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    Turning Tiny Satellites into Cheap, Deep Space Drones

    There are lots of tiny little satellites orbiting the earth above your head right now. But that’s all they do: orbit, around and around. There is a plan, however, to give these cheap, so-called CubeSats the ability to strike out on their own. With the aid of some relatively simple propulsion technology, the goal is to push these tiny satellites beyond earths’s gravitational pull and into the outer reaches of space.

    The idea is that, in the not so distant future, unmanned space exploration will be accessible to everyone, and not just the NASAs of the world – like tiny little drones in space.

    Image credit: University of Michigan

    Key to all this is little more than water. Using an electrolysis propulsion system, researchers from Cornell University have been working since 2009 on a system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas that can then be ignited to create thrust. The plan is to launch two of these water-propelled CubeSats into space, and send them orbiting around the moon. Another CubeSat propulsion project is being conducted at the University of Michigan, and raised money through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

    “It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of science inquiry. Not everybody is capable of running a billion dollar spacecraft mission for NASA,” explained Mason Peck, former chief technology officer for NASA, who is now working with fellow researcher Rodrigo A. Zeledon at Cornell on the electrolysis propulsion system. “This actually democratizes access to space.”

    Unlike, say, a communications or military satellite, CubeSats are practically microscopic by comparison – mere 10cm cubes, according to the specification first defined in 1999, that have a volume of just 1 liter and can weigh no more than 1.33 kilograms. But, surprisingly, it’s not size that’s held CubeSat propulsion efforts back.

    It's not the CubeSat's small size--10cm--that has held propulsion efforts back.

    “It’s primarily the fact that CuebSats are secondary payload,” Peck explained. “They’re hitching a ride on some other space craft, and that other space craft does not want the little CubeSat to destroy its expensive payload. So for that reason, the CubeSat specification that allows you to launch these as secondary payloads, prohibits you from using material under pressure, or material that’s explosive, or material that’s volatile, in the sense that if it leaks out it would evaporate and poke the surfaces of the spacecraft.”

    But water, explains Peck, is not only non-volatile, it’s “pretty much the ultimate green propellant.” It sits in a tank, gets zapped by an electrolyzer, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen, and is then sent to a combustion chamber until enough pressure builds up to ignite the whole thing. Safe and simple! In theory.

    Tested In-Depth: iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus

    After living with the new iPhone 6 Plus for a while, Will sits down with Norm to discuss the merits of Apple's biggest smartphone. How well does iOS 8 work on a 5.5-inch screen? Does the stabilized camera and extra battery life matter? We compare the new iPhone models and help Will decide if he wants to stick with the Plus or return it.

    In Brief: Arduino Announces $1000 3D Printer

    Arduino today announced its Materia 101, a $1000 pre-assembled 3D printer that will debut at Maker Faire Rome early next month. It also will be sold as an $800 kit. The 1.75mm PLA printer was designed in collaboration with ShareBot, and looks like a rebadged ShareBot running an Arduino Mega 2560. The printer has is 31cm x 33cm x 35cm large, and its print bed is 14cm x 10cm x 10cm. Not too big, and it doesn't look like it'll be upgradable, either. This announcement comes shortly after the unveiling of Dremel's new desktop 3D printer at Maker Faire New York, though the Arduino model doesn't look like it's bringing more to the table than you could get building an established kit like the PrintrBot.

    Norman 6
    Microsoft Announces Windows 10

    This morning at a San Francisco press event, Microsoft's Windows Chief Terry Myerson announced that the next version of Windows would be called Windows 10. Like Windows 8 and 8.1 (which I guess was Windows 9), Windows 10 will be one operating system that runs on traditional desktop and laptop PCs, as well as touch-only and hybrid devices like tablets and Microsoft's own Surface. It will also be Microsoft's mobile OS, as well as their Enterprise OS.

    For desktop Windows users, we'll see the long-awaited return of the Start Menu, with familiar functionality like pinned programs and system shortcuts, as well as Modern UI tiles nested alongside. It's an explicit callback to the features that Windows 7 users missed when Microsoft introduced the Start Screen--hence the 18% adoption rate of Windows 8 since it was released two years ago. For example, universal search is now back on the Desktop with the Start Menu, so users won't have to slide into the Start Screen to use it. Modern UI apps--now called Universal Apps--can run windowed on the Desktop, and snap alongside "Classic" programs.

