A Future Including Virtual Reality

Seeing is believing—at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. However, seeing may not mean believing anything in the future. During the building of the PC for Build Your Own PC on a Budget, I investigated various new technologies, including virtual reality, where what you see may not exist at all. Of course, gamers are eagerly anticipating the Oculus Rift, which promises to transform gaming with a monitor into an experience where you really feel as if you’re there. This kind of technology isn’t quite available yet, but will be soon. Even when the hardware is ready and the drivers work as promised, truly immersive games will take time to create. Look for this experience to evolve over time to the point where the Holodeck featured in Star Trek actually does become a reality.

To attract attention and become viable, however, technology must answer specific needs today. It was with great interest that I read Marines test augmented reality battlefield. Unlike the Oculus Rift, this technology actually does exist today and it demonstrates some of the early uses of virtual reality that you can expect to see. In this case, the background is real—it’s an actual golf course. The virtual reality system adds the hardware of war to the scene, including tanks, mortars, and features, such as smoke. What the marine sees is a realistic battlefield that doesn’t exist anywhere but the viewer’s glasses. This is the sort of practical use of virtual reality that will continue to drive development until we get a holodeck sometime in the future.

Virtual reality for gamers and the armed services is nice, but it’s also becoming a reality for everyone else. Samsung and Facebook are introducing a virtual reality solution for movie goers. That’s right, you’ll be able to strap some glasses to your head and get transported to a comfy living room with a big screen TV where you can watch the latest movies offered by Netflix. The Gear VR device promises to change the way that people see movies forever. This particular device actually works with your smartphone, so you need a compatible smartphone to use it. In addition to movies, Gear VR also promises to let you play virtual reality game and become involved in other immersive environments. All you really need is the right app.

An immersive experience, where you eventually won’t be able to tell real from created, is what virtual reality promises. Using virtual reality, you could travel to other parts of the world, explore the ocean depths, or even saunter through the solar system as if you’re really there, but still be in your own home. Virtual reality will eventually transform all sorts of environments, including the classroom. Imagine children going to school, interacting with other students, learning from the best instructors, and never leaving their home. A student could get a top notch education for a fraction of the cost that students pay today.

Coupling virtual reality with other technologies, such as robotics, could also allow people to perform a great many unsafe tasks in perfect safety. A human could guide a robot through a virtual reality connection to perform real world tasks that would be unsafe for a human to perform alone. Think about the use of the technology in fighting fires or responding to terrible events that currently put first responders at risk. Virtual reality will eventually change the way we view the world around us and I hope that the experience is as positive as vendors are promising today. Let me know your thoughts about virtual reality at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Build Your Own PC on a Budget Released!

I’ve been building my own computers for many years now. In fact, except for that first PC1 that I purchased many years ago from a friend (and modified until it finally died), I don’t know that I’ve ever purchased a computer for myself that was ready to run the moment it arrived on my doorstep because there is just something so amazing about putting the hardware together, installing the operating system, and seeing it boot for the first time. Many industry pundits say that the desktop PC is dead—replaced by laptops, notebooks, and even smartphones. It’s true that you can perform many computer tasks using these other systems and that many people will never need anything more, but for those of us who truly indulge our inner geek, nothing beats a custom built computer that is literally packed with the best technology available. It’s for those of us who need to satisfy the inner geek that I wrote Build Your Own PC on a Budget.

Of course, if you’re going to take the time and effort to build your own PC, you want it to precisely meet your needs and you want to get a deal on it. Normally, the systems I build for myself run about $2,500.00. I want high end graphics, lots of memory, speedy hard drives, and the best processors. I want a system that provides the maximum in expansion potential and promises a long lifespan. However, that’s me. For this book I wanted to create a computer system with more reasonable goals, so I designed a system around a $750 budget. The results are nothing less than incredible. What I ended up with was a moderately high end system that any gamer would like to have. The system focused on graphics capability so that the person receiving it would be able to work with images with a high degree of accuracy. In addition, this system has all the latest connectivity options, including both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. In short, this is a great workstation and a good gaming system.

Build Your Own PC on a Budget uses this example system throughout to discuss principles. That’s right, the book actually follows the process of building this PC. However, it goes much further. I provide you with guidance on how you can modify this design to meet your specific needs. The question that this book answers most often is how to obtain the PC that you need and want, rather that settle for the PC that someone else designed to sell quickly to meet the needs of most people. You’re special, so you deserve a special PC. That’s what this book is all about.

