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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Update December 2016

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Update December 24, 2016

Facebook adds free games like ‘Pac-Man’ to Messenger app

This image provided by Facebook shows a demonstration of Facebook’s new option to play games with contacts on Facebook Messenger. The feature can be accessed in the latest version of the messaging app by tapping a game controller icon. Games available include classics such as “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and “Galaga,” as well as newer titles. (Facebook via AP)

Barbara Ortutay

New York (AP) - You can now play “Pac-Man” with your Facebook Messenger buddies.

Facebook is adding the option to play games with your contacts on the messaging app. You can access the feature in the latest version of the app by tapping a game controller icon.

Games available include classics such as “Pac-Man,” ‘’Space Invaders” and “Galaga,” as well as newer titles like “Words With Friends.” It’s the latest effort by the world’s biggest social network to get people to spend even more time on its properties.

Messenger has a billion users. The app will recommend games based on whether your friends play. Currently there is no way to play with people who are not your Messenger contacts, so if your friends don’t like to play games, you are out of luck.

Called “Instant Games,” the feature will begin in 30 countries, with 17 titles, though more will come. In addition to Messenger, users can also play solo games in their Facebook news feed.

Facebook tested the waters with two simple Messenger games earlier this year - soccer and basketball, both of which involved flicking balls on the screen with your finger. They proved popular.

Facebook has a long history with gaming, which began with “FarmVille” years ago when people logged in using desktop computers. But since then, Facebook gaming has sort of fallen by the wayside, even as mobile games from “Candy Crush” to “Pokemon Go” have remained popular. Facebook hopes to change that with its Instant Games.

The games themselves are simple to play, and like the earlier soccer and basketball games, load inside Messenger and don’t open in a separate app.

Update December 17, 2016

Wacky gifts for the tech-savvy person who has everything

This photo provided by Plox shows the “Star Wars” Death Star levitating bluetooth speaker. (Courtesy of Plox via AP)

This Walabot handheld 3-D imaging system by Vayyar senses two mice during a demonstration at Pepcom, in New York. Walabot’s sensor technology can look through walls to detect structural foundations, track a person’s location and vital signs as they move through a Smart Home, measure the speed of a fast-moving ball, and help drones and cars avoid collisions. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Bree Fowler

New York (AP) - The latest technology can make for an easy holiday gift, but when it comes to the ultra-tech-savvy people in your life, finding a cool gadget they don’t already own can be tough.

Fear not! From “Star Wars”-themed speakers to radiation-blocking boxer briefs, there’s a lot to pick from for all the super geeks in your life.

Death Star levitating speaker

That’s no moon. It’s a $180 wireless speaker shaped like the Death Star from “Star Wars.”

It’s a little tricky to set up, but once you get the Death Star positioned correctly over its base, it floats in the air thanks to well-placed magnets and a little help from the Force. The Death Star rotates with a tap. The sound quality is pretty good, and the rechargeable battery will give you five hours of sound.

Just keep it away from rebel fighter pilots.


It’s a Faraday cage for your, um, crown jewels.

Silver fibers woven into Spartan’s boxer briefs are designed to block radiation from electronics. That’s good news for men who might be worried about their laptops spending too much time on their laps. But while recent research has pointed to a possible link between radiation from wireless devices and decreased sperm count, studies are far from conclusive, so there’s no reason to panic just yet.

Until January, the underwear is available only on Spartan’s website for about $45.

3-D Imaging

Got a friend with mice or termites in their house?

WalabotDIY is a 3-D-imaging tool that lets you see deep into your walls. The device attaches to an Android phone (sorry, iPhone users) and lets you see up to four inches through drywall, cement and other materials, just like Superman’s X-ray vision.

How? Sensors pick up heat from mice motion and termite nests. At a recent demonstration, heat from hiding rodents could easily be seen in glowing red on a device screen.

The sensors also will let you know the depth and location of pipes, wires and other objects to avoid if your next home improvement project calls for drilling into your walls.

The WalabotDIY is available online for $200.

Lego phone cases

Ever wish your smartphone or tablet could keep your fussy children entertained long after it runs out of battery?

Belkin’s Lego cases offer hands-on play, bringing new meaning to the term “screen time.” The back sides are covered with those familiar Lego dots, giving kids something to attach their creations to during long road trips and painful visits to grandma’s house with no Wi-Fi. Of course, they help protect the devices when dropped, too.

