All posts in “Gadgets”

This robot maintains tender, unnerving eye contact

Humans already find it unnerving enough when extremely alien-looking robots are kicked and interfered with, so one can only imagine how much worse it will be when they make unbroken eye contact and mirror your expressions while you heap abuse on them. This is the future we have selected.

The Simulative Emotional Experience Robot, or SEER, was on display at SIGGRAPH here in Vancouver, and it’s definitely an experience. The robot, a creation of Takayuki Todo, is a small humanoid head and neck that responds to the nearest person by making eye contact and imitating their expression.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s pretty complex to execute well, which despite a few glitches SEER managed to do.

At present it alternates between two modes: imitative and eye contact. Both, of course, rely on a nearby (or, one can imagine, built-in) camera that recognizes and tracks the features of your face in real time.

In imitative mode the positions of the viewer’s eyebrows and eyelids, and the position of their head, are mirrored by SEER. It’s not perfect — it occasionally freaks out or vibrates because of noisy face data — but when it worked it managed rather a good version of what I was giving it. Real humans are more expressive, naturally, but this little face with its creepily realistic eyes plunged deeply into the uncanny valley and nearly climbed the far side.

Eye contact mode has the robot moving on its own while, as you might guess, making uninterrupted eye contact with whoever is nearest. It’s a bit creepy, but not in the way that some robots are — when you’re looked at by inadequately modeled faces, it just feels like bad VFX. In this case it was more the surprising amount of empathy you suddenly feel for this little machine.

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That’s largely due to the delicate, childlike, neutral sculpting of the face and highly realistic eyes. If an Amazon Echo had those eyes, you’d never forget it was listening to everything you say. You might even tell it your problems.

This is just an art project for now, but the tech behind it is definitely the kind of thing you can expect to be integrated with virtual assistants and the like in the near future. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad one I guess we’ll find out together.

“Unhackable” BitFi crypto wallet has been hacked

The BitFi crypto wallet was supposed to be unhackable and none other than famous weirdo John McAfee claimed that the device – essentially an Android-based mini tablet – would withstand any attack. Spoiler alert: it couldn’t.

First, a bit of background. The $120 device launched at the beginning of this month to much fanfare. It consisted of a device that McAfee claimed contained no software or storage and was instead a standalone wallet similar to the Trezor. The website featured a bold claim by McAfee himself, one that would give a normal security researcher pause:

Further, the company offered a bug bounty that seems to be slowly being eroded by outside forces. They asked hackers to pull coins off of a specially prepared $10 wallet, a move that is uncommon in the world of bug bounties. They wrote:

We deposit coins into a Bitfi wallet
If you wish to participate in the bounty program, you will purchase a Bitfi wallet that is preloaded with coins for just an additional $10 (the reason for the charge is because we need to ensure serious inquiries only)
If you successfully extract the coins and empty the wallet, this would be considered a successful hack
You can then keep the coins and Bitfi will make a payment to you of $250,000
Please note that we grant anyone who participates in this bounty permission to use all possible attack vectors, including our servers, nodes, and our infrastructure

Hackers began attacking the device immediately, eventually hacking it to find the passphrase used to move crypto in and out of the the wallet. In a detailed set of Tweets, security researchers Andrew Tierney and Alan Woodward began finding holes by attacking the operating system itself. However, this did not match the bounty to the letter, claimed BitFi, even though they did not actually ship any bounty-ready devices.

Then, to add insult injury, the company earned a Pwnies award at security conference Defcon. The award was given for worst vendor response. As hackers began dismantling the device, BitFi went on the defensive, consistently claiming that their device was secure. And the hackers had a field day. One hacker, 15-year-old Saleem Rashid, was able to play Doom on the device.

The hacks kept coming. McAfee, for his part, kept refusing to accept the hacks as genuine.

Unfortunately, the latest hack may have just fulfilled all of BitFi’s requirements. Rashid and Tierney have been able to pull cash out of the wallet by hacking the passphrase, a primary requirement for the bounty. “We have sent the seed and phrase from the device to another server, it just gets sent using netcat, nothing fancy.” Tierney said. “We believe all conditions have been met.”

The end state of this crypto mess? BitFi did what most hacked crypto companies do: double down on the threats. In a recently deleted Tweet they made it clear that they were not to be messed with:

The researchers, however, may still have the last laugh.

StarVR’s One headset flaunts eye-tracking and a double-wide field of view

While the field of VR headsets used to be more or less limited to Oculus and Vive, numerous competitors have sprung up as the technology has matured — and some are out to beat the market leaders at their own game. StarVR’s latest headset brings eye-tracking and a seriously expanded field of view to the game, and the latter especially is a treat to experience.

The company announced the new hardware at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, where I got to go hands-on and eyes-in with the headset. Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind this set is meant for commercial applications — car showrooms, aircraft simulators, and so on. What that means is it’s going to be expensive and not as polished a user experience as consumer-focused sets.

That said, the improvements present in the StarVR One are significant and immediately obvious. Most important is probably the expanded FOV — 210 degrees horizontal and 130 vertical. That’s nearly twice as wide as the 110 degrees wide that the most popular headsets have, and believe me, it makes a difference. (I haven’t tried the Pimax 8K, which has a similarly wide FOV.)

