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    Tested In-Depth: SmartThings Home Automation

    Will's been testing the SmartThings system since its successful Kickstarter campaign, and shares his experience setting up home automation for his family. SmartThings lets you set a house up to be contextually aware of a variety of events, with no reoccurring fees. We discuss what aspects of home automation may make sense for most people, and how home control works via the app.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    USB Type-C Will Carry Power, Data, and DisplayPort Video

    If you're the kind of person that gets excited about new cable technologies, you're in good company. Although it'll be a while before we actually see the next spec of USB 3.1 cables in circulation, I'm genuinely giddy about the potential of the impending USB Type-C connector. Late last year, we heard that it was going to be a reversible design, which was confirmed in the USB Promoter Group and USB Implementer Forum's final specs for the next-gen plug. Today, VESA--the standards group in charge of video connector standards--announced that USB Type-C will also be able to carry native DisplayPort signals through a "DisplayPort Alternate Mode". Through this spec, DisplayPort signals on compatible monitors and accessories will be able to use up to four of the Type-C connector's high-speed data paths for video, alongside data and power already being channelled. This won't be a pared down version of DisplayPort, either, meaning Type-C will be able to work with DisplayPort conversion adapters as well, such as for HDMI 2.0 and DVI. This means that future laptops may not need separate USB, HDMI, DP, or even VGA ports, and could just use a slew of thin USB Type-C ports for all inputs and outputs. Anandtech has more technical details about how this spec works, and what it may mean for the future of mobile PCs.

    Photo credit: Flickr user taylor90 via Creative Commons

    Of course, all these design specs and certifications mean nothing if hardware manufacturers don't begin to support them in both accessory devices and computer systems. That's where Apple has a leg-up on USB--its Lightning cable is ubiquitous in the iOS and Mac ecosystem, and Apple computers are still the only place you can find native support for Intel's Thunderbolt. Let's get on it, PC OEMs!

    In Brief: "Overhead" Car Camera Technology is Magical

    Of all the new technology and consumer electronics gear we learned about last week (Kindles, GeForces, VR prototypes, digital cameras, etc), the thing that wowed me the most was perhaps a piece of tech that's already been around for a few years. I flew to LA for video shoots with Frank Ippolito and Oculus, and we rented a car for the trip. The car Hertz gave us (read: upsold) was an Infiniti QX56 SUV--a massive land shark that made me feel like Turtle from Entourage driving around VIPs. Infiniti's SUVs have a similar backup camera technology as other manufactures--something that's going to be standard soon--but also has a patented "Around View" camera monitoring tech that blew my mind. It takes video feeds from four cameras around the car, skewing and compositing them to make it look like you're looking at a camera floating about 10 feet above the car. It's one of those tricks that sounds simple once you understand how it works, and works so seamlessly that you can't help but wonder why nobody had come up with it before. Really inspired innovation that has a huge impact on the way I drove and parked that car. Props to Infiniti for coming up with it! (The video below shows off Around View in action.)

    Norman
    Hands-On with Oculus Rift "Crescent Bay" Prototype Virtual Reality Headset

    Norm goes to Oculus Connect to get a hands-on demo of the new "Crescent Bay" feature prototype of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. We interview Nate Mitchell and Palmer Luckey of Oculus VR to talk about what's new in the headset, reveal some technical specifications, and then walk through the entire demo experience--with 1080p video from the private demo room!

    10 Major Data Breaches And How Thieves Tricked The System

    It’s quite possible that the most valuable thing you own is something you can’t even touch – your personal data. Cybercrime is a booming pursuit in the underworld, and today we’ll tell the stories of ten massive incursions where data was compromised, and how the perpetrators pulled it off.

    How to Get Started in Hobby RC: Body Painting Your Vehicles

    We've run through the basics of several types of remote controlled vehicles, from cars to boats to planes--and some tweaks to modify them. But one of the best ways to personalize an RC kit is to give it a fresh coat of paint. This guide will focus on the basics of painting bodies for RC cars--a genuinely fun and rewarding art form.