One of the things that I strove for when putting this book together is clear photographs. Other books that I tried using when I first started building my own PCs often had muddy pictures that proved nearly useless. Pegg Conderman, my photographer for this book, went the extra mile in ensuring that the photos were absolutely clear. (You should have seen the contortions she went through to obtain this goal). I think you’ll agree that the photos really do set this book apart and make it the ultimate in usability.

If you have a strong desire to satisfy your inner geek, this is the book for you. I take you through the process step-by-step. Please let me know about your questions and concerns for this book at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. As with all my books, I want you to be truly happy with the results you get from this book.

 

Chips from Wood, Really?

Sometimes I encounter an article that takes me completely by surprise. I’ve always had a strong interest in computer hardware articles because I started out as a hardware guy (many years ago). Of course, that interest has become stronger since writing Build Your Own PC on a Budget. However, even with the amount of reading I do, I didn’t expect the ComputerWorld article I read last week, Computer chips made of wood promise greener electronics.

Anyone who has read blog posts such as, More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t know that I have a real problem with technology that only makes you think it helps the environment when it actually creates more pollution. Unlike many green technology failures, making chips using a wood substrate could potentially fulfill it’s promise. No, it won’t eliminate pollution, but it will create less of it. The most important thing to understand about the ComputerWorld article is that chips made of this material will decompose over time and that they use 99.9 percent less semiconductor material. I find the whole idea really amazing.

According to the article, the new chips are a win for vendors as well because they cost less to manufacture. So, not only do you get a greener chip, but one that costs less as well. This is the sort of winning scenario that I’d love to see happen more often. The last time I had such good news to report was with my CFLs for Free post. However, the problem now is to get enough people to actually use this material to create chips to make it worthwhile. If only a few vendors decide to make chips from wood, then the effort is lost—we won’t see an actual reduction in pollution as the result of this innovation.

All this leads me to wonder what sorts of other materials could eventually make an appearance as chip material. I’d love to eventually build a PC that uses all biodegradable components. You could throw it away and be sure that nature would eventually turn it back into source material for new items. What a concept! Let me know your thoughts about biodegradable chips at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Defining the Need for Desktop Systems

I’ve been working on Build Your Own PC on a Budget for a while now and I’m nearing the end. A number of people have asked me precisely what market my book is for, especially now that smartphones and tablets are becoming the instruments of choice for consumer computing. In fact, someone recently sent me a ComputerWorld article entitled, Is your business ready for ‘stick’ PCs?. It’s important to understand that I really haven’t been living in a cave somewhere chanting a desktop PC mantra. The fact is that Build Your Own PC on a Budget is designed with the enthusiast in mind. This is the same person who would build a hot rod from scratch, even though they could probably get a nicer, more reliable, more fuel efficient car right off the lot.

The fact is that there are times when you want the flexibility that a desktop system can provide. If you want a system whose sole purpose is to check e-mail, do a little word processing, and possibly update your Facebook page, then you really don’t want a desktop system for the most part. The exception might be if you need a really large screen to see what you’re doing and many people simply plug their computers into the TV now in order to get the larger screen they need. For many people, a notebook, tablet, or smartphone really is all they need. When these stick PCs become popular, you can bet that a large number of people will use them for all their computing needs without any problem at all.

My book is designed around the needs of someone who needs a lot more than a simple computer. Of course, the gamer is the first person that comes to mind. When you read magazines like PC Gamer, you quickly find out that power says it all. These folks are constantly tweaking their systems to get out a little more power. Overclocking is something that these people talk about as casually as what they had for dinner last night.

However, I recently finished a book on data science and must admit that a tablet would never do the job. My desktop has power to spare and even it slowed down on some calculations (as in, I had time to get a cup of coffee while waiting for the processing to complete). A laptop would have a really hard time keeping up with even the minimal needs of the data scientist. In fact, many professional scientists and engineers really do need a super reliable, high power system. They can’t afford down time and they really don’t want to wait days for the results of a calculation. So, this is the second group for my book. They really aren’t looking for a stick PC.

The third group is experimenters. People who are interested in playing just to see what’s possible will love my book because I have all kinds of ideas in it for doing something interesting. Experimenters are those people who somehow manage to have these flashes of insight that result in major innovations. Many of the luxuries you enjoy now were the result of a mistake made by an experimenter. The mistake was turned into a profitable product only after someone looked at it from another angle.

A custom PC is also beneficial for specialized needs such as industrial automation or even for alarm systems. Special use PCs often require more ports than are available on something like a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. Just imagine trying to put enough cameras into the single USB port supplied with many smaller systems. So, I see a number of people who create special use systems buying this book as well.

