Book Review: “Making Things See” by Greg Borenstein

Making Things See
by Greg Borenstein
2012 O’Reilly Publishing

“Making Things See” by Greg Borenstein is a great introduction into the world of 3D vision.  Through the use of the Kinect, Arduino and the Processing language he shows not only the theory behind 3D vision but also practical examples of how to interface with the Kinect to “see” and interact with 3D objects.

For many years, interacting with computers has been in a 2D space, either through a keyboard/mouse or more recently with touch screens.  However, science fiction has continuously showed computers being interacted with at from a 3D space, where the user interaction is dependent not only with the position within a 2D space, but also their position in a 3D space with reference to the environment around them.

Mr. Borenstein makes not assumptions within his book about the knowledge that the user will have with interfacing with 3D objects.  He starts the book off with an explanation of how the Kinect, which is the technology used throughout the book for examples, works from a technical level.  Once the user is familiar with the hardware being used, he goes into detail in the next few chapters talking about the math behind analyzing the input from the Kinect.

The Processing language is the basis for the programs within the book.  Mr. Borenstein, makes an assumption that the user is familiar with the Processing language, but even if you only have a rudimentary knowledge, you should still be able to proceed with the example programs, as they are all well documented and explained throughout the book. The library used to interact with the Kinect is OpenNI and Mr. Borenstein spends time explaining how the library works and what functions/capabilities it provides to the user within the 3D space.

Overall, the book is a good read and the examples are well thought out.  Unlike other books that explain a concept with one way of performing the analysis, this book provides explanations of multiple ways to perform 3D object analysis with the pros and cons of each explained.

I found the book very well thought out.  If you are looking for a good introduction into 3D image processing and have interest in interfacing with the Kinect hardware, this book is a definite must have for your collection.

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iTunes Match and Amazon MP3

Recently I have replaced my Android HTC Aria with an iPhone 4s.  For me, this was actually a homecoming, as I had the iPhone 3G prior to going the Android way.  There are a number of reasons that I returned to the iPhone.  Some programs that I needed for work were only available on the iPhone, the interface is less fragmented and I am a self diagnosed fanboy.

One of the things that I had learned to enjoy on the Andorid was that I could instantly listen to music I purchased on Amazon instead of waiting until I imported it into iTunes.  This was missed as I had a while back started buying most of my music via Amazon as opposed to Apple.   I needed to find a solution that was effective and hassle free.  Enter iTunes Match and Logmein.

I have a computer in my home office that I have installed Logmein on for remote access.  I am able to get to this computer from anywhere.  So, when I buy music, I make sure that I download it initially on the home computer, which imports into iTunes and then matches in iTunes cloud, which I can then access on my new iPhone.

While this is not as elegant of a solution as I would like, it does allow me to purchase music through Amazon and still have it relatively easily on my iPhone without syncing to a computer.

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My history in computers began before the advent of the mouse or graphical Internet, so the command line is still a place I feel comfortable within.

I stumbled across a command line task management program, that takes all the pain out of managing tasks.  Now, I realize that there are 100s if not 1000s of task management programs on the web and for the standard Windows/OSX environments, but I wanted something simple.  Something that I could just say, here is my list of tasks, here is what is complete and print out the list when needed.  This is where Taskwarrior comes in.

It is a simple command line based task manager that can be downloaded and installed on either Windows, OSX or Linux.  Once you have it loaded, it is as simple as opening up a terminal window and typing:

task add "Pick up Milk"
Created task 1.

Then to see a list of your tasks, once again, it is a simple list command such as:

task ls

ID Project Pri Description
 1             Pick up Milk

Once you are done with the task, it is a simple done command to tell Taskwarrior it is complete:

task 1 done
Completed 1 'Pick up Milk'.
Marked 1 task as done.

The program of course has a number of other features, but for the most part, you can get by in the program knowing about three commands, which makes it simple to use.   If you are like me and want something that is simple and straightforward, I recommend Taskwarrior for your task management needs.

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“Environmental Monitoring with Arduino” by Emily Gertz and Patrick Di Justo; Oreilly Media

Emily Gertz and Patrick Di Justo have put together a simple and concise guide to utilizing the Arduino family of products to do practical monitoring of environmental conditions.  This helps take the Arduino product for many of us from a hobbyist toy to a practical and functional part of a geek’s toolset.

Ever since getting my first Atari 600XL in fourth grade, I have been fascinated with the idea of interfacing computers into the real-world.  In college, majoring in Computer Science, my favorite and most enjoyable class was my Microprocessors class, where we interfaced simple computers with real-world applications. To me, this is where computers shine.  The ability to take real-world data and analyze it, is a powerful and to me fascinating concept.

Emily and Patrick start off the journey by assuming that the reader has purchased the Arduino and now want to do more with it.  There is a basic introduction to the capabilities of the tool, utilizing simple blinking LEDs to show how to interface and program the Arduino.  This helps a novice user become less afraid of the device and at the same time allows a more experienced programmer to get a feeling for how the hardware device functions.

