Glowforge opens public orders for its desktop 3D laser cutter

Hardware startup Glowforge, which makes a desktop laser cutter and engraver for home or office use, has finally opened up sales to the general public.

The maker-targeted device, which can ‘print’ (read: engrave/laser cut) a variety of materials including leather, wood, acrylic, glass, and even the metal surface of a Macbook, starts at $2,495 for the entry level machine, rising to a full $5,995 for the pro model — which is billed as faster, able to print larger items, and capable of running for longer periods.

With a starter price-tag of $2.5k Glowforge is clearly not for everyone. Though arguably it does offer more creative bang for your buck than, say, the equally expensive Skydio face-tracking selfie drone. But horses for courses, and all that.

The Seattle-based startup has also topped up with $10M more in VC funding, according GeekWire, from existing investors True Ventures and Foundry Group — who also backed its $22M Series B, in mid 2016, and an earlier $9M Series A.

Glowforge has raised just over $60M at this point, according to Crunchbase, including pulling in almost $30M in pre-sales via a crowdfunding campaign back in 2015. We first covered the hardware startup ahead of that, when it announced its Series A.

Safe to say, it’s been a long journey to turn the founders’ novel idea and prototype into a market-ready and robust laser cutter — and get that into all its backers’ hands.

It’s also clearly been a frustrating process at times. But Glowforge now at least appears confident it can fulfill orders in a timely fashion — it’s offering a May 3 shipping date to new buyers (within the US).

That said, it does not look like all original backers have had their device shipped though.

According to founder Dan Shapiro’s comments to GeekWire, there are some backers who still haven’t got their device — for a few different reasons. “There’s some folks who haven’t replied, asked us not to send it yet, or live in a country that’s awaiting regulatory approval,” he told it.

A quasi-optional air filter component for the Glowforge — which costs an additional $995 — also isn’t shipping until November. (A note on the website says the machine can be used without it, though in that case it warns the placement of the machine “needs a window or 4″ dryer hose”.)

 

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Apple is offering free battery replacement for some MacBook Pro units

Apple is offering free battery replacements for some 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) laptops that may have a faulty component.

The company announced recently that a limited number of these devices have a component that may fail, which would cause the original built-in battery to expand. While Apple says this isn’t a safety issue, it wants to solve the problem as quickly as possible with free battery replacements.

The models that might be affected were manufactured between October 2016 and October 2017.

Think your MacBook Pro might be eligible?

Apple has set up a website for the replacement program where users can input their device’s serial number to check for eligibility.

This isn’t the first time Apple has offered a battery replacement. In fact, Apple famously found itself in hot water last year when users learned that the company was slowing down older iPhones in an attempt to save power on older batteries. The company responded by offering $29 battery replacement in iPhones.

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This robot can build your IKEA furniture

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hate building IKEA furniture and madmen. Now, thanks to IkeaBot, the madmen can be replaced.

IkeaBot is a project built at Control Robotics Intelligence (CRI) group at NTU in Singapore. The team began by teaching robots to insert pins and manipulate IKEA parts, then, slowly, they began to figure out how to pit the robots against the furniture. The results, if you’ve ever fought with someone trying to put together a Billy, are heartening.

From Spectrum:

The assembly process from CRI is not quite that autonomous; “although all the steps were automatically planned and controlled, their sequence was hard-coded through a considerable engineering effort.” The researchers mention that they can “envision such a sequence being automatically determined from the assembly manual, through natural-language interaction with a human supervisor or, ultimately, from an image of the chair,” although we feel like they should have a chat with Ross Knepper, whose IkeaBot seemed to do just fine without any of that stuff.

In other words the robots are semi-autonomous but never get frustrated and can use basic heuristics to figure out next steps. The robots can now essentially assemble chairs in about 20 minutes, a feat that I doubt many of us can emulate. You can watch the finished dance here, in all its robotic glory.

The best part? Even robots get frustrated and fling parts around:

I, for one, welcome our IKEA chair manufacturing robotic overlords.

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Don’t just stir; Stircle

Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it.

Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that.

So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for 10 or 15 seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop.

Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There.

Once you put your cup on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener.

The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass.

But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put it in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis.

Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though.

You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.

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Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over Wi-Fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple of bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be sent with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

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SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

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Jaquet Droz is shipping its mechanical signing machine

Watchmaker Jaquet Droz announced its Signing Machine — a mechanical device that will sign your name for you using a series of miniature gears and springs — in 2014. Four years later, the company is ready to ship their miraculous contraption just in time for you to ink the deal you’ve made with Cybereus, lord of the digital underworld.

