Thursday, April 30, 2015

Windows 10 on a Raspberry Pi

In February, I blogged about Microsoft’s intent to release a version of Windows 10 for the new version of the Raspberry Pi.

Just yesterday, Microsoft made good on that promise and made a developer preview available for download.

The Raspberry Pi is a small, cheap computer that typically runs Linux. Lots of experimenters and hobbyists are using it for all kinds of home automation tasks. It’s also great for prototyping manufacturing systems and Internet of Things apps.

Because of this expanding market, Microsoft saw the opportunity and jumped! They’ve also announced an Arduino port. Arduino is another IoT developer platform – highly customizable, small and cheap enough to embed in just about anything.

What will you do with a cheap computer that can run Windows 10?

For more info, visit:

I've downloaded it and I'll be installing it on a RPi in the next couple of days. (I'll blog about the experience sometime next week.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wireless charging with (ultra)sound

Wireless charging is a useful technology – fewer wires, less clutter, fewer international adapters, etc. But typical charging protocols mean leaving your phone on top of a charging plate to charge. Wouldn’t it be better if you could charge it anywhere in the room – even while you’re using it?

Photo by Nick Bilton, The New York Times
That’s what uBeam is working on. They've prototyped a technology that allows a receiver attached to your phone or tablet to convert ultrasound to electricity. That way, your phone can be charging whenever you're near a transmitter (within about 15 feet, currently.)

The ultrasound transmitters will be less than ¼” think and could be hung on walls or placed on tables. Typically, a smartphone or tablet would have a receiver either built-in or embedded in a case to receive the ultrasound.

Because it’s a continuous charging system, household devices like tablets, thermostat and other home automation devices might be able to use smaller, lighter batteries - or do without them altogether. The technology could be scaled up for use in larger rooms as well. uBeam is hoping to sell the technology to consumers along with restaurants, coffee shops and hotels.

The system could also be used for transmitting data over a secure ultrasound channel – also useful for home automation systems.

They've done a Series A round of financing after $1.7 million seed funding. It looks like they’re headed for Series B funding of $50 million and a live product by 2017. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Trackpad at your fingertips

The MIT Media Laboratory is working on a way to control your wireless devices with a trackpad applied to your thumbnail. The prototype device is called NailO and was presented in a paper last week in Seoul at the ACMCHI conference.

It uses a capacitive sensor – similar to the one that your smartphone uses – and they’re putting battery, BlueTooth, sensor and antenna all on the appliqué. Combined with a smartwatch or glasses heads-up display, you could monitor texts and messages unobtrusively and dismiss or otherwise respond to incoming calls just by touching your thumbnail trackpad.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Safe charging for your smartphone

The safest way to charge your phone is to use your own charger plugged into a wall outlet. A spare battery or your own battery charger would be good options as well.

If you forgot your charger, or if an AC outlet isn't available, charging stations can be a handy option if your phone battery needs a top-off. 

However, these devices can be hacked and could represent a security risk. Depending on how your phone is set up, it is possible to have malware uploaded to it or information downloaded via the USB cable when you plug it in to charge it.

Charging-only cables are available, but that means carrying an extra cable. Or you could turn off your phone completely while you're charging it - but that's inconvenient.
Another option is a charge-only adapter. There are available - here's one: 

You just plug it in to the charging station and then plug your phone into it. It turns off any data transfer and prevents data up/download while your smartphone is plugged in.

Pretty handy - and safe.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Self-powered camera

Batteries only last so long and they're typically one of the largest and heaviest components in electronic devices. So there is a lot of interest in using ambient features of the environment to power electronic devices - and get rid of batteries altogether. Vibration, radio waves and even heat can be used to power devices.

Here’s a novel approach to harvesting light that uses technology developed at the Vision Laboratory of Columbia University. They've created an image sensor that is also a photoelectric cell, essentially creating a self powered camera. It works by alternating the image capture function with a power capture function - on the same sensor.

This could be extremely useful in remote locations for video monitoring & recording, security applications or for wearable cameras that wouldn't need bulky batteries to power them.

Here’s a link to the Columbia paper that describes the technology. I’m an electronics geek so it’s a fascinating read for me. The abstract and first couple of pages are very readable, even for the non-tech.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Seagate 8TB drive

In a previous blog, I mentioned that Intel was working on a 10TB SSD. How does this stackup up with existing drives?

