How to buy DIY home alarm and security systems

How to buy DIY home alarm and security systems

While cybercrime is growing, and grabbing most of the headlines recently, physical crime hasn’t gone away. Over 2 million homes and apartments in the USA are broken into each year. The price isn’t just whatever is stolen, but is also the emotional cost of both sentimental items and the sense of violation. With the growth of credit card fraud and identity theft, burglary can also lead to cybercrime. In one recent case, a homeowner’s credit card was used by the thieves within minutes after the break-in.

A security system is one of the best lines of defense in protecting your home. There are many well-known options for turn-key, monitored alarm systems that come with a professional installer and a monthly fee. Being ExtremeTech, we’ll skip past those and talk about some options for rolling your own.

Security systems you can install yourself

DIY home security systems let you monitor your home from your phone wherever you areDIY security systems either start with a focus on security itself, like iSmartAlarm and SimpliSafe, or start as home automation products and add on security functionality, like Samsung’s SmartThings. Each company tends to have a unique pitch, so scrolling through their product listing will help give you a sense of which one will be best for you. For example, iSmartAlarm has really focused on internet-connected cameras. I’ve been a customer since they were a KickStarter project, and their iCamera KEEP and Spot are both clever ways of keeping an eye on your home without monthly fees. However, they are far behind on delivering many of their promised product line extensions, so for now you’re limited to motion and contact sensors to complement cameras.

SimpliSafe has taken a nearly opposite approach. It has a broad line up of sensors — including freeze, water, smoke, and carbon monoxide — and security features, but no cameras (and have put their first promised camera on indefinite hold). Being able to “look in” via a camera when a sensor is triggered is incredibly useful, as otherwise if you are traveling, it is hard to know how panicked to be about an alert. I also like that SimpliSafe uses Lithium Ion batteries for its sensors, giving them an estimated five-year lifespan. The button batteries used in my iSmartAlarm contact sensors seem to go out at least once a year.

Both iSmartAlarm and SimpliSafe provide mostly closed systems. They are purpose-built for security and are not general purpose home automation systems — although we have been able to teach our Amazon Echo to let us control iSmartAlarm using voice activation. If instead you really want a full home automation system with security features, Samsung’s SmartThings may be right for you. It takes more work to set up, but Samsung’s hub supports both Zigbee and Z-Wave in addition to the more typical IP interface. Samsung has also built a large collection of compatible products sold by partners, so you’ll have the most flexibility over time.

One unavoidable downside to wireless security systems is that, like just about everything else in the IoT, they can be hacked. As a practical matter most of those hacks — like the one SimpliSafe is supposedly vulnerable to — require a level of dedication and sophistication beyond that of most criminals, but it is something to keep in mind. Make sure and keep your system up to date with security patches as they are released.

Combining a DIY system with professional monitoring

LiveWatch includes an Android tablet with their inexpensive bundels, but charges a hefty monthly monitoring fee so you pay for it in the endTraditional alarm companies like ADT require that they install your system, at least partially, so they know what they are monitoring and can stand behind it. However, installing your own system doesn’t mean it can’t be professionally monitored. LiveWatch, for example, lets you save money by installing your own system, but then will monitor it for a subscription fee that starts at $35/month. SimpliSafe also offers optional monitoring, starting at $15/month and rising to $25/month if you want to also use their mobile app and web portal.

At this point, we need to at least mention the issue of privacy and data sharing. All of these systems rely to one degree or another on the cloud, and all of them pass at least some of your data — for example when you leave and return home — through their servers. Most of us are willing to live with that, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Whatever you do, advertise your efforts

The first goal of a good security system is to deter criminals from even trying to break in. To that end, make sure and advertise that you’ve got cameras and or alarms. As both an additional deterrent, and to help track down thieves after the fact, you may want to add a more extensive video monitoring system, separate from the minimal amount provided by your security system vendor. To get you started on that, we’ve provided a companion overview of DIY home video monitoring.

Use signs to advertise your use of security technology as a deterrentIf you do install additional outdoor cameras, you may want to hide some of them so that it isn’t obvious to a potential thief how they can work around or disable them. But even so, it’s much better to have visible deterrents prevent a crime than to have the consolation prize of a video record of a theft. If you do have visible cameras, you may want to make sure that they are recording to a separate location, so that simply removing the camera or its SD card won’t be enough for a criminal to erase the record of your actions.

You’ve just made yourself an IT administrator

The dark secret of any so-called Internet of Things solution is that they all require some amount of attention on a regular basis. For starters, all truly wireless devices need to have their batteries checked and replaced as needed. Those that are hard-wired for power, but use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for connectivity, can lose their connection and need to be reset or reconfigured.

Most devices will also require firmware updates. In some cases, those aren’t optional. For example, iSmartAlarm pushed an update to our Hub, and it meant I couldn’t use the cameras any more until I updated the firmware on each of them.

Limiting the damage if you are robbed

For many, the loss of a phone or computer is less painful than the loss of what they contain. There are some simple steps you can take to minimize the downside of having your favorite mobile or other computing devices ripped off. First, make sure everything you care about is backed up — either to the cloud, or at least to another device that is located somewhere unlikely to be found by thieves. That includes photos, videos, financial records, and so on.

Second, secure your devices to make it less likely that someone who steals them can use them to steal from you electronically, or steal your identity. Encrypting your hard drive, requiring a password on resume from sleep, and activating your phone’s Find My Phone feature are all excellent tactics. Similarly, a walk-through video of everything visible in your house or business will help you quickly notice what is missing, and provide some documentation for helping you file insurance claims.

Whichever system you install, pay attention to its message logs to make sure it isn’t trying to warn you about offline sensors or rundown batteries. You don’t want to find out that a sensor wasn’t working by having someone break in.

Now read: How to get started with DIY home surveillance systems

In time for Black Hat and DEFCON, we’re covering security, cyberwar, and online crime all this week; check out the rest of our Security Week stories for more in-depth coverage.

