It also has two 12 megapixel rear cameras – one with a wide-angle lens and the other with a telephoto lens.

Other non-exclusive features include water and dust resistance and support for wireless charging.

Which brings me around to the battery. The Note8 has a 3,300 mAh battery, where its predecessor, the infamous Note7, had a 3,500 mAh battery.

That battery, you may remember, led to a worldwide recall of the Note7 because it was catching fire and exploding. Samsung has a new battery safety process in place that should prevent a similar design and manufacturing fail from happening again.

The new device, now available for pre-order at the usual places, will come in Midnight Black and Deepsea Blue. Pre-order before September 14 to get a free wireless charger convertible and a 128 GB Samsung microSD card.

Without a contract, the Galaxy Note8, which releases on September 15, is priced at $1,300. That seems very expensive, but it’s only a couple of hundred dollars more than the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus were priced at when they were released six months ago.

Bixby digital assistant brings voice commands to Samsung mobile devices

Samsung’s other announcement this week was that its Bixby digital assistant will now understand you when you talk to it.

It’s the same voice command functionality that already exists with Cortana (Windows), Google Assistant, and Siri (Apple), although Bixby seems to be able to perform tasks that other assistants can’t (Although “Take a selfie,” is something I will never say to any phone ever.)

And you can program your own shorthand phrases for oft-repeated tasks, which is a cool idea. So instead of saying, “Remind me to pick up the kids at 4 o’clock,” you can just say, “Kids” and Bixby will do the rest.

New app makes sure your teen – or anyone else – has received your message

ReplyASAP is a unique idea. It forces people who are receiving a message from the app to interact with it, increasing the likelihood that they have actually processed the message.

It was developed by a dad in the UK who realized that he had no idea if the messages – some important, some not so much – were actually being read by his teenaged son.

Available for Android devices now, and soon for iOS, the app is quite overt. It appears over top of anything else that might be on the smartphone’s screen, and plays an alarm noise even if the phone is on silent.

The person receiving the message has to interact with the app in order to turn off the notifications.

Of course, you still can’t be sure that the recipient has read the message, but if they’ve had to look at the screen to turn everything off, there’s at least a greater chance that they have.

The cost of the app scales based on how many people you want to be able to send messages to. There is no cost to the smartphones that are receiving the messages.

There are bound to be some privacy and usage issues to be worked out as this kind of app becomes more popular – imagine what a stalker would do with this, for example, or a company or employer that doesn’t appreciate employee boundaries – but the core idea is not bad.

Especially if you’re a parent.

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