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Gizmo Guy: Coolest tech tools for holiday gifts

It's the most wonderful time of the year for Gizmo Guy. He gets to play not-so-secret Santa, whispering gadget ideas for the loved ones on your shopping list.

Mattel's View-Master Virtual Reality Viewer ($29.99) uses a smartphone to view downloaded content.
Mattel's View-Master Virtual Reality Viewer ($29.99) uses a smartphone to view downloaded content.Read more

It's the most wonderful time of the year for Gizmo Guy. He gets to play not-so-secret Santa, whispering gadget ideas for the loved ones on your shopping list.

This week, he's dreaming of red hot (and cool) tech "tools" that will make the holidays brighter. Next week, he'll yammer on with some of the best software you can play on the thingamajigs.

Virtually there. For entertainment, education, and armchair traveling, virtual-reality hardware and software could be the next big thing.

VR delivers a 360-degree view of a world just by looking through a special viewer (often fitted with a smartphone) and turning your head, this way or that.

Mattel is jumping in with the View-Master Virtual Reality Viewer ($29.99 with demo content) and companion ($14.99 each) "experience" packs, such as "National Geographic: Wildlife," "Space Experience" (my favorite), and "Destinations."

The latter walks you round the Tower of London, ancient Mayan temples, and the Welcome to America-themed Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

In lieu of a traditional View-Master reel of stereoscopic images, you stuff a larger-screened (5.5-inch and up) iOS or Android phone into the VR V-M.

Not quite perfected yet, a card-scan operation required to unlock View-Master VR packaged content is temperamental; the wildlife doesn't yet "roar." But the software is upgradable (i.e. fixable), maintained a Mattel source. And as View-Master VR uses the Google Cardboard format, there's lots of compatible free content to be found online.

Or . . . make your own, with the super nifty 360fly action cam ($399.99 at Best Buy), a baseball-shaped, all-weather shooter with a 360-degree dome lens array on top. (Hint: the magic's done in part with mirrors, but no smoke.)

Your "Wi-Fi direct"-connected smartphone serves as the 360fly's live viewfinder. Then (when the phone is stuffed into a Google Cardboard-compatible VR viewer), you can wirelessly replay and witness what was going on in any/every direction (except straight down) as you spin your head around.

Content also can be saved to the smartphone or a computer, for fine tuning and editing, then pushed to YouTube and Facebook for sharing.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon University talent in Pittsburgh (and "spinning off" from a NASA space cam project), a 360fly boasts enough memory storage and battery capacity to nab a two-hour concert in wraparound video. It's also compatible with some GoPro action-cam accessories.

Vive la France! While most famous for its couture and cuisine, France also is the source for some excellent tech products that you might feel inclined to support this season.

Paris-based drone pioneer Parrot is primed for the occasion with the just-out Airborne Night MiniDrone. While too small to deliver packages, this four-propeller stunt machine travels up to 11 miles per hour, controlled by a smartphone or tablet. It takes VGA-grade pictures (even at night, with built-in lights), and boasts important safety features, including a bumper that automatically deactivates blades when it feels resistance: $129.99 on Amazon.

Know someone aiming for a gamine look? The WiFi-connected Withings WS-50 Smart Body Analyzer Scale (normally $150 though spotted for $97.99 at Best Buy) reads/charts your weight and body fat and also finds out how healthy your living environment is, measuring CO2 levels, and tracks weather.

As audiophiles know, homebaked French Hi-Fi gear is pretty formidable, too. Take, je t'implore, the Focal Dimension Soundbar, a premium ($1,399) stand- or wall-mounted, 45-inch-wide speaker system ripe for TV sound upgrading. This added Dimension puts out an exquisitely detailed and dramatic portrait of whatever's being fed through it, from Adele breaking hearts on Saturday Night Live to a blows-up-real-good (Luc Besson?) action flick.

Spacious, surround-like effects are evident if you sit directly in front; an optional, rear-positioned $399 subwoofer adds even more kick and turns the collective rig into a base for a TV. Très charmant.

Nudge tech and its consequences. Health-minded wearables are on many wish lists this season. Uniquely targeting the stoop-shouldered, the wrist-worn Zitko Walk Posture and Activity Coach ($149 at urges you to stand up straight when sensing poor gait and "hunch walking."

Among its varied charms, the Apple Watch ($349 and up) will buzz you every hour to rise out of your seat and get the blood circulating.

But buy one of these health trackers for a loved one, and the recipient may soon be requesting a follow-up gift: an ergonomic, adjustable-height desk from Ikea that encourages a user to stand up on the job.

Gizmo Guy is coveting IKEA's new $489 Bekant sit/stand desk, which has an underside-mounted motor (warranteed for 10 years) and push-button controls to electronically adjust the height of the black/brown (ash-veneered) table top, from a stool-friendly 22 inches to a stand-and-be-counted 48 inches tall.

If the giftee doesn't mind manual cranking and a lesser-grade white desktop, IKEA's Skarsta sit/stand desk variant achieves the same healthful ends for $229.

Kitchen capers. Know someone who gets up to the elbows in meal prep, then needs help, say, to convert a recipe entry from milliliters (mL) to tablespoons? Prepare a shopping list? Tune in a favorite Internet radio station? Or flick on some smart bulbs?

All can be accomplished, hands-free, just by waking up a WiFi-connected Amazon Echo speaker with the magically voiced words "Hello Alexa" and then your special wishes. Such a smarty! $179 online and in stores (including Staples and Home Depot).

Treat someone who loves baking - but not cleaning up - to the novel Cuisinart Vertical Waffle Maker ($79.95). Batter poured in from the top fills perfectly, never oozes out the sides, a big bugaboo with old-school waffle irons. Both scratch recipes and three-ingredient mixes work equally well; the Belgian style, quadrant-cutable waffle comes out crisp on the outside, moist and cakey on the inside.

The yolk's never on you with the Brainstream BeepEgg Basic Singing and Floating Egg Timer. Just drop the device - a temperature tracker, actually - into the heating water with the eggs. Three different songs then play to indicate egg doneness - "Oh! Susanna" for soft-boiled, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for medium (otherwise iffy to achieve), and "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" for hard-boiled eggcellence. $19.99 at Amazon, $18.87 at

While the Epicurean bread board is devoid of moving parts, its design and construction are impressive, with eight routed slots that contain crumbs on one side and a flat work surface on the other.

The eco-conscious material is clever, too: a sturdy, nonporous wood fiberboard that resists knife markings and bacteria. $49.95 at

Videocam high jinks. While sold initially for security and baby monitoring, some wireless home video cameras today are just as much about sharing the visual fun (and two-way talk) you'd otherwise miss, making the devices a great gift for a guilt-stricken, absentee loved one.

Put a WiFi-connected, wide-angle Logi Circle ($199.99 at in the most used family room. Triggered by motion, this camera automatically captures, cloud-stores, and then replays (on cue) video highlights from the day - both lengthy bits (3+ minutes) and a 30-second "best of the day" recap - on your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. Content storage comes at no extra cost. And if the action moves elsewhere, just pick up and move the Circle camera, too. It's capable of running on backup battery away from a recharging base for at least four hours, while live streaming stays stable.

Pet lovers will rejoice with the gift of a Petcube or Petzi petcam. Both app controlled and with talk back, the former ($129 from Brookstone and lets you remotely move a red light beam around the room for your dog or cat to chase.

The latter ($169.99 at invites you to trigger a jingle alert, then dispense mini Milk-Bone or cat treats. Screen antics can be stored and shared on Petzi's community website.

And to all, a good night.

215-854-5960 @JTakiff