Source: ExtremeTech

How to get started with DIY home surveillance systems

How to get started with DIY home surveillance systems

There are a lot of reasons you may want to set up a video monitoring system for your home or business. Perhaps you want to complement a home security system, in light of the over two million home break-ins that occur annually in the USA. Or perhaps just to keep an eye on things when you’re not there. I know several business owners who not only watch what goes on in the office while they’re out, but interact with employees as needed using the systems they’ve installed.

There are quite a few options for those who want a turn key solution, ranging from professionally-installed-and-monitored systems to simple plug-and-play options like the Nest camera. But all of those tie you to a cloud vendor, who gets access to your data, and require a monthly fee. For those willing to roll up their sleeves and do some tech, like most ExtremeTech readers, we provide some information and tips on how to get started.

First you need to think about what areas you want monitored, and the cameras you’ll need to have to cover them. Security cameras come in all shapes and sizes. Here are a few of the major categories:

Front door / doorbell cameras

The Skybell HD is one of the most feature rich of the doorbell camera systemsA high-tech version of the traditional door peephole, doorbell cameras add not only an ability to listen to and speak with visitors without opening the door, but to do so even when you’re not home. The devices allow you to view the live stream from the peephole camera on your smartphone, and to speak to the person at the door through its speaker. Since potential burglars often ring the doorbell to see if anyone is home before deciding whether it’s safe to break in, you can potentially thwart a break-in by responding as if you are home. Even if you don’t, many of them can be set up to record the interaction, possibly giving you a visual record of one of the thieves. Many models also offer motion sensing as an alternate trigger.

The Ring Video Doorbell is one of the best known brands, with a solid offering. But quite a few new competitors are springing up, including Sky Bell HD, which has a feature-rich product that includes integration with Amazon’s Echo and IFTTT. Doorbell cameras are great as far as they go, but of course they’re only useful if prospective thieves step up within sight of your front door. To cover other cases, you’ll need to have one or more general-purpose security cameras.

Outdoor security cameras

Outdoor security cameras come with a variety of fields of view. Before choosing one, you might want to map out the area you want to cover, and how many your budget will accommodate. The wider the field of view, the lower the amount of detail you can capture for a given camera resolution. Some cameras also offer remote pan and zoom controls, but unless you are going to be actively monitoring them, that probably isn’t very useful. Along with field of view, think about whether you need day monitoring, night vision, or both. High-resolution RGB cameras are best for daytime use, but if you need night vision, choose one that also has high-powered IR emitters and good IR sensitivity.

Next, you need to think about how the cameras will be wired and powered. One clean solution is to use models that support Power over Ethernet (PoE) and then run a single cable to them. That gives you both long-term operation using hardwired power and dependable data transfer. Wi-Fi is also an option, but often outdoor locations will have poor reception from your inside router, so you may not get the video quality the camera is capable of. Battery operation is also another possibility, but you’ll need to monitor and replace the batteries as needed. Typically, battery-operated units are also only useful for motion-activated recording, as 24/7 recording will wear the batteries out very quickly. IR emitters for night-time use also consume power.

Trail cameras like this inexpensive Bushnell model made excellent outdoor security cameras if you don't need live monitoringIf you have a large property, or want a nice, turn-key, option for outdoor locations, trail cameras are another option. There are many priced around $100-$150 that do an okay job — I’ve been testing ones from Stealth Cam and Bushnell which take very good images and video, but are a little slow to trigger. My favorite in that price range so far is the Bushnell Trophy Cam HD, as it can capture both 1080p video and 14MP photos following each motion event.

Units that can capture enough detail so you can read a license plate from a long distance, like the Reconyx SM750, are significantly more expensive, $650 and up. Trail cams have been popular for years, so vendors have gotten good at optimizing their battery usage. Some can last for months, depending on how many images you capture and how much video you record after motion events. Most units record on an SD card, but more expensive models offer Wi-Fi connectivity for smartphone downloading, or even cellular transmission of alerts and images.

Indoor security cameras

The fantasy with indoor security cameras is that they can alert you to motion or sound in a timely fashion, let you judge for yourself whether it’s a break-in, and then let you call police or take some other action. In reality, most burglars have gotten so used to having to deal with security systems of various kinds, they’re unlikely to stay in your house or business long enough for all that to happen. They might also disconnect your internet before entering the building, rendering the notification capability moot.

With the above said, indoor security cams do have a lot of potential, especially if they are motion or sound triggered. First, if they are set to record video clips after motion events, you may well have a record of the thieves. Second, if you do get a notification from your security system, many police departments will not respond unless you have some evidence that there’s actually a break in. If you are looking at a video of intruders when you call them, you have that evidence. Third, like with any visible security device, it is one more hint to criminals that they’re not welcome and need to get out of there quickly. That may help minimize any loss.

Note that cameras which rely on motion in the video frame, instead of a dedicated low-power motion sensor, need to be on all the time. That means they typically should be plugged in for best results. Our sister site did a round up of some of the best consumer-friendly security cameras, although often you can spend less if you are willing to roll your own recording system like we describe below. Also, remember that simple webcams normally require a computer to operate, so make sure you get an IP-enabled camera. If you want to store your own recordings, make sure to get one that will stream over its IP interface.

Pro tip: Make it hard for thieves to get to your valuables once they are in your house. Locking interior doors and closets can be helpful, as well as keeping items out of sight and in non-obvious locations. That way, less can be taken in the windows the burglars think they have before the police arrive or someone notices the break in.

Storing your recordings

A NAS, like this Synology unit, makes a great place to store your video recordings. Many come with software for video monitoring, motion detection, and remote accessThe final big issues when selecting cameras and software are where your recordings will go and whether you want to be alerted about motion (or sound) events in real time. Many simple cameras, like the well-known Dropcam, rely on paid (and typically limited) cloud storage for videos. Assuming clever criminals haven’t cut your internet connection, cloud storage is at least safe from on-site tampering. However, it isn’t usually practical for 24/7 recording.

