Knitting machines power up with computer-generated patterns for 3D shapes

At last, a use for that industrial knitting machine you bought at a yard sale! Carnegie Mellon researchers have created a method that generates knitting patterns for arbitrary 3D shapes, opening the possibility of “on-demand knitting.” Think 3D printing, but softer.

The idea is actually quite compelling for those of us who are picky about their knitwear. How often have we picked up a knit cap, glove, or scarf only to find it too long, too short, too tight, too loose, etc?

If you fed your sartorial requirements (a 3D mesh) into this system from James McCann and students at CMU’s Textiles Lab, it could quickly spit out a pattern that a knitting machine could follow easily yet is perfectly suited for your purposes.

This has to be done carefully — the machines aren’t the same as human knitters, obviously, and a poorly configured pattern might lead to yarn breaking or jamming the machine. But it’s a lot better than having to build that pattern purl by purl.

With a little more work, “Knitting machines could become as easy to use as 3D printers,” McCann said in a CMU news release.

Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll have one of your own. But maker spaces and designer ateliers (I believe that’s the term) will be more likely to if it’s this easy to create new and perfectly sized garments with them.

McCann and his team will be presenting their research at SIGGRAPH this summer.

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Chinese police foil drone-flying phone smugglers at Hong Kong border

Dozens of high-tech phone smugglers have been apprehended by Chinese police, who twigged to the scheme to send refurbished iPhones into the country from Hong Kong via drone — but not the way you might think.

China’s Legal Daily reported the news (and Reuters noted shortly after) following a police press conference; it’s apparently the first cross-border drone-based smuggling case, so likely of considerable interest.

Although the methods used by the smugglers aren’t described, a picture emerges from the details. Critically, in addition to the drones themselves, which look like DJI models with dark coverings, police collected some long wires — more than 600 feet long.

Small packages of 10 or so phones were sent one at a time, and it only took “seconds” to get them over the border. That pretty much rules out flying the drone up and over the border repeatedly — leaving aside that landing a drone in pitch darkness on the other side of a border fence (or across a body of water) would be difficult to do once or twice, let alone dozens of times, the method is also inefficient and risky.

But really, the phones only need to clear the border obstacle. So here’s what you do:

Send the drone over once with all cable attached. Confederates on the other side attach the cable to a fixed point, say 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Drone flies back unraveling the cable, and lands some distance onto the Hong Kong side. Smugglers attach a package of 10 phones to the cable with a carabiner, and the drone flies straight up. When the cable reaches a certain tension, the package slides down the cable, clearing the fence. The drone descends, and you repeat.

I’ve created a highly professional diagram to illustrate this technique (feel free to reuse):

It’s not 100 percent to scale. The far side might have to be high enough that the cable doesn’t rest on the fence, if there is one, or not to drag in the water if that’s the case. Not sure about that part.

Anyway, it’s quite smart. You get horizontal transport basically for free, and the drone only has to do what it does best: go straight up. Two wires were found, and the police said up to 15,000 phones might be sent across in a night. Assuming 10 phones per trip, and say 20 seconds per flight, that works out to 1,800 phones per hour per drone, which sounds about right. Probably this kind of thing is underway at more than a few places around the world.

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The SteelSeries Arctis Pro lineup is a new high-water mark in comfort and quality

SteelSeries has two new Arctis Pro gaming headsets out, and they pack a lot of tech and versatility into a comfortable, visually attractive package. The SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless and Arctis Pro + GameDAC are both incredibly capable headsets that deliver terrific sound, and depending on your system needs, should probably be your first choice when looking for new gaming audio gear.

The Arctis Pro Wireless is, true to its name, wire-free, but also promises lossless 2.4GHz transmission to ensure lag-free audio, too – a must for competitive gaming. The combination of the wireless functionality, the long-wearing comfort of the suspension system headband and the included transmitter base that can hold and charge a swappable battery as well as display all key information on an OLED readout makes this a standout choice.

