Dangerous Prototypes, my favorite hardware-hacking rock band, gives out the PCB’s left over from their prototyping process. It’s a clever promotion and I love free stuff, so I snagged one of their PCB ‘coupons’ a few weeks ago and built a breakout for the FTDI FT311, an Android-to-damn-near-everything bridge. Check it!
The FT311 is an Android Open Accessory host, which means it gives Android apps full-speed access to circuits. Through this, I can build an app that talks to UART, SPI, I2C, or plain old I/O – this thing lets me connect my phone to virtually anything.
Dangerous Prototypes’ products are almost all surface-mount, so I used the same special prototyping tools I use for client work. I applied Zephpaste solder paste (amazing quality, easy to clean, and made in America) with a fine-tipped syringe, and populated components I ordered from Mouser.
To solder the joints, I busted out The Hotness, my custom reflow oven made from Hurricane Sandy salvage. The board took about 20 seconds at 170° to reflow into beautiful, factory-perfect fillets.
I added the USB port and through-hole headers manually. In a factory, the reflow oven has infrared lamps with programmable hot spots that would give the USB port extra heat. Technicians would also use a wave solderer to zap the headers all at once. But grandpa-style worked fine – this took about 20 minutes start to finish! Perhaps new features for Hotness 2.0?
Also, big shout-out to Panavise, makers of the goddamned handiest circuit tool around. If you build a board a week, a Panavise will change your life.
Have you ever tried to erase a whiteboard, only to find that some f*****g c**t c********r ruined it by scribbling in d********g s**********g Sharpie? Did you know that instead of hulking out and flipping a table, you can erase it in seconds? Prepare to have your mind blown.
Step 1: Find your victim. I don’t have any whiteboards with Sharpie on them because I’m not a f*****g idiot. I do, however, have this Apple keyboard I
stole salvaged from the MakerBar. I plan to abuse it heavily, so I will erase this mark left by the previous owner to save myself the guilt.
Step 2: Scribble on it with a whiteboard marker. Any brand will do. Use a fresh dry-erase marker so you can lay down a really thick, juicy ink puddle.
Step 3: SCRIBBLE MOAR! Use a black marker, or you’ll permanently discolor the tip. Holy crap, the ink is dissolving the Sharpie!
Step 4: Destroy the evidence. Wait a second for the ink to dry and it’ll come off cleanly. Grab a tissue and purge the offending runes, leaving pristine white surface.
Step 5: Admire your handiwork. You just defeated a “permanent” marker using a “temporary” marker. Think about that for a sec. Then find the guy who nearly ruined your whiteboard and shove the Sharpie up his nose.
Google Glass is a lot like my homemade wearables. The resolution and field-of-view are fairly low, input is stripped-down, and a phone is involved. Here are some things I learned in the field, while using my own heads-up displays, that all hopeful Glass designers must know.
- Input is Your Enemy – Voice is imprecise, gesture is weird, and the touchpad is crude. Asking the user to interact with your app is a real imposition when the app is on the user’s head.
- Ambient is Powerful – My favorite HUD app I wrote simply showed me the three tweets nearest to my location. I walked along Broadway from Harlem to the Village reading people’s minds and absorbing the scenery. This experience can only be done on wearable.
- It’s a Magic Circle, Not an App – You’re changing the wearer’s senses and giving them superpowers. It sets them apart from other people and changes their motives. Your app changes the user’s world – it’s more of a pretense to do new things than a tool to make existing things easier.
- Involve the Smartphone – Don’t forget that the device is connected to a phone that’s close at hand. This cuts two ways: Smartphone apps can extend to Glass so the phone can go back in the pocket, and Glass apps can invoke counterparts on the phone. The two can even be used in tandem, unlike a phone and tablet.
- Augmented Reality is a Bitch – It’s a multifaceted technical challenge, and each part is astronomically difficult. On top of this, Glass gets two hours of battery life processing video. Avoid AR, it’s a trap.
- Don’t Distract the Wearer – Your app will be used while the wearer is doing something else – talking, waiting for a bus, walking to work. Don’t pull them away from their primary task, bug them with notifications, or expect them to give your app full attention.
