Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meet Ubi: An always-on, connected computer that talks back

From HAL 9000 in Arthur C Clarke's Space Odyssey science fiction saga to Eddie and Deep Thought from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or even Dr. Theopolis from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, voice interaction with computers was very much the stuff of science fiction when I was growing up. These days, of course, I can use my voice to tell an iPod touch to change music or get convincingly beaten in a TV game show by IBM's Watson but when shopping for a new computer, available options still depend on physical touch for input and visuals for output. The folks behind the ubiquitous computer (or Ubi for short) are hoping to change that by launching an affordable, unobtrusive and useful little box that's always ready and waiting to tell you what you need to know.

The 4 x 4 x 1.1-inch (101.6 x 101.6 x 27.94-mm) Ubi plugs into a standard 100-240 VAC / 50-60-Hz power outlet and wirelessly connects to a home/office router using built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi technology (set up and configuration of the latter can be undertaken using voice, smartphone or PC). To the front of the unit is a power on/off button, under which are stereo speakers and an omni-directional microphone (with -40 dBV/Pa ±3 dB sensitivity in the working prototype but this may change). A user attracts Ubi's attention by calling out its name.

Ubi uses voice recognition technology to listen for plain language commands, responding to requests in a synthesized voice or offering simple status updates using the multi-colored LED indicator lights. It's been designed to synchronize with other Ubis in the home or office, and users should be able to move from room to room and interact with devices in different locations as though they were one unit.

Voice-enabled internet search, speakerphone (via Skype/Google Talk), intercom, home monitoring and home automation (through web-enabled hardware) are among Ubi's initial use scenarios. The device also holds potential for in-home assistance for folks with mobility or sight problems and the development team of Leor Grebler, Amin Abdossalami and Mahyar Fotoohi says that other concepts currently being explored are mood, voice, and footstep recognition, room-to-room music piping, and environment modeling.

Ubi will ship with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) running the show, and be powered by an 800 MHz ARM Cortex-A8 Processor supported by 1 GB of system memory. There'll be 4 GB of solid state storage with microSD expansion, there's a USB port to the side to physically connect (or charge) external devices or for pen drive storage and a 3.5 mm audio out jack above. The unit is reported to be capable of retaining saved apps and files when powered off or if there's an outage, but there's currently no battery backup.

Like last year's Twine unit, onboard temperature, humidity, air pressure and ambient light sensors allow Ubi to keep users updated on environmental conditions surrounding the unit or trigger notifications to be sent when events are detected, such as a room light being switched on or the temperature in a baby's room getting too high.

Users can program and control functionality using a custom iOS/Android app running on a mobile device, and the system's platform is being opened up to developers via an SDK to further expand the available applications, integrate Ubi with other devices via Bluetooth 4.0 or RF transmitters and cater for all sorts of inventive hacks and tweaks.

Ubi is yet to obtain FCC and CE safety approval, but the team hopes that a campaign launch on crowd-funding portal Kickstarter will help toward achieving this (as well as providing enough of a cash injection to get Ubi into production).

Backers are being asked to pledge US$189 to secure a single unit, with multiple buys also available. Should the target be met (and early signs are good), Ubi will be made available to the wider public for $199 early next year.

Monday, July 30, 2012

DIY AR-15 that fires real bullets - 3D printed with $30 worth of plastic

Yesterday a friend and I were talking about the ability to manufacture objects in your own home. He brought up a case where a guy has 3D printed his own AR-15, which fired 2,000 rounds before it finally broke. This technology means the gun isn't registered and the evidence can be destroyed with a match. A 6 year old could create a Sten (Imperia Submachine Gun) with household items. Or any one of us could download a file and with $30 worth of plastic, have a working weapon capable of firing real ammunition.

Ammunition control? That's just as hard, if not harder, considering you can carry a pocket full of plastic bullets (just as deadly) into an airport and board a plane undetected. We have the technology already. The focus should be on creating an overall happier society and figuring out what to do when these things occur, not making legal, registered guns illegal. Criminalizing regular honest civilians should never be the answer to any small percentage of the population that doesn't follow the laws in the first place. Are they now going to limit the sale of plastic?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Robotics Club Online via Video Chat on Google

I am officially structuring a "Robotics Club Meetup Hangout" on Google Plus to take place once a week and streamed to YouTube.