Cases are available for the iPhone 6 and 6S ($45), 6 Plus and 6S Plus ($50), and the iPad Mini ($60). There’s no version yet for the iPhone 7 or Android. Belkin makes these under license from Lego, so they should work fine with standard Lego bricks.

Retro video games

The $60 NES Classic Edition includes all your childhood favorites, assuming you came of age in the late 1980s or 1990s. If not, think of them as the horribly dated, super-pixellated games you sometimes see in the back of dive bars.

To amp up the nostalgia even more, the system looks just like a miniature version of the one you remember, complete with a cord-connected black and grey controller. But there’s no stack of cartridges to clutter your room. All 30 games are stored in the system.

Before you get too excited about getting on your “Donkey Kong” or finally saving Princess Zelda, be warned that these systems are very hard to find. They’re selling on eBay and other sites for well over their retail price.

You’re probably going to have to collect a lot of gold coins if you want to land one of these for your favorite child - or more likely, the adult child in your life.


Gift guide for high-tech toys:

Update December 10, 2016

Get ready to build! Hands-on toys that teach are hot

This photo provided by WowWee shows CHiP, a robot dog that cuddles, plays fetch and follows you around the house. (Samuel Pasquier/Ariane Carrier-Cliche/Courtesy of WowWee via AP)

Bree Fowler

New York (AP) - Toys that teach aren’t a new thing, but a growing number are calling for kids to build with blocks, circuits or everyday items before reaching for a tablet screen.

Play is how kids learn about the world around them, whether it’s a toddler throwing a ball or teens playing video games. It’s about seeing how things work and what happens when they do something. And over the years, toys have gotten more high tech to keep screen-obsessed children engaged with such play.

But there’s growing worry among parents and educators that toys are moving too far in that direction. Educational toys that have a math and science bent - marketed under the umbrella of STEM - are now trying to get back to the basics: less screen time, more hands-on activities.

This photo provided by Mattel shows Fisher-Price’s Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar, which introduces basic coding concepts by letting preschoolers assemble segments that each tells the caterpillar to do something different, such as “turn left” or “play sound.” (Mattel via AP)

“When kids use their hands, your outcomes are much higher,” said Pramod Sharma, CEO of one such toy company, Osmo. “It’s very different than if they’re just staring at a screen watching TV.”

With Osmo, kids learn everything from spelling to coding not by touching a screen, but by snapping together magnetic blocks. A screen is still part of it; an image is beamed onto an iPad through its camera. But the idea is to have kids learn first with their hands, then see their creation move to the screen.

Learn by building

Educators agree that whether you’re talking about a toddler playing with blocks, or a teen building a computer from scratch, the act of putting something together helps educational concepts sink in.

“The way the world comes to us is actually through tactile activities, so tactile toys where we build stuff are incredibly helpful,” said Karen Sobel-Lojeski, who studies the effects of technology on children’s brain development at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

Bloxels attempts to bridge the physical and the digital. Kids build their own video games by putting plastic blocks in a special tray, instead of writing out code. Using a phone or tablet’s camera, an app transforms the shapes created with the blocks into digital characters and scenery.

Makey Makey, a startup founded by a pair of MIT students, asks kids to come up with their own electronic creations by combining software, circuits and everyday items like bananas and doughnuts.

Good, but popular?

Sobel-Lojeski said toys are most educational when kids can learn how things work by building. But Juli Lennett, a toy industry analyst at NPD, said such toys are rarely on kids’ wish lists.

On the other hand, tech toys that have subtle educational value, but aren’t specifically marketed as such, can be strong sellers. Lennett cites Fisher-Price’s Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar, which introduces basic coding concepts by letting preschoolers assemble segments that each tells the caterpillar to do something different, such as “turn left” or “play sound.”

“I’m not sure that kids are asking for it, or that their parents just want their kids to go to Harvard, but it’s definitely one of the top-selling toys this holiday,” Lennett said.

Tracy Achinger, a former automotive engineer in Shelby Township, Michigan, said her 8-year-old son got interested in coding after starting computer programming classes this year. So for Christmas, she’s buying him an Ozobot, a golf ball-sized robot that kids can program by drawing different colored lines or using a kid-friendly, block-based programming language.

