Category Archives: Tech

Downloading the Future

Glimpses of the Future

Last March, inside a warehouse on Pier 28 in San Francisco, a rift in space-time shattered the very fabric of reality, challenged every law of modern science, and catapulted the future of the world in strange new directions. Sort of.

It was Worlds Fair Nano, a biannual expo in which the focus is on emerging technology and not-so-far-fetched visions of the future. It was about fifty percent product demos, forty percent forward-thinking talks led by influential innovators, and ten percent food trucks. Inside the packed warehouse there were drone races, virtual reality, motor-unicycles, liquid meals, bionic enhancements, and augmented art displays. Continue reading Downloading the Future

Data Mining: The New Gold Rush

Photo via Arbeck of WikiMedia Commons

 

Data and the insight it provides is power. Simply look at the rash of privacy breaches that struck the NSA, Target, iCloud, Samsung and the United States Postal Service to see what most organizations consider private. Data is growing exponentially, and now more than ever online users need to understand what happens to their data in order to avoid, as Dropbox CEO Drew Houston infamously put it, a “trade off between privacy and convenience.”

The Digital Universe is doubling in size every two years. By 2020 the amount of data will have increased from 4.4 trillion gigabytes in 2013, to 44 trillion gigabytes according to a 2014 study done by the International Data Corporation. In more human terms, today the average household creates enough data to fill 65 32gb iPhones per year. In 2020 this will increase to 318 iPhones, according to EMC – a corporation that offers data storage and analysis.

“The amount of data created in the past two years is more than the amount of data we’ve ever had… So there is a huge amount of data and a need for a way to sort through them,” says Hui Yang, an assistant professor in the Computer Science department at SF State.

The bulk of this data is metadata, or information generated when you use technology. It is everyday data collected from consumers’ activities and can contain information such as locations, IP addresses, web searches and other browser histories. By law, most metadata can be stored indefinitely and, through data mining – a field in computer science that analyzes the patterns and connections among data – can be used to classify anything from relationships between genes and diseases, to which internet users are more likely to buy a company’s product. Using this information for commercial purposes is where data mining gets a bad rep.

Although a currently relevant pop culture term, for decades “data mining” has played an intangible role in the growth and comprehension of the digital universe. It helps find patterns among vast amounts of data that human eyes cannot discover. And while data mining analyzes everything from medical data to business data to human rights, it is one of the tools used by data brokers – companies that collect, maintain, and sell data on millions of consumers generally without the consumer’s permission or knowledge.

The negative stigma that now surrounds any and all kinds of large data collection is a more recent development that is more apparent than the data being acquired, and can largely be attributed to the business built around selling people’s metadata.

According to last year’s report from the International Data Corporation, a market research and analysis firm, “In 2013, two-thirds of the digital universe bits were created or captured by consumers and workers, yet enterprises had liability or responsibility for 85% of the digital universe.”

Data brokers are among these enterprises.

Much of the personal information analyzed through data mining and collected by data brokers is demographic and transaction information about the user, the device, and the activities occurring in between. But credit card information, census data, and more public records are also included.

“This information makes clear that consumers going about their daily activities – from making purchases online and at brick-and-mortar stores, to using social media, to answering surveys to obtain coupons or prizes, to filing for a professional license – should expect that they are generating data that may well end up in the hands of data brokers… without their permission to construct detailed profiles on them reflecting judgments about their characteristics and predicted behaviors,” reads a 2014 Senate committee report.

Generally, analyzed metadata only aims to deduct codes and statistics like IP addresses, but when tracked across multiple platforms, the paper trail can become pretty direct.

Even then the Senate report goes on to say that, “Some privacy and information experts have expressed concerns that re-identification techniques may be used with such data, and questioned whether data that identifies specific computers and devices can truly be considered anonymous.”

Anonymous from who? When the Senate asked data brokers who buys their gathered information, companies across all platforms were named.

“12 of the top 15 credit card issuers; seven of the top 10 retail banks; eight of the top 10 telecom/media companies… three of the top 10 pharmaceutical manufacturers; five of the top 10 life/health insurance providers; nine of the top 10 property and casualty insurers,” reads the 2014 Senate report.

Some of the most known offenders: Yahoo, Twitter, Youtube, Google or DoubleClick, and AOL. But what’s surprising is the type of companies who buy and sell consumers metadata.

Just recently, the Associated Press reported the Affordable Care Act website, where Americans can sign up to receive health care, was sending users’ information to a number of third party companies.

