Gone: Google Toolbar (2000-2021)

For both better and worse, the internet landscape moves fast. Shortening attention spans and memories all over the world. But every once in a while, we get a reminder of what once was. [Ron Amadeo] of Ars Technica fired up a Google product of year 2000 in Take one last look at Google Toolbar, which is now dead.

Today it’s hard to find an operating system that does not bundle a web browser. But back then, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was so dominant, the browser’s inclusion in Windows led to an antitrust lawsuit. Trying to get out from under IE’s shadow, many internet companies grabbed a toehold on users’ computers by installing a toolbar. (The comments thread on that Ars Technica article includes some horrific screenshots of mass toolbar infestation.)

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Two Mars Orbiters Chatted For Atmospheric Science

Mission extensions for interplanetary robot explorers are usually continuations of their primary mission. But sometimes the hardware already on board are put to novel uses. European Space Agency has started using radio equipment on board two Mars orbiters to probe the Martian atmosphere.

The scientific basis is straightforward: radio signals are affected by whatever they had traveled through. When transmitting data, such effects are noises to be minimized. But we can also leverage it for atmospheric science here on Earth. ESA applied the same concept at Mars: by transmitting a known signal from one Mars orbiter to another, changes in the received signal tells scientists something about the Martian atmosphere between them.

So the theory sounds good, but the engineering implementation took some work. Most radio equipment on board ESA’s orbiters were not designed to talk to each other. In fact they were deliberately different to minimize interference. However, both Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter were designed to act as data relays for surface probes, and not just the one they each carried to Mars. Thus their related radio gear were flexible enough to be adapted to this experiment.

These two machines launched over a decade apart. Yet they could now communicate with each other in Mars orbit using radios originally designed for talking to the surface. In the near future such chatter will probably be limited, as Trace Gas Orbiter is still in the middle of its primary mission. But this success lets ESA think about how much further to push the idea in the future. In the meantime Mars Express will continue its observation of Mars, doing things like giving us context on Perseverance rover landing.

Linux On The Windows 11 Desktop

A month ago Microsoft officially released Windows 11. One of its features is the ability to run Linux GUI applications side by side as peers to normal Windows desktop apps. [Jim Salter] of Ars Technica took a closer look and declared it works as advertised.

This is an evolution of the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), which has existed for a few years but only in command-line form. Linux being Linux, it was certainly possible to put visuals onscreen, but doing so required jumping through some hoops and dealing with limitations. Now “WSLg” gives a smoother and more accessible experience.

While tremendously valuable for those who need it, WSLg is admittedly a niche feature. The circumstances will be different for different needs. Around these parts, one example is letting us work with pieces of proprietary Windows software (such as low level hardware drivers or hardware-specific dev tools) while still retaining Linux tools for the rest of our workflow.

It’s also interesting to take a peek behind the scenes for an instructive look at bridging two operating systems. A Microsoft blog post describes the general architecture, where we were happy to see open-source work leveraged. And by basing this work on Wayland, it is more forward-looking than working with just X11.

The bad news is that WSLg is limited to Windows 11, at least for now. WSL users on Windows 10 will have to continue jumping through hoops (We described one method using X11.) And opening this door unfortunately also opened the door to security issues, so there’s still work ahead for WSL.

Quick Reaction Saves ESA Space Telescope

Once launched, most spacecraft are out of reach of any upgrades or repairs. Mission critical problems must be solved with whatever’s still working on board, and sometimes there’s very little time. Recently ESA’s INTEGRAL team was confronted with a ruthlessly ticking three hour deadline to save the mission.

European Space Agency INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory is one of many space telescopes currently in orbit. Launched in 2002, it has long surpassed its original designed lifespan of  two or three years, but nothing lasts forever. A failed reaction wheel caused the spacecraft to tumble out of control and its automatic emergency recovery procedures didn’t work. Later it was determined those procedures were dependent on the thrusters, which themselves failed in the summer of 2020. (Another mission-saving hack which the team had shared earlier.)

With solar panels no longer pointed at the sun, battery power became the critical constraint. Hampering this time-critical recovery effort was the fact that antenna on a tumbling spacecraft could only make intermittent radio contact. But there was enough control to shut down additional systems for a few more hours on battery, and enough telemetry so the team could understand what had happened. Control was regained using remaining reaction wheels.

INTEGRAL has since returned to work, but this won’t be the last crisis to face an aging space telescope. In the near future, its automatic emergency recovery procedures will be updated to reflect what the team has learned. Long term, ESA did their part to minimize space debris. Before the big heavy telescope lost its thrusters, it had already been guided onto a path which will reenter the atmosphere sometime around 2029. Between now and then, a very capable and fast-reacting operations team will keep INTEGRAL doing science for as long as possible.

