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    Designing an Ultra-Efficient Walking Robot

    Bipedal robots expend a lot of energy standing up and walking, but new humanoid architectures hope to be 20 to 30 times as efficient. We chat with robotics professor Aaron Ames about how his team at SRI International has designed a walking system that maximizes battery efficiency, allowing a robot to walk on a treadmill for hours while using less than 400 watts of power.

    Tested Meets RoboSimian, NASA JPL's Ape-Like Robot

    NASA JPL's RoboSimian stood out at the DARPA Robotics Challenge as one of the few non-humanoid robot designs. The use of four versatile limbs allows it to adapt to the test scenario in ways that would be difficult for a bipedal robot. We chat with Katie Byl of the UC Santa Barbara Robotics Lab, whose team programmed RoboSimian, to learn about the advantages of a quadruped design and how RoboSimian may be utilized in complex environments like being underground or even in space!

    The Enduring Story of Matte Painting in Film

    Editor's note: This story by Cinefex's Graham Edwards is part of the 'VFX ABC' series exploring the lexicon of special effects. It's republished here with permission. In the VFX ABC, the letter "M" stands for "Matte Painting".

    Take any film aficionado's top ten list of favorite movie tricks, and the chances are you'll find the venerable art of matte painting near the top. But what actually is matte painting, and what makes it so special?

    To put it in a nutshell, a matte painting is a piece of artwork used to fill in part of a scene that can't otherwise be photographed. Take a cathedral interior, for example. Assuming you can't find a real cathedral to shoot in, do you really want to shell out half your precious budget on constructing that mile-high vaulted ceiling? Wouldn't you prefer to build your set up to a convenient height of, say, ten feet, then use a painting to patch in the rest?

    Or, let's say you want to photograph Count Dracula's castle perched precipitously on top of a mountain. Are you prepared to ship a construction crew all the way out to the Bavarian Alps? Are you ready to face a mob of locals with torches and pitchforks protesting about how you're defacing the landscape? Doesn't it make more sense to photograph a suitably rugged portion of rocky terrain, then hire a skilled artist to paint in the vampire's looming lair?

    In short, isn't the most straightforward solution to use a matte painting? Of course it is.

    Unfortunately, matte painting isn't quite as simple as that…

    DARPA Robotics Challenge: Team THOR

    THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot) was one of the humanoid robots we met at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, designed and built by students at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania. We chat with Steve McGill of Team THOR to learn about the disaster relief scenario and how teams direct their robots in each part of the obstacle course.

    HARV: Telepresence Camera System with Head-Tracking

    Low-latency telepresence camera systems with head-tracking allows users to look around environments in near-real-time while wearing headsets like an Oculus development kit. We put on Telefactor Robotics' HARV remote vision system and chatted with CEO Martha Jane Chatten about the use of motorized gimbal systems for immersive telepresence.

    Earth, Fire, Wind, Water: Alternative Battery Technologies

    There are a bazillion solar-powered portable batteries on the market. But they have this little problem: they need the sun in order to work. Inventors and engineers, seeing the need for portable power generation that doesn't require daylight, have been hard at work coming up with some creative ideas for alternative energy sources. Let's call them the Earth element batteries (or just call them awesome). Now you can get a portable battery powered by wind, water, fire, and even mud. Here's the science behind how these mini-generators work.

    Fire Power

    The FlameStower is a portable device that uses temperature variations to generate electricity. It's based on a simple principle called the thermoelectric effect. To put it in the most simplified way possible: all you need is to put two materials that are effective at moving electricity next to each other and add an electricity-capturing device on one end. Then you heat one side and cool the other. Electrons move from the hot side to the cool side (because they like to be where energy is lower and heat has a higher level of energy, a concept you probably know as diffusion). As they travel into the cool side they release heat energy and voila! You have a battery. Yay physics! This method of power generation is regularly used to power devices in space, where it's easy to generate heat naturally with a decaying radioactive material while subjecting it to the extreme cold temperatures of the vacuum outside.