So it seems that no matter how personal, some information is not private information, at least not to these companies. The lack of transparency about the amount and type of information gathered and analyzed is ultimately unknown to most users which makes opting out of having your data collected almost impossible.

But fear not, online user security is becoming more of an immediate concern. In February, President Obama announced new rules requiring intelligence analysts, like the NSA, to delete private information they may accidentally collect about Americans. The President also spoke at The White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University on February 13, discussing legislation intended to strengthen cybersecurity, an issue that he likened to “the wild wild west” according to the New York Times.

Since 2009 and continuing into 2014, the Unites States Federal Trade Commission has recommended that Congress develop legislation that allows consumers to view the information data brokers hold about them. One of the few online consumer rights laws is California’s “Shine the Light” law, which requires companies doing business with Californians to allow customers to opt out of information sharing, or disclose how personal information will be shared.

Hence obscure and needlessly long privacy terms and agreements being more relevant than ever.

“Data mining is relatively new and it’s affecting everyone but it does not have many laws. It’s like a free market,” Yang says. ”People definitely feel like they are being watched, but if you look at privacy and then what people post, (privacy) needs a lot of work.”

To some extent, the fear about data mining can be attributed to a general lack of knowledge and regulation, fueled by headlines about the NSA. On the other hand, users are actively creating and allowing the collection and analysis of their information.

Last quarter Facebook reported an average of 890 million active daily users. A 2012 survey done by Pew Research Center shows that, “More than half of social networking site users (58 percent) say their main profile is set to private.” That still leaves the data of 42 percent of social media users unprotected.

Data is constantly being created, but in the current age it has also come to mean more to not only users but to the companies who consume the data. Data has become a panopticon, a platform on which we create our own images and through which others see our constant updates.

Ultimately, it is up to the user to manage what information they put online. Data mining and other computer sciences can be used by consumers as both an advantage and a disadvantage.

When data is pooled about locations and transactions, business with the companies who analyze this data can be much more personalized. Take Google Now as an example. If you input information such as the location of your home or work, your favorite sports teams, your most frequently made food or grocery orders, or even your airplane tickets and Google Now will provide “relative suggestions” on routes to work, restaurants and events in your area, provide updates on your favorite team, and remind you of when your flight is and when you should leave to arrive on time.

In this setting, what can be considered private information can be sacrificed for convenient personalization.

On the other hand, organizations like Stop Data Mining provide “opt out lists” with links to the opt out pages of companies that collect data. Or for a simpler solution, almost all major browsers contain a “Do Not Track” preference. There are other options to remove or manually manage “cookies” that collect metadata, alternative browsers like DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t collect or share personal information, and of course privacy settings on social media.

As the amount of data continues to grow exponentially, there will be a need for more ways to organize and sort it. What’s data mining’s future?

“More of it. More people from more backgrounds becoming data scientists. More tools for data scientists. More schools teaching data science. More products built on data understanding. Oh, and robots.” says Todd Holloway, a data analyst at Trulia and an organizer of the San Francisco Data Mining Group that teaches how to effectively use data mining to say, for example, win at fantasy football.

Whichever way you bend, know the power of the data you put out and the transparency that it carries.

 

Amazon Launches Handyman Service

Amazon launched a professional handyman business called Amazon Home Services last Monday.

It works through a simple three-step process on their website. You can start by browsing a multitude of services ranging from iPhone repair, car stereo installation, music lessons, and even goat grazing. You then add that service to your cart and pick a time that’s best for the person to come and feed your goats.

The pricing will be known upfront, similar to purchasing a product through their website, except that you will only pay for the service once it’s completed.

The services are provided by professionals in their respective fields and are selected via an invite-only condition by Amazon. So don’t expect to see your cousin who fixes old iPhones on Craigslist to be listed.

This news places Amazon among similar business-referral services such as Yelp or Angie’s List, according to Cnet. Amazon will also offer re-do’s or refunds in cases where the customer’s aren’t satisfied, and the service will provide reviews from verified customers to help shoppers choose, according to TechCrunch.

Boston-based handyman service TaskRabbit announced Monday that they will be integrating with Amazon Home Services in San Francisco as well as other areas in the following weeks.

Finally you can hire someone knowledgable enough to safely mount that flat-screen TV on your ceiling.

