Thursday, May 31, 2007

Indoor Radio-Controlled Plane

Some of you may remember my post last year on the "Butterfly" living room flier from Plantraco Hobbies. Technology is marching on though, with new composite materials and ever more integrated electronics in smaller and smaller packages. Witness the latest in living room RC technology, the Carbon Butterfly. (you can purchase one at the previous link complete with controller and padded carrying case for $299) (hint...hint...anyone planning ahead for my 2007 Birthday/Christmas season...)

Carbon Butterfly
(Check out videos of the Carbon Butterfly in flight here.)

The new version above weighs in at a scarce 3 grams including all of the receiver, rudder actuator, and prop motor hardware despite the addition of the new landing gear. Smaller carbon fiber rods and a redesigned mylar-coated wing comprise the major advances. Here's the older version for comparison (at 3.6 grams):

The new Carbon Butterfly sports a fully proportional 2-channel controller for both the throttle speed and the rudder actuator, and a nice light gear reduction to drive the prop.

Better-yet, the founder of the indoor flyer community, Michael Hendricksen, has started an indoor flier blog showing how you can make your own miniature actuators with simple coils and magnets!

Blog Image

Blog Image

Blog Image

and the Plantraco Micro-RC web site has all the supplies and components you could need to build your own miniature airplanes and helicopters and indoor flying pleasure. These sorts of things are great starter projects to get kids excited about electronics, mechanical design, and aeronautics, all at once!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Rube Goldberg Machines From Japan

The best collection I've seen so far made with ordinary household objects.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Prefab Treehouse Artistry

It figures that as soon as I set up a play structure for the kids, I discover the real artists of the playground world. Check out Daniel's Wood Land.

My one consolation is that while incredibly cool, they look out of my price range....well, that and the hopes that the kids won't be jaded by the Disney Land quality gear when we actually make it to SoCal.

Water Baloon Popping In Slow Motion

Friday, May 25, 2007

Leonardo, A Social Robot

One of my grad school friends turned MIT professor, Cynthia Breazeal, has teamed up with Stan Winston Studios of animatronic movie robot fame to create an astounding new robot named Leonardo.

Photographs, copyright Sam Ogden

This little artificial creature was not designed to move around or navigate, but rather to interact socially with humans. 61 different motors (32 in the face alone) articulate its limbs, hands, digits, expressive facial features, eyelids, and ears so that it can communicate its artificial feelings.

Photograph, copyright Sam Ogden

The software driving the robot is also interesting, and designed to learn by visual and verbal example, just as humans do. The video available through the preceding link is a little spooky in that regard. You can also check out the technical paper here, C. Breazeal, G. Hoffman, and A. Lockerd (2004). "Teaching and Working with Robots as a Collaboration."

Be sure to hunt around the main Leonardo web site for more movies foretelling our robotic future.

A Mathematical Mazda

Check out the model number on this bad boy.

Yes, it's Pi to 27 digits. From techEblog.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Paper Star Wars Models

Print a few copies. Build them. Annex your living room for the galactic empire.

More models at Papercraft.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Teach Kids to Program

Last weekend, my wife and I took the kids to the Maker Faire, where I ran into some folks from MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten group. I would have to say that of the whole Maker contingent, they were showing the most refined educational tools of the bunch, kits and software to teach young children how to program.

The Scratch programming environment (download Scratch for free here) was designed to eliminate the requirement that a programmer understand code syntax and grammar before being able to do anything useful. The main tool here was to devise a simplified language encapsulated in graphical blocks with shapes that only fit together properly when slotted in the right order and positions.

The software package includes mechanisms for a host of graphically interesting drawing, sprite control, and audio effects, as well as a built-in mechanism for code sharing and community building. Don't miss the project pages to check out all the cool code a host of kids have already written.

moving animation carddance twist scratch card

One thing that I particularly about the Scratch system is that they have included a physical interface component called the Scratch Board, that allows children's programs to interact with the real world with sensor blocks, buttons, sliders and so on, each paired with a programming element in the software. Now they can learn to write code, and connect it to the real world!