Seagate has an external 8TB drive, the STDT8000100 or "Backup Plus" that's available for ~$300 on Amazon

The Backup Plus uses Shingled Magnetic Recording (SMR) to achieve the required bit density. It works by overlapping magnetic domains kind of like roofing is overlapped when it's installed. It uses 6 1.33TB disks and is rated for about 20 full read/write cycles per year. It can do 124MBps sequential reads and 195MBps sequential writes(!)

It's not particularly good for heavy write/rewrite applications, but it works great for high burst speed writes and periodic high speed reads – making it ideal for backups. It's got a rather large cache (128MB), used by the SMR technology to achieve the fast read/write specs. It communicates with your computer via a micro-USB port.

So, how much is 8TB? 

You could fit the contents of more than 150 Blu-ray disc on it. Or 1500 DVD's. Or six million 3.5" floppy disks worth. Or 8000 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tiny specialized keyboard

Most software has keyboard shortcuts – the one I use a lot is Ctrl Z (Undo…) If you have to do lots of these, sometimes the gymnastics can become difficult, particularly when multiple keys need to be pressed at the same time.

Here's a niche keyboard for just that task. It's called Trickey and it allows you to customize keys to do whatever it is you need them to do. It comes in a 6 key USB configuration but you can plug multiple boards together to create larger sets of keys. You can also print your own labels for the keys to go under the transparent key covers.

It's currently being prototyped - the developers are doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds - and expected to ship late this year. They're a bit expensive ($139 for the Kickstarter pre-order), but if it takes off, expect cheaper knock-offs.

As the Internet of Things takes off, expect to see many more specialized, niche tools like this.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Microsoft's Surface (not-Pro) 3

Microsoft’s new Surface 3 is available for pre-order, but I’m not sure I’d buy one for home use. While it’s a good deal cheaper than its big brother, the Pro 3, it’s somewhat less capable. 

The $499 model has 2G of RAM and 64G(!) of storage – too low even at that price. It is a good deal lighter than the Pro 3 (~600 grams vs ~800 grams), and it does come with a very similar keyboard (without the bezel, to fit the smaller 11” screen. Battery life looks good: up to 10 hours of video playback on a charge, likely a whole day of periodic use – it uses an Intel Atom processor (Vs the i3 in the base Surface Pro 3.) The kickstand is a little different than the Pro 3 with 3 positions VS the infinite positions of the Pro 3.

I just don’t know if I would trust this lower priced device. Particularly after having used a Pro 3 (a great laptop replacement), and also after having used the Surface RT (a great paperweight replacement), it still seems a bit under-powered. I think naming it so similarly to the Pro 3 is a bit disingenuous as well.

What do you think? Would you buy the basic Surface 3?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nano computer from U of M

​I like small computers – the Raspberry Pi, the Intel “stick”, my phone… Computers don’t need to be large to be useful.

Here’s a tiny computer, called the Michigan Micro Mote or M^3, that was designed by University of Michigan faculty members David Blaauw, Dennis Sylvester, David Wentzloff, Prabal Dutta and a slew of grad students over the past ten years.

How tiny? Well, you can fit a couple of them in Lincoln's head on a penny with room to spare – more than a thousand would fit in a shot glass.

They’re real computers with storage, processing, power and they use light for input and radio for output. Since much of the size of a computer, like a phone, is taken up with the screen and battery, doing without these allows researchers to shrink the computer down to a tiny grain-of-rice sized computer. They’re powered by solar cells at nano-watt levels – at standby they consume 500 picowatts, about a million times lower than a typical smartphone on standby.

The wireless transmitter in the M^3 can transmit data about 2 meters, communicating status and sensor measurements as long as there’s light – they can run on ambient office light virtually forever. In the future they should be able to talk to each other at increased distances. They even have a camera module.

They’re currently being developed for implantable medical devices (using battery power instead of light.) 

Potential applications include pressure sensors to monitor glaucoma, blood pressure, heart rate, EKG, EEG, etc. They could also be used in personal security, remote sensing and monitoring – maybe include them in tiny drones for remote inspection.

Demand for the devices is currently very high as industry is looking at ways to incorporate them into their products. Can you think of uses for them in your business?

Schematic of the M^3

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

May the force be with you...

One of the reported features of the next iPhone coming out later this year is Force Touch input (this according to a research report from Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst for KGI Securities.) 