There are some limitations, however – compatibility is limited to either PS4 or PC for this one, for instance. The wired Arctis Pro (without GameDAC) is compatible with the Xbox One, but both the wireless version and the version that connected to the wired DAC will only work with either Sony’s latest consoles or with a Windows or Mac-based gaming PC.

I’m a bit saddened by that since I’m a big fan of PUBG on Xbox, and also lately of Sea of Thieves, but I also do regularly play PS4 and PC games, and the Arctis Pro Wireless is my weapon of choice now when using either, either for multiplayer or single player games. The wearability and sound quality (which includes DTS X 7.1 surround on PC) is so good that I’ll often opt to use them in place of my actual 5.1 physical surround system, even when I don’t need to chat with anyone.

Other options, like the Turtle Beach Elite Pro Tournament Headset, offer different advantages including more easily accessible fine-tune control over soundscape, balance of chat and game audio and other features, but the SteelSeries offers a less complicated out-of-box experience, and better all-day wearability thanks to taking cues from athletic wear for its materials and design.

The GameDAC option additionally has Hi-Res Audio certificate, which is good if you’re looking to stream FLAC files or high-res audio from services like Tidal. The DAC itself also makes all audio sound better overall, and gives you more equalization options from the physical controller .

The main thing to consider with the Arctis Pro + DAC ($249.99) and the Arctis Pro Wireless ($329.99) is the cost. They’re both quite expensive relative to the overall SteelSeries lineup and those of competitors, too. But in this case, cost really is reflective of quality – channel separation and surround virtualization is excellent on these headsets, and the mic sounds great to other players I talked to as well. Plus, the Pro Wireless can connect to both Bluetooth and the 2.4GHz transmitter simultaneously, so you can use it with your phone as well as your console, and the retractable mic keeps things looking fairly stylish, too.

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MacOS finally gains external GPU support

The latest update to macOS provides support for external graphics card. Apple announced this would hit the OS last June at WWDC and now it’s finally here. The update allows Mac users to increase the graphical processing power through an external graphics card connected through Thunderbolt 3.

Perviously users had to buy an eGPU dev kit from Apple or employ unofficial means to enable external graphics cards, which meant Apple wouldn’t bail them out if something happened. The additional horsepower isn’t needed for general use, but the added graphics cards supercharge Macs for VR rendering and gaming. Only a handful of eGPUs are compatible with macOS so choose carefully before adding one to your rig.

The feature comes from the High Sierra 10.13.4 Combo Update which also adds Business Chat in Messages, a new iTunes and a super handy feature to Safari in which users can jump to the right-most open tab by using Command+9.

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University of Michigan opens up its M-Air UAV testing facility to students

Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.

It may not look like much to the untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.

Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals and, of course, containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.

M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.

We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”

And because it’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.

“With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control — and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions,” said U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.

I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.

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FCC approves SpaceX plan for 4,425-satellite broadband network

SpaceX has a green light from the FCC to launch a network of thousands of satellites blanketing the globe with broadband. And you won’t have too long to wait — on a cosmic scale, anyway. Part of the agreement is that SpaceX launch half of its proposed satellites within six years.

The approval of SpaceX’s application was not seriously in doubt after last month’s memo from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was excited at the prospect of the first U.S.-based company being authorized to launch a constellation like this.

“I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans,” he wrote at the time. He really is pushing that “digital divide” thing. Not that Elon Musk disagrees:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell echoed the sentiment in a statement provided to TechCrunch:

We appreciate the FCC’s thorough review and approval of SpaceX’s constellation license. Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking, this is an important step toward SpaceX building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected.

The proposed service, which will be called Starlink, was opposed by several existing satellite operators like OneWeb and Spire. They’re rightly concerned that another operator in space — especially one that wants to launch thousands of satellites — will crowd both spectrum and orbit.