Another easy option is an SD card, offered on many “standalone” cameras like Samsung’s SmartCam. That gives you free storage (up to the limit of the card). As long as the camera supports writing over the oldest videos when it is full, SD card-based supporting works well for both motion-activated and continuous recording. The downside of SD recording is that a burglar can simply pop the SD card out of the camera and take it with them. Some cameras, like the SmartCam, have a base unit that contains the SD card separate from the camera, so you might be able to place that in a more secure location.

If you are willing to do a little administration, and buy some networked storage, you can also use a NAS or a PC-based file server to store your recordings. I’ve been using Surveillance Station, a limited version of which is included with Synology NAS units. It’s a little awkward and can be sluggish, but has a good feature set and supports many specific cameras as well as the generic ONVIF interface to video cameras. You can also use a Windows PC and one of the many available applications, including iSpy, which is open source.

One of the great things about doing your own recording is that you can use inexpensive, generic, cameras, like the ones from GW Security, using ONVIF instead of paying up for a cloud-enabled brand name version. My $120 GW Security camera captures even better video than my $200 Samsung SmartCam HD, but doesn’t have an SD card slot or integrated cloud support and management. If you do record locally, try to make sure your server is in a hard-to-access location, like a locked closet. If it gets taken, so do your recordings. In my case, I record full 24/7 video to a pair of NAS units, along with video of motion detection events to local SD cards and the cloud.

DIY License Plate Reader

For those with a little more ambition, it’s possible to create your own Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR). The commercial version of these devices are gaining traction with law enforcement agencies around the world, but until recently it hasn’t been possible to set up on easily at home. OpenALPR is an open-source code base for license plate reading. It is connected to a cloud-based management dashboard — which has a free option for those with limited needs. The code runs on Linux, but I was able to get it running on Windows using the provided VirtualBox Virtual Machine image. Much like other cloud-based device management systems, you register your device with your account, and then simply start up the license plate recognition daemon.

Sample output of OpenALPR cloud dashboard

The biggest hurdle to successful license plate recognition is the camera design and placement. You need to have the lettering on the plates be at least 15 pixels high for best results. The plate is most easily read when coming straight towards the camera, minimizing motion blur. To accomplish this, pros use a box camera on which they mount a telephoto lens, but for driveway use, a more traditional camera placed carefully can do the job. However, you’ll want to find one with a relatively narrow field of view, compared with many general purpose security cameras that are designed to cover as wide an area as possible. Obviously you can manually scan your video footage for plates. But it’s kind of cool to have the plate number pop up automatically on a dashboard when someone drives into your driveway.

The IT in IoT: Your now a network administrator

No matter what system you choose, you’ll be dealing with occasional firmware updates, network outages, and potentially dropped connections between any wireless devices in use. Make sure and test each of your cameras and recording devices on a regular basis. Sometimes vendors push a firmware update out to one component in a system that requires other pieces to be manually updated before it will all work again.

The Nest Revolv website reflecting the product's abandonment. After user pressure, Nest has now agreed to issue refunds.Even worse, vendors can cripple or kill devices, like Nest did with the gesture interface on its smoke alarm and its Revolv hub. As a recent example of awful vendor behavior, Samsung pushed a firmware update to its SmartCam Pro models that disables their IP-based monitoring interface. That made the cameras suddenly stop working with local server based monitoring solutions (like the one we use here — Synology’s Surveillance Station). Fortunately there is a partial workaround, but it’s something of a hack and doesn’t support audio. To top it off, Samsung suspiciously timed the change to coincide with its rollout of a paid cloud plan.

That brings up the next issue — recurring costs. Increasingly, vendors are trying to jump on the monthly fee bandwagon for cloud-based access to increase revenue. If you choose to store your videos in the cloud instead of locally, you could easily wind up having to pay separate fees each month for your doorbell camera, security cameras, and security system. That’s one of the great advantages of doing some setup and administration yourself, as it minimizes your long-term costs.

In time for Black Hat and DEFCON, we’re covering security, cyberwar, and crime all this week; check out the rest of our Security Week stories for more. And check out ourExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.

Source: ExtremeTech

Amazon robots close to replacing the rest of warehouse workers

Amazon robots close to replacing the rest of warehouse workers

For anyone wondering whether robots are gaining ground on people when it comes to performing repetitive tasks, you need look no further than the Amazon Picking Challenge. Having long ago automated the movement of goods in its warehouses through its acquisition of Kiva Robotics, Amazon is now looking at technology to reduce the number of people needed to pack boxes. It recently hosted a DARPA-challenge-style contest, featuring over a dozen teams from the around the world, whose robots competed for the title of best autonomous box packer. This contest, its second one, took place in Leipzig, Germany, and featured a more complex “Pick” task than the first challenge Amazon held last year in Seattle, and a new “Stow” task for unloading.

Team Delft's robot holds up its first place award

Credit: Team Delft

Team Delft’s robot, featuring both a two-fingered gripper and a suction device, achieved top scores and times in both the box picking-and-packing, and the reverse un-packing and restocking, to take home the $50,000 first place prize. Amazon kept things interesting by using a dozen differently shaped objects in each task, and 40 items overall in the contest. This meant the robot had to adapt its picking strategy to each specific item. Teams were given a JSON file with an item list and work order five minutes before the challenge began.

Breaking new ground in flexibility

The flexibility to handle the wide-variety of objects found in an Amazon warehouse is perhaps the largest breakthrough needed to make general-purpose warehouse robots a reality. Currently most package handling robots are designed with a single, or small number of related, package sizes and shapes in mind — or their cargo is prepackaged or paletted for easy automated handling. Many of the robots, including the one from Team Delft, included a depth-sensing camera to help identify the objects and their exact size and location.

