Recently in Gadgets Category

Photographic Utopia

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It seems to me the ideal camera is one which doesn't involve a series of tradeoffs but instead allows one to dictate the photograph they intend to take.

With current cameras, if you want a shallow depth-of-field (DOF), you need to have your aperture wide open. To have your aperture wide open means more light so you need to adjust your shutter speed to compensate. If you shutter speed is already at its maximum (or faster than you would prefer) then you need to adjust your ISO speed to make your film/sensor less sensitive.

If you are less concerned about DOF but would rather freeze those sprinters in their place, then you need to make sure you shutter speed is set fast enough to avoid any motion blur. Once shutter speed is determined, then comes aperture to compensate, then possibly ISO to compensate even further to make sure you have enough light for your shot. It is all about juggling light.

This whole tradeoff process becomes even more pertinent in low-light situations where there is even less light to be juggled. Regardless of what kind of DOF or shutter speed you desire, you will inevitably need to increase your ISO to get the shot your desire (or use a tripod to keep your camera still for that 0.5s exposure -- or, god forbid, use your flash!). One of the serious downsides of an elevated ISO is a graininess in the resultant photo that, for reasons beyond me, has been mirrored in the migration from film to digital sensors. Is there some scientific reason why both both an ultra-sensitive sheet of chemicals and an ultra-sensitive array of electronic light-sensors need display graininess in roughly the same respect? The most recent digital cameras are finally exhibiting less graininess at higher ISOs, but this is a fairly new development and they are crazy expensive.

Rather than dealing with Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO I would prefer to have just two big dials on my camera simply labeled depth-of-field and motion-blur. Two dials. That's all I need. Graininess can be added as needed in Photoshop later. Don't make me worry about all the dang tradeoffs, instead just let me craft the photo I want and not worry about having to tweak, test and compensate for the light levels and the sensitivity of the sensor I happen to be holding.

If I want a nice highway-overpass shot of long lines of blurred brake-lights and head-lights all in focus, then crank up the motion-blur and crank-open the DOF. If I instead want a super-crisp capture of that water droplet falling against a soft blurred background, then drop the motion-blur right down to nothing and lower that DOF nice and narrow.

I definitely think we're moving toward this type of camera interaction, but we're still a number of years out. Cameras sensitive enough to even allow this ignorance of trade-offs are out of reach to anyone except high-end digital photographers. Ironic, no?

Flickr Google Gadget

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If you are a fan of Flickr and happen to use iGoogle you may want to check out a Flickr Gadget I recently wrote. It looks like this:

The gadget currently offers three tabs/views. You can see either the latest photos from your Flickr contacts (requires specifying your flickr userid in the settings), a sampling from recent 'interesting' photos, or specify keywords to search across all Flickr photos. You can view larger versions of the thumbnails overlaid in the gadget or jump right into Flickr proper.

I enjoyed creating the gadget and would love to hear any feedback or ideas for improvements.

To add the gadget to your iGoogle page just click the screenshot above or install with this button:

Disclaimer: I work on the iGoogle team at Google.

SONOS Improvements

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I've had the SONOS music system (3 zoneplayers, 1 controller) for almost 2 years and am still extremely happy with it. It has replaced our radio and stereo and has resulted in us listening to way more music that we had previously. From CBC during the week to Car Talk and This American Life on the weekends to lullabies piped to the bedroom when Orion is going to sleep, it totally meets our audio needs.

That being said, there is definitely still room for improvement. Here is a short list off the top of my head of what I'd like to see in future revisions:

