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Why Other Companies Should Follow Alphabet’s Lead

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For as long as it has existed, the public has identified the Google brand with the ridiculously popular search engine under the same name. Since 1998, Google search has grown exponentially while staying pretty much the same, yet the company Google has expanded aggressively into fields well beyond search, both through acquisitions such as YouTube and Nest, and organically via the company’s extensive R&D initiatives such as Google Glass and the company’s autonomous car. Still, this has all fallen under the good old multi-billion dollar umbrella of Google. That all changed last week. Not that initiatives inside Google have fundamentally changed; the profit driver continues to be search and advertising, with many long-term prospects hoping to flower eventually. Nevertheless, the restructuring of management lines arguably has dramatic long-term implications, in my opinion for the better.

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Alphabet’s new, clean logo.

In a nutshell, Google essentially created a holding company called Alphabet that owns Google and many smaller companies that Google has acquired/created, such as Nest and Calico (Google’s longevity initiative). Alphabet is now a portfolio of enterprises managed by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, many with distinct CEOs who have a fair amount of independence. This shift came as a shock to everyone outside of Google (and likely many inside the company), sounding more like one of the company’s classic April Fool’s jokes than a typical corporate maneuver. Renaming a company with one of the top business brands in the world? Insane in many respects, not to mention handing the CEO of “Google Classic” to another executive, Sundar Pichai.

So why is this a good idea, and why should other companies consider following Google’s lead? It really comes down to what they are trying to accomplish as a company. In the announcement letter that you can read at abc.xyz, they wrote the following, which helps explain their reasoning behind the change:

 “As Sergey and I wrote in the original founders letter 11 years ago, ‘Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.’ As part of that, we also said that you could expect us to make ‘smaller bets in areas that might seem very speculative or even strange when compared to our current businesses.’ From the start, we’ve always strived to do more, and to do important and meaningful things with the resources we have.”

Alphabet’s initiatives are far-flung and have the potential much more than Google’s traditional “cash cow” businesses to change the world. It’s hard not to see some of Alphabet’s initiatives becoming wildly successful and ultimately spinning out into independent, and large, public companies. For instance, I previously mentioned Calico as one of the companies Alphabet is keeping under it’s wing. Calico is a scientific research and technology company; their ambitious goal is to research and eventually create ways to elongate life and let people live healthier. That is a goal, although ambitious, if reached with the help of Alphabet could very well change the world in a major way.

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What really excites me about Alphabet is that they’re doing precisely what I would do with all that money and resources: create and finance projects that will change the future. Google the search engine has become a very conventional business in the Internet age, but Google the company aspires to much more that just rolling in the cash and adding its existing product lines (I hate to say it, but I’m looking at you, Apple). In an age of tech titans, companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are all angling to stake their claim to the future. And under Alphabet, Google aims to establish a leading innovation platform by “letting many flowers bloom.” Rather than sticking to a couple odd ventures and mainly staying a conventional company, Alphabet lets Google expand into a business set on creating a better future. And if this change in corporate structure will help facilitate that, then I say go for it.

If you want to read the original Alphabet announcement letter, click HERE.

New Canon Camera Has An ISO Of Over 4 Million!

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Capturing moments of our lives has always been an important element of human culture.  Before modern technologies existed, people told stories, then later learned to write those stories down. When cameras were invented, people suddenly had the opportunity to take snapshots of their life, whether spontaneous or artistic, that they could later admire. Nowadays, our phones enable us to easily combine still photos with video, yet there has always been one constraint to sharing and capturing that only storytelling isn’t affected by: the time on day, i.e., how much light there is at the time of day. Photos can have perfect composition but be ruined by bad lighting. On the other hand, lighting can be artistically manipulated to create different effects that can actually enhance the look (e.g., with filters or digital adjustments).

In photography, there is a technical measure of how much light you are letting into your camera aperture. Or in other words, the amount of sensitivity to bright or dim light the camera is set to when taking a picture. This measure is called the ISO, pronounced “i-sow”, and it is something that even film for early cameras had the ability to adjust. You could buy ISO 100 film for sunny photos, ISO 200 films for cloudy photos, and ISO 400 film for indoor shots. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera is to lower brightness light. The same rules apply to video. Although older cameras only went up to an ISO of 400, nowadays more expensive cameras go into the thousands. Just recently, Canon released a camera that has the potential to rock the photography/videography world; not for it’s quality of photos and videos, although that is excellent too, but for it’s ISO, able to be set all the way to 4 million. 

The video below is about the CMOS sensor, which has been upgraded slightly over the past two years, but you can still see the incredible video quality.

You may be wondering what that even means. If an ISO of 400 is good for taking photos inside, and ISOs into the thousands are good for even darker lighting, what does and ISO of 4 million, that’s 10,000 times more sensitive that what’s needed for inside lighting, does? Well, it turns out that setting your camera to an ISO of 4 million allows you to literally shoot in the dark, effectively giving your camera night vision. Not infrared night vision where the picture looks like a color inverted iPhone, but real night vision, meaning you can film during the night and the video or image will look exactly the same as if you were shooting the day.

