The Pomera portable digital typewriters continue to elude the U.S.

What do you get when you cross a folding keyboard with an E-ink display? Answer: the King Jim Pomera DM30 that I wrote about for ZDNet last year. It’s a pocket device optimized for distraction-free writing anywhere, even outside with its reflective display. And if a fixed-function word processor wasn’t retro enough, it even runs on AA batteries. But there are still ties to the modern device world. Files can be moved to a PC or smartphone via memory cards and QR codes in a companion app. The company also offers the DM200, a variation on the theme that includes a larger E-ink display and a rechargeable battery that feels like a modern, fixed-function version of the Poquet PC.

The Pomera line has been around in Japan for over a decade, but had never been marketed in America. That was going to change with the DM30 after its crowdfunding campaign, but its poor execution included a stultifying, subtitled video. Late in the game, King Jim floated offering a US English keyboard, but it was too little, too late. The crowdfunding campaign tanked, raising less than a third of its goal, and the compay nixed its American plans.

There’s no doubt that the Pomera DM30 would have made it had King Jim invested in a good PR campaign to support its crowdfunding bid. Far less compelling products have raised far more. While it hinted that it would try again at some point, there’s still no American DM30. And with the pandemic-fueled recession making us less mobile than ever, it’s unlikely that that will change any time soon.

This fall, we should finally see the arrival of a more successful crowdfunded device, FreeWrite Traveler, which preserves the E-Ink writing experience, but is a much larger device. The DM30 seems like something that someone could do a pretty good job rigging up with a Raspberry Pi Zero, but nobody has.

Sony exits digital paper category

E-Ink displays are usually associated with e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, but there are a few products on the market that allow for stylus-based input or even run Android apps. Sony was one of the earlier players with a 13″ and then 10″ digital notepad intended mostly for reading and marking up PDFs, and featured long battery life, great outdoor visibility, and a lack of distracting apps. They were niche, professional devices marketed as an alternative to carrying around briefcases filled with paper, but cost north of $1,000 for the 13″ version.

Good e-Reader had reported in 2018 that Sony was working on some promising new products through Linfiny, its joint venture with E-Ink Holdings. However, it now reports that, at least as far as Sony’s product line is concerned, Digital Paper is no more and follow-on products are unlikely. It marks an ignonimous end for the company for a company that launched the pioneering Sony Reader in 2006 before Amazon came to dominate the category. The spirit of Digital Paper, however, will live on as products such as the reMarkable 2 hit the market soon.

Mighty plans to keep it mighty simple

The best noise-canceling headphones and a premium ad-free music service subscription won’t save your relaxing soundtrack from being interrupted by phone calls or the bleeps of other apps interrupting you. That wasn’t an issue back in the days of the classic iPod, which was a long-play extension of the Walkman-listening model but was limited to whatever music you could load onto it. Enter the Mighty Vibe, It a device that evokes the the iPod shuffle but that offers functionality akin to the Slacker Player device that once worked with that streaming music service. (I wrote about the passing of the torch from the Slacker Player to the Mighty device a bit after the latter’s Kickstarter campaign.)

The Mighty Vibe lets you transfer playlists from Spotify or Amazon Music for offline, uninterrupted playback. It’s not quite as convenient an experience as the Slacker Player was in that that older device had a kind of “top-off” model for filling up cached “stations” of music, but the Mighty Player offers far more control of the listening experience through its app. On its website, Mighty touts that it has no screens, but the company recently wrote a blog post on its distraction-free philosophy. Among the highlights, it calls screens “a trap,” touts the benefits of combining music with screen-free time, and celebrates freedom from the newsfeed in defending why it doesn’t plan to add features like GPS, a heart rate monitor, step counter, and a screen.

The underlying philosophy is sound, but plenty of digital music players of yore managed to keep things simple while succumbing to a screen. Mighty could create something similar to the SanDisk Sansa Clip line, which had a good run, without compromising its focus. On the other hand, those devices were never able to offload much of their management functionality to a handy smartphoe app.

Microsoft emphasizes focus in upcoming Office user interface

Once, Microsoft was rebuked for its egregious space-wasting when it came to user interface. Whereas the classic Mac interface, originally designed for a 9″ 512 X 384-pixel display, kept commands hidden in menus until they were needed, Microsoft fostered the distraction-free work backlash with toolbars filled with inscrutable icons and, later, a ribbon for Microsoft Office that consumed a large part of the work area.

