Google X

NASA Teams with Google X to give ISIS a New Set of Eyes

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There’s life events where you never forget where you were, or what you were doing. I was almost 7 years old when Neil Armstrong uttered the most famous line – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It always stuck with me.

Exploring space has influenced countless communications, hardware, software, and material science innovations. Being the third nation in space, Canada’s history of innovation is a rich one. BetaKit has featured the likes of Dr. Alan Winter for his early work in satellite technology, Commander Chris Hadfield for his leadership aboard the International Space Station, and the recent efforts of Vancouver’s UrtheCast to deliver us a 24/7 High Definition view of earth from space.

It’s the fascination of meaningful science behind space exploration that had me excited to learn more about the SPHERES program and Project Tango at O’Reilly Media’s first ever Solid Conference. Over 1400 people attended two days of talks and demos. The event was an enthusiastic exchange of ideas about the present and future for the Internet of Things, as well as the coming together of our digital and physical spaces.

With keynote speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii with MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts featuring over 100 talks, there was plenty fuelling the imagination.

Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google X first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

SphereNASA’s Zachary Moratto (Engineer at SGT / NASA Ames Research Center), shared more insight about the project, saying “it’s technology that can navigate. It’s a GPS-like system, but better that GPS because it works indoors, works without GPS. It knows how high you are up, and even knows what angle you’re pointing at in any given moment of time which allows you to do some pretty crazy things.”

He couldn’t speak to Google’s intentions or future commercialization ideas, but talking from NASA’s perspective “this is perfect for a robot, it’s a satellite that wants to know where it is in the environment.”

The goal this Summer is proving it can navigate throughout the space station. Looking into the future Moratto suggested “we’d like to integrate Tango-like algorithms, software and hardware into Sphere as into one giant robot, and eventually become the “Roomba” of the Space Station. We want a robot that can navigate, do patterns, figure out where it is, and to have expansion ports for attaching other instruments. We want to be the platform and not the end device.”

IMG_2397Use cases include the potential for connecting an air quality measurement sensor. Moratto added “there’s no convection in space, so CO2 pools up and can be a deadly blob of air that an astronaut could fly into. It’s one less thing for the astronauts to check and monitor themselves.”

He also mentioned that it could be a telepresence robot allowing mission controllers, to see over a shoulder. “Right now the astronaut spends up to 30 minutes preparing cameras to record a given operation.”

“The Space Station becomes kind of like a giant dormitory too. People bring stuff and the place gets kind of messy,” he noted. Finding tools and equipment can be challenging at times, and with Tango’s mapping abilities it could helpful for finding assets tags. “It will be great for helping keep track of where stuff is in the space station.”

The “holy grail” would one day be being able to operate outside of the space station.

The NASA and Google teams have only been working together for the past nine months, yet it’s quickly proving to be an important exploration into the potential for today’s state of the art vision technology.

This video is a great look at Spheres and Project Tango coming together.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Solid Thinking: Reflections on Solid Conference 2014

Jon & Joi

“Software is eating the world…. Hardware gives it teeth.”Renee DiResta (Principle, OATV)

With one look at what the O’Reilly Media team, Jon Bruner and Joi Ito had planned for the first Solid Conference, there was never a question of me not going. It was only a question of getting there. Having the deep pocketed editor helping jet-set me around in the pursuit of a story is the unicorn in my freelancing magical world. Between the support of the Vancouver technology community, and the generosity of many others the trip came true because of a successful crowd-funding initiative. The 21st and 22nd of May at Fort Mason revealed a treasure trove of thoughts, conversations, and visions of the connected self and connected society. I’m grateful to have earned the experience. This is only the start of a story that will keep on giving.

For the more than 1400 attendees at times the choices had to be overwhelming. With key note speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii from MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts with over 100 talks fuelling the imagination. There was so much on display the senses had moments of being overloaded.

Solid Robot IMG_2396 IMG_2399 IMG_2422

Jon Bruner started everyone thinking by simply asking “what’s a tech company, anyway?” It’s more than the 0’s and 1’s, the circuits, sensors, the materials, the connectivity, and the transcending science fiction into science fact. As the digital experience continues merging with the physical experience, there’s no shortage of why’s to ask. Asking why some of this technology needs to exist is a good place to start. Is it solving big problems? Is it making us more capable? Is it making us smarter? Cool wasn’t making the grade for me.

Astro Teller“Hardware is hard” seemed almost understated coming from someone who’s all about moonshots. Visions of what could be aside, Google’s Astro Teller gave advice more entrepreneurs need to seriously consider saying “get more oil on your hands or mud on your boots to take down the really big problems.” Take the time to learn more about Google X and Astro Teller in the great Fast Company feature.

Envisioning relations in terms of both the potentiality and the tension between our digital, spacial, and physical worlds, Hiroshi Ishii was brilliant.  His talk, “Vision Driven: Beyond Tangible Bits, Towards Radical Atoms” left me breathless.

Hiroshi IshiiIshii leads The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Lab, where the TRANSFORM project is described as one that “fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from a piece of still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by the stream of data and energy. 

The motion design is inspired by the dynamic interactions among wind, water and sand in nature. Escher’s representations of perpetual motion, and the attributes of sand castles built at the seashore. TRANSFORM tells the story of the conflict between nature and machine, and its reconciliation, through the ever-changing tabletop landscape.” Watch for yourself.


SphereIn the category of science fiction meeting science fact, the SPHERES program was on my radar before the conference. Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

This video is quite the ride – 

Richard IsaacsQuite possibly it was Richard Isaacs (Mechanical Designer and Organ-builder with C.B. Fisk)  who best wrapped a unique context around Jon Bruner’s opening question. His talk, “Musical Counterpoint in Wood, Bone, Metal, and Carbon Fibre” introduced us to the history and the complexity of pipe organs. It’s worth noting (courtesy of Wikipedia) that “beginning in the 12th century, the organ began to evolve into a complex instrument capable of producing different timbres. By the 17th century, most of the sounds available on the modern classical organ had been developed. From that time, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device, a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century.” It’s both a history and a future of craftsmanship and musicianship that’s capable of taking us closer to the heavens than any spaceship can. He also shared an impressive visual collection of “pipe-organ porn” too.

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Most encouraging throughout the two days was the talk of design centred thinking, and how crucial user experience and the user interface is. It’s about putting the human experience at the centre of  our hardware and software experiments. We can talk about the industrial internet and the internet of things, yet there is no industry and there are no things without us at the heart of the equation.

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O’Reilly summed up the spirit of solid thinking best, saying “we need to think about the people… not just about things.” He also extended all of us a challenge, one we need to collectively endeavour towards delivering on everyday – “work on what is hard.”

Many of the pictures are courtesy the O’Reilly Flickr collection.