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Will Shares a Brief History of Tested (from Tested: The Show!)

At our recent live show, Will capped off his tenure at Tested by giving a brief history of the site, from our humble beginnings reviewing technology to the incredible opportunity of collaborating with Adam and Jamie. Will recalls his favorite memories and videos, shares his passion for virtual reality, and gives thanks. We wish him the best as he moves on to the next adventure. (Photo photo by Dallis Willard)

Episode 328 - Embrace The Splurge - 11/26/15
Norm is joined by Tested's Senior Science Correspondent Kishore Hari and Senior Rapid Prototyping Correspondent Sean Charlesworth to talk about NASA's announcements, Designer Con, Gear VR, and the holiest of consumer holidays: Black Friday. Plus, we give our reactions and analysis to the new Captain America: Civil War teaser trailer. Prepare for a comics knowledge bomb! That and more on this week's episode of This is Only a Test. Have a happy American Thanksgiving, everyone!
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Building The Worlds of SyFy's "The Expanse"

This past Monday, SyFy network released the first episode of The Expanse online, with the rest of the season airing in mid-December. It's an ambitious show--an adaptation of a popular novel series that's already on its fifth book. One of the reasons for the books' success is its realistic depiction of space travel 200 years from now. Given the conceit that mankind has invented a spacefaring technology that allows for regular travel between Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid belt, the story is about the relationships between the cultures that have formed on Mars and asteroid colonies, and their relationship with Earth. What happens when you have generations of humans living on a mining Asteroid, and Martians who are more invested in the development of their planet than the interests of Earth? Thoughtful world building makes for compelling science fiction.

The production values of the show are impressive as well, with the need to tell an intertwining story from three very different types of environments. I got on the phone with Seth Reed, the production designer of The Expanse, to learn a bit about how set and production design contributed to that world-building.

Thanks for chatting with us, Seth! To start things off, can you talk about the role of a production designer and what your responsibilities were in the production of The Expanse?

Seth Reed: As the production designer, my responsibilities included designing everything that was behind or around the actors. That included all of the set decoration, scenery that we built, all the colors and fabrics and textures--pretty much the world. The props were within my department--the propmakers were pretty independent, and always are, but it all happens through the production design department. We provided all the graphics and everything that appears on those props as well.

(Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

The show is set around three basic areas as we switch between the three main characters. There's Earth, Ceres Station, and outer space on board different ships. Can you talk about how you and your team built out the look of each of those locations?

Well for Earth, we haven't really seen much of it [in the first episode]. We saw Avasarala's place, her office, but not that much. You see a few visual effects shots, which I was involved in, for setting up the look of Earth [200 years from now]. Earth is a more crowded place, with tall buildings designed with soft and geometric edges--a lot of times with points or simple spires at the top.

Watch: How a Neural Network AI Perceives the World

NeuralTalk is a github project that runs images through a recurrent neural network and predicts a sentence description for new images in the form of captions. The models can be improved with larger data sets and longer training times, but the accuracy and results are impressive, especially when new images are fed to it in real-time. That was the experiment of Kyle McDonald, who ran NerualTalk through his laptop's webcam during a walk through Amsterdam. (h/t Gizmodo)

In Brief: Taking Apart the ToyTalk Barbie

Super interesting: security blog Somerset Recon recently took apart Mattel's Hello Barbie, a new doll that incorporates IoT technology to allow children to have conversations with it. The communications tech comes from ToyTalk, a startup (founded by ex-Pixar folks) that has spent the past five years working on ways to develop software to make more interactive toys. They've released interactive apps before, but the Hello Barbie has communications hardware built-in, allowing it to record a user's voice interactions, send it to ToyTalk's servers, and feed back a response from a library of over 8,000 line of recorded content. Somerset Recon found a small circuit board with Wi-Fi, flash memory, LEDs, and a Marvell controller. This is essentially a Marvell IoT board that can is internet-ready and can drop into a variety of different toys. The next step for Somerset is to dive into the system architecture and evaluate its security implications.

Why Music is Important to Astronauts in Space

I recently saw a video of astronaut Kjell Lindgren playing bagpipes in space. Although Lindgren appears to be a fine player, it wasn't his piping that intrigued me. I couldn't stop wondering when and how they put bagpipes on the International Space Station (ISS). I knew there was a guitar and a keyboard in orbit…but bagpipes? Those pipes had to compete against food, spare parts, and other obvious necessities to get a ride into space. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that idea was pitched to NASA logisticians!

The fact that NASA and its partners were willing to make it happen underscores the importance that music plays in the lives of orbiting astronauts. Whether making music in their precious spare time, or listening to music throughout their workday, having these outlets available is vital for the happiness and well-being of the astronauts orbiting above us.