Is the day of the desktop system as a commodity coming to an end? Yes, I definitely see consumers moving toward laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart watches, and even sticks in the future. If you don’t need the power a desktop can provide, there really isn’t a good reason to pay the price. Let me know your thoughts on the future of the desktop system at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering Threats to Your Hardware

Most of the security write-ups you see online deal with software. It’s true that you’re far more likely to encounter some sort of software-based security threat than any of the hardware threats to date. However, ignoring hardware threats can be problematic. Unlike the vast majority of software threats that you can clean up, hardware threats often damage a system so that it becomes unusable. You literally have to buy a new system because repair isn’t feasible (at least, for a reasonable price).

The threats are becoming more ingenious too. Consider the USB flash drive threat called USB Killer. In this case, inserting the wrong thumb drive into your system can cause the system to completely malfunction. The attack is ingenious in that your system continues to work as normal until that final moment when it’s too late to do anything about the threat. Your system is fried by high voltage sent to it by the thumb drive. Of course, avoiding the problem means using only thumb drives that you can verify are clean. You really can’t even trust the thumb drive provided by friends because they could have obtained the thumb drive from a contaminated source. The result of such an attack is lost data, lost time, and lost hardware—potentially making the attack far more expensive than a software attack on your system.

Some of the hardware-based threats are more insidious. For example, the Rowhammer vulnerability makes it possible for someone to escalate their privileges by accessing the DRAM on your system in a specific way. The technical details aren’t quite as important as the fact that it can be done in this case because even with repairs, memory will continue to be vulnerable to attack in various ways. The problem is that memory has become so small that protections that used to work well no longer work at all. In addition, hardware vendors often use the least expensive memory available to keep prices low, rather than use higher end (and more expensive) memory.

It’s almost certain that you’ll start to see more hardware threats on the horizon because of the way in which people work with electronics today. All these new revelations remind me of the floppy disk viruses of days past. People would pass viruses back and forth by trading floppies with each other. Some of these viruses would infect the boot sector of the system hard drive, making it nearly impossible to remove. As people start using thumb drives and other removable media to exchange data in various ways, you can expect to see a resurgence of this sort of attack.

The potential for hardware-based attacks continues to increase as the computing environment becomes more and more commoditized and people’s use of devices continues to change. It’s the reason I wrote Does Your Hardware Spy On You? and the reason I’m alerting you to the potential for hardware-based attacks in this post. You need to be careful how you interact with others when exchanging bits of seemingly innocent hardware. Let me know your thoughts about hardware-based attacks at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Does Your Hardware Spy On You?

Every once in a while I encounter an article that talks about government intrusion into private organizations through means that seem more like a James Bond movie plot than reality. The latest such story appeared in ComputerWorld, “To avoid NSA, Cisco delivers gear to strange addresses.” These articles lead me to wonder whether the authors have an overdeveloped persecution complex or government agencies are really spying on the public in such overtly secretive (and potentially illegal) ways. The fact that some companies apparently believe the threat enough to ship their equipment to odd addresses is frightening. Consider the ramifications of the actions—is it even possible to feel safe ordering hardware you haven’t built yourself (or are the individual components bugged too)?

Obviously, government organizations do require some means of tracking bad guys out there. Of course, the term bad guys is pretty loose and subject to great deal of interpretation. In addition, just how much tracking is too much tracking? Would enough tracking prevent another terrorist attack or the loss of income caused by crooked company executives? There are many questions that remain unanswered in my mind (and obviously in the minds of others) over the use of various tracking technologies.

The topic of government spying, it’s legitimate and illegitimate uses, and just who the bad guy is demands a lot more attention than anyone is giving it. So, how do you feel about government tracking of everything and anything it sets its mind to spy on? Do you feel there should be limits? What do you feel about shipping things to odd addresses to avoid notice and circumvent the system (partly because the system is broken)? I’d love to hear your point of view about the use of modified computer equipment as a tool for spying on the private sector at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Self-driving Cars in the News

I remember reading about self-driving cars in science fiction novels. Science fiction has provided me with all sorts of interesting ideas to pursue as I’ve gotten older. Many things I thought would be impossible, have become reality over the years and things that I thought I’d never see five years ago, I’m seeing in reality today. I discussed some of the technology behind self-driving cars in my Learning as a Human post. The article was fine as it went, but readers have taken me to task more than a few times for becoming enamored with the technology and not discussing the reality of the technology.

