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    In Brief: The Invention of the Modern Bathroom

    Lloyd Alter, the editor of Treehugger, wrote this insightful feature about the history and design of the typical household bathroom. It traces the origins of the modern plumbing system that weaves through our cities, and explains why the many design defects of the current standard bathroom setup. For one, ergonomics is poor--toilets are too tall for a comfortable squat--and sinks are too low. But more importantly, the modern bathroom is extremely wasteful. Alter suggests alternatives like composting systems that split off greywater from blackwater, and a shower setup that only dispenses water when you need it. Of course, this doesn't take into consideration the other activities that currently happen in many bathrooms; the water closet is now a place where many people get their work done. Smartphones and tablets in the bathroom are still gross, by the way.

    Norman
    In Brief: Why You Always Seem to Choose the Slowest Line at the Supermarket

    Adam shared this awesome story yesterday: an explanation for why it's so difficult to choose the shortest line at the supermarket. The answer lies in queueing theory, or the mathematical study of how people wait in lines to best optimize and predict wait times. According to queueing theorists, simple probability explains why your chances of choosing the fastest line in an scenario with lots of line options is small. In a perfect world, a single long line at the supermarket that funnels into the next available checkout counter would be the most optimal (like a bank or post office line), but human psychology rejects that. We would prefer to take the gamble of trying to find the fastest of multiple lines at the store--it gives us the illusion of control and the hope that we can beat the system.

    Norman 3
    Microsoft's Adam: A New Deep-Learning AI System

    From Microsoft Research: "Project Adam is a new deep-learning system modeled after the human brain that has greater image classification accuracy and is 50 times faster than other systems in the industry." Wired has an in-depth story about how this new approach to running neural networks--using a technique called asynchrony--allows its deep learning system to train computers to do things like recognize images. Skynet jokes aside, advances in machine intelligence is something we can get behind.

    In Brief: Samsung's VR Gear Solution Could Launch at IFA

    Engadget's report that Samsung is developing a virtual reality solution in partnership with Oculus VR to work with its Galaxy phones is becoming more believable. While neither Samsung nor Oculus have confirmed that a device is in the works, SamMobile claims to have the first images of the device design, along with details about its name and debut. The Gear VR name sounds believable, as well as the purported IFA unveil (Sept 5-10). Three new technical details stand out from this leak: first that Gear VR would use a cushioned elastic band to hold the headset in place, that it would have a dedicated button to activate the Galaxy phone's camera to let users "see through" the HMD, and that the side controls would be a touchpad. The latter two make sense as good UI, especially the see-through button--something I hope the consumer Oculus Rift will include. If calibrated properly with a camera lens, the see-through option opens up augmented reality potential for this kind of HMD.

    I'm still unconvinced that smartphone screens (as run through smartphone GPUs) can achieve the low persistence of vision that Oculus fans are expecting, but that's based on my experience using Google's Cardboard with an LCD-based phone, not Samsung's AMOLED screens. The other weird thing about this is that we're not expecting the Oculus consumer release any time soon, so Samsung's Gear VR may be the first Oculus-related virtual reality device to hit the consumer market. I'm not sure that would be a good thing for Oculus and the VR community if the reception isn't anything but glowing. If Gear VR does get announced at IFA, it'll be something that may distract from Oculus' agenda just two weeks later at their first Connect conference.

    Norman
    Testing: Waypoint Navigation on Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter

    Last night, we posted a video showing our test of the DJI Phantom 2's new waypoint navigation feature, which lets it fly without direct control from a transmitter. I decided to pull the video after getting some feedback from Tested readers and quadcopter enthusiasts. There were a few concerns not only over the legality of the FPV (first-person video) flight, but the appropriateness of the test location. We flew it out over the San Francisco bay, but the quadcopter passed over city streets in doing so, and briefly left our field of view behind some tall trees. According to the new FAA guidelines, operators have to maintain line of sight with their craft, and follow community guidelines like the model aircraft safety code instituted by the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

    In retrospect, I made a mistake in choosing where to fly the Phantom for this video, especially in testing a new feature that is not without its bugs. Even though I had the ability to take manual control of the drone at any time, the video made the flight look more risky than we're comfortable with, and reflects poorly on the quadrotor hobbyist community. It's difficult striking a balance between creating informative videos to demonstrate new technology and engaging viewers with visually striking footage, but the latter should not come at the expense of safety--even if it's just the perception of risk. I apologize for that, and am currently looking into other locations and best practices for us to test future quadrotor gear. In the Bay Area, our options are getting increasingly limited; we recently heard of a hobbyist getting cited for flying a Phantom over Ocean Beach, which is under the purview of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory.

