rugged gear

Tales of rugged tech survival could win new gear

Got a good tale of rugged-gear survival? Feds who have experienced the advantages of rugged computing firsthand can transform that experience into shiny new gear though the Tech vs. Wild contest. Although anyone who lives in the United States can enter, the sponsors of the contest are Iron Bow Technologies, a federal contractor, and Dell, which in recent years has started to break into the rugged side of the government market with products like the Ultrabook.

And really, who better than a government person — law enforcement, military, field inspectors — could be in a position to pick up a survival story about rugged gear?

According to contest organizers, all you have to do is submit a story of no more than 500 words about how some type of rugged gear survived when other computer technology would have been toast. You can submit photos, a video or even elaborate drawings to support your rugged tall tale about technology that survived against all odds. And it has to be in by Sept. 30.

Once all the entries are collected, a panel of judges will select the 10 best stories. Those will be posted on the Tech vs. Wild website, and users will vote on which is the best. The winner will receive a collection of rugged gear, presumably because he or she probably really needs it given the abuse the gear takes out in the field.

Depending on where you work, you might want to check to see if your department or agency forbids you from taking part, although the federal government’s rules on ethics notes that “most rewards and prizes in contests open to the public” are allowed.  

One important note is that, even though there is a video on the website showing people doing crazy things like hitting notebooks with hammers and tossing them through basketball hoops, contestants are prohibited from purposely doing anything harmful to the rugged gear just for the sake of their entry. So if you tossed a phone off the roof of the Pentagon just to see what happened, be sure to mention in your story how you tripped and "accidentally" sent the phone flying.

Good luck, and may the best story win!

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 25, 2013 at 11:52 AM4 comments

iOS 7

3 reasons iOS 7 makes iPhone, iPads more suitable for government

Apple has released the latest version of iOS this week, and it is trickling down to iOS devices. We grabbed the new iOS 7 and took it for a quick spin to see if its improvements might make Apple's mobile devices more useful for government enterprises.

Most of the improvements that people will likely notice right off the bat are cosmetic, though there are a few deeper additions, too. On the cosmetic side, many of the apps that were designed to be cutesy, like a calendar looking like something that could hang on the wall, have been replaced with a streamlined, modern look. People these days know what the basic functions of their phones do, so design holdovers from earlier versions that helped to actually explain what they were have been eliminated.

The biggest functional improvement is that iOS devices can now support true multitasking, an advantage that Samsung and others have held over Apple for some time. With iOS 7, you can now fully run apps in the background without first having to open them. In fact, the OS does its best to learn your habits so that, for example, your Twitter feed is always on and active in the background from 9 to 5 every day, if that is something you use. We’ve only had the new OS for a few hours so far, so there was not much for it to learn. But if it works as intended, it could even trump some of the more clunky multitasking applications found over on the Android platform.

One of the features Apple is really pushing is the new Control Center, where you can go to make changes to your phone's settings. No longer will you need to dig down into menus to do basic stuff. Simply swipe up from the bottom of the screen and everything is right there. For example, there is a button for airplane mode, sliders for volume and brightness and you can even set your device to temporarily act like a flashlight. You can also disable your wireless from this screen, or go into Do Not Disturb mode. Access to the camera can be found here too, so there is no longer a need to keep the camera app button on your main screen. In general, this is the way many Android devices have handled a control center-like area for a long time. Apple's seems a bit more elegant, if a little late to the party.

Those features should boost the experience for any user. At the enterprise level, there are three improvements that could alleviate some of the concerns about using iOS devices in government.

Work/personal separation

You can now protect data by controlling which apps and accounts can be used to open documents and attachments. This gives managers the permission to designate work apps, and lets users keep them separate from their personal ones.

VPN connection

All of the managed apps can also be configured to automatically connect with a VPN as they are launched. This can protect both the agency and the individual user, as it would keep personal data from accidentally being sent over the government network, say from a different nonmanaged app, and keep government files separate as well. As part of this, iOS 7 will allow users to sign in once to their network. All of the managed apps will know that they are logged in and have permission to work, which will save users from having to reenter their passwords multiple times.