    Other new features include a Task View button that is the new equivalent of Alt-Tab/Windows-Tab. Running applications tile next to each other in a grid so you can see what you're running and switch to any app. It's a lot like OS X's Expose, which third-party apps like Switcher have been mimicking for years. Windows is also getting better multiple-Desktops support, a feature I use heavily on small-screen laptops like my MacBook Air. This will make the Surface Pro that much better.

    Other features demoed today included a new Desktop Command Prompt (woo!), a new Start Screen mode, and improved app snapping. The Charms Bar is not going away.

    Microsoft is releasing a Technical Preview of Windows 10 soon for Desktop and Laptop users--interested parties should register at the new Windows Insider website. Windows 10 will be released "later in the year" in 2015, after Microsoft's Build conference. Watch Microsoft's Joe Belfiore introduce Windows 10 in the video below:

    Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 6

    With the frame of the arcade cabinet constructed, Norm and Wes head back to the garage to begin the wiring of the buttons and other electronics. In this episode, we discuss the different types of custom arcade controls, the hardware to link them all together, and the tiny computer we're going to build to run the software. (This video series was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us by joining the Tested Premium community!)

    Testing: The Moto 360 Android Wear Smartwatch

    Android Wear was announced way back in March of 2014, but it wasn't until July that we could actually buy smartwatches running Google's wearable software. The LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live were capable watches, but they weren't jaw dropping in terms of their design--rectangular screens on a plastic band. These debut devices were perhaps best as demos of Android Wear--a hint of what was to come. Now the Motorola Moto 360 has arrived, and while it's still in short supply, units are slowly are slowly trickling out for excited Android fans.

    The internet waited through six solid months of buildup for this device with its round LCD, but was it worth the wait? I've been using the Moto 360 every day for a month, having forsaken my G Watch, and have learned some interesting things about Motorola's latest wearable. Here's what you should know before you decide to slap one on your wrist.

    The Screen is Great, and Not Just Because it's Round

    The Moto 360's defining characteristic is the screen--it's round. All previous smartwatches (even those before Android Wear) have been square. Round LCDs have been rare throughout the history of mobile technology partially because they're harder to manufacture, but also because they aren't as usable in most cases. One notable example of the round screen was the Motorola Aura, a luxury feature phone released in 2008 for over $2000. We've come a long way.

    The Moto 360's display is striking, with a beveled edge, clean lines, and narrow bezels. The resolution is 320x280, which is okay for a device that's 1.56-inches in diameter. If you stick it up next to your face, you can make out the pixels, but farther away you can't. The thing about the Moto 360's screen you might not know is that it's overall gorgeous. The resolution simply doesn't tell the whole story.

    The LCD is gapless and right up next to the glass, giving the 360 almost perfect viewing angles. The colors are also vibrant by LCD standards. The 360's screen is very bright too. One of the failings of the LG G Watch is that the brightness is rather mediocre, even at maximum. That makes it a little tough to see outdoors, but the Moto 360 shines brightly. It even has an ambient light that automatically adjusts the brightness so you can see in indoors and out.

    The light sensor brings us to the "flat tire." That's the internet euphemism for the slice missing from the display at the bottom. It's about 5mm tall and completely black. This is where the ambient light sensor peeks out, as well as the area where the display connects to the mainboard inside the watch. Motorola explains this was a necessary compromise to avoid having a larger bezel. I'll admit this is a bit off-putting at first, but you get used to it. Some watch faces don't take into account the gap, though, which makes it look worse.

    In Brief: GoPro Announces Hero4 Line of Action Cameras

    Another year, another GoPro release (how many people actually upgrade every year?) This generation of the ubiquitous action cams builds on last year's strengths--more high-speed fps recording options and better 4K video. On the high end, the $500 GoPro Hero4 Black now shoots 4K video at 30fps (double that of the Hero3 Black), as well as 120fps at 1080p (and other resolution/framerate options). The $400 Hero Silver has the same recording capabilities of last year's Black edition, but now includes a touchscreen for viewfinding and control on the back. GoPro also now has a budget option in the $130 Hero, which can record 1080p at 30fps and is also waterproof. 120fps at 1080p is appealing, but I care more about the usability improvements. The controls have apparently been reworked for faster access to recording settings, and new night shooting modes add manual control to the camera shutter. We'll likely buy one for testing, but have not had the best experience using the GoPros for our own productions. For long videos like shooting Still Untitled podcasts, the GoPros have overheated a few times.

