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    Magnetically Actuated Micro-Robots Cooperate to Build Structures

    "Imagine being able to harness the power of an army of ants to assemble large-scale products quickly and precisely from heterogeneous materials in today’s manufacturing environments. SRI’s Diamagnetic Micro Manipulation (DM3) technology uses printed circuit boards (PCBs) to drive and control micro-robots built from simple, low-cost magnets that are propelled electromagnetically. This could enable cost-effective production of large numbers of micro-robots that can reliably handle a wide variety of solid and liquid materials—including electronics." (h/t IEEE Spectrum)

    In Brief: Project Naptha OCRs Web Images

    If you're using Chrome, try this new web demo out right now. Project Naptha is a browser extension that taps into open-source OCR (optical character recognition) algorithms to let you copy and paste text from web images straight from your browser. It works very much like OCR software did a decade ago, except instead of processing text from a scanned document, it can do it from a webcomic, screenshot, or even Advice Animal image macro. The secret sauce isn't just OCR transcription, but using a technique called Stroke Width Transform to detect that there's text embedded in an image in the first place. The extension uses several tricks to hide computation--it tracks cursor movement and predicts where you might highlight over an image before scanning ahead and running processor-intensive character recognition algorithms. Its creators are also experimenting with the ability to translate highlighted text (much like the WordLens app) and even use "inpainting" algorithms to erase text from an image (similar to Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill feature).

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    In Brief: Amazon Lands HBO Streaming Video Deal

    Netflix can't be happy about this. Amazon and HBO today announced that they've struck a multi-year deal for Amazon to stream content from HBO's back catalog of shows and cable television specials to Amazon Prime subscribers. Beginning May 21st, Prime Instant Streaming will feature the "HBO Collection", which includes shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, among others. HBO original movies, documentaries, and comedy specials are also part of the deal, but not HBO's current breadwinners like Game of Thrones and True Detective (or past hits like Sex and the City). Some newer shows like Veep and Girls will eventually make it to Amazon, but only three years after they were originally released. The licensing deal is exclusive to Amazon, so Netflix won't have a similar offering. HBO has maintained that it's exploring options for a standalone HBO Go subscription option, and this doesn't preclude that.

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    Tested In-Depth: HTC One M8 Smartphone

    Will and Norm sit down to review HTC's new flagship Android smartphone. The HTC One (M8) is the successor to the phone that got Norm to switch from iOS to Android, and it has a few new features that differentiate it from phones like Google's Nexus 5.

    Living with Photography: We Have the Technology to Fake It

    Over the past week, a series of unrelated events has prompted me to ponder on the concept of bokeh, and more broadly, the role and influence of software technology on photography. First, I've been testing the HTC One (our In-Depth review goes up tomorrow), which features two cameras on its back. It's not the first HTC phone to do so--the ill-fated HTC Evo 3D used a dual camera system to shoot stereoscopic 3D photos and videos--but it is the first to use the secondary camera as a way to ostensibly enhance the quality of a 2D photo. HTC's camera app can use visual information from the second camera to artificially render the background out of focus, simulating a the shallow depth-of-field that you would get from using a wide-aperture lens or large-format camera sensor. The primary rear camera is used to capture the base image, while the secondary camera that sits about an inch away snaps a photo a from a slightly different angle. Software then compares those two photos to determine which is the foreground and which is the background, and you can choose which to blur out of focus.

    It's a neat trick, which is why it wasn't surprising that Google released a similar feature in its new stand-alone Android camera app, which approximates the same shallow depth-of-field effect using a single camera. With Google's technique, you take a photo and then slowly move the phone up while the camera takes note of the displacement of foreground and background subjects--called parallax--to approximate the depth of the scene. Then, just like with HTC's app, you can choose which parts of the scene to keep in focus, and even accentuate the blurring effects. Google engineer Carlos Hernandez' blog post on the subject cites heady triangulation and computational modeling algorithms that go into creating this defocus effect, as to boast about the technical complexity of the feature. Behold the power of software, Google seems to be saying, it can do the things that previously required expensive (and in the case of smartphones, prohibitively bulky) hardware.

