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    Testing: Oculus Rift DK2 with Elite: Dangerous + HOTAS

    Norm flies through the basics of Elite: Dangerous using the Oculus Development Kit 2 and a joystick plus throttle setup at home. Here's how the space flight simulator integrates head-tracking for its in-cockpit user interface, and why it's one of the best uses of the Oculus headset so far. Let us know if you want to see more of these Oculus DK2 game demos and playthroughs on Tested!

    Testing: Android Wear Battery Life

    Since we shot our video review of the LG G Watch, I've spent more time testing the watch and Android Wear. It's now my primary watch, replacing both the Timex Weekender I had been wearing since December and the Pebble Steel (a loaner unit since returned back to Pebble). The biggest problem I had with the LG G Watch was battery life--with default notification settings and brightness set to 30%, I couldn't get the watch to last a full day of use. Granted, that's because I'm a pretty heavy email user and am constantly managing (checking, archiving, replying to) email through the watch, but that's one of the reasons I liked it over the Pebble in the first place. Having the watch switch off on me before my phone battery died sucked, and I didn't want to carry the proprietary charger around.

    The battery life is largely attributed to the LCD use. By default, LG's watch LCD is on all the time. It switches between a dark display that only shows the time to a brighter one when you lift your wrist up or tap the screen, but in both states, the LCD is active and the backlight is on. There is, however, a setting on the watch that turns the active LCD off when its in the dormant state, meaning that you can't casually check the time unless you tap the screen or trigger the wake state. In this mode, the battery life is significantly improved, lasting even over two days without going back to the charging dock. I ran several test scenarios: an extended session with minimal watch use, and one with heavy use. Under minimal use (only using the watch for time and notifications), the LG G Watch lasted two and a half days before powering off. In the heavy use scenario (constantly checking email and using navigation for daily commutes), the watch still lasted to the end of the second day.

    This extra full day of use--which still falls short of the Pebble's battery life--made a big difference in my day-to-day appreciation of the watch. This sounds really silly to say about a watch, but I was no longer worrying whether I would be able to check the time during my drive home. That's just the unfortunate state of this first generation of smart watches. Having to tap the watch to activate the screen is a reasonable trade-off, though it makes me hope for some kind of LCD/E-Paper hybrid in future models that can display the time in a low-power state. I really don't need a fancy full-color display running at 30Hz to see what time it is.

    And then there's that Apple wearable that we're expecting, which may or may not even be a watch.

    Hands-On with Birdly, a Virtual Reality Flight Simulator

    "Since the days of Copernicus, man has dreamed of flight. On this historic day, we remember the Wright brothers, Orville and Redenbacher. Whose dreams and visions inspired generations. And now, again, one man's vision ushers in a new era of aerial travel. Proving the power of Imagination, and Intellect. The magic... of Flight." - Eric Cartman

    One of the hurdles that this current wave of virtual reality has to overcome is finding control mechanisms for virtual spaces. Whether that means gamepads, prop weapons for shooting games, accessories like steering wheels and flight sticks, or full-on hand and arm tracking, these systems will have be appropriate and intuitive enough to match the software you're seeing through a head-mounted display. If you're playing a racing game from the perspective of a driver behind the steering wheel, you want the control system to match what your brain knows about steering and driving from real-world experiences. But interestingly enough, one of the most immersive virtual reality demos I've used uses a novel control scheme to simulate something that most people have never actually experienced before: the act of flying. And the sensation is incredible.

    Birdly is a research project being conducted at the Zurich University of the Arts. Lecturer Max Rheiner and a small team of students began experimenting with a virtual reality rig last November, culminating in the the Birdly system that Max and his team are now taking on tour. We visited Max at the swissnex offices in downtown San Francisco last week to try out Birdly before it went to the Exploratorium and then onto this week's SIGGRAPH conference.