This exquisitely baroque gadget is essentially a little cartridge full of clockwork. You wind it up, stick a pencil in its tiny retractable claw, and let it go. The gears and levers recreate your signature with a series of flowing strokes generated by the movement of the gears.

Droz, an 18th century watchmaker and automaton manufacturer, was famous for his miraculous contraptions, including a Draughtsman and Writer, two human-shaped robots that could draw and write, along with his beautiful singing birds that used tiny pipes and bellows to recreate birdsong.

The Signing Machine is activated after you enter your four-digit code into the the device, and each unit is individually decorated for the owner.

How much does this bit of titanium jimcrackery cost? It starts at $367,500 and goes up depending on your signature. Too much? Just remember: Making deals with the cryptodemons of the digital underworld isn’t cheap. You’ll need something like this oddly tactical piece of metal to truly widen their hooded, red-shining eyes.

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Amazon’s new ‘Alexa Blueprints’ let anyone create custom Alexa skills and responses

Amazon this morning is introducing “Alexa Blueprints,” a new way for any Alexa owner to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code. The idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like “Who’s the best mom in the world?,” for example.

You could also create a skill that includes helpful information for the babysitter, which could be triggered by the command, “Alexa, open My Sitter,” Amazon suggests.

“Alexa Skill Blueprints is an entirely new way for you to teach Alexa personalized skills just for you and your family,” explained Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in a statement about the launch. “You don’t need experience building skills or coding to get started—my family created our own jokes skill in a matter of minutes, and it’s been a blast to interact with Alexa in a totally new and personal way.”

To build your own skill or custom Alexa response, users will visit the website blueprints.amazon.com and select a template.

At launch, there are over 20 templates across categories like Fun & Games, At Home, Storyteller, and Learning & Knowledge.

The templates are designed so you can just fill in the bits and pieces that make them personalized to your needs. You won’t need to go through a series of complicated steps, and no technical knowledge is required. The templates are even pre-filled and work as is, if you just want to try them out before making your own.

After you’ve filled in your own content, you name it and publish with a click. This makes the skill or response available to all Alexa-enabled devices associated with your own Amazon account. But it’s not available to the public or the Alexa Skills Store.

Families with Echo devices, in particular, seem to be a heavy focus for Alexa Blueprints. Kids have readily taken to Alexa, and today there are nearly 500 public Alexa skills built for kids alone. Families also often have private jokes and bedtime rituals where Alexa could come in – offering to “tell a Dad joke” or “start Anna’s story,” for instance. Plus, Alexa is designed as a home companion – controlling smart devices, playing music, setting timers, and offering information like news and weather, among other things.

But families aren’t the only ones would could take advantage of Alexa Blueprints. College students could use the flash cards custom skill when studying, while a group of friends or roommates could design their own trivia games. And Airbnb owners could set up a skill for their houseguests.

After you’ve created the custom skill, it will be available in the Skills You’ve Made webpage on the Blueprints site. You’ll also be able to enable, disable and delete your skills.

The feature could give Amazon an edge in selling its Echo speakers to consumers, as it’s now the only platform offering this level of customization – Apple’s HomePod is really designed for music lovers, and doesn’t support third-party apps. Google Home also doesn’t offer this type of customization.

All three are competing to be the voice assistant people use in their home, but Alexa so far is leading by a wide margin – it still has roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market.

Alexa Blueprints are available today in the U.S. only.

The full list of Alexa Blueprints available at launch is below:

At Home

  • Custom Q&A: Customize responses to your questions
  • Houseguest: Make your guests feel at home with quick access to important info
  • Babysitter: Help your sitter find things, remember steps and get important info
  • Pet Sitter: Help your pet sitter care for your favorite animal

Fun & Games

  • Family Jokes: Create a list of your favorite jokes for when you need a laugh
  • Trivia: Create your own multiple choice trivia game on any topic
  • Inspirations: Curate a list of your favorite inspirational quotes
  • Family Trivia: Play together and brush up on family history
  • Bachelorette Party: Play to find out how well the bride’s friends know her
  • Birthday Trivia: Play to see who knows the birthday girl or boy best
  • Burns: Roast your friends and family with lighthearted burns
  • Compliments: Flatter your favorites with a list of custom compliments
  • Double Trouble: Find out which couple knows each other best with this customizable game
  • First Letter: Play a game of categories starting with a certain letter

