The Leap Motion controller may be the biggest change to the PC landscape since the mouse. Whereas the mouse let us leave the clunky keyboard behind and navigate the many screens that the Web offers, it's still stuck in the two-dimensional, physical world. The Leap Controller isn't bound by those rules, which lets users wave their hands to control computers. It’s the next step in human and machine interfaces.
We've already seen some baby steps for Leap into public sector. Engineers at NASA are experimenting with using the controller to move colossal-sized robots in space. And when Leap put out a call last year for developers to create uses for the controller, it got more than 26,000 responses, including 1,500 from universities researchers and students, according to PC World.
The Leap controllers might make the jump to desktops and notebooks sooner than expected. Leap just struck a deal with Hewlett-Packard to bring the controller into HP devices. That relationship will start with the Leap Motion Controller bundled with select HP products and evolve to unique HP devices embedded with Leap Motion's technology. In January, Leap had announced that it also would be appearing in Asus PCs sometime this year, as Gizmag reported in January.
"Our focus at Leap Motion is to fundamentally improve how people interact with their devices and offer as many ways as possible to achieve that vision," Leap Motion co-founder and CEO Michael Buckwald said in a statement. "The possibilities for innovation are incredible, when you think about what will come from this collaboration between two respected global leaders in their fields."
The HP computers with the Leap controller will also have access to the Airspace store, which has apps to make the Leap devices even more effective.
"Customers want to go to the next level when creating and interacting with digital content," said Ron Coughlin, senior vice president and general manager for consumer PCs at HP, in the joint statement. "Leap Motion's groundbreaking 3D motion control combined with HP technology and amazing developer apps will create incredible user experiences."
Leap Motion Controllers will start appearing inside HP devices as early as this summer, about the same time that the stand-alone controller is expected to go on sale for less than $100. Individual sales will certainly help with Leap adoption, but getting them embedded in machines will speed that up considerably.
I for one am really looking forward to getting the Leap -- and motion control in general -- out there in the mainstream. In the video games world, I've seen how a similar device, the Microsoft Kinect transformed gaming on the Xbox 360 -- and it now also can be used with Windows.
I'm confident that adding motion control to more serious computer applications will be the next big thing. Carpal tunnel sufferers rejoice!
Posted on Apr 17, 2013 at 8:22 AM0 comments
Those of you who have been following along with this blog know that I'm a big fan of 3D printing, and think its uses in government will go well beyond even what is being done so far — which is considerable, like printing out tools in places like Afghanistan where hardware stores are few and far between. The possibilities are becoming even greater now that 3D printers are coming down in price, with units going on sale for as little as $200.
But now, 3D printing may soon be passé, replaced by 4D printing. MIT engineer Skylar Tibbits spoke at a recent TED conference about how objects could be printed and exist in one state, but would change to a different one over time. The printed object might react to moisture or heat or other environmental stimuli, and then change its form without any human intervention.
At TED, Tibbits showed examples of printing in everything from 1D up to 4D. The secret to 4D printing is that the printer must be capable of producing components in different states. That would mean that part of the structure would react to the stimuli, while the rest holds firm. In his example, a straight line that was printed in 3D was submerged in water, whereupon it formed a cube.
Tibbits has come close to self-assembly robots in the past. He showed examples of machines that, when fed random motion, can form other objects, and may one day build other machines.
While 4D printing is still theoretical, Tibbits told CNN he envisioned a world where structures are built in dangerous or harsh environments without the need for humans to risk their lives. The 4D printed materials would be dropped into place and then assemble themselves. It seems fantastic, but watching the demo shows that he's already doing it on a small scale. Other potential uses include utility pipes that carry water and expand or contract with capacity, or even undulate and move the water themselves without the need for any actual pumping equipment.
In truth, 4D printing is really just a subset of 3D printing, with different materials that can induce a state change. In a way, it kind of sounds a bit like what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking for, with its plan for electronics that would dissolve when left behind on the battlefield. Tibbits may be thinking more along the lines of creating something, but it’s a state change either way.