 

 

Source: Cnet

New App helps pay for college

Speshh is mobile based. Image from Speshh.com
Speshh is mobile based. Image from Speshh.com

College is great. You meet new friends, get away from home, and live new life experiences but along with all that also comes the enormous debt you pile on semester after semester when you actually attended college. Some of us are lucky, we have great paying jobs which makes it easier to afford colleges and some of us even get scholarships to pay for the tuition, but not everyone is that lucky and needs assistance to pay for college and everything that goes with it.

That’s where Speshh comes in. Speshh is a crowdfunding app that helps college students raise money, all through an app. With Speshh, college students can ask their friends and family but if their goal is not met or looks a little low, Speshh gets involves by asking their business partners to help donate to your cause.

“We found that one of the main reasons that campaigns fail are due to not being shared enough with potential donators,” says Sibel Suleyman, Co-Founder of Speshh. “Speshh could call on business partners who may be able to fund the rest of the campaign with CSR money that is dedicated to this type of activity.”

What makes Speshh different from other crowd-funding sites, like Indiegogo or Kickstarter, is it is completely app based, making it easier for college students to use and access. Speshh is a lot like Kickstarter though, having an “all or nothing” funding behind is. This means that if you don’t reach your goal, then you get none of the money you raised which could be a turn off for students since Indiegogo lets you keep whatever you raise.

Speshh also has a percentage it keeps, like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, but at the beginning of your campaign, Speshh lets you know what the percentage is and works it into the money you need donated so there is no loss for you.

Currently this app is only available to college students, meaning you need an edu email address to register for the app and to begin campaigning.

Speshh is set to release in June 2015 but is currently testing out the app and allowing people to register early.

Instagram introduces new app

Instagram is at it again, slowly trying to become the best photo app ever and destroying the competition while they’re at it. Today Instagram released a new app called Layout which makes it easier for you to create a photo collage but includes much more than that.

Layout also allows you to mirror images, lets you choose up to 9 images to create a collage, and allows you easily resize the image of your choice. You can flip and reverse your photos with a push of a button or use a slider to make one picture smaller, while the other gets bigger.

image2

To make your life even easier, when choosing your photos Layout puts them into ten different collage options, so no need to go around and push buttons to see what collage you like, Layout has already done that for you.

This isn’t the first time that Instagram had tried to take the photo game over either, their first side app that they released, Hyperlapse, did pretty well in the beginning but now it’s just kind of there.

Personally, I think Layout is genus. Not only is it super easy to use, like so easy my Grandma can use it, the creative options they give you are fun to play with and create custom made images of your own. I am a big fan of the mirror image feature and the cropping with just a swipe of a figure, because I am phone challenged and always mess up cropping. What I also like, and I tested my theory, is an image that is too big for Instagram, fits with ease using Layout. That means no more InstaFit Free and those annoying ads that go with them, with Layout it makes it easy for Instagram users can see your hair and the shirt you are wearing.

The reviews from the App Store are also pretty positive, Instagram users are happy with the app and how easy and simple it is to use. Negative comments include not being able to save to your phone and not being able use a photo you’ve taken with the Instagram app, but all minor issues that Instagram is sure to fix.

Layout allows you to choose up to 9 photos, adding them into a collage for you. Photo by Tami Benedict/ Xpress Magazine.
Layout allows you to choose up to 9 photos, adding them into a collage for you. Photo by Tami Benedict/ Xpress Magazine.

Now if Instagram can create an app that allows more space on my phone, that would be great.

The Buildable AR-15

Photos by David Henry

 

A gun is fired once the trigger is pulled, causing the hammer to hit the firing pin, which strikes the primer that ignites the smokeless powder, thus twisting the bullet down the barrel’s rifled interior, and onto its intended target. But in this instance, the gun, an AR-15, could not complete that sequence, without first being completed itself.

The AR-15, with its separable upper and lower receivers, has become the most popular buildable firearm nationwide, given its price and accessories aftermarket. Only recently, the AR-series lower receivers have been available in incomplete form for the user to complete. The less-than-legal nomenclature of “80 percent” has arrived to describe them, requiring machine-work to finish the gun to 100 percent functionality.

Credit: David Henry. AR-15 in its two component pieces.
Credit: David Henry. AR-15 in its two component pieces.

These incomplete firearm receivers, with more than hand tools, adept machining, and adequate funds, can be turned into guns legally without ever stepping foot into a gun store. The Gun Control Act of 1968 clearly states that “an unlicensed individual may make a ‘firearm,’ for his personal use, but not for sale or distribution.”

Carl, of Kerley’s Hunting and Outfitting in Cupertino, California, has been selling the registered, pre-made AR-15’s for more than a decade.

