Pocket Pen

As mentioned in my previous post on pens I like to carry a writing instrument on me as part of my everyday carry. In school I always had a mechanical pencil, moving into pens I first tried roller-ball then felt-tip pens before landing on fountain pens. Fountain pens have many advantages over other types of pens, but being pocket safe is not one of them. Because they use liquid ink drips or leaks can cause a lot of damage (think of the opening to Shawn of the Dead). Last century wanting safety from leaky pens was such a necessity that people would line their shirt pockets with plastic envelopes bring us the dweebish stigma around the pocket protector. Luckily today the fountain pen enthusiast has better options.

A large point of not spilling your ink is how you are filling your ink. Older fountain pens used latex bladders or lever activated pistons to pull ink directly into the barrel of the pen. Now it is much more common to insert a small ink filled plastic cartridge or a converter which uses a screw piston. These ink distribution methods are much more reliable and will prevent ink from seeping out of the pen. But that’s not good enough for a pen that I want to throw in my pocked with my keys and other things.

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The Liliput is nearly the perfect pocket pen. It adds protection by having a twist off cap that will never come off in your pocket, and will never let ink out. Coming in at a little under four inches capped its a pocket-able aluminium ink fortress. But its only nearly perfect. Being small, slippery, and perfectly round this pen wants to roll of and get lost. To be truly useful this pen needs a clip. There are clips make by Kaweco for this pen, though the selection is very limited. Instead I tried fabricating my own.

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I have a 3D printer, but the nature of a pen clip makes it difficult to print on a 3D printer. Printing a ring to fit around the pen was easy enough, but attaching a clip to it introduces structural weakness that will not stand up to being pocketed over and over again. This has to do with the direction of layers, for the ring having the layers perpendicular to the pen makes printing the shape simple. For the clip the layers should be oriented parallel to the pen otherwise the clip will just snap off at the weak layer joins.

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I printed the ring to fit around the pen and then looked to some model making techniques to finish the clip. I happened to have some very fine brass rods around that would make a durable, but flexible pen clip. Using a very small drill I made inserts for the ends of the brass rod and bent it them glued it into place. A little bit of sanding to smooth out the printed plastic and I have a very functional clip for my favorite pen.

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Now this little pen is perfect for a pant for shirt pocket. With the oblong shape of the plastic ring it also no longer rolls away! With this clip I have been carrying the pen around for a few weeks now. Haven’t lost it and no spills! I’ve also got a rather odd way of filling this mini pen to maximize the amount of ink it will hold, but that’s a story for another time.

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On Courage and Cowardice

This week Apple made the announcement for the new iPhone 7. It was mostly what critics and leaks expected it to be. Including the controversial exclusion of the headphone port. Its been a long time since I’ve watched an Apple keynote, and long still since I’ve been an iPhone user. Normally I would just take a cursory look at what Apple was changing and then move on, but this change has gathered a lot of attention in the wrong places and I feel the need to add my two cents.

Apple is correct, wireless headphones need to be the new standard.

The core point of the new iPhone is that wireless headphones are the new standard and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to jump through hoops to maintain their hard wired connections. Most iPhone users are looking at this from the bias of already owning wired headphones, presumably expensive ones (Beats). But if we think about this more objectively, wireless headphones finally solve a major problem with headphones that has been around since before Apple designed its first set of ear buds. Wireless headphones have no cord to get tangled, nothing to yank the headphone from your ear or to disconnect when jostled. I use Bluetooth headphones, much more modest ones than the AirPods (AirBuds), and its so nice not having a wire connecting my head with my hip.

Apple is so late to the party even the janitors have left.

As always Apples ‘new’ technology is too late. Apple only enters a market when they decide that its mature enough for them to ‘innovate’ it by reselling what everyone’s already been buying. Wireless headphones are not new. I got my first pair of over the ear Bluetooth headphones around 2006 and got a 3.5mm to Bluetooth adapter for my iPod Mini because Apple was behind the times even then. The Advanced Audio Distribution Profiles (A2DP) that Bluetooth uses to send audio has improved leaps and bounds over the poor quality that was standard in 2006. I mentioned that I still use Bluetooth headphones, they are miles better than what I originally had and they cost me about $10, cheaper than the Apple wired ear buds. Wireless headphones is not something new Apple is trying to push, many top headphone manufacturers already make headphones with built in Bluetooth. Apple is just more forcefully pushing people with wired headphones to move to new (expensive) wireless headphones.

