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    Hands-On with FOVE Eye Tracking VR Headset

    We've tried several virtual reality headsets that track your head movement, but FOVE is the first that also tracks your eye movement. At this year's Game Developers Conference, we put on FOVE's latest prototype headset and chat with the company's CTO to learn what eye tracking can bring to VR.

    Your TV is Too Small (Why You Should Get a Projector)

    That weird little rainbow circle on a motor thing in the picture below? That's the color wheel for a DLP projector. More to the point, it's the color wheel that's going into my projector. It's twee and fragile, and I'm sure the old one made the tiniest ping when it shattered. I didn't hear it... but I didn't need to. The results were pretty obvious when I fired up the projector to watch a movie, and the screen was 50 shades of grey. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

    The wall of grey led to two things. First, I borrowed a gorgeous 55" Samsung Plasma TV. Second, the realization that 55" is way too small for an HDTV when you're used to 100 glorious inches of 1080p color blanketing the wall in my living room.

    We'll talk about the color wheel another time, but it was the 55" TV that got me thinking: most people buy televisions that are way too small for the room they put 'em in. So, my simple advice: buy a bigger TV than you think you need. Seriously. All too many people say "gosh, that thing is huge" or "60 inches? That's ridiculous!" while they're wandering through the TV aisle at Costco or Best Buy.

    This makes some sense. People who grew up with standard definition televisions remember a time when a 37” TV was too big. That’s a fair association; back in the CRT days, 37 inches was massive. A TV that size was also a couple feet deep, so it literally took up a lot of space in the room. And more often than not, living room CRTs were stuffed inside some huge piece of furniture to hide it when it wasn't on--which took up even more space.

    People who grew up with big CRTs need to rewire how their brains think about screen space in relation to TV sizes.

    Going much for a bigger screen in the days of VHS and DVD usually meant rear projection. These were massive boxes that hulked against the wall. We're talking a couch worth of floorspace...great for baseball games. Not, to paraphrase Loyd Case, so great for the Spousal Acceptance Factor.

    And in defense of spouses, husband or wife, a big blank 60" screen tends to really overpower a small living room. Which is a shame, because the higher resolution of HDTV (much less UHD/4K) means you can sit much much closer that before bigger screen stops looking really good. A 1080p screen displays 1920x1080 pixels, nearly six times as many pixels as 480i (let's agree that 480i, or 704x480 at 60 interlaced frames is roughly 'standard def' in a digital format). People really need to rewire how their brains think about screen space in relation to TV sizes.

    Flying FPV Multi-Rotors with Team Blacksheep

    We met up with Team Blacksheep pilot Raphael Pirker (AKA Trappy) to talk about his FPV flying exploits, videos, and new ready-to-fly hexacopter. Pirker talks frankly about his dealings with the FAA, views on multi-rotor safety, and the newly proposed guidelines for RC flyers. We also do some flying and racing!

    The Whitney Family: Pioneers in Computer Animation

    The special effects you see in films today are the result of a collaboration between sometimes hundreds of different artist, animators, and engineers. It's a team-effort, and no one person gets all the credit. But in the very early days of computer animation, being a pioneer in the field could make you a star in your own right, at least in the eyes of directors. While John Whitney’s name may not be as recognizable as, say, John Lasseter, but among computer animation artists he is a legendary figure who paved the way for modern special effects.

    Before we all had home computers, Whitney was a pioneer in the art of CGI, a medium he naturally moved into as an experimental filmmaker. His son, John Whitney Jr., tells us that his father was “never married to any particular methodology or technology. His interest was always on the filmmaking. He followed a never-ending search for an instrument, a technology, or a methodology to getting his ideas on the screen.”

    Whitney Sr. created slit scan, a split-screen effect with cascading images on both sides of the screen, which made its way into 2001. The Whitneys also got two minutes of computer animation into Westworld, going all the way back to 1973. Years later, Whitney Jr. was responsible over twenty minutes of computer animation in The Last Starfighter.

