5 Things Parents Need to Know About Mobile Gaming

There was a time not so long ago when it was easy to tell when your child was playing a video game; they would either be in the family room with a controller in their hands or in the back of the car with a Nintendo DS.

Not anymore. With the rise of casual gaming and mobile apps, games can be played at any time on almost any device. Smartphones, tablets, iPod touches, netbooks – all of them provide easy access to thousands of games, which can be downloaded in seconds with just a Wi-Fi connection and a few clicks.

All this presents additional problems for parents who are worried about too much screen time and whether their kids are being exposed to inappropriate content. Plus, there can be serious financial consequences. It might be OK to buy yourself a little peace and quiet by handing your iPhone over to your 8-year-old, but it’s not so soothing when your credit card gets hit for hundreds of dollars worth of in-game purchases!

But all is not lost. There are things that parents can do to stay on top of their kids’ casual gaming activities and make sure they don’t get out of control. Here are some suggestions:

Check the apps on your child’s smartphone

Make sure you know what your child has downloaded onto his or her smartphone. If you don’t recognize the game, check whether it’s age-appropriate by reading the description in the relevant app store. (The App Store for Apple devices and Google Play for Android phones.) Better still, establish rules for downloading, so you know what they want to play before they start playing it.

Check your phone bill or your iTunes account

Make sure that your child isn’t racking up significant charges by downloading paid games or purchasing in-game items. If appropriate, establish a monthly spending limit. (You can block purchases or set up a monthly allowance on iTunes.)

Do not allow younger children to play games on Facebook

There are numerous games for young children on Facebook but keep in mind that children need to be 13 or over to have their own account. Do not let young children play games on your own Facebook account, as it’s easy to stumble across inappropriate content.

Factor in the additional screen time

Screen time is screen time, whether it’s watching a TV show, using an Xbox One, or playing with a smartphone. Set limits on how much screen time is allowed, and make sure smartphones and other gaming devices stay out of the bedroom.

Join in the fun!

If you really want to understand mobile gaming, ask your child to show you how a few of those games are played? Playing games with your kids is a great way to bond and casual video gaming is no exception. But watch out, you just might get hooked yourself!

10 things you didn’t know you could do with a smartphone

We love our smartphones for texting, e-mail, web surfing, and yes, for even making the occasional phone call! But did you know you can do so much more with your smartphone? Built-in hardware features and thousands of apps are turning our smartphones into everything from virtual wallets to handy tool kits.

Here are just a few of the smartphone uses they might not tell you about at the local phone store!

1.  Use your phone a remote control

Some of the coolest apps in the App Store or the Android Market are the ones that let you turn your smartphone into a remote control device. You can control dozens of gadgets from your DVR to your computer to a high-end digital camera. You can even impress your colleagues at work by using your iPhone as a remote for PowerPoint or Keynote presentations.

2.  Get warnings about speed traps

Download the Trapster app to get mobile alerts about upcoming speed traps, hidden cameras, and other roadway hazards. You can also monitor your driving speed and get early warnings of red lights and other potential dangers.

3.  Turn iTunes into your own karaoke playlist

Download the Karaoke! app and you can sing along to your favorite songs from your iTunes collection. Karaoke! magically removes the vocals from any song. You can even record your own version using the Karaoke! Studio feature.

4.  Pay for more than just Starbucks coffee

Google Wallet allows you to store your credit card details on your smartphone, together with special offers and other payment information. Just tap your phone on the check-out reader and the transaction is automatically recorded. If you don’t have a card from the participating banks, you can get the Google Prepaid Card to make sure you can still enjoy cash-free shopping.

5.  Monitor your heart rate

Download Instant Heart Rate by Azumio and use your smartphone’s camera to measure your pulse and calculate your heart rate. You can also measure your fat burning ability and how quickly your heart rate recovers after exercise. Amazingly accurate and reliable!

