Give 3D Printed Plastic A Well-Worn Metal Look

Affordable 3D printers let us turn ideas into physical reality without a big expensive workshop, but with their power came some disadvantages. The nature of FDM printers impart layer lines and nozzle ridges in the parts they produce. They can be minimized with optimized print settings, but never eliminated. [Emily Velasco] loves the power of 3D printing but not how the parts look. So she put in the effort to make 3D-printed plastic look like distressed metal and showed us how she did it. (Video also embedded after the break.)

This video is a follow-up to her Pet Eye project in response to feedback on Twitter. She had mentioned that the  salvaged metal box for Pet Eye wasn’t quite big enough to hold everything, so she had to extend its internal volume with a 3D print box on the back. It fit in so well that the offhand comment surprised many people who wanted to know more about how it was done. So she designed a demonstration cube covered with mechanical characteristics, and gave us this walkthrough of its transformation.

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Not All SpaceX Software Goes To Space

SpaceX has always been willing to break from aerospace tradition if they feel there’s a more pragmatic solution. Today this is most visible in their use of standard construction equipment like cranes in their Starship development facility. But the same focus on problem solving can also be found in their software parts we don’t see. Recently we got two different views behind the scenes. First, a four-part series about “software in space” published by StackOverflow blog, followed quickly by an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on SpaceX Reddit.

Some of the StackOverflow series cover ground that has been previously discussed. Mostly in the first part dealing with their workhorse Falcon and Dragon vehicles, and some in the second part discussing Starlink whose beta program is reaching more and more people. Both confirmed that spaceflight software has to meet very stringent requirements and are mostly close to the metal bespoke C++ code. But we receive fascinating new information in part three, which focuses on code verification and testing. Here they leverage a lot of open source infrastructure more common to software startups than aerospace companies. The fourth and final component of this series covers software to support SpaceX hardware manufacturing, which had been rarely discussed before this point. (Unfortunately, there was nothing about how often SpaceX software developers copy and paste code from StackOverflow.)

The recent Reddit AMA likewise had some overlap with the SpaceX software AMA a year ago, but there were new information about SpaceX work within the past year. There was Crew Dragon’s transition from a test to an operational vehicle, and the aforementioned Starship development program. Our comments section had a lot of discussion about the practicality of touchscreen interfaces in real spacecraft, and here we learn SpaceX put a lot of study into building something functional and effective.

It also showed us that essentially every Sci-Fi Movie Interface was unrealistic and would be unreadable under extreme conditions.

In the course of this research, they learned a lot of pitfalls about fictional touch interfaces. Though to be fair, movie and television spacecraft UI are more concerned about looking cool than being useful.

If the standard AMA format is not to your liking, one of the contributors compiled all SpaceX answers alongside their related questions in a much more readable form here. And even though there’s an obvious recruiting side to these events, we’re happy to learn more about how SpaceX have continued to focus on getting the job done instead of rigidly conforming to aerospace tradition. An attitude that goes all the way back to the beginning of this company.

Samsung Releases Minimum Viable Galaxy Upcycling

It’s a tragedy every time a modern smartphone is tossed into e-waste. We prefer to find another life for these bundles of useful hardware. But given all the on-board barriers erected by manufacturers, it’s impractical to repurpose smartphones without their support. A bit of good news on this front is Samsung testing the waters with a public beta of their “Galaxy Upcycling at Home” program, turning a few select devices into SmartThings sensor nodes.

More devices and functionality are promised, but this initial release is barely a shadow of what Samsung promised in 2017. Missed the announcement back then? Head over to a “How it started/How it’s going” comparison from iFixit, who minced no words starting with their title Galaxy Upcycling: How Samsung Ruined Their Best Idea in Years. They saw a bunch of Samsung engineers at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, showing off a bunch of fun projects reusing old phones as open hardware. The placeholder GitHub repository left from that announcement still has a vision of a community of makers dreaming up novel uses. This is our jam! But sadly it has remained a placeholder for four years and, given what we see today, it is more likely to be taken down than to become reality.