  • Locate Lost Controller
    The controller is wireless and, like my cordless phone, I move it around the house and often lose track of it. I would love to see an option (perhaps just in the downloaded software) that triggered the controller to beep so I could find it. I know it can beep since it does so when I first wake it up.
  • Podcasts
    Let me easily listen to podcast feeds via my SONOS. SONOS can already stream internet radio and remote MP3s as well as perform tasks on a schedule... it seems an easy addition to throw in some feed parsing to the mix. As a bonus I'd like to auto-download the podcast audio files, but I'd settle for simple streaming right now.
  • Controller Audio Input Jack
    The most common external source of audio I use is an iPod/iPhone. Either my own or when someone visits. I currently have an extended RCA-to-headphone cord snaked across the top of my cupboards and then hanging down in the corner. When I want to send audio to the SONOS I am bound to this one spot. Although the controller isn't likely powerful enough to handle the audio processing, I'd love to be able to connect my iPod to the controller and have the data available to any ZonePlayer.
  • Stream to ZonePlayer
    I've often been watching a movie on my laptop and thought it would be great to hear the audio through the SONOS. It seems my computer should be capable of packaging the audio and sending it directly to a ZonePlayer on the same network but unfortunately this isn't allowed. Instead I need to manually connect a cord from the laptop audio-out to the SONOS audio-in. Bleh.
  • Computer as ZonePlayer
    Each time I run the software-based controller software, I find it strange that this software that works just like an audio-player never sends any audio to the computer I am running it on. I would love if there was some way of making my desktop computer a software-based ZonePlayer and then I could do away with iTunes altogether. SONOS would be my only interface to my music regardless of where I am.
  • Better Error Reporting
    The SONOS does its best to hide all implementation details from you. Like a Mac, this is great until something goes wrong. I've had intermittent problems with one of my ZonePlayers freezing and disappearing from the network and so far I have found no way of querying the ZonePlayer to see what is wrong. Is it an IP conflict? Bad RAM? Corrupt MP3 or data stream? Some sort of a syslog dump would be so useful.

The developers at SONOS made some great improvements between v1.0 and v2.0 of their core software. Hopefully I'll see some of the above in v3.0.

SONOS and mime-types

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Sonos Controller I ran across a fairly obscure problem with the Sonos music system related to mime-types, file extensions and dynamically generated playlists. This is fair warning that this post will get a tad technical.

The Sonos music system supports Internet radio stations and is capable of parsing remote M3U playlists. My plan was to write a simple script that retrieves the latest This American Life archives page, parses the HTML to extract the set of show URLs and returns a dynamically generated playlist with the desired show URL.

Sonos didn't like my dynamically generated playlist and it took me a while to figure out exactly why. In the end it seems the Sonos ignores Content-Type HTTP header and instead relies solely on the file extension in the URL it is accessing. In this case the file extension was .cgi and since Sonos doesn't know what .cgi means it ignored the contents of the response.

The workaround I found was to enable the execution of CGI scripts with a .m3u file extension but only in a single directory. This is the contents of the Apache-style .htaccess file I used:
Options +ExecCGI
AddHandler cgi-script m3u
AddType audio/x-mpegurl .m3u
Then I renamed my script.cgi to script.m3u and Sonos no longer complained about corrupt contents and treated it like a regular playlist. Dynamically generated This American Life playlists streaming through my Sonos. Wonderful.

I've contacted Sonos and explained the issue so hopefully they'll fix it in a future firmware update and others can avoid the headaches.

Fluffy Soapy Mouse

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Andrew Wilson and Patrick Baudisch of Microsoft Research have produced an excellent tutorial on creating a mouse-like pointing device that works in mid-air. I saw the video on YouTube and was seriously impressed.

Essentially the electronics of a wireless, optical mouse are re-housed in a smooth soap-like plastic container and then placed into a fluffy fabric tube. Similar to a tactile stress-reducing ball you can manipulate the fabric in various ways over the soap-like container and the optical sensor tracks the movement of the fabric and converts the actions into movement on the screen.

For fine cursor movement you slide the fabric around with your thumb. For faster movements you rotate the fabric around the container while the container stays still. And for still faster movements you can hold the fabric stationary while rotating the container just like you would a bar of soap. Check out the video for some visuals.

I was so intrigued by the video that I went out and bought a new mouse to convert and have a partially functional model to play with. The interface is very comfortable and the ability to move the cursor quickly and then do fine pixel-level adjustments requires almost no learning curve. It just comes naturally. I foresee this style of interaction becoming quite popular in the next few years.

My digital camera is inaccessible at the moment otherwise I'd post some photos of my hacky prototype. Because the mouse interaction is inverted (dragging something over the optical sensor vs vice versa) then either the up-down or left-right is reversed. I've yet been unable to find a simple mouse utility that lets me reverse one axis so for now this is an interesting prototype rather than something I can use on a daily basis.

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