New techniques teach drones to fly through small holes

Researchers at the University of Maryland are adapting the techniques used by birds and bugs to teach drones how to fly through small holes at high speeds. The drone requires only a few sensing shots to define the opening and lets a larger drone fly through an irregularly shaped hole with no training.

Nitin J. Sanket, Chahat Deep Singh, Kanishka Ganguly, Cornelia Fermüller, and Yiannis Aloimonos created the project, called GapFlyt, to teach drones using only simple, insect-like eyes.

The technique they used, called optical flow, creates a 3D model using a very simple, monocular camera. By marking features in each subsequent picture, the drone can tell the shape and depth of holes based on what changed in each photo. Things closer to the drone move more than things further away, allowing the drone to see the foreground vs. the background.

As you can see in the video below, the researchers have created a very messy environment in which to test their system. The Bebop 2 drone with an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 GPU on board flits around the hole like a bee and then buzzes right through at 2 meters per second, a solid speed. Further, the researchers confused the environment by making the far wall similar to the closer wall, proving that the technique can work in novel and messy situations.

The team at the University of Maryland’s Perception and Robotics Group reported that the drone was 85 percent accurate as it flew through various openings. It’s not quite as fast as Luke skirting Beggar’s Canyon back on Tatooine, but it’s an impressive start.

Unbound makes pleasure fashionable

Unbound founders Polly Rodriguez and Sarah Jayne Kinney have long and varied careers. Rodriguez worked for U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill on Capitol Hill before heading to Deloitte Consulting and dating startup Grouper. Kinney was a graduate of University of Cincinnati worked at Puma and then at Esquire and O, Oprah’s magazine. She worked shooting products for fashion houses in New York.

The duo met in 2014.

Now they make fashion-forward vibrators. Their latest, the Palma, is the most fashion-forward yet and it just launched at TechCrunch Disrupt.

“Unbound is closing the very real orgasm gap by putting knowledge and product in the hands of women all over the world,” said Rodriguez. “Unbound is the first brand taking sexual wellness mainstream through elevated design and accessible pricing.”

The new device masquerades as a ring, offers multiple speeds, and is completely waterproof. It’s made of surgical grade steel and comes in silver or gold. Further, the team plans to add accelerometer features to the device. It will ship in 2019.

The team has raised $3.3 million in seed funding to date and are on track to hit $4 million in revenue in 2018.

They’ve been working on improving the state of the art when it comes to vibrators. They are, it seems, tired of the status quo.

“It’s important to note that vibrators are used in one of the most absorbent parts of the body and not regulated by the FDA. The lack of regulation results in manufacturers using carcinogens in their materials like parabens and phthalates. Unbound only uses medical grade silicone,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez’s message is simple: she wants to destroy the negative stereotypes around sex and health. And she has good reason.

“Each of us is motivated to change the stigmas associated with sexual health for different reasons. For me, it was going through menopause at 21 as a result of radiation treatment for cancer and ending up at a seedy shop on the side of the highway trying to buy lube and a vibrator. My doctors didn’t tell me I was going through menopause, only that I wouldn’t have children. As I got older, I realized that had I been a man, that conversation would have gone very differently… because we view male sexuality has a health need and female sexuality as a vice,” she said. “To put it in perspective, think about the fact that Bob Dole, a former presidential candidate was the spokesperson for Viagra. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton being the spokesperson for a vibrator brand? That’s the difference in how we view male vs. female (cis, femme, non-gender identifying) sexuality.”

“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” she said.

The JBL Eon One Pro is a powered sound system for speakers and performers

As a speaker I often find myself mumbling into a microphone with little thought about the sound system powering it. While most PAs are massive affairs requiring a soundboard operator and lots of wiring, I’ve also had to hoot into portable PAs, a practice I rarely relish. But who was I to judge the quality of a portable PA system? When JBL asked me to review their new $1,299 JBL Eon One Pro I decided to send it to a real professional, my childhood friend Rick Barr, who helped me tag-team on the review.

The most important reason that Rick liked the Eon One Pro was the built-in battery. Everything else, he said, was icing on the cake.

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Rick is a professional musician, performing shows every weekend, and some weeknights, in a wide variety of venues. His go-to PA is the Bose L1 Model II with the B2 bass unit. It’s a beast in terms of sound quality and immersion, doesn’t take up much floor space, and really soars when used in outdoor environments.

We immediately recognized that a smaller, more portable unit could be extremely useful. He had just recently performed at a new outdoor event that wasn’t well-equipped with power and he had to come up with a makeshift solution. It worked, but the idea of being able to “cut the cord” to avoid all that was certainly appealing.

