SciTechBlog
April 28, 2010

Geek Out!: Violin + Wii Remotes = Rock

Posted: 12:48 PM ET
Karyn and the Wiitles
Karyn and the Wiitles

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Remember the moment Arnold Poindexter made jaws drop in the 1984 hit "Revenge of the Nerds," when he picked up his electric violin and brought the rock at the Lambda Lambda Lambda/Omega Mu talent show? It was an impressive transformation from "zero" to "hero." Was it possible geeks could be rock stars too?

The answer is yes (of course!), and this Thursday through Saturday, there will be plenty of geeking out over music and technology. Some of the best electronic musicians from all over the country will be converging in Atlanta, Georgia for the Third Annual City Skies Electronic Music Festival, where musical styles will range from “ambient to downtempo chillout to Berlin school to IDM to space music to experimental.” (Full disclosure: I'm one of those musicians getting ready to rock out.)

I’m a classically trained violin player, and I’ll be collaborating on a performance at the festival with The Wiitles, “the world's first and only Wii remote rock band.” It's going to be symphonic, discordant, alternately familiar yet alien, and yes, uber geeky. In fact, every time I plug in my (yep, electric) violin and my collaborators pick up their Wii remotes, I feel like we’re kind of creating a new language.

As a string player, some of my heroes include artists like Andrew Bird, Owen Pallett and Zoe Keating, who hook their instruments up to an array of electronics like loop pedals in order to create layer upon layer of rich, complex patterns in real time. Check out this great Radiolab podcast where Keating describes how she marries cello + laptop + electronics. On the more experimental/performance art side, Laurie Anderson famously invented, in the late 70s, a tape-bow violin using recorded magnetic tape on the bow and a magnetic tape head in the bridge.

The Wiitles sort of take all this to another level by turning Wii remotes into instruments and programming the buttons to trigger samples, loops, scenes and effects in a live setting (check out this animated video intro). They capitalize on the accelerometer and Bluetooth technology that come with every Wii remote, which allow the device to sense acceleration along three axes to detect pitch and roll.

The data obtained from the accelerometers and the different buttons are transmitted via Bluetooth and picked up by a Macbook Pro, where the data is converted for use by software that manipulates audio. Like Pallett and Keating, the Wiitles use Max/MSP (which can convert incoming data to MIDI), and also Osculator to make MIDI conversions and use that data to manipulate Ableton Live, a music sequencing program. Using Ableton Live, the potential for audio manipulation is limitless.

What this means for me is that I can take the familiar sound of my violin to some really strange, ethereal and warped places. For example, knocking against the side of the instrument near the pickup creates a hollow percussive sound. Running my fingers repeatedly over the strings sounds hauntingly like someone sighing. Playing fiddlesticks (adopted from a Cajun fiddle tradition where another band member strikes the strings on the upper fingerboard with thin sticks while I play) triggers a sound like marbles scattering across linoleum. All of this can be manipulated and incorporated into the music in real time during the performance.

Innovative technological appropriations have allowed us to marry classical and experimental music in surprising and wonderful ways. What are some of your favorite examples in this realm? Share your feedback in the comment section – we'd love to hear from you.

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Filed under: gadgets • Geek Out! • technology • Uncategorized


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April 15, 2010

Geek Out!: Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Posted: 01:06 PM ET
ROBOTS!!!
ROBOTS!!!

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Every year at about this time, downtown Atlanta, Georgia, is filled to the brim with young, colorfully costumed robot enthusiasts in town for the FIRST competition. These kids are on the cusp of a robotics revolution, because the machines are truly hip right now; they can be found adorning store shelves, song lyrics and snarky T-shirts.

As long as humans have walked the earth, it seems they have dreamed of creating automated machines that can get work done - often, work they hate doing or find repetitive or dangerous - while silently hoping that the 'bots won't get all passive-agressive about it and start starting something. And what if they take over? We're in the midst of National Robotics Week, so let's delve into popular culture and take a look at this fear and fascination with simmering robot passions.

The desire to make automated machines goes back as far as human history itself. Historians and mythologists will point to symbolic robots like Talos, a bronze man incorporated into Greek mythology who was built to protect Zeus' love Europa in Crete. He was both stronger than a man and also able to take torture that people would find intolerable.

