Tag Archives: toys

A Flying Camera

2.9 minute video demonstration of the Mavic Pro (223 MB)

This is a short little video montage of my first few flights around my house with DJI’s Mavic Pro – a fantastic, compact little flying camera platform.  This thing folds down to about the size of a quart-size water bottle, weighs only 2 lbs with a battery and flies for about 25 minutes per charge.  It’s got a tiny gimbal-stabilized 4K camera that can capture up to 4096×2160 video.  (The video above is downgraded to 1280×720 but here’s a short snippet of 4K footage.)  The Mavic Pro has lots of sophisticated smarts on board too: automatic return to home, obstacle avoidance, vision positioning system, object tracking/following/circling, etc.  It maintains a live high definition feed to your phone/controller wth a range of over 4 miles, though FAA rules require that you maintain visual line-of-sight and stay below 400 ft from ground level at all times.  (Also, drones and other remote-controlled aircraft cannot be used in national parks, wilderness areas, ski resorts, around crowds or events, etc. without special permission.)

The Mavic Pro is very fun and easy to fly and it’s amazing how clear and stable the video footage is, even enough to use it as a flying tripod or do time-lapse photography.  Best of all it folds down so nicely to fit easily into a small backpack or carrying case.  It’ll be fun to bring this along on some hiking and biking trips.

Here’s some additional footage – the first from nearby Wilder Ranch State Park, including trying out the Mavic’s “Active Track” flight mode and the second from just north of Pescadero Beach while looking for whales:

Wilder Ranch (50 seconds, 59 MB)

Near Pescadero (85 seconds, 110 MB)

Here’s DJI’s related SkyPixel site where you can see sample drone photography.  Here’s one of many reviews about DJI’s Mavic Pro, if you’re interested in more detail.  I’d recommend buying DJI’s “Fly More Combo Pack” which includes the Mavic Pro but also two extra batteries, two extra propellers, the four-battery charging hub, a car charger cord, an adapter for charging your phone or other USB device from a battery pack and the DJI  carrying case/shoulder bag.  You’ll also likely want to get a lens shade as the Mavic’s camera tends to easily catch sunlight even when not pointed at the sun.  This one works well, while this one is too fragile and breaks easily just mounting it.

And one more bit of footage – sneaking up on Darlene’s family while they were here visiting:

Drone Attack! (60 seconds, 22 MB)

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Maker Faire 2016

A bit of video from this year’s Bay Area Maker Faire:

Video montage of the 2016 Bay Area Maker Faire (5:35 minutes, 114 MB)

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Riding the Segway

While visiting with Darlene’s family in Wisconsin/Minnesota, we went for a Segway ride and tour in La Crosse this past Sunday with Shel, Dan, Kathy and Shelly.  It was my first time trying one and it was a lot of fun.  The handling is very intuitive and responsive – to the point of being a little addictive!  If you have yet to try one, look for a tour or rental in your area (like La Crosse Segway Tours) – it’s definitely worth it!

Click through for the full gallery of pics and video:

  

A short, 75-second video montage from our Segway ride in La Crosse, WI.

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“Have you played Atari today?”

A little while ago, after reading “Ready Player One” again (Spielberg is making a movie!) and after seeing a couple of tech talks by old Atari game programmers, I was lamenting that I sold my old Atari VCS so many years ago.  Well, Darlene jumped on this comment, found a bundle someone was selling on eBay and surprised me with an early birthday gift.  Yup, an old Atari VCS/2600 (four switch version), a set of controllers and a bundle of game cartridges. Sweet!  (I think my brother and I actually had the six-switch, Sears-rebranded version, but still very cool!) Thanks, Darlene!

I immediately had to go fill out the set of 40 cartridges with a couple of other games I remember us playing a lot.  Of course then was the challenge of hooking it up: the Atari outputs an analog RF TV signal… on an RCA-plug cable.  Okay, can use an adapter to go RCA to coax-TV cable but tough to find any analog TV tuners these days except in old TV’s and VCR’s.  But then, rather than pulling a VCR out of a box in a closet, I hooked it up via my old USB EyeTV tuner/video converter to my MacBook – success!

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Yeah, you can play any of these games via emulation on a modern computer, or even a smartphone/iPad, but there’s something very different about jamming the physical cartridge into the old physical console and handling that classic Atari joystick.  (And having to use cotton swabs and alcohol to clean the contacts on all of the Activision cartridges to get them to work again!)

It’s been fun to pick these up and rediscover old visual/procedural memories, like the admittedly-simple path through the Adventure maze.  Some titles are only vaguely familiar until you plug them in and see the game again and then go “aha!!”