This technology was invented by Canon back in 2013 with their CMOS sensor, which just got integrated into Canon’s new camera, the Canon ME20F-SH. The camera is essentially just a cube with a lens, being surprisingly small, only around 4 inches across. It weighs two pounds, which is fairly heavy for a camera, but still allows the device to be used in a wide variety of situations and doesn’t inhibit its portability. Even though bringing the ISO up on regular cameras makes the video quality worse, the ME20F-SH still shoots at HD quality, allowing serious film-makers to use this camera for professional films. 

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Specs aside, this camera opens up a whole new world of possibilities for film-makers. From cave explorers to experimental directors, this camera can be used for an incredible variety of ways simply for that fact that it can see in the dark. Now, the camera isn’t for amateur photographers or directors who simply want to get a clear night sky shot,  as  after all, the expected price of the camera is $30,000. But, for people who do have the ideas and also have the money, this camera may totally change the way they film. For the first time in the history of capture-based art and storytelling, light isn’t an obstacle.

Augmented Vs. Virtual Part 2 – Augmented Reality

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Reality is very personalized, it is how we perceive the world around us, and it shapes our existence. And while individual experiences vary widely, for as long as humans have existed, the nature of our realities have been broadly relatable from person to person. My reality is, for the most part, at least explainable in terms of your reality. Yet as technology grows better and more widespread, we are coming closer to an era where my reality, at least for a period of time, may be completely inexplicable in the terms of your reality. There are two main ways to do this: virtual reality and augmented reality. In virtual reality, technology immerses you in a different, separate world. My earlier article on VR was the first of this two-part series, and can be found HERE.

Whereas virtual reality aims to totally replace our reality in a new vision, augmented reality does what the name suggests: it augments, changes, or adds on to our current, natural reality. This can be done in a wide variety of ways, the most popular currently being a close-to-eye translucent screen with projected graphics on top of what you are seeing. This screen can take up your whole field of view, or just in the corner of your vision. Usually, the graphics or words displayed on the screen is not completely opaque, since it would then be blocking your view of your real reality. Augmented reality is intrinsically designed to work in tandem with your current reality, while VR dispenses it in favor of a new one.

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An example of a consumer use case for tablet-based AR.

With this more conservative approach, augmented reality (AR) likely has greater near-term potential. For VR, creating a new world to inhabit limits many of your possibilities to the realm of entertainment and education. AR, however, has a practically unlimited range of use cases, from gaming to IT to cooking to, well, pretty much any activity. Augmented reality is not limited to, but for now works best as a portable heads-up display, a display that shows helpful situational information. For instance, there was a demo at Epson’s booth at Augmented World Expo 2015 where you got to experience a driving assistance app for AR. In my opinion, the hardware held back the software in that case, as the small field of view was distracting and the glasses were bulky, but you could tell the idea has some potential. At AWE, industrial use cases as well as consumer use cases were also prominently displayed, which included instructional IT assistance, such as remotely assisted repair (e.g., in a power plant, using remote visuals and audio to help fix a broken part). 

Before I go on, I have to mention one product: Google Glass. No AR article is complete without mentioning the Google product, the first AR product to make a splash in the popular media. Yet not long after Google Glass was released, it started faded out of the public’s eye. Obvious reasons included the high price, the very odd look, and the social novelty: people couldn’t think of ways they would use it. Plus, with the many legal and trust issues that went along with using the device, it often just didn’t seem worth the trouble. Yet rumor has it that Google is working on a new, upgraded version of the device, and it may make a comeback, but in my opinion it’s too socially intrusive and new to gain significant near-term social traction.

Although many new AR headsets are in the works (most importantly Microsoft’s HoloLens), the development pace is lagging VR, which is already to the stage where developers are focused on enhancing current design models, as I discussed in the previous VR article. For AR, the situation is slightly different. Hardware developers still have to figure out how to create a cheap AR headset, but a headset that also has a full field of view, is relatively small, doesn’t obstruct your view when not in use, and other complications like that. In other words, the hardware of AR occasionally interrupts the consumption of AR content, while for VR hardware, the technology is well on its way to overcoming that particular obstacle.

Beyond these near-term obstacles, if we want to get really speculative, there could be a time when VR will surpass AR even in pure utility. This could occur when we are able to create a whole world, or many worlds, to be experienced in VR, and we decide that we like these worlds better. When the immersion becomes advanced enough to pass for reality, that’s when we will abandon AR, or at least over time use it less and less. Science fiction has pondered this idea, and from what I’ve read, most stories go along the lines of people just spending most of their time in the virtual world and sidelining reality. The possibilities are endless in a world made completely from the fabric of our imagination, whereas in our current reality we have a lot of restrictions to what we can do and achieve. Most likely, this will be in a long, long time, so we have nothing to worry about for now.

Altogether, augmented reality and virtual reality both are innovative and exciting technologies and that have tremendous potential to be useful. On one side, AR will be most likely used more than VR in the coming years for practical purposes, since it’s grounded in reality. On the other hand, VR will be mostly used for entertainment, until we hit a situation like what I mentioned above. It’s hard to pit these two technologies against each other, since they both have their pros and cons, and it really just depends on which tech sounds most exciting to you. Nonetheless, both AR and VR are worth lots of attention and hype, as they will both surely change our world forever, for better or worse.