I would like to be joined by those with a strong background in Robotics, Arduino, Open-source Hardware, etc. We will be discussing our opinions on the local Robot news and various topics. If you feel strong enough to be involved, please let me know. If you know someone who is, please let me know. This will be streamed On-Air so anyone can watch and ask questions and I may be able to get Kelly Ness to moderate questions and comments so that we can answer questions on the fly. Sireesh Adimadhyam , Richard Wooding , Steve Berry Andrew Smith and Axel Lottel are all definite invitees. We need to work out which evenings will work best - I'm leaning toward Saturday afternoon or evening seeing as how we have a real-live Robotics Club on Sundays. We may even use every other Sunday, for the days we aren't meeting IRL.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What's the difference between Netduino and Arduino?

A friend asked "What's the difference between Arduino and Netduino?", so...

I actually just watched a presentation by Chris Walker (the inventor of the Netduino) a couple of months back.

The Netduino is 100% open source and provides Arduino shield pin compatibility. Like the XDuino and other non-AVR "duino" platforms before, they also provide code compatibility with the Processing libraries used on Arduino.

The Netduino uses the standard .NET Micro Framework SDK. If you outgrow the Netduino, there are a number of high-end boards (200MHz! 8MB!) that you can get for a few hundred dollars. Some even have integrated networking and touchscreens. Any standard .NET Micro Framework code should move between boards by simply re-deploying the application to another board. Plus, their design files are Creative Commons licensed--so you can remix them into your own custom board if you'd like. Lots of commercial customers will do this in high-volume applications.

That said, most microcontroller projects will work nicely on the Netduino.

The Netduino SDK includes added functionality (AnalogInput, PWM) which is Netduino-specific. But it's open-source, so if you wanted to use your code on another platform you could port the behind-the-scenes C code for that to another processor as well.

Now, for a comparison between the Arduino and the Netduino... Arduino is actually a pretty cool board, and the guys who run the project are pretty swell guys. Here are a few points of differentiation:

1. Arduino uses a simplified version of C, so it's pretty low-level. If you're making a really fast-moving blinking lights application using the GPIO pins directly, Arduino is probably a better choice. Netduino uses managed code--which does lots of awesome things for you (and many of them very efficiently)--but there's some additional overhead there.

2. Netduino is 48MHz, 32-bit, has 128KB of Flash (up to 200KB if you remove FileSystem support and such), 60KB of RAM, etc. Arduino is 16MHz, 8-bit, has 32KB of Flash, and a few KB of RAM. They have higher-end versions available with more Flash.

3. Both platforms can be used for simple projects in a pretty straightforward fashion. But as you create larger, more sophisticated programs... As you start wanting to pause your code and step through it to fix a bug in your code... And especially if you like event-based programming, garbage collection, and threading... Well, that's where Netduino becomes the only option.

Both projects (Arduino and Netduino) are helping build the same open source community. They'll also be building some very specific accessories for Netduino and actively promoting and supporting them for Arduino. They'd like to see the whole community grow. But that said, Netduino is a really excellent product. If you want to do cool things with a microcontroller--without all the complication--Netduino is for you.

Tahoe II by Device Solutions (100MHz)

Comparison Table

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gearboxes (live and learn)

Some months back, we did an "Introduction to Arduino" then later a complete class teaching our members how to build a robot from scratch. Most of the parts were ordered from, as they offered us a great discount on shipping and then an additional 10%, making it possible for us to create a nearly $60 kit (with shipping) for under $40 per person. The only parts we didn't provide were the Arduino board and batteries (as most people have them already).

The Tamiya gearbox assemblies we ordered were of high quality plastic, metal and even came with lithium grease, but during the class we faced many hardships. You can find great reviews online (these really are good gearbox assemblies at a decent price), but I thought I'd give my 2 cents about why we probably will not be using this model in the future for large classes and give a list of solutions in case you run into the same problems as we did.

1.) Assembly took roughly 90 minutes. It was a great exercise in patience and eye/hand coordination, but I don't think it's something I need to do more than once in a lifetime.

2.) Working with 40 people in a presentation room means when you drop one tiny screw or gear, you're out another 10 minutes crawling around on the floor searching for it.

3.) There are NO EXTRA PARTS. If you lose something, you do not have a working gearbox.

4.) A few people complained that the boxes they received had been opened already (I was the only one with access and didn't tamper with them) and there would be a small grommet or screw missing which impeded the functionality of their Robot.

5.) The bottom of the box is left open, which in most cases is fine, but considering our robots were running around in non-sterile environments, any dust, hair, carpet fibers or dirt from the ground would stick to the grease and create wear on the teeth of the gears over time. We were able to remedy this mostly by applying a few short strips of masking tape to cover the opening. Just make sure the tape doesn't touch the gears.

Now, in the future, we are looking into going with a completely contained gearbox assembly that comes in two separate parts so that they can be spread as far apart or butted up against once another if needed. I've already spoken to someone about getting a few to test with and will post an update with my findings.