6.  Track your kids (or your spouse!)

Apps like Find My iPhone and Verizon Family Locator allow you to remotely check in on the whereabouts of another smartphone using GPS tracking. Some apps will send alerts when a phone arrives at or leaves a designated area, making it ideal for keeping an eye on the kids!

7.  Turn your phone into a handy carpenter’s tool

The iHandy Carpenter app will turn your smartphone into a handy workman’s tool kit. Use your phone as a plumb bob, a surface level, a bubble level bar, a steel protractor to measure angles, and a ruler measuring both inches and centimeters. Nice woodgrain and lighting effects make all the tools visually appealing.

8.  Stitch photos together

Use Photosynth to stitch photos together and create visual panoramas. You can create 360 degree images to show off a house or an apartment or to construct stunning panoramic views. It can even be used for 3D modeling.

9.  Stop yourself from making embarrassing phone calls

Ever had one too many and thought about dialing an old boyfriend? Or phoning your boss to tell him exactly what you think of him? The Designated Dialer app can be used to lock you out of your phone or just from certain contacts, so you don’t make those late night marriage-busting or job-losing calls. Unlocking it requires passing a sobriety test, which includes a mini quiz and a display of manual dexterity.

10.  Control the lives of remote tribesmen

Are you benevolent or vengeful? Download the Pocket God app to control the lives of pygmy tribesmen who live on a remote island. Bring them food and nurture them – or throw them in the water to be eaten by sharks!. You completely control their fate with your vast god-like powers!

Do you have other unusual uses for your smartphone? Share them here with The Online Mom!

Making your home a little ‘smarter’

I first came across the term smarthome in the late 1990s, when I saw a home automation exhibit at a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Back then, smarthome technology was largely confined to new home construction for the wealthy, but even then you could see the possibilities for regular households: universal lighting and appliance controls, home theater and other entertainment systems, enhanced home security – all with the promise of improved energy efficiency.

Fast-forward 15 years and the dream of turning even a modest home into a smarthome has become a reality. And thanks to mobile devices and the Internet, smarthome technology is now even better, with remote programming, real-time monitoring, and intelligent feedback all part of the smarthome solution.

For me, smarthome technology has always been about peace of mind. With lots of business travel, relatives coming and going, and a teenager with a busy social life, it’s great to be able to check in on the house when I’m away. Using Verizon’s Home Monitoring and Control system, I can turn lights on and off, buzz visitors into the house, see a live video feed of all the important areas in the home, and even set individual thermostats.

The great thing about Home Monitoring and Control is that you can start out small and grow incrementally whenever the need arises. A “starter kit” will give you an indoor camera, a light module and a gateway device. After that, you can add door locks, door and window sensors, smart thermostats, additional indoor and outdoor cameras, and modules for individual appliances.

Once the system is set up, you can access and control it from your smartphone, tablet, PC or even your FiOS TV. Imagine getting to work and being able to check if you turned the lights off; or getting a notification that someone has just opened the front door and being able to see a video to check who it is. For me, knowing my daughter is back home after school – and who else might be there with her – is perhaps the greatest advantage of my new smarthome lifestyle.

To enjoy Home Monitoring and Control, you need a Verizon broadband service (FiOS or Verizon High Speed Internet) and a home network. The starter kit costs $89.99 – or you can opt for a free pre-owned kit – and the monthly service fee is $9.99. Try Home Monitoring and Control under a 30-day money back guarantee and see if you can make your home a little smarter!

The Online Mom LLC receives a fee for participating in certain promotional programs for Verizon. All opinions are my own.

Embracing technology

I’m always fascinated by the different attitudes parents show towards technology. Some go out of their way to embrace every new device that hits the market, showering their kids with Kindles and iPads so they can ‘stay ahead of the game.’ Others view technology the same way they view a talk about the birds and the bees: “There’s no need for any of that stuff just yet. Let him be a child for a little longer.”

