Wednesday, August 26, 2015

3D scanning - with a mobile phone?

Creating objects with a 3D printer typically starts with a computer aided design (CAD) package, like Autocad or Sketchup, where a 3D design is created. Then this design is “sliced” and sent to a 3D printer using computer aided manufacturing (CAM) software.

Another method of input uses a 3D imaging system to input the design, but that’s typically quite pricey (from $500 to thousands of dollars.) Microsoft Research is trying to change that – they’re working on a way to use a mobile phone to input 3D images.

Their system is called MobileFusion and it aims to make 3D scanning as simple as taking a video with your phone. The entire package runs on the phone (it doesn’t require access to the Internet to work.) It works by taking multiple images from different angles and stitching them together - similarly to how the human eye perceives 3D.

They’ll be presenting their work at the International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality in October. No word on when it might become a product.

This technology will make capture of 3D images much easier and more accessible. And it will introduce additional challenges to IP protection...

Here’s a .pdf with more information on how the system works:

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Faster airplane Internet coming from Gogo

I don't often buy  Internet service on planes – I don't travel that much and when I do I usually use the time to read and sleep. But if you are one of those continuously-connected people, there's good news from airline Internet provider GoGo

They just got FAA approval to launch their new service that could yield 70 Mbps downloads later this year in the US.

The new service uses satellites to transmit and receive Internet signals to and from the plane. Till now, flights used terrestrial systems to feed Internet signals to and from planes (at much lower speeds - and not useful for international over-the-ocean flights.) 

They've got some US customers already signed up for the new service in 2015 and are looking to upgrade most of the rest in 2016. Here is a link with more details. 

This could be particularly useful on that long DTW/PVG coach flight!

Monday, August 24, 2015

3D printing - with glass

One of the seminal stories about fiberglass is that of Dale Kleist’s discovery in the 1930s. Quite by accident, he discovered that if you blew compressed air through a stream of molten glass you’d get what came to be known as fiberglass. At the time he was working on a way to weld glass blocks using molten glass…

And now, some 83 years later, it looks like the technology has just about come full circle.

Researchers at MIT and Wyss Institute have discovered a way to 3D print with molten glass. The process is called 3DGP and is done with two stacked glass furnaces. The molten glass gets funneled through an alumina-zircon-silica nozzle that extrudes the glass into transparent shapes, similar to how 3D plastic printers work – only much hotter.

Here’s a link to a write-up by the MIT Glass Lab:

And here’s a fascinating video of the process – the really interesting part starts at about 1:40: 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Managing wait times with Bluetooth and WiFi

Here’s an interesting technology that has been introduced at JFK airport in New York. It uses Blip's phone tracking system to predict wait times for security, customs, baggage lines, and taxis.

It can’t actually tell anything about you from your phone, so it’s less creepy than it sounds. It listens for Bluetooth and WiFi signals and keeps track of your phone’s MAC address as you travel through the airport. It measures dwell time at particular points in the airport and turns these into wait time predictions. 

I expect that as this technology matures it could also be used in malls, movie theatres, theme parks and other retail shopping venues to predict wait times or to track traffic pattern changes in response to marketing programs. It could also manage entrance and egress crowds at large sporting events or maybe even Burning Man!

Here’s a link for more information:​

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Google solar estimator

You may have heard of Google's 20% projects - where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on technology that really interests them.

One of these has turned into a project that solar panel companies could really use in their marketing efforts.

It's called Project Sunroof and it shows you how much solar power your roof could generate based on your home's orientation, shade from buildings and trees and other geography. Conveniently, the tool can also hook you up with local solar installers.

Currently it only works in Boston, Fresno and the Bay Area, but they say it will be expanding to the rest of the country.

What a great synergistic marketing tool. I'm wondering if there might be a play for Owens Corning.

Here's a short video that describes the program: 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Making 2-factor authentication easier

Two factor authentication can increase the authentication security of any system. It depends on something you know (like a userID/password) and something you have (like a SecurID token or a special one-time key sent to your phone.)

The problem with the token is that they wear out or otherwise fail - and you have to type in the key or copy and paste the key. One-time key's sent to your phone are pretty convenient, but you need to type in the key and this introduces delay in the sign-in process. What we'd like is a more transparent process.

A new system is being developed by researchers at by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich - it's called "Sound-Proof". It uses ambient sound as a second factor, comparing the background noise being received from your phone to the background noise received from your computer. If they match, it lets you in. It's based on the premise that your PC and your phone, if close enough together, will hear the same thing. This proximity implies that you are who you say you are. 

It's ingenious. They've done some prototypes and the results look promising.

Here's a link to the research paper describing Sound-Proof:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Huge new Samsung drive

By now we’re used to seeing big technology advances every few months, but this one is still pretty impressive. 

Samsung just announced a 16 Terabyte 2.5” solid state drive. It uses NAND flash memory instead of spinning platters. (The largest drive using spinning platters are about 10TB.) It uses a new 3D architecture with 48 layers to achieve this high density.