The stark difference between original promise and actual results feel like an amateur Kickstarter, not something from a giant international conglomerate. Possibly for the same reason: lack of resources and expertise for execution. It’s hard to find support in a large corporate bureaucracy when there is no obvious contribution to the bottom line. Even today’s limited form has only a tenuous link of possibly helping to sell other SmartThings-enabled smart home devices.

Ars Technica was similarly unimpressed with launch functionality, but was more diplomatic describing the beta as “a very modest starting point”. XDA-Developers likewise pinned their hopes on the “more devices will be supported in the future” part of Samsung’s announcement. Until Samsung delivers on more of the original promise, we’ll continue to be hampered by all the existing reasons hacking our old cell phones are harder than they should be. Sometimes an idea can be fulfilled by helpful apps but other times will require hacking into our devices the old-fashioned way.

A Big Ship Chop Shop On The Georgia Coast

Last week we saw a hapless container ship vaulted to fame, where people converged on its combination of mind-boggling size suffering an easily relatable problem of getting stuck. Now that it is moving again, armchair engineers who crave more big ship problem-solving should check out [David Tracy]’s writeup on the salvage operation of an overturned car carrier ship, the MV Golden Ray published by Jalopnik. If the ship’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the writeup opens with a quick recap.

Written for an audience of gearheads, [Tracy]’s writeup walks through some technical aspects of the salvage plan and initial results of execution. Citing from the official entity in charge, the St. Simons Sound Incident Response Unified Command, and augmented with information from elsewhere. Even though the MV Golden Ray is “only’ half the length and a third of the gross tonnage of our meme darling MV Ever Given, it is still a huge ship. Every salvage operation this big is unique, requiring knowledge far beyond our everyday intuition. At this scale, most Internet “Why don’t they just…” comments range from impractical to absurd.

Fortunately, people who actually know how to perform salvage work designed plans, submitted by multiple bidders, each making a different tradeoff in cost and speed among other factors. The chosen plan was to cut the ship into sections small enough to be carried by barge for further processing elsewhere. This required a huge floating crane, a chain pressed into cutter duty, custom fabricated lugs for lifting, and similarly custom fabricated cradles for the barges.

But we all know that no plan survives contact with reality. While this plan was seemingly chosen for speed, it hasn’t gone nearly as fast as advertised. Certainly the pandemic was a huge hinderance, but cutting has also been slowed by pieces built far stronger than spec. Delays also meant more sediment buildup inside the wreck, compounding headaches. Other bidders have started saying that if their plan had been chosen the job would be done by now, but who’s to say their plan wouldn’t have encountered their own problems?

In time St. Simons Sound will be cleared as the Suez Canal has been. Results of their respective investigations should help make shipping safer, but salvage skills will still be needed in the future. At least this operation isn’t as controversial as trying to retrieve the radio room of RMS Titanic.

Boston Dynamics Stretch Robot Trades Lab Coat For Work Uniform

Boston Dynamics has always built robots with agility few others could match. While great for attention-getting demos, from outside the company it hasn’t been clear how they’ll translate acrobatic skills into revenue. Now we’re getting a peek at a plan in an interview with IEEE Spectrum about their new robot Stretch.

Most Boston Dynamics robots have been research projects, too expensive and not designed for mass production. The closest we got to date was Spot, which was offered for sale and picked up a few high profile jobs like inspecting SpaceX test sites. But Spot was still pretty experimental without an explicit application. In contrast, Stretch has a laser-sharp focus made clear by its official product page: this robot will be looking for warehouse jobs. Specifically, Stretch is designed to handle boxes up to 50 lbs (23 kg). Loading and unloading them, to and from pallets, conveyer belts, trucks, or shipping containers. These jobs are repetitive and tedious back-breaking work with a high injury rate, a perfect opportunity for robots.

