Friday, August 08. 2014
Can a silicon chip act like a human brain? Researchers at IBM say they’ve built one that mimics the brain better than any that has come before it.
In a paper published in the journal Science today, IBM said it used conventional silicon manufacturing techniques to create what it calls a neurosynaptic processor that could rival a traditional supercomputer by handling highly complex computations while consuming no more power than that supplied by a typical hearing aid battery.
The chip is also one of the biggest ever built, boasting some 5.4 billion transistors, which is about a billion more than the number of transistors on an Intel Xeon chip.
To do this, researchers designed the chip with a mesh network of 4,096 neurosynaptic cores. Each core contains elements that handle computing, memory and communicating with other parts of the chip. Each core operates in parallel with the others.
Multiple chips can be connected together seamlessly, IBM says, and they could be used to create a neurosynaptic supercomputer. The company even went so far as to build one using 16 of the chips.
The new design could shake up the conventional approach to computing, which has been more or less unchanged since the 1940s and is known as the Von Neumann architecture. In English, a Von Neumann computer — you’re using one right now — stores the data for a program in memory.
This chip, which has been dubbed TrueNorth, relies on its network of neurons to detect and recognize patterns in much the same way the human brain does. If you’ve read your Ray Kurzweil, this is one way to understand how the brain works — recognizing patterns. Put simply, once your brain knows the patterns associated with different parts of letters, it can string them together in order to recognize words and sentences. If Kurzweil is correct, you’re doing this right now, using some 300 million pattern-recognizing circuits in your brain’s neocortex.
The chip would seem to represent a breakthrough in one of the long-term problems in computing: Computers are really good at doing math and reading words, but discerning and understanding meaning and context, or recognizing and classifying objects — things that are easy for humans — have been difficult for traditional computers. One way IBM tested the chip was to see if it could detect people, cars, trucks and buses in video footage and correctly recognize them. It worked.
In terms of complexity, the TrueNorth chip has a million neurons, which is about the same number as in the brain of a common honeybee. A typical human brain averages 100 billion. But given time, the technology could be used to build computers that can not only see and hear, but understand what is going on around them.
Currently, the chip is capable of 46 billion synaptic operations per second per watt, or SOPS. That’s a tricky apples-to-oranges comparison to a traditional supercomputer, where performance is measured in the number of floating point operations per second, or FLOPS. But the most energy-efficient supercomputer now running tops out at 4.5 billion FLOPS.
Down the road, the researchers say in their paper, they foresee TrueNorth-like chips being combined with traditional systems, each solving problems it is best suited to handle. But it also means that systems that in some ways will rival the capabilities of current supercomputers will fit into a machine the size of your smartphone, while consuming even less energy.
Tuesday, July 15. 2014
Monday, July 14. 2014
When you walk into the Shapeways headquarters in a sprawling New York City warehouse building, it doesn't feel like a factory. It's something different, somehow unforgettable, inevitably new. As it should be. This is one of the world's first full service 3D-printing factories, and it's not like any factory I've ever seen.
Founded in the Netherlands in 2007 as a spinoff of Philips electronics, Shapeways is a truly unique and delightfully simple service. If you want an object 3D-printed, all you have to do is upload the design's CAD file to Shapeways' website, pay a fee that mostly just covers the cost of materials, and then wait. In a few days, Shapeways will send the 3D-printed object to you, nicely bubble-wrapped and ready for use. It's effectively an on-demand manufacturing service, a factory at your fingertips in a way that's wonderfully futuristic.
Aside from the windows that look on to the factory floor, Shapeways HQ looks just like any other start-up office. Colorful chairs surround laptop-littered desks. Employees drinking seltzer linger around a long lunch table in the back. It's oddly quiet, and everything is coated in a fine layer of white dust, the cast-off material that didn't quite make it into an object of its own.
If you didn't know any better, you'd think it was some sort of art studio littered with hulking machines, perhaps for firing pottery or something. In fact, each of these closet-sized machines costs upwards of $1 million and can 3D print about 100 objects at a time. Shapeways names all of them after old women because they require lots of care. The entire cast of Golden Girls is represented.
There's actually not much to see inside the machines. A small window offers a peek into the actual printing area, an unassuming expanse of white powder that lights up every few seconds. Shapeways uses selective laser sintering (SLS) printers that enable them to print many objects at once and product higher quality products than some other additive manufacturing techniques.
That white powder lingering everywhere is the raw material for a 3D-printed object. The box lights up because a series of lasers are actually sintering the plastic in specific spots, as dictated by the design. An arm then moves over the surface, adding another layer of powder. Over the course of several hours, the sintered plastic becomes an object that's supported by the excess powder. The process look almost surgical if you're not familiar with the specifics of exactly what's going on.
