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Tested In-Depth: Moto X (2014)

After testing the new Moto X Android smartphone for a month, Will and Norm sit to down to discuss how its three most important features: the display, camera, and battery life compare against today's top Android phones. How does Motorola's spin on Android compare to the stock version? Plus, does the custom wood back look and feel any good?

Research Robots Versus the Volcano

The last time NASA scientists sent a robot into the crater of a volcano was 1994.

It’s name was Dante II, an autonomous, eight-legged crawler packed with video cameras, lasers and other sensors. It was designed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to rappel and hobble down the inside of the active Alaskan volcano Mount Spurr – a proof-of-concept for encounters with the types of hostile environments that NASA robots might deal with in space.

Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

But a tumble towards the end of Dante’s mission and subsequent helicopter rescue offered a stark reminder that “the possibility of catastrophic failure is very real in severe terrain,” the robot’s designers wrote. Even with today’s technology – we have self-driving cars now! – there hasn’t been another Dante since.

“To get a robot to go over the varied and often difficult terrain is very challenging. Robotics has come a long way since Dante, but […] it’s just not quite at the level where they can handle volcanic terrain yet,” explained Carolyn Parcheta, a volcanologist and NASA postdoctoral fellow sponsored by Tennessee’s Oak Ridge Associated Universities. It’s part of the reason that the U.S. Geological Survey still believes that "experienced volcanologists are a better and more cost-effective alternative for monitoring dangerous volcanoes” than robots – at least, for now.

In a volcanic environment, there are myriad materials of different sizes and shapes. You’ll find small round rocks where each step is like walking on the shifting sands of a beach. On the more extreme end of the spectrum is lava that’s sharp and jagged, making it near impossible to find space both flat and wide enough for a human foot. You’re always walking at an angle. In the middle, you have what Parcheta describes as “the slow, oozing, ropy looking stuff” that’s still difficult to walk on, but less so than the jagged stuff.

Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

“Volcanic terrain is much more complicated than just a set of stairs or an inclined slope, because it’s often all those different things combined,” Parcheta explains. “There’s no regular pattern to the landscape. It feels random. And to the robot it will be random. It needs to learn how to assess that before it can take its steps, and humans do this on the fly, naturally.” This is, as you might expect, difficult – and one of the big problems that Dante’s designers had. So, for years, humans have instead sufficed.

But there’s also another reason that volcano crawling robots haven’t exactly been subject to pressing demand. According to Dr. Peter Cervelli, associate director for science and technology at the USGS Volcano Science Center, his agency has had “limited need for ground based robotics” – in large part because the majority of volcanoes in the United States don’t presently pose a threat to human volcanologists.

In Brief: Startup Touts Working Hoverboard, Launches Kickstarter

Let's hope this isn't like that Funny or Die hoax from earlier this year. Hendo is a startup that just launched a Kickstarter for a hoverboard, claiming to have created a working prototype of a hovering skateboard. Their hoverboard system using four focused magnets to keep the board and someone standing on top of it afloat over a designated surface. Yep, there's the catch: the Hendo hoverboard only works when placed above non-ferromagnetic conducting surfaces, like metal sheets spread over a half pipe. Hendo isn't being very forthcoming about how its "Magnetic Field Architecture" engines work, but Nerdist' Science Editor explains it as such: "Henderson’s MFA technology is then apparently creating and fluctuating a magnetic field above a metallic surface, and the induced current in that surface provides enough of a response that you can drop in on a metal [surface]." The Kickstarter is offering backers one of ten production boards for $10,000 each (already four sold!), and developer kits with the magnetic "engines" and metal surfaces starting at $300. Working hoverboards? Auto form-fitting fabrics? Everyone wants to get in on the promise of 2015. Put me firmly in the skeptical category.

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Racing Mini-Quads with FPV Control

Looks like the speeder bike chase on the forest moon of Endor, but it's really FPV quad enthusiasts racing their mini-quads in a fairly dense park. FPV flying is thrilling, but somewhat of a controversial practice when it comes to the quadcopter hobby. It's one of the things that the FAA is looking to heavily regulate. Still, the high-speed flights (and crashes) make for great video. Now imagine if these were shot with very wide-angle lenses, allowing for Parrot Bebop-style VR support.

In Brief: Research Shows Plants Can Detect When They're Being Eaten

Don't worry, this isn't about plants having consciousness or anything like that. Modern Farmer reports on a new study conducted at the University of Miami, in which researchers found that a thale cress plant was able to physiologically react to its leaves being eaten. In the study, the researchers mimicked the vibrations made by a caterpillar when it chews on the plant, which caused the thale cress to excrete extra predator-deterring oils. The revelation isn't that the plant is self-aware, but that scientists can look into ways to spur plants to activate their natural defenses on command--which may be useful for farmers to better prepare crops against the elements.

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Tested Asks: How are Holograms Made?

While in New York, Norm stops by Holographic Studios, one the last remaining independent holography galleries and holography studios still operating. Its founder, Jason Sapan, has spent almost 40 years practicing the art of holographic imagery. We figure he's the best person to explain to us what exactly is a hologram, and how they're painstakingly made.

Google Play App Roundup: Potential, iPollute, and Talon Plus

It's that time of the week again. Time to shake off the weekend vibe and get back to work. But you can probably spare a few minutes to check out some new apps. This is the Tested Google Play App Roundup, which is where we tell you about the best new and newly updated apps on Android. Just follow the links to Google Play.

This week your battery has a new best friend, clay gets dirty, and Twitter gets pretty.

Potential

As the cost of Android devices come down, it's increasingly likely that you might find yourself in possession of more than one of them. However, have you ever picked one up to find the battery is dead? Well, that won't happen if you install Potential on them.

Potential runs a background service that syncs the state of your battery between devices. Just open Potential and you get a card for each of your connected devices (you need to make an account) with the battery level and state of Bluetooth and WiFi. Each device should sync the battery percentage on a regular basis, and the length of time since the last update will be listed on each card.

You can remotely toggle WiFi or Bluetooth on and of your devices to save power, but that's as far as the direct interaction goes. Well, you can choose a name for each phone or tablet. By default it's just the device model ID.

The above functionality is free, but a small in-app purchase is required to enable what I would say is the coolest feature of Potential--push notifications. In the settings of Potential you can choose a battery threshold at which you'd like to be notified. When one of your devices hits that number, you'll find out about it no matter which one you're actively using. So if you've got your phone handy during the day, Potential will let you know if your tablet is running low on juice.

The app itself is nice and clean. I've already mentioned the cards, but Potential also includes a few Material Design animations and UI elements. There aren't a ton of options yet, but the developer cautions it's still a beta product. With that in mind I'd also note there have been a few instances where one of my devices decided it was going to stop syncing. For the most part, though, Potential is a solid app.

Show and Tell: Bluetooth Hands-Free Car Adapter

For this week's Show and Tell, Will shares his current solution for playing back music and making calls from his phone in his car. While his car has an auxiliary audio jack, he prefers using this Kinivo hands-free receiver as an intermediary. Its decent audio, built-in micrphone, and music playback controls are why it's Will's pick for an aftermarket car Bluetooth solution. What do you use to listen to music from your smartphone while driving?

Hot Toys Batman Armory 1/6th Scale Figure Set

Bonus weekend video! Norm shares a new sixth scale collectible figure set he just received: the highly-anticipated Batman Armory set from Hot Toys! This set not only has the armory display, but Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Alfred figures as well. Norm analyzes the quality of these sculpts and paint jobs, and compares this newest Batman model to past versions. No detail goes unnoticed!