Friday, February 27, 2015

Clip 2 "life-logger" camera

​Earlier this year, Narrative announced the next version of their Clip 2 wearable camera. It’s basically a “life logger” that takes a photograph every 30 seconds. 

Clip 2 can connect to WiF​​​i and Bluetooth to automatically upload​clip.jpg it’s pictures. Or you can locally store them and view/manage them with your phone using Bluetooth.

This version has an 8MP, 90-degree lens with better low-light sensitivity. Works with iOS, Android and a desktop app. It’ll be priced at $199 (when it ships, later this year.)

It might be valuable for logging trips or other highly visual tasks to help jog your memory after the fact - perhaps useful for memory impaired people. Be aware, however, that this would violate Owens Corning’s camera policy and could result in intellectual property leakage.

These kinds of devices are becoming more and more common with police and emergency personnel. And cameras like the GoPro are popular in the action/sporting community. This trend is likely to accelerate.

These kinds of things could be used in business by security or maintenance personnel to record their “rounds”, or auditors to capture physical audit information.

Have you used something like this? ​​Your thoughts?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Cortana and Siri and Now...

Now that I've had a chance to see them all, I thought I'd do a quick take on my impressions of Apple Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana. Obviously a lot of this is subjective and your mileage may vary. 

I'm an Apple user, so I'm most familiar with Siri. I've also used Google Now on a PC and iOS. With the advent of the technical preview of Windows 10, I finally had a chance to play with Cortana. (Just be aware that I'm biased toward the Apple platform and this may color my comments.)

So, how do they work?

They all have voice recognition interfaces and they all seem to hear and understand most of what I'm saying. I think Google Now may be the best in terms of accuracy. As far as the usefulness of the responses, Siri lags. Instead of giving me an audible answer to a simple question, she tends to "find" things on the web and then show me the web page. Siri is pretty good at doing things like making phone calls and setting reminders and tasks – that's how I use it most often. Google seems to do the best at reading me answers to my questions, and does pretty well with follow-up questions. Cortana mostly provides its answers on-screen.

While Siri is good at setting reminders, Cortana has a cool reminder feature – you can tie reminders to people. So if you say "remind me to say happy birthday to Jan next time I talk to her", Cortana will remind you if you get a text or email from her or if you have a meeting scheduled with her. (I should say that I have not actually used this feature as I don't do calendaring on Cortana.)

Ease of use

I think Google Now is the best – you can just say the "OK Google" keyword and it will hear you (there's a setting that you need to make in "Settings" to turn it on.) With Cortana and Siri you have to search or long press the Home button. You can have Siri listen for you to speak, but only when your phone is plugged in and charging(?) Just being able to talk to your devices a la Now is really the most convenient. This works on the iPhone version of Google Now, but the app has to be running in the foreground. I've only used Cortana on a Windows 10 preview PC and the only way it works is to get to the search field – once you're there you can type a query or ask Cortana.


I think Google Now works best at integration with the rest of your life (particularly if you use gmail and other google tools.) And since google's business is centered on search, I think it typically provides the most thorough answers.

Bottom line

Since I'm primarily an Apple user, I've spent a lot of time using Apple software and am most familiar with it. I'm generally content with Siri, but honestly the more I use Google products, the more I like them and Now is no exception. Cortana is still too new and other problems with Windows 10 stability affects my perceptions of it (I'm using a really early preview and I expect this will improve dramatically…) If I were using a Google phone, I would likely choose Google Now. For desktop use, I think Google Now works best.

Are you using any of these? What are your impressions?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Conference room video

At home, solutions like Apple TV and Google Chromecast provide a way to display the contents of your tablet, Mac or PC onto your big screen TV. 

At work, it's a bit more challenging. Some shops use the once-ubiquitous VGA cable to connect PC's to projectors or big-screen monitors. But, today, there are at least a half dozen popular wired interfaces that you'd need to support (DVI, micro-display port, HDMI, USB, VGA, etc.) And that means stringing a lot of wire, keeping a collection of adapters in the room and only having one user present at a time.

If you want to go wireless, different software protocols make it challenging to display content from different sources and some of the products use protocols that don't play well with corporate networking standards.

At work, we've looked at a number of different devices to do this, but they've all been either cumbersome to use or expensive to buy, configure and maintain. 

Recently, our video architect, found a product that provides the ability we've been looking for.