So… to paraphrase Atari’s old marketing… have you played your Atari today?

to_be_continued

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Collapsible Convertible Kayak

We got to try out my new gear earlier this week: a collapsible, convertible kayak from Advanced Elements.  It’s the AdvancedFrame Convertible model and it’s an inflatable 15 ft. kayak that converts from single to double and from open to closed deck.  Most importantly, it fits in your trunk!  No need to haul it on top of your vehicle (or in a trailer) to your destination!  It packs down into a bag 36″ by 21″ by 11″ and 56 lbs.  I’m particularly psyched about the idea of bringing it on road trips, like to the Sierras, and having it available as an option to pull out whenever or wherever we might choose.

This is an inflatable kayak with aluminum structural elements in the bow and stern and it’s very quick and easy to set up or take down. (Like 15 minutes or less.)  It’s designed with a tough outer skin around an inflatable frame consisting of two inner chambers and has a couple of rigid fins and a skegg to help it track a straight line well.  There are a number of optional extras to customize it, including single and double closed deck tops.

Darlene and I tried it out this Tuesday at the Elkhorn Slough, launching from Kirby Park.  We set it up in open deck form and tried out the optional, high pressure drop stitch floor which provides more rigidity than the standard floor.  There’s also an optional, aluminum “Back Bone” pole that can be placed under the standard floor that gives the kayak a more pronounced V shape underwater.  We’ll be trying that configuration later.

It performed great.  It felt very stable, moved quickly and tracked straight lines easily.  It felt very much like a normal sit inside sea kayak.  There’s plenty of room for the two of us plus some gear.  (And I’m 6’4″, 195 lbs.)

After Darlene finished her meeting (calling in while we were out on the water), we tried out the sail attachment.  This particular sail is from Advanced Elements as well and is designed to clip into the front buckles on the kayak and hold its form without intervention, leaving your hands free to paddle.  This worked well and the big transparent panels on the sail made it still easy to see where we were going:

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And, of course the big advantage is being able to quickly collapse the whole thing down and tuck it into a small space in your vehicle… with or without the help of passing pelicans:

I took it out again the next day, but this time I configured it for one person, placing the seat in the middle space and installing the optional covered deck.  (There’s also a covered deck for the two person configuration.)  The single person deck has a hatch behind the seat to provide access to storage area and both the single and double decks have inflatable rims that allow you to attach a spray skirt.

 

The kayak still handled very well with just one person.  Next time though I’ll be using the optional, adjustable foot rests.  This wasn’t necessary in the two person configuration, at least for me in the back, because of the inflatable thwart behind the front seat position.

So there it is, the AdvancedFrame Convertible, providing a compact one or two person kayak tucked into the trunk of your car!  If you’re looking for more reviews, take a look at paddling.net or Amazon.  Check out AirKayaks.com if you’re interested because they provide some nice bundle deals and make the extra effort to provide nice demonstration videos on many of the products they sell.

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It looks like Pan and Hera might want to join me on my next excursion in the kayak:

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Robot in the House

For years I’ve dismissed those little semi-autonomous, robotic sucking machines.  It sounded like they weren’t really worth the trouble since they couldn’t really run for very long, pick up much debris in their tiny compartments, deal with furniture without missing spots or getting stuck or trapped. With all the need to supervise, it sounded easier and quicker to do it yourself.  But then recently I stumbled on a review of a new model and was intrigued by the improvements and the possibility of a little machine to help keep up on all that cat hair my two furry friends are always producing.

 A fun video showing my new little helper in action (1.5 minutes, 24 MB)

It’s the BotVac 80/85 from Neato.  Unlike its more well-known competitor (iRobot Roomba), this robotic vacuum cleaner does not just follow a random walk around the room, bumping haphazardly from one obstacle to the next.  The BotVac uses laser sensors to map out the shape of each room and build up a floor plan as it goes about its business.  When it encounters obstacles like tables and chairs, it will actually work to navigate around each leg, vacuuming under and around as much as it can.  It’s pretty amazing (and mesmerizing) to watch it navigate around the house, room after room, following its little internal rule sets to deal with various obstacles as they come up.

  • When the BotVac gets low on charge, it will actually backtrack through the map it built to return to its charging base and dock itself for recharging, even off in another room.  And when it has finished recharging it will return by itself to where it left off and continue the job!
  • It’s got touch sensors in front to help it maneuver tightly to objects and walls.
  • It has a sensor underneath to keep it from running off a cliff (or stairs).
  • It comes with some magnetic strips that you can lay down on the floor to cordon off rooms or areas that you don’t want it to intrude on.  (It’s much simpler than the battery-operated “fence” posts that the iRobot apparently uses.)
  • It has a little edge-cleaning brush on the right side.  (Thus it will always approach walls and make its rounds in a right-handed path.)
  • It’s squared off in front so that it can get into corners much better than fully round designs like the Roomba.
  • It has a larger-than-typical dust bin and it’s very easy to remove and empty out – without even having to turn over the unit.  It makes sense to also vacuum out the dust filter though.
  • You can set a schedule for when it should run but this doesn’t seem practical to me as I would first want to clear stuff off the floor and make sure there aren’t any cat messes that it would get into – and make worse.  (Hera often has stomach issues.)