Any suggestions?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Progress on the SeaPerch & SeaHawk

Yesterday after flying Quadcopters, Sireesh Adimadhyam and I water-tested the Autonomous Aquatic Vehicle components we've been working on. Today, we will be at Motion Picture Marine, joined by a few others putting some more complete designs together before we have to pack everything up for AUVSI-DARPA Conference in Norfolk, VA. next week.

Today around noon I will be in Google+ Hangouts working on sensors and motors, soldering and uploading code. I'll try to post a blog with documentation, schematics and photos within a couple of weeks. :)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Drone pilot finds “river of blood” outside Dallas meatpacking plant

A drone pilot hobbyist in Dallas stumbled across a river of blood coming from a large meatpacking plant. The small drone plane had a camera equipped, which captured images of the red river, suspected of being made of pig blood from the plant.

"I was looking at images after the flight that showed a blood red creek and was thinking, could this really be what I think it is? Can you really do that, surely not?" the pilot tells sUAS News. "Whatever it is, it was flat out gross. Then comes the question of who do I report this to that can find out what it is and where it is coming from."

The pilot, who has asked to remain anonymous, was put in touch with the Texas Environmental Crimes Task Force, who began monitoring the plant for violations. "Any time there is some type of discharge into the Trinity River… especially from an environmental standpoint, this is a real concern," Health and Human Services chief Zach Thompson told sUAS News. "I think they discovered a secondary pipe again is my understanding, so the question is who installed the pipe and why was it there."

The drone hobbyist says he captured the footage from the plant using only a point and shoot camera and a $75 airframe.

-Via Yahoo News, Dallas, TX.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Inspiration For Those Harvesting Our Future

Today I got to meet a fellow Robot Geek, Joe Beam, who brought his 8 year old daughter along (also enthusiastic about robots). I am seeing an increasing desire in little girls to program and build and hack and get their hands dirty and their minds strong. I can only hope that any parent (especially fathers) who see this in their little girls please please please buy them some LEGO blocks and help them put together their first tool kits. Please do this for the future of our species. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

OPEN LAB - First Day In New Location

We'd like to send out a big thank you to Black Design Associates, LLC for hosting more than 50 members this past Sunday. They have also offered to continue to do so for upcoming events in their office space in El Segundo. Black Design is an incubator and product development consultancy. They have an amazing 3,500 square foot, three-story space with Terrazzo floors (I personally love Terrazzo), lots of sunlight and a nifty Objet 3-D printer. Their machine shop, boasting a vacuum form, mill and laid, produces wonders of design, and their irreverent, no-nonsense campaigns take quality and simplicity, and jelly-roll them in style. Check out this Leica i9 concept that Black Design developed. It's hipsta-geek cool.

Aerial View of Group

Some other shout-outs from today’s lab go to Junix from Robotis who is very graciously donating one of their OLLO kits to the LA Robotics club for us to test. Junix showed us a line following program, and little Kutya, our club mascot was terrified and curious of this being that moved, but was without smell.

Kutya and Darwin

We also had some fun with DARwIn-OP. There may be other donations and tutorials coming from Robotis, who are interested in being involved in STEM programs for young children, so we’ll keep you posted here and on the meet-up site.

Darwin by Robotis

The LA Robotics Club will also be promoting and supporting the Robotis booth at Maker Faire this year. Hopefully, many of you can join us. So far, 16 club members are planning to attend. If you'd like to RSVP, you can get tickets here.

Today our featured member project comes from Tahnee, and it’s a “KIT-e-CAT.” I just made that up. :) She is using an Arduino Uno, conductive thread, LCD displays for eyes with IR sensors on each side for motion tracking. It's almost(!) cuddly, and its audio output purr is a delight. We'll post video when this cat comes to life.


And lastly, Michael and I worked on the next installment of the ArdBot project for Lab. "Mood light" will include a piezo buzzer and RGB LED combo. We soldered the current limiting resistors for each LED in-line with a cut jumper wire and then protected it with short lengths of shrink tubing. Pink heat guns are hawt!!

Sasha with a heat gun

We are off for Mother's Day this weekend, and then Maker Faire is the following weekend of the 19th and 20th. So if members would like to bring their ArdBot kits in that last weekend of May, we can ready some of the bits and pieces that take quite a bit of time, like the heat shrink resistor wiring. Prepping this will help things move more smoothly on the day of our next ArdBot class.

See you at our next lab. 'Til then, happy tinkering!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

New Location in El Segundo

I am going to visit the new location tomorrow where we will be hosting the Open Labs. Excited? Heck yeah!