While these two different approaches rarely have any long term impact on the kids – the technology ‘have-nots’ are usually all caught up by the time they reach 5th grade – it often has a lasting impact on the parents themselves. The startling rate of technology adoption among school-age children means that even the savviest of parents struggle to stay ahead. Those parents who once took pride in declaring their home a no-tech zone are often left on the outside looking in.

While some parents are OK with not being part of this brave new digital world, others feel frustrated. I’ve had moms come up to me to say how lost they feel when their kids tell them about the wikis they are building in school, or the latest e-learning platform they are using for math. Their long-held dream of sitting there with pen and paper waiting to help with the homework has been overtaken by surge of techno-speak and a feeling of hopelessness.

However, I usually tell these moms that it’s never too late to get involved. There are plenty of ways for parents to connect with their digital kids without spending hundreds of dollars on the latest devices or going back to night school for Technology 101.

Show and tell

If your child is using a new device, program or website that you aren’t familiar with, ask him to show you how it works. I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t get a kick out of teaching his parents a thing or two, and technology is one area where most kids think they have an edge. Make a few notes as your child explains what he’s doing – and get him to give you some homework!

Google it

Use the vast resources of the Internet to help get up to speed. If you want to know more about an educational tool that your child is using, Google it. At the same time, Google your child’s name and a few of his friends. You don’t have to be an expert to get a good or bad feeling about some of the web-based tools that your child is using. If you have any doubts or questions about your child’s online activity, check with his school. Teachers, tech specialists and guidance counselors will be more than happy to guide you through the resources that your child is using.

It takes a village

Similarly, don’t be afraid to check in with other parents, particularly the parents of your child’s friends. If several of you are keen to know more about the devices and tools that your kids are using, arrange to have someone come in and talk to you as a group. A problem shared is a problem halved, and nowhere is that truer than when it comes to understanding what our kids are up to!

Get excited

Whatever your level of understanding of today’s digital technologies, be excited for your child’s involvement and the discoveries he’s making on a daily basis. Whether it’s an online discussion group, a cool new science app, or just a fun new game, show the same level of interest and enthusiasm that you would if he got a good report card or was starring on the soccer field. Technology may not be your world, but it’s his and he wants you to be a part of it.

Online Storage Options

Consumers have more choice than ever for their online storage needs. Whether you want to backup your entire movie collection or just upload a few photos, tech companies large and small are falling over themselves to offer you a personalized storage service.

Here are a few of the more popular options, including pricing structure and why each one might be the right choice for you:

  • Dropbox

    dropbox-logoLaunched in 2008, Dropbox was one of the first publicly available online storage solutions. Dropbox has expanded rapidly over the past four years, adding mobile options and several other features, but its emphasis has always been on synchronization and sharing.

    Pricing: Free for up to 2 GB of storage, although that free allocation can be extended to 18 GB through referrals and other promotions. Pro plans start at 100 GB for $9.99 per month or $99.00 per year.

    Why it could be right for you: Dropbox has picked up a lot of fans over its short life because of its simplicity and reliability. Consumers without an affiliation to Apple or Google will continue to enjoy its independence, although power users may eventually tire of paying more than the competition for premium options.

  • Microsoft SkyDrive

    skydrive-logoSkyDrive is part of the Windows Live range of online services. Users can keep uploaded files private, share them with specific contacts, or make them publicly available. Microsoft recently released a SkyDrive desktop app for Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Mac OS X users, which allows users to create and edit Microsoft Office documents directly within a web browser. Changes are synchronized when users save a document.

    Pricing: Free for up to 7 GB of storage. An additional 20 GB is available for $10 per year, with other options priced at the equivalent of $1 for every 2 GB of extra storage.

    Why it could be right for you: Despite recently cutting back the allocation of storage space for new users from 25 GB to 7 GB, SkyDrive still offers the most free storage of any of the popular services. SkyDrive also integrates well with other Windows programs, including Hotmail. The universal popularity of the Microsoft Office programs will make it a convenient and effective sharing and collaboration tool for most PC users.