JBL says you can get up to six hours of battery life from the extended-life lithium-ion. In our tests, he was able to make it through three-hour shows without a problem. Charging it is as simple as plugging in the AC cord to the back. So, in short, we were pleased with the battery performance. Still, going cordless is all well and good, but it’s really the sound that matters. So, let’s take a look at what this unit can do.

The Eon One Pro weighs 37.5 pounds, and it’s all very compact. The 8” subwoofer is right up front, and you fit the 118 dB speaker array directly on top. This, and the two optional spacers, fit nicely in the back of the unit. The overall design of the Eon Pro really is nice. The spacers essentially increase the range of the speaker, so their usefulness is really dependent on your environment.

The 7-channel mixer features 2 Hi-Z inputs, 4 combo ¼” / XLR inputs, a 3.5mm jack, and an RCA input. Each of the 4 combo inputs has controls for volume, treble, bass, and reverb. This allows for very basic mixing, but if you prefer to have more options, it is easy enough to plug in an external mixer and run through that. In our tests, we used the on-board controls.

You can also stream from a mobile device via Bluetooth, or connect directly via USB. Rick connected via his cell phone using Bluetooth and found the overall sound to be extremely good. There is also phantom power for condenser mics and an XLR Pass Thru to other systems, as well as RCA output jacks for a monitor.

So, on to the show. The first venue Rick played in was your typical bar, with a medium-sized square room, wood floors, and a decent crowd. He was able to get set up in just 10 minutes, compared to 20 for my Bose. It took some extra time to adjust levels and once he started playing, just a little more tinkering got him where he needed to be. He did notice that he had to turn the volume up for his Sennheiser 935 mic quite a bit in order to match the guitar level, which leads to an interesting omission: lack of level meters. There are none, so you need to rely solely on your ears to get the right mix.

The speaker did a fine job of filling the room, while the subwoofer provided some nice depth to the overall sound. Rick had some friends out who sat just six feet in front of the speaker who said they weren’t overwhelmed by the volume and others will able to hear the music very clearly outside of the room.

The speaker covers 100 x 50 degrees, and while testing this at his shows, Rick stood slightly behind and to the side. This worked well enough, though in a noisy environment, having a monitor speaker might be helpful. He could hear the music pretty well, but it seems you’d want to be at least 90 degrees on either side, if not a little forward.

The second show we took the Eon One out to was another small bar, fairly narrow but long. It was completely different from the other bar in terms of dimensions, and a really good test of how far the speaker could project. Again, folks sitting up front were just fine with the volume, while people in the back, some 50-60 feet away, could hear it as well (and reported that it sounded very nice).

“I’d played at this venue before but this time, the electrical outlet wasn’t working. The girl at the bar didn’t know how to turn it on. This is something that rarely happens, but if I’d had my Bose or any other kind of amp, I would have been hosed. I hadn’t planned on testing the battery again but in this instance, it saved me,” Rick said.

Given that most offices purchase something like this at some point for broadcasting at meetings or meetups it makes sense to get something that works well for a gigging musician. Rick’s requirements – that this thing be reliable and sound great – is in line with the average desk jockey’s and the built in battery can save the day when it comes to situations where power is unavailable.

Robots can develop prejudices just like humans

In a fascinating study by researchers at Cardiff University and MIT, we learn that robots can develop prejudices when working together. The robots, which ran inside a teamwork simulator, expressed prejudice against other robots not on their team. In short, write the researchers, “groups of autonomous machines could demonstrate prejudice by simply identifying, copying and learning this behavior from one another.”

To test the theory, researchers ran a simple game in a simulator. The game involved donating to parties outside or inside the robot’s personal group based on reputation as well as donation strategy. They were able to measure the level of prejudice against outsiders. As the simulation ran, they saw a rise in prejudice against outsiders over time.

The researchers found the prejudice was easy to grow in the simulator, a fact that should give us pause as we give robots more autonomy.

“Our simulations show that prejudice is a powerful force of nature and through evolution, it can easily become incentivised in virtual populations, to the detriment of wider connectivity with others. Protection from prejudicial groups can inadvertently lead to individuals forming further prejudicial groups, resulting in a fractured population. Such widespread prejudice is hard to reverse,” said Cardiff University Professor Roger Whitaker. “It is feasible that autonomous machines with the ability to identify with discrimination and copy others could in future be susceptible to prejudicial phenomena that we see in the human population.”

Interestingly, prejudice fell when there were “more distinct subpopulations being present within a population,” an important consideration in human prejudice as well.