Force Touch allows the device to tell a tap from a press and provides for a wider array of input options over the current technology. Rather than actually detecting pressure applied by the fingers, it looks like it will be measuring differences in the size of the area the finger touches in order to infer pressure. 

You might use the technology to make lines darker with increased force or pop up a “right click” screen with pressure. Add this to multi-finger gestures and it multiplies the input options.

The current 13” MacBook Pro, released in March, the upcoming 12” MacBook and the Apple Watch will also have this technology. The MacBooks implement Force Touch on the touchpad, but the Apple Watch and the new phone will implement it on-screen. (The MacBooks also have a haptic feedback feature that can feel like a click when you press harder.)

Have you used this technology yet on one of the new MacBook Pros? What do you think?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Remote power option

Here’s an interesting technology for powering remote devices. 

One of the problems with battery powered gear is that the batteries must be periodically replaced or recharged. And for portable operation, batteries are heavy. In remote locations, it’s also difficult or expensive to run power lines. An alternative might be a propane powered generator. 

Developed for the military by Ultra Electronics, the duffle-bag sized 350-watt propane generator pictured below can replace 300 lbs of replaceable batteries with an 11 lb generator and a 20 lb propane tank. Obviously, the larger the propane tank, the longer it will run.

These portable generators and fuel cells might be just the thing for remote power generation. They’re very quiet, can produce a lot of power and propane is much safer than gasoline for this kind of application. They only have to be revisited periodically to replace the propane tank.

There are obvious alternatives: solar panels, windmills, etc. But I think there’s a niche for this kind of product too. 

Does your business have need of portable power generation for those hard to reach places?

Friday, April 3, 2015

All-in-one fablab

Here’s an interesting Kickstarter. It’s called BoXZY  and it’s a combination 3D printer, CNC mill and laser engraver. If the Kickstarter progress is any indication, there is a lot of interest ($500,000 on a $50K goal with 15 days left in the campaign.) 

It should be able to mill very precisely (4 micron resolution) - it uses ball screws rather than the belts that may of the other 3D printers use. It comes with interchangeable milling heads and can mill brass, aluminum, plastics and hardwood. It laser-cuts wood, leather or plastic and can print with multiple kinds of filliment (PLE, PVA, Ninja-flex, ABS, Nylon.) I didn’t see a heated bed option or cooling/oil injection for aluminum milling (I asked - I'll update here with any answer I get.)

They’re planning to deliver product yet this year and it looks like it may be priced between $2500 and $3500 depending on options (and markup…) 

I've been experimenting with a PrinterBot - and learning Sketchup at the same time. I'll blog on this experience sometime later this month.

Have you used a 3D printer? What has been your experience?

BoXZY milling/routing attachment

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Android on your desktop

Last year, Google’s ARC (App Runtime for Chrome) project provided a way for people to run Android apps on their Chromebooks. It was limited to computers running the Chrome OS operating system (Chromebooks and Chromeboxes) but people quickly hacked it for other platforms. Only a few select apps were packaged to do this.

Yesterday they announced an app packager, Arc Welder, that lets you run Android apps on Linux, Windows and Mac computers as well.

This might be useful for testing Android apps on your PC - without having to run them on a smartphone or tablet. Currently it runs on Android 4.4 (not 5.0).

Here’s a link to an ArsTechnica write-up that goes into much more detail if you’re interested.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New Chrome devices

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I’m a fan of the Chromebook/Chromebox computers. They’re very simple to use, require very little maintenance and are generally pretty cheap. If you do most of your computing on-line, they could be just the ticket.

A couple of new chrome devices, just announced yesterday by Google, caught my attention:

  • The worlds cheapest Chromebook, the Haier Chromebook 11. 1.8GHz, 2GB memory, 16G storage, 11.6” screen, 10 hour battery. Avaiable preorder from Amazon $149
  • ASUS Chromebook Flip – very thin, light (<2 lb), reversible touch screen for $249 (available 2Q15)
  • ASUS Chromebit – a Chromebox in a small form factor (“smaller than a candy bar”) for less than $100. Just plug it into an HDMI input on your TV and you've got a Chromebox.
  • I've ordered one of the new Chromebook Pixels at work and I'll blog on it after I've had a chance to use it for a while.

I use a Chromebook at home as a secondary computer and it works great for browsing, Google Tools, etc. 

Have you used a Chromebook/Chromebox?