For the second year in a row, Toronto’s Life and Tech Expo was a resounding success. Hosted by Best Buy Canada and put on at the city’s bustling Yonge-Dundas Square, this public showcase was the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with the trendiest tech from over 20 of today’s leading brands. I discovered so many amazing gadgets, including VR headsets, tech toys, audio tech, and more—here’s a look at what I tried!
Virtual Reality headsets
With all the hype this year surrounding virtual reality headsets, you’d almost believe it was a brand new technology. The truth is, VR tech has been around for decades, slowly evolving from early 90’s products like Sega VR and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, to the extremely immersive headsets I tried at the Life and Tech Expo.
The first VR headset I had the chance to test out was the Samsung Gear VR, and before doing so I had to sign a waiver form. The reason being: I was about to participate in a live VR demo of Six Flags’ Tatsu rollercoaster using Samsung Gear VR while sitting in a 360-degree swivel chair. Some people can experience dizziness or nausea while using VR headsets (thus the waiver), but I found my time with the device to be very smooth, extremely comfortable, and fully immersive. I’m a bit of a rollercoaster nut, so perhaps that helped ease me, but this was unlike any ‘coaster ride I’ve ever been on. Not actually being seated and stuck in a real rollercoaster gave me the total freedom to spin and view my thrill ride in all directions—forward, back and side-to-side. I spent at least half the ride looking to the far left and right, and directly behind, giving me perspectives of a rollercoaster I’ve never experienced before; it was incredible to say the least.
One of the great things I love about Gear VR is that is it was designed and optimized specifically for Samsung’s range of popular Galaxy devices (including the S7/S7 edge/ and Note 7), so if you have one of those devices, at least 3/4 of your investment has already been made. It’s amazing when you realize that the phone you hold in your hand has the raw processing power to generate extremely immersive VR experiences like the one I tried at the show.
First was the Merge VR, and here I got to try out a fun virtual reality space shooter game, then later I stepped into an immersive, 360-degree beach scene where I could relax, look around, and enjoy the scenery. An interesting feature on Merge VR is it has two buttons on the top of the device that you can use as buttons when playing video games; basically, you hold the unit like binoculars and press down with your index finger to push the buttons—very neat.
Next, I experienced a first-person parachute glide using the NOON VR Headset, and just like the rollercoaster ride, I could look around and take in the view in all directions. Parachuting was pretty exhilarating, and it was just one more example of the many different experiences you can jump into using VR tech.
Finally, I stopped by the Homido booth to see their Homido VR Headset and learn more about it. This device is compatible most recent iPhone and Android devices (much like the previous two VR headsets), which get firmly inserted into a slot at the front. I viewed a 360-degree outdoor urban scene that had people milling about, and it was neat to be a silent observer in this immersive world. While I didn’t have a chance to play any games on the Homido VR, a representative at the booth told me there is a large selection of VR games available, ranging from fast racers, to space shooters, to arena battle games, and more.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with all four VR headsets, and just like game consoles, it’s really going to come down to the devices’ feature set and available software. The range of VR experiences available now is incredible, and with this technology really only taking off in the last year or so, the sky’s the limit for what we can expect in the future.
Osmo educational game system for iPad
I had an absolute blast trying out Osmo, an educational game system for children that bridges the real world with virtual worlds in fun and engaging ways. To get started you need the Osmo Starter Kit, or the Osmo Genius Kit (includes everything in the Starter Kit + the “Numbers” game), which comes with a base to hold you iPad up vertically and a reflector that sees what’s directly placed in front of it. I love video games (naturally), so I took the time to play through several available games for Osmo. The first I tried was “Coding”, a game that requires you to place physical blocks in front of the reflector to make an adorably cute character named Awbie walk around a map and eat strawberries. Whatever block “instructions” you give to Awbie he’ll do—for example, if you place blocks that tell Awbie to move down two tiles, then right three tiles, he’ll do exactly that on-screen. I played fun educational games as a kid using mouse and keyboard, but the Osmo system of using physical blocks and an iPad was so much more interesting. Kids, I’m positive, will love this (and they may not even realize they’re learning at the same time!)
I also played a game called “Tangram”, where you have to arrange physical blocks to match shapes on your iPad, and “Numbers” (the extra one that comes in the Genius Kit), which requires you to use math to add multiple physical number tiles together to match numbers in bubbles on-screen. Both of these games were super fun, and I can really see kids having a blast with them. Another cool thing I learned about Osmo is that with it being a gaming platform, we’ll be seeing even more games and add-on available to broaden the range of experiences possible. For example, Osmo is working on a new “Creative Set” that will let you draw objects on a creative board and then bring these objects into a virtual world—how cool is that!
Sphero tech toys
Raise your hand if you love BB-8. I mean seriously, he has to be the cutest Star Wars droid of all time. Of course I couldn’t miss my chance to swing by the Sphero booth and try out their ridiculously neat BB-8 App-Enabled Droid. Using your smartphone or tablet, you can make BB-8 roll around, make noises, and perform expressions that are sure to melt your heart. It literally only took me about a minute to get a firm grasp on how to move BB-8 around; the controls were that simple and intuitive to learn. I was even told the lovable droid has a “Watch with Me” feature where he will recognize himself when you watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and react in some way. That feature alone (at least for me) makes BB-8 a must-have toy. The Force Awakens is incredible on its own, but with an interactive BB-8 droid by your side? Seriously, that sounds fun.
I also had fun trying out Sphero’s other toy tech, like the Ollie App-Controlled Robot, and his darker companion the Darkside Ollie. Having just played with BB-8, I couldn’t help but think Ollie represented the light side of the force, while Darkside was on the dark side of the force, but of course these robots have nothing to do with Star Wars. Like BB-8, both versions of Ollie pair with your smart device via Bluetooth, and they’re both also a snap to control. Ollie can race around, spin, and do tricks, which was certainly tons of fun for me (and the Sphero reps who had to catch Ollie before he zipped off the demo table!) Ollie comes with LED lights that change colour depending on his mood, and one thing I learned is make sure you continuously play with him—because if you don’t, he’ll start rolling around on his own to get your attention!
At the event I also had the opportunity to pop by the Skullcandy to check out their latest wearable, wireless headphones. I’m a huge fan of Skullycandy headphones (and their more gaming-focused brand, Astro) not only for their incredible audio quality, but also their sleek and stylish look. First I tried the Skullcandy Ink’d In-Ear Wireless Headphones, which pairs with compatible devices using Bluetooth. These wireless headphones are super lightweight, to the point where I barely even felt the band that went around my neck. Audio-wise, the quality was top-notch with booming bass, and precise highs. Next I tried the Skullcandy Hesh 2 Unleashed Over-Ear Headphones, and these headphones were exceptional. The comfort was unreal, but it was the amazing audio quality, and the rumbling effect, that really impressed me. If you’re looking for wireless audio solutions, Skullcandy is the brand to look at.
All in all, I had a total blast at Toronto’s Life and Tech Expo. A big thanks to Best Buy for putting on an amazing show with so many interesting tech products to try out first-hand. For even more coverage of the event, be sure to check out Leila’s article too!