It's called Kramer VIA Connect. It provides wireless display capability to Mac's, PC's, iOS devices and Android devices.  Up to 4 screens at a time can be displayed on one monitor using wired or WiFi connections. 1080p streaming is supported and the contents of the stream are encrypted. It also provides for collaborative annotation using a touchscreen, and allows file sharing and desktop takeover as well.

Priced under $1000 they're much less expensive than some of the previous in-room solutions we've looked at. I'm still waiting for a demo, but when I've seen one, I'll report back here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Neptune Duo wearable phone

Here's an interesting twist in a watch/phone combo.

It's called Neptune Duo and consists of a wearable smartphone/watch with a secondary/dumb display for your pocket.

The wrist-worn device is the actual phone – it has a 2.4" touchscreen, a quad core processor with 64GB of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, 3G and 4G connectivity and a 1Ah battery. It runs a version of Android and connects to the secondary display for app interaction.

The secondary display has an 8MP rear camera and a 2MP front camera with a 720p display. The combo promises "several days" on a charge.

It's not cheap - it will set you back $800 - but it can be pre-ordered at a $200 savings. Here's a link with more information: 

As wearables become more capable, you'll be able to do much more with your watch/phone – the idea is to make it easier to be continuously connected to work and your friends for greater productivity (and fun!)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Copy and paste between iOS and Mac

Here's a handy tool for Mac and iPhone/iPad users called Command C. It's a very simple tool that does one thing well: it allows you to copy and paste to and from your iPhone/iPad and Mac. Eventually I expect this kind of thing to be a standard feature between these devices - ultimately, I'd love to see a simple drag and drop gesture to do this. But, until then, add-on tools will have to do...

Both devices need to be on the same WiFi network, and both have to be running the Command C app ($4 on the iOS device, free on the Mac.) 

In order to copy and paste, you just copy whatever it is you want to share and then go to Command C and click the device you want to share it with. It's very simple and, so far, it seems to work well.

There's a similar product for Android & PC called Alt-C, but I haven't tried it. If you do, or if you have used  other tools that do the same thing, I'd be interested in your experience.

There are other ways to accomplish similar things, but many of them are more tedious to use because of all the other things they do...

Friday, February 20, 2015

iPad graphics tablet

For those of you who do some graphic design, here's a handy tool that may be able to help (at least if you're an Apple user.)

It's called Astropad ( and it allows you to use your iPad as a graphics pad with your Mac. So, instead of swapping back and forth between the Mac and the iPad for editing tasks – copying files back and forth – you can use them together.

You need to launch an app on both platforms and from there it's relatively seemless – changes you make on either platform are immediately echoed to the other. There's also a palm reject function on the iPad – handy for stylus users.

It's pricey, at $50 ($20 for an academic license), but if you do this stuff all day, it might be worth it. And, it's cheaper than a full blown graphics tablet.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Security card reader

This post describes a quick-and-dirty proof-of-concept that I recently did using a Wiegand card reader and a Raspberry Pi.

One of our executives at work saw a kiosk that read people’s ID cards as they walked up to it and displayed some personalized content. He asked if we had anything that could do that. I thought this could be an interesting weekends-and-nights project that would result in a basic, demoable proof-of-concept system. There was enough new-to-me technology involved that I thought it would be a worthwhile learning exercise.

When I start a new project I put together a hypothetical architecture and design based on what I think is necessary to achieve the objectives of the project. I list all of the pieces of the problem space that I don’t understand along with pieces that I think I can use. The pieces I don’t understand, typically expands as I get into research mode - I found I didn't know much about card reader technology before I started... 

I hypothesized that I could use a Raspberry Pi to decode data from the scanner and implement a web page that displays the data. I’d use a mySQL database to store the card data and an Apache web server to display the output.

I’m generally a cheapskate, so I look for ways to use whatever I have on hand whenever possible. In this case, the Raspberry Pi seemed to be a good fit – I’d used it for a couple of other projects and knew that it was quite a powerful little computer. I know enough Linux to be dangerous and thought it would be easier developing software in this environment than figuring out how to interface the scanner to a Windows PC (and the only Windows PC I have at home is an old XP laptop...)

The card’s I selected to test with were HID 125KHz proximity cards, selected because of their ubiquity in security applications - and because I had one. These cards have a little processor and antenna embedded in them that, when placed near the electromagnetic field of a scanner, power up and disrupt the field slightly, transmitting 26 bits of information. There are a couple of parity bits, an 8 bit “facility code” and a 16 bit “cardID”. The specs and the interface protocol were all available on-line.

