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    Will Shares a Brief History of Tested (from Tested: The Show!)

    At our recent live show, Will capped off his tenure at Tested by giving a brief history of the site, from our humble beginnings reviewing technology to the incredible opportunity of collaborating with Adam and Jamie. Will recalls his favorite memories and videos, shares his passion for virtual reality, and gives thanks. We wish him the best as he moves on to the next adventure. (Photo photo by Dallis Willard)

    Building The Worlds of SyFy's "The Expanse"

    This past Monday, SyFy network released the first episode of The Expanse online, with the rest of the season airing in mid-December. It's an ambitious show--an adaptation of a popular novel series that's already on its fifth book. One of the reasons for the books' success is its realistic depiction of space travel 200 years from now. Given the conceit that mankind has invented a spacefaring technology that allows for regular travel between Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid belt, the story is about the relationships between the cultures that have formed on Mars and asteroid colonies, and their relationship with Earth. What happens when you have generations of humans living on a mining Asteroid, and Martians who are more invested in the development of their planet than the interests of Earth? Thoughtful world building makes for compelling science fiction.

    The production values of the show are impressive as well, with the need to tell an intertwining story from three very different types of environments. I got on the phone with Seth Reed, the production designer of The Expanse, to learn a bit about how set and production design contributed to that world-building.

    Thanks for chatting with us, Seth! To start things off, can you talk about the role of a production designer and what your responsibilities were in the production of The Expanse?

    Seth Reed: As the production designer, my responsibilities included designing everything that was behind or around the actors. That included all of the set decoration, scenery that we built, all the colors and fabrics and textures--pretty much the world. The props were within my department--the propmakers were pretty independent, and always are, but it all happens through the production design department. We provided all the graphics and everything that appears on those props as well.

    (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

    The show is set around three basic areas as we switch between the three main characters. There's Earth, Ceres Station, and outer space on board different ships. Can you talk about how you and your team built out the look of each of those locations?

    Well for Earth, we haven't really seen much of it [in the first episode]. We saw Avasarala's place, her office, but not that much. You see a few visual effects shots, which I was involved in, for setting up the look of Earth [200 years from now]. Earth is a more crowded place, with tall buildings designed with soft and geometric edges--a lot of times with points or simple spires at the top.

    Why Music is Important to Astronauts in Space

    I recently saw a video of astronaut Kjell Lindgren playing bagpipes in space. Although Lindgren appears to be a fine player, it wasn't his piping that intrigued me. I couldn't stop wondering when and how they put bagpipes on the International Space Station (ISS). I knew there was a guitar and a keyboard in orbit…but bagpipes? Those pipes had to compete against food, spare parts, and other obvious necessities to get a ride into space. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that idea was pitched to NASA logisticians!

    The fact that NASA and its partners were willing to make it happen underscores the importance that music plays in the lives of orbiting astronauts. Whether making music in their precious spare time, or listening to music throughout their workday, having these outlets available is vital for the happiness and well-being of the astronauts orbiting above us.

    Tooting Their Own Horns

    As it turns out, there are several other musical instruments aboard ISS that I wasn't aware of. Those in the know at the Johnson Space Center informed me that in addition to the bagpipes, Larrivee acoustic guitar, and Yamaha electronic keyboard, there is also a flute, a ukulele, and an electric guitar. And that is just the permanent stash of instruments. Others have stayed temporarily and returned to Earth.

    Credit for the first musical instrument in space goes to the soprano saxophone carried aboard the space shuttle by Dr. Ron McNair in 1984. McNair normally played the tenor sax, but there was no way he could ever justify bringing the large instrument aboard. Even the diminutive soprano sax's flight status was uncertain right up until launch.

    Dr. Ron McNair plays a soprano saxophone, the first musical instrument in space, aboard the space shuttle in 1984

    McNair prepared for months in advance of his mission to adapt to the nuances of playing the smaller sax. He secretly worked with saxophone guru, Kurt Heisig, to fine tune his technique and equipment. Due to McNair's hectic training schedule and Heisig's California locale, all of their sessions took place over the phone.