Storyteller

  • Adventure: Write an adventure story where your child is the hero
  • Fairy Tale: Customize an interactive prince and princess-themed tale
  • Sci-Fi: Create an interactive story with a far-out theme
  • Fable: Create a short narrative with a moral of the story

Learning & Knowledge

  • Flash Cards: Study, test yourself, and master any subject by voice
  • Facts: Keep a list of facts on your favorite topic, all in one place
  • Quiz: Challenge yourself and others with a customizable quiz
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Arcade fame turns to infamy as Billy Mitchell’s record-setting Donkey Kong score is invalidated

The record-setting score that settled the Donkey Kong arcade rivalry, made famous by the documentary The King of Kong, has been invalidated by Twin Galaxies, the de facto arbiter of arcade world records. What’s more, Billy Mitchell, the occasionally controversial player who set the scores, has been permanently banned from consideration for future records.

It’s a huge upset that calls into question decades of history. Will other similarly disputed scores get the ax? Are any old-school arcade legends safe?

Before anything, it should be noted that although this sounds like kind of a random niche issue, the classic gaming scene is huge and millions follow it closely and take it very seriously. Breaking a high score on a 30-year-old game or shaving a quarter of a second off a record time can and will be celebrated as if the player has won an Olympic medal. One can never underestimate the size or sincerity of online communities. Cheating is, of course, not tolerated.

With that said, it’s worth considering that Billy Mitchell’s case is unique. He is undoubtedly a highly skilled player and has been setting records since the ’80s. But, as anyone who watched The King of Kong will have learned, he’s also a bit shady and his Donkey Kong acumen is far from established.

The issue is simply that despite having provided tapes of games setting records — including being the first to break a million in Donkey Kong — no one has seen him play like that in person.

That may sound like a red flag, but in the speedrunning and record-setting community, a great deal of practice happens alone, in an empty arcade, or otherwise with no credible witnesses (though Twitch has changed that). You could set a world record while in the zone after getting home from work, but it doesn’t count unless it’s reviewed and accredited by a neutral party. Twin Galaxies is the largest organization performing that duty, and they take it very seriously indeed.

The final score on Mitchell’s disputed tape showing in The King of Kong (the leading 1 is omitted because the digits roll over when you reach a million).

You may remember that at the end of The King of Kong, Mitchell reestablishes his supremacy over plucky local kid Steve Wiebe with a “direct capture” tape of a run scoring 1,047,200 points. There are no witnesses to this game. Shortly after this, he also recorded a 1,050,200 score, also not witnessed. And just a week before being inducted into the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Iowa, he set records in both Donkey Kong (1,062,800) and Donkey Kong 2.

Now here’s where things get dicey (and nerdy).

Jeremy Young, aka Xelnia, put together the official two-part complaint on Twin Galaxies. For one part of it, he mentioned the suspicions some already had regarding the evidence set forth of the last and highest score Mitchell set, in an arcade called Boomers.

As others had already pointed out, not only are the run itself and resulting score not shown in the video, but the referee is among the least reliable, and the timeline is unclear, among other things. Most damning, however, it is clear that when Mitchell’s confederate ostentatiously “swaps out” the Donkey Kong board (so it can be verified elsewhere) for a Donkey Kong Jr. one (which Mitchell supposedly later set a record on), both PCBs were in fact the latter.

Twin Galaxies user Robert.F explained the differences in charming internet forum argot:

to a UN-trained train eye Dk and DKjr look the same and in fact they are vary similar, except for a few noticeable differences…the DK pcb has white text on the pcb and the Dk jr has banana yellow text printed on the board ,, the DK pcb is 1/2 digital and 1/2 Analog sound and there is a adjustment pot on the dk pcb for the Analog sound`s, The Dk Jr board is fully digital and has no Analog sound adjustment pot in the exact same position on the dkjr board, and the 3rd noticeable differences and you will see; it if you review the video carefully Dk has the same ROM socket lay out and the same number of sockets as a Dkjr pcb ,, But DKjr has one of them ROM socket empty ,,,,,,

But these circumstantial issues could be explained as a bit of confusion in the moment, a misspoken word in their excitement, and so on. Fortunately, that wasn’t the extent of the evidence.