    HTC's defocusing feature on the right, with the original photo on the left.

    And scoff as DSLR-wielding photographers might at this claim, given the novelty and fickleness of HTC and Google's defocusing camera features, it's the exact sentiment being made by the camera technologists at Lytro, who today announced their second-generation light-field camera. The Verge's feature on the Illum camera posited just as much: "Lytro's ultimate, simplest goal is to turn the physical parts of the camera — the lens, the aperture, the shutter — into software." And the concept of light-field photography, broadly speaking, is not unlike what HTC and Google have done with their camera apps. But instead of using one or two cameras to compute the depth of a scene, light-field cameras use thousands of microlenses in an array to capture light and depth information from every part of the scene. Lytro's software is the secret sauce that can analyze that raw data to produce what looks like a typical shallow depth-of-field photo--just one that you can adjust focus after the fact.

    I'm not quite sure how I feel about this. It's analogous to the use of software filters in Instagram or even Lightroom to approximate the look of vintage film cameras in smartphone or DSLR photos. On the one hand, software filters only simulate the gestalt of old camera technology; they lack the nuance and serendipity that lomography enthusiasts claim cannot be replicated with digital photography. On the other hand, Instagram filters can be genuinely fun to use, and have emerged as a distinct visual language for modern digital photography. Can that same line of thinking be applied to simulated bokeh? Appropriate use of depth-of-field is one of the hallmarks of professional photography, and the combination of HTC, Google, and Lytro's bokeh ventures may feel like new technology intruding into an exclusive playground, dumbing down the effect for anyone to use or misuse.

    In Brief: Lytro's Illum Looks More like Mirrorless than Monocular

    Lightfield camera pioneer Lyto has announced a new camera, the Illum, which takes the technology from its eponymous 2012 camera and puts it in a form-factor that's more familiar to photographers. The Illum doesn't look like a kaleidoscope tube, its body and fixed 30-255mm lens makes it look more like a compact mirrorless camera, complete with 4-inch touchscreen. The new lens (13-element, f/2.0) affords the camera not only a range of focal lengths, but complements the new sensor. Lytro's sensors aren't comparable to traditional digital camera sensors, since they're not capturing and processing light in predetermined pixel grids. Lytro's lightfield sensors are rated in terms of how may light rays it can capture; the Illum has a 40 Megaray light sensor, compared to the original Lytro camera's 11 Megaray sensor. The shifting-focus images still need to be viewed with Lytro's embedded software, and that's Lytro's focus. From The Verge's feature on the camera: "Lytro's ultimate, simplest goal is to turn the physical parts of the camera — the lens, the aperture, the shutter — into software. If it can do that, the camera hardware itself becomes secondary." Watch the Illum announcement trailer below.

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    The Best SD Card Today

    After 15 hours of research and another 15 hours of testing, we determined that the 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is the best SD card for most people because it’s reasonably priced and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Oh, and it ended up being the fastest of all the ones we tested after our burst shooting tests, file transfers, and benchmark tests.

    The SanDisk Extreme Plus is fast enough to handle 1080p video recording and significantly improves burst shooting and photo transferring over our previous recommendation, the SanDisk Extreme 45 MB/s. Those shooting 4K video and professionals who know they need it should use UHS-3-rated cards recommended by their camera’s manufacturer, but the SanDisk Extreme Plus is fast enough for everyone else.

    How we picked

    …the most important spec for SD cards is write speed.

    The most important features of an SD card are speed, price, reliability, and warranty. Full-size SD cards are most commonly used in cameras for storing image and video files as you shoot them. Because most cameras can take photos faster than they can write them to storage, images are first saved to a small-but-speedy buffer. Once the buffer is full, the images have to be written to the SD card before you can shoot more photos. Many DSLRs have continuous shooting modes—a.k.a. burst shooting—that fill the buffer much faster than the camera can clear it. The faster the card, the faster this buffer clears and you can start shooting again. Therefore, the most important spec for SD cards is write speed.