The fact of the matter is that self-driving cars are already here to some extent. Ford has introduced cars that can park themselves. The Ford view of cars is the one that most people can accept. It’s an anticipated next step in the evolution of driving. People tend to favor small changes in technology. Changes that are too large tend to shock them and aren’t readily accepted.

Google’s new self-driving car might be licensed in Nevada, but don’t plan on seeing it in your city anytime soon (unless you just happen to live in Nevada, of course). A more realistic approach to self-driving cars will probably come in the form of conveyances used in specific locations. For example, you might see self-driving cars used at theme parks and college campuses where the controlled environment will make it easier for them to navigate. More importantly, these strictly controlled situations will help people get used to the idea of seeing and using self-driven vehicles. The point is to build trust in them in a manner that people can accept.

Of course, the heart of the matter is what self-driving cars can actually provide in the way of a payback. According to a number of sources, they can actually reduce driving costs by $190 billion dollars per year in health and accident savings. That’s quite a savings. Money talks, but people have ignored monetary benefits in the past to ensure they remain independent. It will take time to discover whether the potential cost savings actually make people more inclined to use self-driving cars. My guess is that people will refuse to give up their cars unless there is something more than monetary and health benefits.

Even though no one has really talked about it much, self-driving cars have the potential to provide all sorts of other benefits. For example, because self-driving cars will obey the speed laws and run at the most efficient speeds possible in a given situation, cars will become more fuel efficient and produce less pollution. The software provided with the vehicle will probably allow the car to choose the most efficient route to a destination possible and provide the means for the car to automatically navigate around obstructions, such as accidents (which will be notably fewer). People could probably be more assured of getting to their destination on time because they won’t get lost either. Working on the way to work will allow people to spend more quality time with family. It’s the intangible benefits that will eventually make the self-driving car seem like a good way to do things.

The self-driving car is available today. It won’t be long and you’ll be able to buy one. You can already get a self-parking Ford, so the next step really isn’t that far away. The question is whether you really want to take that step. Let me know your thoughts on self-driving cars, their potential to save lives, reduce costs, create a cleaner environment, and make life generally more pleasant at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Radio Shack, We Knew Thee Well

I’m dating myself here, but the first time I entered a Radio Shack was in 1972. I had just finished reading The Radio Amateur’s Handbook and was absolutely fascinated by the whole thought of working with electronics. The combination of reading science fiction and electronics books of various sorts, convinced me to go to a technical high school. I graduated with all the necessary knowledge to become an apprentice electrician. However, entering the Navy moved me into computers, where I remain today. (I started out as a hardware guy and moved into programming later.) Radio Shack was filled with all sorts of cool looking gizmos. It was akin to entering my science fiction books and experiencing what “could be” first hand. The day I finished designing and building my first power supply and amplifier was an absolute thrill. I still have the plans for it somewhere. The mono output of 20 watts seemed fantastic. I’m not the only one with fond memories—authors such as PC Magazine’s Jamie Lendino and John Dvorak have them as well.

Over the years I watched Radio Shack change from this absolutely fascinating place I had to visit every time I passed it to something less. Eventually, it became just a common store—the aisles filled with televisions, radios, and consumer gizmos of all sorts. It got to the point where I could buy the same type of goods just about anywhere for a much lower price. For me, the death spiral was just sad to watch. As a country, we really need stores that encourage people to invent—to think outside the box. Unfortunately, Radio Shack is no longer that store. I visited a Radio Shack in a mall the other day and there were only a few items left for sale at high discount. I helped a friend buy a mouse. It was an odd feeling to leave the store one last time knowing that I’d never see the store I knew and loved in the 70s and 80s again.

Even the salespeople changed over time. During the early 70s when I first started going to Radio Shack, I could hear salespeople talking the talk with any customer that came in. One of them even convinced me to use a different transistor for my amplifier and to rely on a full bridge rectifier to make the output cleaner. If these terms seem foreign, they do, in fact, belong to a different time. The surge of creativity I experienced during that phase in my life is gone—replaced by something totally different today. The young lad I talked with the other day was a salesperson and just barely knew his trade. Gone are the salespeople who really made Radio Shack special.

I yearn for the resurgence of creativity and of stores that promote it. This is one case where brick and mortar stores have a definite advantage over their online cousins. When you go into a brick and mortar store, you can talk with real people, see real demonstrations, touch real hardware, and get that special ethereal feeling of entering the zone of the tinkerer and the definer of dreams. Radio Shack, we knew thee well, and we really need something like you back.

 

Learning as a Human

I started discussing the whole idea of robot perception from a primate level in Seeing as a Human. In that post I discussed the need for a robot not to just see objects, but to be able to understand that the object is something unique. The ability to comprehend what is being seen is something that robots must do in order to interact with society at large in a manner that humans will understand and appreciate. Before the concepts espoused in works of science fiction such as I, Robot can be realized, robots must first be able to interact with objects in a manner that programming simply can’t anticipate. That’s why the technology being explored by deep learning is so incredibly important to the advancement of robotics.

Two recent articles point to the fact that deep learning techniques are already starting to have an effect on robotic technology. The first is about the latest Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenge. A robot must be able to drive a vehicle, exit the vehicle, and then perform certain tasks. No, this isn’t science fiction, it’s actually a real world exercise. This challenge is significantly different from self-driving cars. In fact, people are actually riding in self-driving cars now and I see a future where all cars will become self-driving. However, asking a robot to drive a car, exit it, and then do something useful is a significantly more difficult test of robotic technology. To make such a test successful, the robot must be able to learn to at least some extent, from each trial. Deep learning provides the means for the robot to learn.

The second article seems mundane by comparison until you consider just what it is that the robot is trying to do, cook a meal that it hasn’t been trained to cook. In this case, the robot watches a YouTube video to learn how to cook the meal just as a human would. To perform this task requires that the robot be able to learn the task by watching the video—something that most people see as something only a human can do. The programming behind this feat breaks cooking down into tasks that the robot can perform. Each of these tasks is equivalent to a skill that a human would possess. Unlike humans, a robot can’t learn new skills yet, but it can reorganize the skills it does possess in an order that makes completing the recipe possible. So, if a recipe calls for coddling an egg and the robot doesn’t know how to perform this task, it’s unlikely that the robot will actually be able to use that recipe. A human, on the other hand, could learn to coddle an egg and then complete the recipe. So, we’re not talking anything near human level intelligence yet.

The potential for robots to free humans from mundane tasks is immense. However, the potential for robots to make life harder for humans is equally great (read Robot Induced Slavery). We’re at a point where some decisions about how technology will affect our lives must be made. Unfortunately, no one seems interested in making such decisions outright and the legal system is definitely behind the times. This means that each person must choose the ways in which technology affects his or her life quite carefully. What is your take on robotic technology? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Seeing as a Human

Neural networks intrigue me because of their ability to change the way in which computers work at a basic level. I last talked about them in my Considering the Future of Processing Power post. This post fed into the A Question of Balancing Robot Technologies post that explored possible ways in which neural networks could be used. The idea that neural networks provide a means of learning and of pattern recognition is central to the goals that this technology seeks to achieve. Even though robots are interesting, neural networks must first solve an even more basic problem. Current robot technology is hindered by an inability of the robot to see properly, so that it can avoid things like chairs in a room. There are all sorts of workarounds for the problem, but they all end up being kludges in the end. A recent ComputerWorld article, Computer vision finally matches primates’ ability, gives me hope that we may finally be turning the corner on making robots that can interact well with the real world.

In this case, the focus is on making it possible for a robot to see just like humans do. Actually, the sensors would be used for all sorts of other technologies, but it’s the use in robots that interests me most. A robot that can truly see as well as a human would be invaluable when it comes to performing complex tasks, such as monitoring a patient or fighting a fire. In both cases, it’s the ability actually determine what is being seen that is important. In the case of a robotic nurse, it becomes possible to see the same sorts of things a human nurse sees, such as the start of an infection. When looking at a fire fighting robot, it becomes possible to pick out the body of someone to rescue amidst the flames. Video cameras alone can’t allow a robot to see what the camera is providing in the form of data.

However, just seeing isn’t enough either. Yes, picking out patterns in the display and understanding where each object begins and ends is important. However, in order to use the data, a robot would also need to comprehend what each object is and determine whether that object is important. A burning piece of wood in a fire might not be important, but the human lying in the corner needing help is. The robot would need to comprehend that the object it sees is a human and not a burning piece of wood.

Using standard processors would never work for these applications because standard processors work too slow and can’t remember knowledge learned. Neural networks make it possible for a robot to detect objects, determine which objects are important, focus on specific objects, and then perform tasks based on those selected objects. A human would still need to make certain decisions, but a robot could quickly assess a situation, tell the human operator only the information needed to make a decision, and then act on that decision in the operator’s stead. In short, neural networks make it possible to begin looking at robots as valuable companions to humans in critical situations.

Robot technology still has a long way to go before you start seeing robots of the sort presented in Star Wars. However, each step brings us a little closer to realizing the potential of robots to reduce human suffering and to reduce the potential for injuries. Let me know your thoughts about neural networks at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.