- Give Them Something to Share – When a user has Glass and others don’t, it creates an uncomfortable us-versus-them tension. Ease it by giving the wearer things to share with their Glassless friends, and make it easy to use the app for friends’ suggestions.
- Don’t Allow Creepiness – Don’t videotape people without their permission. Don’t read someone’s Twitter while talking to them. Don’t encourage camera-aided manhunts. Don’t stream porn when it’s inappropriate. If you’re designing an app, have responsibility, class, and taste.
I got a MacBook Air a few weeks ago. When I replaced the hard drive, I named the new one Solidus.
I picked the name because the previous owner named the computer Solid Snake. In the game, Solidus is the character’s ‘older brother’ of sorts, which fit.
Of course, it’s a solid-state drive, so the name fit.
But a solidus turned out to be an ancient Roman coin. In a society filled with backstabbing and politicking, only a gold coin was truly ‘solid’. That computer is really the first big thing I bought with money I earned myself.
Today I discovered that a forward slash is also a solidus. What does the path “/” refer to on a Mac? The boot drive, or in my case, Solidus.
Something about all that makes me smile.
Dead-set on developing for Glass but don’t know where to start? Here are five of the most simple and helpful apps that you can build in a weekend.
- Photo Note – Open the app once to take a picture, open again to show the picture. It’s the virtual equivalent of writing a note on the back of your hand, good for remembering where you parked, peeking your shopping list, and saving something interesting to investigate later. Bonus features: Store and sort last five. Email all notes to you at the end of the day. Record a short snippet of voice as well.
- Workout Dashboard – Show your speed and time. Tap to set lap times or to fast-forward your music. This type of app is better for biking than running, since more bikers bring their phones along for the ride. Bonus features: Integrate speed to calculate distance and calories burned. Tie in to RunKeeper. Tie in with Bluetooth heart-rate monitors and cadence sensors. Display an overhead mini-map and your record time.
- Photo Bingo – A social game. Players get a 5×5 grid with names of interesting things (Volkswagen Beetle, starfruit, plaid with stripes, a duck). Taking a picture of one with Glass puts it on the grid. First person to complete five in a row wins. Bonus features: Community vetting of images instead of good faith. Team up. Use light sensor to prevent people from cheating with a computer monitor.
- Night Vision Goggle - Fun fact: Cameras like the one in Glass can see infrared light invisible to the eye. Create a camera app with the contrast turned WAY up and with a green tint. You can see in total darkness with the aid of a powerful infrared flashlight. Bonus feature: Start the app automatically when the flashlight is switched on. Make it a red tint instead – the eyes adjust faster to red light and it’s harder to see from the outside.
- Terminator Vision – Tint the screen red, add some noise, apply a simple convolution to highlight edges in white, overlay meaningless numbers or GPS coordinates, and make a crosshair that tracks the fastest-moving object. Now you can feel like the Terminator – or at least a 15° slice of your vision can. This is the ‘virtual beer’ app of Google Glass. Bonus feature: Make it actually do something useful.
As a prototype designer and diehard maker, I experiment with a lot of cool toys to help me make better projects. I share the most interesting ones on Thursdays.
Surface-mount chips are the bane of a maker’s existence. Not only are SMT parts a pain in the ass to solder by hand, but they need special tools and you need to special-order breakout boards to prototype with them.
You can’t just walk to your local Radio Shack and buy a breakout board that uses standard soldering gear…
Well, I’ll be damned. You actually can walk to Radio Shack and buy exactly that. It’s called SchmartBoard, and nearly every Radio Shack carries them.
In short, SchmartBoard adapters are the real deal; they’re actually much cooler than you’d think. They’re not just breakout boards – instead of pads, the SchmartBoard has little solder-filled slots etched into its surface. You drop the chip into place, its legs snap into the slots, and you use a fine-point soldering iron to shovel the solder onto the pin, locking it down.
No flux, no paste, no delaminating, no solder wick, no trying to pin the little bastard down with a pair of tweezers while your Parkinson’s hands slosh solder over five adjacent pins. SchmartBoard works, quickly, and did I mention you can buy it at RadioShack?