The new device was announced last week at the Flash Memory Summit. At the summit, Samsung showed a server with 48 of these drives with a total storage capacity of 768 TB at 2 million I/O per second (typical PC drives top out at < 100,000 I/O per second…) 

The cost per drive looks like it will be around $8000 –  more than 20 times the cost of the cheapest storage using spinning media, but in a much smaller package. This device is clearly targeted at the enterprise server market. But, as with everything else, the price should drop as competition in this space heats up.

Here's a link with more information. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Windows 10 "Hello"

You've probably seen the Windows 10 commercial with babies - saying that they won't have to remember passwords. I thought I'd spend a few minutes describing the Windows Hello technology, because you're likely to start seeing it in new computers sooner than later.

It works using biometrics. Biometrics isn't new - thumbprint scanners and camera based authentication have been around for a while. But they've had some problems. Camera based authentication was difficult to do. Lighting problems, angle of the camera, etc., performance of the PC all contribute to reliability issues. In addition, these could sometimes be fooled using just a picture of your face. Similar problems with fingerprint scanners have kept them from being as successful in real life as the are in the movies...

So, what's different?

Well, first, the technology is built in to Windows 10. In older fingerprint scanners, for instance, the manufacturer of the sensor created the software that reads the sensor and integrates with the operating system. Now, this functionality is built in to Windows 10. While new pressure sensitive fingerprint readers will be coming on newer laptops, this technology will also work with older fingerprint readers as well.

In the case of face recognition biometrics, the situation is a little more complex. The camera technology used in Windows 10 face recognition requires a new camera based on the Intel RealSense technology. Your laptop doesn't have one of these. So, for now at least, you'd need a clunky external camera to make this work. You also need a processor in your PC that has a 4th generation or later Haswell processor. So, I don't think people will be using this much until these cameras start making their way to new laptops, sometime later this year.

The security of the new biometrics system is where it really shines. The newer sensors can check for temperature and even pulse before authenticating a fingerprint. It also uses a 3D scan of your fingerprint rather than a flat "picture". The characteristics of the fingerprint are stored on the PC - no picture of your fingerprint is stored, and the characteristics are never sent off your PC.

Same with facial features. It looks at characteristics of your face in 3D and compares them to what is stored rather than trying to match a picture. The new RealSense camera is both 3D and infrared so it can tell if it's looking at a real person versus a picture. As a backup, you can use a PIN to authenticate - just in case the fingerprint or facial recognition software doesn't work after 5 attempts.

If your face changes - you grow a beard or start wearing glasses - you need to re-train your computer, but it only takes a minute or two.

I'll be exploring these options as the technology becomes available and I'll blog about them here once I've had a chance to play with them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Some downsides of Internet of Things

There’s obviously much potential for the Internet of Things. Connecting objects can increase the “network effect” much like connecting people. But are also some downsides, including security/patching, hacking and reliability.

In July, security researchers posted evidence that they were able to control various Jeep systems remotely – posting a picture of said Jeep in a ditch after the hackers remotely disabled the brakes. They attacked the entertainment system, which could then connect to automotive systems to control them.

Just yesterday, researchers at UCSD published research showing  how they could use SMS messages to take control of a number of different cars, by hacking an OBD2 dongle. These are the devices that rental car agencies and insurance companies use to track speed and other operating conditions of your car.

These kinds of hacks are inevitable for a couple of reasons. System’s become much more complex and difficult to test as interconnectedness increases. Each of the interconnected components needs to be tested, but they also need to be tested as a system to detect anomalies. This is nearly impossible because of the random nature of how people interconnect different systems. Compatibility and interconnectability are great, but we need to consider their effect on security and reliability.

Also, it is difficult to keep all these interconnected systems patched. Many people don’t even patch their PC’s, phones or tablets much less their cars. I have several dozen different devices in my home that all need to be maintained – and some of them get forgotten or otherwise fall behind, even though I’d say I’m much more disciplined about this stuff than, say, my mom, neighbors, etc. This needs to be automated, but then systems testing becomes much more important (and difficult, again, because of the random connections that can be made.)

Finally, as systems age without patches, their functionality can suffer. Even if the other systems they talk to are being patched and upgraded, if the API’s or other interfaces that connect them are not being kept up-to-date, their functionality in such an interconnected system can be reduced.

As we develop IoT systems for our manufacturing facilities or even our customers/consumers, we need to make sure that system security and maintenance are included in the design of the support model – we can’t afford to create systems that aren’t maintained and regularly patched and upgraded. This needs to be considered as part of the cost of these new systems.

What are your thoughts/concerns?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ASUS Chromebook Flip

I think, by now, everyone knows I'm a Chromebook fan - they're great for lightweight computing, they have long battery life, require very little maintenance, they start up fast and they get you productive even quicker. I took one on vacation this year instead of a traditional laptop and actually got quite a bit done both for work (I used VMWare Horizon client to connect to my VDI workspace) and personal (where I use mostly Google products.)

They're not for everyone: if you aren't using powerful cloud servers to do your work or if you have a lousy Internet connection, they can be a real pain to use.

The only objection I have to the one I use (a cheap ASUS from a couple of years ago) is that it's not a touch screen. Because of this and its form factor, I usually also carry a tablet... The tablet is great for reading, doing quick emails and scheduling, but it's not good for more extended work, multiple windows, typing, etc.

