Day: December 18, 2017

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NASA engineers stare at the sun to see shockwaves from supersonic flight

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Before the eclipse this summer, NASA warned us over and over again not to stare directly at the sun — but now they’re doing just that. Its researchers have reinvented a photography technique more than a century old, using the sun itself as a backdrop in order to capture the shockwave produced by a new supersonic jet.

Schlieren imaging was invented by a German physicist in the 19th century as a way to capture objects moving at supersonic speeds; it basically works by tracking tiny distortions to a uniform background illumination that are produced when the air is disturbed by a passing object.

The results are striking and you’ve likely seen them before. But traditional Schlieren imaging is limited in its range and scale; NASA’s Background Oriented Schlieren using Celestial Objects (BOSCO) allows the sun itself to be used as the background, and not only that, but it’s reliable enough to be used from a chaser plane 10,000 feet up.

Another Schlieren photo from NASA that uses the edge of the sun as its uniform background; BOSCO uses the disc itself.

Previous background oriented Schlieren imaging efforts for viewing the distortion patterns of planes in flight have been shot top-down with a featureless landscape as their background, or bottom-up using the edge of the sun (as you see above). But BOSCO aims its telescopic camera directly at the disc of the sun, capturing the aircraft as it causes a partial, highly local eclipse.

In order not to be completely blown out, the camera system uses a “hydrogen alpha filter,” which only lets in a very specific wavelength of light, which is produced by the sun in a nice granular pattern.

You can see it in action in this video, which does double duty to remind you that much science is done in circumstances that are decidedly less than glorious but nevertheless awesome:

How cool is that? (Although I do have to say that aesthetically speaking, the smooth gradients of film photography better suit this type of imagery.)

Don’t try this at home.

They’re not just doing this for fun, though. BOSCO is part of NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Technology program, which aims (as you might have guessed already) to create a supersonic aircraft that doesn’t create that vexing sonic boom wherever it goes. Such a craft could help bring back consumer supersonic flight, and would even be able to do overland routes.

The future Low Boom aircraft would likely fly at around 60,000 feet, though, but since it would be difficult for a ground-based system to capture good shots of a plane flying that high, the team needed to create something that create this kind of imagery from the air.

So the latest development is the deployment of a new, miniaturized BOSCO that can fit into the wing pod of a chaser aircraft. This lets the researchers capture images from as close as 10,000 feet, while the target plane is actually flying at the target altitude.

“The main objective here was to see what the image looks like at close range, including what kind of shockwave structure we can make out,” said BOSCO principal investigator Mike Hill in a NASA news release. “We needed to use our new compact camera system in order to get an idea of the quality of the images of those shockwaves using a smaller system.”

The new setup is what was being tested in the video above; the flight you see was at 20,000 feet, but subsequent ones were at 15,000 and 10,000 feet, proving that the technique works at the range likely to be encountered during an air-to-air shoot.

Of course, getting a clear shot of one supersonic jet from the wing of a second is a major challenge in and of itself — but at least they know the camera works.

Featured Image: NASA

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The Echo Spot is my new favorite Alexa device

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I got excited when the Echo Spot debuted. At the time, I tentatively declared it the best Echo at the time, and after living with the device for the better part of a week, my sentiments haven’t really changed.

The latest member of the Echo family slots into the line nicely, delivering the Show’s touchscreen functionality at a much more palatable price point and size. It’s kind of the Dot to the Show’s standard Echo — in other words, “Spot” is what you get when you cross “Show” with “Dot.”

While rumors about a touchscreen Google Home have been floating around for a bit, the Echo line is still the only major player in the space with the functionality — making Amazon its own biggest competitor. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spot starts eating into Show sales in a big way. A few case uses aside, there really aren’t that many reasons to plunk down the extra $100 for the Show.

Circle marks the Spot

The biggest change in this most recent round of Echo devices is the fact that Amazon’s actually started to give a crap about design. The Echos were kind of crummy and plasticky looking, betraying a company that was more interested in getting its platforms into the home, rather than actually blending in with them.

The Echo got a nice design makeover, with fabric covers and the like, and likewise, the Spot is a much better looking device than the Show. The first Echo was big and plasticky and clunky, with all sorts of weird, brutalist angles.

The Spot’s a small, half-circle, available in either white or black. The company likely could sell even more if it offered them in a wider variety of colors, but between the two current options, it should fit pretty well into most settings. It’s not bleeding-edge design, but it’s minimal without being boring and is honestly pretty nice looking, so far as alarm clocks go.

An Amazon rep tells me the circular design wasn’t chosen for any particular practical purpose — it was a purely aesthetic decision. There is, however, one big downside to all of that: it really messes with video playback. It’s pretty clear that Amazon didn’t expect too many people to actually watch video on the thing. The screen is 2.5 inches, to the Show’s seven.

When you attempt to watch a video, a big portion of the screen is taken over by big, black letter boxing, adding the already sizable bezel. When the video pops up, there’s an option for zooming in. That will eliminate the letter boxing problem, but you’re going to lose everything on the periphery. It’s a weird sensation — a bit like watching something through a porthole.

Of course, on top of the size and dimensional constraints is the fact that the screen has a 480 x 480 resolution. That means it’s not great for much beyond playing short videos — and, unfortunately, bickering between Amazon and Google means when you ask Alexa to “play YouTube,” she answers, curtly that “web videos are not supported on this device.” Amazon video does have some short form content, but it’s no YouTube. Because nothing is YouTube, except for YouTube.