There were a number of cheap, used scanners on e-bay so I ordered one to test with for about $40. I figured that if I couldn't make it work, this was a cheap way to fail. A more capable, longer range scanner, the MaxiProx HID reader, costs about 10X the cheap unit I bought. If the PoC worked, I could swap in the more capable scanner later for longer range scans.

I found that someone (Ben Kent) had already done some development of Wiegand software in C that I could hack for the Raspberry Pi application. The Wiegand interface uses two data lines and a ground wire and works over long distances. Typically the scanners are at building points of entry and the wires have to be routed through walls, ceilings and floors to get to wherever their authorization system is located. The Wiegand protocol works well for these long cable runs. The software gets an interrupt when either of the data lines signals and then turns these events into bits that it accumulates until it has 26 of them.

Just to make sure that the scanner was working, I hooked up the data lines to a dual trace memory scope and captured a card scan. I was able to visually convert the oscilloscope traces to the 1s and 0s of the number embedded on my ID card.

Using a couple of resistors and zener diodes I built a quick and dirty converter to scale the 0-5V output of the scanner to a 0-3.3V signal that the RPi could deal with.  I loaded a current version of Linux onto the RPi and downloaded, installed and updated the software I thought I’d need: Apache, php, mySQL and a gcc compiler and verified that each of the components worked. This is all pretty standard for the Raspberry Pi, so it was easy to get running.

Since I hadn’t used mySQL before and had only written a couple of small php apps, I wrote some test programs to demonstrate that I could read and write to the database from C and php applications. This took most of the “development” time – totaling maybe 6-8 hours – mostly googling for C and php subroutines that could read and write mySQL data and then playing with them until they worked. For hacking together these simple programs, the RPi worked fine.  This resulted in a couple dozen lines of php code and maybe 150 lines of C. 

A quick test of the software showed that it was indeed capturing the 1’s and 0’s from the Wiegand interface. And a little more development got me an app that stored the scanned card info to a database. A php app running on the RPi’s Apache server queried the database that I had created to translate card number into a name. It then opened a couple of search pages using the name. I had all the software auto-load at startup so that I could run the RPi "headless" (without a monitor, keyboard or mouse attached.)

This project took maybe 10-12 hours of research, software and hardware hacking spread over a couple of weeks with less than $100 in hardware budget (much of it stuff I already had.) I learned something about Apache, php, mySQL coding in C, Wiegand encoded cards and 125KHz scanners. Well worth the time!

My point in documenting this journey and others like it is not to provide a step-by-step guide so that you can reproduce what I did – this stuff is just not that complicated and you’ll probably find a better way to do it anyway… 

I just want to demonstrate that it's really about breaking the problem down into known and unknown chunks, learning the unknown parts, playing with each individual piece of the puzzle to understand it, and then hacking these pieces together until it works. The Linux platform is great for integrating different technologies, because most of the necessary software is open source and free. And the Raspberry Pi is a great Linux platform because of all the support it enjoys and the ease with which it can connect to, well, anything. Also, if you're a Mac user, most of the same tools are available on the Mac - it's based on UNIX so it's easy to move back and forth between it and Linux.

If you can think it, you can do it!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Open source 3D printer from Autodesk

While many hobbyists and makers have embraced the inexpensive 3D printer market, there are a number of higher end devices available to serious fab shops. Autodesk has just announced their Ember 3D printer, coming in March. Since Autodesk is a big player in the CAD world, a lot of engineers who already use it will be interested in this printer. But the big value is their open-source printing software called Spark 3D

In the hobbyist world Makerbot made a lot of fans by using open source design software and Autodesk is betting that this will help them sell more product as well.

The new Ember printer isn’t cheap (starts at about $6000), but for serious fab shops this isn’t outrageous. It uses light-cured resin to print a layer at a time, unlike the hobbyist tools that print using melted plastic. This yields finer features and more accurate models.

Here’s a timelapse video showing the printer making an statue of liberty. Typical of light-cured resin printers, the Ember prints upside down. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

High speed communications via light

​This one’s not quite ready for prime-time, but I thought it was interesting. 

WiFi uses limited bandwidth in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. If it could use light instead of radio frequency signaling, the sky’s the limit in terms of performance.

Using light, researchers at Oxford are looking at possible speeds of 3 terabits per second. Currently, WiFi can hit 7 gigabits per second on a good day. Beyond speed, the other advantage of using light is that it is unlicensed – you can use as much as you need without interfering with other services (or requiring a permit from the FCC...)