“We don’t sell ’80 percents’ here, but we have been selling fewer AR’s,” Carl said. “I know that we also have been selling a lot of upper receivers… That tells me a fair amount of people are building their own now.”

The upper receiver is combined with the lower, either pre-made at a factory or made by an individual, to make a working gun.

It is important to note that “80 percent” guns are not required to have a serial number, registration, or identifying marks unless for sale or transfer. Sale or transfer must happen under the supervision of a federal firearms license holder: basically gun stores.

Even though they start life as nothing more than fancy paperweights, guns that are made by private individuals must adhere to federal and state laws regarding the legal features of guns once they are operational: This is not a loophole for fully automatic guns. Moreover, if an individual is not eligible for firearm ownership to begin with, milling an incomplete receiver to complete status is still a felony, according to the Gun Control Act.

Even still, final word on what is and is not a firearm comes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. On two separate occasions, once in 2012 and again in late 2013, the ATF wrote memorandums legally qualifying features that constitute completion; all “80 percent” receivers now follow this framework in order to avoid being sold as guns.

In short, the lower receiver must not have the capability of dropping the firing pin on the primer of the bullet, thus ejecting the round. It can, however, have provisions for a grip and buttock, fully-formed magazine well and assembly lugs, and minute aspects like a bolt release lever.

When gun purchases skyrocketed under the specter of President Obama’s 2012 gun control push, which followed the Newtown Connecticut shooting, AR-15’s sold out in days, according to the Office of the Attorney General. Major retailers like Cabela’s, MidwayUSA, and Walmart, had no inventory and no estimates for replenishment.

All told, the ATF estimated that nearly 1.1 million guns were sold in the U.S. for the year 2012 — the most ever in a single year. This statistic was the basis for the National Rifle Association calling President Obama “the best gun salesman in history.”

Credit: David Henry. Two AR-15's; one built, one bought.
Credit: David Henry. Two AR-15’s; one built, one bought.

With demand outstripping supply, new non-gun makers sprang up to sell incomplete AR-series lower receivers to meet demand. These sellers were able to pop up quickly because they were not selling firearms; therefore sellers did not need to apply for an expensive and onerous federal firearms license.

Ares Armor, 80Percent Arms, and the now-famous Defense Distributed, are companies that hold major market share in the buildable firearms industry. These companies, and others, have been so successful that they have moved on from offering just AR-15 components, to offering kits to build AK-47’s and model 1911 pistols: supremely popular guns.

What once fired the basic .223/5.56 caliber cartridge, the buildable AR-15’s can be tailored to the users shooting needs: A bullet as small as a .22lr, designed for plinking soda cans at the range, or something as massive as the .50 BMG, which is designed for extremely long range shooting, can be chambered.

Credit: David Henry. The .223 bolt carrier group for an AR-15.
Credit: David Henry. The .223 bolt carrier group for an AR-15.

The .50 BMG caliber is presently illegal in California after the passage of the 2004 .50 Caliber BMG Regulation Act. California is the only state to enact such restrictions, citing the bullet’s threat to the “health, safety, and security of all residents,” which is the language of the regulation act.

These various caliber options allow AR owners to quickly change their upper receiver, while keeping their original lower receiver to fire a different caliber based on what ammunition is available.

The culmination of all this is the gun owners, who seem to face stigma due to the actions of a psychotic few, want anonymity, choice, and convenience.

Greg Phaxton is a gun collector and shooting enthusiast who has recently turned an “80 percent” lower into a shooting, precise gun.

“I really think the ’80 percent’ receiver has changed how we view guns and regulations forever,” said Phaxton. “I first bought one ’80 percent’ receiver, did a rough job finishing it, and it shot just like my Bushmaster.”

Bushmaster, located in Windham, Maine, has been a long-time producer of the AR-15.

“Nearly every caliber I can afford to shoot, I can make an AR for now,” Phaxton said. “It still is expensive though.”

Factory-made AR-15’s can sell for as low as $799 to as high as $5,000; The average “80 percent” is $120, but depending on the quality of material, design aspects, and caliber, the price fluctuates.

Credit: David Henry. AR-15 during ceasefire.
Credit: David Henry. AR-15 during ceasefire.

Nevertheless, the tooling to complete a receiver can be hugely expensive. Factors of speed, repetition, precision, and automation, all play a role in deciding what tools to buy.