Tech has its limits

Achinger’s 3-year-old son will be getting an iPad this year. She said she isn’t against screen time, but believes parents need to keep an eye on what their kids are watching and playing. She said her older son has been playing creative games such as “Minecraft” for a few years.

“We try to keep it educational,” Achinger said. “I really think those kinds of games get their imaginations going as they create their own worlds.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines to shift the emphasis away from banning screen time and toward balancing high-quality content with non-screen activities.

That doesn’t mean every toy with a screen is educational. Barbie has her own smart home in the form of the voice-activated and Wi-Fi-connected Hello Dreamhouse. And new versions of Elmo, Furby and the Cabbage Patch Kids have apps, which Lennett said are often more about branding than learning.

Sobel-Lojeski said slapping an app on a previously low-tech toy can backfire. Instead of letting the child imagine how a particular toy would talk or behave, the app fills in those holes.

“It cuts the child off from play that is much more important for development,” she said.

Some of the drive for tech in toys comes from parents who believe that the younger their kids are exposed to technology, the more prepared they will be for a lucrative career someday.

But Sobel-Lojeski said Albert Einstein came up with breakthroughs without ever touching a computer, let alone tech toys at a young age.

“We can easily be tricked into thinking that all this stuff is going to make our kids more intelligent or better scientists and that’s just not true,” she said.

Resist the screen

Companies that make computers for kids also see the value in a construction element.

Kano shows kids how to build their own computers in a kid-friendly storybook format.

Kano co-founder Alex Klein said he had to resist suggestions to just put Kano into app form and skip the computer construction all together. He said the act of building a computer was key because it “created a huge sense of energy and momentum for what followed on screen.”

But Klein said screens aren’t going away anytime soon.

“You can’t compete with screens with kids,” he said. “So, for us it’s not about trying to push against what this next generation thinks is good or likes. It’s about providing a new angle on it that’s more creative.”


AP’s holiday tech toys guide:

Update December 3, 2016

Facebook boosts efforts to ‘do good’ with new tools

An attendee looks at a display of messages related to a tornado during the company’s Social Good Forum held in New York. The social network is offering new tools for charity fundraising, for marking yourself safe during a crisis and for helping others - or asking for help - after a natural disaster. (Jennifer Leahy/Facebook via AP)

Barbara Ortutay

New York (AP) - Facebook is offering new tools for charity fundraising, for marking yourself safe during a crisis and for helping others - or asking for help - after a natural disaster.

The social network made the announcements Thursday, Nov. 17, in New York at its Social Good Forum, a first-of-its-kind event it hopes to repeat in coming years. The company has dozens of engineers who work on its relatively new “social good” team creating tools for users to help their friends or the world around them.

“The philosophy of everything we do at Facebook is that our community can teach us what we need to do,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a video played at the event. “And our job is to learn as quickly as we can and keep on getting better and better.”

User Power?

A tool called “safety check” lets Facebook users mark themselves safe during a crisis, whether that’s a natural disaster, bombing or something else. Once someone marks themselves safe, their friends are automatically notified that they have been accounted for.

At first, Facebook activated the tool in areas where disaster struck. Now, Facebook says it will stop its own activations, handing it off to users instead. How? When a lot of people are posting about an incident (stuff like “was that an earthquake?”), they might get a notification to let friends know they are OK, using safety check. If they do, they can invite other friends to do the same, and so on.

Disaster Aid

Beginning early next year, a tool called “community help” will let users offer and receive shelter, food or other types of help during crises. People have already been doing this on Facebook and Twitter, using hashtags such as #PorteOuverte (open door) after last year’s attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.

But it was often difficult to pair up. The new feature aims to streamline this. People will be able to select categories to get or offer help with, such as food and water, transportation, baby items or shelter. Once they do, they can use Facebook Messenger to arrange the details.

Charity Help

Facebook started letting charities raise money directly through its platform over the summer. At the time, users could choose from 100 U.S. nonprofits. Now, that number is 750,000 and growing. People can also add donation buttons to their Facebook Live videos to raise money - but only for actual charities, not a dream vacation.



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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Facebook adds free games like ‘Pac-Man’ to Messenger app

Wacky gifts for the tech-savvy person who has everything

Get ready to build! Hands-on toys that teach are hot

Facebook boosts efforts to ‘do good’ with new tools


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