Automatic encryption

And in a move that can't be overstated, all third-party apps now have data protection enabled automatically, just like the native apps do, so information stored in apps that come from the App Store is encrypted as well. Anyone without the password would have to crack the encryption before any data could be viewed.

And one more thing, and I know this is not exactly helpful for government users, but I have to say how much I do love the new weather app, which adds cinematic flair to the normally boring time and temperature screen. Now you can see fog swirling around the text, snow or rain plopping down, lightning flashing through clouds or even hail bouncing off the text (assuming you can find some place where hail is falling). I think I spent a good hour looking at the weather around the world just to see the animations. I suppose this makes it more like peeking out a window to check the weather, so it could save you a few seconds. OK, I'm not going to try to make that argument. It's just very cool.

If your agency admins have told you that you can't use an iPhone or iPad for your work, they probably had some legitimate concerns dealing with the separation of personal and government data on the consumer-friendly devices. Or they might have been worried that there was no good way to tie all the apps into the agency VPN, or even the fact that not all data on the phone was encrypted. The new iOS 7 fixes those problems. Although things like the weather app and even the new control center will probably get all of the limelight, the new back end makes iOS devices much more government friendly. If nothing else, it's worth a second look. And in terms of the new iOS 7, there's no reason not to upgrade.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 19, 2013 at 2:29 PM3 comments

Spacecraft 3D

NASA's Spacecraft 3D shows what augmented reality can do

News flash: Curiosity just found life on Mars!

Of course, Mars was actually my living room floor. And the new life was actually my none-too-amused cat, Bridget. It was all part of the fun of playing with NASA's augmented reality app, Spacecraft 3D, on my tablet.

Cat and augemented reality NASA rover

Spacecraft 3D encounters alien life form.

Augmented reality hit the scene a few years ago when someone figured out how to leverage the cameras in the smartphones, tablets and laptops people carry and use those images as part of an app. The mobile device's camera simply looks out into the world and projects that image onto its screen. Then the app can add things to the picture or live feed so that a user gazing through the screen sees things that aren't really there. In this way, it augments reality.

Many games have picked up on this trend, giving players the chance to shoot giant bugs that seem to be invading the food court at their local mall, or to cover walls with virtual graffiti that can be seen only by others in the same location who are also using the app. But it has serious applications too. A recent report from Deloitte Consulting suggested three hypothetical scenarios where augmented reality could be used in government. AR would make a nice training tool, too, though not many organizations outside of the military have experimented with its uses in that area yet.

NASA, which often enlists new technologies to excite people about its mission, used augmented reality to create its Spacecraft 3D app, available free for Apple iOS and Android.

I downloaded it to a Samsung Galaxy Note 8, a mini-tablet that happened to be in the lab for review. But before I could start to bring spaceships into my reality, I also had to print out a target sheet, which is a key component to augmented reality apps that require precision. In the case of Spacecraft 3D, the exact position of the spaceship needs to be known by the tablet. The paper has a bunch of rocks printed on it and simply keys the program to give the device something to focus on.

Once that is set up, you can begin to import spacecraft into your living room, back yard, car seat or anywhere you can place the target sheet. If you hang the sheet on a wall, you can even bring the spaceships into reality sideways, as the device doesn't really care. All spaceships appear perfectly rendered right there in your living room when you look through the screen, which – though disorienting at first – is really cool. The spaceships available include Voyager, SMAP, Cassini and many others. The two most interactive are Pathfinder and Curiosity, which let you raise the antennas and masts and turn the units around and drive them a little bit.

Using that interactivity, I was able to put the Curiosity rover in a position so that it could look at Bridget, though my cat didn't notice anything out of the ordinary since the vehicle only existed for me as I looked through the tablet's screen. At one point it even ran over her, so I was glad I wasn't controlling the real thing.

As a showcase of what augmented reality can do, the Spacecraft 3D app is pretty impressive. Not only is it fun and educational (and free), but everyone I showed it to couldn't wait to start putting virtual deep space probes into their own homes. And before long, this technology could start showing up in agency training apps as well.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 12, 2013 at 7:17 AM0 comments