More classic warehouse robots like this one are designed to move a large number of very-similar objects, not a wide variety of different products

Credit: Team Delft

In addition to timing the robots, Amazon deducted points for damaging an item, dropping it more than a foot, or misplacing it on the shelf. Objects ranged from a T-shirt to a dumbbell. Delft’s point score was matched by Japan’s Team PFN, but the Dutch team performed its task about 30 seconds faster, giving it first place.

Team leaders and event organizers provided some cheery words about a future where people and robots would work side-by-side in the warehouse — especially since current-technology robots are only expected to be able to handle about 50% of the variety of products — but the long-term trajectory is the replacement of workers performing repetitive tasks with machines.

A large part of what makes these new applications possible is deep learning. Using the same type of software tools that have enabled facial recognition and early-stage autonomous vehicles, these prototype warehouse robots identified objects and pattern-matched their shapes and attributes with the appropriate picking and packing strategies.

[Top image credit: Amazon]

Now read: Artificial neural networks are changing the world. What are they?

Source: ExtremeTech

Jaunt opens its industry-leading VR capture tech to other studios

Jaunt opens its industry-leading VR capture tech to other studios

There has been a lot of attention paid recently to several excellent new rigs for capturing high-quality 360-degree stereo video — especially the open-source Facebook Surround 360. But VR-leader Jaunt still has what may be the best rig in production. Featuring 24 synchronized, global-shutter cameras and a lot of proprietary back-end software, Jaunt has used its own Studio arm to create some of the highest-quality VR videos available. Now, Jaunt is making its camera rigs and access to its back-end processing pipeline available to others.

Starting next month, Radiant Images will begin renting Jaunt ONE rigs, and access to the needed post-processing tools that do the image processing, stitching, and generate stereo views. We haven’t heard exact pricing yet, but the company says the rental fees will be in line with other, similar rigs. Since the Jaunt ONE is assumed to cost over $100K, don’t expect the rental to be low enough for hobbyists or amateurs, but for anyone needing to capture an event or film a short project, renting is often a good alternative.

Why high-end VR capture rigs are expensive

The space age design of Facebook's Surround 360 is deceptively simple structurallyWith consumer-grade 360-degree cameras like the very-usable Ricoh Theta S costing less than $400, it’s natural to wonder why high-end rigs cost more than a hundred times as much. For starters, to get the needed 6K or 8K video resolution, you need expensive sensors — especially since tricky lighting means they need to each have high dynamic range. Then, to stitch them together and generate stereo views, it is really helpful for those cameras to have global shutters (so the entire frame is captured at once). Otherwise you risk a lot of artifacts.

To make those stereo views realistic at every viewing angle, you also need a lot of cameras (Facebook’s rig has 17, Jaunt’s has 24). On top of that, the cameras must be perfectly synchronized, and include the hardware to capture and read out a huge amount of video. Many rigs, including the Jaunt ONE, also include an array of microphones that capture 360-degree sound fields.

Until recently, high-end VR production studios almost all designed their own capture rigs. That will still be the case for many studios. But between the open-source Facebook Surround 360 rig and the commercial availability of systems like the Samsung Odyssey and the Nokia Ozo, as well as availability for rent of rigs like the Jaunt ONE, many studios will be able to get out of the hardware business and concentrate on content creation.

Source: ExtremeTech

Stereolabs brings position tracking to mobile VR using its Zed camera pair

Stereolabs brings position tracking to mobile VR using its Zed camera pair

Adding to the cost and complexity of VR has been the need for fixed external sensors to enable positional tracking. Oculus Rift uses one small sensor for human-scale tracking, while the Vive relies on two to provide room-scale VR. 3D imaging pioneer Stereolabs is aiming to change that, by enabling full position tracking — at human-scale, room-scale, and beyond — using its ZED stereo camera and a lot of Nvidia GPU horsepower. With the right GPU solution, this approach can even be made to work with mobile VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR.

I got to try out a mobile rig with this capability on a visit to Stereolabs’ San Francisco office. I was able to take advantage of the large open area of the Upload VR collective to roam around in both fully virtual game environments, and in one the company had created using its camera to create a 3D model of a real-world scene.

Tracking location and motion through imaging isn’t new. The technique, called SLAM, has been around for a long time — and is in use in other products like Lenovo’s upcoming Tango-based phone. But having it work accurately in real time continues to be challenging. The tracking provided by the Stereolabs system was accurate in my experience, and felt similar to when I’ve used a Vive or Rift. There was a bit of a lag, which Stereolabs attributes to the status of the demos as essentially thrown-together prototypes to illustrate the capabilities of their developer kit. Especially when used with a mobile headset, I can see that completely-eliminating lag will be an ongoing issue, as the camera data needs to be sent to an off-board GPU (either on a PC or a Jetson-embedded unit), and then back to the headset itself for incorporation into the running game engine code.

Why position tracking matters

Looking at a virtual world with a Gear VR and ZED cameraPosition tracking is important because it allows you to physically move around in a virtual world. Without it, you can look around (typically tracked by the headset’s sensors), but motion in a line isn’t tracked — so you can’t walk, jump, or dodge, for example. For 360-degree video consumption, this may not matter much, as often those videos only support a single viewpoint at any given point in the video. But for more immersive games and experiences, and many commercial and industrial applications, moving around in a scene is critical.

The Zed depth-sensing camera is stylish, but of course doesn’t look all that great glued to the top of a headset. Stereolabs is planning to create future versions that are easier to integrate with headsets. It’s pure speculation on my part, but with the rumors of a stereo camera in the iPhone 7, I can imagine a time when phone-powered headsets will have enough imaging and processing capability to run a system like this completely natively. Similarly, adding a Zed camera to an existing headset is actually more expensive than coupling it with a simple location-sensing system. So, for the Stereolabs solution to become practical for consumers, it will need to be integrated in a nicer and significantly less expensive form factor.