    The FlameStower generator works over any flame or heat source (a cook stove, a campfire, or even the stove in your kitchen). You simply put one end of it over the heat, pour some water into the cold side to keep the temperature there low, and plug in any USB device. They even have a version that can charge your gadgets using a candle. Depending on how powerful your flame is, the FlameStower can produce about 3w of power, which its makers calculate out to about two to four minutes of talk time on your phone for every one minute of charging. You can get one for $70 on their website and their candle charger, which will cost $99, is expected to be available soon.

    Meet the Inflatable Soft Robots of Pneubotics

    The inflatable robot of Big Hero 6 was based on real soft robotics research, like the ones being experimented with at startup Pneubotics. We chat with Pneubotics CEO Kevin Albert to learn how robots can be designed and built with lightweight and flexible skins that have impressive dexterity and structural strength.

    LEGO with Friends: Carl Merriam, Part 1

    For this week's LEGO with Friends series, we're joined by a very special guest: LEGO product designer Carl Merriam! Carl, who we first met at a local LEGO convention, is visiting all the way from Denmark, where he works on the LEGO Minecraft team. We chat with him about what it's like working at LEGO and how these sets are designed. It's going to be an awesome week! (The first episode is free for everyone, but the rest of the series will be for Premium Members.)

    Meet the Modular Prosthetic Limb

    This realistic robot arm and hand was one of the coolest things we saw at the DARPA Robotics Challenge event--it's a technology that's already being field tested on patients. We chat with Michael McLoughlin, Chief Engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab to learn more about the challenges of building a modular prosthetic limb that has the same dexterity as a human hand, and its potential applications.

    DARPA Robotics Challenge: Team IHMC's Atlas Robot

    The DARPA Robotics Challenge challenged teams with designing and teaching robots to complete an obstacle course simulating a disaster relief scenario--a task more difficult than it sounds. We chat with Doug Steven of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition to learn how the IHMC team has programmed a Boston Dynamics Atlas robot to tackle the competition.

    Chris Walas' Makeup Effects for 'The Fly'

    We recently profiled the work of Chris Walas, who created the incredible animatronic creatures for Gremlins. Walas other memorable works include effects on films like Enemy Mine and David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly. His make-up effects for The Fly were wonderfully sick, and with Walas's help, Cronenberg gave us a sci-fi horror film that blew away the original. We were fortunate enough to get Walas to talk about that project.

    Walas had a hell of a learning curve on Gremlins. In the days of practical effects, effects artists had to reinvent the wheel to make something come to life, and it was a hard process to make an army of animatronic creatures. As Walas recalls, "I should say that I was personally terrified for the entire show. It was a gigantic project for me, beyond anything I had done before, and time and the schedule were not on my side."

    Once he got Gremlins under his belt, "It was a very empowering experience for me," Walas says. "I think I gained a lot of confidence out of it. The Fly wasn't really that much of a leap so much as it was a journey down a different path. The Fly was all about the make-up and the emotional reality of the work. It was less crazed fantasy and was less puppets from start to finish like Gremlins was."

    For Walas, one of the most important lessons he learned from Gremlins "was the fact that there is always more than one way to do an effect. There's always another option. We developed a lot of our own technology for Gremlins that we adapted to The Fly, particularly along the animatronics line, so we had an existing library of hardware available. That became critical on The Fly as we had to rethink some effects due to the tight schedule."

    As far as his creative relationship with Cronenberg, Walas says the director "is fascinating to work with. He's very intelligent, observant, and understanding. He's also challenging and supportive. He has a very clear idea of what he wants and how he sees things, so the design phase tends to go quickly. His design directions also tend to be more emotional and psychological than most directors. Most directors will describe what they want physically. They'll say, 'It needs to be bigger; make the eyes red; add more horns.' David's descriptions were more like, 'It needs to be in more pain, and I want to see confusion in its eyes.' I would say David's style is much fuller and covers a wider design approach than most directors."

