Sony panoramic mirror makes for a cheap omnicam 
Sunday, June 27, 2010, 10:13 PM - Misc TechnoToys
Sony sells mirror assemblies designed to turn their cheap video cameras into omnicams. The widget contains an appropriately-shaped mirror with a plastic casing that fits around the lens of small cameras. It costs $83.00, which is about 5 times cheaper than the nearest competitor. The part number is X25467051.

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AT&T Wireless "Unlimited" plan was not unlimited at all 
Monday, June 7, 2010, 09:10 AM - Misc TechnoToys
I don't know if I should call this "false advertising" or "bait and switch".

Last year, I got a family plan from AT&T Wireless, with cheap/free phones for the whole family. I explicitly asked about the cost of unlimited data plans and was told it was $15/month. A few months later, I bought a Google Nexus One, and went to the AT&T Wireless website to activate the "unlimited data plan". I clicked the "AT&T recommended unlimited data plan" for $15/month.

The plan does have a fine print that says "data unlimited is not available on PDA/Pocket PC, RIM devices, or laptop connect cards". But it says nothing about Android phones.

In any case, the service worked great for about 9 months. Then a few days ago, I got a notice by SMS and by email saying that I had a "smartphone" (whatever that is), and that they would just switch me to the $30/mo unlimited data plan for smart phones. I went to the AT&T Wireless website and looked for their definition of smart phone, but I could only find a list of smart phones that AT&T distributes, which (obviously) doesn't include my Nexus One.

They say their $15/mo plan is "unlimited data" but it really isn't. It is limited by the phone hardware they allow it on. In you opinion, is this false advertising? Is their forceful switching of my service from $15/mo to $30/mo "bait and switch"?

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Tuesday nights at the Bar Next Door 
Sunday, May 2, 2010, 01:04 AM - Jazz
If you are in New York City on a Tuesday night, and if you like jazz, go to the Bar Next Door at La Lanterna on 129 MacDougal street in Greenwich Village. The sets are from 8:30 to 9:45 and from 10:30 to 11:45, and the cover is $12, even if you stay for both sets. That's hard to beat.

But what's really hard to beat is the quality of the music. On most Tuesdays you will hear Joel Frahm's Trio, with Joe Martin at the bass and Bill Campbell at the drums. Whenever Joel is on tour, you might hear Chris Potter, Bill McHenry, Anat Cohen, or John Ellis. When Joe Martin is on tour, you might hear Omer Avital, or Allan Hampton at the bass.

The acoustic is great, the room is intimate, the people are friendly, and the music is fantastic.

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Ridiculously fast jazz solos on the recorder 
Sunday, May 2, 2010, 12:47 AM - Jazz
Benoît Sauvé Benoît Sauvé is a French virtuoso recorder player who manages to emulate the likes of John Coltrane and Michael Brecker on the alto recorder. In his YouTube videos, he plays Coltrane's solo on "Blue Train" and Mickael Brecker's solo on "Some Skunk Funk" without missing a note.

For all of you, non recorder players, these solos are supposed to be played on a tenor saxophone, which is in B flat, and has lots of keys to make the fingerings easy and the flats and sharps real simple. An alto recorder is in F and has no keys (only holes). This means that playing certain notes (including most flats and sharps) requires very strange and complicated combinations of fingers, sometimes covering half a hole. Playing a jazz tune designed for a tenor sax will invariably involve lots of sharps and flats. Typical transitions between notes will require switching 4 or 5 fingers at the same time. That's why Benoît's performance is so impressive.

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FanWing: horizontal-axis rotary wing 
Monday, March 29, 2010, 01:32 AM - Flying Contraptions
The FanWing is an airplane design that uses an interesting type of wing.

It reminds me of a beach toy I had when I was a kid: a light plastic kite, shape like an airplane whose wings rotated around a metal axis.

The wings of the FanWing are composed of slats arranged as a cylinder that rotates on a horizontal axis. By rotating, the cylinders generate lift at lower speed than conventional wings.