Lexus’ SLIDE – The Hoverboard We’ve Always Dreamed Of?

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Did you hear? Lexus built a hoverboard.

Ever since Back To The Future, hoverboards have held their place into our collective imagination of what the future should look like, along with flying cars, lightsabers, and space battles. Unfortunately, just as with the rest of that list, the knowledge of how to create a realistically scalable, consumer-ready version of this technology has evaded us. Until perhaps now. In a recent YouTube video, Lexus gave us a glimpse of their brand-spanking-new project, SLIDE, although for only a 16-second clip of the device floating stationary. This clip went viral immediately, with over 5 million views as of June 26th, and many people around the world are wondering: is this finally the hoverboard we have all been waiting for?

Not to rain on your parade, people of the world, but no, the Lexus SLIDE is probably not the hoverboard that inhabit the dreams of sci-fi fans everywhere. There are a few reasons why SLIDE isn’t a fully functioning hoverboard, all of which lie in how the board was constructed. As you can see in the video above, the board can actually float a couple inches off the ground, and in that respect the hoverboard works fine. The board itself has a very sleek look to it, with a bamboo and carbon fiber body, and certainly looks the part of a functioning hoverboard. The part of the video that catches most people’s eyes, though, is the wisps of smoke rising from the side of the board. That smoke, although very cool and adding to the aesthetic of the board, is actually a product of the liquid nitrogen inside the board, needed to cool down the superconductor that makes the board hover in the first place. Although this all sounds very futuristic, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

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Basically, SLIDE uses magnets. Sure, a fairly complex magnetic setup, reliant upon superconductors and the Meissner Effect to float, but still, it’s all just magnetics. And anyone who knows anything about magnets knows that for a magnet to repel or attract anything, there has to be another magnet for it to interact with; herein lies the problem. For SLIDE to stay afloat, it needs a magnetic material to float above, which in terms of consumer transportation, would require every road and sidewalk to be paved on top of beds of magnets, or more realistically, with a type of magnetic concrete that doesn’t exist yet. However impressive of a job Lexus did when putting all of the superconducting technology into one slick package, it isn’t scalable unless you’re ready to fill the world with magnetic tracks. In fact, Lexus did create one such magnetic skatepark exclusively for SLIDE, complete with jumps, stairs, and ramps, and was where Lexus shot the teaser for SLIDE (shown above). Spanish site El Patín discovered the park in the small village of Cubelles just outside of Barcelona. 

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Unfortunately, Back To The Future set our sights a little high with their hoverboard. Although we’ve seen the portable communication devices from Star Trek make their way into modern society, an easy-to-ride, cheap, accessible, scalable, and safe hoverboard isn’t going to become ubiquitous anytime soon. SLIDE isn’t totally useless – not by any stretch – as it could certainly be used in entertainment facilities like laser tag or trampoline houses, but in terms of the near-term wide-spread uses for hoverboard that we all really want, SLIDE isn’t ready to reach that mark. In fact, SLIDE wasn’t even intended to make such a splash online, and was only supposed to be a marketing campaign for an unannounced Lexus car. “Let’s be frank, it’s not novel,” Maurice Durand, a Lexus spokesperson, told WIRED. “There are other hoverboards. To a degree, we weren’t expecting [the reaction].”

Well, there you have it. With a combination of chance and good advertising, Lexus inadvertently made many people across the world believe, or at least upon first look become excited about the possibility that SLIDE is a fully functioning hoverboard. In truth, Lexus has taken existing technology and put in a very impressive package, one that very well could be a Back to the Future hoverboard if not for the technical restraint of needing magnets under you at all times. Although hoverboards in particular probably won’t be in our future this decade, there are still many technologies from sci-fi making their way into our daily life in the coming years, and plenty that we can be just as excited about.

 

Augmented vs. Virtual Part 1 – Virtual Reality

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Technologically enhanced vision has been with us for many hundreds of years, with eyeglasses having been in use since at least the 14th century. Without effective sight, living has of course remained possible during this era, but it is a meaningful disadvantage. Now, new technologies are offering the promise to not only make our lives easier, but to also give us new capabilities that we never thought possible.

This idea, enhancing our vision using technology, encompasses a range of technologies, including the two promising arena of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). The names are fairly self-explanatory; augmented reality supplements and enhances your visual reality, while virtual reality by contrast creates a whole new reality that you can explore independently of the physical world. Technically, AR hardware generally consists of a pair of glasses, or see-through panes of glass attached to hardware, which runs software that projects translucent content onto the glass in front of you. VR, on the other hand, is almost always a shoebox/goggle-like headset, with two lenses allowing two different screens in front of your eyes to blend into one, using head motion-tracking to make you feel like you are in the virtual world. Both are very cool to experience, as I experienced while attending the Augmented World Expo last week in Silicon Valley, where I have able to demo a host of AR and VR products. This article focuses on my experiences with Virtual Reality gear; next week I will follow-up with thoughts on Augmented Realty.