Anyone with a ZED camera (priced at $449) can download the updated SDK that includes position tracking. As with the current version, it requires an Nvidia CUDA-capable GPU to run.

Source: ExtremeTech

Adobe adds more magic to Photoshop, Creative Cloud apps

Adobe adds more magic to Photoshop, Creative Cloud apps

Adobe continues to deliver on its promise of frequent updates to its Creative Suite applications and services with this week’s Creative Cloud update. There is something there for everyone, divided by Adobe into three categories: Adobe Magic, or cool new features and tricks for image, video, and audio processing; Efficient Workflows, or features that help you get your tasks done faster; and Performance improvements. There are some of each in the new version, which is called the Creative Cloud June 2016 release. Of course, the most fun parts are the Magic, so we’ll start there.

Photoshop Content-Aware Crop

One of the annoying side-effects of rotating an image to straighten out the horizon or for artistic effect is needing to crop it down to only the pixels that are in both the original and desired framing — or fill in the missing portion by hand. Photoshop can now help you backfill the rest of the image with something that looks like it might belong there. Like the rest of Adobe’s content-aware tools, this is a pretty nifty trick. Here you can see it in action as I rotate a portrait and let Photoshop do the rest:

Content-aware crop is primarily designed to fill in the areas of a rotated image that would otherwise be lost or need to be filled in manually

Content-aware crop is primarily designed to fill in the areas of a rotated image that would otherwise be lost or need to be filled in manually.

In this case Content-aware crop worked really well on the upper corners, but left a lot of problems when it filled in the lower corners

In this case Content-aware crop worked really well on the upper corners, but left a lot of problems when it filled in the lower corners.

Another great use for this tool is for those of us who like to print on canvas. With canvas, you can print on the outside edges. But unless you’ve deliberately framed your image very loose, there typically isn’t a good way to do that easily. Either you wind up with too little of your image on the front (with the rest being on the wrapped sides), or you have to paint in areas for the wrap (or give up and just print a solid color there).

Content-aware crop is the perfect solution to the above problem. It can fill in plausible additional content when you use it (simply use the crop tool to make the image larger — enough to accommodate the wrapped sides — and turn on Content-aware). What makes this an ideal use case is that the sides certainly don’t have to be perfect. They aren’t really part of the main image, so as long as they’re “good enough” the effect works perfectly. Here I used it to create a canvas-wrap-sized version of an image of a Burmese fisherman that looks great on canvas — and even better with realistic content on the wrapped sides:

Content-aware crop can be used to fill the outside of a rotated or scaled image with pixels that resemble the outside of the image

Content-aware crop can be used to fill the outside of a rotated or scaled image with pixels that resemble the outside of the image.

The result of content-aware crop can be amazingly realistic and is perfect for applications like creating canvases with synthetic edges

The result of content-aware crop can be amazingly realistic and is perfect for applications like creating canvases with synthetic edges.

Adobe has also made Content-aware fill four times as fast, which is probably part of why the new Content-aware crop feature operates quite quickly.

Photoshop’s Face Liquify means you’ll be even less able to trust what you see on the web

We’re all used to seeing funny or misleading “Photoshopped” images, on the web and in print. Perhaps fortunately, it is usually pretty hard to modify images so that they pass more than a cursory examination. With Face Liquify, Adobe puts changing people’s faces and expressions within reach of anyone with Photoshop. The Liquify command now automatically recognizes faces, and allows you to widen or narrow eyes, lips, and noses, or even the entire face or head.

You can also slightly magnify the size of a smile or frown, although I wasn’t able to actually change one into the other. The changes themselves are fairly subtle, but they are so easy, and look like they have been done professionally. The new feature will be a hit not only with portrait and wedding photographers, but also with hobbyists who just want to make their families look a little different. One of its more remarkable feats was that it allowed me to adjust the size of eyes that were hidden behind sunglasses.

Premiere Pro becomes 360 video and VR friendly

With the rapid growth in the creation of 360-degree video — which is a more descriptive term than VR, since it typically doesn’t allow the viewer to move around in the scene, although it can be used as part of a VR experience — it is natural that Adobe would extend Premiere Pro to support the editing and rendering of panoramic videos up to 360 degrees. It does this by adding a VR editing mode to the program and source viewers that can display a settable portion of the overall captured video.

To use the new mode, you’d typically use its Settings dialog to the horizontal and vertical field of view of your camera (360 and 180 for a full sphere) and then adjust the monitor display FOV settings to reflect the most likely headset choice. The new VR mode supports both mono and stereo input videos, and can render either mono or stereo. One nice tweak is that the renderer has a VR setting that causes it to add the needed tags to make sure online sites and headset software know how to render the video (otherwise this is a separate step after you upload to YouTube, for example).

Premiere Pro now allows you to edit and render 360-degree video as well as preview how it will look through a headset

Premiere Pro now allows you to edit and render 360-degree video as well as preview how it will look through a headset.

Adobe Stock is now front and center

For those creating commercial content, the ability to quickly search for, preview, and license images and video is crucial. Adobe has been integrating its stock library into its Creative tools for a while, but now the combined solution is more seamless than ever. You can now license images right from the Layers panel of Photoshop, or the Canvas of Illustrator or InDesign. Adobe has also added a new, curated collection of 100,000 images, but hasn’t provided many details beyond that. For photographers and videographers who want to contribute to Adobe Stock, Adobe is planning a new Contributor Portal that it appears will use object recognition to automatically tag submitted images.

Perhaps not as headline-grabbing as the update to Adobe Stock, the Libraries panel has also been enhanced, with additional searching and filtering options. This will be a welcome upgrade for teams that have been trying to use Adobe-cloud-hosted Libraries to share assets. Another nifty feature is that Photoshop will look for a font from your system (or your licensed fonts) that matches the typeface used in a document or photo. That’ll save a lot of time for anyone who has tried to match the look of another web page or document without knowing exactly what typefaces were used or which of their own typefaces it is similar to.

