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How Lidar is Used in Visual Effects

This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 3/10/2015 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

Making movies has always been about data capture. When the Lumière brothers first pointed their primitive camera equipment at a steam locomotive in 1895 to record Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, what were they doing if not capturing data? In the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer – the first full-length feature to use synchronised sound – when Al Jolson informed an eager crowd, "You ain't heard nothing' yet!", what was the Warner Bros. microphone doing? You guessed it: capturing data.

Nowadays, you can't cross a movie set without tripping over any one of a dozen pieces of data capture equipment. Chances are you'll even bump into someone with the job title of "data wrangler", whose job it is to manage the gigabytes of information pouring out of the various pieces of digital recording equipment.

And in the dead of night, if you're very lucky, you may even spy that most elusive of data capture specialists: the lidar operator.

Lidar has been around long enough to become commonplace. If you read behind-the-scenes articles about film production, you'll probably know that lidar scanners are regularly used to make 3D digital models of sets or locations. The word has even become a verb, as in, "We lidared the castle exterior." Like all the other forms of data capture, lidar is everywhere.

But what exactly is lidar? What does the word stand for, and how do those scanners work? And just how tough is it to scan a movie set when there's a film crew swarming all over it?

To answer these questions and more, I spoke to Ron Bedard from Industrial Pixel, a Canadian-based company, with incorporated offices in the USA, which offers lidar, cyberscanning, HDR and survey services to the motion picture and television industries.

Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Air

This is the second in a series of articles that examine the real-life systems aboard the International Space Station (ISS) which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir's novel (and soon-to-be-released movie) The Martian. In the first installment, we looked at the many ways in which water is conserved and recycled. This time around, we will investigate the components that process air to make the ISS both habitable and comfortable for the humans inside.

The Basics

Before getting into too much detail about the air systems on the ISS, a brief overview of the general layout is probably warranted. As with the water systems, many of the US-made air management components on the ISS have foreign counterparts. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus only on the US equipment.

The habitable areas of the ISS are pressurized modules that are typically cylindrical in shape. Three node sections (named Unity, Harmony, and Tranquility) serve as the crossroads for all of the modules No matter which direction you choose to exit a node, your path will soon reach a dead end in some module.

On Earth we have the luxury of myriad natural processes that create air currents on a local and global scale. This helps to ensure that the same patch of air never lingers over any location for very long. In the manmade ecosystem of the ISS, however, such air flow does not occur naturally. The Intermodule Ventilation system (IMV) compensates by using fans to force airflow between the modules. Without it, the air would stagnate in those dead ends. Well, everywhere, actually.

The inter-module airflow is extremely important because the life support systems that manage the composition of the air are not present in every module. In fact, most of the US-managed life support systems are located in Tranquility. IMV mixes and moves the atmosphere to ensure that the air quality in every module is homogeneous--or nearly so.

Tested Visits Prop Store's Original Movie Prop Collection

We've seen beautiful pieces of original movie props, costumes, and production materials at conventions like Comic-Con and Star Wars Celebration, but we finally get to visit Prop Store's LA warehouse where it stores much of its collection. Brandon Alinger gives us a tour and tells us the story of several of his favorite pieces, including the Nostromo model, a Batmobile, and Back to the Future II shoes. Place a comment below with your favorite item from the upcoming live auction for a chance to win one of five auction catalogs!

The Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article here.

After 60 hours of research and 25 hours of testing, we found the $600 Sony a5100 is the best mirrorless camera for beginners. It stands out from the dozens of competitors we considered by delivering superior photo quality while being easier to use right out of the box thanks to simple menus and controls. Plus, it offers enough flexibility to keep up with a new photographer's developing skills.

The Sony a5100 takes photos as well as cameras that go for hundreds more by employing a sensor that rivals DSLRs.

How we decided

We looked over the entire range of mirrorless cameras currently available for less than $600 and narrowed the field down to four final candidates for hands-on testing: the $550 Olympus E-PL7, Samsung's $400 NX3000, the $500 Panasonic GF7 and the Sony a5100. We toted them around everywhere to see how they performed in the situations most novice shooters find challenging, putting each camera's autofocus, low light and flash capabilities to the test.

