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Google's Project Soli Tracks Finger Gestures with Radar

Announced at this week's I/O, and developed in Google's ATAP division: "Project Soli is developing a new interaction sensor using radar technology. The sensor can track sub-millimeter motions at high speed and accuracy. It fits onto a chip, can be produced at scale and built into small devices and everyday objects." Lots of potential applications with this technology, assuming it is accurate and responsive. It makes sense for smartphones (think lock-screen gestures), wearables, IOT devices, and of course, virtual reality.

Rick Baker's Make-Up and Special Effects Legacy

Make-up and special effects legend Rick Baker just announced his retirement from film production, coinciding with the auction of his vast collection of original props, puppets, and animatronics. In this final piece from our visit to that collection, we have an extended conversation with Rick about his work and celebrated career--a lifetime of having fun and improving his craft. Thanks so much to Rick and Prop Store for this incredible opportunity!

Google Cardboard and the Democratization of Virtual Reality

According to Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, the computer system you'll need to run the Oculus Rift will cost "in the $1,500 range." That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone following the virtual reality efforts of Oculus and Valve--the criteria for presence in VR is much more computationally intensive than running video games on your 1080p TV or even 4K computer monitor. Even on the mobile side, the cost of Gear VR is $200 for the headset and $600+ for the phone (off-contract). Aiming for the high-end as a baseline is necessary for Oculus and Valve's VR efforts because they're holding their hardware and software to high standards to create experiences suitable for immersion and prolonged use. A strong technical foundation for the software experiences to thrive. Google's Cardboard initiative, which pairs any smartphone with a simple optical system, is going the opposite route: enabling producers to make VR content for as many people to experience as possible.

At today's I/O keynote, Google announced progress for Cardboard, releasing an iOS version of the VR app as well as a new phone holder (still made of cardboard) that can accommodate phones up to six inches. It assembles more easily, and has a new magnet-less button. To support iOS VR apps, the Cardboard SDK for Unity will now export to both smartphone platforms. There's still no headstrap to Cardboard, which, as we talked about on this week's podcast, is potentially due to Google not wanting people to wear it as an HMD. Making users hold up the Cardboard viewfinder with their hands eases the experience for new users; the binocular-style experience gets the benefits of rotational tracking while bypassing some of the potential discomfort of limited VR hardware. In my experience with the first Cardboard, you feel less like you're actually in a different place than you're looking into it with a binocular lens. And despite Cardboard not being able deliver VR presence, it is undeniably compelling for the uninitiated.

So if Cardboard is the low-cost "hardware" platform for Google's VR efforts, 360-degree video in YouTube is their big content push. To create that content, Google announced a partnership with GoPro to develop a 360-video capture rig and video pipeline called Jump. Available in July, Jump is a cylindrical rig that houses 16 GoPros (making it an $8K minimum investment) for shooting video to be stitched together using Google's software in its data centers. The rig takes care of syncing and powering the cameras, and the assembler software processes the 4K video to create a stereo 360 experience that can be streamed from YouTube. 360 video stitching is no easy problem to solve, and an even bigger challenge when it comes to stereo. Jump simplifies the process by recording in mono, but we don't know how good or seamless its stereo output will look. It's a ton of data and video processing that Google is taking on, building off the company's expertise in stitching imagery for its Streetview service. But if the results are good enough, it's a big step toward not only getting people interested in VR, but getting filmmakers practice and experience in the new language of VR video.

Google Photos Launches with Unlimited Backup

Google's relaunched Photos service and app are here, and it's a big deal for the company. As we've discussed on This is Only a Test, Photos is our favorite part of Google+, for its automated backup feature and ease of downloading and sharing pics. Now it's split off of Google+ completely, relaunched as a sort of Gmail for Photos. That could be a good thing for Android and iOS users who have hundreds if not thousands of photos saved on their phones. But as with typical Google services, you should also think about what Google gets out of it too.

Here's how the new Photos service works. On the app front, it's the updated version of the Photos app for Android, which Google has been using to compete with default Gallery apps on OEM phones. The app is as useful as its ever been, allowing automated uploading of every photo and video saved on your phone, either over Wi-Fi or cellular. "Full resolution" photos are now saved, up to 16MP, though they're actually high-quality compressed versions of the JPEGs found on your phone. Each phone compresses their JPEGs differently, so we'll have to do more comparisons to see whether Photos backups are truly archival quality. Still, we're just talking about smartphone photos, so most people don't care about a little bit of compression. Videos are saved up to 1080p resolution, and Google is touting unlimited backup storage using the high-quality compression setting. (You can still archive actual original photos, with a storage quota.) Detected duplicate photos on your phone can also automatically be deleted, saving you some local storage. The app is also now available on iOS with the same features, making it at least a solid complement to Photostream.