    In terms of the actual waypoint navigation feature of the Phantom, the feature works as advertised, but isn't without its problems. You can set up to 16 GPS waypoints using a satellite map overlay in the Vision app, but the map relies on you to determine if the flight path may intersect with any tall structures. It was also difficult to zoom into give the Phantom very precise waypoints--it's not accurate to get a Phantom circling around the bases of a baseball field, for example. We also experienced the unintended problem of both Will and my phones stealing the Wi-Fi connection from the transmitter, which accounted for our failure to send the flight path to the Phantom on several tries. Waypoint Nav on the Vision+ also doesn't have feature parity with DJI's Ground Station accessory, like the ability to set different flight speeds between waypoints. The best thing about the updated Vision app is the automatic "Return Home" button that tells the Phantom to return home and slowly land from almost exactly where it took off.

    Here's the unlisted video of our test if you want to watch it. For enthusiasts who've had more experience flying autonomous drones and using FPV, I'd love to hear your input about the best places and ways to test these new machines.

    In Brief: Google to Expand Its Same-Day Delivery Service

    Last week, I made my monthly trip to Costco to buy house supplies and food in preparation of the July 4th weekend. But in my haste to get out of the place before I wanted to kill myself, I forgot to pick up ketchup and gallon bags--essential picnic supplies. That was OK--I simply placed an order with Google Shopping Express on Thursday morning and had those items hand-delivered to my door by the end of the day, crowds avoided, shipping fee waived. "This simply can't last forever" is the thought I had in my head, and yet Google seems to be committed to its same-day delivery service, with plans spend over half a billion dollars to expand it beyond San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

    Re/Code's report on Google's delivery service plans explains how the logistics of the same-day delivery system currently works--Google has employees package orders in existing B&M stores, and centralized warehouses distribute them--as well as what Google and its retailer partners hope to gain from program. As for my own experience, Google Shopping Express has taken precedence over Amazon for many needs, since it supports some local businesses like Nob Hill Foods and Google keeps extending the promotion that waives the $5 per retailer delivery fee. Google is unsurprisingly in it for the ad business--Re/Code says the search company has no plans to cut out the B&M middle men--but wants to take high-value marketing campaigns away from those merchants. There's also that valuable individual shopper data too, which Google is keeping to itself. A year into the program, Shopping Express proves that same-day delivery can work, but I'm still skeptical that it has legs to become a business Google will care about in the long run.

    Norman
    In Brief: Here Is the Latest in Credit Card Skimmer Tech

    Computer security reporter and expert Brian Krebs has been tracking the state of credit card skimmers--devices used to steal users' credit card information and PIN number at ATMs--for years, and his latest update cites a new report from the European ATM Security Team that shows just how small and discreet the newest generation of ATM skimmers can be. One design, made to work on US manufacturer NCR's machines, hides below the card reader "throat", making it difficult to detect. Skimmers are used in tandem with small pinhole cameras that record a user's PIN entry, with that plastic camera system mounted on ATMs to look like part of the chassis. Krebs notes that ATM skimmers are less of a problem for European banks that have switched over to "chip & PIN"-based debit cards, which unfortunately haven't been widely adopted stateside. But one good practice that may protect you from skimmers is simply to shroud your fingers with one hand when entering your PIN with the other.

    Norman 1
    Bits: The Idea That Birthed the Digital Age

    "Information is the resolution of uncertainty." That was the premise behind mathematician Claude Shannon's 1948 thesis--which proved that boolean algebra could be used extrapolate information from a series of binary numbers. That meant if data was recorded as a series of ones and zeroes, it would be possible to transfer that data from one point to another with a much smaller risk of signal degradation than through analog systems. That idea of digitization changed the world, and this short video pays tribute to the little-known mathematician who thought it up.