Much later on, Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with an automated humanoid robot that looked like it was a knight's armor. There's a long history of robotic aspirations throughout the years, but the point is, humans want to make machines that kind of look like them and can do things. And when these robots dip into the uncanny valley, where they sort of look human and sort of not, that's when they get a little creepy. It was roboticist Masahiro Mori, in fact, who coined the term in a 1970 writing. And thus, humans grapple with the idea of a robot that is almost human in contrast to a robot that is cute and charming (a la R2-D2 from Star Wars, Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and Wall-E).

Many robots nowadays are designed to be cute for this very reason. CNN iReporter Fatina Chau sent us a photo of an adorable and hardworking robot being tested in Shanghai, China, while another iReporter, Veera K., showed us a robot that dances to cute music while serving food in a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. Visitors order their food on a computer panel. These robots aren't threatening, and yet the latter robot could threaten to replace waiters. It's no wonder humanoids are ambivalent about their creations.

Popular culture portrays robots as scary when needed. On TV, Craig Ferguson (or Craigy Ferg, as he's known on the Twitters) lampooned his show's budgetary constraints by creating an ongoing comedy segment featuring a robot skeleton sidekick. This robot is a bit scary-looking, but it's learning. This of course puts the contrast with a human sidekick in stark relief.

We love and hate our robots, and that's why we're always doing the robot dance and singing along to that song "Mr. Roboto" from Styx's 1983 album "Kilroy was here." The song prominently features robots, including the oft-repeated phrase "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto." If you're following the plot, Kilroy escapes from prison by pretending to be a robot prison guard. Also, one of the albums on frequent rotation in my playlist is 2002's "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by The Flaming Lips, which very specifically delineates a fight against pink robots. Although the songs themselves aren't necessarily following the same kind of "Kilroy" story, the robot-esque battle depicted on the cover is attention-getting.

We love our robots but secretly fear and loathe them. So, take a moment right now - yes, right now - to stop everything and do a little robot dance, and then tell us: What do you think?

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Filed under: Geek Out! • iReport • technology


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'Emotichair' helps people feel the music

Posted: 11:19 AM ET

Say you're watching a scary movie. The tension builds. The villain is about to grab someone. There's no dialogue, just ominous music.

If you can't hear, all you get is a caption that may say something like "scary music playing."

"Of course, that's not very scary at all, and, in fact, it probably takes away from the experience," said Carmen Branje, a researcher at the Center for Learning Technology in Toronto, Canada.

That makes it hard to really get an emotional sense of what's going on.

Cue a possible solution: Find a way to make people, especially those who can't hear, actually feel the music.

That's the idea behind a prototype called the Emotichair, which Branje and colleague Maria Karam demonstrated this week at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference here in Atlanta, Georgia.

Emotichair is basically just a camping chair fitted with speakers that play at different frequencies, vibrating a person's upper back with high pitches and the bottom of a person's thighs with lower ranges.

All of the emotional content of a song may not come across in these vibrations, Branje concedes, but he says much of it does.

"You experience the play between the different elements of the music," he said. "And what we've found is people were able to tell the emotion of the piece" just by feeling it vibrate their back and legs.

Karam, who said the Emotichair has been 4 years and $500,000 in development, said the chair essentially makes a person hear with their body.

"We're just turning your skin into a cochlea," she said. "Your skin is going to be like an ear."

The Emotichair concept will be available for purchase starting in September. One chair costs between $500 and $1,000, and the chairs likely will be tested in two Canadian movie theaters in coming months, she said.

One big problem with the chair: It's super noisy. Low-quality speakers create the vibrations on the back of the chair, and they buzz and bark while the chair is in use. That could be a problem in movie theater or concert settings, although Karam said the chair has been used at acoustic concerts with no problem.

What do you think? Does the chair sound useful, particularly for deaf people or those who are hard of hearing? Or is it just an expensive gimmick?

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Filed under: Music • technology


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April 5, 2010

Tiger's Masters return to be in 3-D

Posted: 12:04 PM ET

This week's Masters golf tournament will draw lots of casual golf fans because Tiger Woods is returning after months of news about his tawdry off-the-fairway activities.

But there's one more reason they might tune in - the tourney will be offered in 3-D.

Comcast and the Augusta National Golf Club are joining to show the revered tournament in next-generation 3-D - at least for people who have TVs or computers rigged to see it.

The dedicated channel will show about two hours of live programming a day, according to a Comcast blog post.