Ford Maverick Welcomes DIY Spirit

We’ve featured a lot of car hacks on these pages, most would void the warranty and none of it with explicit factory support. Against that background, Ford’s upcoming Maverick is unique: a major manufacturer has invited owners to unleash their do-it-yourself spirit. It is one of several aspects that led [Jason Torchinsky] of Jalopnik to proclaim The 2022 Ford Maverick Is An Honest, Cheap, Multitool Of A Vehicle And I’m All For It.

There are two primary parts to Ford’s DIY invitation. Inside the cabin are several locations for a dovetail mount called “Ford Integrated Tether System” (FITS). Naturally Ford will be selling their own FITS accessories, but they also expect people to create and 3D-print designs addressing needs unmet by factory kits. CAD files for FITS dimensions are promised, but any maker experienced with a caliper should have little trouble.

Another part of Ford’s DIY invitation is in the cargo area, whose sides were stamped with slots for lumber beams supporting projects like a ~$45 bike rack. There are also threaded bolt holes already in the bed, no drilling or tapping into sheet metal necessary. Behind a few small plastic doors are wires to supply 12 V DC power without the risk of splicing into factory harnesses.

There will always be wild car hacks like turning a sedan into a pickup truck. But it’s great to lower the barrier of entry for milder hacks with these small and very welcome features. QR codes on a sticker takes us to Ford’s collection of video instructions to get things started. Naturally if this idea takes off other people will post many more on their own YouTube channels. We like where Ford wants to go with this, and we would love to see such DIY-friendliness spread across the auto industry. A few Ford videos explaining design intent in this area after the break.

[Title image: Ford Motor Company]

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Intel RealSense D435 Depth Camera

RealSense No Longer Makes Sense For Intel

We love depth-sensing cameras and every neat hack they enabled, but this technological novelty has yet to break through to high volume commercial success. So it was sad but not surprising when CRN reported that Intel has decided to wind down their RealSense product line.

As of this writing, one of the better confirmations for this report can be found on the RealSense SDK GitHub repository README. The good news is that core depth-sensing RealSense products will continue business as usual for the foreseeable future, balanced by the bad news that some interesting offshoots (facial authentication, motion tracking) will be declared “End of Life” immediately and phased out over the next six months.

This information tells us while those living out on the bleeding edge will have to scramble, there is no immediate crisis for everyone else, whether they be researchers, hobbyists, or product planners. But this also means there will be no future RealSense cameras, kicking off many “What’s Next?” discussions in various communities. Like this thread on ROS (Robot Operating System) Discourse.

Three popular alternatives offer distinctly different tradeoffs. The “Been Around The Block” name is Occipital, with their more expensive Structure Pro sensor. The “Old Name, New Face” option is Microsoft Azure Kinect, the latest non-gaming-focused successor to the gaming peripheral that started it all. And let’s not forget OAK-D as the “New Kid On The Block” that started with a crowdfunding campaign and building an user community by doing things like holding contests. Each of these will appeal to a different niche, and we’ll keep our eye open in the future. Let’s see if any of them find the success that eluded the original Kinect, Google’s Tango, and now Intel’s RealSense.

[via Engadget]

Atlas robot jumps over a gap

Boston Dynamics Atlas Dynamic Duo Tackles Obstacle Course

Historically, the capabilities of real world humanoid robots have trailed far behind their TV and movie counterparts. But roboticists kept pushing state of the art forward, and Boston Dynamics just shared a progress report: their research platform Atlas can now complete a two-robot parkour routine.

Watching the minute-long routine on YouTube (embedded after the break) shows movements more demanding than their dance to the song “Do You Love Me?  And according to Boston Dynamics, this new capability is actually even more impressive than it looks. Unlike earlier demonstrations, this routine used fewer preprogrammed motions that made up earlier dance performances. Atlas now makes more use of its onboard sensors to perceive its environment, and more of its onboard computing power to decide how to best move through the world on a case-by-case basis. It also needed to string individual actions together in a continuous sequence, something it had trouble doing earlier.

Such advances are hard to tell from a robot demonstration video, which are frequently edited and curated to show highlighted success and skip all the (many, many) fails along the way. Certainly Boston Dynamics did so themselves before, but this time it is accompanied by almost six minutes worth of behind-the-scenes footage. (Also after the break.) We see the robot stumbling as it learned, and the humans working to put them back on their feet.

Humanoid robot evolution has not always gone smoothly (sometimes entertainingly so) but Atlas is leaps and bounds over its predecessors like Honda Asimo. Such research finds its way to less humanoid looking robots like the Stretch. And who knows, maybe one day real robots will be like their TV and movie counterparts that have, for so long, been played by humans inside costumes.

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