The company recently scaled back the ribbon’s space requirements, though, and from the sound of this Verge article, more dramatic changes are in play as the Office team builds, per a preview video, “experiences built for focus.” Perhaps the closest look we get at the future concept is this ethereal view of old favorite Excel:

In addition to an overall simplification, Microsoft is also moving toolbars closer to the action where they are needed, which should also help with screen clutter. As is made clear both in the illustration and the even more abstract video, part of what’s driving the shift is Microsoft’s move onto platforms such as smartphones where there are not only smaller screens, but a need for larger targets to be hit by fingers as opposed to cursors.

There’s still much to be revealed here, but a redesign of Word that moves much of the user interface out of the way could put pressure on the cottage industry of distraction-free word processors.

TimeChi aims to be the “Fitbit of productivity”

Distraction-attacking gadgets present a paradox. They often seek to simplify an experience, but their very use often means an extra step or factor one needs to consider. Thus, their developers must take care to ensure that they don’t make the problem worse.

That’s a challenged faced by TimeChi, essentially a high-tech timer that allows you to designate periods of deep work. Unlike the illuminated BusyBox, the TimeChi’s lights are just for you as well as would-be interrupters; its glowing light might help message the latter but feels like it could be distracting to the former. TimeChi’s touch-based activaiton also seems like something that would pull focus, but the Australian team says it contributes to a sense of satisfaction that encourages productivity.

TimeChi also has a companion app and website that tracks its usage and allows you to designate what you’ve been working on during its timing sessions as well as how effective you think you were doing them. In this, it describes itself as “a Fitbit for productivity” although, paradoxically, a Fitbit is a more unobtrusive item than the TimeChi. For those for whom a timer or app plus Google Sheets is not enough, TimeChi is available for about $113 through the run of its Indiegogo campaign.

BusyBox is a sign of these distracting times

One way of classifying distractions is internally-driven interruptions versus externally-driven ones. The latter in particular may often be beyond your control. BusyBox, though, aims to minimize them by putting an illuminated sign outside of your mental temple. It warns all those who might enter that you are engaged in any manner of activities such as podcasting, gaming, or just being busy.

The sign, designed can be affixed with 3M Command Strips, is clearly inspired by the “On Air” signs that have graced studios for years, but repurposed for the pandemic era that often sees multiple family members doing office or school work at home.

The product comes in both a low-tech “standard” version that uses one of six templates and a surprisingly high-tech “digital” version that allows the creation of custom signs with graphics via an app that can even control distinct groups of BusyBoxes. It can be activated via popular voice assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant. While the standard version costs $90, the digital one costs a whopping $300. Both versions are available at half-price through the campaign.

Despite the price difference, the standard BusyBox will work for more than 120 hours per charge while the digital one will last a bit more than 10 despite it having twice the battery capacity of the standard version. The BusyBox team is also selling a remote activation button for $24.

The BusyBox looks like an effective way to siliently communicate to fellow family members or officemates that you’re working on something specific, particularly if, like its “On Air” sign inspiration, it’s something that demands quiet. Still, it seems expensive for what it is and raises the quesiton why it’s not easier to do something like this with a simple digital signage or remote screen control application and a smartphone or tablet.

The gorgeous BenQ PianoLight lights up when you walk by

Distraction can interfere with the discipline required to master a complex musical instrument like the piano, so anything that encourages one to play can be a real asset. That’s why I was compelled to try out the BenQ PianoLight, an unexpected product from the company best known for projectors and monitors. I was particularly interested in its proximity sensor; the light can turn on as you approach the piano. It doesn’t get more welcoming than that.

The product’s intrigue begins with the box, which balances despite an off-center handle due to the way BenQ has distributed the weight of the product in the package.

The light has a much smaller footprint than the one I’d been using but it emits a nearly perfect illumination of the entire keyboard, much as the company’s ScreenBar lamp spreads light across the surface area in front of a monitor. The simple controls for adjusting brightness and warmth allow for a degree of customization that’s not present in legacy piano lights.

There is room for improvement. The only component that needs to be attached is the glare shade, which is supposed to snap into the light. I’ve tried to attach it numerous times and it invariably falls off. A magnetic attachment method would have been a better solution. And the proximity sensor proved a bit too sensitive, turning the light on whenever any family member, including my cat, came within about two feet of the lamp. The feature has great potential; it would just be nice to dial it down a bit, just like the lamp’s brightness.

Regardless, the BenQ PianoLight is an elegant and effective light that is a particularly great complement to digital pianos. It’s simply one of the most attractive tech products I’ve ever used.

Book Review: Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction

Note: This review refers to the audiobook edition.