“With a greater number of subpopulations, alliances of non-prejudicial groups can cooperate without being exploited. This also diminishes their status as a minority, reducing the susceptibility to prejudice taking hold. However, this also requires circumstances where agents have a higher disposition towards interacting outside of their group,” Professor Whitaker said.

Skullcandy aims upscale with two new headphones

Skullcandy has always been an odd brand. Aimed at a younger, hipper audience, the headphones always featured wacky graphics and a lower price point. Now, facing competition from multiple players, they’ve decided to step up their game in terms of quality and style.

Their two new models, the noise-cancelling Venue and the bass-heavy Crusher 360, are designed to hit the Bose/B&O/Sony quality point while still maintaining a bit of Beats styling. The Venue are the most interesting of the pair. They are true over-ear noise-cancelling headphones that cost a mere $179 — more than $100 less than Bose’s best offerings.

The Venue’s noise cancellation was excellent, as was the sound quality. The headphones were solidly built and last for two five-hour flights, a first for me when it comes to wireless or wired noise-cancelling headphones. Usually in almost every model I’ve tested I’ve had to charge or change the battery after about eight hours. This is a vast improvement.

As for audio quality, I was quite impressed. Having heard earlier Skullcandy models, I went in expecting tinny sound and muddy bass. I got neither. What I got was a true sound without much modification and very nice noise cancelling. In short, it did exactly what it says on the tin.

One peeve is the size of the headphones and the case. Most headphones can fold up to a smaller package that is unobtrusive when it hangs off your back or sits in your lap. These headphones come in a massive, flat case that is not imminently portable. If you’re used to smaller, thinner cases, this might be a deal breaker. That said, the price and sound are excellent and the Venue is a real step up.

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Then we have the Crusher 360. These are also well-made headphones that collapse into a slightly smaller package than the Venue. They also offer what Skullcandy calls Sensory Bass and 360-degree audio. What that means, in practice, is that these things sound like a bass-lover’s very effusive home theater system on your head.

The Crusher, like the Venue, is wireless and lasts about 30 hours on one charge. They don’t have noise cancelling, but what they do have is a set of haptics inside the ear cups that essentially turn bass events into wildly impressive explosions of sound. You can turn this feature up and down using a capacitive touch control on the side of the headphones and, if you’re like me, you probably will be using that feature multiple times.

How do they work? Well, the bass these things pump out is almost comical. While I don’t want to completely disparage these things — different ears will find them pleasant if not downright cool – the Crushers turn almost everything — from a drama to a bit of dubstep — into a bass-heavy party. I used these on another flight and heard every single bang, boom and bop in the movies I watched and, oddly, I found the added bass response quite nice in regular music. If you like bass you’ll like these. If you don’t, then you’d best stay away.

The headphones cost $299.

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Skullcandy isn’t the audiophile’s choice in headphones. That said, their efforts to improve the brand, product and quality are laudable. I avoided the company for years after a few bad experiences and I’m glad to see them coming back with a new and improved set of cans that truly offer great sound and a nice price. While the Crushers are definitely an acquired taste I could honestly recommend the Venue over any similarly priced noise-cancelling headphones on the market, including Bose’s businessperson specials. These headphones aren’t perfect, but they’re also not bad.

Movado Group acquires watch startup MVMT

The Movado Group, which sells multiple brands, including Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss, has purchased MVMT, a small watch company founded by Jacob Kassan and Kramer LaPlante in 2013. The company, which advertised heavily on Facebook, logged $71 million in revenue in 2017. Movado purchased the company for $100 million.

“The acquisition of MVMT will provide us greater access to millennials and advances our Digital Center of Excellence initiative with the addition of a powerful brand managed by a successful team of highly creative, passionate and talented individuals,” Movado Chief Executive Efraim Grinberg said.

MVMT makes simple watches for the millennial market in the vein of Fossil or Daniel Wellington. However, the company carved out a niche by advertising heavily on social media and being one of the first microbrands with a solid online presence.

“It provides an opportunity to Movado Group’s portfolio as MVMT continues to cross-sell products within its existing portfolio, expand product offerings within its core categories of watches, sunglasses and accessories, and grow its presence in new markets through its direct-to-consumer and wholesale business,” said Grinberg.

MVMT is well-known as a “fashion brand,” namely a brand that sells cheaper quartz watches that are sold on style versus complexity or cost. Their pieces include standard three-handed models and newer quartz chronographs.

Kiiroo launches an adventure in bi-directional teledildonics

In the future everyone will be naked for fifteen minutes. It’s with this novel thought in mind that I connect with a model named Nazanin who will walk me through the new world of bi-directional teledildonic cam life.