"Our engineers in Comcast Labs have been testing transmission of footage from Augusta National over the past few weeks and I can tell you that it's nothing short of spectacular," Derek Harrar, a Comcast vice president, said in the post. Sony and IBM will be working with Comcast to make the broadcast possible.

The broadcast is part of a trend of sporting events embracing the growing 3-D boom.

ESPN has announced that they'll broadcast the 2011 BCS National Champship game, World Cup soccer and other events in 3-D. The network's first 3-D sports event will be the World Cup match between Mexico and South Africa on June 11.

Companies like Sony, Samsung and Panasonic have begun producing 3-D television. While the technology is still emerging, the companies are hoping that programming like the Masters will help drive sales of the TVs.

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Filed under: HDTV • pop culture • technology


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March 26, 2010

A new look at spam, by the numbers

Posted: 12:35 PM ET

Some news from Twitter this week could leave you with the impression that spam is becoming a dinosaur of the Web.

As of February, slightly less than 1 percent of posts on the micro-blogging site were unwanted spam, according to a blog written by Twitter's chief scientist, Abdur Chowdhury.

Not too long ago, spam was more rampant on the site, according to an info-graphic published by Twitter. In August of 2009, for example, nearly 11 percent of all Twitter posts were spam.

So, maybe this means we're getting past the era of computer-generated messages and malicious and trickster ads?

A look at the broader picture reveals we're not even close.

A whopping 9 out of 10 e-mail messages are still unsolicited, according to this helpful chart (.pdf) published by New Scientist.

The chart shows a number of fluctuations over the years, but an overall increase in spam since late 2006, when hackers started developing "botnets" of "zombie computers" that can send spam and malicious software out for them.

In June 2009, the average e-mail account received more than 100 spam messages per day, according to the chart.

A recent 3,000-person e-mail survey found nearly half of people continue to click on these messages, even if they know spam is a problem, The Toronto Sun reports.

And there's some evidence that social networks, like Twitter and Facebook, are "easy targets" for spammers. Sophos' "Security Threat Report: 2010," released in January, says online social networks are becoming a bigger part of Internet users' lives, so it's only natural that they would be big targets for spammers, too. (via CNET)

"Spam is now common on social networking sites, and social engineering—trying to trick users to reveal vital data, or persuading people to visit dangerous web links—is on the rise," the report says. (full report: PDF)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a Web page with tips for how people can reduce and avoid spam, but the agency acknowledges that "you will probably not be able to eliminate it." Among its more-helpful tips: Create an extra e-mail account that you use to sign up for mailing lists and register for Web sites; and don't let your e-mail account automatically download image attachments for you, since those can identify your account to spammers.

Security experts also recommend people create new passwords for all of the Web sites they register with.

Twitter has posted a number of tips for reducing spam on its site, too. Among them: Report spam messages by sending a note to the Twitter's @spam account; or select the "report for spam" option from a drop-down menu on a problematic Twitter account's page (the menu is hidden behind an icon that looks like a gear wheel).

Do you get more spam than you used to? What's the funniest spam message you've ever gotten?

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Filed under: Security • spam • technology • Twitter


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Man suspected of cracking Twitter accounts: 'I'm a nice hacker'

Posted: 10:42 AM ET

The man accused of cracking a Twitter database and peeking at the Twitter accounts of Barack Obama and Britney Spears said this week that he didn't mean harm, according to a French TV station.

He aimed to prove Twitter is vulnerable to attack.

"I'm not a hacker, or rather, I'm a nice hacker," he said, according to the France 3 station. (via AP)

The man, who is known by the nickname "Hacker Croll," is accused of stealing confidential documents from Twitter employees, and of looking in on the Twitter accounts of the U.S. president and celebrities, according to news reports. He was arrested on Tuesday by French police in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. If convicted of hacking into a database, he could face up to two years in jail, according to the Agence-France Presse news agency.

The ordeal caught the public's attention in July, when a man calling himself Hacker Croll sent confidential documents from Twitter employees to the technology blog TechCrunch, which decided to publish some of the stolen documents.

What do you think about Hacker Croll's statement? Is there anything laudable about breaking into a system to uncover its faults? Can a person actually be a "good hacker?" Let us know in the comments section.

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Filed under: hacking • piracy • Security • technology • Twitter


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March 22, 2010

Geek Out!: What will we get from iPhone 4.0?

