Research: It’s Like Cheating, But Fair

My niece’s two favorite classes in high school this year are “Intro to AI” and “Ethical Hacking”. (She goes to a much cooler high school than I did!) In “Hacking”, she had an assignment to figure out some bug in some body of code. She was staring and staring, figuring and figuring. She went to her teacher and said she couldn’t figure it out, and he asked her if she’d tried to search for the right keywords on the Internet.

My niece responded “this is homework, and that’d be cheating”, a line she surely must have learned in her previous not-so-cool high school. When the teacher responded with “but doing research is how you learn to do stuff”, my niece was hooked. The class wasn’t abstract or academic any more; it became real. No arbitrary rules. Game on!

But I know how she feels. Whether it’s stubborn independence, or a feeling that I’m cheating, I sometimes don’t do my research first. But attend any hacker talk, where they talk about how they broke some obscure system or pulled off an epic trick. What is the first step? “I looked all over the Internet for the datasheet.” (Video) “I found the SDK and that made it possible.” (Video) “Would you believe this protocol is already documented?” In any serious hack, there’s always ample room for your creativity and curiosity later on. If others have laid the groundwork for you, get on it.

If you have trouble overcoming your pride, or NIH syndrome, or whatever, bear this in mind: the reason we share information with other hackers is to give them a leg up. Whoever documented that protocol did it to help you. Not only is there no shame in cribbing from them, you’re essentially morally obliged to do so. And to say thanks along the way!

Illuminating Origami Is Just Around The Corner

Pop-up greeting cards are about to get a whole lot more interesting. Researchers at Seoul National University in Korea have created glowing 3D objects with a series of prototypes that fold thin QLED (Quantum Dot LED) sheets like origami. They used a CO2 laser to etch “fold lines” in the QLED so the sheets could be formed into 3D shapes. The bends are actually rounded, but at 5μm they appear to be sharp corners and the panels continue to illuminate across the fold lines for at least 500 folds. Some glow in solid colors, while others use smaller addressable areas to create animated matrix displays of patterns and letterforms. See the short video after the break, read the Physics World article or to see all the prototypes and dig into details of the full research paper in Nature (freed from the paywall by SharedIt).

We’re not sure how soon this technique can be duplicated in our home labs, but we can’t wait to fold up our own 3D lights and matrices. Until then, check out some glowing origami you can make right now from [Charlyn Gonda] at Remoticon 2020 and earlier that year and this amazing origami lamp.

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Waterjet-Powered Speedboat For Fun And Research

There are a lot of cliches about the perils of boat ownership. “The best two days of a boat owner’s life are the day they buy their boat, and the day they sell it” immediately springs to mind, for example, but there is a loophole to an otherwise bottomless pit of boat ownership: building a small robotic speedboat instead of owning the full-size version. Not only will you save loads of money and frustration, but you can also use your 3D-printed boat as a base for educational and research projects.

The autonomous speedboats have a modular hull design to make them easy to 3D print, and they use a waterjet for propulsion which improves their reliability in shallow waters and reduces the likelihood that they will get tangled on anything or injure an animal or human. The platform is specifically designed to be able to house any of a wide array of sensors to enable people to easily perform automated tasks in bodies of water such as monitoring for pollution, search-and-rescue, and various inspections. A monohull version with a single jet was prototyped first, but eventually a twin-hulled catamaran with two jets was produced which improved the stability and reliability of the platform.

All of the files needed to get started with your own autonomous (or remote-controlled) speedboat are available on the project’s page. The creators are hopeful that this platform suits a wide variety of needs and that a community is created of technology enthusiasts, engineers, and researchers working on autonomous marine robotic platforms. If you’d prefer to ditch the motor, though, we have seen a few autonomous sailboats used for research purposes as well.

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Eye-Tracking Device Is A Tiny Movie Theatre For Jumping Spiders

The eyes are windows into the mind, and this research into what jumping spiders look at and why required a clever device that performs eye tracking, but for jumping spiders. The eyesight of these fascinating creatures in some ways has a lot in common with humans. We both perceive a wide-angle region of lower visual fidelity, but are capable of directing our attention to areas of interest within that to see greater detail. Researchers have been able to perform eye-tracking on jumping spiders, literally showing exactly where they are looking in real-time, with the help of a custom device that works a little bit like a miniature movie theatre.

A harmless temporary adhesive on top (and a foam ball for a perch) holds a spider in front of a micro movie projector and IR camera. Spiders were not harmed in the research.

To do this, researchers had to get clever. The unblinking lenses of a spider’s two front-facing primary eyes do not move. Instead, to look at different things, the cone-shaped inside of the eye is shifted around by muscles. This effectively pulls the retina around to point towards different areas of interest. Spiders, whose primary eyes have boomerang-shaped retinas, have an X-shaped region of higher-resolution vision that the spider directs as needed.

So how does the spider eye tracker work? The spider perches on a tiny foam ball and is attached — the help of a harmless and temporary adhesive based on beeswax — to a small bristle. In this way, the spider is held stably in front of a video screen without otherwise being restrained. The spider is shown home movies while an IR camera picks up the reflection of IR off the retinas inside the spider’s two primary eyes. By superimposing the IR reflection onto the displayed video, it becomes possible to literally see exactly where the spider is looking at any given moment. This is similar in some ways to how eye tracking is done for humans, which also uses IR, but watches the position of the pupil.

In the short video embedded below, if you look closely you can see the two retinas make an X-shape of a faintly lighter color than the rest of the background. Watch the spider find and focus on the silhouette of a tasty cricket, but when a dark oval appears and grows larger (as it would look if it were getting closer) the spider’s gaze quickly snaps over to the potential threat.