    Rheiner told me that the goal of Birdly was simple: to embody the experience of flying like a bird though a full-motion simulator. But getting to that goal with a motion-control rig built from scratch, and then tuning the experience to match what users intuitively understand as a bird's flight was a bit of a challenge. Over six months, Max's team fabricated and tested several prototype rigs (documented in videos here) before coming up with the Birdly system we used. And surprisingly, the current setup looks very polished--more like a beautifully crafted modern furniture than homemade exercise machine. The rig looks like a futuristic massage table, with users lying flat on their belly atop the padded frame. Users put on an Oculus HMD (the first development kit) along with headphones, before stretching their arms out on what are essentially wings. A fan is mounted on the front of the rig simulates wind being blown in the user's face.

    After mounting on the table and strapping all the VR gear, the software booted up and dropped me in a virtual model of San Francisco, placing me a mile above where my body actually was in downtown SF. Birdly uses ariel imagery and building models provided by mapping companies--Pictometry International and PLW Modelworks--and the city looked as like a high-resolution version of Google Earth. Then I started flapping for dear life.

    In Brief: MIT Origami Robot Walks Away from Laser Cutter

    MIT roboticists have had a storied history with experimental transforming robots. There are the tiny caterpillar-like robots with a motorized design inspired by proteins, as well as the self-assembling M-blocks that use flywheels to spin into place. Even the concept of origami robots have their origins at MIT's labs. But the latest folding robots--with parts all cut from a laser cutter--actually self-fold and can walk right off the laser bed (after a battery is connected to the single motor, of course). Developed in conjunction with Harvard University, the origami robot assembles and moves using a principle called the "one-degree-of-freedom-structure," in which one crank moves the system of linkages to enact the walking movement, much like a Strandbeest design. The self-folding is made possible by use of shape-memory polymer in its joints, which fold when heated. And the electronics of the robot are all embedded in the robot's five layers of materials, including a network of copper leads sandwiched between two layers of paper and the memory polymer.

    Norman
    In Brief: Nvidia Experiments with Cascaded Displays to Quadruple LCD Resolution

    In my continued testing of the Oculus Development Kit 2, one thing I'm sure of now is that a 1080p display for the Oculus will be insufficient for games that require reading text on screen. That includes cockpit-based space sims like Elite: Dangerous, where your in-game HUD is part of the cockpit model and not just floating in space in front of your space. At 1080p (and with the game's current font), I have to seriously struggle and squint to make out text that's even remotely in my periphery--it's why many people believe that Oculus won't release a consumer HMD until they have a display that's higher resolution than 1080p. One of the problems is that those high-density 1440p displays--used in smartphones like the LG G3--aren't cheap. But late last month, Nvidia's engineers released a research paper that proposes an display solution that effectively quadruples the number of pixels on screen, with the use of cheap LCD parts. The idea is called "Cascaded Displays," in which two 1280x800 LCD panels are stacked on top of each other, offset by a quarter pixel, and with a special quarter-wave film in between them. The stacked displays, each with a unique (and synced) video feed, combine with a single backlight to effectively double the resolution. The setup creates some image distortion, decreased brightness, and narrower viewing angles, but Nvidia believes that these side effects can be corrected or are suitable for use in virtual reality HMDs. Check out the video below for Nvidia's explanation of the system:

    Norman 1
    Google Play App Roundup: Unclouded, Watercolors, and Skull of the Shogun

    Time once again to check in on what's new in the Play Store. This is the Google Play App Roundup where you can come every week to find out what's new and cool on Android. Just hit the links below to head right to the Play Store on your device. This week cloud storage gets more convenient, puzzles get more colorful, and the souls of your enemies will litter the battlefield.

    Unclouded

    There are official Dropbox and Drive apps, but they are far from the ideal interfaces for managing your files. The Dropbox app is looking increasingly ancient with each passing day, and the Drive app is better suited to messing with documents and spreadsheets. That's why Unclouded is a neat option for managing your online files. You can log into both Drive and Dropbox from this one app, and it has a free trial mode.