A $72 Ryobi router with $50 worth of end-mills could complete the job, but ensuring tight tolerances would be hard. On the other hand, a $60,000 5-axis CNC machine could complete the job to within one thousandths of an inch by hitting the “enter” key on a keyboard.

Even still, once tooling has been acquired, further spending is still required; but the buildable firearms trend is not about cost cutting. It is done in a sort of protest, a pushback against gun-owner generalization, or simply to stay off the grid.

“I just want to be left alone,” Phaxton said. “I’ve broken no laws.”

OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood Review

Platforms: PS4, Playstation Vita
Release Date: March 3, 2015

The first OlliOlli was the perfect arcadey skating game. Plain and simple.

Nailing kickflips and crooked grinds was a sublime way to pass the time before bed or while pooping. A long list of increasingly difficult challenges and huge array of tricks allowed this game to have replay value, but in small chunks to fit the platform it was made for, being the Playstation Vita.

OlliOlli 2: Welcome to Olliwood is the follow-up coming only a year and change later, sporting a slick new look and promising a multitude of added features. Piling on bullet-point worthy features may sound like a boastful press release, but they each improve a game with an already incredible foundation.

The pure art of OlliOlli 2 is how it forces the player to step their game up. There are no upgrades. There are no skill points. The more you play, the better you will eventually get at extending combos and destroying your old high scores. Timing, patience, and skill are encouraged with progression, and so is that rewarding fuzzy feeling of mastering something that once stood as a challenge. In a world where experience bars dominate each release, it’s refreshing to see an experience bar that is a bit more intrinsic.

Points are important though, because they make up the whole crux of the game. Achieving lengthy combos is possible through linking tricks together and finding ways to add to the almighty point multiplier. In the first OlliOlli, this was only possible through chaining grinds in between tricks. Once you stuck the landing, your combo ended, which limited how you could rack up millions of points.

I hear the ancient Mayans would also nosegrind back in the day.
I hear the ancient Mayans would also nosegrind back in the day.

OlliOlli 2 adds some new basic tricks, but manuals, reverts, and grind switching all open up combo-extending possibilities and subsequently provides a wealth of new strategies. Manuals and reverts (which can be linked) yield ways to add to the multiplier on the ground, which gives more choice and opens up the level design. Worlds no longer have to have endless grind rails because these new moves give more ways to link combos together that don’t require a grindable surface.

Grind switching, which allows the player to switch grind mid-rail, is a smaller addition, but a great one nonetheless because it widens the set of available skills and is another way to increase the multiplier. Including manuals, reverts, and grind switching may seem small, however they add an exponential amount of depth because each new skill becomes yet another tool to master.

Here's an exclusive look at Pacific Rim 2, although sadly this sequel has no Ron Perlman or Charlie Day.
Here’s an exclusive look at Pacific Rim 2, although sadly this sequel has no Ron Perlman or Charlie Day.

The depth will showcase to players willing to put in the time to see it, which is an easy given considering the amount of content OlliOlli 2 has. In addition to the score-heavy Daily Grinds and Spots, there are five worlds with five normal levels and five hard levels apiece. Once all challenges are completed, RAD mode is unlocked, which is a super hard mode for the Tony Hawk-iest of Tony Hawks. On paper, it doesn’t seem like a lot, but knocking out challenges one by one takes multiple runs through levels that already have splitting paths. The variability of the gameplay and the dozens upon dozens of challenges gives OlliOlli 2 plenty of replay value for those willing to seek it.

I say “seek it” because most levels need to be unlocked through achieving certain hard tasks. OlliOlli 2 is a difficult game, yet never frustrating. Sure, some levels require clairvoyance and path memorization, though the extremely quick restart timer alleviates any possible aggravation. You don’t even have time to get mad because you’ll already be rolling on your next run.

Fun fact: cowboys would often settle duels at high noon by doing laserflips and darkside grinds.
Fun fact: cowboys would often settle duels at high noon by doing laserflips and darkside grinds.

No matter the trial or world, OlliOlli 2’s funky fresh visuals pack heat. Simplicity carries the visual style since it is only made up of a few colors, however the brightness pairs well with game’s inventive fantastical worlds. I didn’t expect to be skating through a zombie roller-coaster or a Pacific Rim-esque graveyard, yet I was delighted that these unique world ideas allow for some clever visual change-ups from the usual Earthy locales. The soundtrack is also a highlight, featuring smooth tunes that feel right at home in a skateboarding game. It’s a kind of soundtrack that you can sit back and, say, write a review to.