    Whitney had been making animated experimental films since the ‘40’s. He started the company Motion Graphics in 1960, and created his own analog computer. Whitey Sr. invented motion control camera work, and he turned military equipment, like anti-aircraft gun directors, which utilized analog computers, into filmmaking gear. (Whitney first utilized motion control in the spiraling open credits sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)

    Whitney’s experimental films include Catalog (1961), Matrix III (1972), and Arabesque (1975), which all showed his artistry with computer generated animation. His work would prove very inspiring to a generation of future animators, as well as his immediate family.

    Where a lot of children rebel against following in the footsteps of their parents, Whitney Jr. knew that experimental filmmaking was in his blood. “There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had already made a career choice by the time I got out of high school, which was make abstract films.”

    Some engineers would see this would be the way of the future, and they hooked up with the Whitneys because they were the leaders in the field before anyone even knew a field existed. “John had a great vision,” says Larry Cuba, an animation artist who was first inspired to go digital by Whitney. “He could see all the way into today. It was pretty clear what was coming.”

    But at the time, getting access to a computer was very difficult. The Cray mainframe computers were the fastest for the time, but it would still take all night to get the work done. Even if a company would let you use their computer for a movie, you had to sneak in and do it on the nights and weekends so you wouldn’t disrupt the company’s business.

    Biomimetics: Studying Bird Flight for Flying Robots

    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. This past month, we’ve been profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    When you’re trying to perfect robotic flight the obvious biological animal to mimic is, of course, the bird. But what’s less obvious is just how exactly you go about quantifying the physical capabilities of motion and engineering while in flight. At David Lentink’s lab at Stanford he is combining specially trained animals with high-tech motion capture to puzzle out just what it is about bird wings that make them such fantastic flyers.

    Photo credit: Stanford

    Lentink has trained hummingbirds and parrotlets to perform special maneuvers -- flying from point A to point B -- so that he can capture images of them in motion. With high-speed cameras he can capture 50 images for each wing beat. In addition, using two high-speed lasers that flash from 1,000 to 10,000 times per second, Lentink is able to create an image of how the air flows behind the birds as they fly.

    “Our goal is to understand the flow and the forces they generate when they fly and we developed special instruments to do that. You can’t work with a bird like an airplane. We train our birds based on food rewards. So now we point to perch where they need to fly to and they will fly there,” says Lentink. “We’re trying to discover how birds manipulate air to fly more effectively and move better.”

    In addition to studying wing movement and the manipulation of air, Lentink and his team have started to research the bird’s vision and how it combines with their wing movements to determine direction. “What do they see and how do they use what they are seeing to control their flight? The main thing we’re looking at is optical flow, something that robots also use. How images move over the retina, the intensity of images over the retina, and how birds use that to decide to go left, right, or stabilize,” he says.

    It may sound like very fundamental research, he says, but it’s essential if there’s any hope of building a future robot that can fly like a bird. Especially when you consider the limitation of current flying robots. Quadcopters, according to Lentink, aren’t good at maneuvering through turbulence, around buildings, or through trees and narrow spaces. Yet at the moment they’re our most popular flying bot. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have any trouble performing any of those difficult tasks.

    Will's Favorite Games at PAX East 2015

    Last weekend, Will was in Boston for PAX East 2015, where he had a chance to check out some new indie board games, video games, and VR games. Will walks the convention floor with 3DS in hand and shares with us some of his favorite discoveries.

    Introducing Our Newest Columnist: Patrick Norton!

    Howdy! My name is Patrick Norton. If you're a regular visitor at Tested, you might have seen me join Norm and Will on This Is Only A Test and the first Lego with Friends in the past few weeks. And, beyond showing up for several Octoberkasts for the 2AM to 5AM shift bearing a giant box of Bob’s Donuts and weird stories about wrenching on trucks at the Baja 1000, you might be wondering just who the heck I am.

    Mostly, I’m a geek. I review products, from headphones to gaming PCs, answer tech questions, make things, and talk about technology on shows like TekThing and TWiCH. I have what a friend calls ‘feral researcher’ issues. Doesn’t matter if its picking fuel injectors for the Cummins diesel in my truck, or figuring out the references in an anime like FLCL, or why one DAC sounds different from another. I like going deeper and learning more.