    The main screen in Unclouded shows you a cool pie graph of the currently selected storage account. It's a quick way to see how much free space you have, but it doesn't break things down any further on this screen. You can pull up the file explorer if you just need to move things around in your storage space. The interface for doing this is much more friendly than many apps--roughly a zillion times better than the Dropbox app. Unclouded has both list and grid views, but a dual pane option for landscape would have been nice.

    No matter how you sort the files, you can always tap on a file to download it to your device, but you can also share directly to a compatible app through the Android sharing menu. The only thing I'm missing here is the option to export to a specific folder on the device. As it currently stands, Unclouded automatically puts everything in a separate downloads folder on the phone or tablet. It might also be nice to have Unclouded as a sharing target for uploading files to Drive or Dropbox, but it's not necessary.

    One of the threads throughout in Unclouded is keeping abreast of how much free space you have. To that end, one of the coolest features available in the app is the duplicate file checker. Just select it from the nav menu and you'll get a list of all the matching files organized by size, Tapping on each line brings up all the dupes so you can decide which one to keep and which to toss. Likewise, you can sort the entire storage container by file types to figure out where all the space is going.

    The speed and ease of use here is far above what you'd find in the official Dropbox app, and still a little better than Drive. The interface is appropriately modern--it's a sort of newer Holo/card thing, not Material Design. The app certainly looks good and it makes it easy to see what's taking up all your cloud storage space. The basic version of Unclouded only has read access to your files. If you want to write files (i.e. actually manage anything) you'll need to buy the pro upgrade via an in-app purchase for $1.99. I'd say it's worth the price if you're fed up with substandard official cloud storage apps.

    Show and Tell: Laptop Screen Privacy Filter

    For today's Show and Tell, Will shares his method for preventing unwanted eyes from seeing what's on his laptop screen. He uses a 3M privacy filter attachment on top of his MacBook Air, which restricts the viewing angle to just the person using the laptop. Where would you use this kind of technology?

    MIT's Gravity-Defying "Magnetic Hair"

    "MIT engineers have fabricated a new elastic material coated with microscopic, hairlike structures that tilt in response to a magnetic field. Depending on the field's orientation, the microhairs can tilt to form a path through which fluid can flow; the material can even direct water upward, against gravity." More information here.

    Testing: Pros and Cons of the LG G3's 2560x1440 Screen

    When 1080p screens came to phones, the general consensus was that the resolution race could be coming to an end. After all, who needs more than full HD resolution on a phone? Whether or not we need it, LG took the stage a few months ago and announced the LG G3 with a quad HD (QHD) screen clocking in at 2560x1440 pixels. The G3 is the first device in the US market with a QHD panel, but LG had to make some sacrifices to get there. So is it all marketing nonsense, or did LG win the resolution race?

    More Retina than Retina

    The conventional wisdom has long been that anything north of 300 pixels per inch would be sufficiently high resolution that the average human would be unable to make out the individual pixels at arm's length (the G3 is 534 PPI). This is absolutely true if you're talking about picking out pixels, but reality is a bit more muddled than that.

    While 300 PPI makes it impossible to see pixels for virtually everyone, the images displayed on the screen might benefit from a higher resolution. For example, the eye can detect very small changes in the angle of a line that are well below the normal "retina resolution." Likewise, the alignment of two parallel lines can be seen with a startling degree of clarity--on the order of 4-5 times that of normal visual acuity. So, you might conceivably need 1500 PPI to account for all these cases.

    A QHD screen might also perform better when it comes to rendering curves--antialiasing, basically. The mathematical relationship between discrete points (pixels) and continuous elements (lines) is murky at best, but when you toss human vision into the mix, it can be hard to come to any firm conclusions. So what does this mean? A straight line made up of pixels you can't see is just a line. However, a curve made up of pixels exactly the same size might not look continuous as the pixels will produce a very subtle aliased (jaggy) edge. It would be up to software to clean that up, and having more pixels to work means better results.