As you may know, emulators are a type of application made to run old software (like arcade games) as closely as possible to how it ran on the original hardware. MAME is by far the most complex and perhaps the best-known emulator; this amazing app can emulate everything from Donkey Kong to much more recent games with complex 3D graphics. Of course, MAME runs aren’t accepted for world records — you could easily manipulate the software or even the game data itself. Real arcade hardware is required.

But MAME isn’t perfect; there are tiny differences in how it displays graphics — things you wouldn’t notice unless you were watching a game frame by frame looking for them in particular.

Which is exactly what people started doing with Mitchell’s no-witnesses, only-on-video scores.

It turns out that the original Donkey Kong PCBs had a specific method of rendering a scene during graphics transitions called a “sliding door effect,” distinctive in the pattern of how pixels are updated. Careful inspection of Mitchell’s tapes showed not a sliding door, but instead a distinctive artifact of MAME emulation whereby the frame is rendered in chunks according to how the data is loaded from memory.

You can see the similarity in the GIFs below, provided as evidence by Young.

First is footage of an actual machine taken at 60FPS. Note the diagonal “sliding door” that reveals the scene from the top left downwards:

Next, Mitchell’s 1,050,200 run:

Last, how MAME renders a similar scene:

See how the ladders come in all at once in that pattern, and there’s no sliding door? As you can tell, it’s something of a smoking gun. Certainly Twin Galaxies investigators thought so. In their conclusions, issued today on the forums, they wrote (emphasis theirs):

The taped Donkey Kong score performances of 1,047,200 (the King of Kong “tape”), 1,050,200 (the Mortgage Brokers score) that were historically used by Twin Galaxies to substantiate those scores and place them in the database were not produced by the direct feed output of an original unmodified Donkey Kong Arcade PCB.

They decline to go so far as saying they know it was MAME, but that’s a mere scruple — everyone understands it’s the most likely situation. Regardless, the very fact that Mitchell passed off non-authentic footage as real is more than enough to strike his scores and, as they also announce, ban him from further placement anywhere in the system.

Perhaps more importantly, Steve Wiebe, the underdog challenger in The King of Kong, has been elevated to become the first player to actually hit a million points in the game. Better late than never! Belated congratulations to Wiebe. (Wikipedia has already been updated.)

Mitchell, on the other hand, has remained out of sight during the investigation that has gone on these last few months, and has essentially been ruined for good in the arcade world. Even if he were to set a world record today (and existing record holders doubt he has the skill to do so based on reviewing his play), it would be tainted by years of proven deception. The community won’t forgive him.

And that’s the worry others are voicing: Will the investigators come for other scores that for years have been venerated but have not been verified as strictly as modern records are? Will, for example, any score without an accredited witness or reliable recording be removed from the lists?

In their decision, Twin Galaxies’ authorities write:

Twin Galaxies is dedicated to absolutely rooting out invalid scores from our historic database wherever we find them.

Our methodic approach has allowed many things to surface, not only related to this specific score, but other scores as well as some previously never-before-discussed video game related history.

We must repeat, the truth is the priority. That is the concern. Whatever it takes.

This dispute is closed, and a controversial but nevertheless legendary gaming figure covered in shame (or he should be if he has any). Who will be next? Regardless of who falls, the community will no doubt continue to thrive; the passion for these old games is undying and, as new generations have shown, is not limited to an aging cohort of Gen-Xers striving to extend a bygone era of glory (though admittedly they are a big part of it).

If this strange saga interested you anywhere near as much as it interested me, go ahead and dive in. You might find you have a new hobby. Just don’t try to fake it. And by the way, the current top score in Donkey Kong is 1,247,700, set just two months ago by Robbie Lakeman. Good luck.

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Covering “Virtual Insanity” in virtual reality

A musician from Raleigh, North Carolina named Chase Holfelder, recorded a cover of Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” a stonerific acid jazz anthem that should be familiar to ’90s kids. This version, however, is recorded entirely inside a virtual reality rig with the help of the HTC Vive and VRScout.

Holfelder used the SoundScape VR project to play and sequence the music, allowing him to snap drums with virtual drumsticks and play the piano using the Vive paddles. In all it’s a pretty exciting of Vive’s interactive elements.

There is very little real commercial utility in VR… yet. However, when artists like Holfelder fire up their rigs and make artistic stuff like this they show us the possibilities of the medium and how we might be interacting with complex systems in the future. Sadly, he did not slide across a virtual floor or wear a furry hat in this video, an oversight that sets VR research back by at least a few years.

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