  • iCloud

    icloud-logoApple’s iCloud storage service allows you to store and sync all your music, photos, files, contacts, and other content, so it’s available on any Apple device you choose, any time you want.

    All new Apple devices are already synced for iCloud. Owners of older devices are asked to opt-in to iCloud when they download iOS 5.

    Price: iCloud is free for the first 5 GB of space, and additional storage can be purchased at the rate of $20 per year for each incremental 10 GB. Media purchased through iTunes doesn’t count against the basic 5 GB allocation.

    Why it could be right for you: If you have an iPhone or any other Apple hardware, then iCloud is a no-brainer. Although it can also cater to the power user, iCloud is specifically designed for consumers, allowing them to access their photos, apps, and other files from any Apple device. And the beauty of iCloud is that it automatically syncs, meaning that no further action is required to backup and secure your data.

  • Google Drive

    google-drive-logoGoogle Drive allows individuals and businesses to store photos, videos, documents, and other files on Google’s servers so they are available from any web-enabled device.

    Google has the advantage of being able to integrate Google Drive with many of its other services. For example, Google+ users will be able to post photos directly from Drive, and Google is also working on an option for Gmail users to attach files from Google Drive to their e-mails. Google Docs is built right into Google Drive, so you can work in real time with others on documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.

    Price: Google Drive gives users 5 GB of storage for free. There is also a 25 GB option for $2.49 per month, or you can have 100 GB for $4.99 per month.

    Why it could be right for you: The main advantage of Google Drive for most consumers will be the ability to store files and data and then access and share them from anywhere. You can install Google drive on a Mac or PC and download the Drive app to Android mobile devices. A Drive app for iOS devices (iPhone and iPad) is expected to be released shortly.

  • Amazon Cloud Drive

    amazon-cloud-drive-logoBilled as “your personal hard drive in the cloud,” Amazon Cloud Drive is available to store music, videos, photos, and documents. All you need is a web browser to upload, download and access your files from any computer. Once your files are uploaded to Cloud Drive, you can organize them into different folders, copy them, rename them, or delete them You can play your music from Amazon Cloud Drive on any device using the Amazon Cloud Player.

    Price: Cloud Drive comes with 5 GB of free storage. You can purchase additional storage up to 1000 GB at the rate of $1 per GB per year. Purchases made from the Amazon music store don’t count towards your individual storage allowance.

    Why it could be right for you: Although Amazon Cloud Drive is clearly designed to get consumers to buy more music from the Amazon music store, it also offers a straightforward backup and storage option for non-music files. While the cost of the higher storage options might be prohibitive, it’s another solid choice for anyone looking for free backup.

    Can you recommend other online storage solutions? Share them with The Online Mom! 

Making sense of data

A friend of mine is mad at the wireless carriers. She thinks they are after her unlimited data plan. “I have had unlimited data since 2007,” she said to me indignantly “and no ‘share this or share that’ plan is going to take it away from me!” I let her calm down for a few minutes and then asked her the obvious question: How much data does she actually use each month? Of course I knew the answer before I asked the question: she had no idea.

Here’s the story I tell most of my unlimited data friends: I am one of the heaviest smartphone users I know. I stream movies, I stream music, I upload photos, I am on e-mail all day long, and I have more apps than I know what to do with. Now, not all this activity takes place on a cellular network. Whenever I’m at home and I’m going to watch a movie or listen to music, I switch to our home network. Similarly, if I’m travelling and I can find secure Wi-Fi, I use someone else’s data allowance not mine.

But this careful approach to cellular data use is offset by constant use of my smartphone’s hotspot. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t fire up the Internet sharing feature on my Nokia Lumia for my laptop, Surface tablet or another Wi-Fi-enabled device.