Illustration of SpaceX satellite coverage from the FCC application

OneWeb, for example, said that SpaceX satellites shouldn’t be allowed to be deployed within 125 kilometers of altitude of its own. You do want to avoid interference, but really, it’s too much to ask for a 150-mile buffer zone around your gear.

One objection that did carry water, however, was the request for an extensive orbital debris mitigation plan.

The unprecedented number of satellites proposed by SpaceX and the other [non-geostationary orbit fixed-satellite service] systems in this processing round will necessitate a further assessment of the appropriate reliability standards of these spacecraft, as well as the reliability of these systems’ methods for deorbiting the spacecraft.

So SpaceX will have to provide more studies on this by the time it finalizes its designs and starts launching.

And that will have to be fairly soon. To move things along, the FCC requires SpaceX to get underway in a hurry or else, presumably, it will have to be reauthorized:

SpaceX must launch 50 percent of the maximum number of proposed space stations, place them in the assigned orbits, and operate them in accordance with the station authorization no later than March 29, 2024.

The company has already launched test versions of the satellites, but the full constellation will need to go out more than two at a time. SpaceX eventually plans to launch 12,000 of the things, but this authorization is for the high-altitude group of 4,425; a separate authorization is necessary for the remaining number, since they’ll be operating at a different altitude and radio frequency.

The Falcon 9 carrying SpaceX’s test Starlink satellites launches on February 22

Commissioner Rosenworcel, in a separate statement, also called for a general revisiting of regulations around commercial space.

“This rush to develop new space opportunities requires new rules,” she writes. “Despite the revolutionary activity in our atmosphere, the regulatory frameworks we rely on to shape these efforts are dated. Across the board, we need to prepare for the proliferation of satellites in our higher altitudes. In short, we have work to do.”

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Apple releases iOS 11.3 with new Animojis

Apple just released an iOS update for your iPhone and iPad. 11.3 introduces a ton of bug fixes but also a bunch of new features. If you forgot about Animjois, today is your lucky day as Apple is adding four new Animojis — a dragon, a bear, a lion and a skull.

But that’s not all. Apple already shared a preview of iOS 11.3 a couple of months ago. There’s a big ARKit update to ARKit 1.5. It can recognize more objects and surfaces.

And iOS 11.3 is also the battery update we’ve all been waiting for. There’s some new info in the settings about the status of your battery. It tells you the overall capacity and if it’s time to change your battery.

You can also choose to disable Apple’s controversial decision to throttle performance with old batteries. Apple says it’s a beta feature for now.

Apple is also introducing a new feature in the Health app. You can now centralize all your health records in the app. It’s only limited to a handful of clinics for now.

Apple is adding customer support conversations to Messages. You can initiate a conversation with a business to order something, book a table and more. Discover, Hilton, Lowe’s and Wells Fargo are already on board. Health Records and Business Chats are only available in the U.S. as a beta for now.

You’ll also see a new privacy icon across the operating system. A new website to export all your data is coming in May as well. Apple needs to add those features to comply with GDPR.

Finally, Apple Music is getting a new video clips section, the App Store Updates tab now shows you the size of each update and more tiny little things. And if you care about security, it’s always a good thing to update to the latest version of iOS. Unfortunately, iOS 11.3 still doesn’t include iMessage in iCloud.

Back up your iPhone or iPad to iCloud or your computer using iTunes before updating. You can then head over to the Settings app, then ‘General’, then ‘Software Update’. macOS, watchOS and tvOS updates are also available today.

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Festo’s latest bio-inspired creations are a robo-bat and rolling robo-spider

Festo’s flashy biomimetic robots are more or less glorified tech demos, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t cool. The engineering is still something to behold, although these robot critters likely won’t be doing any serious work. Its latest units move in imitation of two unusual animals: a tumbling spider and a flying fox (think big bat).

The BionicWheelBot, when walking, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before: hexapodal locomotion has been achieved by countless roboticists — one recent project even attempted to capture the spontaneity of an insect’s gait.