    Norman
    In Brief: FAA Begins Granting Production Companies Drone Waivers

    Last Thursday, the FAA announced that it has begun granting video production companies exemptions to its unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) regulations. Six companies now have permission to use quadcopters and drones for production purposes, after convincing the FAA that their operations would meet a minimum standard for safety. Operators at these companies, for example, would hold private pilot certificates, keep the aerial systems within line of sight at all times, and keep flights restricted to designated "sterile areas" on set. The FAA would still have to inspect the aircraft before each flight, and nighttime aerial production is still prohibited. But this establishes a precedence and procedure for commercial companies to seek regulatory exemptions for drone flights with the FAA. 40 more requests are being considered, and the FAA is encouraging interested firms to work with their respective industry associations to create the appropriate safety manuals and operating procedures required for new exemptions. In other quadcopter news, DHL has begun a monthlong trial of autonomous aerial delivery of medicine and supplies to a sparsely populated island off the coast of Germany.

    Norman
    Google Play App Roundup: Weather Timeline, Anomaly Defenders, and Cardinal Quest 2

    Another week has dawned, and you're probably wondering what's new in the Play Store. Surely everyone starts off the week wondering that same thing, and that's why the Google Play App Roundup exists. Just click the link to head right to Google Play.

    This week we've got a new way to check the weather, the final chapter in a tower defense/offence franchise, and a roguelike game that's sure to get your pulse racing.

    Weather Timeline

    There are as many weather apps as there are clouds in the sky, but this one does things a little differently. Weather Timeline shows you the current conditions and forecast as a vertically scrollable timeline, and it has a slick Android L design that will work on all your pre-L devices.

    You can set multiple locations in the app to be displayed as separate cards on the main screen. Tap on any of them to open the timeline. The top card will be the current conditions, but below that you get general information about the next hour, 48 hours, and week. This is just a glanceable snippet of info--the details are below that. Each day in the weekly forecast has its own card with high/low temperatures and a neat little animated weather icon. Tapping on any of them will open a timeline of approximate temperatures (the same is true for the current day card).

    Up at the top of the timeline is a button to open the weather radar, which appears with a cool L-style wipe effect. The radar in Weather Timeline isn't the best I've ever seen, but it gets the job done. The map does use a floating action button to change the view type, which is a valid use case--some devs are going a little crazy with the action button.

    The interface makes it very easy to quickly glance at the timeline and see what's coming up. In addition to the icons on each card, they are also color-coded. Yellow cards mean a sunny forecast, whereas blue ones indicate rain. The yellow cards also fade to gray on the timeline when the sun sets. This same color theme is carrier over to the home screen widgets, which are reasonably good. I'd like to see a few more options for layout and opacity.

    One particularly neat feature in Weather Timeline is the Time Machine. The app is powered by forecast.io, which aggregates weather data and uses it to model future patterns. It's obviously not going to know for sure what the weather is going to be in six months or a year, but it can estimate based on past data points. Weather Timeline lets you zoom to any point in the next 20-ish years to see a probable forecast. This is mostly for fun, but you do get a sweet DeLorean animation when you activate Time Machine.

    Weather Timeline is $0.99 in the Play Store, and I think it's worth checking out if you want a different kind of weather app. It has already gotten a few solid updates, and the dev is working on adding Android Wear support.

    Show and Tell: The Useless Box Kit

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm assembles a kit of a machine he's always wanted: a useless box. Flip the switch on the box and all it does is turn itself off. Simple, yet mesmerizing. The kit of laser cut plastic and some basic electronics isn't difficult to put together, and makes for a great afternoon project.

    MakerBot Mystery Build: For Ice Cream

    Friday marks the return of the mystery 3D print, and this week's build takes some effort from Will to get working. You know the drill: place your best guess as to what's being printed in the comments below!

    Tested In-Depth: Desktop 3D Scanning and 3D Printing

    We've been experimenting with home 3D printers for a while, but we now finally have a desktop 3D scanner at the office too! We test the new Matter and Form 3D scanner that digitizes any small object, generating a 3D model and file that we can then send over to our 3D printer. Here's what worked well and what didn't--let's see if we can replicate Norm's head!