    7 Things Learned from Google's Cardboard VR Experiment

    After our initial hands-on with Google's Cardboard virtual reality kit, I spent a bunch more time last night going through the demo app and the Chrome experiments. There were a few demos we didn't get to try on camera, like the Windy Day interactive short film that was previously only available for the Moto X. And while it's obvious that Cardboard is not a direct competitor to the Oculus Rift, the VR experience it could provide is genuinely impressive, and even immersive. It's not the first VR goggle kit to be paired with a smartphone--FOV2GO is a notable project that's of the same design--but Google's Cardboard demos go a long way to making me believe that there may be something to sticking a smartphone to the back of a cheap VR goggle setup. It's definitely no TV hat, for sure.

    Whether or not Google can get developers creating VR experiences for Cardboard and Android, the experiment revealed some interesting things about the potential of a mass-produced virtual reality solution. Here are seven VR takeaways from Google Cardboard derived from its differences with the Oculus Rift.

    In Brief: FAA Claims Jurisdiction Over FPV RC Flying

    The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 included verbiage which prevents the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from imposing any new rules on model aircraft. This exemption, which is defined in Section 336 of the law, applies so long as a short list of requirements is met by the operator and model. Like so many legislative documents, the five exemption requirements leave numerous grey areas. Thus, the FAA recently issued its interpretation of the exemption and how the agency intends to define model aviation going forward. The FAA takes a particularly harsh stance on First Person View (FPV) flying. The document states in no uncertain terms the operator must be able to see the model aircraft in direct line of sight with nothing more powerful than corrective lenses. Any other optical aids (specifically FPV devices) negate the exemption and put you under the FAA’s law enforcement jurisdiction.

    Other views expressed by the FAA interpretation are less direct, but have equally far-reaching effects to RC aviators--even those who don’t participate in FPV. The “community-based organization” mentioned in the law is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), whose lobbying efforts were largely responsible for the exemption’s presence. The AMA quickly issued a response to the FAA. Spoiler: they aren’t happy. This could be a critical “David and Goliath”-like standoff regarding the future of RC flying. If you have any interest in this hobby, don’t be passive. I suspect that the AMA will soon provide suggestions for where/how to focus efforts against the FAA interpretation.

    Terry
    Pebble vs. Android Wear Smart Watch Features

    Yesterday, Google laid out more of its vision and plans for Android Wear, the software platform for manufacturers like LG, Samsung, and Motorola to build Android-compatible smart watches. And while smart watches like the Pebble, Metawatch, and Samsung's own Tizen-based Galaxy Gear have been around for a while, Google's offering may be the catalyst for the general public to start taking these wearable devices seriously--at least until Apple makes a smart watch announcement. But not all smart watches are created equal, and the approach that Google is taking with Android Wear is fundamentally different from the goals of the Pebble. It's not about hardware or software limitations--Android Wear and Pebble want to achieve different things, and have been designed with different strengths and weaknesses. That means Android Wear doesn't make Pebble obsolete--there's room for both to co-exist, depending on what users want.

    But that's exactly the problem--smartphone users don't know what to expect or want from a smartwatch. Those who adopted early smart watches like the original Kickstarted Metawatch have not had the best experience. The $200-250 price tags on these watches are likely as low as manufacturers want to go, but this is still an an early-adopter category. We've been testing the Pebble Steel for a month now, and will be getting the LG G Watch early next month to test. But based on my experience with the Steel (which I like) and what Google and the I/O attendees have shared about the new Android Wear devices, here's how I see the platforms differ.

    In Brief: Designing a Car for the Ergonomics of Driving

    For all the new technology and interface points we're putting into the car, there are a few things about driving that just won't change. The next generation of cars may all have massive touchscreens, voice commands, and smartphone connectivity, but we'll very likely still be using the good old steering wheel and pedals to actually drive around. That's not to say alternative car interface paradigms haven't been tried before. ArsTechnica's Automotive Editor Jonathan Gitlin lays out the history of car interface experiments, including Ford's FX-Atmos, which was driven with a aerospace-inspired joystick. But the steering wheel endures--partially because of its analog feedback capabilities--regardless of where people actually put there hands on the wheel. And speaking of steering wheel design, this 2011 episode of 99 Percent Invisible discussed the strange phenomenon of our brains not actually being able to grasp the action of changing lanes without visualizing it in person. It's worth a listen. (And what about the steering wheel-free design of Google's prototype autonomous cars? Well, I wouldn't call that really driving at all.)