    The pair anticipated that low atmospheric pressure in the shuttle's cabin could affect how the sax behaved. To compensate, McNair worked on conditioning exercises and packed a varied selection of reeds. Some unpredicted factors, however, would prove more troublesome.

    Art Toy Collaborations at Designer Con 2015

    At this year's Designer Con, we met artist Kyle Kirwan, who shared with us his Willo creature sculpture. In making rotocast resin releases of his figure, he ended up with a bunch of imperfect castings. That gave him the idea to send his figure to other artists, and together they've created this gallery of beautiful sculpts, each with a unique take on the original.

    Getting Character Eyes Right in Movies

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 3/25/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    When a character appears on a movie screen, which part of their face do you look at first? The eyes, of course.

    You can't help it. As a human being, you're programmed to make eye contact, whether the person in front of you is flesh and blood, or just a fiction of jostling pixels. Like the proverb says: "The eyes are the mirror of the soul." I reckon that's true, but the quote I really want to share comes from the writer G K Chesterton: "There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect."

    Chesterton's words feel right for the movies, don't you think? At its very best, cinema is an art form that bypasses the brain altogether and engages directly with the emotions. And how do we read emotions in other people? You guessed it: through their eyes.

    For a visual effects supervisor, creating a synthetic character with believable eyes is a monumental challenge. I'm sure you can think of a few movies where they pulled it off. And even more where they didn't. Below is a still from a film in the former category: an animated short featuring some truly incredible eyes. The film is called Madame Tutli-Putliand, if you're anything like me, your two responses upon seeing the title character will be (1) "Wow, look at those eyes" and (2) "Uh, hold on … what exactly am I looking at here?"

    Have you worked out how they did it yet? Don't worry, I'll put you out of your misery a little further down the page. Before then, let's take a closer look at a few visual effects that have left me, well, wide-eyed.

    Tested's Walking Tour of DesignerCon 2015

    DesignerCon is an annual gathering of sculptors, illustrators, and toy makers who bring their latest projects and works to fans. It's like the artists-alley of every major comic book convention put together! Frank and Norm give a walking tour of the show and talk about the culture of designer toys and collectible pop art. Keep an eye out for some really creative designs!

    Watch All of Tested: The Show 2015!

    Here it is. Tested: The Show 2015 in its entirety. Watch the full hour and forty five minute stage show we put on at the Bay Area Science Festival last month, from Michael Shindler's amazing tintype demonstration to Adam's Talking Room interview with NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. The individual videos will be up on YouTube, but Tested Premium Members get to watch it early!

    Bits to Atoms: Designing the 3D Printed Gowanus Monster

    Prowling Brooklyn's polluted Gowanus Canal, the Monster sinks innocent kayakers and grabs unaware hipsters, pulling them down into the depths. The Gowanus Monster was a commission I did for Bold Machines, a product development workshop headed by Bre Pettis, one of the founders and former CEO of MakerBot. The Monster was done as one in a series of proof of concept characters for an animation, all of which can be downloaded for free. This is how I created it.

    Sean's 3D-Printed Gowanus Monster

    Bold Machines was very interested in my Octopod design and tasked me with designing another submarine to fit their storyline. Initially they wanted to add some local flavor and referenced the Quester I, a homemade sub built in the 1960's by a Brooklyn shipyard worker. A local legend that never did launch and is currently marooned in the middle of Coney Island Creek. They were also really interested in having some type of tentacles for grabbing ships. I was not getting much design inspiration from the Quester I, but tried to stick to a small craft and took some inspiration from lampreys. Mechanical arms would fold back into the body, springing open to grab ships or treasure.

    Version 1 with Quester I and lamprey inspirations

    They liked it, but wanted something more like the Octopod--in fact, they wanted the Octopod, but I wasn't ready to let go of my baby and it would have needed a tremendous amount of work to print on an FDM machine. Going back to the drawing board, I decided to create something that would be found in the same fleet as the Octopod and based it on a fellow cephalopod--the cuttlefish.