This was the worst way Apple could have made this change.

This push is the worst way Apple could have pushed this change for Apple’s customers. In the technology service industry pushing a new product that fundamentally breaks your customer interaction model is a horrible thing to do, and this is the reason legacy APIs are often supported forever. Apple is putting all its cards on the table, you lose the headphone jack or you don’t get an new iPhone, because they know few will call that bluff. People will still buy these new iPhones by the million as they are released, so Apple don’t care what’s best for their customers. Releasing the AirBuds with a normal iPhone upgrade would have been enough to get most of Apple user base to switch to wireless headphones. Market the AirBuds as the new premium status symbol from Apple and people will line up around the corner to preorder. Removing the headphone jack is just forcing the already willing hand.

This is the most profitable way to make this change.

As mentioned previously, this is not the best way for the customers to migrate over to wireless headphones, it is the profitable for Apple. Behind the cover of being ‘courageous’ and ripping the band-aid all at once, Apple has created a new AirBud and wireless headphone market, and a market for dongles and wired adapters. Today Belkin announced that they will be making a $40 dongle to enable an iPhone 7 to charge and play music through the lightning port. Apple is licencing its lightning port to Belkin for $4-$12 of that dongle. Its basic economics, create scarcity be removing the headphone jack, then create supply by providing dongles. But because its an artificial scarcity its only benefiting Apple. In a few years they will again be courageous and change the lightning port to USB C or some other standard and they will applaud themselves for embracing better standards while they get to start a whole new dongle market.

I am excited for the technology.

With Apple making all these wrong moves around the release of the AirBuds, I think they could be a great piece of technology. Independent wireless ear pods are difficult because the grey matter between them is very good at blocking radio signals. Each AirPod has an accelerometer and a contact sensor. I would bet these are able to read heart rate as well, but that will be a later feature. These could be revolutionary headphones the same way ear buds moved us all away from clunky black on ear headphones. But at $160 these AirBuds will not become ubiquitous any time soon.

These are my thoughts on the matter. I stay, for now, an Android man.

Pocket Monsters

Its been all over the news, Niantic has released a new game! Niantic of course is the small game studio that broke out the Google Maps team to build their popular geolocation game Ingress. I doubt many but a persistent few still play Ingress and even fewer probably know it ever existed, but now the company has skinned the game with Nintendo intellectual properties and it is bigger than twitter.

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Of course I’m talking about Pokemon GO!

All the geolocation data that had been submitted by Ingress players over the years is now being put to use to make Pokestops and Gyms for Pokemon GO, the new geolocation Pokemon collection game. I will say I was resistant to try it initially; citing battery problems and privacy concerns, but now I’m hooked. Its been two weeks and now my Pokedex is more than half full.

Pokemon GO, is a simple game where players walk around the real world with the game open and the players geolocation data is sent to cloud severs and the servers respond with what is nearby, be it pokestops, gyms or pokemon. The players can than interact with these game elements by selecting them on their map. If a pokemon is nearby the player flicks pokeballs at the monster until it is captured. Pokestops are used to gather more resources and gyms are were one can battle other players to represent one of the three teams. There are a few more intricacies than that but that is the basics of the game.

This game is not new, novel or even well written. Frankly the only reason it got so popular is because of the Pokemon generation finally getting to fulfill there dream of being the best Pokemon trainer there ever was. I have never played any of the previous Pokemon games, and barely watched the shows or collected the cards as a child so I am not on board for the nostalgia train.

The second thing that has made GO the super success it is also makes it the envy of Twitter and Facebook and most social networking sites. Pokemon GO has social ground swell, the likes of which a social network could only dream of. To put this in perspective, I have a Facebook page: I do not want to have a Facebook page, I disagree with Facebook on privacy, technical and other issues, but I keep my page active and up to date. I do this because I can’t go anywhere else, everyone I know is already on Facebook, my parents my relatives, friends and coworkers. Facebook is the social network not because its better than others, but because it has the users to draw in an keep other users.