It’s not quite a replacement for a full-size vacuum cleaner but it certainly does an amazing job considering that you can just start it up and let it go while you go about doing other things.  (You also do need a normal vacuum cleaner to clear out its filter.)  It’s pretty cool though to come back and find everything freshly vacuumed!  And it’s not really that loud (certainly much less than a full size vacuum) and it’s not too annoying to have it going about it’s business while you do other things.

One limitation with the BotVac is that at about four inches tall, it can’t fit under some furniture, particularly couches.  (The Roomba design has a lower profile and can fit under more furniture.)  Also, the BotVac can get itself stuck at times and need help.  This happens sometimes with furniture that offers just enough clearance for it to partially slip under but not quite enough for it to fit entirely under.  Often this goes fine and it will just work its way around, but other times it’ll get itself wedged in and need to be pulled out.  When it does get stuck or trapped, it will cut power to its vacuum and call for help by chiming.  It’ll then sit and wait quietly for a while before chiming now and again.

Here’s a much more mixed review of the BotVac that comes out in favor of the Roomba.  Some more reviews: BotVac 85 vs. Roomba 880 (favors the BotVac) and iRobot Roomba vs Neato Botvac (favors neither).

Note that the BotVac 85 is really just the same model as the 80 but it comes with two extra filters included.   (This wasn’t obvious to me.)  Both the 80 and 85 come with the two different brush types.

Now… what should I name him?

UPDATE (1/28/2015): The BotVac is still running but I have seen more of its deficiencies.  One thing that happens is that it essentially becomes a little senile with a low battery charge: it often has become unable to find its way back to its charge station with its battery runs low.  It will repeatedly and aimlessly search a small area (a couple of square feet) and after a long while finally give up and call for help – this without any obstacles in the way.  My guess is that it lets the voltage level drop too far on the battery now and is unable to sufficiently power its electronics and sensors.  At first it only happened occasionally, then it started happening almost every time.  But then, more recently (April 2015), it’s been working properly again! Weird. Anyway, when it does “go senile”, I have to pick it up and manually dock it at its charge station.  (If I let it continue its search for the dock right in front of it, it will just wander off again.)

The other issue (and this is more annoying) is that its methodical method of covering a room means that it will get into try over and over again (unsuccessfully) to reach some particularly difficult spot (due to furniture) and waste a lot of its battery charge or even eventually get itself wedged in or otherwise stuck.  Bringing it back out again will often lead to it just finding its way right back into that spot.  I’ve since got into the habit of leaving some strategically placed pillows or other items to prevent it from getting into those spots.  This is where I imagine the Roomba might do better with its random walk pattern: it probably won’t get stuck obsessively trying to reach the same spot.

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, the biggest problem with the BotVac is the little laser assembly sticks up in the center of the unit. This protrusion isn’t accounted for when the unit tries to go under some furniture so it can end up wasting energy trying over and over to get under some furniture or even getting wedged under such furniture.

However, the BotVac does still do a good vacuuming job and it’s great to be able to set it off running while you take care of other things.

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Pivothead Sunglasses Camera

I’ve been trying out a new pair of sunglasses with a built-in video/photo camera, the Pivothead Recon.  The Recon (actually now called the Kudu) is one of several styles of camera glasses from Pivothead.  The glasses can record video at 1080/30 or 720/60 fps as well as take still photos (up to 8 MB).  They can even capture stills while you’re recording video.  They have interchangeable shades, including the photo-chromatic kind (adjusts to brightness).

The camera functionality works pretty well except that they currently have some issues with their various focus modes.  The continuous focus mode hunts for focus a lot, the fixed focus mode is set to a focus point that’s too close so most of the time everything is very softly focused, but I’m getting the best results with the auto-focus mode which sets a focus when you start recording and holds that for the duration of the recording.

The exposure isn’t always ideal but then it’s pretty amazing that they can cram all this functionality in a sunglasses frame (rather than having a bulky camera mounted on your helmet).  Another issue though is that the little LED lights on the inside of the frame aren’t really visible while you’re wearing them so you have to pull them half off to verify that they’re on and/or recording.  Given that a) you can’t start recording until a couple of seconds after you hit the power button and b) they automatically shut off when idle after 30 seconds or so, it’s easy to think you’ve started recording, when you haven’t.  (This keeps happening to me.)  It would be better if the little rocker switch to start/stop a video or take a photo would actually power them up, rather than having a separate power toggle button.