    Tested Mailbag: Our First Gundam

    It's been a while since we've opened a mailbag at the office, and this mystery package doesn't disappoint. Its contents seem appropriate given our current week of build with Frank Ippolito. What a lovely way to finish our week! Thanks to Oliver for sending us this care package! Subscribe for more videos!

    How Life Finds a Way in Earth's Extreme Environments

    "Life will find a way." That mantra isn't just true in Jurassic Park; nature's resilience is particularly noticeable in some of Earth's most extreme environments. From super-high flyers to super-deep swimmers, there's no shortage of strange evolutions on our planet that allow animals to perform some truly bizarre and nearly impossible feats in order to survive. A new exhibit at New York City's American Museum of Natural History rounds up some of the world's most extreme adaptations. Here's a look at just a few examples of the bizarre behaviors of Life At The Limits.

    Extreme Temperatures

    Frilly Leech — Even though it's own habitat almost never freezes, the frilly leech can survive 24 hours submerged in liquid nitrogen (-320f) in the lab. They can be stored up to 9 months at -130F and one was once revived after 2.5 years in the deep cold.

    Tardigrades — These tiny organisms, also known as water bears, can survive being completely dehydrated. They make proteins that revive their cells when water is introduced, coming back to life in as little as 4 minutes. They also can survive temperatures down to near-absolute-zero (-458F) and more than 302F.

    Ice Worm — Just like it's name says, this worm lives its entire lifecycle inside the glaciers of Alaska. If they get too close to the air and they feel sunlight warming the surface they burrow down deep to get away from the heat.

    Testing Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy S6 Game Demos

    While the consumer Oculus Rift won't be out until next year, developers and early adopters can still playtest virtual reality games with the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition headset. We test the new headset made for the Galaxy S6 smartphone--with its high-density 577 PPI display--and demo some of the winners of the recent Mobile VR Jam contest!

    Hands-On: PlayStation Project Morpheus Games at E3 2015

    Our latest hands-on with Project Morpheus is all about the games. We chat with PlayStation's Richard Marks about the gameplay experiences being developed for Project Morpheus and how virtual reality in the living room can differentiate itself from VR on the desktop. Plus, lots of actual game demos!

    Photo Gallery: Behind the Scenes at BattleBots

    The new season of BattleBots premiered this past weekend, and it looks like viewers really liked it! We saw some great bouts between bots old and new, with some upsets and surprise explosions. If you're watching the show, you should check out our behind-the-scenes interviews with all the builders. We'll have more videos from our visit to the BattleBots set coming in the next month, too. Until then, here are some photos I took from the builder's pit, combat arena, and backstage where teams tested and tuned their robots.

    Hands-On: Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller

    What makes up a $150 game controller? We go hands-on with Microsoft's new Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller, a customizable gamepad that will work on the console and desktop. We explain how it competes with custom gamepads like the SCUF system, with programmable buttons, adjustable triggers, and new paddles.

    Tested Meets the New BattleBots, Part 3

    In part three of our interviews with the new BattleBots contestants, we check out the final eight robots competing in this series premiere! Some of the designs and strategies are very nontraditional and beautiful. Plus, we step inside the newly built BattleBots arena to learn what hazards the robots will face when they're engaged in combat. The show premieres tonight at 9PM on ABC!

    Tested Meets the New Battlebots, Part 2

    The new BattleBots is premiering this weekend, and we have exclusive access to the builders pit to check out the new combat robots. The new robots are spectacular; teams have new technologies at their disposal and are getting creative with their designs. We interview eight of the teams and learn their strategies for success in the arena!

    Hands-On: Microsoft HoloLens Project X-Ray

    Norm gets his first demo of Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality headset! At this year's E3, we went behind closed doors to playtest Project X-Ray, a "mixed reality" first-person shooter demo using HoloLens. Microsoft wouldn't let us film or take photos inside the room, so we describe and evaluate the experience after the demo.