Testing: DJI Phantom 3 Pro Quadcopter Drone

Earlier this year, DJI released its third-generation Phantom quadcopter. The Phantom line is perhaps the most well-known ready-to-fly quads you can buy, and the Phantom 3 Advanced and Phantom 3 Professional models are significant upgrades to the last generation. These quadcopters are amazing devices; they combine aerial, sensor, and imaging technologies to make a user-friendly remote-controlled flying camera that would not have been possible a decade ago. That ease-of-use is partly what makes these ready-to-fly quadcopters so compelling. While hobbyists have been building RC multi-rotors for fun and sport, the low barrier to entry offered by RTF quads has exploded the market for new products--not unlike the first years of the modern smartphone. And the rapid pace of DJI's product iterations, along with the proliferation of quadcopter-produced photos and videos--further bootstraps a fast growing community of new flyers.

So to answer one frequently-asked question: yes, the Phantom 3 line is a significant and worthwhile upgrade to the Phantom 2. Our first Phantom was last year's Vision+, which amazed us by being easy to fly, incorporating a built-in stabilized gimballed HD camera system, and tying flight and sight together with an integrated FPV video feed. All three of these features are markedly improved in the Phantom 3. Let's go over the changes in depth.

First, the new flight system. The Phantom 3 looks a lot like the Phantom 2, with only a slightly bigger airframe (it will fit in many existing Phantom 2 cases). But the brushless motors, DJI speed controllers, and 4S battery system that power it under the hood are new, and grant the quad more power. It's not that the Phantom 3 flies a lot faster than the Phantom 2 (16m/s max speed vs 15m/s max) or can ascend and descend quicker; that power manifests itself as improved stability and control during flight. Unlike DJI's Inspire 1, the Phantom 3 doesn't fly like a hovering tank--it feels nimble and responsive, even when taken to heights where the motors are fighting winds. And that's power you can take for granted--it wasn't until I switched back to the Phantom 2 for a day that I realized how rock solid the new quad is by comparison.

Key to the Phantom's flight system is GPS-stabilization. In the Phantom 2, this allowed the quadcopter to calculate where it should be in positional space, automatically adjusting its motor power in real-time to compensate for external forces. We've demoed this before by dragging a flying Phantom by its landing struts to simulate wind and feeling the motors "fight back". Phantom 3 taps into both GPS and Russian GLONASS satellites for a wider range of coverage, though that accounts for faster satellite acquisition moreso than increased positional accuracy. More notable is the Phantom 3 Advanced and Professional's (I've been testing the latter) use of an ultrasonic and visual positioning system for low-altitude stabilization. This is the same system that was introduced in the Inspire 1--a combination of sonar and downward-facing camera to stabilize the quad when it's lower than 10 feet above ground. This is tech that other RTF quads simply don't have.

Enter Dremel's Maker-in-Residence Contest

Do you have any projects you want to share? Dremel is launching a "Maker-in-Residence" program to celebrate the work of makers around America. As part of a contest, Dremel is picking five people to win a suite of tools and collaborate with the company to promote makers' projects and provide feedback about its line of products. Applying for the program looks easy: just a few short essays about what kind of things you make and two project photos as an example of your work. The prize package looks pretty good, too: Dremel hand tools, its new 3D printer, and an HP Sprout computer.

The deadline for entries for this contest is tomorrow, so head on over to Dremel's Maker-in-Residence page and submit your project. The first round of "Chief Makers" from this contest will be announced at World Maker Faire in the fall. Good luck!

"MultiFab" 3D Printer Prints 10 Materials At Once

Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab unveiled MultiFab, a prototype 3D printer that can work with up to 10 materials. That allows it to fabricate complex components and even embed electronics directly in what it's printing. Because different materials require different print parameters, MultiFab manages its print heads by building in a 3D scanning step into each print layer, which allows the machine to detect errors and self-correct. Read more about the MultiFab printer here.

In Brief: The History and Technology of Nintendo's Virtual Boy

Technology historian Benj Edwards (who writes the great Vintage Computing blog) celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nintendo's Virtual Boy with an exhaustive history of the failed game console for Fast Company. Edwards chronicles the development of Reflection Technologies' PrivateEye display which was featured in Virtual Boy, and the vision of its creators to build a true head-tracked HMD like today's virtual reality headsets. It's a great read that gives context to why the LED display tech was so interesting to Nintendo, despite its color limitations. To get a closer look at that tech, iFixit also did a teardown of the Virtual Boy a few years back.

Norman