    Most RC car bodies are made from polycarbonate plastic (aka Lexan). It is incredibly tough stuff, which makes it ideal for absorbing the abuse that RC cars are routinely subjected to. The bodies are formed by vacuforming a sheet of clear Lexan over a mold. The body is then painted on the inside surface, which effectively makes the plastic a thick, shiny clear coat. If painted correctly, a body can last and look good for a long time.

    The Caveats

    If you are an accomplished airbrush or spray paint graffiti artist, you already possess many of the skills necessary to paint a RC car body. There are, however, a few elements that are specific to painting car bodies that you must consider. The number one thing to know is that most paints will not stick to Lexan. You must use specially formulated products that are typically sold in hobby shops as RC car body paint. This isn’t a marketing gimmick. These are truly the only paints I have seen that bond reliably to Lexan. If you use some random hardware store paint, it will only look good until that first crash. Then, the paint will begin to chip and flake off, randomly eroding your artistic efforts. Trust me; don’t get cheap with the paint. Buy the right stuff and have no regrets.

    Since we will be painting the inside of the body, some things may be reversed from painting tasks you are used to. Obviously, any masking must be done as a mirror image. Less obvious is the need to apply the darkest colors first. Since it is difficult to achieve a fully opaque finish, having a dark color behind a light color may affect the tint of the light color. Applying the dark color first negates this effect. Keep this in mind as you plan out your paint scheme and order of operations.

    Working with Lexan requires special paint as well as specific tools to achieve clean, long-lasting results. A variety of common masking options can be used.

    You may need to do trimming or drilling of the car body. I highly recommend using tools designed for the job. The curved blades on Lexan scissors make it easy to trim wheel wells and other rounded areas without creating jagged edges on the body. A tapered reamer is the only sensible way to drill holes in Lexan. Regular drill bits will grab and tear as they go through, often leaving a mess. . If you are using a body that will require cutting and drilling, it is usually better to do this before painting. It helps to have the body clear when you are trying to get everything aligned and fitted.

    The Army’s Ersatz Gliders of WWII

    If necessity is the mother of invention, then wartime must be the mother of desperate ingenuity. There are countless stories throughout history of imaginative soldiers figuring out how to make do, and even thrive with whatever equipment was available. Sometimes, this sort of grassroots pragmatism occurred on a large scale. For instance, when the US Army Air Corps (USAAC ) urgently needed aircraft to train thousands of glider pilots during World War 2, they realized that the answer was already right under their nose.

    Why Gliders?

    Early in the war, the Germans used troop-laden gliders with great success in the quick capture of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. Subsequent German glider missions were much less effective and they were ultimately abandoned by the Wermacht. However, the Allies were already convinced that they needed a glider force of their own. The US and Britain began amassing enormous fleets of gliders as well as pools of trained pilots to fly them.

    The large Waco CG-4A was the eventual steed of most US glider pilots. It was considered easy to fly, but required training different from that for sport gliders. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the US Air Force)

    The workhorse of the US glider force was the CG-4A combat glider. This boxy aircraft was designed by the Waco (pronounced like “taco”) Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio and produced at factories all over the US. The unlikely mix of shops turning out CG-4A parts included the Steinway Piano Company and Anheuser-Busch. The fuselage, constructed of welded steel tubing, could hold up to 13 equipped troops in addition to the pilot and copilot. Alternately, the Waco could hold fewer troops and a Jeep or small howitzer. Regardless of how many troops were inside, their only protection from enemy fire was the painted canvas fabric stretched over the frame.

    In combat, a cargo plane (usually a Douglas C-47 Skytrain) towed one or two CG-4As over the landing zone. The glider pilots would release their plane from the tow rope and begin a rapid and irreversible return to solid ground. Ideally the pilot’s chosen landing spot would be free of obstacles and other gliders. Once the wheels touched the ground, the pilot would push the control yoke forward to bury the Waco’s front skids in the dirt and bring the glider to a quick and dusty stop. For many gliders, their first combat landing was their last.