On Vive and Oculus sets I always had the feeling that I was looking through a hole into the VR world — a large hole, to be sure, but having your peripheral vision be essentially blank made it a bit claustrophobic.

In the StarVR headset, I felt like the virtual environment was actually around me, not just in front of me. I moved my eyes around much more rather than turning my head, with no worries about accidentally gazing at the fuzzy edge of the display. A 90 Hz refresh rate meant things were nice and smooth.

To throw shade at competitors, the demo I played (I was a giant cyber-ape defending a tower) could switch between the full FOV and a simulation of the 110-degree one found in other headsets. I suspect it was slightly exaggerated, but the difference really is clear.

It’s reasonably light and comfortable — no VR headset is really either. But it doesn’t feel as chunky as it looks.

The resolution of the custom AMOLED display is supposedly 5K. But the company declined to specify the actual resolution when I asked. They did, however, proudly proclaim full RGB pixels and 16 million sub-pixels. Let’s do the math:

16 million divided by 3 makes around 5.3 million full pixels. 5K isn’t a real standard, just shorthand for having around 5,000 horizontal pixels between the two displays. Divide 5.3 million by that and you get 1060. Rounding those off to semi-known numbers gives us 2560 pixels (per eye) for the horizontal and 1080 for the vertical resolution.

That doesn’t fit the approximately 16:10 ratio of the field of view, but who knows? Let’s not get too bogged down in unknowns. Resolution isn’t everything — but generally, the more pixels the better.

The other major new inclusion is an eye-tracking system provided by Tobii. We knew eye-tracking in VR was coming; it was demonstrated at CES, and the Fove Kickstarter showed it was at least conceivable to integrate into a headset now-ish.

Unfortunately the demos of eye-tracking were pretty limited (think a heatmap of where you looked on a car) so, being hungry, I skipped them. The promise is good enough for now — eye tracking allows for all kinds of things, including a “foveated rendering” that focuses display power where you’re looking. This too was not being shown, however, and it strikes me that it is likely phenomenally difficult to pull off well — so it may be a while before we see a good demo of it.

One small but welcome improvement that eye-tracking also enables is automatic detection of intrapupillary distance, or IPD — it’s different for everyone and can be important to rendering the image correctly. One less thing to worry about.

The StarVR One is compatible with SteamVR tracking, or you can get the XT version and build your own optical tracking rig — that’s for the commercial providers for whom it’s an option.

Although this headset will be going to high-end commercial types, you can bet that the wide FOV and eye tracking in it will be standard in the next generation of consumer devices. Having tried most of the other headsets, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t want to go back to some of them after having experienced this one. VR is still a long way off from convincing me it’s worthwhile, but major improvements like these definitely help.

This bipedal robot has a flying head

Making a bipedal robot is hard. You have to make sure maintain exquisite balance at all times and, even with the amazing things Atlas can do, there is still a chance that your crazy robot will fall over and bop its electronic head. But what if that head is a quadcopter?

University of Tokyo have done just that with their wild Aerial-Biped. The robot isn’t completely bipedal but it’s designed instead to act like a bipedal robot without the tricky issue of being truly bipedal. Think of the these legs as more a sort of fun bit of puppetry that mimics walking but doesn’t really walk.

“The goal is to develop a robot that has the ability to display the appearance of bipedal walking with dynamic mobility, and to provide a new visual experience. The robot enables walking motion with very slender legs like those of a flamingo without impairing dynamic mobility. This approach enables casual users to choreograph biped robot walking without expertise. In addition, it is much cheaper compared to a conventional bipedal walking robot,” the team told IEEE.

The robot is similar to the bizaree-looking Ballu, a blimp robot with a floating head and spindly legs. The new robot learned how to walk convincingly through machine learning, a feat that gives it a realistic gait even though it is really an aerial system. It’s definitely a clever little project and could be interesting at a theme park or in an environment where a massive bipedal robot falling over on someone might be discouraged.

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This happy robot helps kids with autism

A little bot named QTrobot from LuxAI could be the link between therapists, parents, and autistic children. The robot, which features an LCD face and robotic arms, allows kids who are overwhelmed by human contact to become more comfortable in a therapeutic setting.

The project comes from LuxAI, a spin-off of the University of Luxembourg. They will present their findings at the RO-MAN 2018 conference at the end of this month.

“The robot has the ability to create a triangular interaction between the human therapist, the robot, and the child,” co-founder Aida Nazarikhorram told IEEE. “Immediately the child starts interacting with the educator or therapist to ask questions about the robot or give feedback about its behavior.”

The robot reduces anxiety in autistic children and the researchers saw many behaviors – hand flapping, for example – slow down with the robot in the mix.

Interestingly the robot is a better choice for children than an app or tablet. Because the robot is “embodied,” the researchers found that it that draws attention and improves learning, especially when compared to a standard iPad/educational app pairing. In other words children play with tablets and work with robots.

The robot is entirely self-contained and easily programmable. It can run for hours at a time and includes a 3D camera and full processor.

The researchers found that the robot doesn’t become the focus of the therapy but instead helps the therapist connect with the patient. This, obviously, is an excellent outcome for an excellent (and cute) little piece of technology.

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