What I'd really like is a combination tablet/computer that I could use for all of these tasks. 

I've thought about a Microsoft Surface, but they're expensive and I do most of my "personal" computing in the cloud - seemed like overkill. The Google Pixel is nice, but it's even more overkill – and a little too large for mobile use.

Today, I saw an ad for the new 2GB ASUS Chromebook Flip for $229 ($20 off its retail price.) This sounds about right for the kind of portable/mobile computing device I'm looking for. It has a high speed WiFi connection (a/b/g/n/ac) and a 1280 X 800, 10" screen. It's thin, weighs less than 2 lbs and its aluminum case looks pretty durable.

I think, when I'm next in the market for a new PC, it will be something like this.

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's all about the sensors

Here's a novel use of technology: an embedded sensor to monitor milk and let you know when it has gone bad.

Researchers at UC Berkley and National Chiao Tung University have discovered that bacteria in milk can change the resonant frequency of a circuit in contact with milk. They’ve devised a way to monitor this frequency and alert the consumer when this happens.

There are other technologies for sensors to detect bad food, but this one looks to be very cheap. In the prototype, specially equipped bottle caps are 3d printed with electrodes and resonant circuits that can be read using technology similar to card reader.

Here’s an article from UC Berkley that has more details:

As the sensors get cheaper we’ll see them embedded in more and more consumer products. Could cheap sensors be included in our products to aid the consumer?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Beacons at Target

Bluetooth beacon technology can be used in retail settings to receive product information, announce deals, and potentially improve checkout speed.

For example, say you're walking down the fresh produce aisle in your favorite grocery and you have your grocery app running to manage your shopping list. It could announce that avocados are on sale as you approach them. Or if you're lost in a big box store, beacons could help you navigate even if your GPS is being blocked by the metal ceiling. 

In most cases, you need to download a specific app and opt in to these announcements, so you would likely need a separate app for each different store you visit. 

Some other apps for beacons might be transit information (what time is your bus scheduled to arrive, how far are you from your gate at the airport, has your gate changed, can you make it to your flight before the gates close?)

If you have a recent iPhone you already have the capability built in to your phone - that's over 200 million iOS devices... Interestingly, your apple device can serve both as a beacon receiver and transmitter - handy for testing.

Just this week, Target just announced that that they're launching a beacon pilot in 50 stores.

These beacons will notify shoppers of deals whenever they come within range of the beacon. It only works with the Target iOS app (an Android version is coming) and requires the user to opt-in. And, it will only push two deals while the shopper is in the store to keep from spamming them with too much information. They're planning a version that will help you navigate the store based on your shopping list as well.

I'll schedule a beacon demo in TechnologyOne in September. If you're interested, watch for announcements on ChannelOne and this blog!

Can you think of other business uses for beacons?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

White laser advance

I've been using LED bulbs in my house for a while now. They're much more efficient than traditional lightbulbs (90% less power.)

Recent advances in laser technology may mean another leap in efficiency. Arizona State researchers have demonstrated a new "white laser" that could be used for lighting and LiFi signaling. LED lighting has been demonstrated for LiFi in the past, but the higher efficiency and faster switching time of a laser could mean 10 to 100 times faster communications.

It's a few years from commercialization - it's just a PoC today - but if/when it finally happens it could usher in a new era of local area communications and even more efficient lighting schemes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Facebook Internet drone

Google has their "Loon" balloon-based internet access system almost ready to launch in the skies above Sri Lanka (maybe as early as next spring.)

Now Facebook has just announced that they'll be testing a large drone to deliver Internet to remote areas. Their project Aquila has been in development for a couple of years and it's a huge, high altitude (>60,000 feet), multi engine, solar powered drone that will deliver "tens of gigabits per second." 

It's got a wingspan larger than a 747 but it's obviously much lighter and will be able to fly for 90 days at a time. A constellation of these drones communicating via lasers "orbiting" 25 miles from each other will deliver Internet to remote locations.

Here's a fascinating video that describes the technology.

As this technology matures, even the most remote areas of the planet could be connected via the Internet cheaper and with higher bandwidth than satellite based systems.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Cortana button

If you’ve used Windows 10, you’ve probably played with Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant. You can configure Cortana to continuously listen to for “Hey, Cortana”, but that may decrease battery life. It may also mis-hear casual conversation as a command.

Satechi has a Bluetooth button alternative that allows you to open Cortana without having to open the app on your phone or computer.

For example, say you have a door lock connected to Cortana, you could keep the button on your keychain and simply push it to ask Cortana to open the door - without pulling out your phone from your pocket or briefcase to start Cortana.

It’s a simple button, but it provides for easy connectivity to your digital assistant. It runs on a CR2016 battery for up to 2 years. And will be available in August for $23 from Amazon and They also make Bluetooth "shutter" and "media control" buttons.

As this technology gets cheaper expect to see more of these single use devices popping up. 

What do you think? Are these types of devices technology looking for a problem? Are there legitimate business uses that you can think of for such a device?