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SteamVR (HTC Vive) Prototype Hands-On + Impressions

We test the most talked about virtual reality demo at this year's Game Developers Conference: Valve's SteamVR prototype. Made in collaboration with HTC, the Vive VR headset will be released later this year and features an incredible positional tracking system. We chat with Valve's engineers about the technology in the headset and share our demo impressions. This is the real deal.

Episode 291a - A Podcast in Two Parts - 3/5/2015
This week, Will and Norm are joined by game developer Samantha Kalman to discuss GDC, virtual reality rumors, the news from Mobile World Congress, the Pebble Time Steel, the real purpose for Kickstarter, and a bit of behind the scenes on the Amazon Fire Phone. Audio listeners, be sure to stick around at the end for a post-GDC update from Will and Norm about GDC announcements and impressions of Valve and Sony's latest VR demos.
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How To Build a Home Server Using FreeNAS

I've been running home servers in one form or another for about a decade. For me, the server has shifted from a convenience--a place to store files that I want to access anywhere and an easy way to stream music to the office for free--to a necessity. Today, my home server is a place to back up my family’s computers and the home for all of my media--a few hundred ripped DVDs and Blu-rays plus my family’s music collection and all of the photos and home videos we’ve shot. Like any other server, it also serves as a good place to store the files I need access to all the time, as well as host any services that work better when they’re always running—stuff like dynamic DNS, streaming servers, and game servers.

My first home server was simply an old gaming PC that I repurposed by installing Linux and setting up a few shared folders and an FTP server so I had access to files at home when I was at the office or travelling. For the last five or six years, I’ve been running a lightweight Windows Home Server v1 machine packed with hard drives. The WHS box had some real advantages—it’s novel filesystem made it so simple to add storage that I eventually ended up with about 8TB of available space. Unfortunately, its ancient Celeron processor was woefully underpowered to stream 1080p video, and the OS has been effectively abandoned by Microsoft.

Photo credit: Flickr user kwl via Creative Commons.

When I decided to build a new server late last year, the first thing I did was figure out what I wanted to use it for. Easy backups for a handful of Macs (and one PC) across the network was a must. I also wanted a machine that would be able to stream all of my media--using Plex Media Server to stream ripped movies and TV shows and Subsonic to stream my music collection. I needed a safe and secure place to store my personal media--photos and home videos I've shot. Finally, I wanted to offload the heavy lifting of DVD and Blu-ray transcoding from my main desktop PC, and the ability to add new stuff to the machine that I haven’t even thought of yet.

When I was deciding what operating system to use for my next home server, I investigated a handful of Linux options, briefly considered Windows Home Server 2011, and finally settled on FreeNAS, which is a customized version of FreeBSD. FreeNAS makes it relatively simple to set up a multi-purpose machine that can run headless—that is, without a video card or monitor connected. After taking FreeNAS for a test drive in a virtual machine, I was sold. As an added benefit, FreeNAS’s native filesystem, ZFS, makes it easy to add multiple hard drives to a single volume, and even supports using a SSD as a smart cache for the volume. And yes, if you want, you can even add redundancy to the system (I don’t recommend it, but we’ll get into that later).

Figuring out the hardware for the FreeNAS machine was tricky. While you can buy dedicated network-attached storage devices that come pre-configured with FreeNAS, none of the options in my price range had the kind of high-powered CPU I was hoping for. After spending the last two years wishing my server was faster, my goal is to make this motherboard and CPU last at least five years, maybe more. Knowing that, the option I was left with was to build a machine and install FreeNAS on it myself.

First, I had to figure out the hardware part.

How To Keep Your Android 5.0 Lollipop Phone Secure

Android has come a long way with regard to security in the last few years. Not only can you more easily secure your device to protect personal data, there are more tools that make all your other devices and accounts safe. Of course, none of that does you any good if you aren't taking advantage of it. Let's go over everything you can do to make Android as secure as it can be.

Lock Screen and Pinning

Some of your built-in security options will vary from one device to the next depending on OEM and Android version. As Android 5.0 Lollipop is finally starting to roll out en masse, it's worth going over the new security features you'll find. One of the most significant changes is the way the lock screen is handled. It will show your notifications by default, and if you choose to have a pattern, PIN, or password, lock, you can restrict which notifications show up there.