    In Brief: Oculus VR Updates from IFA

    We're unfortunately not at IFA this week, but there are lots of good reports coming out from reporters there checking out hew mobile devices, like Samsung's Gear VR headset. Oculus VR is there to support that partnership, and interviews with the Oculus team are revealing few new bits of information about the state of the first consumer version release. In an interview with Eurogamer, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey indicated that CV1 would stay between $200 and $400, which is in line with past statements by Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe that CV1 would possibly be sold close to cost. For those hoping that the CV1 will use the Galaxy Note's 1440p display, John Carmack tweeted that the screen is fixed at 60Hz, but future products may fix that limitation to reach a 90Hz target (the DK2 runs at 75Hz). Engadget's feature on the Gear VR headset also has some good quotes from Carmack sharing his excitement for Samsung's speedy hardware iteration cycles. According to Carmack, Samsung mobile display technologies get updated twice a year (once with Galaxy S phones and again with Galaxy Note phones), so Oculus can also "innovate at that pace." Also, for current DK2 users, version 0.4.2 Beta of the Oculus SDK was just released, though existing demos have to be recompiled to take advantage of the bug fixes and changes.

    Norman
    Samsung and Oculus VR Announce the Gear VR Innovator Edition HMD

    At this week's IFA conference in Berlin, Samsung and Oculus VR announced the long-rumored VR headset that we've been hearing about for months. It's called the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition, and will be an accessory to Samsung's new Galaxy Note 4 smartphones. As expected, you plug in Samsung's phone--which utilizes a massive 5.7-inch 1440p AMOLED display--into the headset for an untethered VR experience. Apparently, Oculus has been working with Samsung for over a year on the device, including a mobile SDK to optimize Android to run VR software. Because the mobile setup uses the sensors in the phone, users will experience wireless VR tracking in 3DOF instead of 6DOF, though Oculus and Samsung are promising a sub-20ms motions-to-photons latency (similar to that in the Oculus DK2). Oculus is also launching several VR software experiences with the Gear VR, including an Oculus Home interface, Oculus Cinema virtual movie theater, and Oculus 360 Videos and Photos viewer for panoramic content.

    This Gear VR is called the Innovator's Edition because it'll be an early-access beta SKU of the hardware for early adopters and developers, much like Oculus' own Development Kits. Samsung hasn't announced pricing for the Gear VR, but the Galaxy Note 4 is set to be released worldwide this October and the Gear VR add-on promised to be released this year. We'll be looking to get one of these devices to test, but this announcement says to us that Oculus won't settle for anything less than a 1440p display when the consumer edition of the Rift is ready.

    Flying the Birdly Virtual Reality Simulator

    We strap on an Oculus Development Kit and mount Birdly, a full-motion virtual reality rig that simulates flying. It's one of the most awesome and intuitive VR experiences we've ever had, and we chat with Birdly's creators to learn how it works.

    No More Peek-a-Boo: Inventing a Modern Periscope

    The physical design and internal mechanics of a periscope has changed quite a bit over the years, but there’s one thing that still remains the same: in order to see what’s going on above the water even the most high-tech modern periscope still has to poke it’s little head out above the surface. And when you’re a military machine whose main goal is stealth that isn’t exactly a smart move. That’s why, for at least a decade, some scientists and engineers have been trying to figure out how to build a virtual periscope. One that can see what’s happening all around without having to come up for air. And they’re starting to make some significant and exciting progress.

    Photo credit: US Navy Naval Historical Center

    An Extremely Brief History of Periscopes

    According to the US Navy, the first periscope was designed in 1854 by a French chemist named Edme Hippolyte Marie-Davie. It was simply a long tube with mirrors set at 45 degrees angles at each opening. There were several attempts to perfect the design through the following decades--among them a 65-foot, 130-ton tube set with eight prisms designed by American John Holland in 1900, which gave the viewer a very dim 360 degree view of the horizon and could actually be rotated.