    Professionally, I started out working in magazines, first as an editor at Windows Sources, then testing products and writing reviews PC Mag, PC World, Computer Shopper, and others. In 1998 I was part of the launch team for TechTV, the first (and I suspect only) cable channel about technology. I started and ran the lab for a couple years, then, on one strange afternoon, while peeing in a urinal, one of the VPs took the urinal next to mine, and, mid business, asked me if I wanted to co-host The ScreenSavers, a live hour long daily show that was the heart of the channel.

    I’m glad I said yes. The show was epic and the viewers were smart. We answered their questions about tech, often conversing with them via netcam. We demoed products live, which led to some epic fails. (Who can’t relate to a Blue Screen of Death at the worst possible moment?) We interviewed some really smart people, made videos from Defcon, and shot live television from the CES show floor. (We were the first TV cameras allowed into the NSA offices after 9/11!) If consumer 3D printers and quadcopters came out in 2000, you probably would have seen 'em there first. It wasn’t like any show before or since, and we had about as much fun as you can have helping folks embrace technology.

    Conjoined Wings: Aviation’s Pullers, Parasites and Piggybacks

    Even in the early pioneering days of aviation, engineers recognized the potential for teamwork among aircraft. By lashing two or more aircraft together, the combined machines could often accomplish things that neither vehicle was capable of on its own. It’s the wild blue yonder’s embodiment of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

    This concept of mating together different aircraft is one that has persevered even as the art of aeronautics has constantly evolved. Whether powered by a rotary engine spewing castor oil or a space-bound rocket engine, the advantages of airborne teamwork are equally valid.

    Here are a few examples of aircraft that were joined together to work together.

    USS Akron and Curtiss Sparrowhawk

    The USS Akron was a rigid airship that was used by the US Navy from 1931 to 1933. The huge 785 foot-long aircraft was unique in many ways. Its design was the result of a collaboration between the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Corporation and Luftschiffbau Zeppelin of Germany. Zeppelin sent engineering advisors to Goodyear in Ohio. The German engineers incorporated new design and construction ideas that they had been unable to explore in their home country. You can read about many of those innovations here.


    The most novel aspect of the Akron’s design was that it could accommodate up to five Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplane fighters in an internal hangar. The Sparrowhawks could be launched and recovered while the Akron was in flight. A large hook located above the fighter’s upper wing engaged a trapeze structure on the airship. The trapeze could then be raised or lowered to move the biplane into or out of the hangar bay.

    The original concept for the Akron had the airship’s crew on the lookout for enemy ships while the Sparrowhawks warded off attacks by enemy aircraft. The policy soon transformed to have the airship acting as a home base while the fighters ranged out in search of the enemy’s navy. The effectiveness of this strategy was never tested in wartime. Less than two years after the Akron’s commissioning, it was lost in a storm off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 servicemen. The same fate befell the Akron’s sister ship, the USS Macon, off the California coast in 1935. Thankfully, only two men perished in the crash of the Macon.

    Biomimetics: Learning about Camouflage from Cuttlefish

    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.

    Few animals in the world are better at camouflaging themselves then the cephalopod. A family of ocean-going invertebrates that include the octopus, the squid, and the cuttlefish, these squishy little guys are better than anybody at disappearing into their surroundings. And that makes them the ideal candidates for biomimicry.

    In Woods Hole, Massachusetts, biologist Roger Hanlon is focused on puzzling out the cellular systems that make quick color changes possible. This is done both inside the lab and outside in the field. By watching octopi morph their appearance in their native environment and observing cuttlefish perform quick adaptation in controlled experiments, Hanlon has been able to learn not only about the makeup of their skin that allows them to change, but also how they use their sensory organs to determine which pattern they’ll mimic next.

    “The field work allows us to frame the big questions. By immersing myself in their sensory world, not mine, seeing them behave normally lets me see the wider scope in an evolutionary context,” says Hanlon.