Once everyone who played Pokemon as a child installed and started playing the game this was enough people seeded into to thousands of social circles to encourage people who don’t know Pidgey from a Pigeot to try the game. This is of course can lead to exponential growth as the new people introduce more people, it gets popular enough to hit the news and now everyone is playing.

There are a lot of reasons to like the game. Its light and still interactive, making it a good game you can pick up for two minutes when you have downtime. The game is being heralded as the start of augmented reality (AR) games, though the AR is really just a novelty that any serious player will disable. The game use real world locations and landmarks and can teach one to find and appreciate things that one would have normally overlooked. Its a collection game with random reinforcement witch is like crack for our brains, like gambling addiction without losing one’s life savings.

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Finding murals with pokemon

Best of all since everyone is playing it its a fun talking point with friends and an ice breaker for people you meet on the street. Video games have gotten a bad reputation for keeping people indoors and away from sunlight and socialization. Pokemon GO is fun because it breaks this mold, encouraging outdoors and exercise. The locations in the game are all based around local landmarks and public art, and playing the game makes one actively search for them.

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My favorite pokespot

There are still major problems. The game’s unexpected popularity has been its own downfall. Its more than a week after launch in the United States and Niantic is still have problems keeping the servers up. These server failures and inability to scale are exacerbated by the application’s bugs. When the games receives a 500 response from the servers there is a chance that the game state can get stuck and it cannot retry the failed message or recover from the failure. This most often exhibits itself when a pokemon is in a pokeball but the player never gets the message if it was caught.

But bugs and server issues are temporary problems. Niantic has already pushed three patches since I’ve started playing an I’m sure they are scaling up there server fleet. The real problem with the game is that its not all there. The game play slows to a crawl around level 20 and to keep moving forward the player must move from Pokemon trainer to Pokemon hatcher.

The game can expand beyond the 151 Pokemon it currently has and as far as anyone can tell there is not level cap, but if there is nothing to do at higher levels most people are going to get bored. Those who don’t get bored will be so ridiculously high leveled that they will keep any new players out of the gyms. If Niantic want gym battles to be a big part of the game then they will have to figure out a way to address the growing power disparity between the long term players and the new and casual players.

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My pride and joy

I see two things coming down the line that may improve the game play. First is trading of pokemon between players. This will allow people to fill out their pokedex must faster that the beginning and will make finding rare pokemon more special if you can give it away. This could also allow high level player to give extra pokemon to lower level players to quickly get them gym ready. The second thing this game needs is the ability to throw down with anyone anywhere. Instead of just battling in the gym for your team I want to be able to directly challenge my nearby friends to see who really is the pokemon master.

 

 

VR reVIVEd

Last week I received a very special package. A big box of futuristic technology. I have posted before about my use of the Oculus Rift DK2 VR headset, and one of my personal goals is to make my life as much like I was living in Star Trek as possible. I have now gotten another step closer to having my very own Holodeck with the arrival of my HTC Vive.

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Hard to tell in this picture but its a very large box.

The box that arrived at my door was extremely large, much bigger than I was expecting. I became very glad that I had it delivered to my home address and not to the office as it would have been impossible to transport this on my bike. Inside the giant cardboard box was a slightly smaller, but still large, retail box of the Vive.

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The Vive box next to the Oculus DK2 packaging

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Well padded

The reason that this box is so large, almost 4 times larger than the box for the Oculus DK2, is because the Vive comes with a lot more hardware for Room-scale VR (remember this, there will be a quiz later). This is a huge leap over the old Oculus development kit.

The Vive is a virtual reality headset. Like the Oculus it is a computer display behind some lenses arranged with software so that the lenses warp the image on the screen to make it seem like they are googles to a computer generated world. The advancements since I got the Oculus almost two years ago are numerous. The biggest difference, on paper, is that the Vive has a much higher resolution screen, actually, the Vive has two higher resolution screens, one for each eye. This improves the picture quality a lot. The lenses are basically magnifying glasses held very close to the monitors and every pixel counts when you are looking at them up close. There are also improvements in the Lenses and the ergonomics over the Oculus, though the Vive is still a little heavier than the Oculus.