    A Pocket History of Space Electronics (from Tested: The Show!)

    Meet Megan Prelinger, a cultural historian, archivist of 20th century ephemera, and the co-founder of the wonderful Prelinger Library in San Francisco. Megan has written books about the history of the space race the electronic age through the unique lens of commercial art and advertising. At our live show, Megan shared with us a pocket history of space electronics! (Promo photo courtesy of Dallis Willard.)

    9 Things We Learned From Adam Savage, Andy Weir and Chris Hadfield's Discussion of The Martian

    As his fans know well, Adam Savage loves space. He has his own spacesuits and helmets, and he wears his NASA jacket at every opportunity. So it's no surprise that Adam is friends with people who also love space — like Andy Weir, author of The Martian, now a major motion picture, and Col. Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut.

    In October 2015 the three friends came together to watch The Martian and hold a Q&A afterward. Here's the top 9 things we learned in the course of that session.

    1. If a directive is coming to an astronaut from Earth, it is really only a suggestion.

    In complimenting The Martian's depiction of astronauts vis-a-vis NASA, Chris Hadfield revealed the difference in mentality between astronauts in space and their governing bodies on Earth. "On my second flight, when I was onboard the space station, I was talking to one of the crew members, Sue Helms. In passing, she said,'Hey, Earth says we need to do this.' It was the first time I'd really seen the fundamental schism of personality between the crew and the 7 billion people on Earth."

    While you have huge respect for the expertise on the ground and you try to do everything they ask, "you have to recognize that you are a separate entity from Earth, and nobody else is actually risking their life or has actual final authority for what's happening."

    Adam Savage, Chris Hadfield and Andy Weir discuss the film The Martian. Photo Credit: Norman Chan

    2. Adam Savage has collected 600 photos of The Martian spacesuit (so far).

    Adam thinks the spacesuit, designed by Ridley Scott regular Janty Yates for the film, is beautiful, and not surprisingly, he's gathering the assets to create a replica. "I've already gotten some of the suit parts gathered and in a box labeled 'Martian spacesuit.'" And happily for Adam, the studio put one of the spacesuits from the film on display at the Arclight Cinema in Los Angeles. Between the Replica Prop Forum and Adam's friends, "I have about 600 photos saved already."

    Testing the Apple iPad Pro Display

    The key element for a great Tablet has always been a truly innovative and top performing display, and the best leading edge Tablets have always flaunted their beautiful high tech displays.

    For 2015 there is a new broad product line of iPads – from the small mini up to the new large Pro model, with display sizes that span almost 3 to 1 in screen area. The displays have different applications and performance criteria that we will measure and analyze below. The differences and similarities in performance between the 3 iPad displays are really interesting and surprising...

    The Tablet revolution began with the launch of the first iPad in 2010, and over the years the iPad displays have taken the lead with several major innovations, but they have also periodically lagged behind the displays on competing Tablets. Looking back, the iPad displays have gotten major performance enhancements every two years (just like the iPhones but without the S designations). To understand the various performance aspects of the latest iPad displays we'll first take a look at how they have evolved…

    Early 9.7 inch iPads in 2010 – 2013

    For 2010, the original iPad had a [1.0] leading edge 1024x768 display with 132 Pixels Per Inch (ppi) and a smallish 62 percent Color Gamut that had noticeably lower color saturation. The next [2.0] cutting edge development for Tablet displays arrived in 2012 on the iPad 3, which not only doubled the resolution and ppi up to what Apple classifies as a Retina Display, but also provided a much larger 99 percent Color Gamut, which delivered full color saturation images.

    Up through 2013 all of the iPads had relatively high screen reflections, primarily from an air gap between the outer cover glass and the display, resulting in a high Reflectance of 8.7 percent of the ambient light falling on the screen, which was reduced with each succeeding generation down to 6.5 percent for the iPad Air 1 in 2013. That may seem like a small percentage difference, but it is their ratio that matters, so 6.5 percent reflects 25 percent less ambient light than 8.7 percent.