The June 2016 release of Creative Cloud includes a number of other improvements to a variety of CC apps and services

The June 2016 release of Creative Cloud includes a number of other improvements to a variety of CC apps and services.

Adobe is moving quickly to become cloud-first

Personally, I still think of the set of tools Adobe licenses for use on the desktop as Adobe’s Creative Suite, but Adobe no longer distinguishes between apps and services that way. All its capabilities are now under the rubric Creative Cloud, and increasingly new features relate to sharing assets with teams using its servers — like its CreativeSync capability — or are built entirely as online experiences, like its new Adobe Spark family of applications. For teams that are built around creating using Adobe’s tools, this makes perfect sense. And Adobe continues to deliver value for those teams. For the more casual user, Adobe is likely to have its hands full, as consumer-focused companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google compete with it to be the primary cloud service provider and repository for user’s images and videos.

In the meantime, the good news is that for anyone with an appropriate Creative Cloud subscription — Photography or Photoshop single-app for the Photoshop changes, Premiere single-app for the Premiere changes, or All Apps to get everything — the updated versions are immediately available through your Creative Cloud application.

[Image credit: Cardinal Photo]

Source: ExtremeTech

High-tech lidar helps uncover secrets Angkor Wat has hidden for centuries

High-tech lidar helps uncover secrets Angkor Wat has hidden for centuries

It has long been the accepted wisdom that the magnificent temples at Angkor in Cambodia — with Angkor Wat the most famous — were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what was once the Khmer Kingdom. There is almost no written record from the period when the Khmer dominated much of Southeast Asia and its kings built hundreds of massive stone structures. Many of those structures have been found, along with inscriptions that reflect critical information about Khmer royalty, but little information has been available about Khmer society as a whole. Until recently, all we have had to go on are accounts from travelers, circumstantial evidence, and a relatively small number of artifacts that point to the previous existence of major cities and additional temples in what is now Cambodian jungle.

That’s all changed thanks to some impressive and extensive use of lidar-equipped helicopters to accurately chart the ground underneath the dense foliage. To an impressive extent, the lidar data shows where walls, and other large structures like moats, canals, roads, ponds, quarries, forges, and smelters, were located. Previously, it was necessary to physically clear and excavate sites before knowing whether there was anything to find. Now, with the lidar data, archaeologists can precisely target their efforts.

How lidar measures the ground

Some ancient quarries like this one at Beng Mealea are easy to see but others remained undiscovered until they were detected by lidarThe idea behind lidar (short for light detection and ranging) is simple. A laser is projected and its return is precisely timed, allowing the device to closely-measure the distance of whatever reflected the lidar. If the laser is then scanned across an area, an accurate depth map of the surroundings can be created. Most of us are familiar with the use of lidar for self-driving cars and obstacle-avoiding drones, but it is also excellent for building models of building and terrain. To accomplish that, the laser emitter and detector have to be coupled with a high-precision clock and a GPS and IMU so that its output can be correctly placed on a map.

A simple, or single-return, lidar only measures the distance to the first object encountered. But more-sophisticated, multiple-return, lidar systems can measure up to four return values for each laser pulse (along with an intensity value for each of those). The first return will typically be the top of whatever foliage is located where the pulse hits, and subsequent returns would either be lower portions of foliage or, eventually, the ground itself. The laser doesn’t pass through trees or leaves, but there are typically enough gaps that some of the pulses will make it to the ground and be measured. Post-processing the data allows for maps of both the foliage and the terrain to be made from the same set of scans.

How lidar makes the invisible, visible

It’s not intuitive that accurately measuring ground elevations will highlight where walls were 1,000 years ago. In fact, you can walk over many of those areas and not notice the variation in height with your eye. In this case, most of the ground is also covered with dense forest, making visual observation and measurements impossible. Lidar, though, solves both of these problems, by being extremely accurate and by cutting through the foliage.

This illustration shows clearly how much data is available from the lower, lidar-scan layer, compared to a traditional photograph of the area around Angkor Wat.

This illustration shows clearly how much data is available from the lower, lidar-scan layer, compared to a traditional photograph of the area around Angkor Wat.

Building on earlier work

The recent, expanded, lidar survey builds on an initial effort undertaken under the guidance of a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney’s Dr. Damian Evans and Professor Roland Fletcher.  That survey of 370 square kilometers undertaken in 2012 helped settle once and for all the debate over whether the Khmer civilization was a disconnected set of small cities and towns or one massive-and-interconnected urban sprawl — one that relied on an extremely-large set of irrigation projects for its high crop yields. The study lent additional credence to the theory that a combination of factors, including a change in the climate, caused those yields to falter and the civilization to decay. It also documented the sheer scale of the cities. The largest, built around the Angkor Thom “city temple” was previously estimated to include the 9 square kilometers enclosed by the temple walls, but was shown in the scans to encompass 35 square kilometers.

Reservoirs like this one -- Srah Srang -- have been proven to play a key role in the success of the Khmer agriculture, and thus the Khmer civilization for several centuries.

Reservoirs like this one — Srah Srang — have been proven to play a key role in the success of the Khmer agriculture, and thus the Khmer civilization for several centuries.

The most recent work, a much larger 734-square-mile scan, has helped address the next piece of the Khmer puzzle. Many scientists had postulated that the Khmer abandoned their cities near Angkor and fled when crops began to fail. But the new scans, and other scans undertaken as part of other projects, have shown that there weren’t any alternate city sites, so the residents clearly didn’t resettle elsewhere en masse. The teams full report will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science later this month.

