Reviews by Bob Parks
Photos by Leonard Greco
Our job at NEO.LIFE is to help you see into the future. But this time of year, it can be hard to look beyond the daunting very near future of the holiday season. We’ve got you covered. Here are 15 fresh gift ideas that promote fitness, celebrate science, and make self improvement a bit more stimulating. There’s no penalty for buying some of these things for yourself.
We tested all these products (except the last one, for reasons that will be clear) before selecting them. Some items have e-commerce affiliate links, to help fund our reporting from the Neobiological Revolution.
The DNA Playground gives teens (and curious adults) all the ingredients to perform genetic engineering. It’s the vision of MIT Media Lab graduate Julie Legault, who started shipping the Canadian-made units to schools and homes this year. The three-pound kit provides a vial of DNA you can use to make lab-grade bacteria poop out bright pigments of your choice — magenta, orange, purple, etc. One side triggers the three-day genetic transformation process by cooling down the specially programmed DNA and bacteria using parameters you set on a touchscreen. The other side heats it up to finalize the process. Then, an incubator drawer in the bottom warms a petri dish to breed your new strain.
New accessories coming out in December for around $30 let kids dye fabric or paper with the pigments. Future kits will manufacture glow-in-the-dark bacteria or make them into tiny sensors — when the temperature dips below 42 degrees Celsius, for instance, they could emit a banana scent. Legault hopes to inspire kids to come up with advances in medical and industrial science, giving them a path from playground to profession. Hardware and supplies are $382.
Yoga classes are great if you can get to one where the instructor has time to guide every student. But sometimes it’s nice to roll out a mat wherever you want and go at your own pace. The Nadi X yoga leggings from Wearable X help make sure you’re doing it right.
The leggings, modeled here by stem-cell researcher Daisy Robinton, help you master poses by sending vibrations through actuators woven into the ankles, knees, and lower back. The gentle nudge calls attention to places where you can improve your form.
To use the pants, charge up the bean-shaped battery pack and Bluetooth pod, clip it just above the knee, and use an iPhone app to design a custom flow. It can guide you through almost 30 poses, from downward dog to tree pose.
The beginners among us loved having poses led through touch. The vibrations tickled at first until we dialed them back to the lowest setting on the app. Involving technology could potentially detract from the experience, and occasionally a Bluetooth failure ground our routine to a halt. But fortunately, glitches were rare. And yes, the pants are machine washable, though hand wash is probably better.
Sizes: extra-small to large. Colors: midnight (solid or with mesh), black/white (with mesh), and navy/gray (with mesh). Works with iOS only. $179.
Research shows that gratitude — even for trivial things like dog slobber — provides long-term emotional benefits. Five-Minute Journal (“5MJ” to fans), whose co-creator is a behavioral scientist, offers daily prompts to catalog your best life. $23
An early innovator in virtual reality, Jaron Lanier imparts the long view of technology, soberly anticipating the pitfalls while still celebrating the promise. Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality frames brain-body quandaries in a personal bildungsroman of coming up in a new industry. $19
Life Under the Lens: A Scientific Coloring Book lets you kick back by filling in the hues of diatoms, cyanobacteria, and marine coccolithophore. These 50 pen-and-ink illustrations have well-written descriptions and accurate, though stylized, depictions of structure and function. $10
The seventh novel in the bestselling and Syfy-adapted Expanse series, Persepolis Rising (The Expanse) by James S. A. Corey follows the war-torn gunship Rocinante as it navigates humanity’s fraught colonization of outer space. $19
Jellyfish take a starring role in Juli Berwald’s charming and fascinating memoir. She looks to these beautiful creatures as a source of vital new medicines as well as warning signs for global marine health. Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. $18
In Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich invests a dystopian narrative with humanity, portraying a resourceful mom-to-be as she flees hyper-ideological end-of-world forces. (Oh, also evolution runs backward.) $18
We liked a lot of things about the Nokia Steel HR: a heart monitor and sleep tracker that ran for almost three weeks between charges, an alarm that woke us up with a gentle hum, and the subtle digital screen that relayed information from a phone, such as the names of who happened to be texting or emailing. Best of all, the Steel is stealth; it’s a grown-up-looking watch that can go anywhere. The big circle up top activates when notifications come in or when you check your stats. The natty lower analog dial counts down your activity goals. Not only can you hit the pool with it, but it automatically detects swim strokes and other activities. (It correctly identified ping pong when one of our editors started playing. Random.)
Comes in black or white watch faces, 1.3-inch size for $179.95 (shown here) and 1.6-inch for $199.95. Almost a dozen different wristband styles in leather (for an extra $50), woven nylon (extra $40), and silicone. Works with iOS and Android.