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Virtual reality, when combined with well-calibrated head-tracking technology, allows you to be transported into a whole new world. You can turn your head, look around, and the software responds as if this world is actually around you, mimicking real life. This world can be interactive, or it can be a sit-back-and-relax type experience. Both are equally astounding to experience, as the technology is advanced enough so that you can temporarily leave this world and enter whatever world is being shown on your head mounted display (HMD). I wrote about a great use-case of VR at the AWE Expo recently, which involved being suspended horizontally and strapped into a flight-simulation VR game.

Despite what you might think, the optics no longer seem to be a problem, as the engineers at early leaders including Oculus and Gear VR have designed headsets that don’t bother our eyes during use, a problem that plagued early models. That said, complaints persist about vertigo and eye-strain from long periods of use. Even Brendan Iribe, Oculus CEO, got motion sickness from their first Dev kit. Luckily, but his company and others have been making improvements to the software. Personally, I didn’t get sick the least bit while at the conference.

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An attendee of the AWE 2015 Expo demoing Mindride’s Airflow.

Uses for VR, among many, tend to fall in one major category thus far: entertainment. Video games are set to be transformed by virtual reality, which promises to bring a new dimension into what could be possible in a gaming experience. First-person shooters and games of that like were already trying to become as real and immersive as possible on a flat screen, but with a 360-degree view around the player, and interactive head-tracking… well, it’s surprising that games like Halo, Destiny and Call Of Duty don’t already have VR adaptations.  And games with a more artistic themes and play will also benefit greatly in using VR rather than 2D screens, as adding the ability to look around and feel like you are in the game will surely spark ideas in many developer’s heads. At E3 2015, which took place this week in Los Angeles, many commented that virtual reality was an obvious trend in gaming this year, and excitement was starting to build about VR’s potential in gaming. While hardly a gaming exclusive environment, VR appears to be a promising tool for immersive military training as well. Nothing prepares a soldier or a pilot better for an on the battlefield or in the air situation better than already pseudo-experiencing it. The possibilities for gaming and military training are endless in terms of VR, and it really is exciting to see what developers are coming up with.

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A VR headset being used for military training.

One thing that may hold VR back is the hardware. Despite having mitigated the vertigo issues, another hardware complaint has been weight.  While the Oculus Dev Kit 2 is a little less than 1 pound, which isn’t much, but can be strenuous when wearing for a long period of time. Still, if we have learned anything from the growth of smartphones it’s that technology marches in one clear direction: smaller, lighter, and faster. And that’s one thing that I believe separates AR and VR: VR is already to the point that the only changes needed to be made will be upgrades to the existing hardware. The pixel density, the graphics speed, the weight, the size. Not to mention that in a few years, many of the major problems with VR will be solved, and this is something that I think separates it from AR.

Whereas all VR has to do is get the hardware right and then integrate head tracking software into their 3D games or movies, AR has a ways to go until has perfected its hardware to the same level as VR has. AR is frankly just harder for the developers. Not only do they have to worry about the pixel density, head-tracking, weight, and size like VR, but they have to worry about depth, the screen transparency, object recognition, 3D mapping, and much more. Currently, there isn’t one big AR player, like Oculus, that small developer teams can use as a platform for their own AR software, and that might also be limiting the growth of the technology. A big player may emerge in the next could years, with candidates including Google Glass and Microsoft’s upcoming AR headset HoloLens leading the race, but for now, AR isn’t really an area where small developing teams can just jump in.

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In the grand scheme of things, AR and VR are at similar stages of development. Within a decade or two, these problems will vanish, and the technologies will be face-to-face, the only thing separating them is their inherent utility in particular situations. For VR, it is a technology that was made for entertainment and gaming. The idea of transporting yourself to another world, especially when the tech is fully developed and you can’t tell the difference between VR and real life, is as exciting as it is terrifying. Still, we can’t help but try to create these amazing games and experiences, as they very well may expand humanity into virtual world we never could have dreamed of. As developers start meddling with the technology, and consumers start buying units, VR will grow into many more markets, but for now, entertainment, gaming, and military training are the main uses. It really is a technology out of the future, and I can’t wait to see what amazing experiences and tools that VR will bring to the world next.

This is the first piece in a two-part series on AR vs. VR. Check back here soon for the second article!

Mindride’s Airflow Can Make You Fly – Well, Virtually

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Humans can’t fly without technological assistance, but that hasn’t stopped us from building planes, helicopters, wingsuits, and more. Flying shows up in mediums ranging from comic books to myths and fairy tales to cultural folklore. From Icarus to Superman, humans have desired to fly. But as technology has advanced, watching people fly hasn’t satisfied us; now we want to feel like we truly are flying, and in this respect technology is beginning to grant our wish, through Virtual Reality devices.

This morning, at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California, I got the opportunity to fly. In a unique booth at the Expo, a company called Mindride offered an experience, Airflow, that involved strapping myself into a harness, donning headphones and an Oculus Rift, and then flying Superman-style through a virtual Alps-like landscape. How could I say no?  And so, after 5 minutes of harnessing and calibration, I was flung into this mountainous world, floating thousands of feet above the “ground.” Under me were mountains, some snow-capped, others green. Around me, randomly scattered in the sky, were big pink spheres. The objective of this experience was to steer yourself towards these spheres, trying not to flinch as you run right into them, and pop as many as possible. I have to say, I think I did pretty well, but the larger point is that current generation VR technology is enabling experiences that really can begin to replicate those that humans have dreamt of for centuries. 