Mahendraparvata: Discovering an entire city using lidar

It has long been speculated that there was a city that pre-dated Angkor in the area of Phnom Kulen — the site where the first Khmer King, Jayavarman II, declared independence from Java. Everyone, especially including the team behind the recent lidar overflights, expected it to be there. It had a name, Mahendraparvata, but not much beyond circumstantial evidence that it actually existed. That changed with the first round of scanning in 2012, which allowed the full scope of the ancient city to unfold in detail on the computer screens of Damian Evans and his team. Perhaps inspired by the dramatic revelations of the 2012 work, the team got funding for the much-more-extensive 2015 project.

A boon to tourism?

Since being reopened to tourism two decades ago, Cambodian temples have seen explosive growth in the number of visitors nearly every year — from a few hundred thousand the first year I visited in 2005, to millions annually now. Perhaps fortunately, both the difficulty of finding and restoring them in the jungle, and the large amount of un-exploded ordinance near many of them kept them off the tourist track until they could be properly protected and carefully restored.

Landmines kept this temple, Beng Melea, off the tourist route for many years. Unlike Angkor, it has been left mostly in the same semi-ruined state in which it was found.

Landmines and poor roads kept Beng Melea, off the tourist route for many years. Unlike Angkor, it has been left mostly in the same semi-ruined state in which it was found. This “library” is only a small portion of the forest-covered expanse.

Until recently, Cambodian temples have been a victim of their own success. The main temples have gotten very crowded, and many who had Angkor Wat on their bucket list have now “seen it” and checked it off as part of a larger tour. Now, however, it’s clear that there is a lot more history to be discovered and explored, possibly in more of an ecotourist-inspired way. Even if more tourists don’t come, the additional finds will provide a better experience for those who do, as they will be able to spread out across even more sites.

Images like this one of the classic tree growing through Ta Phrom aren't possible any more. Abuse by careless tourists has forced the construction of a viewing platform and railing.

Images like this one of the classic tree growing through Ta Phrom aren’t possible any more. Abuse by careless tourists has forced the construction of a viewing platform and railing.

While the Angkor lidar projects are groundbreaking in many ways, they are definitely far from the first. Lidar has also been used to investigate the extent of Mayan ruins, for example. Longer-term, I think this is only the beginning of a new phase of exploration. Combining lidar, multi-spectral imaging, and AI for recognizing patterns is likely to provide an exciting set of new discoveries in Cambodia and elsewhere in the world where ancient secrets lay hidden.

Image Credits: [PNAS, Cardinal Photo]

Source: ExtremeTech

Razer ups the ante in its fight to keep VR open with upgraded HDK2 headset

Razer ups the ante in its fight to keep VR open with upgraded HDK2 headset

If there is a dark cloud over the rapid emergence of VR games and entertainment content, it is the walled-garden approach being taken by some of the leaders in the space — particularly Oculus. When you buy an app or a game from the Oculus Store, it will only run with an Oculus-powered headset, even though you typically pay just as much for it as a version that will play on any PC with any monitor (and often any headset). Gamer-focused Razer has taken the issue head on, pushing an Open Source VR platform — OSVR — and providing open hardware to power it. Today Razer demoed its HDK2 headset, that features similar specs to the Oculus Rift headset for $200 less.

HDK2 is a solid upgrade

The HDK2 upgrades the HDK’s resolution to parity with current versions of the Rift and the HTC Vive — 2160 x 1200, running at 90 fps. That’s widely considered the minimum spec for immersive gaming and VR experiences.  The headset also features what Razer calls Image Quality Enhancement (IQE) to reduce the screendoor effect. This sounds like an anti-aliasing filter. The HDK2 doesn’t come with any audio, so you’re on your own for headphones, but the headset does have a Surround Sound codec integrated.

There also aren’t any included controllers, but Razer is working hard to ensure that there are a wide variety of controllers that are compatible with its OSVR platform. There is a 100Hz IR camera included for position tracking, and additional USB 3.0 connectors for expansion — making the HDK2 the most flexible VR headset platform out there. The HDK2’s facemask is removable and features a bamboo charcoal microfiber foam layer. Eyeglass wearers will appreciate that the lenses can be individually tuned from +4.5 to -2 diopters, which should allow most to play without the additional hassle of prescription glasses.

OSVR supporters include...For most gamers, the best feature will be its tight integration with the SteamVR platform. Personally I love that my Steam games are becoming VR-enabled over time, and I can play them on the headset of my choice — typically for no additional charge. Even the HDK2 itself is open, so modules can be reprogrammed or replaced. That makes for a slightly clunkier design than its competitors, but makes it a great choice for hackers and developers. OSVR itself hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but is backed by some big names among its 300 corporate supporters, including Magic Leap and Intel. When I spoke with him, OSVR head Michael Lee provided a compelling case for energizing the gaming and VR enthusiast community around the idea of an open platform that would allow the mixing and matching of headsets, controllers, and other accessories. Razer is helping kickstart OSVR with a $5 million investment in helping companies pay for the expense of making their content OSVR-ready.

Despite the full name of the device — Hacker Development Kit 2 — Razer is clearly hoping to go beyond the hacker and developer community with the HDK2. Unlike with its earlier HDK (still available for $299), the HDK2 is also aimed at gamers and other consumers ready to take the plunge into VR. The HDK2 will be available in July for $399, making it the least-expensive way to get a premium VR experience on your PC. I look forward to trying one out and updating our guide to purchasing the right VR headset.

Source: ExtremeTech

Hands on with Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro Tango augmented reality phone

Hands on with Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro Tango augmented reality phone

Long a leader in outdoor mapping and location-based solutions like Maps and Street View, Google has wanted to break new ground by innovating in indoor navigation and location-aware applications. It has been teasing the market with several iterations of its Project Tango (now just called Tango) technology — but ones that were only available to developers. That changed with Lenovo officially revealing the first Tango-enabled consumer device, the Phab2 Pro smartphone. Lenovo and Google jointly their announced their intent to collaborate on a phone back at CES, but now I was able to try one out and run through the apps that are expected to ship with it.