A team effort by Levi’s and Google, the Commuter Trucker jean jacket is specially designed to let cyclists control maps, messages, and music during their daily trek. The coat’s left sleeve contains conductive fibers woven into the cotton that act as a flexible touch interface. Double-tap the cuff to get the quickest turn-by-turn audio directions back to work, for instance. Or brush forward to hear your ETA or send a call to voicemail. Brush back to bump the next song in your playlist. The gestures can be configured on any paired smartphone.
We already liked Levi’s line of analog biking jackets (around $150) with their reflective strips, secure pockets, and extra fabric over the butt so you don’t flash people in traffic. Google’s addition was the first conductive yarn for use in industrial looms, opening up a path for mainstream e-textiles. While the debut can be a little kludgy — the jacket can stand only 10 washes and requires a plastic dongle the size of a bottle opener to operate — we liked the fit as well as the idea of never having to yank out a phone with sweaty fingers mid-ride.
Works with iOS and Android. $350.
A portable tool for refocusing your mind during the day or before competition is an incredible idea. An even better idea is packing concentration-enhancing technology into a normal pair of sunglasses. These shades are Smith’s classic Lowdowns, with brain-sensing technology hidden in the bridge and ear pieces. Put them on, fire up the paired app on your phone, and you’ll get audio feedback on your brain activity. If you hear bird sounds, you’re focused; storm clouds tell you to bring it down a notch.
To upgrade its sunglasses with the electronics, Smith partnered with Muse, the first company to replicate clinical electroencephalography (EEG) in a consumer product in 2013. But the original Muse headband would certainly make you stick out when you’re waiting at the muffler shop. When we tried the glasses, it took some adjusting to achieve good skin contact. But once we synched up, we appreciated having a portable tool for taming the modern, busy mind — aka THE MONKEY BREAKING CHINA DINNERWARE INSIDE OUR HEADS.
Choice of black with gray-green lenses or gray with brown lenses. Prescription compatible. Works with iOS and Android. $349
“We introduce ourselves/To planets and to Flowers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “But with ourselves/Have etiquettes/Embarrassments/And awes.”
The Lioness sex toy was designed to help women learn about their orgasms, a situation that’s usually shy on data. The vibrator itself works like any other, except that after each session it wirelessly uploads scads of pressure, temperature, and movement metrics to a paired phone. Then an app points out the, uh, high points, comparing your numbers to previous entries.
What’s to know? Well, thanks to the Lioness’s hundreds of beta testers, co-founder Liz Klinger and the company’s two Berkeley-trained engineers have gathered evidence that women have unique orgasm signatures that fall into one of three graph shapes: informally dubbed “ocean wave,” “avalanche,” and “volcano.” The big idea is that deeper self-knowledge helps people align mind and body, promoting wellbeing.
Testers say the device itself is a fine addition to any bedroom quiver, even without the quantified-self features. Two buttons set power levels anywhere from 0 to 100 — or, as one of our editors commented, “A hundred shades of great!”
Works with iOS and Android. $229.
This is the world’s first portable and digital high-resolution microscope. And it’s a cinch to set up. Hike out to a remote site — vernal pool, field of lichen, or reedy estuary — take the scope out of its neoprene pouch, raise the mast, and place anything on the glass stage. The device, which is the size of a bag of chips and weighs about a pound, sends brilliant 5-megapixel images or 10-frame-per-second videos to any nearby iOS or Android device.
The resolution is a stunning 1 micron—a thousandth of a millimeter. Within moments of unboxing the scope, we captured detailed shots of onion nuclei and cow blood cells. We especially liked the fine focus adjustment, which prompts a precise electric driver in the microscope head to move up and down, letting you examine various focal planes in the sample material.
Yes, it’s embarrassing, but we hardly ever clean our fish tanks. And yet in the months we’ve been reviewing this Microfarm, the water has been clear, our basil and lettuces have grown tall, and the fish seem happy (as happy as $2 betas get anyway).
The Microfarm is an aquaponics system, circulating fish waste through the clay soil in the bin above to fertilize fresh produce. The fish dung contains nitrogen compounds, which bacteria in the water turn to nitrates, which a pump delivers to the plant’s roots.
The sole problem we found: the 17-watt light over the system provided enough energy for only moderate growth. Changing the bulb after nine to 12 months, even before it burns out, could be optimal. $199
Twist Bioscience offers the most novel gift of 2017: storage of 12.5 megabytes of data on strands of DNA. Forget digital drives, magnetic tapes, or any other impermanent option: this gives your most precious data a chance of lasting forever.
Got a video of your wedding or the baby’s first steps? A secret message for future generations? Twist Bioscience is offering one NEO.LIFE reader the chance to encode that file in DNA stored in a custom-designed metallic tube for $100,000. (This illustration shows a conceptual design.) If you need the data read later, Twist will do it for $3,000. To order, contact Angela Bitting at email@example.com or (925) 202-6211.