The booth was set up pretty unusually. With a desk off to the side, the majority of the space was taken up by this “ride”. Consisting of a couple of beams with straps, harnesses, and cords running everywhere, the infrastructure was pretty impressive but not exactly family room-ready. Before you got to experience the flying, you had to put sensors on each arm that track where you are pointing your arm in relation to your body. Once strapped in, I was hanging horizontally, with the computers gauging whether I was holding my arms straight back in boost mode, left arm out to go left and right arm out to go right, or both arms dangling to hover in place. On my head was an Oculus Rift running Airflow’s custom software.  To add effect, there are two fans blowing air in your face, which vary how much air they blow based on your flight speed.

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Overall, the experience was surreal. Once you are strapped in and flying, wind in your face, you easily forget your immediate surroundings, which in my case included a gaggle of tech entrepreneurs demoing their products. The immersion was astounding, andMindride did a great job making the experience more than a run-of-the-mill VR game. Of course, as it is with new technologies, there are clear hints that you aren’t truly flying across in amountain-filled world chasing pink bubbles. The occasional background noise interfered with the experience, as did my tendency to shift focus from the screen-wide image to pixel-level details. But again, as technology advances, these subtle distractions will be minimized; in fact, some solutions to the issues I had were even displayed Expo. As experiences like these gradually become more common in places like malls, theme parks, and even in our own homes, we will start to see a blending of reality, as we’ve always know it, and virtual reality – a reality in which anything is possible. It’s hard to doubt the demand for that.

The James Webb Space Telescope – An Astronomer’s Dream

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Astronomy is all about looking up at the stars. Trying to figure out how the universe works and where our place as humans on Earth is in that giant universe. Where geneticists and particle physicists work on the smallest scales, astronomers work on the largest physical scales: the firmament. For a long time, the naked eye and then simple telescopes were enough to make productive observations, but, science has reached a point in astronomical development where we need ever better equipment to realize new discoveries. The bigger, more expensive, and technically advanced the telescope, the better.  And sending it into space is even better, to render the best images and readings.

That seems like a big ask, and it is. The Hubble Space Telescope made its way into popular culture history as the first scientific telescope the public actually knew and cared about. Well, in 2018, a new telescope will be launched that is even greater than the legendary Hubble. It’s called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and it’s pretty much an astronomer’s dream.

“Why an astronomer’s dream?”, you may be asking. The answer is fairly straightforward: the JWST is a gigantic, high-tech, multi-purpose instrument. To put it in perspective, the Hubble telescope had a mirror, essential in capturing astronomical images, of 8 feet across. The 8-foot mirror produced images like this:

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Now consider the JWST. It is planned to have a mirror of a whopping 21 feet and 4 inches in diameter. Made up of 16 smaller, hexagonal mirrors, the incredible size of the James Webb Space Telescope is only one of the many parts of the telescope that is making astronomy nerds all over the world very excited. Being is a multi-purpose telescope, the JWST has much to offer scientists. Below I describe only a handful of JWST’s most prominent features, abilities, and facts:

Infrared Radiation Detection

The James Webb Space Telescope detects infrared wavelengths of light, rather than visible spectrum. If you’re not an astronomy nerd, you may wonder why this difference is significant. Well, infrared is close enough to the visible range so that telescopes can use the light to create an image our eyes can understand, but, it is far enough outside of our visible range to distort the colors, and also have some key unique qualities. For instance, unlike visible light, infrared light isn’t impeded by interstellar dust and gas. This means that the JWST will have largely unobstructed views of what were previously clouded interstellar nurseries; where stars form. Hubble couldn’t peer effectively into these nurseries due to their surrounding gas and dust, but the JWST can. This will give astronomers a look into the formation of stars, which is still shrouded in mystery.

Not only that, but infrared radiation emanates from cooler objects: you have to be as hot as fire to give off significant amounts of visible light, and the Earth is obviously not, but everything from a tree to you emits infrared light, which is precisely how night vision goggles function. More importantly planets emit infrared radiation, but stars don’t as they are too hot and radiate visible (and shorter wavelength) light. That means that, for the first time, we may be able to take photos of exoplanets themselves. Before, with Hubble, stars far outshone even the biggest of planets, by factors of 100 -1000 times.  Since suns emit much less infrared radiation, we will be able to focus on the planets themselves, and may even get to take images of the first planets outside our own solar system. Pretty exciting, even for non-astronomy nerds.

Lagrange Point

So, where will this telescope be orbiting?  Technically, it’s orbiting the sun, but the JWST will reside at a Lagrange Point in our solar system, which is a very cool astrophysical place where, and this is an oversimplification, the gravity of the sun and the earth balance out so that could be thought of as not orbiting anything at all, but rather just floating still in space. The gravity of our planet and the sun are in balance at Lagrange points, enabling the telescope to have a perfect, unmoving view of the stars. There are three such Lagrange Points on the Earth-Sun axis: L1, directly between the Sun and Earth; L2, on the other side of the Earth away from the sun; and L3, on the other side of the sun entirely. JWST will reside at L2.