But, the printers don't just spit out objects ready to go. The finished product is actually a large white cube that's carefully moved from the machine to a nearby cooling rack. After all, it was just blasted with a bunch of hot lasers. Eventually, it's up to a human to break apart the cube and find dozens of newly printed objects in the powder. It's almost like digging for dinosaur bones. As Shapeways' Savannah Peterson explained to me, "You feel like an archaeologist even if you're just watching."
She's right. After I made my way around the factory floor, which is roughly half the size of a basketball court, I got a peek at this process. The guy doing the digging was wearing a protective jump suit and a large ventilator to keep from inhaling the powder. And despite the fact that large plastic curtains contained the breakout room, the powder gets everywhere. Suddenly, the light coating of dust that covers the whole factory made even more sense. By the end of the tour, I looked like a baker covered in flour.
That's about as messy as it gets, though. The rest of the process is remarkably clean and streamlined, yielding some pretty incredible objects made not only out of plastic but also vari. The Shapeways website is full of curiosities, from delicate jewelry that can be printed in sterling silver to physical manifestations of internet memes that are printed in color using a special printer that can handle rainbow hues.
Tuesday, July 08. 2014
Ever since covering Fliike, a beautifully-designed physical ‘Like’ counter for local businesses, I’ve been thinking about how the idea could be extended, with a fully-programmable, but simple, ticker-style Internet-connected display.
A few products along those lines do already exist, but I’ve yet to find anything that quite matches what I had in mind. That is, until recently, when I was introduced to LaMetric, a smart ticker being developed by UK/Ukraine Internet of Things (IoT) startup Smart Atoms.
Launching its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign today, the LaMetric is aimed at both consumers and businesses. The idea is you may want to display alerts, notifications and other information from your online “life” via an elegant desktop or wall-mountable and glance-able display. Likewise, businesses that want an Internet-connected ticker, displaying various business information, either publicly for customers or in an office, are also a target market.
The device itself has a retro, 8-bit style desktop clock feel to it, thanks to its ‘blocky’ LED light powered display, which is part of its charm. The display can output one icon and seven numbers, and is scrollable.
But, best of all, the LaMetric is fully programmable via the accompanying app (or “hackable”) and comes with a bunch of off-the-shelf widgets, along with support for RSS and services like IFTTT, Smart Things, Wig Wag, Ninja Blocks, so you can get it talking to other smart devices or web services. Seriously, this thing goes way beyond what I had in mind — try the simulator for yourself — and, for an IoT junkie like me, is just damn cool.
Examples of the kind of things you can track with the device include time, weather, subject and time left till your next meeting, number of new emails and their subject lines, CrossFit timings and fitness goals, number of to-dos for today, stock quotes, and social network notifications.
Or for businesses, this might include Facebook Likes, website visitors, conversions and other metrics, app store rankings, downloads, and revenue.
In addition to the display, the device has back and forward buttons so you can rotate widgets (though these can be set to automatically rotate), as well as an enter key for programmed responses, such as accepting a calendar invitation.
There’s also a loudspeaker for audio alerts. The LaMetric is powered by micro-USB and also comes as an optional and more expensive battery-powered version.Early-bird backers on Kickstarter can pick up the LaMetric for as little as $89 (plus shipping) for the battery-less version, with countless other options and perks, increasing in price.
Monday, June 23. 2014
User interfaces present one of the most interesting quandaries of modern computing: we’ve moved from big monitors and keyboards to touchscreens, but now we’re heading into a world of connected everyday objects and wearable computing — how will we interact with those? Metaio, the German augmented reality outfit, has an idea.
Augmented reality (AR) involves overlaying virtual imagery and information on top of the real world — you may be familiar with the concept of viewing a magazine page through your phone’s camera and seeing a static ad come to life. Metaio has come up with a way of creating a user interface on pretty much any surface, by combining traditional camera-driven AR with thermal imaging.
Essentially, what Metaio is demonstrating with its new “Thermal Touch” interface concept is an alternative to what a touchscreen does when you touch it — there, capacitive sensors know you’ve touched a certain part because they can sense the electrical charge in your finger; here, an infrared camera senses the residual heat left by your finger. So, for example, you could use smart glass to view a virtual chess board on an empty table, then actually play chess on it:
“Our R&D department had a few thermal cameras that they’d just received and kind of on a whim they started playing around,” Metaio spokesman Trak Lord told me. “One researcher noticed that every time he touched something, it left a very visible heat signature imprint.”