    But it’s not just the animal itself that is giving insight into the physics of camouflage, he says. “It’s extremely important to measure the light field -- how much is there and how does it change. Because what a predator does or doesn’t see depends on what kind of light is available and it’s own visual system. That brings us to visual perception. What I’m really studying is the visual perception of the many predators that eat the cuttlefish and the visual perception of the cuttlefish themselves. A cuttlefish can change its appearance because it has to look around its environment to create the pattern that works.”

    Because cuttlefish are genetically predisposed to remain camouflaged at all times until they hit sexual maturity, they make the perfect lab “rats.” Hanlon and his team “capitalize on that strange situation” by giving them a series of different backgrounds to mimic -- from images of sand and pebbles to checkerboards -- and capture images of their color change.

    Hands-On: Crytek's 'Back to Dinosaur Island' VR Demo

    We try a new virtual reality demo developed by Crytek, the makers of the Crysis series of games. Speaking to an engineer of CryEngine, we learn how they're implementing VR for compatibility with headsets like Oculus' Crescent Bay prototype.

    Hands-On: Virtuix Omni Treadmill + GearVR at GDC 2015

    At GDC 2015, we got to test out the near-final build of the Virtuix Omni, the virtual reality treadmill that's headset agnostic. We use the Omni with a GearVR running Dreadhalls, and then share our thoughts on how walking around can enhance a VR gaming experience.

    HTC Vive vs. Oculus Crescent Bay: My 10 VR Takeaways

    Palmer did it. Virtual reality isn’t vaporware. It’s going to change the way we think about home gaming and media, and consumer-ready products are coming out before the end of the year. That’s super exciting, but also a little bit scary. Holiday 2015 is still nine months away, and there’s a lot we still don’t know about when it comes to VR. There’s a language that we, even as enthusiasts, have to learn when talking about virtual reality products and evaluating them.

    At Tested, Will and I have been privileged enough to be one of the first people to use and test hardware in this latest iteration of VR, all the way back to the first Oculus dev kit shown at CES 2013. Since then, we’ve used every public prototype from Oculus and other manufacturers, leading up to the HTC Vive at last week’s GDC. And with every demo, we’re not just thinking about how hardware and software has iterated or how new technologies will feed into a consumer product--we’re learning a new lexicon for virtual reality that we never had to seriously consider before. Display persistence, chromatic fringing, fresnel diffusion, foveated rendering, positional tracking, etc. Walking out of the HTC Vive demo of Valve’s SteamVR system, the important thing learned wasn’t if it was better than Oculus’ Crescent Bay prototype, but how the systems are different, and what those different approaches inform us about the potential of virtual reality experiences.

    Coming out of GDC, here are my big takeaways about the state and near future of virtual reality.

    Hands-On: Sixense STEM VR Lightsaber Demo

    We've tested many virtual reality headset prototypes, but VR needs a controller solution for games and a better sense of presence. We try Sixense's lightsaber demo at GDC 2015, using their STEM motion controllers. It's some of the most fun we've ever had in VR!

    My Shining Maze Build Notes

    I didn’t intend to make a replica of the architectural model of the hedge maze from The Shining.

    Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. There’s an exhibition from the Kubrick archives traveling around the world right now, and I’ve seen it three times in two cities so far. Twice at LACMA in Los Angeles and again at the TIFF in Toronto. There’s a whole section in the exhibit devoted to The Shining, and in that section, I started for some reason to get excited about the Overlook Hotel maze. It’s such an iconic character in the film, and one of the ways in which the film departs significantly from the book. I also took note that the maze they had in their exhibit didn’t meet my standards for accuracy. So I started to gather information, with the idea that I might make my own.

    The film is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name and follows a family: Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance as they take on the task of being winter caretakers of the legendary (and fictional) Overlook Hotel. The Overlook is a hotel with a history. Jack is even told in his job interview that there is a history of caretakers getting “cabin fever” and murdering their families. The Overlook is a malevolent entity with designs of its own for Jack.

    The Overlook was designed for the film by legendary art director Roy Walker, and is based in part on several different real hotels. The first flyover shot of the Overlook is in fact a shot of the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood in Oregon.