In Lollipop, you can control which apps contain "sensitive" content in the sound and notification menu. Under "App Notifications" you'll find a list of everything installed on your phone. Each entry includes an option to mark it as sensitive, which keeps it from showing up on the lock screen. No matter what version of Android you have, the secure lock screen is your first line of defense. Some OEMs like LG and Samsung add extra unlock methods like Knock Code and the fingerprint reader, respectively. If security is even a passing concern, you should use one of the available methods.

So what if you don't want to enter your unlock code every single time? On all recent versions of Android there's a handy little feature in the Security menu. The "Automatically Lock" setting lets you choose how long after the screen goes off that the secure lock should kick in. There's also a toggle to have the power button automatically lock or not. This way you can wake up your phone a few times without entering the password constantly. However, if you leave it sitting for a certain amount of time, it locks.

Android 5.0 Lollipop adds a new set of lock screen features called Smart Lock. You can set a location, device, or face that the phone will consider "trusted." When this criteria is met, you can just swipe to unlock. Location is straightforward--simply choose a location and the phone will remain unlocked there but will revert to your secure lock screen when it leaves. The trusted device setting lets you mark a Bluetooth or NFC connection as trusted so when that device is connected, the phone will unlock without asking for your code.

Building a Home Server for Backups and Ripping Blu-Rays

For the past few months, Will has been researching a build for a new home server for personal backups and media streaming. In addition to housing terrabytes of data, the server Will ended up building also doubles as an efficient DVD and Blu-ray ripping machine, automating heavy transcoding tasks. We discuss the build and give software and hardware recommendations for anyone looking to build their own! Read more about the project here.

Biomimetics: Lessons from MIT's Sprinting Cheetah Robot

There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

The best movers in the world are animals, so why do all of our transportation modes rely on wheels and not legs? That’s the question that inspires the work at MIT’s Biomimetics lab. According to Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at the lab, their main goal is to develop walking robots that move as well as any animal -- and shape how all robots move in the future.

They decided the best inspiration for locomotion would be to find the fastest moving animal on Earth and mimic its makeup in robot legs. Enter the cheetah. Capable of speeds up to about 64 miles per hour, the big cat outpaces all other running animals in the world (except, perhaps, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis -- a beetle the size of a sesame seed that can run 322 body-lengths per second compared to the Cheetah’s 16.)

“Each animal has their advantage, but the cheetah uses speed as a survival skill. It doesn’t have many other skills -- it’s jaws aren’t very strong -- the only thing it’s good at is speed. And that’s why we can identify it’s mechanical features. We’re looking at it’s leg shape, mass distribution, the joints they’re using, and their gait,” says Kim.

The cats are also incredibly good at changing direction at high speed. Their unique muscular makeup allows them to use their tail to pivot at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, says Kim, cheetahs are endangered so they can’t study one in the lab. The team has learned about the cats’ unique abilities by watching nature videos and reading studies by the few scientists that have had the chance to study them.

“We read papers about them. Researchers at Royal College in England they recorded forces and slow motion in a captive cheetah. We take inspiration from videos and learn mechanical aspects like how they achieve a stable running,” he says.

What they’ve learned is that the animal’s leg shape is essential: it has a slender leg and all of its muscles are concentrated up next to its body. That way they minimize their energy use and maximize the swing of their legs.

Pleurobot Mimics the Movements of a Salamander

From the EPFL Biorobotics Laboratory, a robot that mimics the skeletal movements of a Salamander to help researchers develop richer motor skills for quadruped robots: "Tracking up to 64 points on a Salamander skeleton, we were able to record three-dimensional movements of bones in great detail. Using optimization on all the recorded postures we deduced the number and position of active and passive joints needed for the robot to reproduce the animal movements in reasonable accuracy in three-dimensions." (h/t IEEE Spectrum)

In Brief: More Details on Sony's New Morpheus Prototype

At Sony's GDC press conference, the company announced and showed off a second public prototype of its Project Morpheus virtual reality headset, which will ship to consumers in the first half of next year. The PlayStation 4 accessory now uses a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED display with an RGB subpixel arrangement, running at 120Hz. That's a big upgrade from the 60Hz LCD panel we saw in last year's prototype, and 120Hz should allow for low persistence. While 120FPS is the target framerate for the device, developers will be angle to render at 60Hz and output to the HMD at 120Hz. The PS4 uses HDMI 1.4, which can drive 1080p at 120Hz, but not 1440p at that refresh rate. Field of view is listed at 100 degrees, and positional head tracking is assisted by nine IR LEDs. Sony says that latency is under 18ms, which they claim is good enough for the sensation of presence. We'll be trying the new prototype and the four demos built for it at the GDC show floor tomorrow.

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