But warehouse logistics aren’t as tightly structured as factory automation, demanding more adaptability than typical industrial robots can offer. A niche Boston Dynamics learned it can fill after releasing an earlier demo video showing their research robot Atlas moving some boxes around: they started receiving inquiries into how much that would cost. Atlas is not a product, but wheels were set in motion leading to their Handle robot. Learning from what Handle did well (and not well) in a warehouse environment, the designed evolved to today’s Stretch. The ostrich-like Handle prototype is now relegated to further research into wheeled-legged robots and the occasional fun dance video.

The Stretch preproduction prototypes visible in these videos lacks acrobatic flair of its predecessors, but they still have the perception and planning smarts that made those robots possible. Those skills are just being applied to a narrower problem scope. Once production models are on the job, we look forward to reading some work performance reviews.

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Putting Perseverance Rover’s View Into Satellite View Context

It’s always fun to look over aerial and satellite maps of places we know, seeing a perspective different from our usual ground level view. We lose that context when it’s a place we don’t know by heart. Such as, say, Mars. So [Matthew Earl] sought to give Perseverance rover’s landing video some context by projecting onto orbital imagery from ESA’s Mars Express. The resulting video (embedded below the break) is a fun watch alongside the technical writeup Reprojecting the Perseverance landing footage onto satellite imagery.

Some telemetry of rover position and orientation were transmitted live during the landing process, with the rest recorded and downloaded later. Surprisingly, none of that information was used for this project, which was based entirely on video pixels. This makes the results even more impressive and the techniques more widely applicable to other projects. The foundational piece is SIFT (Scale Invariant Feature Transform), which is one of many tools in the OpenCV toolbox. SIFT found correlations between Perseverance’s video frames and Mars Express orbital image, feeding into a processing pipeline written in Python for results rendered in Blender.

While many elements of this project sound enticing for applications in robot vision, there are a few challenges touched upon in the “Final Touches” section of the writeup. The falling heatshield interfered with automated tracking, implying this process will need help to properly understand dynamically changing environments. Furthermore, it does not seem to run fast enough for a robot’s real-time needs. But at first glance, these problems are not fundamental. They merely await some motivated people to tackle in the future.

This process bears some superficial similarities to projection mapping, which is a category of projects we’ve featured on these pages. Except everything is reversed (camera instead of video projector, etc.) making the math an entirely different can of worms. But if projection mapping sounds more to your interest, here is a starting point.

[via Dr. Tanya Harrison @TanyaOfMars]

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Virtual Reality With A Dash Of Live Shakespeare

Virtual reality headsets enforce an isolated experience, cutting us off from people nearby when we put one on our head. But in recent times, when we’re not suppose to have many people nearby anyway, a curious reversal happens: VR can give us a pandemic-safe social experience. Like going to our local community theater, which is an idea [Tender Claws] has been exploring with The Under Presents.

VR hype has drastically cooled, to put it mildly. While some believe the technology is dead and buried, others believe it is merely in a long tough climb out of the Trough of Disillusionment. It is a time for innovators to work without the limelight of unrealistic expectations. What they need is a platform for experiments, evaluate feedback, and iterate. A cycle hackers know well! The Under Presents is such a platform for its corner of VR evolution.

Most VR titles are videogames of one genre or another, so newcomers to the single-player experience may decide its otherworldly exploration feels like Myst. A multi-player option is hardly novel in this day and age, but the relatively scarcity of VR headsets means this world is never going to be as crowded as World of WarCraft. This is not a bug, it is a differentiating feature. Performers occasionally step into this world, changing the experience in ways no NPC ever could. A less crowded world makes these encounters more frequent, and more personal.

Pushing this idea further, there have been scheduled shows where a small audience is led by an actor through a story. As of this writing, a run of a show inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest is nearing its end. The experience of watching an actor adjusting and reacting to an audience used to be exclusive to an intimate theater production. But with such venues closed, it is now brought to you by VR.

How will these explorations feature in the future of the technology? It’s far too early to say, but every show moves VR storytelling a little bit forward. We hope this group or another will find their way to success and prove the naysayers wrong. But it is also possible this will all go the way of phone VR. We are usually more focused on the technical evolution of VR here, but it’s nice to know people are exploring novel applications of the technology. For one can’t exist for long without the other.