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Amid Tons of Similar Phones, Glimmers of the Quirky at Mobile World Congress

Aiming to move past those thin glass slabs that all look the same, team Re/code went on the hunt for the weird and wacky in Barcelona.

We always try to find the weird and wacky in Barcelona.

A couple years back we found both a smart cane for seniors and Korean robots aimed at kids.

With Mobile World Congress growing bigger every year, our hope was that the added size would provide additional wackiness rather than crowding out the crazy.

Any discussion of this year’s oddities should start with the smart garbage can showed off by AT&T. The idea is that the bin lets the collection company know when it needs to be emptied. AT&T’s Craig Lee said that the idea came about from professional shredding companies that found they had to make expensive and time-consuming visits to all their customers even though many had near-empty bins.

AT&T’s 3G-equipped smart trash can eliminates that problem and can also send an alert if the device is opened or tampered with.

“They are now able to do optimized routing,” Lee said. “[Maybe] there are 20 bins that need to be picked up today. I don’t need to visit the other hundred.”

Lenovo’s new camera-centric Vibe phone had one particular feature that caught our eye. It gives you an Age and Happiness index. I (Ina) was pretty pleased to score moderate happiness as well as land a few years below my 40 years on its scale. Well, at least I was until the 50-something product manager recorded a 21. (I, of course, then asked for all his beauty secrets, including what moisturizer he was using.)

Another intriguing product is the Runcible, a hybrid device designed to look something like a pocket watch but offer some of the same information found on a smartphone.

“This lives in between what a wearable might be for and what your smartphone might be for,” said Aubrey Anderson, CEO of Monohm, the startup behind Runcible. It has the guts — and price tag — of a full smartphone and runs Firefox OS. “We’re using smartphone intelligence to a different end.”

Anderson said it will be available later this year, hopefully by the third quarter. In Japan, carrier KDDI will sell it, while the Runcible team plans to sell it unlocked directly in other markets.

Of course, there were robots. NEC had a prototype communications robot called PaPaRo that was supposed to respond to voice commands. The adorable robot has potentially sinister cameras for eyes, though it tries to put people at ease with its light banter. We had only mixed results talking to PaPaRo, though that could have been due to the noisy show floor.

The award for cutest gadget this year, though, has to go to a prototype charging dock from HTC that transforms its periscope-shaped Re action camera into something resembling a brachiosaurus.

Beyond the products, there was also the always-fun scene in Barcelona. We weren’t surprised to see a copper-clad gaucho performing for change on Las Ramblas, but admit we were a bit taken aback when we saw him inside the halls of Mobile World Congress two days later.

There were plenty of parties hosted by everyone from Qualcomm to Twitter to carriers around the world. Xiaomi had a small house party at the team’s Airbnb rental, while chipmaker MediaTek scored the basement of the Moritz brewery — a great spot for beer and tapas, but admittedly less suited to all the PowerPoint they showed.

 But it’s a SMART trashcan.
But it’s a SMART trashcan.
Ina Fried for Re/code

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