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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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A Few Amazing Architectural Scale Models

Designer (and friend of Tested) Nick Acosta clued me into the current home of the Panorama of the City of New York, a 10,000 sq ft model of the city that was made for the 1964 World's Fair. The Panorama, as World's Fair enthusiasts remember it, replicates New York's 900,000 buildings in 1:1200 scale (every inch represents 100 feet), of which some 35,000 were hand made from wood or foam and painted. Visitors viewed the model from a nine-minute ride that simulated the experience of flying over the city in a helicopter, as if they were 20,000 feet in the air. I had no idea that the model was still on display. It's viewable at the Queens Museum, which is now on our list of must-visit places the next time we go to New York Maker Faire. If you can't make it to Queens, Curbed's New York blog recent visited the miniature and posted a ton of great photos.

And since I have miniatures on the mind, here are a few of my favorite scale models I've been able to see in recent travels:

Pan Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco: San Francisco's currently celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the 1915 World's Fair that was held in what's now the city's Marina district. Several dozen city blocks were turned into fairgrounds to commemorate the opening of the Panama canal, as well as the city's rebirth after the 1906 earthquake. As part of the centennial festivities, a large scale model of the original fairgrounds was restored and is on display at the California Historical Society. If you're in town for GDC this week, this is only a block away from the Moscone convention center!

Disneyland, Walt Disney Family Museum: This 12-foot model representing Disneyland as Walt Disney imagined it (including all the attractions he planned for it before his death) was built by Kernerworks for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco's Presidio park. It's incredibly intricate, and you're allowed to get pretty close up to it for photographs. There's a similar model on display at the Opera House at Disneyland's Main Street, which is a representation of what the park looked like on its 1955 opening day.

A Brief History of Net Neutrality

Short and to-the-point primer about the history of net neutrality from The Verge: "In the wake of net neutrality's victory, we look back at the history of its fight in this visual history explainer." For more reading about the history of the fight for net neutrality, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation's landing page on the topic. (Support those electrons!)

Google Play App Roundup: iA Writer, Magic Touch: Wizard for Hire, and Chrooma

Grab your phone and prepare to shoot some new apps and games over to it from the Google cloud. It's time for the Google Play App Roundup where we tell you what's new and cool in the Play Store. Just click the links to head to each app's page to check it out for yourself.

This week there are fewer distractions, more magic, and a moderate number of FABs.

iA Writer

I fancy myself a writer, as you might have guessed. I've been doing it for a long time using a variety of programs on the desktop and mobile devices. There are a few apps out there designed to combat distracted while writing, but iA Writer is probably one of the most popular. It's been on Mac and iOS for a while, but now it has come to Android. I'm going to write this post in iA Writer to see how it goes because I'm not sure I'm sold on this low-distraction thing.

iA Writer offers a bare bones interface, but it's not really lacking in functionality. This app simply courses very carefully the features it thinks you need. When you've got the keyboard up, iA Writer gifts the action bar completely. There's a small menu icon that can pull it back up, but if you're using iA Writer the way it was intended, that shouldn't come up much. The idea is that you just write, and take your hands (or thumbs) off the keyboard as little as possible.

There are no formatting controls in iA Writer. Instead, it uses markdown in plain text documents. So you still have things like italics and lists, but you enter them with special characters like asterisks and underscores. The app does change the formatting as you go so you'll know if you've entered things correctly.

In the action bar you have undo and redo buttons, share, new document, and focus mode. You can probably figure out what all those do except for focus mode, but the name is self-explanatory. Turn this on and iA Writer will gray out every sentence except the one you're working on. It's supposed to help you focus, thus focus mode.

iA Writer outputs, as mentioned above, plain text documents. The default format is a .md file, which you can open in a variety of ways. The share button can also be used to export your text in a variety of ways. iA Writer also has built-in Dropbox sync so you can keep your files safe in the cloud.

This app could be a great way to stay on task if you're prone to distraction, and it's really snappy. All the Android keyboard auto-correction features and spell checking works fine as well. I don't know if I'll use iA Writer full-time on Android, but i appreciate the effort that went into making this a proper Android version and not simply a messy iOS port. It's worth the $4.99 asking price if distraction-free writing is what you seek.

The First SteamVR Headset is the HTC Vive

And we're off to the races. Ahead of this week's Game Developer Conference, phone maker HTC announced that it would be manufacturing Valve's SteamVR virtual reality headset, named Vive. The news came during Mobile World Congress, where competitor Samsung also announced a second GearVR headset for its upcoming Galaxy S6 smartphones (lighter, USB-power). While Vive will be presumably demoed for the press and public at GDC, we're already getting details about how this HMD and VR experience will differ from Oculus. Vive uses two 1200x1080 displays running at 90Hz, as opposed to the 75Hz OLED display on the current Oculus Development Kit 2. The use of two screens theoretically offers a wider field of view than the DK2, with the same vertical resolution. Oculus hasn't said what display or lens technology is in its Crescent Bay prototype, which also runs at 90Hz.

In addition to your typical IMU sensors for 360 degree positional tracking, Vive will also connect to a 'SteamVR base station' that allows tracking in spaces up to 15 by 15 feet. That's a lot larger than the tracking area we've seen in the Crescent Bay demo from last Fall, and Oculus hasn't confirmed that its consumer product would be designed for anything but a sitting experience. Audio will be provided by an headphone jack on the headset, and HTC is developing wireless motion controllers for gaming.

Developer support wasn't a big part of the announcement, but Valve announced its unified VR API a year ago and has been working with game developers to produce demos for GDC. One anticipated demo is The Gallery by Cloudhead Games, an adventure game that makes use of room tracking.

Valve and HTC say that a developers kit will be available this spring, with Vive shipping by the end of the year. I don't see this affecting Oculus' product timeline or production plans, but between SteamVR, Razer's OSVR initiative, and Sony's Morpheus project, the VR landscape is already feeling crowded before a single mainstream consumer product has shipped (GearVR counting as a dev kit). John Carmack's recent tweet may give the most indication about how team Oculus feels about their position in VR enthusiast mind share.