To be clear, a normal camera can do a lot of tracking if it has sufficiently powerful brains behind it – some of the theoretical applications shown off by Metaio on Thursday may be partly achievable without yet another sensor for your tablet or smart glass or whatever. But there’s a limit to what normal cameras can do when it comes to tracking interaction with three-dimensional surfaces. As Lord put it, “the thermal camera adds another dimension of understanding. If you have a [normal] camera it’s not as precise. The thermal imaging camera can very clearly see where exactly you’re touching.”
Metaio has a bunch of fascinating use cases to hand: security keypads that only the user can see; newspaper ads with clickable links; interactive car manuals that show you what you need to know about a component when you touch it. But right now this is just R&D – nobody is putting thermal imaging cameras into their smartphones and wearables just yet, and Lord reckons it will take at least 5 years before this sort of thing comes to market, if it ever does.
For now, this is the equipment needed to realize the concept:
Still, when modern mobile devices are already packing tons of sensors, why not throw in another if it can turn anything into a user interface? Here’s Metaio’s video, showing what Thermal Touch could do:
Monday, April 28. 2014
Donghee Son and Jongha Lee - Wearable sensors have until now been unable to store data locally.
Researchers have created a wearable device that is as thin as a temporary tattoo and can store and transmit data about a person’s movements, receive diagnostic information and release drugs into skin.
Similar efforts to develop ‘electronic skin’ abound, but the device is the first that can store information and also deliver medicine — combining patient treatment and monitoring. Its creators, who report their findings today in Nature Nanotechnology1, say that the technology could one day aid patients with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy.
The researchers constructed the device by layering a package of stretchable nanomaterials — sensors that detect temperature and motion, resistive RAM for data storage, microheaters and drugs — onto a material that mimics the softness and flexibility of the skin. The result was a sticky patch containing a device roughly 4 centimetres long, 2 cm wide and 0.3 millimetres thick, says study co-author Nanshu Lu, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas in Austin.
“The novelty is really in the integration of the memory device,” says Stéphanie Lacour, an engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who was not involved in the work. No other device can store data locally, she adds.
The trade-off for that memory milestone is that the device works only if it is connected to a power supply and data transmitter, both of which need to be made similarly compact and flexible before the prototype can be used routinely in patients. Although some commercially available components, such as lithium batteries and radio-frequency identification tags, can do this work, they are too rigid for the soft-as-skin brand of electronic device, Lu says.
Even if softer components were available, data transmitted wirelessly would need to be converted into a readable digital format, and the signal might need to be amplified. “It’s a pretty complicated system to integrate onto a piece of tattoo material,” she says. “It’s still pretty far away.”
Thursday, April 17. 2014
Apple has just released the iBeacon specifications for everyone who is a member of the MFi program, Apple’s program for hardware partners (“Made for iPhone program”, etc.). You’ll have to sign an NDA to read the specifications. BEEKn first spotted the news. The company also reiterates that you can’t use the iBeacon brand without prior consent. You have to register to the MFi program, submit a request and get approved by Apple. It’s free for now.
As a reminder, iBeacon is an indoor positioning system based on Bluetooth Low Energy. Many iOS and Android devices now come with Bluetooth Low Energy, so they are all theoretically compatible with iBeacon. iBeacon is particularly interesting for retailers. They can buy a beacon (such as the Estimote pictured above) and use it for proximity interactions.
For instance, merchants can send a push notification to smartphone users when they get close to a particular product. It can also be used for payment systems to detect who is in your store. There are countless of possibilities — it’s just the beginning.
iBeacon is just a particular implementation of Bluetooth Low Energy. Devices broadcast a Bluetooth LE signal, and iPhones download data when they are close to a beacon. It also works with Android phones, and Apple apparently doesn’t want to stop that.
Yet, iBeacon is a registered trademark and Apple can decide what to do. For now, developers who sign up to the MFi program, request to use the iBeacon name, and conform to the Apple standard can use the brand for free. iBeacon devices will mostly be B2B devices for shop owners, trade show staffs and more.
Think of it like the “Made for iPhone” brand. Dock manufacturers can build a speaker that works with Android and iOS phones. They put the little “Made for iPhone” stickers. It means that Apple certifies that it will work well with iPhones. The iBeacon brand works the same way for beacons.
Wednesday, April 16. 2014
Your old phones and tablets don’t have to become e-waste. They can do real work as repurposed sidekicks for your PC. Think of them as bonus touchscreen displays and you’ll begin to see the possibilities. They just need to be plugged in, wiped of unneeded apps and notifications, and they’re ready to serve as desktop companions. Here are some of the best ways to reuse that old tech.