OlliOlli 2 is just about as good as it can be. Striking that balance between keeping what works, streamlining what is there, and adding new content is tricky, but developer Roll7 did exactly what needed to be done to ensure OlliOlli 2 was the definitive OlliOlli experience. The tiny additions like ramps and a new graphical style deserve props but reverts and manuals drastically better the game by adding an abundance of new strategies. OlliOlli 2’s best features are being simple, deep, and replay-able, which make it a fantastic arcade-y skateboarding game, and the ultimate portable experience. Tony Hawk should be jealous.

Perfect!:

+Girthy amount of content
+Intuitive trick system is easy to immediately grasp but has layers of depth for differing skillsets
+Pretty, minimalistic visual style and catchy soundtrack

Sketchy:

-Some levels require some memorization

olliolli2 score

Forget about your selfie stick

Photo by Maria Bruun-Schmidt / Xpress Magazine

 

Film your exercise with a flying go pro!

A drone has just left the ground.

It’s rising with steady speed while singing like a gigantic bumblebee that also has characteristics of a drone.

In San Francisco, Dolores Park is turned into a spin-off of Big Brother, where the drone follows all the activity in the park from above; athletic women attempting to hula hoop, the dog owners in the corner, the line for the bathroom, and the couples kissing in the grass.

One man is monitoring it all. He is controlling the drone with a remote controller, although it looks a lot like he is playing a PlayStation.

Antoine Level is a passionate entrepreneur from France, who is making a demo of he and his French colleagues’ newly developed flying camera, HEXO+, a camera that follows and films you autonomously. When you attach a GoPro camera to the drone and set your framing in the HEXO+ app, you are ready to film from the sky.

“A lot of people use it for sports – running, skiing, skateboarding – you name it. In that way you can record you active moments – whether it is to capture the moment or to see how you can e.g. improve your running style. It is giving new perspectives to a go-pro camera,” said Level, who is the CEO of HEXO+.

The company was founded in August 2013. Last summer, HEXO+ was completely funded in one hour during their Kickstarter campaign, and in one month the HEXO+ raised $1,306,920 from 2236 people, according to the tech-blog ProVideo Coalition.

The final product will be available in May 2015.

“There are possibilities for us here in US because of the great context between the product we develop and the American market,” said Level.

Meanwhile changes can, and will, always be made. The HEXO+ developers would like to improve the flying GoPro in the future.

“We would like to adjust the size of the drone so it gets smaller – and easier to work with on outdoor adventures,” said Medhi Mugnier, the digital project manager of HEXO+.

Level bends down to activate the GoPro camera on the drone in front of his feet. He gets up again, pulls his phone out, enlarges the image on the screen, then hands me the phone.

Suddenly the deep sound from the drone increases. It’s right behind me. I start to run. The drone follows my every step. It can fly with a speed of up to 42 mph. I make a spontaneously turn – and another one – the drone follows while I’m running in circles around Dolores Park. Turns out, it is not following me, but the GPS on the iPhone that’s in my hands.

I’ve only just completed the circle around the park before the drone is yelling: “Low on battery.” I stopped at my starting point, yet the drone continued – with a steady pace – right into a big tree nearby.

Level looks at HEXO+ that is lodged in a tree. Photo by Maria Bruun-Schmidt/ Xpress Magazine
Level looks at HEXO+ that is lodged in a tree. Photo by Maria Bruun-Schmidt/ Xpress Magazine

“That was not planned,” said Level. He then ran toward the drone, which was hanging in a tree. Nearly 15 minutes pass before Level, and a group of others, manage to shake the drone out of the branches.

“That happens, I guess we have to charge it next time we fly with it,” said Level.

To find more visit the HEXO+ webpage.

 

Game of Drones

Be sure to check out more of this story in this month’s edition of Xpress Magazine! Photos by Drake Newkirk

Teams of builders, college graduates, and hobbyists gathered to fight each other to the death on a large field at Oakland’s Shoreline Park. They’ve come with knowledge of robotics to commandeer aerial drones to fight, or race, one another in a battle of speed and finesse. Their weapons: flying robots, or drones, are still under review by the Federal Aviation Commission. However, that hasn’t stopped Marque Cornblatt from pitting them against one another to fight in an arena-style tournament he calls Game of Drones.

Cornblatt is an SF State alumnus and co-founder of Game of Drones, an Oakland-based company, which launched a successful Kickstarter, early last year that enabled them to purchase a 3D printer to craft prototype parts for an indestructible drone body. The end product is their Hiro airframe, an impact and fire body that weighs less than a pound.