But its next trick is new, at least if you haven’t watched the Star Wars prequels. It uses the legs on each side to form a wheel and propels itself with the last pair. Useful for getting downhill or blowing in the wind, as some spiders and insects in fact do.

It looks as if it can get going quite fast, and although it seems to me it would be in a fix if knocked over, it had no problem dropping off the end of the table and rolling on in the Festo video.

The other robo-critter is the BionicFlyingFox, modeled on the enormous fruit bats bearing that name. Like all flying creatures there is a great emphasis on lightness and simplicity, allowing this robot (like its distant forebear, Festo’s bird) to flap around realistically and stay aloft for a time.

In imitation of the strong but light and flexible membrane that forms flying mammals’ wings, the Festo bot uses a modified elastane material (sort of a super-Spandex) that’s airtight and won’t crease or rip.

If you’re lucky, you might see one of these majestic robeasts demonstrated at a robotics conference one day.

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We go butt-on with the Blix Komfort Prima electric bike

Blix is a new European ebike brand that melds high style, faux leather, and a really nice electric drive train to create a $2,500 ebike that might be too pricey for some but hits most of the buttons when it comes to a fully augmented bike ride. The bike, called the Blix Komfort Prima, runs about 60 miles per charge on Eco mode and essentially adds small boost to your regular pedaling. It includes disc brakes as well as front and rear lights and when you amp it up to High power mode you can really fly at about 20mph.

I rode this bike around Brooklyn including on a 10 mile trek on the city streets and the ride was surprisingly pleasant. The Komfort Prima uses the Shimano Step system to add a boost to your regular peddling, thereby allowing you to take hills with ease and get a little help on straightaways. In fact, the Step system is almost undetectable in Eco mode but it still goes a long way to making your ride more comfortable.

I like the styling of the bike and the high quality accessories. I also like the Step’s removable battery pack – a huge improvement over previous ebikes I’ve ridden. What I don’t love is the price but at $2,500 for a slick, smooth ride you’re on par with similar offerings from Yamaha and Raleigh. The space is changing quickly and it’s nice to see smaller players introducing high style, quality bikes at prices on par with bigger competitors.

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Build your own PC inside the PC you built with PC Building Simulator

Considering we’ve got simulators for everything from driving a junker (x2) to moving into a neighborhood with a bunch of hot dads in it, I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone made a game where you assemble your own PC. It’s called PC Building Simulator, as you might guess, and it looks fabulous.

I’ve built all my PCs over the years, including my current one, which I really should have waited on, since the early Skylake mobos were apparently trash. I’m sure we can line up the screw holes better than that, MSI!

What was I talking about? Oh yes, the simulator. This is no joke game: it uses real, licensed parts from major manufacturers, which are (or will be) simulated down to their power draws, pins, draw counts and so on. So if you pick a power supply without enough molex connectors to handle your SLI rig and PCIe solid state system drive (or whatever), it won’t start. Or if you try to close the ultra-slim case with an 8-inch-tall heatsink on your overclocked CPU, it’ll just clank. (Some of these features are still in development.)

Add LEDs inside the case, replace the side panel with acrylic (no!), try out a few cooling solutions… the possibilities are endless. Especially since manufacturers like Corsair, AMD and so on seem hot to add perfectly modeled virtual versions of their components to the selection.

There’s even a “game” aspect where you can start your own PC repair business — someone sends you a machine that won’t boot, or shuts down randomly, and you get to figure out why that is. Run a virus scan, reseat the RAM, all that. Damn, this sounds just like my actual life.

Seriously though, this is great — it might help more people get over the idea that building a PC is difficult. I mean, it is, but at least here you can go through the motions so it isn’t a total mystery when you give it a shot.

The best part is that this game is made by a teenager who put together the original as a lark (it’s free on itch.io) and attracted so much attention that it’s been blown up into a full-blown game. Well, an Early Access title, anyway.

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