So how much data do I use on my cellular network? Barely 1.6GB over the last 30 days. (That’s courtesy of Data Sense, a great Nokia Lumia feature which I will come back to later.)

Now, if I use only 1.6GB per month, my friend must barely reach 1GB. She never watches movies on her smartphone, has given up Facebook for Lent, and hasn’t downloaded more than a handful of apps in her entire life. But her jealous guardianship of her unlimited data package continues.

Of course, numerous consumers are giving up their unlimited data, as they switch to the latest smartphones and are required to abandon their old contracts. But despite some initial irritation, I rarely hear any long-term complaints, particularly from moms of bigger families who love the savings that can come from a Share Everything plan.

If you have concerns about how much data your family will consume, check out Verizon’s data calculator. It will help you estimate data usage across all your devices and tell you which activities are responsible for the highest consumption. Verizon customers can also set up notifications, so you always know where you are in your monthly data cycle. And you can always adjust your plan if you see that you’re going to go over.

Which brings me back to Data Sense, the data-monitoring app on my Nokia Lumia 822. Not only does it tell me how much data I have consumed in the last 30 days, but it also tells me which activities have used up the most. For me, e-mail use is always #1, followed by Internet sharing (hotspot use), and streaming media.

Switch to a Share Everything plan and activate those monitoring tools – and you will forget that there was ever such a thing as unlimited data!

5 Ways Augmented Reality Apps Are Changing Our Lives

 

If you look through the tech section of any newspaper, or spend any amount of time online, you are almost certainly familiar with the expression “augmented reality.” Used in everything from military exercises to sportscasts on national television, augmented reality (AR) applications have quickly become part of our everyday lives.

But what exactly is augmented reality? In simple terms, it’s a view of the real world that has been enhanced by computer-generated graphics, text or sound. While we may not be familiar with the definition of AR, we are certainly familiar with some its applications. That yellow first down marker we see during televised football games is a classic and enduring example of AR. So is the data that is superimposed on the visor of a fighter pilot as he gazes out of his cockpit window.

But while these are two of the better known AR applications, they have recently been joined by thousands of others. Faster processing speeds and better data delivery networks have combined to bring AR to every aspect of our daily existence. Here are just 5 areas where AR is leaving its mark:

Navigation

Want to find an ATM or a place for lunch? Apps like Nokia City Lens and Wikitude take the view of the surrounding streets on your smartphone camera and superimpose details of the businesses or landmarks that are included in the frame. The graphics will change based on the direction the camera is facing, and you can immediately get walking or driving directions once you find what you’re looking for.

Education

AR apps such as Google Goggles and can be used to call up background or historical information on landmarks included in your smartphone camera’s view. Pocket Universe does the same for the night sky. There are also numerous apps like Layar that can add AR codes and buttons to static text, so the printed page can be brought to life with digital content.

Shopping

We all know about bar code readers that can identify consumer goods and compare prices, but what about identifying something that doesn’t have a barcode? Apps like CamFind allow you to take a picture of virtually any object – for example, a car or a shoulder bag – and find out what it is and where you can buy it. These “visual search” apps are also great for shopping abroad. They can give you answers in multiple languages, look for the best prices, and even give you a voice-over so you know the correct pronunciation!

Search and Rescue

First responders and other emergency services are investing in AR apps that can give them real-time maps of buildings in the event of a fire, a hostage situation, or a similar crisis. It’s easy to imagine how a central command post could use AR apps to feed rescuers vital information based on data transmitted by head-mounted cameras and other assets.

Design

Urban planners, architects, landscapers and interior decorators can all be assisted in the design process by having an idea of how their ideas will translate to the real world before they are implemented. Everything from commercial real estate projects to simple furniture choices can be validated or revised based on AR simulations.

So the next time your hear the phrase “augmented reality,” sit up and take notice. It has already made a big difference to the way we live our daily lives and we’ve just gotten started!