The Kickstarter, which raised $51,143, was a tremendous success and convinced Cornblatt to launch his hardware company with Eli Delia, also a co-founder.

“I like to call myself a garage engineer,” said Cornblatt, as he reflected on his passion for machinery.

YouTube videos posted by Cornblatt’s production company show him and his colleagues attempting to destroy their drone frame by: shooting it with shotgun shells, savagely beating it with a baseball bat, and attempting to set it on fire.

As a student, Cornblatt studied various degrees of machine art, a deviation from contemporary art forms that focused on bold colors and mechanistic forms. What was initially a hobby, the Kickstarter convinced him that drones can be a viable business.

He and Delia are expected to launch an entire product line related to Game of Drones mid-2015. Until then, they’ve been busy contacting the Federal Aviation Administration regarding regulation as well as filing patents for their products.

Back at Shoreline Park, an audience waits for a drone race to start. Randy Parco regularly attends Game of Drones and brought his family to watch him compete in the races. According to Parco, he learned a lot about drone assembly by watching tutorials on YouTube. Similar to how car enthusiasts would modify their cars to obtain peak performance, these YouTube engineers and hobbyists are altering their drones to obtain a competitive edge. Parco equipped his drone with a first-person camera and GPS stabilizers to assist him during the race.

“People are just geeking out on the technology,” Parco said. “You need to learn how to fly or else your drone will land on the White House Lawn.”

DJI, a Chinese-based company, introduced their Phantom drone to the U.S market, which helped paved the way for a mainstream audience to adopt drone flying as a hobby. Unfortunately, their drone was the same one that crashed on White House grounds in early 2015, where an un-named government employee crashed his Phantom drone in a drunken stupor at 3 a.m. Despite it being illegal to fly a model aircraft or drone in the nation’s capital, the pilot was not charged. DJI responded by issuing a firmware update called the “White House Patch” which limits flights above Washington D.C., according to their press release.

Parco said that the White House incident could have been avoided if the pilot treated the drone with some respect. He added that the drone pilots must be passionate about their vehicles, because passion is a key to proper flying.

Parco brought two of his drones, which he learned to create by watching various YouTube instructional videos, to Shoreline Park. With a front row view of the action, strapped with a Fat Shark brand headset, he raced his camera-equipped drone.

“If you’re really into it, you’re going to fall off your chair,” said Parco.

Tinkering away across the field, Frank Aalbers brought both his racing and fighting drone to the event. Aalbers, who works at Pixar as a technical director, started working with drones only half a year ago, had four of his drones on display on a picnic table. His fighting drone, Metallico, or as he called it “El Metallico”, was set to fight in Game of Drones. The rules for the deathmatch are simple: Two drones enter the arena, last one flying wins, and if both drones crash, the first one back in the air is the victor.

The drone arena, also known as the battlecage, consists of a net barrier that prevents the drones from wildly spinning out after clashing into one another. Aalbers, wearing a black conference shirt tucked underneath a pair of ashen-gray pants, is seen smiling as he enters the cage. His drone is equipped with two fixed metal prongs resembling helicopter blades with the words “protect” sharpied on each. This modification gives Metallico a unique look from the other fighters as it cuts through the air.

However, Metallico did not win its first fight, the metal prongs and parts of its rotor were ripped apart by the opponent. Thomas Jacobson is fighting Aalbers with his drone named Spike, which is decorated with numerous sharp metal prongs protruding from its body. Jacobson uses these spikes to his advantage by hovering over the enemy and quickly impaling them by slamming its body towards the ground.

Amy Chen Aalbers came to support her husband Frank.

“He’s 50 years old and he’s acting like a kid again!” screamed Chen, as Aalbers was fighting again in the battlecage, his screams of jolly laughter reverberated through the park.

“Your next pizza, maybe 15 years from now, may be delivered by these guys,” Chen laughed as she discussed the possible impact of drones in the future.

Game of Drones has been featured on numerous news outlets such as Good Morning America and Wired. Cornblatt had no clue that the popularity of Game of Drones would such a spectacle that it would turn out to be. His friend, Edie Sellers, expressed much excitement over the future potential impact of drones.

“This feels like the beginning of the internet,” said Sellers. “It’s like a lemonade stand that exploded! It’s been a hell of a lot of fun.”

