Technology Archives - A Crafty Spoonful

Teaching Kids to Program with the Sphero SPRK+ Robot

There are a lot of robots available today that target grade school children with the intent of getting them excited about programming. Having worked in the past with low-level hardware (motors, switches, LCD Displays, and even thermal printers to name a few) it is really cool to see these kits simplify the pain I had to endure trying to wire up and troubleshoot components. These kits let you focus on the fun stuff right away. It is very gratifying once you get your program figured out and see it all working.

As part of a sponsored partnership with Best Buy, we tested out Sphero SPRK+ robot. The robot is a waterproof ball with no exposed components to damage. We started out by downloading their app onto an Android tablet. While it was downloading we set the robot on its charging cradle. The cradle is cool as it charges without physically plugging anything in (remember it is waterproof). The robot feels pretty solid and tough/durable. It has a clear body so you can see the motors and circuit board.

With the app installed we attempted to connect to the robot. We stumbled here as there are multiple robots that the app supports. Two of the robots listed visually look the same, but do have different names. After trying to connect for a whole day unsuccessfully we finally figured out that we were choosing the wrong robot! 

With that figured out the app and the robot were connected. Our first time in the app was also a bit confusing. After a while we finally kind of figured out how to walk through the program tutorials. Before we figured the tutorials out we tried driving the robot around manually using a joystick like user interface on the app. This was mildly satisfying, but proved hard to control. Because the robot is a ball it is easy to get disoriented. For example when you want to go straight ahead you might not be pushing up on the control as the ball/bot was facing a different direction causing it to go to your right. The kids however loved adjusting its LED light color hue. It has a color picker control that lets you set just about any color you want.

The robot really shines with its programming abilities. We walked through the first tutorial which had us program a path the robot should follow. When creating the program it gave us three ways to write the program: Draw with our finger, drag and drop function blocks, or write with a traditional programming language (Typescript). The drawing method was great for our kindergartner. The drag and drop method was well suited to our second grader. 

Finally, the programming via “text” method was advanced enough for me, but I found the drawing method the most fun and instantly gratifying. We simply used our finger to trace out a route the robot should follow and then hit start. A moment later the robot was following the path of a heart, a spiral, and a triangle from several different program runs.

To facilitate writing programs that would have the robot navigate a maze or around obstacles the robot kit came with a roll of tape (similar to a tape measure) that you can use to calculate distance. You would use this, for example, to tell the robot to roll forward 10 centimeters. A protractor was also included to aim the robot and assist in calculating turns. These tools would come in handy while in the classroom setting where we would ask the kids to think about the procedure or steps the robot should execute to navigate through and obstacle course. This kind of thinking will have them on their way to programming.

The Sphero SPRK+ strikes a good balance of fun and education. We had some fun with paint as the robot rolled through a puddle of green poster paint and proceeded to leave tracks all over the paper. If we had a pool I am sure we would have built the robot some water wings and zipped around. Overall once we figured out the app we really enjoyed using Sphero SPRK+.

Are your kids interested in learning how to program? 

If you are looking for a robot that’s perfect for teaching robotics and programming, Sphero SKRK+ is for you. This is a great STEM-based learning tool that kids 6-12 would love to get their hands on!

You can purchase Sphero SPRK+ at your local Best Buy or online at BestBuy.com

Rethinking Cable TV: Upgrade Standard Cable to Internet TV

rethinking-cable-tv
 
When we moved two years ago we signed up with a new cable provider taking advantage of a new customer promotion that was priced very well. Sadly all good things must come to an end. Here is how we dealt with the promotion ending and embracing the emerging world of internet based cable providers mixed in with a little old fashion technology.
 
The biggest problem we face is that there is little competition and choices when it comes to buying cable and internet. The city we live in is roughly divided in half with Cox Communications to the south and Time Warner to the north. Throughout the city the old phone company ATT is still kicking around with U-verse in some areas. Sadly our neighborhood really only has one option that offers decent Internet speeds, Time Warner.
 