It’s another indication of how quickly things are progressing with additive manufacturing, that we might get to the fourth dimension before we master the first three.
Posted on Apr 12, 2013 at 7:20 AM3 comments
I really didn't think we were that close to space tourism, but apparently tickets will go on sale soon, at least after all the pesky little safety issues are dealt with. Then there's the fact that there's not really anywhere to go off-planet right now, as NASA has yet to break ground on its Lunar data center.
Going much beyond the moon in a hurry is out of the question too, as it would require something like a warp drive, which is still in the theoretical phase. (Scientists at the University of Washington say they’ve built the parts for a fusion rocket that could get to Mars in 30 days, though they have yet to test it.)
So space tourism in the near future will be limited to orbiting the Earth. It will be kind of like buying a tour on one of those antique trains that are fun to ride, but only go for a scenic ride through the countryside on a circuitous route. The fun is in the adventure of the journey I suppose.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks, one of which could be radiation.
Because space travel would start on Earth in a private spaceship, the Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction over setting up safety protocols to keep travelers safe.
The medical research arm of FAA recently purchased a high-performance micro-modular data center from Elliptical Mobile Solutions and Nor-Tech. EMS actually has quite a few impressive data center accomplishments listed on its website, putting computers in odd places where they are really needed, though this seems to be the first one designed to be able to head into space, or near space, as the case may be.
FAA's new micro-modular data center can support up to 80 kilowatts of power per 42U cabinet. Gear inside the data center will be cooled using liquid, which allows the box to be completely sealed without an overheating risk.
The data center will be used to help measure the amount of radiation a traveler can expect to absorb during a trip 100 kilometers up, away from Earth's protective barriers. Down here on the ground, we do get some radiation naturally from space, but the ozone layer helps keep us from frying to a radiated crisp. Travelers in space would require adequate shielding and other precautions to keep themselves safe, and FAA will be using the data center to figure out how much protection is needed. The agency is working with space tourism company Virgin Galactic on conducting the test.
Personally, I wont be buying a ticket anytime soon, at least until the whole radiation thing is worked out. Oh, and the million-dollar price tag for a ticket might also be a bit of a turn-off. But one day we might all be able to make it into space, and we’ll feel a lot safer because FAA’s data center went there first.
Posted on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:46 PM2 comments
I think it’s a safe bet at this point to say that 3D printing is here to stay. Whether or not it takes off like a rocket, as I expect it might, the utility and uses of such a product are pretty amazing.
The military is using it in Afghanistan to print out gear as needed. President Obama referred to it in his State of the Union address, and cities are using it to help with growth planning.
Unlike a flat-on-paper printer, a 3D printer uses a substrate to build layers upon layers of an object, guided by a CAD file, until an actual physical item is created. Most 3D printers use what is called PLA plastic to create their objects. That means that the final product isn't very rugged and could melt in high temperatures. A few printers can work with more rugged substrates, resulting in some very tough constructions.
As amazing as 3D printers are, the one barrier they haven't crossed yet is price. The cost is likely keeping them out of both general pubic use and wider government service. Most 3D printers cost a pretty penny. I've seen models in the $30,000 range. Even low-end printers can cost a few thousand dollars.
But there are some new entrants in the race toward low-cost 3D printing. CNN recently reported on two companies that are starting to market low-cost 3D printers. The first company is Printrbot, which has several units on sale for between $399 and $650. The other is Makibox, which is selling some models for as low as $200.
Given that the plastic that feeds these printers is relatively inexpensive, the prospect of having a 3D printer in an office or home for just $200 should be tempting.
Agencies that are thinking that a 3D printer could benefit their operations can now test one out with very little risk. And if the $200 printer proves inadequate for every task — the designers told CNN that sometimes "good enough" is good enough — it can at least be a proof-of-concept. An agency that discovered it works well for most tasks but not for those requiring more rugged materials or bigger models would have data to justify a more expensive purchase.