This, of course, has upsides and downsides. First of all, being in the Lagrange Point means that it is more than 1 million miles away from Earth, i.e., we will have no way of fixing it if anything happens to it. And, as Hank Green reminds us in the video above, we have had to fix the Hubble a bunch of times, and that just won’t be possible with the JWST. Basically, we better get it right the first time. Also, the JWTS is so massive that it can’t fit into a rocket fully-assembled, so NASA engineers have had to design a complex unfolding system that could go wrong at any moment.

 

It Can See 13.4 Billion Years Into The Past

Yup, you read that right. Hubble could look far into the past, but not nearly as far  as the JWST. Given the time light takes to reach our Earthbound eyes, were always seeing the universe as it existed in the past.  As a result, the farther away you focus your telescope, the closer to the Big Bang you are able to see. Whereas the Hubble Ultra-Deep Fiild could look 7-10 billion years into the past, the James Webb Space Telescope, with its much larger mirror, can peer fully 13.6 billion years into the past, almost reaching the point of “first light.” First light was the time after the Big Bang when the universe cooled to a point where the very first galaxies could form and the energies begin to radiate light: the “First Light”. With the JWST, we are literally seeing all the way back in time to the beginning of the universe. There’s no doubt that this will allow astronomers and cosmologists to answer many previously unanswerable questions about how the universe formed. If this doesn’t make you excited for the launch of the telescope in 2018, nothing will.

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A full-scale model of the JWST made in Dublin

Now that you’ve heard all that, can you possibly not be counting down the days to the launch three years from now? To recap: the JWST can take pictures of planets outside our solar system, see stars being born, and see the first galaxies in the entire universe being born. It sounds like something out of a science fiction book, but it’s not. NASA expects to spend $8.7 billion on this telescope, which is a lot, but in my opinion, the investment is far better than spending that amount for a popular instant messaging app, as Facebook recently did. The James Webb Space Telescope is truly an astronomer’s dream, and I can’t wait to see what discoveries are made because of it.

 

 

 

 

The Void Brings Virtual Reality To Life

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No doubt, virtual reality is a revolutionary technology in the field of gaming, military training, and more. Vision makes up so much of our reality that when it is altered or augmented, we can feel like we are in a totally different world, even if things are occurring in that world that we know can’t really happen (e.g., aliens attacking, cars flying, or dragons breathing fire). This is the power and potential of virtual reality products currently under development such as Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift; they can make you believe that you are living in a fantasy world.

The new post-beta Oculus headsets appear to represent a big step forward in immersive gaming, despite lacking one major ingredient in fully immersive gaming: the actual feeling of running away from an enemy, picking up objects, and jumping over a pit of lava. Although the experience is pretty good only augmenting your vision, that last step toward achieving something I would consider fully immersive is building a gaming system that made you physically feel like you are in the game. And that is exactly what Ken Bretschneider, founder of The Void, is trying to achieve.

“I wanted to jump out of my chair and go run around,” Bretschneider said. “I wanted to be in there, but I felt like I was separated from that world just sitting down playing a game. So I often would stand up and then I couldn’t do anything.” – Ken Bretschneider

Although still conceptual, the Void’s product is aiming to take virtual reality gaming to the next level. The idea behind the company is pretty simple: they will create “Void Entertainment Centers” that will use high-tech virtual reality technology, along with real, physical environments to create the ultimate VR experience. Sounds awesome.

The execution of this idea, however, is very complicated.

There are many technical obstacles to creating a fully immersive VR experience. First of all, you need state-of-the-art tracking systems, not only because it will make the experience more realistic, but also since you don’t want the players running into walls (or each other) because the VR headset lagged slightly or didn’t depict the object in the first place.

Also, the VR headset itself better be up to par, otherwise the whole experience itself isn’t worth it. According to The Void’s website, their “Rapture HMD” (head-mounted display) is as good as if not better than other VR headsets such as the recently announced Oculus Rift set for release later this year. With a screen resolution of 1080p for each eye, head-tracking sensors that are accurate to sub-millimeter precision, a mic for in-game communication, and high-quality built-in THX microphones, the Rapture HMD isn’t lacking in impressive specs. Whether it is ultimately good enough to feign reality, though, is a question that will only be answered when the headsets go into production and become part of The Void’s immersive experience.

The Void gear includes not only the HMD but also a set of special tracking gloves — to make your in-game hands as real as possible — and a high-tech vest to provide haptic feedback in response to virtual stimuli. But the technology alone does not suffice, as that is replicable outside of The Void. What would make the experience unique is the physical environment around the players and built into The Void’s Entertainment Centers. In each game center, the first of which is planned to be built in Pleasant Grove, Utah, there will be an array of different stages prepared for players to experience a variety of virtual games. In every “Game Pod”, there are features that make playing there more immersive, such as objects you can pick up and use during the game, elevation change in the platforms, and even technologies that simulate temperature changes, moisture, air pressure, vibrations, smells, and more. All of these mental stimuli outside of the game will be designed to trick your brain into thinking it’s in the game, and that’s pretty much exactly the experience The Void is trying to provide.