    My 10 Virtual Reality Takeaways from Oculus Connect

    I've had a few days now to digest all the information that came out of this past weekend's Oculus Connect conference. It may have only been a two-day developer conference, but the keynotes alone had enough information to expand the imaginations (and lexicon) of virtual reality enthusiasts. There was of course the big Crescent Bay prototype announcement and demo, which Oculus unfortunately said that it has no plans to release or show anywhere else. It was also my first time being able to try the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus' current VR UI solution in Oculus Home and the Cinema application. My mind's been buzzing since I got back from LA, and I wanted to distill some of my personal takeaways from the experience.

    Presence is NOT the same as reality

    More so than at any past Oculus event or meeting I had attended before, the Oculus team emphasized the idea of presence--a significant milestone in virtual reality technology. It's this threshold past which your brain's subconscious computing starts to take over and makes you believe that you're in a separate space within a VR headset. Presence was emphasized because the team thinks that they've achieved it for most people in the Crescent Bay prototype. The 10 minute demo I had with Crescent Bay was leaps and bounds better than the DK2 experience, but I'm going to hold off on giving them the sustained presence checkbox until I can get more time with it. More importantly, we now know Oculus' definition of presence, and the specific technical requirements they're targeting for a consumer release (sub-millimeter tracking accuracy, sub-20ms latency, 90+Hz refresh, at least 1Kx1K per eye resolution, highly calibrated and wide FOV eyebox).

    The reason I'm a little hesitant to say that I achieved the full presence in Crescent Bay is that I really have no appropriate point of comparison for that sensation. The feeling of presence in a virtual space should not be confused with the feeling of reality. I think a lot of people will expect that once they put on something like Crescent Bay, what they see inside the headset feels exactly like what the real world feels like. That's not the case at all. It still looks very much like rendered game graphics, with aliased edges and surreal feeling of disembodiment. To me, presence is about the feeling of space inside of the headset--a sense that the virtual objects and environments you're looking at have volume and a distance from you eyes that's not just two inches away on a screen. Stereoscopy and proper mapping of your head movements are a huge part of that. Presence in these VR demos never takes away the awareness of the virtual nature of that space, but you do feel more apart to it.

    Standing in VR opens up possibilities

    The biggest question for me coming out Oculus Connect was whether the consumer version of the Rift would be a sit-down-only experience. I know that Palmer told everyone in interviews that the Rift is meant to be used sitting down, but I agree with commenters that it may just be them working out a legally and ergonomically acceptable solution for a stand-up design. At least that's fun to think about. Regardless, the Crescent Bay demo confirmed that standing up in VR is technically possible with what Oculus has made so far, and that walking around isn't necessary for a stand-up VR experience (ie. we don't need VR treadmills). The square mat we were allowed to walk around on in the demo was sufficient to show how effective positional tracking could be in a stand-up experience. Even the ability to shift your full body and weight around was extremely meaningful--being able to physically crouch and duck in the virtual space felt liberating in a way that I think will have a profound impact in VR game design. Spinning around in a full 360 degrees was less important, or at least emphasized less with these demos.

    Of course, this setup would require more hardware, including a way to mount the positional tracking camera above the standing user, and a cable management system to keep the headset cable out of the way.

    iPhone 6 Plus Impressions and Most Common Questions Answered

    We're in the process of testing the Apple iPhone 6 Plus for our in-depth review, but wanted to show you how the phone compares to previous iPhones and other Android phones, as well as some distinguishing physical characteristics. We also answer the most commonly asked questions about the phone, including battery life, camera, and whether it bends.

    Cirque du Soleil Use Quadcopters for a Fantasia-Like Performance

    Cirque du Soleil released a short film earlier this week using tightly synchronized quadcopters so simulate the effect of flying lampshades around a magician. It immediately reminded me of Disney's Fantasia, and the performance is really effective. I wanted to share this behind-the-scenes video Cirque du Soleil shot about the making of this film, which was a collaboration with roboticists at ETH Zurich. 10 quadcopters--consumer-grade DJI Phantoms--were choreographed to become characters in the performance, resulting in this innovative use of technology for stage. Watch the full short film here. It's really quite stunning.

    Testing: Blade 350 QX2 AP Combo Quadcopter Review

    I’ve been flying an original DJI Phantom quadrotor for almost two years. Even though it’s never given me an ounce of trouble, watching the super-stable video footage from quads equipped with camera gimbals convinced me that I needed an upgrade. Rather than add a gimbal to my Phantom, I decided to keep it as a sport flyer and add a new quad to my fleet. The new ship is a Blade 350QX2 AP Combo (~$900). Its features are similar to the Phantom 2 Vision + reviewed by Norm and Will, but there are a several differences. I will talk about those variances throughout this review.