The real fun is comes with the other pieces in the box. The headset is very comparable to the Oculus Rift consumer version also released earlier this year, but its not too different from the old DK2 either. The real fun come with the addition of the controllers and the lighthouse stations.

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The important bits (I added the GorillaPods)

 

A small aside, to explain some of the technology: For a good virtual experience the computer needs the most accurate data it can get to know where a users head is pointing every time the computer renders a frame. This information tells the computer which way you are facing and it renders the scene accordingly. This is what gives users the ability to turn their head and look around the environments and is the key thing that separates VR headsets from the TV googles in SkyMall catalogs that just project a 65″ screen in front of you no matter where you look. This tracking can be done with an accelerometer and gyroscope to determine which way the head is moving as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The Oculus DK2 also came with a camera, which could track IR LEDs on the front of the headset to let users move their head from side to side, or to duck down or up, giving the headset another degree of tracking that is impossible to achieve without using an external reference point, the camera. This is referred to as positional tracking, the tracking of an objects position in 3D space relative to a known constant. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift uses the same technology as the development kit to track where the headset is pointing. The Vive however, does not need a camera pointing at the headset for positional tracking. It has a much more complicated, but much more fun system for positional tracking.

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One of the lighthouses mounted to a lamp

The Vive set comes with two small black boxes, about three inches across with one side made of dark glass. When provided with power a little light inside them turns on to notify if they are working or not. What a human cannot see is that these boxes are shooting out a complicated pattern of infra-red lasers into the room. Each lighthouse has a rotating drum with a laser that fire with very exact timing. The Vive headset is mottled with light sensors which can detect an increase in infra-red light. By analyzing the timing differences of the lighthouses IR pulse on three or more of the sensors the headset can triangulate its position relative to the base station. This gives it positional tracking. This position tracking is, simply put, the opposite of what the Oculus has. The Oculus has ‘dumb’ lights on the headset and tracks them with a fixed camera, the Vive has ‘dumb’ laser pulses and tracks them with the headset. While this may seem like an arbitrary inversion it actually leads to some interesting technology.

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Hello? Are you still there?

The odd looking doughnuts with handles that came in the box are the Vive’s controllers. Yes, it came with two controllers. Why would one need two controllers for one headset? Are they supporting multiple players somehow? Are these controllers so likely to get lost or break they they just sent two off the bat?

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Had to add an extra beefy graphics card to power it all

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Initial set up is a mess

There are two controllers because there is one for each hand! These are not just some boring old Xbox controllers, these are tracked controllers for interacting with virtual environments. All that positional tracking techno-babble is now becoming important. The beauty of the Vive system of having the sensors on the device being tracked is that it makes it easy to add more tracked objects. In this case these controllers position in 3D space is tracked as accurately as the headset is, making it possible to look down and see your hands, or reach out and touch the environment. Oculus doesn’t have that (yet).

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Pulling a virtual bow

This is what make the Vive so compelling. It stops VR from being a passive experience and turns it into a much more active one. Also the tracking is good enough that you can stand up, and walk around the room. Remember I mentioned that this was Room-scale VR! This is another step closer to the holodeck, now I can summon a virtual world, look at it, walk around in it, and interact with it. All that is missing is smaller headsets, lighter controllers, smarter computers, force fields, and photons.

Computer Aided Design

Last week I finally upgraded my mobile computing unit. I am retiring my Lenovo T410, accepting it as the lemon that I put up with for 6 years.

With significant thought I settled on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for my upgrade. Since school I have dreamed of a computer with a pen that is good enough to take handwritten notes. Unfortunately all the computer-tablets that existed when I was in class were clunky and the pen input was never fast enough or accurate enough to truly take hand written notes. The claims of massive improvement on input with a pen is what has draw me towards the surface line.

I have been enjoying my surface immensely. It is by no means a perfect machine, as windows 10 still struggles a little in high DPI tablet form, but its almost exactly what I wanted 6 years ago.