Tooting Their Own Horns

As it turns out, there are several other musical instruments aboard ISS that I wasn't aware of. Those in the know at the Johnson Space Center informed me that in addition to the bagpipes, Larrivee acoustic guitar, and Yamaha electronic keyboard, there is also a flute, a ukulele, and an electric guitar. And that is just the permanent stash of instruments. Others have stayed temporarily and returned to Earth.

Credit for the first musical instrument in space goes to the soprano saxophone carried aboard the space shuttle by Dr. Ron McNair in 1984. McNair normally played the tenor sax, but there was no way he could ever justify bringing the large instrument aboard. Even the diminutive soprano sax's flight status was uncertain right up until launch.

Dr. Ron McNair plays a soprano saxophone, the first musical instrument in space, aboard the space shuttle in 1984

McNair prepared for months in advance of his mission to adapt to the nuances of playing the smaller sax. He secretly worked with saxophone guru, Kurt Heisig, to fine tune his technique and equipment. Due to McNair's hectic training schedule and Heisig's California locale, all of their sessions took place over the phone.

The pair anticipated that low atmospheric pressure in the shuttle's cabin could affect how the sax behaved. To compensate, McNair worked on conditioning exercises and packed a varied selection of reeds. Some unpredicted factors, however, would prove more troublesome.

Art Toy Collaborations at Designer Con 2015

At this year's Designer Con, we met artist Kyle Kirwan, who shared with us his Willo creature sculpture. In making rotocast resin releases of his figure, he ended up with a bunch of imperfect castings. That gave him the idea to send his figure to other artists, and together they've created this gallery of beautiful sculpts, each with a unique take on the original.

Testing: In-Depth with the Nexus 5X and 6P Cameras

Nexus phones have always had great software and innovative hardware features, but even when the camera specs looked good, performance has been mediocre at best. Google has been happy to point out that it prioritized the cameras in the Nexus 5X and 6P, though. They use excellent sensors and the software processing has been heavily revamped. So how good are they? Let's take a closer look at this year's Nexus cameras.

The Hardware

The Nexus 6P and 5X have a lot in common when it comes to the camera. In fact, they have identical hardware. We're talking about a Sony IMX377 image sensor with a resolution of 12.3MP. That's a little lower than the Nexus 6's resolution last year, and there's one other feature missing from these cameras -- optical image stabilization. We'll get to that later.

These Sony sensors have large 1.55μm pixels and a f/2.0 aperture. These features both make for theoretically better low-light performance compared to past Nexus phones. The pixel measurement isn't something you hear about a lot, but HTC has pushed it as an important metric for its Ultrapixel sensor. Those cameras have 2.0μm pixels, which allows them to pick up a lot of light. However, the resolution was only 4MP. The IMX377 is ahead of most sensors in pixel size, commonly 1.1-1.2μm.

Next to the camera on these phones you also get a laser autofocus module. It's out in the open on the 5X, but it's behind the glass cover on the 6P. This is similar to LG's phones in that it helps you zero in on targets, even in weird lighting conditions. A number of other high-end flagship phones use phase detection tech to focus the camera, but the laser option has proven to be better overall.

Several of the differences between the Nexus 6P and 5X cameras have to do with the internal hardware, not the camera modules themselves. The 5X has a Snapdragon 808 and the 6P runs a Snapdragon 810. According to Google, several of the processing technologies it chose to implement don't work well enough on the 808, so they're exclusive to the 6P. Specifically, electronic image stabilization, smart burst, and 240fps slow-motion video.

Getting Character Eyes Right in Movies

This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 3/25/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

When a character appears on a movie screen, which part of their face do you look at first? The eyes, of course.

You can't help it. As a human being, you're programmed to make eye contact, whether the person in front of you is flesh and blood, or just a fiction of jostling pixels. Like the proverb says: "The eyes are the mirror of the soul." I reckon that's true, but the quote I really want to share comes from the writer G K Chesterton: "There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect."

Chesterton's words feel right for the movies, don't you think? At its very best, cinema is an art form that bypasses the brain altogether and engages directly with the emotions. And how do we read emotions in other people? You guessed it: through their eyes.

For a visual effects supervisor, creating a synthetic character with believable eyes is a monumental challenge. I'm sure you can think of a few movies where they pulled it off. And even more where they didn't. Below is a still from a film in the former category: an animated short featuring some truly incredible eyes. The film is called Madame Tutli-Putliand, if you're anything like me, your two responses upon seeing the title character will be (1) "Wow, look at those eyes" and (2) "Uh, hold on … what exactly am I looking at here?"

Have you worked out how they did it yet? Don't worry, I'll put you out of your misery a little further down the page. Before then, let's take a closer look at a few visual effects that have left me, well, wide-eyed.