    Read speed is useful for reviewing photos on the camera and emptying the card onto a computer with a USB 3.0 reader. It’s not as important as write speed but is often faster, so manufacturers like to brag about the read speed on the label.

    Our finalists, all the SD cards we tested.

    Because an SD card holds the only copy of a photo between the time you take it and when you copy it to a computer for editing, it’s important to get a card from a reliable manufacturer with a strong warranty in case anything goes wrong. Many SD cards come with a lifetime warranty.

    Google Play App Roundup: Google Camera, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Hopeless: Space Shooting

    There are a ton of great apps and games in Google Play, and they're not just going to download themselves. Are they? If they are, we have something of a mystery to solve. In the meantime, let's see what's cooking in the Play Store with the weekly Google Play App Roundup. Just click the links to head right to the Play Store page and check out the apps for yourself.

    This week we've got a new stock camera app, a game with spider men, and a space shooter with marshmallow men.

    Google Camera

    Google's camera revamp didn't come soon enough to help the Nexus 5 at launch, but now Mountain View's camera app has been updated and launched in the Play Store. That means you can install it on any device, but Nexus and Google Play Edition devices will benefit the most. This app removes some of the more advanced features that had little use and adds afew new things along with a spiffy new interface,

    The first thing to address is the capture button, which is pretty big now. This is good as it's easy to press, but some seem like a poor use of space. However, this big button solves a major issues with Nexus device cameras. The Nexus 5 takes 4:3 images (as do most other devices in the line) at 8MP. The old camera app filled the viewfinder, but it's a 16:9 screen. Thus, the top and bottom of the frame were cut off in the preview. This made it very hard to frame a shot well. With this update, the camera viewfinder now has a true 4:3 ratio. On devices that do take 16:9 images, the button is semi-transparent so you can still see the whole frame.

    The settings are now off to the left and can be brought up with a swipe. This is where all the main capture modes are found, and also links to the main app settings (not very easy to find there, Google). You have stills, video, Photosphere, panorama, and lens blur. Yes, the lens blur option is new -- apparently that's the hot new thing for a camera to do.

    The lens blur effect in the Google Camera is a bit awkward, but the results are pretty good. All you have to do is snap a picture and slowly pan the phone upward, keeping it pointed at the subject. After that you can tap on areas of the photo to focus and apply lens blur behind that point. It's not as easy to capture, but still does what it says. There is also a bit of rendering time for each image and they are scaled down to about 2000 pixels tall.

    With lens blur effect

    The image quality will vary depending on your device, but I'm seeing a modest improvement on the Nexus 5. The Galaxy S5 doesn't seem to like the focus system in the Google Camera, though. You can still take HDR shots in the still camera and Photospheres are now much higher resolution. Unfortunately, some settings like white manual white balance are not included at this time.

    The Google Camera is free and it's worth checking out to see if it does better on your device than the included solution. Of course, anyone running a stock device or an AOSP-based ROM should get on this ASAP.

    MakerBot Mystery Build: Sorting It Out

    Time for another edition of our MakerBot Mystery Build! This week, Will has the MakerBot print something that he can use at home for fun and games. Place your best guess as to what's being printed in the comments below!

    MorpHex MKII - A Badass Looking Hexpod Ball Robot

    Full disclosure, I can't actually watch this video right now because I'm on a plane, but the pictures of this robot make me think that it transforms from a ball into a six-legged hexapod bot. In my head, I'm picturing those robots that Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson fought in the first ten minutes of Episode I, before I realized the movie was awful. (via Laughing Squid)

    Tip of the Day: Making Dialing Into Conference Calls Painless

    If you regularly dial into conference bridges you'll love this tip. Conference bridges are services that you dial into and then enter a numerical code to connect to your conference call. Today I learned that you can put the conference line's phone number and the access code for your call into the location field of your calendar event, separate the two with a semi-colon, and iOS handles it smartly.