Feel a need to know more about jumping spiders? This eye-tracking research was featured as part of a larger Science News article highlighting the deep sensory spectrum these fascinating creatures inhabit, most of which is completely inaccessible to humans.

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Emulating A Power Grid

The electric power grid, as it exists today, was designed about a century ago to accommodate large, dispersed power plants owned and controlled by the utilities themselves. At the time this seemed like a great idea, but as technology and society have progressed the power grid remains stubbornly rooted in this past. Efforts to modify it to accommodate solar and wind farms, electric cars, and other modern technology need to take great effort to work with the ancient grid setup, often requiring intricate modeling like this visual power grid emulator.

The model is known as LEGOS, the Lite Emulator of Grid Operations, and comes from researchers at RWTH Aachen University. Its goal is to simulate a modern power grid with various generation sources and loads such as homes, offices, or hospitals. It uses a DC circuit to simulate power flow, which is visualized with LEDs. The entire model is modular, so components can be added or subtracted easily to quickly show how the power flow changes as a result of modifications to the grid. There is also a robust automation layer to the entire project, allowing real-time data acquisition of the model to be gathered and analyzed using an open source cloud service called FIWARE.

In order to modernize the grid, simulations like these are needed to make sure there are no knock-on effects of adding or changing such a complex system in ways it was never intended to be changed. Researchers in Europe like the ones developing LEGOS are ahead of the curve, as smart grid technology continues to filter in to all areas of the modern electrical infrastructure. It could also find uses for modeling power grids in areas where changes to the grid can happen rapidly as a result of natural disasters.

Anti-Gravity, Time Travel, And Teleportation: Dr. Hamming Gives Advice

You may not know the name [Richard Hamming], but you definitely use some of his work. While working for Bell Labs, he developed Hamming codes — the parent of a class of codes that detect, and sometimes correct, errors in everything from error-correcting memory to hard drives. He also worked on the Manhattan Project and was a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate school.

Turns out [Hamming] has an entire class from the 1990s on YouTube and if you are interested in coding theory or several other topics, you could do worse than watch some of them. However, those videos aren’t what attracted me to the lectures. As the last lecture of his course, [Hamming] used to give a talk called “You and Your Research” and you can see one of the times he delivered it in the video below. You might think that it won’t apply to you because you aren’t a professional academic or researcher, but don’t be too quick to judge.

Turns out, [Hamming’s] advice — even by his own admission — is pretty general purpose for your career or even your life. His premise: As far as we know, you have one life to live, so why shouldn’t it be a worthwhile one by your definition of worthwhile.

Along the way, he has an odd combination of personal philosophy, advice for approaching technical problems, and survival skills for working with others. If you are in the field, you’ll probably recognize at least some of the names he drops and you’ll find some of this technical advice useful. But even if you aren’t, you’ll come away with something. Some of it seems like common sense, but it is different, somehow, to hear it spoken out loud. For example:

If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work.

One piece of technical advice? Don’t waste time working on problems you have no way to attack. He points out that anti-gravity, time travel, and teleportation would be very lucrative. But why work on them when there appears to be no way to even remotely accomplish them today. Well, at least when he said that. There has been a little progress on a form of teleportation, but that wasn’t what he was talking about anyway.

While not a hack in the traditional sense, examining your life, career, and technical research to improve your own effectiveness is something to take seriously. We were hoping he would throw in a joke about error-correcting your career, but unless we blinked, no such luck.

Hamming’s work on block codes was followed about ten years later by the Reed-Solomon code which is found nearly everywhere now. Hamming is also associated with the term “hamming distance,” something we talked about when discussing Gray code.

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All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s

Virtual reality has seen enormous progress in the past few years. Given its recent surges in development, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the ideas underpinning what we now call VR were laid way back in the 60s. Not all of the imagined possibilities have come to pass, but we’ve learned plenty about what is (and isn’t) important for a compelling VR experience, and gained insights as to what might happen next.

If virtual reality’s best ideas came from the 60s, what were they, and how did they turn out?

Interaction and Simulation

First, I want to briefly cover two important precursors to what we think of as VR: interaction and simulation. Prior to the 1960s, state of the art examples for both were the Link Trainer and Sensorama.

The Link Trainer was an early kind of flight simulator, and its goal was to deliver realistic instrumentation and force feedback on aircraft flight controls. This allowed a student to safely gain an understanding of different flying conditions, despite not actually experiencing them. The Link Trainer did not simulate any other part of the flying experience, but its success showed how feedback and interactivity — even if artificial and limited in nature — could allow a person to gain a “feel” for forces that were not actually present.

Sensorama was a specialized pod that played short films in stereoscopic 3D while synchronized to fans, odor emitters, a motorized chair, and stereo sound. It was a serious effort at engaging a user’s senses in a way intended to simulate an environment. But being a pre-recorded experience, it was passive in nature, with no interactive elements.

Combining interaction with simulation effectively had to wait until the 60s, when the digital revolution and computers provided the right tools.

The Ultimate Display

In 1965 Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, authored an essay entitled The Ultimate Display (PDF) in which he laid out ideas far beyond what was possible with the technology of the time. One might expect The Ultimate Display to be a long document. It is not. It is barely two pages, and most of the first page is musings on burgeoning interactive computer input methods of the 60s.

The second part is where it gets interesting, as Sutherland shares the future he sees for computer-controlled output devices and describes an ideal “kinesthetic display” that served as many senses as possible. Sutherland saw the potential for computers to simulate ideas and output not just visual information, but to produce meaningful sound and touch output as well, all while accepting and incorporating a user’s input in a self-modifying feedback loop. This was forward-thinking stuff; recall that when this document was written, computers weren’t even generating meaningful sounds of any real complexity, let alone visual displays capable of arbitrary content. Continue reading “All The Good VR Ideas Were Dreamt Up In The 60s”