You can check out a nice intro Scratch video here:

Another project on display from the Playful Invention Company [PICO] which grew out of the same group at MIT was called the Pico Cricket. The cricket kit is basically an extension and refinement of Scratch that includes smart blocks designed to interlock with Legos.

A lot of thought and work has gone into making the programming element even more clear, and the external components more bulletproof, dare I even say kid-proof. For example, each block that houses a sensor or processor or motor has a chip in it which identifies itself and automatically configures the use of interconnecting wires, so you don't have to worry about how any system is wired together, you just connect them with wires that are all identical in the same way.

pico cricketmotor and motor board

displaysound box

touch sensorlight sensor

resistance sensor

Order your Pico Cricket kits here.

For more developed students in higher grades, don't miss Hackety-Hack, a cleaned-up (free) version of Ruby/smalltalk with a very nice community and instructional environment packaged around it. This is for the kids who outgrow the limitations of Scratch and are up for the rigors of typing the syntax themselves.

The amazing thing about this system is the thought that went into incorporating a fantastic Internet, web, and graphics library that is very powerful. As an example, you can implement an entire blog with in six lines of code:
blog = Table("MyBlog").recent(10) {
blog.each do |entry|
title entry[:title]
puts entry[:editbox]
This testimonial from the web site says it all:

Our 8th grader reporting in: did Lesson Four in about 10 minutes but kept hacking for another 20 minutes. Today, video games lost the battle with Ruby. Unprecedented!
— Brian D

In researching the effectiveness of these tools, I came across a fantastic blog documenting both the opportunities and potential pitfalls surrounding the use of all these new technology tools to teach 5th grade integrated technology classes. Check out how ENGAGED and excited SOME of these kids are to be creating their own widgets and discovering things on their own! Others seem stuck without the proper guidance. (mostly stuck on the programming parts.)

I was also led, inevitably to the Playfull Inventing & Exploring effort [PIE]. From their site:

PIE (Playful Invention and Exploration) is an approach to using new technologies that integrates art, science, music, and engineering. The main goal of PIE is to enable and inspire more people to create, invent, and explore -- using a combination of traditional craft materials and new digital technologies.

PIE projects and workshops make use of Crickets, small programmable devices you can use to create your own musical sculptures, interactive jewelry, communicating creatures, and other playful inventions.
The PIE approach was developed through a collaboration of six museums with MIT Media Lab, with support from the National Science Foundation. (For background on the project, see the PIE Network grant proposal.)

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Climate Change: A Guide For The Perplexed

New Scientist just published great online article debunking the 26 most common climate change myths and misconceptions. The article is very well written and includes links to all of the primary data sources. Better yet, it is very well-targeted, hitting many of the most common responses I have received personally from friends and colleagues over the past year of office-cooler debate on the topic almost verbatim. My personal top hits include the following myths:

But do link over to the main article from the top of this post to see the complete list.
Here are a couple of my favorite images from the compendium:

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Active Matrix Organic LEDs Get Real

This is a watershed moment in consumer electronics! For decades now, LCD panel technology has dominated portable consumer electronics despite its need for power-hungry back-lights. The newer AM-OLEDs that are self-emmisive (requiring no back-light) have been in development since around the time I started MicroDisplay in 1995, with some early applications emerging over the last few years in tiny segmented character display applications like MP3 players.

Well today's news held the first product announcements from Samsung and Philips/LG to show the new technology in active matrix formats that can display high quality video (albeit still in limited QVGA resolution.)

What will this mean for Joe-consumer? Well, our sexy gadgets are going to get even smaller, thinner [about half a MILLIMETER in thickness], and draw even less power than before (allowing the batteries to be smaller and thinner as well.) Oh yes, and the viewing angles and contrast [10,000:1] will be much better than for LCDs. Check out these images from