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Overall, The Void is a big step towards a new age in gaming. For as long as gaming has been around, the actual stimuli coming from the game has been purely vision and hearing based; now, incorporating real objects, physical surroundings, and the environment-based technologies mentioned above, we are nearing a complete immersive experience (a la Star Trek’s holodeck). Science fiction writers have long pondered virtual systems that realistically simulate other worlds, and The Void is potentially one step closer to that ideal.  Whether or not we are heading rapidly in that sci-fi direction, for now the Void’s Entertainment Centers would certainly be a lot of fun.

 

SparcIt Aims to Quantify Your Creativity

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Note: The team at SparcIt have been kind enough to create for FFtech a special link to a demo of their product. Please try it out for yourself here: http://demo.mysparcit.com/g/FastForwardTech 

Creativity is something that, for as long as humans have put a name to it, we have struggled to define. Creativity is just something that was within everyone to varying degrees, and some were better at displaying and exercising it than others. While I’m sure most people agree that creativity is a key ingredient to success, it isn’t explicitly used as a factor for, say, getting into college or getting a job, despite it’s relevance. Tests such as the SAT and GRE are used to measure future academic success, even though this type of testing smarts may be only a small portion of what makes someone successful. (Besides, these tests are highly debatable indicators of smarts in the first place.)

Unfortunately, creativity is one of the hardest attributes to quantify, while SAT-style skills are easily calibrated and ranked, hence there aren’t any popular tests that do it. As of yet, an easy to grade creativity test is a landmark that hasn’t yet been achieved. This is the niche the startup SparcIt wants to fill.

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SparcIt aims to create a series of short, fun online games that aim to accurately quantify your creative ability. You may be suspicious of exactly how SparcIt measures creativity, and that’s reasonable. Creativity is viewed as an intangible, part of who you are. But, even if there is no true way to quantify creativity, SparcIt are creating a way to get a pretty good idea of your relative creative abilities.

The games that SparcIt have you complete aim to test different creative abilities. For instance, LoopIt has you come up with all the possible uses for a certain object. MapIt has you create a word tree, branching off of one starting word into as many related words as you possibly can. ImproveIt has you come up with as many improvements for a certain object as you can, such as a trash can; how could you make it better? The full SparcIt test, which you can take a demo of HERE, can take anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes, depending on how thorough you want to be. In the end, the whole test will end up with giving you 4 “ratings”: fluency, flexibility, originality, and your combined score, the Creativity Quotient. Here is what each of these ratings mean:

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A sample SparcIt scorecard.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an interesting statistic. Basically, the goal of Flexibility is to rate how well you are open to creating totally new ideas – how many different categories your responses are in, as SparcIt defines it.

Flexibility is similar to fluency in that we are working with ideas, but while fluency is about generating as many ideas as possible, Flexibility is about generating ideas that are different from each other. Thinking flexibly is a valuable skill because it allows you to get out of a “thinking rut” in order to come up with a whole new idea.”

Fluency

Fluency, although partially incorporated above, is the ability to create a wealth of ideas. Coming up with a multitude of ideas is always helpful, as increasing the sheer volume of ideas in general will increase your chance of coming up with a good one. Of course, these ideas have to be at least on topic, otherwise you’re just spouting useless nonsense. So, SparcIt defines Fluency as your number of unique and relevant responses; how good at brainstorming you are.

Originality

To put it in technical terms, Originality according to SparcIt is the statistical infrequency of your responses. How well you can think out of the box, a very important skill if you want to create something completely novel.

Creativity Quotient

It’s difficult to do full justice to SparcIt’s system, which as they say is a “Psychometric automated engine designed to measure creative thinking ability.” In essence though, the SparcIt system takes these metrics and combines them into your total Creativity Quotient. The Creativity Quotient is a number out of a possible 1600 (sound familiar?), acting as a standardized test proxy. Think of your Creativity Quotient as a general assessment of how well you can use your creative skill to generate good ideas that may be useful in your education, your career, and your life in general.

No doubt, creativity is something we need to take into account more when applying for things like colleges, jobs, internships, scholarships, and more. The only real way to measure two people’s relative create ability is to quantify it, which is something nobody besides SparcIt have been able to achieve, or even attempt. Of course, SparcIt is still in the early stages of its development, and we can look for this technology to develop further as the product gains wider use.

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A sample of some SparcIt games to test your creativity.

Again, to try SparcIt out for yourself, you can go HERE for a free demo.

The Simulation Argument Part #2 – The Hypothesis Explained

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This is the second article in a two-part FFtech series on The Simulation Argument. If you haven’t already read the first article go HERE before reading the following.

In the previous FFtech article on the Simulation Argument, we established that Bostrom’s statement that the first proposition is false is a reasonable assumption. Just to remind you, these are the propositions, and one has to be true:

#1. Civilizations inevitably go extinct before reaching “technological maturity,” the time at which civilization can create a simulation complex enough to simulate conscious human beings. Meaning: no simulations.

#2. Civilizations can reach technological maturity, but those who do have no interest in creating a simulation that houses a world full of conscious humans. Meaning: no simulations. Not even one.

#3. We are almost certainly living in a simulation.