    Image credit: US Patent Office

    The modern periscope, or, at least, the one we all remember from Looney Toons, was a perfected version of Holland’s design. Patented in 1911 by Dr. Frederick O. Kollmorgen, the new version used two telescopes instead of a series of lenses (or prisms). Because it didn’t need prisms at the opening or a series of lenses throughout, the new periscope could be built at a variety of lengths and its opening above the surface could be much smaller. Kollmorgen started a company to develop and update his telescope design and, in fact, the company he created (called Kollmorgen) still exists today.

    Kollmorgen’s original design went through several upgrades through the years--adding night vision, star pattern recognition systems, optical magnification, and antennas for satellite communication, but the overall concept mostly remained the same. Then, in the 1960s, the US Navy created the Type 18 periscope, which added television cameras that allowed its images to be displayed anywhere on the submarine and also recorded.

    In modern US submarines, beginning around 2004 on all Virginia-class attack subs, the periscopes were replaced by photonics masts. These are telescoping arms that have visible and infrared digital cameras at the top. Since they don’t use mirrors or telescopes, there is no need for the control room to be located directly below the masts anymore. Because of this, the Navy has relocated these sub’s operations area away from the hull and down one deck where there is a lot more space.

    What the FAA Thinks of RC Aircraft, and Why it Matters

    The past few weeks have witnessed developments that could spell the end of radio-control aeromodeling as we know it. In short, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has claimed jurisdiction over certain RC activities. This move comes as part of the FAA’s attempt to grasp control of the rapidly expanding presence of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the national airspace. What was once a relaxing pastime could soon be a punishable offense. Here's how that could affect you and your FPV multi-rotor flying friends (like us!).

    Genesis of a Duel

    The FAA’s recent actions have put them sideways with the bulk of the model airplane community. The group on the front lines defending the interests of modelers is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). To fully understand the situation, a short history lesson is in order.

    In February of 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act became law. Among many other things, this law instructed the FAA to integrate UAS activities into the national airspace. At that time, the FAA had no specific regulations governing the use of these machines, or even a firm definition of what constitutes a UAS.

    Anticipating that the law would give birth to blanket policies that could negatively impact aeromodeling, the AMA fought for provisions to exclude hobbyists. At the time, the FAA stated no ill will towards RC modelers and Congress had no intention to impose any regulations on the hobby. The win-win provision that emerged is Section 336 of the FAA act – Special Rule for Model Aircraft. It prohibits the FAA from introducing any new rules to regulate “hobby or recreational” use of model aircraft.

    Taken at face value, the FAA’s new stance on aeromodeling would have drastic and far-reaching implications to the hobby as well as the small industry that it supports.

    Mood Check: AMA – Relieved, FAA – Overwhelmed

    Since that time, the FAA and AMA have met regularly to ensure that both parties were on the same page as the FAA moved forward with its obligations under the new law. Although the FAA’s progress was glacial and milestone dates continually moved to the right, they frequently reassured the AMA that they had nothing to worry about.

    Mood Check: AMA – Cautiously Optimistic, FAA – “What was that due date again?”

    In June of this year, the FAA released a memo indicating its interpretation of Section 336. Not only was this memo produced absent of any coordination with the AMA, its wording is contrary to previous statements made by the FAA. Taken at face value, the FAA’s memo-defined stance on aeromodeling would have drastic and far-reaching implications to the hobby as well as the small industry that it supports.

    Mood Check: AMA – Deceived, FAA – “You mad bro?”

    In Brief: The History of Headphones

    European phone handset company liGo produced this interactive guide to the 120-year history of headphones. It ends up on a weird note showcasing the current state of fashion headphones (ie. Beats), but the stuff about the development of copper headphones for home to military use is fascinating. liGo did a good job pairing each section of this web guide with era-appropriate music and media. Included in the retrospective is brief video of John C Koss (founder of the Koss headphone company) talking about bringing the first stereo headphones designed for listening to music to consumers. I've embedded it below:

    Norman 2
    Testing: Surface Pro 3 and Shield Tablet's Styli

    Two things struck me while testing the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Nvidia's Shield Tablet, devices I ended up really liking. Both are ostensibly tablets, but the way I used each of them differed from how I used my iPad Mini. First, I rarely used held either of them like a notepad, with one or two hands gripping the sides. Most of the time, I had the Surface propped up in its "canvas" position using its kickstand on a flat surface, and kept the Shield Tablet propped up on a small makeshift kickstand as well. They were tabletop computers, not handheld ones. Second, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed using the stylus on each of these devices, and not necessarily as writing instruments. For both the Surface and the Shield Tablet, the stylus actually became a second navigational tool, used to swipe through the home screen and browse the web. These use cases became as intuitive as touch pointing and gestures--still the primary physical for iPads. And it made me think about how much Apple is limiting the potential of its iPads by staunchly sticking to touch.

    Let's start with the Surface Pro 3, which has an active stylus. As I said in our video, my limited digital drawing abilities don't allow me to discern the difference between the Wacom-based digitizer used in the last Surface Pro and the N-Trig one used here. What matters to me isn't degrees of pressure sensitivity, it's accuracy and latency. And the Surface Pro 3's stylus was completely sufficient for note-taking in OneNote--my chicken scratch handwriting looked on-screen like they would have on paper. The ability to manipulate those scribbles as vectors and use the stylus to crop/copy/paste images with annotations made those notes more useful than the ones in my paper notebook after having made my jots.

    But my favorite way to use the Surface Pro 3's stylus was actually as an extension of my fingers on the touchscreen. On the Windows desktop, the stylus became a proxy for my mouse cursor. Even with Windows' improved touch tracking for tapping small buttons, the one thing that touch can't facilitate is a cursor hover. With the active stylus, I could hover the tip over the screen and see where the cursor is before making a pinpointed tap. Even when I had I mouse connected to the Surface, I would use the Stylus in combination with my fingers to browse the web--tapping Chrome's UI and scrolling with the pen and easily still pinching to zoom on pages with my fingers. That complementary use of fingers and stylus felt completely natural. Much like how I've found touchscreens to be a delightful complement to the primary keyboard and mouse interface on a laptop, I've found the stylus to be an intuitive complementary input method to finger touch on tablets. You can have the cake and eat it too.

    The only thing I wish is that Microsoft could have found a better way to store the stylus to the Surface Pro 3. In past versions of the Surface Pro, the stylus stuck magnetically to the side of the device, attached to its charging port, actually. It wasn't particularly secure, and meant that you had to remove the stylus to charge the Surface. On the Surface Pro 3, the stylus has no docking port--only a sleeve on the type keyboard accessory to slip into. I realize that given the thickness of the stylus and the densely packed design of the tablet's guts, there's no space for a recessed stylus dock. It's the problem that Steve Jobs bemoaned when mandating a touch-only interface on the iPad, but not an impossible task. Lenovo's ThinkPad 2, for example, is a hybrid device with a built-in stylus dock.

    In Brief: How Long Will Your CDs Last?

    Media archiving is a noble yet labored pursuit, as archivists struggle to find and adopt new technologies and mediums that won't go obsolete. We've previously discussed the US Library of Congress's approach to archiving millions of pieces of video. Back in the 90s all sorts of analog media was being transferred to what was then thought to be an enduring platform: the compact disc. NPR's All Things Considered recently interviewed the LoC's head of Preservation, Research, and Testing Division to learn about how those CDs have held up in the two decades since, and what surprising deterioration has occurred on the now dated format.

    Norman