Posted: 02:15 PM ET
 
 
Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's Marquee and SciTech blogs.
 
 
The launch of the iPad is looming, but some of us are still more concerned about what's going to be new for its smaller-statured brother - the iPhone.

There will likely be an update to the phone’s operating system in conjunction with the release of the iPad.  The question is – what will we get?

There have been plenty of rumors that this update will be BIG.  Of course, "big" is a relative term and could really mean anything.

The hottest rumor is that the phone may actually be able to finally run more than one application at a time.

For Apple geeks, that would be bigger than big  - that would be huge -  and would bring our beloved iPhone in line with Palm’s Pre.

There are some other smaller features I would love to see come to my favorite technological addiction.  Some of these include:

_ Tethering/Hotspot creation:  The Palm Pre can do this – time for AT&T to allow the iPhone to do the same – i.e. create a wireless hotspot or allow the phone to be tethered to a laptop so you can surf anywhere.  I don’t even care if I have to pay for this feature – just don’t expect me to pay much. (An additional $15 -25 would be in line with what I'd expect).

_ Bluetooth remote profile:  The last update gave us Bluetooth streaming for wireless headphones and other audio devices.  But for some unknown reason Mr. Jobs neglected to include the profile that lets you change tracks.  Please enable this!

_ Custom sound sets: Friends with jailbroken phones (who will remain nameless) lord this over me all the time.  Why can’t I make my e-mail, SMS or other alerts sound like whatever I want?  Also, why can’t I choose just one email address (my work account for example) to beep/buzz when I get a new email?  Right now it’s all or nothing. 

Those are just a few of the things that bug me on this phone.  And as always, it’s not that the phone isn’t great - it’s that it could be so much better! 

What features do you want to see?  What isn’t there that drives you crazy?  And let's leave new hardware features for another post!

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Filed under: Geek Out! • iPad • iPhone • Palm Pre • smartphones • technology


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March 14, 2010

SXSW: Microsoft Surface, Flavors.me, FunMail and HuddleHub

Posted: 01:23 PM ET

The South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival, which is known for being one of the preeminent events for introducing tech innovations, began this weekend in Austin, Texas. More than 100 cutting-edge interactive businesses set up shop along an exhibit hall floor here, in an attempt to attract attention from tech insiders. I braved the large crowds and product pitches to check out what some of the coolest emerging technologies.

Here are four products that most caught my eye:

Microsoft Surface:

What is it? Multi-touch technology that enables users to interact with their digital content on a tabletop surface without a keyboard or mouse.

Microsoft Surface responds to natural hand gestures and real-world objects, helping people interact with digital content in a simple and intuitive way. Think 'Minority Report' meets the CNN Magic Wall on a beautiful table setting.

During a demonstration of prototype software, a tablet reader was rested on the tabletop while magazine content was dragged over from the Surface tabletop to the users' account with a flick of the finger. Microsoft Surface is currently geared for commercial and developer use, but could be marketed for consumers in the near future. It features an open API which allows developers to build apps to work with the product.

Flavors.me:

What is it? A personal identity management Web site that allows users to combine social network profiles onto the same page for a "unified online presence."

Flavors.me provides a clean interface for curating and showcasing your Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and other feeds into a 'one-stop digital storefront.'  If you've longed for a home worth showcasing your many online wares (personal homepages, lifestreaming, splash and microsites, celebrity fan pages, commercial promotion, brand marketing and everything in between), this could be the tool for you. Flavors.me offers free basic service and a premium package ($20 annual) which includes your own web domain name.

FunMail:

What is it? For users interested in adding a little visual spice to their messages, FunMail from FunMobility is a next-generation visual messaging platform that attaches multimedia to your text, tweet or status update.

FunMail uses a learning technology that gets smarter about making insightful connections between imagery and language every time a FunMail is sent. When I typed in "Hated losing an hour of sleep this morning," for Daylight Savings, for example, the search engine found images of people lying in bed, dogs asleep on couches and one very close up shot of a toothbrush.  I chose the toothbrush.

FunMail is currently available for iPhone and Android devices as well as online.  The company hopes to offer a Blackberry version soon.  Just in time for South by Southwest Interactive the company has released FunTweet, a Web service that turns any Twitter stream into visual messages. There's also a Facebook app.

HuddleHub:

What is it? An online management tool for people who 'own' multiple fantasy sports teams.