According to Sellers, Cornblatt, Delia, and everyone working with Game of Drones, they are searching for ways to cooperate with the FAA in establishing drone safety awareness. Sellers referred to drone regulation as uncharted territory, and factored in the potential impact Game of Drones will have in establishing safety regulations. Coincidentally, the FAA posted updated drone safety guidelines that same day, she noted.

As the sun was setting, Cornblatt and Sellers expressed excitement for next month’s Game of Drones.

“We’re only going to have more spectators every single time!” stated Sellers as she smiled and gazed at the park.

Cornblatt had recently returned from New York to videotape a segment on Good Morning America in which he flew and showcased his drones to millions of viewers across the   country.

“Our next phase is getting investment capital to expand past our initial Kickstarter campaign,” said Cornblatt.

Until then, he and his company will continue facilitating Game of Drones events as well as working with other various drone organizations to build the foundation for proper drone etiquette and regulations.

Apple Announces New Goodies

Get your wallet ready because Apple revealed new goodies at their “Spring Forward” press event in San Francisco. The long-awaited Apple Watch, a new super-thin Macbook, and HBO NOW Streaming Service were the highlights of the event.

Image provided by Apple
Image provided by Apple

The Apple Watch is slated to come in different models based on size and their intended use but all are expected to hold an 18-hour battery life. The entry level variants, Watch and Watch Sport which both feature a stainless steel case, are priced starting at $349 for 38mm  and $399 for 42mm sizes.

A standard steel case version starts at $549 and can go as high as $1,049 depending on the band you’d like. However, those models are cheap compared to the $10,000 Edition version which touts an 18-karat gold case with options that can rack the price up towards $17,000.

An iPhone 5 or higher is required for use of all Watch models.

Macbook 2015
Image provided by cnet

 

The new 2015 Macbook is the thinnest 12″ laptop that Apple has ever made, coming in at just 13.1mm thin and sporting a 2304 x 1440 resolution. While keeping close to Apple’s iconic Macbook design, there have been a few changes to the keyboard and inputs were implemented.

The keyboard uses a “butterfly” mechanicism which uses a single assembly that allows the laptop to be 40 percent thinner. The trackpad no longer has a hinge when clicked and has been substituted with the feel of a click through haptic feedback vibration. There will be no internal fan and there will be two ports, which include a headphone jack and USB-C, a new USB variant, which will allow you to charge your Macbook without a power supply, similar to charging a tablet.

Each model comes in three colors: space gray, silver, and gold.

HBO NOW Streaming Service was detailed and you’ll now be able to watch your Game of Thrones on demand and on up to three devices simultaneously. At $14.99 per month, service to HBO NOW will be available through all Apple devices including the Apple TV, which also had its price cut to $69. All customers will receive a free month if they sign up from an Apple device during April.

Pre-orders for the Watch and Macbook will be available on April 10 and the estimated shipping date is April 24.

 

HTC and Valve debut virtual reality headset

The device, called Vive, uses cutting-edge VR technology in the form of dual light sensors. Photo courtesy of Valve

The Oculus Rift is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when virtual reality (VR) headsets are mentioned. The device, which was initially funded by a successful Kickstarter, is also supported by gaming industry veterans like John Carmack and Cliff Blezinski. The possibility of putting on a headset and immersing yourself in a different world became more possible after its success. However, competitors saw the rising popularity of the Oculus headset and have entered the market with their own products, like how Sony is bringing its own version of VR to gamers in the form of Project Morpheus, a headset catered specifically to work with Playstation 4 consoles. Competition has gotten even more fierce with the recent announcement of another VR headset called Vive, introduced at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, a device created in collaboration with software company Valve and hardware company HTC.

What sets Vive apart from the Oculus and Morpheus headsets is the inclusion of light sensors built into the product itself. Competitors have used a single point, such as a camera, to detect the user and estimate his or her place in a 3d space. The Vive headset instead uses two transmitters that would have to be placed in the room so that the wearer’s light sensors can communicate with the transmitters. Thus, an extra level of freedom is given by not having the 3D space limited to the peripheral view of a single point. The user has a longer range of freedom to walk around the room. This works opposite of how Morpheus and Oculus detects the user by reversing the roles of the cameras’ tracking properties and having the user become the camera. Think of it as the freedom of running on a treadmill versus running in your neighborhood.

The best part about this all? Valve is releasing its lighthouse technology for free so that other VR manufacturers such as Sony and Oculus can adopt it into their hardware. Imagine playing Goat Simulator with a Vive. Someone should develop a device that connects to our tongues so that we can not only be a goat, but eat and taste virtual grass as well for maximum points.