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    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: 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:

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    In Brief: Be Mindful of USB Security Risks

    At next week's Black Hat security conference, researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell plan on presenting a demo of malicious software that shows just how fundamentally at-risk the USB protocol is for unprotected computers. Their software, called BadUSB, lives in the firmware of a USB key, not the flash memory. The researchers say that reprogrammed firmware used as malicious code can't be detected by current anti-virus software. And the scariest part may be that the BadUSB firmware can be installed on any USB device, not just memory sticks.

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    The Computer's First Song

    The 1956 composition "Illiac Suite for String Quartet" is a pleasant enough sounding piece of music – for the first three movements, that is. It's when you get to the fourth and final movement, that things get...weird. The notes sound random and dissonant. It doesn't sound much like music at all. But the peculiarity of "Illiac Suite" makes a little more sense when you realize how it was composed. This was the computer's first algorithmically generated song.

    Programmed in binary by Lejaren A. Hiller, assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois, and Leonard M. Isaacson, a former research associate on the school's Illiac computer, "Illiac Suite" was nevertheless a revelation. That a computer might one day compose music indistinguishable from that of a human artist became an irresistible pop culture trope – for better and for ill. In his New York Times obituary, Hiller is said to have joked that "he would have computers compose all possible rock songs, then copyright them and refuse to let anyone perform them."

    Luckily for us, computers are nowhere close to realizing that humorous albeit dystopian vision. And yet "Illiac Suite" remains an impressive feat, even today.

    Photo credit: University of Illinois

    We can actually trace the beginnings of "Illiac Suite" back to none other than the British mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing. In 1951, Turing published a book on programming for an early computer known then as the Ferranti Mark I*. The machine had a loudspeaker, sometimes called a "hooter," that was used primarily to issue warnings or during debugging. But Turing found that the loudspeaker could also be used to produce solid tones – notes, if you prefer.

    It didn't take long before programmers began to exploit this functionality to playback simply melodies and songs. But two programmers by the name of David Caplin and Dietrich Prinz decided to take things a step further.

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

    9 Smart Gun Technologies Being Developed Right Now

    Gun violence is one of the biggest issues facing America today. The Second Amendment makes restricting the ownership of firearms difficult, so people are turning to science to create solutions to the problem of mentally ill people and criminals using weapons for ill purposes. Today, we’ll examine new technologies being brought to the table to make guns smarter.

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.