    For the rest of the exteriors (with actors in front of the building), a facade of the Timberline was built on the Elstree lot in England.

    The interiors were all sets built at Elstree. For research Kubrick sent his people to hotels all over the United States to find inspiration for the interiors. The main room Jack does his writing (called the Colorado Lounge in the film) was inspired (like a lot of other details about the Overlook) by the Great Lounge in the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, Calif.

    The Red Bathroom in which Jack meets Grady (one of the former, ahem, caretakers) was modeled after the bathroom at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Biltmore Hotel in Arizona.

    From theoverlookhotel.com: "Many Overlook Hotel design elements were lifted directly from the Awahnee, including the double red doors, the hotel lobby, the Colorado Lounge, and the pervasive Native American motifs. These photographs of the Awahnee illustrate just how strongly it influenced much of the Overlook’s interior design."

    A note about theoverlookhotel.com: It’s run by my new friend Lee Unkrich, Pixar director and fellow Kubrick obsessive. He provided me with some incredible research, archival material and information that allowed me to make this maze FAR more accurate than would have been possible otherwise. His help has been invaluable.

    Hands-On: Razer's OSVR Hacker Dev Kit at GDC 2015

    Razer's approach to the virtual reality headset space is interesting: they're not making the best VR HMD, but one that can be modular for developers to experience with different features like augmented reality and third-party controller compatibility. We try the latest dev kit prototype at GDC 2015, and chat with Razer about why they're making a VR product at all.

    Hands-On: Sony's New 'Project Morpheus' Prototype VR Headset

    We go hands-on with Sony's new Project Morpheus prototype being shown at GDC 2015. As you'll see, the demos we played this time feel more like PlayStation 4 games, and playing a shooter with VR is a great experience. We also chat with Sony's Director of Research and Development about the headset and their goals for a consumer release next year.

    SteamVR (HTC Vive) Prototype Hands-On + Impressions

    We test the most talked about virtual reality demo at this year's Game Developers Conference: Valve's SteamVR prototype. Made in collaboration with HTC, the Vive VR headset will be released later this year and features an incredible positional tracking system. We chat with Valve's engineers about the technology in the headset and share our demo impressions. This is the real deal.

    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.

    Photo Gallery: Adam Savage's Overlook Hotel Maze Model

    A few photos from the build, as well as the pictures from our photo session before shipping Adam's Overlook Maze model off to the next stop of the <a href="http://www.stanleykubrick.de/en/ausstellungstour-exhibition-on-tour/">Stanley Kubrick travelling exhibition</a> in Mexico!

    Biomimetics: Studying the Striking Power of the Mantis Shrimp

    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.

    Not many folks would look at a shrimp and call it the “crown jewel” of their research, but that’s exactly how David Kisailus refers to the Mantis shrimp, a crustacean that’s famous for its ability to, well, punch stuff to death. The unique properties of the animal’s boxing glove-like claw make it the perfect subject for unraveling the complex problem of impact resistance.

    Kisailus, who runs UC Riverside's Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, explains: “The organism is smacking with more than 500 newtons of force and it’s only 4 inches long. It’s accelerating underwater faster than a 22 caliber bullet. It’s one of the fastest striking organisms on the planet. It impacts thousands of times. How can it do that and resist failure? That’s why we started studying it.”

    The mantis shrimp isn’t actually a shrimp, it’s actually a crustacean that earned its name from its shrimp-like body. The non-shrimp evolved 400 million years ago as a spear fisherman. It would hunt by shooting barbed spears at its soft-bodied prey. But its prey eventually evolved to avoid the dangers of the pointy killing method by growing shells and exoskeletons. So the Mantis shrimp had to evolve too, splitting off into a group that could use its elbow to smash open the prey that its cousins couldn’t spear. Though some still spear, the clubbing verson’s boxing glove (which still has a vestigial barb at the end) is made up of a series of highly complex and organized internal parts.

    Photo credit: Flickr user wwarby via Creative Commons.

    “It’s not your standard biological composite, which has just one component,” says Kisailus of why he is studying the material makeup of the shrimp’s punching claw. “Within the club are three separate regions and each has its own function.”