So far, they’ve been able to transmit at over 200 gigabits per second using an access point in the ceiling directing a beam toward the computer. Currently, the computer needs to be in a fixed position relative to the access point, but they’re working on a tracking system that would allow for more portable operation. 

It will be a while before something like this makes it into commercial products. When it comes it will really up the ante in wireless communications - great for HD video transmission, for instance.

For more details see:

Monday, February 16, 2015

Apple iWork on the desktop?

It's no secret that I'm an Apple guy – I use a MacBook Air and an iPad at work to connect to my Windows 7 virtual desktop. I use an iPhone and Mac at home. 

But, when it comes to iWork, well, not so much. Sometimes I'll use Keynote for a quick presentation, but most of the time I use Microsoft Office products for work and Google Apps for home.

It looks like Apple is trying to be more business friendly with their recent announcement of iWorks for the browser. The new iWork tools work on PC's in IE (9 or higher), Chrome (27.0.1 or higher) and Safari (6.0.3 or higher). They also work on Linux and Chromebooks. 

Some recent talk by Apple CEO, Tim Cook, about their evolving relationship with IBM also points to more of an enterprise focus. 

Are you an iWork user? Would you like to use it at work as well as home?

For now, there are some security concerns regarding intellectual property leakage and IP protection, so I won't be using it for any corporate proprietary info, but maybe for personal stuff…

Friday, February 13, 2015

Tactile iPad typing

Here's an oddly interesting iPad "keyboard" option. Instead of adding an external keyboard, Tactus built an iPad mini case with a built-in screen protector that has key guides that rise up from the screen when you need them.

It's called Phorm and it uses invisible channels embedded in the screen protector to fill transparent pockets with fluid - which creates the key guides. Currently it is only available for the iPad mini and only works in portrait mode.

And you don't actually press the bubbles like keys, they're just there as "guides" – they appear near the top of the actual on-screen keys. There's a slider that raises the bubbles – it's completely manual: when you want the key guides, the slider fills the pockets with liquid, when you want it to go away, you slide it the other direction.

Honestly, it is way too pricey at its $150 pre-order price – you can get a $30 transparent keyboard overlay that actually works pretty well. I think this is really just their short-term "get something shipping" product. 

As the technology evolves, I would expect some kind of tactile key feedback from Apple or Samsung to be built in to their devices (maybe using Tactus' technology.) I think they're just waiting for materials science to catch up with the idea-space.

Here's a clever marketing video for the technology:

In any case (pun intended) watch for more tactile feedback keyboards on consumer products - I think this is just a teaser.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Printer for prototype circuit boards

This year at CES Voltera demoed a printer that prints prototype printed circuit boards. This is definitely a niche product – but people who do circuit board design for proofs-of-concept or pilots have had to use tricky chemical etching or wait days or weeks for an outsourced prototype supplier to bring their design to a board. Either way, it's way too much work and time for hobbyists and small shops.

The Voltera uses conductive ink to rapidly print prototypes (45 minutes to an hour for a small board.)

They're targeting hobbyists and makers in the short term - their Kickstarter campaign over-funded by a factor of 4. Check out the animated gif below for a sped-up view of the printing process.

Here's a link to a video that more thorougly describes the product.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Attack of the drones

Drones are very popular - there were dozens of them at CES and they're all over Burning Man. They're relatively cheap, fun, easy to fly and can actually help safely inspect high or otherwise dangerous places. 

On the other hand, there are privacy concerns with camera equipped drones flying in residential neighborhoods and intellectual property concerns with having them fly near R&D facilities.

There's an interesting new technology that is being built in to some new drones that allows you to "geofence" your property to keep drones from flying there. It's called and allows you to define a perimeter above your property where drones are not allowed. 

Drones that participate in this program will then stay out. Of course this wouldn't stop a criminal from piloting a non-participating drone over your house, and there are currently many manufacturers that are not yet participating, but as it expands to more suppliers, it could stop casual drone operators from spying on your backyard barbecue. 

The idea is that you register your home address (one address per registrant) and the coordinates are then mapped out of the "flight path" of any drones in the area so that they can't fly there. 

There are plenty of problems to work out with this scheme, but these are the kinds of problems that need to be solved in a highly connected world. 