The next problem we encountered is cable TV equipment rental fees. It used to be that you could attach the cable to your TV and get all the basic channels. For this to work a cable company uses analog signals which are sent in the clear over the line. The drawback is that analog signals take up a lot of bandwidth and that space is shared with your internet. In order to provide faster internet speeds the analog channels were converted to digital and now required a special digital adapter or cable box to receive TV channels. Unfortunately these devices cost $5-11 dollars a month to rent. Luckily the cable company does offer an app for Roku, Android, and iOS. We used the Roku app for a bit and thought it was pretty good. Another cost saving move was to request a cable card which costed us $2 dollars a month. Combining the cable card with a Samsung cable box that we bought ourselves from Amazon provided an inexpensive avenue for getting HD channels to our main TV.

 

Rethinking Cable TV – Time to cut the cord? 

The motivating moment to reevaluate our cable TV setup was when the 2 year promotion ended. Our costs went up from ~$100 dollars a month to ~$160. It was pretty steep. We called and lowered our internet speed tier and that saved a few dollars. They even confirmed we had a never expiring $20 dollar a month discount on our TV service , but still it felt like this was too much to spend for only watching a handful of channels.
 
We worked out our requirements as getting all the major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, CW, and one local independent station along with HGTV, Food Network, Disney, Nickelodeon, and possibly ESPN. We architected a solution that consists of a TV antenna in our attic for the broadcast networks and Sony Playstation Vue service for the cable channels we wanted to watch running on Amazon FireTV boxes. Of course like most households we also subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime. The total cost per month would pencil out at ~$110 dollars a month with $80 dollars of that being internet costs as well as some up front equipment costs at around ~$200 dollars. Yikes! internet costs are still high, but we work from home so we opted for a higher service than what we really needed at 200Mbs/20 vs 60Mbs/10 so we could save even more, about ~20 dollars a month if we dropped down another tier. Another important note is we are currently not subject to data caps.

 

TV Antenna? 

Installing the TV antenna was tricky because of the topology of our city. There are lots of canyons and hills/mountains. To further complicate the installation, ABC and CBS broadcast from a different location than the others. This makes pointing the antenna difficult as you would normally have all the broadcast towers in one spot. Luckily there are a few websites that help you orient your antenna. We used tvfool.org (antennaweb.org is another) by entering our address. The site returns the number of channels you should receive along with the size of the antenna needed. Best of all it provided a chart with the direction to point the antenna. We were able to use a compass and the chart fairly easily. 

 

Broadcast Locations

Okay so what to do about the different broadcast locations? Well one option is to get a antenna rotor which physically spins your antenna to the correct position to receive one or more channels. The drawback with that option is that if multiple TVs are trying to watch different channels that require different antenna positions someone is going to lose out on their show. So there must be another alternative and it turns out that there is: two antennas. Point one antenna toward CBS and ABC and the other toward FOX, CW, and NBC and tie the signals together with a splitter/combiner. We ended up using an RCA yagi style antenna for CBS and ABC as this type is a little more directional, meaning when you point it toward the broadcast tower it tends to “ignore” the other signals being broadcast from other locations. The other antenna we used was a Channel Master METROtenna 40. Finally you need to use the exact same length of cable connecting the antennas to the splitter/combiner. Connect RG-6 coax cable from the splitter/combiner to your TV and run a channel scan for over the air (OTA) channels.

 

Solution: Playstation Vue with Amazon’s FireTV

Our research of Playstation Vue led us to Amazon’s FireTV. The box,not the stick, is actually pretty powerful/fast/smooth and gave one of the best experiences using the Vue app. The first FireTV was picked up at the local BestBuy so that we could do the free 7 day trial. Then later on prime day we were able to pickup another device on sale, score! Finally we got a refurbished Fire Stick for the TV in the upstairs toy room. They are all currently connected using a wireless internet connection.
 
Playstation Vue TV viewing is different than traditional TV/cable boxes. Its based around favorites and what’s on now which you navigate by scrolling left and right through tiles similar to Netflix’s interface. There is a traditional channel guide, but it is somewhat out of the way in the interface. We subscribed to the basic package, called “Access Slim”. It actually turns out that they included our local NBC and CBS channels which was kind of nice and unexpected. The slim package hit all of our desired channels and some others that we like, but don’t watch constantly like Bravo, TLC, TBS, FX, and AMC. Another cool feature is the cloud DVR. We have not used this much yet, but we did not have a DVR before so we are not accustomed to relying on it. Other features of note, some channels let you rewind to the beginning of a show or stream other episodes. 

 

Our Experience

Overall the Vue TV watching experience has been pretty great. The picture quality is fine. On live events, like football games, we noticed a almost 1 minute delay between broadcast (antenna) and the Vue app. A strange quirk is that some channels don’t play commercials! Instead a screen saver’ish screen is displayed saying your program will be back shortly in eerie silence. We have to think that this will eventually change at some point to behave more like traditional TV. The other thing of note is the Vue app on the Fire Stick works,but it is slow to respond and would be frustrating to use on your main TV.
 
Alright so putting it all together here is how we use both the antenna and Vue app. On our TV we connect the coax cable into the tuner input. The FireTV connects via an HDMI cable. To go between we use the input button on the remote of the TV to select whether we want to watch broadcast TV or Vue cable channels. One downside is you as a viewer just need to know that there is something on one of the broadcast channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, etc) that you want to watch. There is no unified guide, you are on your own. On the plus side when we wanted to cancel TV service with Time Warner we had to wait on hold for about 25 minutes, but with Vue you can cancel online at anytime.
 
We have been using this setup now for about 4 months and no real deal killer complaints. We feel good about getting our monthly TV costs down and retaining the channels we liked most.
 
Rethinking Cable TV and Cutting the Cord

Have you cut cable? 

Great Gift Ideas for Parents







Great Gift Ideas for Parents

One thing I always seem to have a problem with is making my own holiday wishlist. My kids have theirs done in October and ready to send off to Santa but gift ideas for parents can be a bit harder to figure out. Luckily I have a little help this year. Thanks to Microsoft and their great holiday gift guide for sponsoring this post.

Microsoft Give - the Best Deals only at Microsoft

From big ticket items to great stocking stuffers, Microsoft has everything covered to make the holidays run smoothly. With a quick stop to the Microsoft store at my local mall, I was able to test out and play with almost everything on the gift guide.

Not only did I find great ideas for myself but I also found fabulous ideas for my husband as well.  [Read more…]

How to Make Oatmeal in a Rice Cooker

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make oatmeal in a rice cooker

I absolutely love multi-purpose kitchen gadgets. If it doesn’t do more than one thing, I don’t want it in my kitchen taking up space! When I was asked to check out the latest Zojirushi rice cooker and see how it fared compared to my smaller rice cooker I knew i wanted to find more ways to test it out than just make rice. So I figured out how to make oatmeal in a rice cooker. And I have to say… I’m pretty impressed!

I already loved the Zojirushi brand and own one of their bread machines (all the way back from when my husband and I first got married) and the smaller rice cooker so including this larger capacity rice cooker into our home was perfect. The Zojirushi NL-AAC10 is a great multi-use rice cooker. And I’ve not only made rice and oatmeal in it, but I’ve also used it to steam things as well. Hello delicious dumplings and pot stickers!

make oatmeal in a rice cooker zojirush nl aac10i

Making oatmeal in a rice cooker is a piece of cake! As simple as dumping the ingredients in, adjusting the settings for porridge, and letting it cook. The rice cooker does all of the work. Wait… did I just give that all away in the beginning of the post? Well let me just show you the pretty pictures and talk about this awesome machine.