If you're a fantasy sports geek like me, then you'll want to check out HuddleHub. The service, which just launched, promises to aggregate your player updates, provide live sports and fantasy updates via web and mobile, and - here's where it gets fun - a recommendation engine for advice on player personnel moves via algorithms.  Just imagine taking some of the guess work out of that pending blockbuster fantasy trade.

I asked the company founder if there were any assurances this tool would provide me the competitive edge to earn championship trophies in my future fantasy sports league endeavors. He said it should help, but made no guarantees.

The Web version of HuddleHub is free and available now.  HuddleHub expects to release an iPhone version in June.

What do you think of these products? Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under: Microsoft Corp. • social-networking sites • SXSW • SXSW Interactive • SXSWi • technology • Twitter


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March 10, 2010

What should we cover at South by Southwest?

Posted: 03:21 PM ET

I'm gearing up to fly out to Austin, Texas, Friday for the South by Southwest Interactive conference.

It’s my first time at South By – plus my first time in Austin, a town I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I’ve already gotten all the prerequisite advice (pace yourself, wear comfortable shoes, remember you’re there to work, not to … well … do all the other stuff that will be going on).

I’m also trying to get my brain around the exhaustive list of panels, parties and other events. It can be pretty overwhelming – there's so much stuff going on over the course of a few days that I’ll inevitably miss some things I would have liked to see.

Of course, we’ll be hitting most, if not all, of the keynote presentations. There’s Evan Williams from Twitter and Daniel Ek, CEO of the Spotify music site that’s not yet available in the United States.

We’ll also check out the South by Southwest Web Awards and of course lots of panels. A few I’m eyeballing, if scheduling works out, are:

_ “How Sci-Fi Shapes the Internet”
_ "Can the Real-Time Web Be Realized?”
_ A few on how technology and the Web affect personal relationships
_ “Designing Games for Twitter”
_ “RIP Jeff Goldblum – Truth vs. Web B.S.”
_ “Social Games Level Up!”

And while there’s no good way to justify it as a tech reporter, I’ll probably be trying to claw my way into the “Directing the Dead” panel featuring Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and other filmmakers.

My colleague Victor Hernandez tells me he’s considering some of the same events and quite a few different ones, including “Google in China: Context and Consequences,” “Interviewing the President: How YouTube Can Do It Better” and “Hulu and Hollywood: Love on the Rocks?”

Take a look at the schedule for the festival and see if there are panels you’d like to know more about. Let us know in the comments and we may be able to check them out for you.

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Filed under: SXSW Interactive • technology


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February 19, 2010

How scientific are superheroes?

Posted: 04:02 PM ET

You've probably had moments watching science fiction films when you thought, "Naw, that couldn't happen." And it's true - sci-fi movies often contain elements that don't conform to the laws of physics.

But modern science can say a lot about the plausibility of such things as stopping an asteroid from destroying the planet, and these are teachable moments, experts said today at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California.

Take the asteroid example: films such as "When Worlds Collide" are good about estimating the impact of celestial objects hitting our planet, said Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University physicist and author of "Hollywood Science." In real life, the Tunguska Event, in which a meteor hit part of Siberia, Russia, in 1908, decimated hundreds of square miles of forest.

The Barringer Crater in Arizona, nearly a mile wide, was also created by a meteor. Science fiction movies, however, often incorrectly portray the "save the day moment," since not even an H-bomb has the power to deflect an asteroid, he said.

The powers of superheroes and villains do bring up important concepts in physics, said James Kakalios, technical consultant on the recent "Watchmen" movie and a physicist at the University of Minnesota. For instance, quantum tunneling - the idea that particles can pass through energy barriers - is how Dr. Manhattan teleports in "Watchmen" and how Kitty Pryde walks through walls in "X-Men." Dr. Manhattan's blue color can be explained through a phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation, he said, with the blue glow resulting from the leakage of high-energy electrons.

Believability is important to filmmakers because they don't want viewers' attention to drift away from the story, Kakalios said. He noticed, for instance, that in "Iron Man," Tony Stark is using the correct soldering tool and in the right way. "So you're not thinking about Robert Downey Jr. playing a role, you're thinking about Tony Stark making an Iron Man suit," he said.

You can watch Kakalios' popular YouTube video about the science of "Watchmen" to learn more. And watch for more on the science of superheroes on Monday on CNN.com.

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Filed under: science • technology


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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