The Connected Traveler

Despite the proliferation of more compatible networks and handsets, it’s still not unusual to hear about phone users coming home to unexpected costs after using their smartphones and tablets overseas. The sad part is that it really shouldn’t happen at all. With a little foresight and planning, your smartphone is the last thing you should have to worry about when you step on that plane.

Make sure your phone will work
The first thing to check is whether your mobile device is going to work while you are abroad. Here, you can get some help from Verizon’s Trip Planner , which will match your smartphone or tablet against the networks in the countries you are visiting and let you know if your device will operate.

Even if your device is not compatible, all is not lost. Under the Global Travel Program , Verizon can ship you an Android or BlackBerry smartphone to use for the duration of your trip. There are no daily rental fees or security deposits and customers can often keep their regular phone numbers and transfer their contacts using Verizon Cloud or Backup Assistant Plus

Buy a global plan
If your device is compatible, then you will need a Global Services plan. Verizon offers a variety of voice, messaging and data plans, based on the countries you are visiting. Again, the trip planner can help, giving you all the options for the way you want to use your device.

If you are a smartphone owner, then the key to controlling costs is getting your data usage right. (Much like your U.S. plan.) If you don’t expect to use much data and just want to make a few phone calls or send a few texts, then it may not be worth buying a data plan at all. But if you will be using your smartphone to check e-mail, surf the Web, and access your apps, then a global data plan is essential.

Two things work in your favor when you set up a data plan. First, you will be accessing much lower rates. ($25/100MB vs. $20.48/MB for typical pay-as-you-go rates.) Second, you will get notifications on your data usage, allowing you to make informed decisions about additional data purchases. Staying on top of your data usage is the best way to avoid bill shock when you get back to the U.S.

Use apps to make your trip more enjoyable

One of the best parts about travel is planning for your trip, and here your smartphone or tablet can be invaluable. From monitoring your flights to browsing local restaurants, your mobile device can be your knowledgeable guide and travel companion all rolled into one. Points of interest, places to stay, currency conversions, even local translations – everything you need for a successful and memorable trip is available from your local app store.

So the next time you plan a trip overseas, stop thinking about your phone as a potential liability and start thinking about the possibilities. Your smartphone has gone global and it’s time for you to take advantage!

The Online Mom LLC receives a fee for participating in certain promotional programs for Verizon Wireless.

Connecting Your Mobile Lifestyle

If you’re like me, your smartphone has become far more than a tool for checking e-mail and keeping in touch with the family. It’s almost like my smartphone has become my controller, not for a video game but for the real life task of being more organized and productive.

A lot of this has to do with the amazing apps that are now available. When you can use your smartphone for everything from helping you prepare dinner to reading the night sky, we have moved far beyond the realm of the old PDA into a world of almost fantasy-like indulgence.

But apps aren’t the only things that are transforming our digital lives. Our ability to pair our smartphones and tablets and communicate with other devices and accessories is just as important, and represents the next frontier of the mobile revolution.

As I sit in my office and look around me, there are at least three other devices that are linked to my phone: a Bluetooth wireless headset, a Jawbone JAMBOX Bluetooth speaker, and a Jawbone UP
activity tracker. Each device uses my smartphone as a hub to add convenience, increase productivity, or keep me entertained.

These connected devices have already been joined by security cameras and smart switches for the home; remote-controlled toys and augmented reality puzzles for the kids; and heart-rate monitors and ‘smart’ bathroom scales for the health-conscious. Each month, more and more connected accessories are introduced, adding to our options and abetting our increasingly mobile lifestyles.

That means you can now use your smartphone to check on your living room while you are away on vacation; or remotely turn up the thermostat when you know the kids are coming home early; or see how many steps you have taken as you strive to meet your fitness goals. All these tasks, that would have waited until later or would never have happened at all, are now as easy as picking up your smartphone.

So don’t waste another second. Use your smartphone to get connected and start enjoying the limitless benefits of a truly mobile lifestyle!