Similarly, the speakers, which were a key focus on the new Echo and Echo Plus, are nothing to speak of, or hear. The get surprisingly loud, but like the Dot, you’re not going to want to use them for much more than communicating with Alexa. For music playback and the like, there’s an audio out port on the back, Bluetooth playing and multi-room music streaming — in other words, you have plenty of much better options for listening to music through Alexa.

Pillow talk

Amazon designs these device around where they’re intended to be used in the home. And yes, the closest non-smart analog for the Spot is the alarm clock. I had it next to my bed for most of my time with the device. It’s a good size and shape for a nightstand, and mornings are really the most useful time of day for an Echo — it’s when you’re looking for useful bits of info like the weather, traffic and news — the latter of which the Spot delivers as flash briefings. Those are short little news videos from top video providers. Pick, say, TechCrunch, to choose a totally arbitrary example, and it will play Crunch Report.

About a week or so back, Amazon brought alarm clock functionality to the Echo line — the timing was a surefire sign that the Spot was just over the horizon. Ask Alexa to, say, “Wake me up to Thin Lizzy at 6:00AM tomorrow,” and the device will do just that, pulling songs from Amazon Prime. You also can ask it to wake you to radio stations through Tune-In. Handy feature that.

Of course, releasing a device designed to live by the side of your bed really stirs up all of those smart speaker privacy issues we’ve been talking about for a few weeks. As ever, the Echo is always listening, and while the company has added security precautions to ease users’ minds, things get even more tricky when you add a camera into the picture.

As with the rest of the Echo line, there’s a button on top that turns off the microphone, lighting up a red circle around the display to let you know that it’s no longer listening. There’s no voice command to turn the mic off (likely because you then wouldn’t be able to turn it back on with a similar command), but turning off the video camera is accomplished by voice. Strangely, there’s no equivalent to the red ring here. Alexa just cheerfully lets you know that the camera’s off and she’ll turn it back on tomorrow.

Amazon should make this functionality more straightforward in future versions. The company should also consider selling a camera-free model. Honestly, aside from video calling, there aren’t a ton of applications for the feature, so many users likely wouldn’t even miss it.

Screen time

One of the nicest things about the Echo line is the speed with which the company is adding new skills. As of December 2017, Alexa’s ecosystem is a fairly robust one. Though, these screen models are relatively new additions, so the selection of visual tools is still a bit lacking at the moment. With most of the more basic skills, like weather and traffic, the company’s done a decent job creating static images.

That said, there are still some solid skills that make good use of the screen, like the aforementioned video calling. The most compelling, however, is probably smart home camera and baby monitor functionality. The device is compatible with a wide range of devices from big names, like Arlo, August, Nest and Ring. It’s handy having a little screen nearby for checking in when someone’s at the door.

Hitting the spot

I like the Spot. If I was current in the market for an Echo device, this would probably be the one. It’s one of the better looking members in the line and the $129 price seems just about right. The display’s usefulness is hampered somewhat by size and a relative lack of skills that really take advantage of the tech, but it does bring some nice functionality to the table.

As with all of these devices, I recommend that anyone who’s in the market does a cost benefit analysis of the useful features versus privacy concerns. All of that is compounded when you stick the product in a bedroom and add a camera. Amazon’s got ways of disabling all of that, but I’m strongly considering becoming one of those blue electric tape people and covering the thing up most of the time — there just aren’t that many applications for a built-in camera.

If none of this seems particularly concerning to you, however, the Spot quickly shoots up the list of available Echos. It’s a nice addition to the line, and Amazon’s about to sell a whole lot of these.

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Amazon’s latest Echos show the smart home space hitting its stride

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Amazon’s Echo lineup got a refresh earlier this year that included a brand new version of its basic Echo, well as an Echo Plus with integrated smart home hub, and the stalwart Echo Dot – unchanged, but still a compelling device at its price point.

The new lineup of devices also made its way to more markets this year, including an expansion to Canada just this month, which is why I now have a host of Echo hardware kitting out my apartment. The major accomplishment of this refresh, I think, is that it feels less like a new generation of gadget, and more like a coming of age for a modern-day appliance – a whole new category of must-have home furnishings.

Amazon clearly wants to encourage this impression – the new Amazon Echo comes in a host of fabric-covered finishes, and it’s hard to imagine the upholstery look’s connection to furnishings is unintentional. Part of it is about fitting into the decor so that these smart speakers can stand free and clear and unhidden on shelves, tables and surfaces without offending any sensibilities. But it’s also about turning a gadget into something far more approachable, and far more mainstream.

As far as I’m concerned, Amazon has accomplished its task. The Echo (and Echo Plus, and Echo Dot), have all become as key a home device as a light switch, or a couch, or a microwave. The latest generation just firms up that presence with needed improvements in key areas, including in sound reproduction (the new Echo is better than its predecessor, for sure, and the Echo Plus seems to sound a bit better as well despite having apparently similar hardware).

I now use the Echos around the house to control my Hue lights (I don’t remember the last time I flicked a switch), turn on and control the home theater system, check and change the temperature using my Nest thermostat, check news and weather and set kitchen timers. It’s second-nature at this point, and doing the same things, the old, manual way feels hopelessly backwards – even if the actual convenience difference is arguably trivial.

Aspects of the new Echo lineup are questionable, like the integrated smart home hub in the Echo Plus which only supports one of the two major standards for wireless connected home devices. But they don’t detract from the experience – and the ultimate impression that Echo is a home companion that’s destined to become more and more a default option that people live with as reliably as they do their coffee table, or at least their dishwasher.

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