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Monday, March 29, 2010, 01:28 AM - Flying Contraptions
The Vicacopter is a minimalist PIC-based open source auto-pilot for helicopters, tri-copters, and quadri-copters.

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Arduino Nano 3.0 
Monday, March 29, 2010, 01:23 AM - Electronics
The Arduino Nano 3.0, available at MakerSHED for $35, is PCB-mountable, small footprint Arduino with an Atmega328 chip and a mini-USB connector.
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Swisscopter: single-seat helicopter with H2O2 rockets on tip of rotor 
Monday, March 29, 2010, 01:09 AM - Flying Contraptions
Swisscopter AG has a couple demo videos of a single seat ultra-light helicopter that is powered by H2O2 rockets on the tip of its main rotor. The advantage of the design is the quasi-absence of moving parts, and the absence of a torque on the body.

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Using Android phones to control robots 
Monday, March 29, 2010, 12:56 AM - Robotics
Several projects are underway to couple an Android phone with an Arduino so as to control robots. After all, Android phones have a powerful CPU, a camera, accelerometers, a magnetometer, and a GPS, everything you need for a nice robotic platform in a small form factor. The only problem is getting the phone to send control signals. On certain phones, this can be done with a serial port, on most others, this can be done through BlueTooth.

- Cellbot
- Firmata: Android <-> Arduino via Bluetooth
- Amarino: Android <-> Arduino via Bluetooth
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One Week with a Nexus One Google Phone 
Monday, March 29, 2010, 12:27 AM - Electronics
As soon as Google announced the availability of a version of the Nexus One phone that works with AT&T's 3G frequencies, I got one ($530 direct from Google). This is the best phone every made by a long shot. Waaaay better than the iPhone.
The 800x480 OLED display is fantastic. With 800 pixels, it's wide enough to display web sites without weird reformatting. The 1GHz snapdragon ARM-based CPU is very fast, and the browsing experience is fantastic (and it does have multi-touch pinching zoom). The Android 2.1 UI has all the buttons and functions in the right places. This is very much unlike Android 1.5 on my Samsung Galaxy 7500, which was incredibly clunky, slow and unresponsive.

As Wired magazine says, there are 3 types of "flashes" that the Nexus one supports and the iPhone doesn't: Adobe Flash (to view YouTube videos and browse the web), an LED flash for the camera (5MP with autofocus), and a microSD slot for a flash card. My Nexus One came with a 4GB microSD, which I replaced by an 8GB.

It has been said that the Nexus One sales have been slow, but it's because the US cell market is so fragmented: T-Mobile uses GSM for 2G and standard frequencies for 3G, but their coverage sucks; Verizon has good coverage and uses normal 3G frequencies, but they use CDMA for 2G instead of GSM like everyone else; AT&T uses GSM and has good coverage, but they use weird frequency bands for 3G. Bwaaaaah!

Why couldn't the US government do its job and establish standards, as Europe did?

In any case, the Nexus One now works with a carrier that actually has decent coverage. The apps are fabulous (even has a VNC client), but I haven't been able to figure out how to use the 3G connection from a laptop through BlueTooth.

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JeeLink: Arduino + RF 
Monday, March 29, 2010, 12:20 AM - Electronics
The JeeLink v2 is an Arduino with an RF link package in a tiny form factor. It costs about 30 Euros. It can be paired with an 18 Euro JeeNode, also an Arduino + RF module.
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Aerotrain: the documentary 
Monday, March 8, 2010, 06:00 PM - Flying Contraptions
The Aerotrain was a French R&D project headed by engineer Jean Bertin in the 60's and 70's to build a high speed hovercraft monorail. The first prototypes of the Aerotrain used gas turbines for levitation and propulsion. Later models used a linear motor for propulsion and gas turbines for levitation. There are a few fan sites, that trace the history of the development

Interestingly, the technology was licensed to an American company in Colorado called Rohr Industries. They developed and tested a prototype, but the project was later abandonned.