    Norman
    In Brief: Google Cardboard Is Low-Budget Virtual Reality

    Google I/O began today, and there were a ton of takeaways from the marathon keynote this morning. We'll be recapping the announcements in this week's podcast, as well as getting some analysis from our Android expert, Ryan Whitwam. In the meantime, there's one bit of interesting news from I/O that didn't make it in the keynote. It's a project called Google Cardboard, and it's not a gag. Cardboard is a fold-out kit handed out to I/O attendees, which when assembled resemble a Viewmaster. It's actually a virtual reality "viewer"--a head-mounted frame, complete with 40mm lenses, designed to hold up an Android smartphone to view VR content. Just another type of Google goggles. The Android phone runs a special Cardboard app or runs a Chrome experiments site, for tapping into YouTube videos, Streetview, or even Google Earth. All in head-tracked VR. If that concept sounds familiar, it's what Samsung has been rumored to be working on with Oculus VR, except Google beat them to the punch with something anyone can build with off-the-shelf components. It's nowhere near Oculus-level VR gaming, but the idea is to bring the VR experience to the masses (anyone with a compatible smartphone) and to get devs started tinkering with the VR toolkit. I'm trying to get ahold of a Google Cardboard kit to test--they're already showing up on eBay.

    Norman 13
    Tested In-Depth: Pebble Steel Smart Watch

    What's the point of a smart watch, and how does it complement your use of a smartphone? That's what we wanted to figure out in our testing of the Pebble Steel. Will and Norm both use the Pebble for a month and discuss how it changes the way they regularly interact with their iOS and Android phones.

    Google's Vision for Android Wear UI

    Google I/O is this week, and we expect lots of details relating to the Android Wear initiative, including possibly some early hardware. Ahead of the developer conference, Google has released this developer preview video giving an overview of how the company wants developers to adapt their apps for the new smartwatch platform. Like with the Pebble system, Android Wear will ideally display the glanceable information from apps, like notifications. But users will also be able to send information back to their phones over the watch's microphone, activating services like Google Now or even voice recording. LG and Motorola's take on Android Wear hardware will be interesting, but it's really the software interface that will make or break Google's smartwatch. (h/t Wired)

    Hands-On: Control VR Motion Control Gaming at E3 2014

    Virtual reality technology promises to put our head and "presence" in a virtual world, but what about the rest of our body? Control VR is a new wearable motion tracking system to put your hands and fingers in VR games and simulations. We test the system and discuss its technical merits in a hands-on demo at this year's E3.

    Hands-On: Sony PlayStation 4 Project Morpheus at E3 2014

    We get a private demo of Sony PlayStation's Project Morpheus virtual reality headset prototype at this year's E3, and play two new games that make use of VR on the PS4. Here are our impressions of the hardware and gameplay in the Castle and Street Luge demos, along with an interview of Morpheus project director Richard Marks!

    Hands-On: Oculus Rift Games at E3 2014 + New Details

    The latest "Made for VR" games are amazing, and we go hands-on with them at this year's E3, playtesting Alien: Isolation, Superhot, and Lucky's Tale. We also chat with Oculus' VP of Product Nate Mitchell about the shipping status of the Development Kit 2, the impending first consumer version, and what Oculus is developing in both hardware and software to create the best VR experience possible with today's technology.

    In Brief: Chatbot "Passes" Turing Test, But Does It Matter?

    I'm glad that a chatbot has finally succeeded in passing the Turing Test. It means that cognitive scientists and A.I. researchers can finally move on from this outdated milestone of artificial intelligence and focus on metrics that really matter. The Turing Test, as we've discussed at length in the past, was proposed by Alan Turing as a way to determine if computers could "think". The actual test, which puts a chat program in front of 30 judges to engage in conversation, only actually requires that it convinces 30% of the judges to believe that it's a real person. The winning program, a chatbot named Eugene Goostman, succeeded in convincing 33% of the judges by playing the role of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy without a mastery of English. Basically, it had an advantage in fooling the judges by establishing the terms of its "intelligence" through its purported identity. That didn't stop the University of Reading, where the challenge was held, to boast about the significance of the achievement. (Probably doesn't hurt that there's a biopic coming out later this year on the life of Turing, either.) The larger problem with the victory is that the Turing Test is more a statement about our own limits of perception and language comprehension, rather than of computational prowess. Chatbots can do a good job of imitating intelligence through effective scripting, not modeling of the human brain or our linguistics systems. It's definitely not proof of anything close to consciousness. Good for Eugene Goostman and its creators, but it's nothing more than a fancy Chinese Room.

    Norman 4