    The way the eyes and brain process this visual data probably varies from person to person, but some analyses of the numbers point to roughly double the resolution requirements to prevent visible aliasing. So we're talking about 600 PPI, and the G3 gets close with 534 pixels per inch.

    The bottom line is that there's SOME basis for thinking that a QHD screen could offer a better viewing experience. Although, it's definitely not going to be a marked improvement in quality like jumping past 300 PPI.

    Tested In-Depth: Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 (with Game Demos!)

    We have the Oculus VR Development Kit in the office (two of them!) and have been testing them for over a week. We sit down to discuss the new hardware, compare it to our first development kit, and then run through as many game demos as we can get working. Couch Knights multiplayer! Elite: Dangerous with a HOTAS setup!

    The Secret to Smarter Robots: Ants

    Your cat is stuck in a burning building too dangerous for rescue crews to go inside, so off go the drones instead – five little unmanned aerial models that hover and flit through fiery beams and door frames without any human control. They know to spread out to cover more ground, and know how to adjust their search patterns when the communication links with the other drones go down. Their algorithms find and retrieve your cat in what rescue crews tell you is record time.

    Or that's the dream anyhow, to one day build artificially intelligent, self-organizing robot systems that can collaborate on complex tasks – or, at the very least, rescue imperiled cats. We're not there yet, but researchers have been getting closer, thanks in part to what we're learning from the collective behavior of ants.

    Photo credit: National Geographic

    Look back through artificial intelligence literature from the past few decades and you'll find ant-inspired algorithms are a popular topic of study. Of note, Swiss artificial intelligence researcher Marco Dorigo was the first to algorithmically model ant colony behavior in the early 1990, and Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon published her own study on the expandable search networks of ants a few years after. Today, both have different but related ideas on how we might implement so-called ant-inspired swarm intelligence in robots – and perhaps soon, drones – outside of the lab.

    Consider, for example, how ants explore and search. Ants change the way they scour for things such as food and water depending on the number of ants nearby. According to Gordon, if there is a high density of ants in an area, the ants search more thoroughly in small, random circles. If there are fewer ants, the ants adjust their paths to be straighter and longer, allowing them to cover more ground.

    Photo credit: NASA

    This is all well and good in typical ant environments – but how do the ants adapt when interference is introduced, and their communication with other ants interrupted? To find out, Gordon sent over 600 small, black pavement crawlers to the International Space Station in January, and believes that studying how they react to the unfamiliar microgravity of space could help build better robots. Her research is especially prescient in the age of the drone.

    In a Stanford news release, Gordon likened the interference introduced by microgravity as "analogous to the radio disruption that robots might experience in a blazing building." Depending on how Gordon's space ants adapt, she thinks the results when applied to robotics and artificial intelligence could help us program more efficient algorithms for search and exploration – especially when our robots are faced with unfamiliar environments, and with little to no human control.

    Bits to Atoms: Building the Millenbaugh Motivator, Part 1

    I remember watching the first Hellboy Mecha-Hand video that Will shot with Adam, and was pumped for what was to come. I'm a Hellboy fan and this particular prop had all the elements I love: mystical, mechanical, intricate WWII-era tech with a killer look. If you told me that two years later I would play a part in finishing said project, I wouldn’t have believed it.

    It almost never happened since I wasn’t going to enter Adam’s Inventern competition. At the time, I was spending every extra moment 3D printing and assembling iris boxes and TARDIS kits for my booth at Maker Faire New York. And more importantly, I didn’t think I had much of a chance of winning. Thankfully, my wife suggested that I should really make an entry video. Strongly suggested. Repeatedly. I finally listened and the day before the deadline I stayed after work to make a video for my 3D printed Octopod.