    When you tap the phone number to dial it from the iOS meeting, it carries over the access code as well. When it's time to enter your code, you just tap the "Dial xxxxx" in the lower left corner of the Phone screen. I don't know when they added this functionality to iOS, but I'm a fan.

    Jamie Hyneman's High-Pressure Air Gun

    We stop by Jamie's shop to learn about his newest tool: a high-pressure air gun that can fire less-than-lethal rubber shots for riot control. It's like a really powerful paintball gun. Jamie demonstrates the cannon's various settings, and then tests it with a different kind of ammunition.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Upgrading Your Car and Batteries

    In my previous article, I talked about my experience with the ECX Ruckus monster truck and how it brought me back up to speed on current RC technology. One of the challenges that I faced with the Ruckus was that I thought it was too fast for my son to handle. He spent some time driving a slower car and soon had the skills necessary for the Ruckus. That gateway car was a Duratrax Evader BX buggy (which is no longer produced). It was a perfect starter car for him. It was slow enough to keep him out of too much trouble while he honed his driving reflexes. Yet, it was fast enough to get him excited about the hobby, challenge him on occasion, and satisfy the dirt-slinging ambitions of a pre-teen. Once he became comfortable with the Ruckus, however, it was clear that we needed another fast vehicle to keep both of us entertained.

    The modified Evader is slightly smaller than the Ruckus, but its performance is on par. Both are powerful and fast.

    The simplest route would have been to install a more powerful brushed motor and a new set of high-traction tires on the Evader. After briefly considering that option, I decided to modernize the buggy completely. I added ball bearings, a 2.4GHz radio, a brushless motor system and a quasi-monster truck makeover. Let's walk through that upgrade.

    Many RC cars include bronze bushings on their moving parts rather than ball bearings. They work okay for beginners, but they eventually wear down and the tolerances between moving parts get loose. Then things get sloppy, noisy, and draggy. Upgrading to ball bearings reduces quite a bit of friction, but also maintains the same tolerances throughout the life of the car. I purchased a set of ball bearings for the Evader and guided my son through the steps to install them.

    Ball bearings reduce friction between rotating parts, but they also maintain consistent tolerances over time. The bushings included with many starter cars eventually become sloppy and wear out.

    To install the bearings, we had to disassemble the whole transmission. This was a good opportunity for my son to get a look inside the gearbox and get a feel for what it does and how it works. There are also bearings for the rear axles and front wheels. It probably took less about an hour to do the whole thing.

    The radio that came with the Evader worked just fine. However, I wanted not only a 2.4 GHz radio, but something with more adjustability to help control the power I expected out of the souped-up Evader. I ended up with a Futaba 4PLS 4-channel radio system. What a radio! I’ll cover its range of features in the upcoming computer radio overview. But I can say that this is by far the nicest surface radio I’ve ever owned and probably the last one I’ll ever need.

    In Brief: A Tantalising Glimpse Into Google X

    Fast Company got to take a rare peek inside Google's secretive moonshot division, Google X. The Google X team is tasked with finding technologies that will literally change the world, but have a very low probability of success. Previous X projects include Google's self-driving cars, Project Loon balloons to provide Internet access in the developing world, and even Google Glass. The article is worth a read, but the key is that the group eschews the incremental improvement that is characteristic of the rest of the technology industry.

    11 Essential Tweaks for Your New Samsung Galaxy S5

    The Galaxy S5 is finally here, debuting new hardware and software from Samsung. Even those who have owned a Galaxy phone before are sure to find a few unexpected treats in this device. Samsung has traditionally engineered one of the more extreme Android skins, but TouchWiz has come a long way since its early days of iPhone cloning.

    There are some excellent features you'll want to take advantage of, and some you will want to hide as best you can. Let's get your Galaxy S5 in shape!