Now, on to the second postulate. Since that we have decided that there are quite likely alien civilizations in the universe that have developed an ability to create “ancestor simulations”, as Bostrom likes to call them, the second postulate says that the alien civilizations just have to interest in creating a simulation of fully conscious human beings. Most likely, a civilization creating a simulation of how humans lived before they reached “technological maturity” will be future humans, as it is less likely that we will have met an alien civilization before develop the capacity to create an ancestor simulation of our own, as the distance from another habitable stars is simply too far away. 

 Kepler-186f is the first Earth-size planet discovered in the potentially 'habitable zone' around another star, where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface. Its star is much cooler and redder than our Sun. If plant life does exist on a planet like Kepler-186f, its photosynthesis could have been influenced by the star's red-wavelength photons, making for a color palette that's very different than the greens on Earth. This discovery was made by Kepler, NASA's planet hunting telescope.kepler-exoplanet-travel-poster-relaxTwice as big in volume as the Earth, HD 40307g straddles the line between "Super-Earth" and "mini-Neptune" and scientists aren't sure if it has a rocky surface or one that's buried beneath thick layers of gas and ice. One thing is certain though: at eight time the Earth's mass, its gravitational pull is much, much stronger.

(ABOVE: Some very cool illustrations of hypothetical travel ads for habitable planets found with the Kepler satellite)

However the simulation is created, it seems much more likely that at least one alien starts a simulation. If current trends continue, such as the a definitive interest in our ancestors shown in the multitude of historical studies, there will be plenty of people who would like to simulate how their ancestors lived. I know that I would find a simulation of a Greek town fascinating, for example. The idea that not a single person would want to create a simulation seems unlikely, and so therefore the second postulate is likely false.

So, Bostrom’s first postulate is probably false, and the second postulate is just plain unlikely by human (and, more arguably, alien) nature. Based off of that, do we now live in a simulation?  Well, not yet. Just because and ancestor simulation exists doesn’t mean that you’re living in it. First, you have to consider the virtual “birth rate” of these simulations. Bostrom also supposes that it takes a lot more effort and time to create a real human than it would a virtual one once a sufficiently advanced technology is developed. Therefore, the ancestor simulation (or simulations) could have many orders of magnitude more virtual humans living inside it then are actual humans, living outside the computer and controlling the simulation. So, if there are thirty virtual humans for every real human, or even numbers up to 1,000 virtual humans to every human, that means the probability that you are one of the few “real” humans rather than a simulated human is very low.

And that, my friends, is the simulation hypothesis.

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In the future, could supercomputers like this one be used to create and run ancestor simulations?

Of course, there are many assumptions made here, some clear and others subtle, some of which could be used to attack Bostrom’s argument. For instance, one of the major assumptions that Bostrom makes is what he calls “Substrate Independence”. Substrate Independence is the idea that a working, conscious brain can, as he writes in his original paper,

” …supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences. It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon-based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon-based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.

Basically, Substrate Independence is the idea that consciousness can take many forms, only one of which is carbon-based biological neural networks. This form of Substrate Independence is pretty hard grasp, which is why Bostrom argues that the full form of Substrate Independence isn’t actually needed for an ancestor simulation. Really, the only form of Substrate Independence needed to create an ancestor simulation is a computer program running well enough to pass the Turing Test with flying colors.

Besides Substrate Independence, most of the rest of the Simulation Argument is fairly simple. Since we have already deduced that there is likely to be at least one ancestor simulation in existence, the likelihood that we are living in that simulation is pretty high. The logic behind this is that the ancestor simulation doesn’t have a set birth rate that can’t be manipulated. The simulation could have as many simulated people in it as they want – though this is stated as obvious, when it is also debatable — and there would be many orders of magnitude more simulated people than actual human people not in a simulation, and even more if there are multiple simulations running at the same time. The present-day parallel is to online video games MMORPGs, which are constantly getting bigger and bigger, with many more characters made in those games than real humans born every second.

Obviously, this argument is very speculative. Substrate Independence, ancestor simulations, the whole thing; it just all seems too far-fetched to be true. And, after all, Bostrom isn’t a computer scientist, he’s works at the Faculty of Philosophy in Oxford. But, that doesn’t mean his argument is false by nature, as in his original paper he goes into incredible detail about computing power, Substrate Independence, and even creates a mathematical formula for calculating the probability we live in a simulation. In fact, if we want to get technical, Bostrom categorizes what I have told you so far as the Simulation Hypothesis, and the full Simulation Argument being the probability equation Bostrom created, some “empirical” facts, and relation to unrefutable philosophical principles. If you want to read Bostrom brilliant albeit a little wordy paper, click HERE.

To sum it up: a man named Nick Bostrom created a series of logical “propositions” that, when examined closely, seem to suggest that there is a very high probability that we are living in a simulation. In fact, the probability is so high that to close his paper, Bostrom writes:

 “Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor simulation.”

 

You may take knowing this however you want. Personally, I think the simulation argument is one of the coolest things to ever come out of philosophy. And if it’s true, that we live in a simulation, that only makes it cooler. After all, we will never know for sure whether we live in a simulation or not, and either way, it doesn’t affect your life the slightest. You have no choice but to continue living your life as you did, maybe in a simulation, maybe not. All this shows is that as technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, we are getting closer and closer to even the wildest of science fiction technologies to become a reality.

Sources: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnl6nY8YKHs
http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html
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