While Chris Bailey’s Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distractions (originally and less accurately subtitled How To Work Less To Achieve More) spends chapters explaining hyperfocus, a term borrowed from ADHD that means focusing on a single task in one’s “attentional space”, the title describes only part of its subject matter. The back half is dedicated to what Bailey calls scatterfocus, the opposite of hyperfocus in which the mind intentionally wanders. The two combine like the yin and yang; hyperfocus is all about short-term productivity sessions while scatterfocus helps enhance longer-term creative problem solving and ultimately leads to better focus.

In terms of visualization aids, Bailey describes and has shared two 2×2 grids. The first helps you sort out your tasks by whether they’re attractive and productive while the second helps sort distractions by whether they are fun and controllable. There’s less formality around sorting out scatterfocus modes, but he describes three: capture mode (letting your mind roam freely), problem-crunching mode (letting your mind wander around a particular problem) and habitual mode (engaging in a simple task and capturing the ideas and plans bubble to the surface). Bailey describes the last mode as the most productive and says it has generated reams of creative ideas.

When it comes to the distraction of tech, you’ll find many of the common ideas for stripping down your PC and smartphone to remove social media and even email. And while distraction-free or minimalist subsets of products are a favorite topic of Control-Break, Bailey suggests creating the opposite: a tablet that includes all the fun distractions for when you want to indulge in them. Bailey focuses a lot on intent. e.g., letting your mind wander is great, even desirable, when you’ve specifically engaged in one of three scatterfocus modes. He also alludes to the power of awareness, particularly in a discussion at the end of the book that would be better integrated earlier

One element of Bailey’s research I like is that he has engaged in personal interviews with some of the leading researchers in the space as opposed to just citing their academic papers or books. A few of my favorite discussions in the book revolve around specifics in the role of music in helping focus as well as the roles of media consumption and happiness in helping focus. Bailey is also not shy about suggesting caffeine and even alcohol as a way to enhance focus or creativity although he devotes far more attention earlier in the book to the drug-free benefits of meditation. There’s also a humorous gem of a section where Bailey relays a list of reader-submitted boring tasks that he took on as an experiment. (Spoiler: C-Span does not ignite the senses.)

When compared with Nir Eyal’s more recent Indistactable (reviewed here), Bailey, like Eyal, thinks about distraction as something that takes you away from your goal task, regardless of whether that task is “productive” in the traditional work sense. Unlike Eyal, Bailey seems to buy into the idea of fatigue and the limits of willpower (although he doesn’t dwell on it). Hyperfocus also leans a bit more toward the conceptual than practical execution than Indistractable; Bailey could offer more specific advice about how to enter the mental modes he describes.

Hyperfocus‘s paradox is that what separates it from other productivity books is the discussion of scatterfocus, which is hidden until you’re halfway through the book. But the real nut of the value comes from understanding and applying the interplay of hyperfocus and scatterfocus. If you come away with a technique to master these modes, that will make up for what the book lacks in hyperfocus insights alone.

QuietOn earbuds stop the noise without the music

Noise-canceling earbuds such as the AirPods Pro or, more recently, Surface Earbuds, are stolen (and likely reduced the audible jolt of) a lot of thunder from larger noise-canceling headphones that dominate long flights. But why should we have to trade one distraction for another, even if it’s relatively comforting music or white noise? QuietOn says that its noise-canceling earbuds are the smallest on the market, in part because they have no Bluetooth feature. The $199 buds use a button on their surface to quiet audio. QuietOn recommends the product for those trying to escape the snoring of a partner, but even small earbuds can be uncomfortable for side-sleepers.

Accent is an ambient display for the wall

As this Fast Company article I wrote back in 2017 shows, I’ve long been interested in the idea of ambient displays in the home. Their ancestors are analog products like clocks and framed photos. Then came digital photo frames and Chumby. More recently, they’ve shown up as smart displays. But despite some promising progress in wireless power, they all need to be plugged in.

E-ink to the rescue then? Google X engineer and Calmtech advocate Max Braun last year created Accent, an E-Ink-based frame that requires no power cord. As Braun notes, it is heavily based on the Waveshare three-color (black, white and red) display for Raspberry Pi computers. Thus, it’s good for things like calendars, OK for things like maps, and bad for things like photos. Braun followed up Accent with a poster-sized digital newspaper wall project called Paper which, according to the children’s riddle, is indeed black and white and re(a)d all over. However, with color e-paper technology such as E-Ink’s Print-Color technology becoming more prevalent in 2020 and beyond, a more suitable digital replacement for the photo frame could finally become a reality.