I was there to test a new device from Kiiroo called the Kiiroo Launch. This novel sex jar connects with a Flashlight – essentially a masturbator – and can send and receive signals from a remote dildo. When I first explored the Kiiroo system three years ago and found it fascinating although, arguably, it was like having sex with a 3D printer. And so I was ready to work with Nazanin.

This is going to be NSFW by the way.

Bi-directional, you say?

In the world of cam-based teledildonics the models usually wear some sort of vibrator connected to a tipping system. When the viewer tips them the model’s vibrator vibrates, adding a frisson of interactivity to what is usually a one-way street. This became the norm for most cam sites and the Lush from Lovense is a popular choice in the current cam world.

What Kiiro has done is add that level of interactivity to its offerings. The Launch, for example, can send sensations to other devices including the OhMiBod, the We-Vibe, and the Kiiroo Pearl. You can either vibrate any of these things with tips or, in some cases, send signals from the Launch to the vibrator which sort of mimic your movements in real time.

Cam site Flirt4Free is the first site to enable this functionality and was also one of the first to enable Kiiroo in general, allowing models to send sensations to viewers using a robotic sex jar.

I told you this would be NSFW.

Sex jar, you say?

The experience, for the most part, was quite pleasant. The Launch is an excellent device – Engadget loved it – and it is far superior to the original Kiiroo Onyx I reviewed a few years ago. The Launch is a massive thing that holds an entirely separate sex toy inside it and it literally looks like a giant black egg sack.


I connected with the model using an app called Feel Connect that uses QR codes to link two phones or devices. In this case I linked to Nazanin’s room directly during a private session. Private sessions on Flirt4Free are paid in credits and you get 1050 credits for $100. Each model sets up their own pricing system – 40 credits per minute, for example – and once you’re in private you can talk, flirt, and show each other your bits.

In this case we were testing a device for science so Nazanin and I began a mating dance involving the swapping of QR codes and the preparation of various robotic attachments. The game proceeded apace with my signals reaching her and hers reaching me and I found myself asking fewer and fewer journalistic questions as the interview continued. She said she liked the feelings I was sending and I enjoyed the feelings she sent. It was, in the end, like a Slack room but naked.

“Up until now, performers have been using ‘read-only’ interactive devices, which react to the wildly popular tip-by-sound functionality,” said Flirt4Free President Greg Clayman.
“With compatible devices, clients can now play with their device, causing the model’s device to react- and the model can also control their device, resulting in the most realistic, mind-blowing experience ever!”

Ultimately I suspect most of us will have something like this in the home. Given the prevalence of masturbation in the human mammal and our lifelong dedication to technology, I can imagine this being just another way for all of us to get off. While it’s not perfect – my battery went dead during the session – nothing really is and I suspect the camaraderie and hearty hail-fellow-well-met nature of video sex will make a few converts over the next few years.

Ultimately tech touches everything. The fact that I’m able to send a message – be it an email or a vibration – around the world is fascinating. And as tech enters our lives more and more completely tools like the Launch will become commonplace. We trade a lot for this evolution of pleasure, to be sure, but we gain much as well. Nazanin said she liked it too, which was nice.

I told you this was going to be NSFW, didn’t I?

‘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 to 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.

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.

New material design stores energy like an eagle

Auxetics are materials that store energy internally rather than bulging out. In this way they can store more energy when squeezed or struck and disperse it more regularly. Historically, however, these materials have had sharp corners that could break easily with enough pressure. Now researchers at Queen Mary University of London and University of Cambridge have discovered a way to use auxetics in a more efficient and less fragile way. In this way you can create systems that store energy and release it mechanically multiple thousands of times.

“The exciting future of new materials designs is that they can start replacing devices and robots. All the smart functionality is embedded in the material, for example the repeated ability to latch onto objects the way eagles latch onto prey, and keep a vice-like grip without spending any more force or effort,” said Queen Marry University’s Dr. Stoyan Smoukov. For example, a robot using this system can close it’s hand over and object and keep it closed until its time to let go. There is no need to continue sending power to the claw or hand until it is time to open up and drop the object.

“A major problem for materials exposed to harsh conditions, such as high temperature, is their expansion. A material could now be designed so its expansion properties continuously vary to match a gradient of temperature farther and closer to a heat source. This way, it will be able to adjust itself naturally to repeated and severe changes,” said Eesha Khare, an undergrad who worked on the project.

The project used 3D printing to make small clips that grab a toothed actuator. To release the energy, you pull on the opposite sides of the object to release the teeth. While the entire thing looks quite simple the fact that this object stores energy without bulging is important. The same technology can be used to “grab” bullets as they strike armor, resulting in better durability.