Project Starline Realizes Asimov’s 3D Vision

Issac Asimov wrote¬†Caves of Steel in 1953. In it, he mentions something called trimensional personification. In an age before WebEx and Zoom, imagining that people would have remote meetings replete with 3D holograms was pretty far-sighted. We don’t know if any Google engineers read the book, but they are trying to create a very similar experience with project Starline.

The system is one of those that seems simple on the face of it, but we are sure the implementation isn’t easy. You sit facing something that looks like a window. The other person shows up in 3D as though they were on the other side of the window. Think prison visitation without the phone handset. The camera is mounted such that you look naturally at the other person through your virtual window.

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3D Animation For All Thanks To Google AI

Google rarely fails to impress with technology demos. Their latest — Monster Mash — is aimed at using artificial intelligence to allow the creation of simple 3D animations without a lot of training or trouble. We’ll warn you: we aren’t artists so we didn’t get the results the demos were showing, but then again, if you are even a little artistic, you’ll probably have better luck than we did. You might want to start watching the video, below.

There’s also a research paper if you are more interested in the technology. The idea is to make simple line drawings in 2D. Then you inflate the object to 3D. The final step is to trace out animation paths.

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Can You Code Without Google?

Imagine for a moment that something has taken out your phone line, cell, and fibre connection so you have no internet. For some of you this may even be reality, but go with it and imagine yourself deciding to use your unexpectedly disconnected lockdown time pursuing that code project you always promised yourself. You pull out your laptop and fire up a code editor. Can you write code that works, without the Internet as a handy crib sheet? [Austin Z. Henley] couldn’t, when he tried writing a straightforward web app. He uses it as a hook to muse on the nature of learning, and it’s certainly a thought-provoking subject.

It has become an indispensable tool for the engineer and the coder alike, to constantly refer to online knowledge. This makes absolute sense, as it provides a reference library that will be many orders of magnitude in excess of anything an individual can possibly hold personally.

This holds true whether the resource takes the form of code snippets from StackOverflow or GitHub, or data sheets from TI or Microchip. Even our calculations have moved online, as it’s often much quicker to use an online calculator on a web page to derive for example an impedance calculation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, instead it’s an enabler; skills that used to take months to master due to slow information access can now be acquired in an afternoon. But it does pose the interesting question, in the Internet age what is the measure of an expert coder? Is it the ability to produce the code effectively with whatever help is available, or is it a guru-like mastery of the code? Maybe it’s both. If you have the Internet, give us your views in the comments.

Google Loon’s Internet Balloons Come Back To Earth After A Decade In The Stratosphere

After a journey of a decade, what started as Project Loon by Google is no more. Promoted as a way to bring communications to the most remote parts of the globe, it used gigantic, high-altitude balloons equipped with communication hardware for air to ground, as well as air to air communication, between individual balloons. Based around LTE technology, it would bring multiple megabit per second data links to both remote areas and disaster zones.

Seven years into its development, Loon became its own company (Loon LLC), and would provide communications to some areas of Kenya, in addition to Sri Lanka in 2015 and Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria. Three years later, in January of 2021, it was announced that Loon LLC would be shutting down operations. By that point it had become apparent that the technology would not be commercially viable, with alternatives including wired internet access having reduced the target market.

While the idea behind Loon sounds simple in theory, it turns out that it was more complicated than just floating up some weather balloon with LTE base stations strapped to them.

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What’s The Deal With Chromium On Linux? Google At Odds With Package Maintainers

Linux users are more likely than most to be familiar with Chromium, Google’s the free and open source web project that serves as the basis for their wildly popular Chrome. Since the project’s inception over a decade ago, users have been able to compile the BSD licensed code into a browser that’s almost the same as the closed-source Chrome. As such, most distributions offer their own package for the browser and some even include it in the base install. Unfortunately, that may be changing soon.

A post made earlier this month to the official Chromium Blog explained that an audit had determined “third-party Chromium based browsers” were using APIs that were intended only for Google’s internal use. In response, any browser attempting to access features such as Chrome Sync with an unofficial API key would be prevented from doing so after March 15th.

To the average Chromium user, this doesn’t sound like much of a problem. In fact, you might even assume it doesn’t apply to you. The language used in the post makes it sound like Google is referring to browsers which are spun off of the Chromium codebase, and at least in part, they are. But the search giant is also using this opportunity to codify their belief that the only official Chromium builds are the ones that they provide themselves. With that simple change, anyone using a distribution-specific build of Chromium just became persona non grata.

Unhappy with the idea of giving users a semi-functional browser, the Chromium maintainers for several distributions such as Arch Linux and Fedora have said they’re considering pulling the package from their respective repositories altogether. With a Google representative confirming the change is coming regardless of community feedback, it seems likely more distributions will follow suit.

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Careful Drilling Keeps Stadia From Listening In

Google’s fledgling Stadia service leverages the Chrome ecosystem to deliver streamed PC games on mobile devices, web browsers, and TVs. While not strictly required, the company even offers a dedicated Stadia controller that connects directly to the streaming servers over its own WiFi connection to reduce overall system latency. Of course, being a Google product, the controller has a tiny microphone that’s always listening in for interacting with the voice assistant.

[Heikki Juva] didn’t like the privacy implications of this, but unfortunately, there appears to be no way to turn off this “feature” in software. He decided the most expedient solution would be to simply remove the microphone from the controller, but it turns out there was a problem. By researching previous teardowns, he found out that it’s nearly impossible to take the controller apart without damaging it.

Getting close to the target.

So [Heikki] came up with a bold idea. Knowing roughly the position of the microphone, he would simply drill through the controller’s case to expose and ultimately remove the device. The operation was complicated by the fact that, from the teardown video he saw, he knew he’d also have to drill through the PCB to get to the microphone mounted to the opposite side. The only bright spot was that the microphone was on its own separate PCB, so physically destroying it probably wouldn’t take the whole controller out with it.

Now we don’t have to explain why drilling into a gadget powered by an internal lithium-ion battery is dangerous, and we’re not necessarily vouching for the technique [Heikki] used here. But when presented with a sealed unit like this, we admit there weren’t a lot of good options. The fact that the user should have to go to such ridiculous lengths to disable the microphone in a game controller is a perfect example of why we should try to avoid these adversarially designed devices, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In the end, with a steady and and increasingly larger bits, [Heikki] was able to put a 7 mm hole in the back of the Stadia controller that allowed him to extract the microphone in one piece. Removing the microphone seems to have had no adverse effect on the device as, surprisingly enough, it turns out that a game controller doesn’t actually need to listen to the player. Who knew?

As our devices get smarter, hidden microphones and cameras are unfortunately becoming more common. Thankfully a few manufacturers out there are taking the hint and including hardware kill switches for these intrusive features, but until that becomes the norm, hackers will have to come up with their own solutions.

Update 1/10/21: This article originally indicated that the microphone is always listening. While there is no hardware switch to disable the mic, there is a button which must be pressed to trigger the voice assistant functions. We have used strike through above to indicate the change to what was originally published.

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Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.