    A few days later, I received a call from the guys at Tested, informing me, that I was one of the top ten entries selected to continue on--I absolutely could not believe it. Later that week we received the next challenge: make a 1:1 scale replica of a household item using only the materials sent to us. I eagerly awaited my box of stuff but it showed up later than expected, leaving me only a few days to complete the challenge. For those who didn’t catch it the first time around, the box consisted of: sheets of cardboard, Elmer’s glue, an X-ACTO knife, a black Sharpie, masking tape, a cutting matte, some classic Tested stickers and the top-of-the-line Droid phone. While waiting for my box, I decided to literally use everything in the box, meaning I needed a use for the phone. I figured my best bet was to duplicate my video camera, using the phone as the flip-out screen, the problem was that I had never built anything out of cardboard. Ever.

    A Brief History of the Theremin

    In this NPR radio commentary from 2000, Bill Hammack, "The Engineering Guy", discusses the theremin, and how it lead to one the music industry's most fundamental assets, the electronic synthesizer. Here's a short list of where Theremins have been used prominently in film.

    The Best SSD Today

    If I bought a solid-state drive (SSD) today, I'd get the 512GB Crucial MX100 for about $220. It's not the fastest SSD you can get, but it's close. More importantly, it has the best combination of price, performance, and capacity. Additionally, Crucial makes its own NAND flash memory and its SSDs have a history of reliability. It's about $30 cheaper than the 500GB Samsung 840 EVO and has the best price per gigabyte of all those we looked at, so it's the best choice for most people who are upgrading a laptop or desktop today.

    If anything goes wrong, the MX100 has a three-year warranty. And it includes TCG/Opal full-disk self-encryption, if that matters to you. There’s no shortage of great SSDs these days, but some are better values than others, as we learned after spending more than 30 hours of research coming to this conclusion.

    The MX100 is one of the best, but if you can’t get the MX100, the Samsung 840 EVO is still good and is our overall runner-up. (It is, after all, our previous pick for this guide.) It’s cheap and fast, just not as cheap or fast as the MX100. It’s also still your best choice for a 1TB drive, since the MX100 only goes up to 512GB.

    If you’re a video and photo editor or 3D modeler, consider a step-up option like the Samsung 850 Pro. It has a 10-year warranty and higher write endurance rating. Its quoted speeds aren’t much different than the Crucial’s, but it can be nearly twice as fast (373 MB/s vs 190 MB/s) in some high-intensity benchmarks like AnandTech’s “Destroyer.” It’s the fastest SATA SSD you can get, but it’s not worth the price increase for most people.

    Testing: Traveling Abroad without a Laptop

    I just got back from a two-week trip to France to see my wife's extended family. This is only my fourth time leaving the country and I've been working on paring down my travel gear to the essentials. The only thing worse than not having what you need is having a bunch of stuff you don't. This year I tried to travel as light as possible. I knew I should spend most of my time visiting family, not staring at a screen, but I also knew that two weeks without doing any sort of writing would drive me nuts.

    Even trying to bring the bare minimum, I brought a bunch of stuff I didn't end up using. One Bag Travel people would laugh at me. But I did manage to travel without a laptop for the first time. If you can manage, I highly recommend it. You'll save a lot of weight and volume and most of the things you use a laptop for can now be done with a smartphone or tablet.

    Before getting into the specific gear I brought (and what I'd leave behind next year), let's talk about what I consider to be the travel essentials: power and data.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (July 2014)

    You don't usually get do-overs after you choose a new phone. That privilege only comes along once every year or two, so you've got to make it count. It's getting hard to make a truly bad choice when it comes to Android phones, but why settle for good enough when you can have the best? It's time to check out the lineup on the big four US carriers and see which devices are worth your time and money.

    This month Samsung finally gets some serious competition from LG, and the Nexus continues to ride high.

    Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons.

    AT&T

    The LG G3 wasn't even up for pre-order on AT&T last month, but this time it's available and has a lot to offer a connoisseur of mobile devices. Of course, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is also on AT&T as a similar price point and a slightly different approach to the high-end market. So where should your money go?