Of course, drones also make excellent targets for pellet gun practice - that is until they start shooting back...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

An e-ink option for your iPhone

In a previous blog, I mentioned the Yotaphone, a Russian smartphone with two screens: the typical energy-hungry color front screen and, on the back, a power-saving e-ink screen. 

Here’s an option called PopSLATE that provides similar functionality in a case for your iPhone. The idea is that there is content that you might want to have constantly in front of you but you don’t want your phone eating your battery. E-ink is great for that; once the image is put on the screen it takes no energy to keep it there indefinitely. This could be useful for things like calendars, to-do lists, maps, boarding passes, etc. It connects to the phone using Bluetooth and can go a week between charges.

This isn't quite as useful as an e-ink display that is integrated into the operating system, but I think it might be useful for travelers. It’s available for iPhone 5s and iPhone 6s for pre-order at $129 (March delivery.)

I saw a similar case at CES from Oaxis, but theirs was just a mock-up (coming soon.) In any case, it looks like there may be enough interest in this sort of thing for some competition. It would be great if Apple made one...

Friday, February 6, 2015

Amazon has some competition. Well, duh...

Amazon, known for their automated/robotic warehouses, said they were thinking about drone delivery of packages in 2013. It looks like the huge on-line Chinese store, Alibaba, is beating them out of the gate.

They just announced that they're planning a very small pilot, delivering 450 packets of ginger tea to some parts of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou within one hour of the order being placed. This test is in partnership with YTO Express, who are managing permits, logistics, etc.

There have been a couple of other small pilots around the world (one in Australia in 2013 and a couple of food delivery pilots at tech conferences), but this one is notable because of the sheer size of Alibaba – they just went through the largest IPO in history last year ($25Billion.)

There are lots of regulations regarding drone use (as well as safety concerns) and these will likely get in the way of such a service here in the US, but robotic / drone delivery inside the confines of plants and warehouses might make sense.

Are there any locations in your facilities where drone inspection or delivery might make sense?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Streaming video for enterprises

One of the problems with streaming devices like Apple TV, Chromecast and others is that they’re designed for the home user, without some of the features that would make them more valuable at work.

Airtame‘s HDMI streaming dongle is described as the enterprise version of Chromecast – it works with multiple platforms and can be controlled from a single console (for digital media distribution, etc.)

The need for this kind of device is obvious to anyone putting conference rooms together. There are at least a half dozen types of wired connectors involved and competing software versions of similar products.

In addition to making corporate video displays more wireless, you can stream the same content to multiple devices – say for hallway digital media displays.

The competition in this space is very expensive (in the thousands of dollars per unit) so a $150 solution would be a welcome addition to this space.

I've got one on order and will blog about it after I've had a chance to use it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Retail robotics

One surprising thing at CES was the Orchard Supply robotic store assistant, OSHBot. It’s a mobile device that can help you find hardware when you can’t find a hardware associate. Lowes Innovation Labs invented it and has deployed it the Orchard Supply store in San Jose – and they brought some to CES. 

The device has voice recognition (in multiple languages) and a touch screen for selecting parts/SKUs. It has a rear screen/kiosk that will show you videos or adverts as you’re following it to the aisle of interest. They create an internal "map" of the store so that they can autonomously navigate, using collision avoidance technology to avoid running into customers and carts, etc. They’re working on object recognition – so you can show it a broken part and it will help identify it and its replacement in the store.

Because of all the noise at CES, you really couldn’t talk to them and because they weren’t in a store, they really couldn’t help find anything. But I could definitely see the potential. Here’s a video demo that shows one in action:

I’m going to try to get connected with the Innovation Labs to see if we can learn from each other.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A second serving of Raspberry Pi

Last month I blogged about an upcoming Intel product called the Compute Stick designed to run Windows for about $150. Now the Raspberry Pi Foundation just announced the release of their newest device and it looks like it will be able to run a version of Windows 10 for $35.

The Raspberry Pi 2 will use the WindowsOnDevices version of Windows 10 (the free version.) 

The new Pi is six times faster than the previous model with it’s quadcore 900 MHz ARM Cortex-A7 processor and 1G of RAM. And, while it’s considerably faster, it maintains backward compatibility with the previous models so any software developed for them will work on the newest release. I’ve put my order in and when Windows 10 is available, I’ll blog about it here.

These are great little devices for cheap prototyping - I've developed a proof-of-concept card-reader kiosk that I'll write about in a future blog.

Here’s a link with more information on the WindowsOnDevices program: