MrSeb writes: "Online storage service Bitcasa opened its doors this week, promising an end to external storage or pesky online capacity limits. The company’s pitch is simple: You give them $99 per year, they give you infinite storage space online. The deal is currently being offered for $69, which comes out to $5.75 a month. That’s it. No capacity limits. No additional charge for certain file types or for web/smartphones. File version history? Infinite. Want backup and mirroring of existing data? You can get that, too. Bitcasa promises an online drive that seamlessly integrated with Windows Explorer, giving you all the benefits of local storage for substantially less money. That was enough to pique ExtremeTech's curiosity, and to take the service for a spin. What it found was a genuinely interesting and valuable service, but there are a lot of bugs that need to be ironed out before you should recommend it to your friends and family."
MrSeb writes: "When Microsoft built Windows 8, it bet that it could create a Windows Store experience that would rival competitors like Apple and Google. The company was confident enough of its abilities in this sphere that it decided to lock Windows RT devices to purchases made within the Windows Store, and made WS-exclusive distribution a requirement for any Metro x86 products as well. ExtremeTech has been keeping an eye on the Windows Store since the OS launched — with the Christmas holidays upon us, and the two-month anniversary approaching, we’re circling back to investigate the status of the Store. The blunt truth is that two months after launch, the Windows Store is still in rough shape. Some of this is due to a relatively small app selection, but that’s an inevitable problem for any company that launches a service like this. While it’s true that Microsoft can’t wave its hand and create apps from companies like Twitter and Facebook, there are steps the company could take to improve the Windows Store and help customers navigate the often-confusing application situation."
MrSeb writes: "The humble pixel — the 2D picture element that has formed the foundation of just about every kind of digital media for the last 50 years — may soon meet its maker. Believe it or not, if a team of British are to be believed, the pixel, within five short years, will be replaced with vectors. If you know about computer graphics, or if you’ve ever edited or drawn an image on your computer, you know that there are two primary ways of storing image data: As a bitmap, or as vectors. A bitmap is quite simply a giant grid of pixels, with the arrangement and color of the pixels dictating what the image looks like. Vectors are an entirely different beast: In vector graphics, the image is described as a series of mathematical equations. To draw a bitmap shape you just color in a block of pixels; with vector graphics, you would describe the shape in terms of height, width, radius, and so on. At the moment, bitmaps are used almost exclusively in the realm of digital media — but that isn't to say they don't have their flaws. As display (and camera and cinema) resolution increases, so does the number of pixels. The obvious problem with this is that larger bitmaps are computationally more expensive to process, resulting in a slower (or more expensive) workflow. Pixel bitmaps don’t scale very gracefully; reduction is okay, but enlargement is a no-no. There is always the issue of a master format, too: With pixel bitmaps, conversions from one format to another, or changing frame rates, is messy, lossy business. Which finally leads us back to the innovation at hand: Philip Willis and John Patterson of the University of Bath in England have devised a video codec that replaces pixel bitmaps with vectors."
MrSeb writes: "A group of neuroscientists and software engineers at the University of Waterloo in Canada are claiming to have built the world’s most complex, large-scale model simulation of the human brain. The simulated brain, which runs on a supercomputer, has a digital eye which it uses for visual input, a robotic arm that it uses to draw its responses — and it can pass the basic elements of an IQ test. The brain, called Spaun (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), consists of 2.5 million simulated neurons, allowing it to perform eight different tasks. These tasks range from copy drawing to counting, to question answering and fluid reasoning. The neurons are broken down into a bunch of simulated cranial subsystems, including the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and thalamus, which are wired together with simulated neurons that very accurately mimic the wiring of a real human brain. The basic idea is that these subsystems behave very similarly to a real brain: Visual input is processed by the thalamus, the data is stored in the neurons, and then the basal ganglia fires off a task to a part of the cortex that’s designed to handle that task. As for the ultimate end goal, Eliasmith is excited about Spaun’s prospects. “It lets us understand how the brain, the biological substrate, and behavior relate. That’s important for all sorts of health applications,” he says. In testing he has “killed” synthetic neurons and watched performance degrade, which could provide an interesting insight into natural aging and degenerative disorders."
MrSeb writes: "Way back in August, three months before the release of Windows 8, we learnt about the existence of a project at Microsoft codenamed Blue. At the time it wasn’t clear whether this was Windows 9, or some kind of interim update/service pack for Windows 8. Now, if unnamed sources are to be believed, Windows Blue is both of those things: a major update to Windows 8, and also the beginning of a major shift that will result in a major release of Windows every 12 months — just like Apple’s OS X. According to these insiders, Blue will roll out mid-2013, and will be very cheap — or possibly even free, to ensure that “Windows Blue the next OS that everyone installs.” Exact details are still rather vague, but at the very least Blue will make “UI changes” to Windows 8. The sources also indicate that the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 SDKs will be merged or standardized, to further simplify the development of cross-platform apps. Perhaps more important, though, is the shift to a 12-month release cadence. Historically, Microsoft has released a major version of Windows every few years, with the intervening periods populated with stability — and security-oriented service packs. Now it seems that Microsoft wants to move to an OS X-like system, where new and exciting features will be added on an annual basis. In turn, Microsoft will drop the price of these releases — probably to around $25, just like OS X."
MrSeb writes: "In an amusing twist that undoubtedly spells the end of some hapless manager’s career, Microsoft has accidentally gifted pirates with a free, fully-functioning Windows 8 license key. As you have probably surmised, this isn’t intentional — Microsoft hasn’t suddenly decided to give pirates an early Christmas present (though the $40 upgrade deal from Windows 8 Release Preview is something of a pirate amnesty). In fact, it’s probably just a case of poor testing and a rushed release by Microsoft. The bug involves the Key Management Service, which is part of Microsoft's Volume Licensing system. Pirates have already hacked the KMS to activate Windows 8 for 180 days — but this is just a partial activation. Now it turns out that the free Media Center Pack license keys that Microsoft is giving out until January 31 2013 can be used on a KMS-activated copy of Windows 8 to turn it into a fully licensed copy of Windows 8 Pro. The massive irony, of course, is that Microsoft originally intended to strip Media Center from Windows 8 Pro — and then, in the face of consumer backlash, decided to offer it as a free upgrade until January 31 2013. Presumably, instead of taking the time to deliver the upgrade properly, Microsoft pushed it out the door as quickly as possible — and this is the result."
MrSeb writes: "In a year or two, augmented reality (AR) headsets such as Google Glass may double up as a virtual dieting pill. New research from the University of Tokyo shows that a very simple AR trick can reduce the amount that you eat by 10% — and yes, the same trick, used in the inverse, can be used to increase food consumption by 15%, too. The AR trick is very simple: By donning the glasses, the University of Tokyo’s special software “seamlessly” scales up the size of your food. You pick up an Oreo cookie, and then the software automatically scales it up to 1.5 times its natural size. Using a deformation algorithm, the person’s hand is manipulated so that the giant Oreo appears (somewhat) natural. In testing, this simple trick was enough to reduce the amount of food eaten by 10%. The inverse is also true: shrinking the Oreo down to two-thirds its natural size increased food consumption by 15%. This new research dovetails neatly with an area of nutritional science that has received a lot of attention in the United States of Obesity recently: That the size of the serving/plate/cup/receptacle directly affects your intake. The fact is, there’s a lot more to dieting than simply reducing your calorific intake and exercising regularly. Your state of mind as you sit down to eat, and your perception of what you’re eating, are just as important — which is exciting news, because both of those factors can be hacked."
MrSeb writes: "Engineers at NC State University (NCSU) have discovered a way of boosting the throughput of busy WiFi networks by up to 700%. Perhaps most importantly, the breakthrough is purely software-based, meaning it could be rolled out to existing WiFi networks relatively easily — instantly improving the throughput and latency of the network. As wireless networking becomes ever more prevalent, you may have noticed that your home network is much faster than the WiFi network at the airport or a busy conference center. The primary reason for this is that a WiFi access point, along with every device connected to it, operates on the same wireless channel. This single-channel problem is also compounded by the fact that it isn't just one-way; the access point also needs to send data back to every connected device. To solve this problem, NC State University has devised a scheme called WiFox. In essence, WiFox is some software that runs on a WiFi access point (i.e. it’s part of the firmware) and keeps track of the congestion level. If WiFox detects a backlog of data due to congestion, it kicks in and enables high-priority mode. In this mode, the access point gains complete control of the wireless network channel, allowing it to clear its backlog of data. Then, with the backlog clear, the network returns to normal. We don’t have the exact details of the WiFox scheme/protocol (it’s being presented at the ACM CoNEXT conference in December), but apparently it increased the throughput of a 45-device WiFi network by 700%, and reduced latency by 30-40%."
MrSeb writes: "At an event in China, Microsoft Research chief Rick Rashid has demonstrated a real-time English-to-Mandarin speech-to-speech translation engine. Not only is the translation very accurate, but the software also preserves the user’s accent and intonation. We’re not just talking about a digitized, robotic translator here — this is firmly within the realms of Doctor Who or Star Trek universal translation. There is, of course, a lot of technological wizardry occurring behind the scenes. For a start, the software needs to be trained — both with a few hours of native, spoken Chinese, and an hour of Rick Rashid’s spoken English. From this, the software essentially breaks your speech down into the smallest components (phonemes), and then mushes them together with the Chinese equivalent, creating a big map of English to Mandarin sounds. Then, during the actual on-stage presentation, the software converts his speech into text, his text into Mandarin text, and then the Rashid/Chinese mash-up created during the training process is used to turn that text into spoken words. The end result definitely has a strong hint of digitized, robotic Microsoft Sam, but it’s surprising just how much of Rashid’s accent, timbre, and intonation is preserved."
MrSeb writes: "If, like me, you thought Microsoft would price Windows RT competitively, you were wrong: A leaked slide from Asus says that its Vivo Tab RT, due to be released alongside Windows RT at the end of October, will start at $600. Unbelievably, this is $100 more than the iPad 3, and a full $200 more than the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. For $600, you would expect some sensational hardware specs — but alas, that’s sadly not the case. The Vivo Tab RT has a low-res 10.1-inch 1366×768 IPS display, quad-core Tegra 3 SoC, 2GB of RAM, NFC, 8-megapixel camera and that’s about it. Like its Androidesque cousin, the Transformer, the Vivo Tab RT can be plugged into a keyboard/battery dock — but it’ll cost you another $200 for the pleasure. (Curiously, the Transformer’s docking station only costs $150 — go figure.) What could possibly be the reason for the Vivo Tab’s extortionate price tag? The Windows Tax, of course! Microsoft better have something other than a $100 Windows Tax up its sleeve if it wants to compete with the iPad and Android tablets..."
MrSeb writes: "Apple’s iPhone 5 can be summed up with the following words: Another row of home screen icons. Watching Tim Cook and Phil Schiller unveil the sixth-generation iPhone was like experiencing the world’s most drawn out (120-minute!) train wreck. It’s not that the iPhone 5s hardware specs are disappointing (though they’re certainly not overwhelming), it’s how the smartphone was presented that pushed me over the edge. Apple has this way of presenting everything — whether it’s an awesome new display or humdrum headphone jack — in such a way that you should feel blessed, as if Steve Jobs himself has sat atop Mount Sinai, received divine inspiration from Him, and then somehow transcended the laws of physics to bring you the most glorious technological manna. Normally, once you cut through the heavenly hyperbole, there is just enough meat to keep people happy: In 2010, the Retina display really was cutting edge; in 2011, Siri was unique. This year, though, Apple tried to convince us that it had stolen a 16:9 display from the gods, ushering widescreen into the land of the living — but as we all know, everyone except for Apple has been doing 16:9 for years. Since the iPhone's inception in 2007, it has always used a 3:2 display — first at 480x320, and then doubled to 960x640 to allow for perfect scaling. With the iPhone 5, every one of the 700,000 3:2 apps in the App Store will be letterboxed — they will have black bars above and below. Developers can update their apps to 16:9, of course — but then what happens if you try to run 16:9 apps on legacy 3:2 displays? Apple has been mysteriously quiet on this front."
MrSeb writes: "After conquering Jeopardy, battling patent trolls, and chasing down health insurance fraudsters, IBM now plans to bring Watson to smartphones. In essence, IBM is hoping to build a better, faster, and more professional/enterprisey version of Apple’s Siri, the voice-controlled assistant that debuted on the iPhone 4S. Each IBM Watson installation is a 10-rack supercomputer with a total of 2880 processor threads (90 Power7 CPUs clocked at 3.5GHz, each with eight cores, and each core with four threads). There is 16TB of RAM, and the entire thing is embarrassingly parallel — it can process 500 gigabytes of data per second. Now, don’t worry — IBM isn’t trying to shrink the room-sized Watson down to the size of a smartphone. Instead, we’re simply looking at a smartphone app that directly interfaces with an internet-connected Watson installation. In theory, Watson’s question answering ability would utterly blow Siri and Google Now out of the water. While Siri can set your alarms, Watson can parse a patient’s charts and provide clinical diagnoses and pharmaceutical prescriptions. Where Siri can tell you whether you’ll need an umbrella, you could ask Watson whether now is the right time to plant your crops — or for a complete walkthrough on how to fix your toaster."
MrSeb writes: "After months of speculation, it now seems almost certain that Apple will release an iPad Mini. The diminutive iPad will have a 7.85-inch, 1024×768 (163 PPI) 4:3 screen, and if parts leaked by Chinese suppliers are to be believed the device will look like an iPad-iPhone lovechild. The iPad Mini will have one purpose: To stem the loss of tablet sales caused by the rebellious 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7. To do this, the iPad Mini must look/feel better than the Android tablets, have a better range of apps/content — and, as a sweetener, have a better hardware spec and cost less. With Apple's superior content library, better supply chain, and superior industrial design, we could be looking at a device that's considerably lighter than Google's Nexus 7, roughly the same price, and with more apps and content. Do Android tablets really stand a chance?"
MrSeb writes: "NASA’s Curiosity rover has now been on the surface of Mars for just over a week. It hasn’t moved an inch after landing, instead focusing on orienting itself (and NASA’s scientists) by taking instrument readings and snapping images of its surroundings. The first beautiful full-color images of Gale Crater are starting to trickle in, and NASA has already picked out some interesting rock formations that it will investigate further in the next few days (pictures below). Over the weekend and continuing throughout today, however, Curiosity is attempting something very risky indeed: A firmware upgrade. This got me thinking: If NASA can transmit new software to a Mars rover that's hundreds of millions of miles away... why can't a hacker do the same thing? In short, there's no reason a hacker couldn't take control of Curiosity, or lock NASA out. All you would need is your own massive 230-foot dish antenna and a 400-kilowatt transmitter — or, perhaps more realistically, you could hack into NASA's computer systems, which is exactly what Chinese hackers did 13 times in 2011."