The chip porn above is a MAX7456 OSD driver for an upcoming augmented-reality project, mounted on a SchmartBoard breakout. Instead of paying SFE $40 for a breakout, I got a free sample of the chip and a $6 SchmartBoard. Swag.
One heads-up: The solder can bunch up underneath and short out chips that have an exposed thermal pad. If your chip does, you’ll need to apply a slim strip of Scotch tape and you may need to add more solder. Still beats the hell out of waiting for two weeks to agonizingly solder a SparkFun breakout.
All in all, this is a hell of a thing to have available at the Shack. You can now order a free sample of virtually any chip, and break it out right away, really easily, for less than $10. I give the SchmartBoard adapter line four and a half 74LS74 dual edge-triggered D-type flip-flops out of five. Buy one!
At this point, it’s inevitable that Google Glass and similar wearable technology is coming to market. The new question is, what will we do with it? Here are five potential killer apps for a device that’s always on, always connected, and always available – without being obnoxious or violating trust.
- Financial Management. It’s surprising how few people actually know their financial situation, especially considering a tough economy. This can go two ways – check your bank balance and credit limits in real-time, or track your budget and see how a purchase can fit into it. The first is similar to the cash readout on, say, Grand Theft Auto and is easy to grok. The second could help prevent identity theft and create a financial ‘sixth sense’.
- The Time. A wearable like Google Glass can actually create new meanings of time. A task clock that resets when check off a task or leave your seat can gently remind you to stay focused and take breaks. A world clock that shows the time at the last place you mentioned can help you respect your global contacts. These can sync to a logging application to passively assemble a timeline of your life.
- Foursquare/Yelp. Location-based social networks are massively superior to communication-based media on Google Glass. You can see ‘echoes’ of friends as you pass venues, find and flag undiscovered gems, catch ‘whiffs’ of reviews as you wander aimlessly, and capture reminders and mementos without being that guy with the camera Instagramming his food.
- Calendar and To-Do. Remembering your priorities, keeping an eye on the clock, and maintaining your to-do list are mentally taxing and just plain tedious. Google Glass will handle the heavy lifting, leaving you to focus on the task at hand and the pleasure of checking one off. Simply showing the time until your next appointment and your next to-do item is enough to isolate you from distraction. Wearables are really, really good at getting you organized – that’s why modern videogames put a quest arrow, waypoint, and objective on the HUD.
- News Ticker. This is the double-edged sword of Google Glass. A news ticker needs the motherlode of finesse to avoid tearing the user’s brain apart with distraction. If done properly, though, the user will be utterly up-to-the-minute without wasting time browsing RSS feeds, loaded with breaking stories, hyperlocal updates, industry bulletins, and all the other raw material to be a fascinating conversationalist and ultra-informed expert. Perhaps most importantly, this is the only place to insert ads and marketing material.
You’ll notice that these killer apps are almost all non-interactive text. Wearables, especially Google Glass, don’t have a lot of screen real estate to display elaborate chrome or pictures. Limited controls also mean limited onscreen widgets.
The UX paradigm of wearables is totally different than that of a smartphone – think ahead to keep your business and skills relevant in the wearable future!
Last afternoon in Paris, University of Toronto professor Dr. Steve Mann became perhaps the first victim of cyborg bigotry.
While eating with his family at the Champs-Elysees McDonalds, Dr. Mann was accosted by three employees. In front of Mrs. Mann and her children, the uniformed men destroyed his property, ate his food, attempted to pry off his implants, and manhandled him onto the street.
Unless I’m very much mistaken, this is the first account of an unprovoked assault on an augmented human. Dr. Mann has inadvertently become something of a cyborg Rosa Parks, and how his case plays out will set precedents and draw lines in the sand.
Without a doubt, the McDonalds employees were bizarrely violent and will be fired like any employees who assault customers. The interesting part is why they did it.
Dr. Mann’s setup isn’t Google Glass-style wearable computing, and it isn’t Accelerando-style augmented reality. His is a sousveillance or personal-vision device, purpose-built to capture and broadcast point-of-view video. His assailants knew this – after all, they read his ‘doctor’s note’. What worried them, and what will inevitably convict them, was that they and their restaurant were recorded, transmitted, broadcast, critiqued semi-automatically.