3D printing technology is so versatile that applications will quickly follow once printers are more widely used. The sun may just be rising on 3D printing, but it's got a bright future ahead.
Posted on Apr 05, 2013 at 8:19 AM0 comments
For GCN's upcoming 30th anniversary issue, we are going to be asking government IT professionals what they believe are the most important IT innovations over the past three decades and how they think those technologies are going to shape government in the future.
My part of the package will focus on data centers. So if any of you are government employees who know data centers, drop me a line. What are the most important data center innovations you've seen in the past 20 or 30 years, and where do you think the data center is heading?
With that in mind, I recently stumbled across a preview for a new reality show called Forever Young, where senior citizens and young people have to live in the same house. I was going to flip away, until I saw that the tasks they were performing required both old school and modern technology.
In one challenge, the players had to find their way using both a GPS device and a map. The seniors had to use the GPS with a younger person's help, while the young folks had to use a city atlas. It wasn’t surprising that the older folks had trouble with the modern GPS, but I was shocked that the kids didn't know how to read a map. If they didn't have a GPS telling them to "turn left," they were totally lost.
The same thing happened when a document needed to be typed. The seniors had a lot of trouble figuring out how to use the virtual keyboard on an iPad. But the younger people were totally flummoxed when a typewriter was broken out for the second part of the challenge.
Perhaps because I work in technology and am of a certain age, I don't think I would have any trouble with either side of those challenges. I learned how to type on a typewriter, though I've not used one in about 20 years. And I used to zip around my reporting area using a multi-page atlas. I could navigate the thin back roads like a pro, often arriving on the scene of an incident before the fire department. But I can also program a GPS. How about you?
I suspect most people working in government technology today actually fall into the "sweet spot" where they are comfortable with the new technologies but also able to jump in and use the older gear if needed.
What do you think? Are most government employees you work with totally immersed in the newer stuff, and out of luck if they have to navigate a DOS screen? Or are most people in such a balance that they would never be invited to participate on the new TV show?
Posted on Apr 03, 2013 at 1:36 PM2 comments
Back in 2011, I wrote about a new kind of computer that game designer and engineer David Braben was developing that would cost just $25. Hot on the heels of the E2 Green PC, an effort that many people felt produced underwhelming results, folks were rightfully skeptical that anything worthwhile could be developed in the computing field for about the cost of a nice meal in a restaurant. Many of the people who commented on my original article made valid points about the limited type of display technology and networking options that could be attached to such a cheap PC.
Last December, however, the Raspberry Pi was made available for purchase and sold out in the initial run, and the Raspberry Pi Foundation went into a second production. One commenter that time around said he was able to pick one up, was impressed with its performance, and wondered if there were some potential government uses, such as storing the little computers inside a vault that could be unlocked to reestablish communications and infrastructure in the event of a disaster.
Since then, people have been coming up with a variety of ways to make use of the computer. CNN recently reported about some the amazing tasks the $25 computer is performing now thanks to its tech-savvy users. The list includes everything from displaying a train schedule to running an interactive network of weather and air quality stations. Some users even created their own private mobile phone network, driven by a single Raspberry Pi.
I think we tend to get a little too caught up sometimes in the speeds and feeds of the latest computing gear. Sure, if a Raspberry Pi can run an application, then a faster, more expensive computer can probably drive it better. (The Pi is about equivalent to a 300 Mhz Pentium 2 processor, though it can be overclocked to 800 MHz, according to Raspberry Pi’s FAQ.)
But if a solid $25 system can make things work, why not use it? I've not been able to find any purely public-sector applications that use a Raspberry Pi, though I can think of a few where it might fit in nicely. It could be used to control remote cameras or sensors, for example or to send images from a weather balloon or drone. And, of course, its adaptability has a lot of educational potential.
If anyone knows of any other good potential uses for a $25 computer, or are planning to try and enlist the Pi for government service, let us know.
Posted on Apr 02, 2013 at 8:05 AM1 comments