Turn your tablet into a second monitor
One simple way to get some extra mileage out of an old tablet is to turn it into a dedicated PC monitor. Even with just 7-inch tablet, you can use the extra screen to keep an eye on instant messages, email, or social networks. If you’re working with photos, video or music, the second screen could even serve as a dedicated space for toolbars. It’s also an easy second screen to pack up and take with you.
I suggest Air Display, a $10 app for iOS andAndroid that connects to your main computer over Wi-Fi. (A $5 app called iDisplay also supports USB connections on Android devices, but I had trouble getting it to work on a 2012 Nexus 7.) You may also want to pick up a cheap tablet stand, such as this one.
Use your phone as an air mouse or dictation tool
If you need a break from hunching over your desk, a spare smartphone can serve as a touchscreen mouse for your PC. All you need is a remote mouse app that communicates with a companion desktop app over Wi-Fi.
On the iPhone, Mobile Mouse is a fine option that supports gestures such as two-finger scrolling. You can add gyroscopic air mouse controls by upgrading to the $2 Pro version. Mobile Mouse’s Android version isn’t quite as slick, so for that platform I recommend Unified Remote instead.
Here’s a neat trick for either app: With your phone’s on-screen keyboard, use the microphone key for voice dictation on your PC.
Turn your tablet into a full-blown command center
With a little effort and a few bucks, your tablet can be more than just an extra trackpad. The touch screen can also quickly launch applications and execute commands faster than you can point and click with a mouse.
iPad users should check out Actions, a $5 app that lets you create buttons for all the things you do most on your PC. You can quickly launch a new window in Chrome, expose the desktop, open the search bar, or control media playback. Just install the companion server app for Windows or Mac and start shaving the minutes off your work routine.
For Android, the premium version of Unified Remote comes close to what Actions offers, even if it isn’t as snazzy. The $4 upgrade gives access to lots of app-specific control panels, plus a way to create your own panels.
Set up a small file server with battery backup
In terms of raw storage, an old phone or tablet can’t compare to a networked hard drive. But it’s good enough for documents or a small number of media files—especially if you can pop in a microSD card for extra capacity. Plus, mobile devices can hum along for days on battery power, so you can still get to your files even if someone shuts off your computer. Think of it as do-it-yourself cloud storage, without the cloud.
To transfer files onto your phone or tablet, you could just plug it into your PC and drag-and-drop. Or you could go the automated route: Install BitTorrent Sync on your PC and your phone, and use the “sync folders” option to back up whatever folders you want.
The easiest way to access Android files remotely is with AirDroid. Install the app on your phone and create a login (or just sign in with your Google account), then visit web.airdroid.com from any browser. After signing in, you’ll be able to access your phone’s file directory and snag anything you need. (Just make sure to disable “power saving mode” in AirDroid’s settings first.)
Create a desktop calculator or document scanner
Tapping digits on a touch screen is easier than pointing and clicking on your PC’s built-in calculator program. (PCalc for iOS and Real Calc for Android are both free for basic calculations, and you can upgrade to paid versions if you need more features.)
As long as you’re making up for missing peripherals, you can also use your phone as a document scanner. CamScanner, available for both iOS and Android, is loaded with features, and you can try it for free. The paid version costs $5 per month on both platforms.
Dedicate it to calls and video chats
If you’re working on a small laptop or an older PC with limited processing power, you may want to offload Skype calls, Google Hangouts, or other video chat applications to a separate phone or tablet. That way, you can free up your PC’s resources—and its screen—for taking notes or pulling up reference files. This one’s easy: All you need is a phone or tablet with a front-facing camera and a cheap stand or monitor mount. (You could also MacGyver your own phone stand or monitor mount for practically nothing.)
Create minimalist writing/sketching station
The lack of a windowing system on iOS and Android can be a burden for serious work, but sometimes a break from multitasking can help you focus. Grab a cheap Bluetooth keyboard if you want, and dedicate a spot in your office for writing without distractions. A good note-taking app that syncs online, such as Evernote or the Android-only Google Keep, is especially useful, since whatever you write will be waiting for you when you get back to your computer.
Of course, a text editor isn’t the only tool you could have at your disposal. You could also install a diagram app, such as Lucidchart or Idea Sketch, or grab a pressure-sensitive stylus for free-form sketching.
The advantage of repurposing an older device is that you can completely dedicate it to the task. There’s nothing stopping you from using a brand-new phone or tablet for any of these purposes, however. Check out PCWorld’s guide to 13 highly productive Android apps that play nice with your PC.
Qualcomm is getting high on 64-bit chips with its fastest ever Snapdragon processor, which will render 4K video, support LTE Advanced and could run the 64-bit Android OS.