What's new is mostly on the web side, where Photos has been streamlined for better archiving and search of your photos. This is where the Gmail analogy is most appropriate. Instead of treating Photos as a Flickr or Instagram like showcase of the photos you want to share, the thought is that it's an archival service first, sharing service second. The thought is that you don't have to worry about curating anything--just let Photos handle all the sorting and backup of your photo dump, and allow it to tap into Google's image-processing algorithms to digest it. Then, just like searching through old email, you can dig through old photos by searching for people, locations, and even objects Google has recognized in your photos (eg. animals, food, plants, etc). Backend work has clearly been going on for a while, since the new Photos is already up and running, and surprisingly fast. It's like Lightroom for the smartphone photos you don't plan on tweaking to death.

So what does Google get out of it? The company said that it has no plans to monetize it with ads, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have advertising--its core business--in mind. What Google gets is an incredible dataset of user photos to refine its image-recognition algorithms. It really sounds like a play a computer vision, like Stanford researcher Fei-Fei-Li's use of photosets to teach AI how to recognize an image of a cat. Except in that case, the dataset was only 15 million photos--Google has access to orders of magnitude more data, with both active and passive user feedback just through the use of the Photos service. Improving image search puts us one more step toward better video search, as well. And unlike Flickr or Instagram, search is something that Google actively monetizes.

For more on Google Photos, Steve Levy of Medium has an insightful interview with the service's director, Bradley Horowitz.

Crafting the Practical Creatures of Gremlins

Gremlins was a big breakthrough for director Joe Dante, who previously gave us the genre greats Piranha and The Howling. Gremlins would also be a big step forward to animatronic effects, thanks to Chris Walas, who did similar slimy magic for David Cronenberg's The Fly.

Before the success of Gremlins, Dante worked for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, making his debut comedy, Hollywood Boulevard, in 1976. Next he followed up with Piranha in 1978, then The Howling, which was a big horror hit in 1981, and also broke a lot of ground in make-up effects with Rob Bottin's werewolf creations. While The Howling was a success, Dante didn't make a lot of money from it, and his career was stuck in limbo afterwards, which is why he was surprised when the screenplay for Gremlins arrived at his dump of an office on Hollywood Boulevard. Dante didn't know Spielberg then, but Steven was a fan, Piranha was his favorite Jaws rip-off, and he was apparently inspired by The Howling to cast its star, Dee Wallace Stone, as Elliot's mother in E.T.

Gremlins was written by Christopher Columbus as a writing sample, and as Dante recalls, "He hadn't written it with the idea that it was something that was going to be produced, so there was a lot of stuff in the script that was pretty hard to do." Initially Spielberg wanted to make Gremlins as a low budget, non-union horror film in Oregon. Yet Dante tells us, "As we developed it, it became apparent that were weren't going to be able to make it very cheap, and it was going to have to have the studio behind it in order for us to pull off what was in the story."

Previously, make-up artist Chris Walas was working on a remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon with Dante, but Universal decided to scrap the project and made Jaws 3D instead. "I was devastated," Walas says. "I'm a huge Creature fan, and was thrilled to be working on that one."

Then Dante sent over the script for Gremlins, and Walas says, "I was overwhelmed at the amount of work in it, and that was when the script was (just) a simple horror movie without any characters, just little monsters. I normally make notes on a script as I read it, but I was too astonished at the Gremlins script to make many." Once Walas finished reading the script, he wrote one note on the cover page: "HA!"

Walas started making some simple sketches with Dante, his producing partner Mike Finnell, and Chris Columbus all providing feedback. "Joe used Chuck Jones cartoons as a reference for the Mogwai," Walas says. "He wanted them to have the same emotional range of some of the Warner Bros cartoon characters."

ILM Reel Celebrates 40 Years of CG Effects

For its 40th anniversary, effects house Industrial Light & Magic released this minute-long supercut of the over 300 films its worked on since George Lucas founded it for Star Wars. Their YouTube channel always has great behind-the-scene explorations of specific film shots. Wired's latest cover story is a pretty comprehensive retrospective of the company's work as well. Great photos by Dan Winters, too!

In Brief: Amazon Announces Free Same-Day Prime Delivery

Hey gang! We were travelling all day on a work trip, but I'm finally getting caught up on some of the big news that broke at Google I/O and elsewhere today. Thought it would be good to start by rounding up some quick news hits before deeper thoughts. First, Amazon announced that it is now offering its Prime subscribers free same-day delivery for orders over $35. This applies to a million items in its inventory, and is launching in 14 metropolitan areas nationwide. Next, GoPro's CEO confirmed that the company was developing its own quadcopter for use with its cameras. Apple also quietly bought up augmented reality start-up Metaio, for unknown reasons. My bet is for some kind of maps integration. And finally, the Kickstarter-funded 80s parody film Kung Fury is finally out! A lot happened today!

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First Images From The Martian

It's no secret that I love a good spacesuit, and the first stills from Ridley Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's fabulous novel, The Martian, have me excited. I'm not sure that Mark Watney's Martian spacesuit is a project I'm going to take on, it's going to be a tough costume to replicate, but I'm thinking about it.

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Lego with Friends: Phil Broughton, Part 4

If there's one thing you can take away from this week's LEGO with Friends, it's the story of south pole's "sh*tberg". Quality storytelling continues along with steady LEGO building--Phil's a total natural. Hope you're enjoying it! Newcomers can catch up and follow along with us for the rest of this build by signing up for a Tested Premium Membership here!