    The Blade 350QX series is not new. It was first released in the summer of 2013. Like the Phantom, the 350QX lineup has seen continuous improvements and added options. The AP Combo is the first 350QX equipped with a 2-axis gimbal and a camera. Blade brand quads and helicopters are quite popular, so you are likely to find kits and spare parts at your local hobby shop.

    What’s In the Box

    The AP Combo is a turnkey setup. It includes the factory-built quad, a Spektrum DX4 transmitter, the gimbal, a 3-cell 3000mAh LiPo battery, and an AC charger for the battery. The only thing I had to add was a micro-SD card for the GoPro-like CGO1 camera. I used a SanDisk 16GB class 10 card. The quad was 95% ready to fly when I opened the box. Even the props were installed (a full extra set is included as well).

    The one required assembly step was to snap the gimbal unit into place on the bottom of the quad. If you’re not paying attention, it can be installed backwards. Trust me on that. If it doesn’t click into place easily, you’re doing it wrong. Retreat, regroup, and charge again. While I was working on the gimbal, I had the flight battery and camera charging on their respective chargers. The camera charges through a micro-USB cable (included).

    The Blade 350QX2 AP Combo includes everything except a micro-SD card for the camera. Very little assembly is required.

    Blade includes a Quick Start Guide to lead you through the necessary steps to get the quad in the air. It is easy to follow and understand. A full manual is available online as are numerous videos. I found the online videos especially helpful. Since I had watched several of them while the quad was being shipped, I already knew what to expect when I opened the box.

    The battery connectors are the popular EC3 style that is included with most Blade products as well as the other house brands distributed by Horizon Hobby (E-flite, Parkzone, ECX, Losi, Vaterra, etc.). They work fine and there is no reason to replace them. However, all of my RC equipment is configured with Deans Ultra Plugs. For the sake of consistency, I swapped the EC3s on the 350QX2 for Deans.

    Hands-On with Samsung Gear VR at Oculus Connect

    At Oculus Connect, Norm gets to try out the upcoming Gear VR virtual reality headset, a collaboration between Samsung and Oculus. It uses a Galaxy Note 4 for its brains and screen, with VR software and optimizations designed by John Carmack. Norm shares his opinion of display performance on the Note 4's 60Hz 1440p screen, and whether the phone's technology is sufficient for a good mobile virtual reality experience.

    How Google Should Improve Android Wear to Fend Off Apple Watch

    Apple has been rumored to be working on a watch for a few years, but unlike all that speculation about a TV, the Apple Watch turns out to be real. It's really no surprise--the competition is getting into wearables in a big way. Android Wear and the Apple Watch are aimed at perfecting a growth area for mobile devices. Almost everyone who wants a smartphone or tablet already has one, but a smartwatch is something new.

    Android Wear has the early lead, but now that Apple has unveiled its approach to wearable computing, the heat is on Google to clean up Wear's rough edges--here's what I think needs to happen.

    It Doesn't Always Have to be About Voice

    Both Android Wear and the Apple Watch are big on voice interaction, but more so on the Android side of things. Apple has Siri, which is a capable voice-activated assistant, but Google Now and voice search on Android Wear is plugged into a giant matrix of information. Google is working hard to make natural language work on all devices running Google Search, and voice is a good interface method for Android Wear. However, Google might want offer some more options in the next version of Wear.

    Android Wear's over-reliance on voice input is especially clear when you want to open an app on the watch. With a voice command, you just tell the watch to "start [app name]." If you aren't in a situation where talking at your wrist is possible, you have to open the search interface, tap once, scroll down, tap on 'start,' then scroll down to find and launch the app. That's more than a little ridiculous. There are apps like Wear Mini Launcher that make app launching much easier, but how many people will know to install that? Google ought to realize you can't always shout commands at your wrist.

    Similarly, Google allows you to respond to messages received on your phone via Android Wear. Voice replies are, of course, vastly superior to any keyboard you could ever cram into a 1.5-inch screen. However, Android Wear doesn't even have good support for quick replies. There are a few default options built into the OS, but if yes, no, ok, and a few others don't get the point across, you'll have to get the phone out or use voice. This would be a really simple fix--you could simply add custom quick replies through the Android Wear phone app.