A French documentary filmmaker tracked down the surviving prototype to a museum in Pueblo, CO. He made a documentary about it. This documentary is available on YouTube in six parts. An English version is also available. The movie is also downloadable.

The project received a lot of publicity in France in the late 60's and early 70's when I was growing up. A friend of my aunt's was a young engineer at Bertin in the early 70's, working on the Aerotrain. Growing up, I was totally fascinated.
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Personal Electric VTOL aircraft from NASA 
Thursday, January 21, 2010, 12:35 AM - Flying Contraptions
NASA is studying a single "seat" battery-powered VTOL personal aircraft called the Puffin. The on-line edition of Scientific American has an article on the Puffin.

The Puffin has two contra-rotating propellers in the front, and four tail booms with tail planes that fold out to turn into a landing gear for vertical landings. The pilot "stands" in the plane (when sitting on its tail), and lie on his belly when the plane flies horizontally.

The 4.1m-wingspan plane is powered by a 45kg lithium-phosphate battery that gives it a range of just 80km at a cruising speed of 240km/h, but progress in battery technology could triple the range over the next 7 years. The motors have an approximate total power of 45kW.

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Operation: No Smoking May 16th, 2010 Plerguer, France 
Monday, January 18, 2010, 11:55 AM - Flying Contraptions
The Aero-Modèle Club de la Côte d'émeraude (AMCCE) in Plerguer, near beautiful Saint-Malo, France, is organizing an all-electric fly-in on May 16th 2010. They call the event Operation No Smoking. The website shows pictures of several electric planes from yours truly (I spend some of my summer vacation nearby and fly there on week-ends).

Here is a satellite pic of the flying site:

View Larger Map
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Parrot AR.Drone: super-duper wifi-enabled, Linux-based quadricopter with vision 
Thursday, January 7, 2010, 02:55 AM - Flying Contraptions
The Parrot AR.Drone is a very exciting and very unusual quadricopter: it is Wifi enabled and has two on-board cameras. At first glance, you could think of it as a flying version of the Rovio. Essentially it is a self-stabilized flying wireless webcam. But the AR.Drone has much more to offer to TechnoToy enthusiasts: it comes with a "shared source" API that allows any wifi-enabled device to get video and sensor data from it and to control it. The website has a number of drool-inducing videos of iPhone controlled AR.Drones, and augmented reality games in which AR.Drones appear to fight giant robots or appear to shoot lasers at each other.

More videos are available on YouTube.

The specifications are nothing short of amazing, really a dream come true for anyone interested in tinkering with flying robots: 6 DoF IMU (3 accelerometers, 3 gyros), 468MHz ARM9 CPU running Linux (which should open the door to custom firmware hacks), an ultrasound altimeter/ground detector that allows automated takeoff and landing. Last but not least, there are two cameras: the first one looks down and is used for vision-based stabilization and ground target detection (176x144 resolution, 60fps, 63 degree field of view). The second camera (640x480 resolution, 15fps, 93 degree FoV) looks forward and its output can be streamed through wifi.

There is no price and no release date, but I'm guessing this is not going to be cheap.....

The coolest aspect of the whole thing is that it is hackable. There is a developer website with a Wiki and downloadable source code (registration required). The system is "open" but not open source in the traditional sense (the license of the API is not an open source license).

Even more interesting, the protocol to communicate with the AR.Drone from the ground (e.g. from an iPhone or a Linus box) is documented in the Developer Guide. Apparently, it consists in sending a bunch of "AT"-style command through a Unix socket. Nice.

Oh, and there is a facebook page

The puzzling thing is that Parrot is a French company which, until now, was involved in high-end cell phone audio accessories and expensive designer digital photo frames. What prompted this 400-employee company founded by a former journalist to get into the hobbyist/toy business?
Perhaps the fact that their CTO used to work at Arianespace?
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iPhone vs Droid, XKCD style. 
Friday, December 25, 2009, 11:22 AM - Misc TechnoToys

link to more XKCD.

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