    The Practical Effects of James Bond Films

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 12/9/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    The James Bond movies comprise the longest continually-running film series ever, beginning with the release of Dr. No in 1962 and continuing all the way up to the present day… and beyond. While the Bond films aren't exactly effects-driven, they still require the services of a crack team of illusion-wielding agents both on-set and in post. The output of these SFX and VFX mission specialists typically includes spectacular chase sequences, a big reveal of the evil mastermind's hidden lair and, almost certainly, lots of inordinately large explosions.

    The first Bond film of all, Dr. No, features just such an explosion during its climactic scene, when Bond causes a nuclear reactor to blow up, destroying the bad guy's island base. Later films delivered more big bangs, from the airplane crash at the end of Goldfinger through to the pageant of pyrotechnics that closed You Only Live Twice, when agent 007 infiltrates the volcano-crater headquarters of arch-villain Ernst Blofeld and sparks off – you guessed it – a giant explosion.

    The visual and special effects in these early years were the province of industry stalwarts such as Roy Field, Frank George, John Stears and Wally Veevers. There was even a brief contribution by legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock, who provided some essential scene-setting spectacle for Diamonds Are Forever, and whose paintings are showcased on Peter Cook's ever-reliable Matte Shot blog.

    Artist Albert Whitlock contributed a number of matte paintings to "Diamonds Are Forever".

    When Live and Let Die came along in 1973, the 007 team recruited Derek Meddings, whose modelmaking background with Gerry Anderson on shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds allowed the "big set" visions of production designer Ken Adam to be realised in miniature form.

    My Problem with Set-Top Streaming Boxes and TV Apps

    We're in the middle of testing the new crop of set-top streaming boxes, including the new Apple TV, Google Chromecast (though technically not a box), Amazon Fire TV, Roku 4, and even Steam Link. These devices are all vying to be the hardware interface for which you view most, if not all, of your TV content. Put another way, they want to be your "HDMI 1" device--the primary piece of hardware connecting content to your television. Currently, none of these boxes are plugged into my receiver's HDMI 1 port. And unless you're someone who's completely cut the cord with cable or satellite, they're probably not your HDMI 1 device either.

    Look at your own living room (ie. primary) TV or receiver setup. Do you have a cable or satellite box plugged into HDMI 1, streaming box into HDMI 2, and game console plugged into HDMI 3? Chances are you're not alone. That hierarchy of set-top boxes sums up the battle between device makers who want to control the gateway between you and video content. The content itself isn't mutually exclusive between those devices. You can watch HBO on a cable box, streaming box, and game console. Streaming boxes have been trying to shoehorn games into their platforms and controllers for years. And the Xbox One wants to leapfrog its place in the HDMI input line by convincing you to pass through your cable box through it. They're all nice tries, and yet in my house, Comcast still owns that first input slot.

    Every time we test a new streaming box, we've asked ourselves if this piece of hardware, its user interface, and library of available content make it compelling enough to drop cable. The new Apple TV, which now supports its own ecosystem of apps, makes a good--but not good enough--case for HDMI 1. And testing it helped me realize why the cable box has been so compelling. It's not about how much content is available on that platform, it's about how that content is grouped, organized, and made accessible to users. When content is split and duplicated into different an ever growing list of apps and services, complexity and choice works against the viewing experience. Cable's advantage isn't quantity or even quality of content, it's convenience of access.

    Meet Pleurobot, an Amphibious Salamander Robot

    We meet Pleurobot, a Salamander-like robot that can both walk on land and swim in the water (with a wetsuit!) Kishore, our new science correspondent, chats with professor Auke Ijspeert of the EPFL about how Pluerobot's movements were programmed and how biorobotics engineers studied the physiology of salamanders in making this robot.

    Awesome BioRobots Inspired by Animal Movements!

    Roboticists from Switzerland's EPFL institute bring us four awesome robots that are designed to mimic the movements and gait of animals. We chat with these biorobotics researchers about the lessons learned from studying snakes and quadrupeds, and how their robots can be used in practical situations. Plus, these robots are actually pretty cute, and their lifelike movements make great animated GIFs!