On one hand, Dr. Mann got detailed first-person video, or at least high-resolution pictures, of the entire incident, which will ensure justice. On the other hand, the assailants clearly were not comfortable being monitored. Although the law is on Dr. Mann’s side, and the taping was legal, doing so is not in good taste.
His altercation, free to proliferate on the Internet, rapidly incited a virtual lynch mob on Reddit, held at bay only by Dr. Mann’s smart decision to block his assailants’ distinguishing features. Fans wasted no time in digging up as much contact information about the restaurant, and its employees, as possible.
So what to make of this? As usual, the future will march on. If the market demands that wearables be camera-enabled, then physical privacy will vaporize as inevitably as music protection. It will be unstoppable the same was as texting while driving is unstoppable. No justice system can handle ubiquity. Perhaps in the near future, malfeasance of all types will be dispersed as readily as Dr. Mann’s story.
But the other side of the story still stands. People value their privacy, regardless of the relentless technological march. If technology like Mann’s becomes commonplace, clashes like Mann’s will rise as well. Cyborg racism will ignite on Capitol Hill as well as bars, restaurants, buses, and anywhere people once expected to avoid remote judgment.
My only hope is that as stories like begin to break, cyborgs share Dr. Mann’s foresight, letting systematic law, not virtual lynch mobs, enforce justice. We must remember that it takes more than evidence to convict – all the first-person crime video in the world is a liability in the hands of vigilantes fueled by righteous anger.
The cyborg transition from mobile technology to wearable technology is actually a transition between heads-down and heads-up. It’s a question of whether the device demands your attention, or whether it’s willing to share.
Think of it like this – suppose you arrive early to a train, grab a coffee, and take a seat in the mezzanine. The woman sitting next to you looks familiar; you realize she’s a college friend you haven’t seen in years and start a conversation. You get caught up as you reminisce… and forget how long you’ve been talking.
You pull your phone out, unlock it, find your calendar… lose track of the conversation and listlessly ‘uh-huh’ along… and you still have fifteen minutes. You shut off your phone and awkwardly grind back into conversation, breaking it again ten minutes later as you check once more.
This is heads-down technology. No matter what you’re doing, your senses and mind get subsumed to perform the most minor task. You ignore the real to deal with the virtual. It’s rude and intrusive.
Now, rewind to that point where you lost track of time, except your phone is dead. Mid-conversation, you look over your friend’s shoulder and see a timetable on the wall. Your train leaves in fifteen minutes. You choke coffee when your friend tells you she’s marrying your old roommate.
Welcome back to heads-up. There’s no divide between the technology and the environment – they’re one and the same. Your attention can flow smoothly between and through them. Information is available while you can act on it. In the former example, heads-down technology pulled you away, but in the latter, it actually helped you stay in the moment.
We complain about people texting in restaurants, about being trapped in front of e-mail, about spending nights in front of the TV instead of with friends, about the general disconnection in today’s world. No one’s disconnected, they’re trapped by heads-down technology. We want our tech, but it demands our attention utterly.
This is the promise of wearable technology. It’s not a computer that chains you to a desk. It’s not a smartphone that connects you with far-away friends but alienates those nearby. You get the connection without being disconnected. You can live in the real and act in the virtual at the same time. You become mindful.
“I’d like the salmon… wait, my Apple stock just popped to 400. Make that the surf-n-turf.”
“Dude, I can’t believe you tried negging her! It’s trending!”
“Let’s stay for another drink. My car got stuck in traffic after it dropped off the kids.”
“Dammit, son! No live-streaming when I’m telling you off!”
“You get Zuckerberg to add you on LinkedIn, and next thing you know people are lining up for a handshake!”
“What do you mean, you don’t know the directions?”
“AdBlock for vision is great, except I keep walking into sidewalk billboards…”
“Hang on, $500 just got deducted from my checking account. I’ll call you back, need to call my banker.”
“Dammit, son! No going off-the-grid after 10!”
“Look at that guy, strutting around with his 20,000 Twitter followers. What a douche.”
“What do you mean, you don’t remember?”
“Excuse me, my HUD says that you’ve commented on 20 of my blog posts. It’s nice to meet you in person!”