The new Snapdragon 810 is the company’s “highest performing” mobile chip for smartphones and tablets, Qualcomm said in a statement. Mobile devices with the 64-bit chip will ship in the first half of next year, and be faster and more power-efficient. Snapdragon chips are used in handsets with Android and Windows Phone operating systems, which are not available in 64-bit form yet.
The Snapdragon 810 is loaded with the latest communication and graphics technologies from Qualcomm. The graphics processor can render 4K (3840 x 2160 pixel) video at 30 frames per second, and 1080p video at 120 frames per second. The chip also has an integrated modem that supports LTE and its successor, LTE-Advanced, which is emerging.
The 810 also is among the first mobile chips to support the latest low-power LPDDR4 memory, which will allow programs to run faster while consuming less power. This will be beneficial, especially for tablets, as 64-bit chips allow mobile devices to have more than 4GB of memory, which is the limit on current 32-bit chips.
The quad-core chip has a mix of high-power ARM Cortex-A57 CPU cores for demanding tasks and low-power A53 CPU cores for mundane tasks like taking calls, messaging and MP3 playback. The multiple cores ensure more power-efficient use of the chip, which helps extend battery life of mobile devices.
The company also introduced a Snapdragon 808 six-core 64-bit chip. The chips will be among the first made using the latest 20-nanometer manufacturing process, which is an advance from the 28-nm process used to make Snapdragon chips today.
Qualcomm now has to wait for Google to release a 64-bit version of Android for ARM-based mobile devices. Intel has already shown mobile devices running 64-bit Android with its Merrifield chip, but most mobile products today run on ARM processors. Qualcomm licenses Snapdragon processor architecture and designs from ARM.
Work for 64-bit Android is already underway, and applications like the Chrome browser are already being developed for the OS. Google has not officially commented on when 64-bit Android would be released, but industry observers believe it could be announced at the Google I/O conference in late June.
Qualcomm spokesman Jon Carvill declined to comment on support for 64-bit Android. But the chips are “further evidence of our commitment to deliver top-to-bottom mobile 64-bit leadership across product tiers for our customers,” Carvill said in an email.
Qualcomm’s chips are used in some of the world’s top smartphones, and will appear in Samsung’s Galaxy S5. A Qualcomm executive in October last year called Apple’s A7, the world’s first 64-bit mobile chip, a “marketing gimmick,” but the company has moved on and now has five 64-bit chips coming to medium-priced and premium smartphones and tablets. But no 64-bit Android smartphones are available yet, and Apple has a headstart and remains the only company selling a 64-bit smartphone with its iPhone 5S.
The 810 supports HDMI 1.4 for 4K video output, and the Adreno 430 graphics processor is 30 percent faster on graphics performance and 20 percent more power efficient than the older Adreno 420 GPU. The graphics processor will support 55-megapixel sensors, Qualcomm said. Other chip features include 802.11ac Wi-Fi with built-in technology for faster wireless data transfers, Bluetooth 4.1 and a processing core for location services.
The six-core Snapdragon 808 is a notch down on performance compared to the 810, and also has fewer features. The 808 supports LTE-Advanced, but can support displays with up to 2560 x 1600 pixels. It will support LPDDR3 memory. The chip has two Cortex-A57 CPUs and four Cortex-A53 cores.
The chips will ship out to device makers for testing in the second half of this year.
Wednesday, March 26. 2014
Google is not abandoning Project Ara, after taking over the ambitious experimental smartphone design concept along with the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group from Motorola. ATAP only just announced Tango, its 3D-environment sensor for mobile devices, and now it’s revealing a two-day developer conference April 15 and 16 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
Ara, for those who aren’t familiar, is a modular smartphone project that would allow users to swap out interchangeable parts to give their device a different sensor load out, a better camera, more battery power or anything else your heart might desire. You source new sensors from a store that would operate similarly to a hardware version of the Play mobile software marketplace, and theoretically upgrade your phone piecemeal instead of having to buy a brand new one every few years just for a few new highlight features.
This is the first in a planned series of Ara dev conferences for 2014, Google says, and this event will focus specifically on the alpha release of the Ara Module Developers’ Kit (MDK) which will hit the web in early April. The free platform will offer developers “everything [they] need” to get up and running building Ara hardware modules, ATAP promises. Limited in-person attendance is available, with a $100 fee ($25 for students) covering food and a special social session. Google is approving these based on the strength of your application, so make it a good one.
Ara is meant to be a one-size fits all solution for smartphones, offering anything to any potential user in the world with its range of modules. That’s a hugely ambitious goal, of course, but in ATAP’s own words, they “like epic shit,” so that aim seems within its scope.
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