    Kill Bundled Apps

    Unless you've picked up the unlocked international Galaxy S5, there are going to be some carrier apps cluttering things up. Even the unlocked version will have a couple Samsung services you probably won't want or need. Luckily, Android supports disabling included apps that can't be uninstalled. They still take up a little space, but they won't run in the background or accumulate data.

    Just take a peek in the app drawer and decide what needs to go. Open the main system settings and find Application Manager. Slide over to the All Apps tab and scroll down until you find the app or apps you want to disable. It'll probably be things like bundled navigation apps, caller ID services, security suites, and other unnecessary junk. Open the desired entry and tap "Turn Off." Other Android devices label the button Disable, but it's the same thing.

    You can find all the disabled apps in a tab to the far right in the Application Manager called (predictably) Turned Off. You can go there to turn things back on if you need them.

    Tested In-Depth: Amazon Fire TV Streaming Media Player

    We sit down to review and discuss of Amazon's new streaming media player, the Fire TV. We test its voice control and gaming capabilities and demo some unique video playback features.Here's how this set-top box compares with Apple TV, the Roku 3, and other dedicated living room devices when it comes to streaming video from the most popular video services.

    Tested Explains: How Google's Project Ara Smartphone Works

    Project Ara is real, and Google has its fingers on the pulse of the technologies required to make modular smartphones a reality. Given the overwhelming public response to the Phonebloks concept, it's something that users seem to want, too. But whether or not Project Ara modular phones have a future in the smartphone marketplace will largely depend on whether or not there's a strong hardware ecosystem to support it. The custom PC market wouldn't have flourished a decade ago if component manufacturers weren't making user-friendly video cards, storage drives, motherboards, and power supplies--the building blocks of a PC. That's the point of this week's Ara Developers Conference: getting partners excited and educated about how they can build hardware to support that vision for a modular phone.

    The two-day conference, which was also streamed online, coincided with the release of the Project Ara MDK, or Module Developers Kit. This MDK provides the guidelines for designing Ara-compatible hardware, and along with the technical talks presented at the conference, offer the first clear look in the technologies that make Ara possible, if not completely practical. I attended the conference and read through the MDK to get a high-level understanding Google's plans for Ara, which goes far to address the concerns we and experts have had about the modular phone concept. I'm not yet a believer, but at least this clearly isn't a pipe dream. The following are what I consider the important takeaways from what Google has revealed so far.

    A brief note: the conference was also the first public showing of a Project Ara working prototype (past photos have been of non-functioning mockups), though the unit was unable to boot up and had a cracked screen. A little appropriate, given that both the main processing unit and screen are replaceable modules.

    Project Ara is two core components: the Endoskeleton and the Module

    On the hardware side, Google has laid out specific guidelines for how Project Ara phones can be built. The most important piece of hardware is the chassis, or what Project Ara leads are calling the "Endoskeleton." Think of this as an analogue to a PC case--it's where all the modular components will attach. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the design of Razer's Project Christine, in that a central "spine" traverses the length of Project Ara phones, with "ribs" branching out to split the phone into rectangular subsections. In terms of spatial units, the Endoskeleton (or Endo) is measured in terms of blocks, with a standard phone being a 3x6 grid of blocks. A mini Ara phone spec would be a 2x5 grid, while a potential large phone size would be a 4x7 grid.

    Fitting into the spaces allotted by the Endos structure would be the Project Ara Modules, the building blocks that give the smartphone its functionality. These modules, which can be 1x1, 2x1, or 2x2 blocks, are what Google hopes its hardware partners will develop to sell to Project Ara users. Modules can include not only basic smartphone components like the display, speakers, microphone, and battery, but also accessories like IR cameras, biometric readers, and other interface hardware. The brains of a Project Ara phone--the CPU and memory--live in a primary Application Processor module, which takes up a 2x2 module. (In the prototype, the AP was running a TI OMAP 4460 SoC.) While additional storage can be attached in separate modules, you won't be able to split up the the AP--processor, memory, SD card slot, and other core operational hardware go hand-in-hand.