    Let's start with the Samsung Galaxy S5. This is simply the best phone Samsung has ever made. It might have the same plastic shell most of Samsung's devices rock, but it's more solid than past offerings largely because it's built to be water and dust-resistant. The GS5 is IP67 certified, assuming you've got the back and port covers fastened down. It has a midframe inside that most of the components are mounted to and rubber gaskets protect the internals around the back cover.

    Around front are Samsung's signature hardware buttons, but this time the OEM has finally gotten with the times and replaced the menu button with multitasking. The home button also houses a fingerprint scanner. It's a bit of a novelty (as is the heart rate monitor on the back), but it's something to be aware of.

    Inside you'll find 2GB of RAM, a 2800mAh removable battery, a Snapdragon 801, and 16GB of storage. The screen is a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED at 1080p, and it's a great panel. Samsung has done a lot to fix the white balance and saturation on AMOLED this time, and it really shows. The screen also has very good maximum and minimum brightness. The 16MP camera on this device is awesome in every situation except low-light.

    Samsung's TouchWiz Android UI isn't the abomination it once was--in fact, I'd say the ROM on the GS5 is pretty good. It's fast, the tweaks to Android's UI are not outrageous, and some of the additional features (like Ultra Power Saver) are awesome. Under all the Samsung code is Android 4.4.2 with all the goodies you'd expect from that. AT&T does have a nasty habit of loading you up with bloatware, but that's the case with all phones on Ma Bell.

    Google Play App Roundup: Better Open With, Thomas Was Alone, and Solarmax 2

    You can stop wading through the mess of new apps arriving in the Play Store. This is the Google Play App Roundup, your weekly source for all things new and cool on Android. Just hit the links to open the Play Store on your device. See? Isn't that easier?

    This week we've got a new way to open links, a game about shapes, and a game with strategic appeal.

    Better Open With

    Android's "Complete action using" menu is used to choose specific apps to handle a type of link or file, but it can also set a permanent system-wide default. The two buttons "always" and "just once" are a little limiting, though. Better Open With replaces the standard menu in a clever way by providing you the option of rerouting links to different apps without giving up your default actions.

    To use Better Open With, you simply have to set it as the default for all your link types. So you'll select Better Open With and tap the "always" button. In the Better Open With application, you can set your preferred apps for each type of intent--audio, web, video stream, and so on. This allows Better Open With to pop up instead of the standard menu and route your selections itself.

    So why is it better if it's just another popup? When you've selected your preferred apps for Better Open With to feed links to, they will be highlighted in the popup. There's also a countdown at the bottom of the frame that tells you how long until the default option is automatically launched. You can still tap on a different app to use that one, but just give it a second and your link goes through without any additional fuss.

    The countdown for each link type is customizable, and you can pause the countdown at any point if you need a moment to decide. There are also a few interface options for color schemes and layouts.

    I was quite surprised how well Better Open With integrates with the system. Trying to replace system dialogs on Android has a tendency to be messy, but this works very well. If Better Open With doesn't have a protocol for a particular link, the system won't try to open it. You automatically fall back to the standard dialog.

    This app is a little light on settings at the moment, but it was spawned from a discussion on Reddit very recently. Better Open With is free and has no ads or sketchy permissions, so take it for a spin.

    Show and Tell: The Curta Calculator

    Inventern champ Sean Charlesworth joins us in the Tested office this week to share one of his prized possessions: a Curta mechanical calculator. Designed in the 1940s before electronic calculators, this hand-cranked device was considered the the most precise pocket calculator available, and was used by rally car drivers and aviators.

    MakerBot Mystery Build: You'll Never Guess

    Time for another mystery object to be printed by our MakerBot! This week, Will actually designed the piece for use in a special project, so it's extra difficult to guess. Place your best prediction as to what's being printed in the comments below!