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Trying out the Pivothead Recon Sunglasses/Camera

The glasses aren’t very adjustable for different faces.  Mine tend to sit high on my nose and the camera points up a little high but this ends up working out to a good angle for mountain biking.  Yes, that picture was taken using the glasses, but I titled my head down (and still heavily cropped it to frame it well).  Without doing that, the center of the shot would actually be well above my head.  But as I say, that has to do with individual fit and it works out fine for me while on a bike.

The Pivothead charges via USB and you can get a combination external battery pack and WiFi hub (Pivothead Air Sync) that allows you to charge it up and download your shots when you’re out in the field.  It’s also useful as extra power for any USB-chargeable device.

Here’s some sample video showing some of its strengths and weaknesses.  (Also, this video was shot with these glasses as well.)  Both videos have of course been downsized and compressed for web presentation:

 

Note the challenges in dark, high contrast lighting in the trees and how quickly (or slowly) it can adjust to changing lighting.  Obviously it does much better in brightly lit scenes.  Also, it would be awesome to have some optical stabilization but that would be asking a lot at this point, particularly in the frame of a pair of sunglasses.  Really I just hope they can fix the other focus modes and improve the start/stop method.

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“Oh my god, it’s full of stars!”

I’ve looked into telescopes a bit now and again, spurred by some new cool astronomical event but never actually took the plunge until just recently, near the end of 2013, with the approach and subsequent demise of comet ISON.  This time I was committed to doing the research and actually ordering some gear… and, given my love of photography, astrophotographic gear too!  Oh my, what a deep hole I’ve found here… what have I got myself into?!?

Things started out a little rough as my mount arrived in November with a manufacturing defect that I didn’t know enough to figure out immediately and required some back and forth with Celestron’s tech support to narrow down.  Then I had to package it all back up and send it back and wait for a replacement.

But here it is, it’s an 8″ Celestron EdgeHD 800 on an Advanced VX mount – lovely!  (It’s a Schimdt-Cassegrain on a German equatorial mount.)

My Celestron EdgeHD 800 telescope set up on my upstairs deck

I’ve long wanted to get a telescope, as in a real telescope, not that silly cheap thing I got as a kid in the 70’s.  I’ve tinkered on and off with desktop and mobile apps for exploring the night sky, explored a bit with a nice pair of image-stabilized binoculars and attended the occasional star party here and there.  (The one held on the slopes of Mauna Kea was pretty cool!)

And I wanted to take advantage of the somewhat darker skies I now have here in the hills above Santa Cruz – at least darker compared to my old condo in San Jose – that swath of light from Silicon Valley and the Bay Area is at least somewhat shielded by the coastal mountains here.  I’ve got a nice, super-convenient, south-facing deck off of my upstairs master bedroom with an open view of most of the sky (except to the north, beneath the celestial pole).  And once I get a little more experienced, it’ll be fun to pack up the gear and take it to some remote dark locations.

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It’s pretty overwhelming how much there is to learn, particularly when you get into astronomical imaging, but I am certainly enjoying the endeavor.  As such, I’ve decided to put together a little newbie’s guide to backyard astronomy to summarize all the information I’ve been gathering and the choices I’ve been making as to gear and setup:  A Newbie’s Guide to Telescopic Adventures

So here’s a bit of first light through it – imaging a portion of the Orion nebula.  Mind you, I’m just starting to get into this and this is just a newbie’s single, 16-second exposure to catch a bit of color:

Orion Nebula (M42), Nikon D7000, 16 seconds @ ISO 6400, 8″ EdgeHD, .7x reducer lens

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A Newbie’s Guide to Telescopic Adventures

 

Thank goodness for the wealth of easy information sharing on the web.  Would’ve been quite different diving in back in the early 90’s.  Of course the gear has advanced a lot too.  So here I am sharing the experience of jumping in relatively new.  And how foolish for a newbie to write a guide for other newbies?  Well, you’ve been warned – though I’ve long had an interest in astronomy, I’m really only just now getting into this very deep!

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Santa Cruz Blur TRc demo ride

I’ve been happily riding my old Santa Cruz Superlight since I got it way back in 2001.  I’ve never been too interested in keeping up with all the yearly new bike tech and I get pretty bored with all the bike talk at many ride meetups.  (nerp derp berp)  I just like to ride on da trails!  So I had yet to try tubeless or Propedal or dropper seats or any new geometries and shocks.  I didn’t even get around to disc brakes until like 2010 – and I had to get new hubs and wheels to do it.  However, somehow the most recent batch of talk about new bikes among friends and other riders finally got me to go try a demo of something a little more… modern.

With a little bit of research, the Santa Cruz Blur TR Carbon caught my interest and I even managed to find an XL available for demo — not the easiest size to find anywhere!  This is their recent “Trail” version of the Blur introduced last year as something between the Blur XC and Blur LT.  Here’s a great video explanation of why Santa Cruz made this bike.  So I took it out on some very familiar trails in Wilder Ranch yesterday….

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