Then the fun begins.  Each chapter is dedicated to a specific project, whether it be creating a meter utilizing a series of LED lights to signify an event to more complex projects that measure EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) to measuring water conductivity and weather related conditions (temperature and dew point).  In each case, no assumptions are made by the author and each step is outlined and explained in enough detail that the user understands what is going on.

While most of the projects are standalone, the authors do spend a whole chapter explaining through the use of an add-on Ethernet shield how to interface the project with external computers.  A simple web server and data logging device is demonstrated, which really shows off the ease of development and integration that can be accomplished with the Arduino tool.

I especially liked how the code for the projects is presented in each chapter along with explanation and challenges/suggestions on how to expand the project.  This helps the user understand the code behind the project, so that it becomes more of an idea book then just a cookbook of instructions.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the Arduino tool and interfacing it with real-world applications.  The book is a quick read, the projects are simple enough to do and the possibilities that it introduces to the reader is limitless.

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Twitter and Soccer

A Mexican soccer/football team replaced the names on the back of the player’s jerseys with their Twitter handles.  This is pretty cool.

Read the story here at PC Magazine.

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NPR: Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Books

I have always had a penchant for Science Fiction.  It started when I saw Star Wars and the geek in me continues to bring it out.  I had heard that NPR had put together a list of the top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, and therefore was interested in what they picked.  While I do not agree with all the books on the list and would not expect to, the list is pretty complete.  I look forward to revisiting some books and experiencing new books.

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New Era for Slashdot

As a geek, Slashdot was always the place to first hear about breaking stories.  Today Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda announced that he was leaving the legendary tech news reporting website that he started in 1997.  For a lot of us this is bittersweat, as it reminds us that we have been doing this tech thing for a while, making what we do a career and not a hobby.

I remember being introduced to Slashdot around 1998 by other techies and have continued to read the stories posted since then, first by visiting the site religiously throughout the day and now by waiting for the updates in my RSS reader.

Thank you CmdrTaco for the last 14 years and good luck on your new adventures.

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IBM Mimics Human Brain

We spend a lot of time in the tech industry talking about Google, Apple/Microsoft, the latest social network craze and other relatively straightforward inovations on technology.  IBM usually is not in that list of companies we talk about.  It was nice to see a change in the news today.

CNN reported that IBM is continuing to work on their SyNAPSE project, in which they want to develop a computer that mimics the way the brain handles data.  So instead of programming this computer, it would be fed a series of inputs and learn about those inputs and make decisions organically instead of just sending back output based on programs that we put in there.  A lot like the brain handles data today.  We take in millions of pieces of data on a daily basis and then process it based on what we have learned in the past and in regards to the situation/environment we are in.

It is an interesting concept, and while AI and Expert Systems are nothing new, this takes the approach of duplicating the world’s most complex computer in hardware form, instead of trying to write lines and lines of code that mimics the interactions in the human brain.  It will be interesting where this goes in the future.

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A smaller HP?

HP announced at its 3Q 2011 Earnings call that it was shutting down WebOS hardware development along with exploring alternatives for its Personal Systems Group.  Looks to me like HP is going the IBM route, focusing on enterprise software and services.

There are a lot of things that can be read into this decision.

Is the PC market viable for large players anymore?  Dell seems to do okay, but it is a more lean and nimble company compared to HP.  Lenovo has taken off since its departure from IBM and has become more innovative in its approach to PC design.  Maybe HP was too big and this will help the HP line of computers in the long run.  The companies you hear in the tech news today on the PC side when it comes to innovation are the Asus type companies.  Much smaller and much less diversity, able to focus and innovate in the PC space.

WebOS was not killed, just the devices.  HP obviously still sees some sort of market for WebOS.  I am not sure I agree.  On the phone side, Android has taken lead and in the tablet space, Apple has a good handle there.  Is there room for WebOS.  I do not think so, there would be 5 major players in the mobile space with WebOS (Apple, Android, RIM and Microsoft), with an obvious lead by two of them at this point.  Can you survive at 3, let alone at  4 or 5.  I think Microsoft has a chance here to become the 3rd player, and unless RIM or HP/WebOS can all of a sudden become more innovative and get out of their own way, they should have no problem getting there.

HP is too diverse of a company to maintain status quo.  IBM learned this a number of years ago and stopped development and sold off a number of pieces to maintain a focus in certain areas and has shown it works and is profitable.  HP needs to do the same thing.

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See the weather on your Google Maps

Google announced today that a new layer has been added to Google Maps which will allow you to see current weather conditions on the map itself.  It will show you an icon marker with the current weather and temperature, which when clicked will give you a simple forecast and current conditions.  While it is not going to replace the NOAA Weather information for me now, this is a start and eventually I can see Google adding more features to this like real-time radar information.

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