One practical application of Lenovo's Phab2 Pro is this Lowe's app that helps with remodeling and interior designThe phone itself is named “phab” for a reason. It’s thin, but big — sporting a nice-looking 6.4-inch QHD IPS-powered display. It also houses a total of four cameras — one 8MP front-facing, one 16MP traditional camera, a depth camera with emitter, and a separate fisheye camera for better motion tracking. For audio, it not only has Dolby ATMOS for output, but supports Dolby 5.1 Capture using a microphone array — apparently a first among smartphones. The phone sports a custom Qualcomm 652, 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, and a microSD slot. It runs a Lenovo-customized version of Android Marshmallow, and is expected to be available in September for a fairly aggressive unlocked price of $499 through Best Buy in the US, and other distributors globally.

Tango enables a whole new class of augmented reality apps

Apps include a “walk with dinosaurs” experience from the American Museum of Natural History that allows you to place, scale, and rotate dinosaurs in your room, a cool augmented reality domino game, an introduction demo, and an app that allows you to measure distances in your environment.

The Tango apps are cool, like this dinosaur demo, but still need a little workAll the apps were fun to use, but also showed some of Tango’s rough edges. For example, while I could place a dinosaur anywhere on the floor, it didn’t show up behind objects like a railing that were actually closer. Similarly, the measurement app was good for nearby, relatively contained objects like furniture, but as I moved it around to measure the distance from a nearby piece of furniture to random spots on the floor it became confused. I suspect this is due to the limitations of the emitter-based time-of-flight distance sensor.

Lenovo is also partnering with Lowe’s home improvement company to offer an application that allows you to visualize remodeling and refurnishing a room. This is similar to existing applications from Ikea and others, but takes advantage of the Tango technology to automatically scale the room and the furniture.

Lenovo is clearly aiming the Phab2 Pro at consumers, but I’m a bit skeptical how many “regular folks” will want to haul around a phablet to use these additional capabilities. There is a lot of potential for AR-based gaming — like the domino game developed by Schell Games, so I do see a lot of families looking at one of these as an alternative to the more traditional iPad to keep their children occupied. I can also see a lot of potential for vertical applications in industry, real estate, and other markets — the way that Google Glass and various other existing AR devices have found a home there.

Source: ExtremeTech

Hands on with Lenovo’s new ‘snap-together’ Moto Z flagship phone

Hands on with Lenovo’s new ‘snap-together’ Moto Z flagship phone

Google’s Project Ara has been targeted at the creation of low-cost, modular phones, often called “grey phones” (or gray phones if you prefer), due to their plain nature. But now, Motorola-buyer Lenovo is introducing a pair of flagship phones — the Moto Z and Moto Z Force — based on a beefed up version of a similar technology. One way to think of the Moto Z is as a flagship version of the modular Grey Phone. Instead of using its modularity to reduce cost, or trade off between system components, its Moto Mods snap-together architecture is designed to allow a range of peripherals to quickly and easily attach to an already fully-featured phone — a little like docking connectors on some laptops.

The Moto Z comes in two versions, both featuring an all-metal chassis. The base model features a SnapDragon 820, 4GB of memory, a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, 32 or 64GB of storage, as well as optical image stabilization for its main camera, a microSD slot, and a water-repellant coating. Reflecting the popularity of selfies, the Z even features a separate flash for the front-facing camera. The Force version upgrades the camera from 13MP to 21MP, adds phase-detect autofocus, beefs the battery up by 1/3rd, adds a shatterproof screen and even faster charging — 50% in 20 minutes. The Z and Z Force will arrive as Droid-branded exclusives with Verizon this summer, and then be available more generally in the fall.

Lenovo hopes Moto Mods will be the future for phone accessories

It's not often that a connector takes center stage, but here Lenovo showcases the 16-pin Moto Mod snap-together technologyLenovo showed off several accessories that use the new capability. The most interesting is Insta-Share, essentially a pico projector with kickstand massaged into a phone back form factor. One cool feature of Insta-Share is that it uses the phone’s accelerometer to do auto-keystoning (it assumes your projection surface is vertical). At 6 feet it projects a 70-inch diagonal display, which is viewable if you are in a dark environment. If there is a lot of light, 2 or 3 feet is more practical.

JBL has created an impressive-sounding audio accessory — SoundBoost — that can play up to 10 hours of music using its own battery through its speakers. Like the projector, the JBL speakers feature a small kickstand for propping up your phone. It can also double as a speakerphone. Of course there are also some battery add-on products coming, and Lenovo showed at least a concept for an accessory that supports HDMI output. As you’d expect from Motorola, there are also a variety of backs made from materials including wood that can be snapped onto the phone.

The Z is extremely thin (5.2mm), but the slim design means it gives up a headphone jack. This is part of a push by Intel to have USB-C replace traditional audio jacks — both to save space and allow digital audio. Lenovo does facilitate this change by shipping a USB-C to headphone jack adapter. Another side effect of the ultra-slim design is that the 13MP rear-facing camera sticks out from the rest of the phone. That’s not an issue if you’ve snapped an accessory or rear cover on, but might be annoying to some who use the phone without any attachments.

The Moto Mod developer kit will contain an extensive set of both software and hardware prototyping toolsLenovo execs described this new technology as game changing, but that seems like a bold claim for what is basically a programmable magnetic connector. Lenovo is doing what it can to help the Moto Mod spec become popular. The hardware and software will both be open sourced, so support could be extended to other operating systems, or even other hardware. Certainly they are out first (or will be when the developer kit ships this fall), but I expect to see both additional innovation around the increasingly-popular USB-C connector, and perhaps other competitive modular interconnects from other smartphone vendors.

Source: ExtremeTech