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Some Sample notes

Microsoft encourages the use of their note taking application, OneNote, for use on the Surface for note taking and tout the pen integration in the application so widely that a long press of the pen’s eraser from anywhere in the OS will bring up OneNote. I have found that there is a much better note taking application (for me) that is, oddly enough, also made by Microsoft. The application ‘Plumbago’, Latin for lead, is a Microsoft Garage project, and application made by employees basically in their free time, and its is a much simpler but much preferred note taking application. The app just lets you create notebook with a wide variety of paper styles and then gives you 25 pages to write what ever you want in pencil, pen, or highlighter. Its pretty simple but what is does it does right, the controls are simple and intuitive and the pen integration is the best I’ve tried.

Just testing around a in a notebook with graph paper I started sketching the items on my desk and got the idea that I could raise my monitor a couple inches closer to eye level and remove the speaker amp from the rest of the clutter. So as I often do I started sketching designs for a little stand that would accompany the amp and provide a little storage. One I had a design I liked  I modeled is in SketchUp and printed it out on the 3D Printer.

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Digital Sketchbooks!

By the morning after having the idea I had created and installed the monitor stand. It had gone trough a few iteration of design on ‘paper’ already moving form squares to hexagons. For a project taking a few hours its, so far, been working wonderfully.

Helping a Hand

I am the first to admit that most of my hobbies are realistically not the most efficient or effective way of handling something. Smart lighting and home automation are a convenience at best and really don’t provide enough utility to be a necessity; Sous-vide while amazing is not going to replace your stove or even a microwave oven; but this week I was able to take a step towards a future I hardly believe in, but many boldly claim might be an upcoming reality: home manufacturing.

With the popularity of 3D printers many media sources are calling this the start of the home manufacturing revolution. A new way of life that will be as big a change to our way of life as the industrial revolution. While I am very skeptical about this and building and operating a 3D printer has taught me that there are many, many obstacles in the way before this will be close to a reality. 3D printers today are very limited, very expensive, very slow and fairly unreliable, not to mention nowhere near as efficient as a large manufacturing run. But this week I showed myself that there is potential for a home manufacturing revolution.

As I spend most of every day sitting at a keyboard poor ergonomics and the cost of them is a real concern. Well it seems i had not been giving it proper attention as this week I started developing the wrist pain that comes from too much keyboard use. After aching through a day at work I came home and realized that I did not own a proper reinforced wrist brace to slap on until my wrist was better and I had made the necessary ergonomic improvements. While these can found online and in most drug stores I remembered a design I had seen that I wanted to try. 3D printing a wrist brace.

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3D printed wrist brace

Modeling and digitally fitting a fully formed wrist brace would be a pain and would by very difficult and time consuming to print. This design, of which I found a few iterations online, is ingenious as it uses the relatively low melting temperature of one of the commonly printed plastics, PLA, to make printing and fitting much easier. The brace is modeled and printed as a flat piece and after a dip in near boiling water becomes malleable enough to be wrapped around a wrist. Once cooled it maintains this form and is stiff enough to provide support.

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The wrist brace being printed

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A flat and formed wrist brace

While certainly not as comfortable as a commercial wrist wrap it worked quit well. The model I chose had fitting s for Velcro to be used to hold the brace in place but I found wrapping a compression bandage around it worked quite well, though it covered all those pretty hexagons. The printing of each brace took a little under an hour and half and the forming took just minutes, all without leaving home. It may not have been modeled from a 3D scan of my hand but it held up for a few days until I manage to get a proper brace and it was and interesting talking point to all who noticed.

3D printers will probably not be as popular as the inkjet for decades to come, and editing a model in CAD will never be a simple a writing up a document, but there is potential for 3D printing and home manufacturing to replace as least some mass manufactured products.

Pebble Power

I still have a bunch of photos that I have not uploaded from my vacation in the mountains. So many photos that I have to carefully curate them to a succinct few for posting. While working on that I want to report on an experiment that I preformed on my 10 day trip. The Pebble Time Steel which I had recently received boasts a 10 day battery life. Coincidentally the length of the trip I was about to embark on.

Could I go the entire trip, Friday to Sunday without charging it?

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Pebble, Tracking a trek at 12,000ft

No, I couldn’t. At 10:43am on the last Saturday of the trip the watch gave out. But 9 of the promised 10 days isn’t bad.

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Interestingly enough the Pebble still functions as a regular digital watch when the battery hits zero. I wounder if it would have lasted another day in that state?