Aided by microcomputer technology, this category of rice cooker takes having rice on your menu from “occasional” to “serious”. Basically, the microchip does all the thinking for you, as far as adjusting cooking times and temperatures according to the type of rice you are cooking, and timing the pre-soaking of the raw grains and the final “wait” period during steaming.

That means you’re left with perfectly cooked food that every family member will love! No more burnt rice on the bottom. And it also means that you can make a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner using the same rice cooker.

make oatmeal in a rice cooker add ingredients

How to Make Oatmeal in a Rice Cooker

1. Add 2 cups of old fashioned oats into the rice cooker*. Then add in 3 cups of water (or milk if you prefer a creamier oatmeal). Add any mix ins or flavors and stir together to combine. I added 1 diced apple, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and a tablespoon of brown sugar.

*For this recipe I consulted my rice cooker’s manual to see if there was a minimum amount of oats I needed to use for this rice cooker. I also wanted to make sure I was using the correct amount of liquid. If you’re using steel cut oats, double check the manual to see what the minimum amount is as well as what the liquid level should be.

make oatmeal in a rice cooker porridge setting

2. Using the menu button, set rice cooker to porridge setting (bottom right). Once the setting is selected, hit the start button. A melody should play letting you know that the rice cooker has started the cooking process. Sit back and relax as your food cooks.

make oatmeal in a rice cooker cooked oatmeal

3. When the rice cooker is done cooking the oatmeal it will play a melody again. Don’t worry if you aren’t immediately available – the rice cooker will go to the warm setting after it’s done cooking. When you’re ready to eat, open the lid carefully and scoop out your oatmeal.

make oatmeal in a rice cooker close up

This 5-1/2-cup rice cooker and warmer makes 10 cups of cooked rice and includes a variety of cooking functions including white rice/sushi, mixed rice, porridge, sweet, brown, steam, and quick cooking.

If you’re looking for a great rice cooker to add to your kitchen definitely check out the great line of Zojirushi rice cookers.

What would you love to make in a rice cooker?

Love what you see? Try these recipes! 

Vanilla Raisin Oatmeal Squares with coffee

Vanilla Raisin Oatmeal Squares

Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal Smoothie ingredients

Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal Smoothies

Oatmeal Recipes Quick and Delicious Apple Crisp - ready for the oven

Oatmeal Apple Crisps

 

Choosing the Best Electronics: 5 Tips for Buying a Home Theater System

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5 tips for buying a home theater system

For the past 5 or so years my husband has been asking to upgrade the TV in our living room. Our current TV is 8 years old and is fading fast. So upgrading to the best electronics was a must for us.

From a not-so-clear picture to issues with sound to delayed response time when trying to change the channel or switch from cable to the DVD player, we were ready for something new.

For the past 3 years he’s been searching around for the perfect model so that when the time comes, he knows what he wants to purchase. So when the time finally came, he knew exactly what he wanted and where he wanted to go.

By following these simple tips for buying a home theater system we were able to purchase and set up the perfect tv for our home. And I have one VERY happy husband! [Read more…]

Counting One Step At A Time with FitBit Zip

Fitbit Zip Gift of Health

 Sometimes we all need a little help attaining our goals. And technology can be a very good thing when it’s used just right. One tool I’ve been using daily for the past few weeks is my new little friend – the FitBit Zip.

Now I know I’ve mentioned FitBit before when I reviewed the Ultra but this little buddy is just as awesome at tracking steps, stairs, and calories burned all with a smile on it’s face!

[Read more…]

Last Minute Gifts for the Techie

It’s Christmastime and everyone is in a hurry to grab everything on their lists before time runs out!

I, for one, am completely done with my holiday shopping and couldn’t be happier. And there are a few people on my list who will be quite happy with what they’ll be receiving. If you have a tech loving family member or friend to purchase for this year, check out these great products for each tech lover in your life.

Last Minute Gifts for the Techie

Fitbit Zip Gift of Health

[Read more…]



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