Japan’s Interstellar Technologies Goes Full Throttle Toward Small Orbital Rocket


Interstellar Technologies is drawing on technology from its Momo sounding rocket, pictured here, as it develops an orbital rocket to send 100 kilogram payloads into 500 kilogram sun synchronous orbits. The company is drawing on Momo components, control algorithms and operations expertise for its orbital rocket, tentatively called Zero.

Credit: Interstellar Technologies

LOGAN, Utah — Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies is developing the main engine for an orbital rocket designed to carry 100 kilograms and slated to conduct its initial test flight in 2020.

“Our goal this year is to complete component testing for the regeneratively cooled main combustion chamber, turbopump and gas generator, and to perform an integrated firing test in early 2019,” Uematsu Chiharu, project manager for Interstellar Technology’s suborbital Momo rocket, told SpaceNews at the Small Satellite Conference here. “We already have all the key technologies.”

Interstellar Technologies is raising money for its orbital rocket, tentatively called Zero. Japanese investors have contributed “a few million” dollars to date but the firm will need additional funding to begin commercial service in 2021, said Ken Terakawa, structural engineer, for Interstellar Technologies of Hokkaido, Japan.

Interstellar’s Momo-2, Japan’s first privately developed sounding rocket, which entered service last year, carrying small payloads for universities and research institutions. Momo-2, a liquid fueled rocket to carry 20 kilograms to an altitude of 100 kilometers, crashed four seconds after liftoff in June.

Interstellar is drawing on Momo components, control algorithms and operations expertise as it develops its orbital rocket, Terakawa said.

Since Rocket Lab of the United States and New Zealand conducted its first successful launch in 2017, Interstellar Technologies has found it easier to raise money. “Now, people see the business potential,” Terakawa said. “We are expanding our business and going full throttle.”

Marubeni Corp., a Japanese trading and investment company, plans to support Interstellar Technologies by selling flights on the rocket, said Atsuchi Takao of Marubeni’s Aerospace and Defense Systems Department.

Interstellar’s orbital rocket will be a liquid-oxygen and kerosene gas-generator cycle liquid fueled rocket designed to loft 100 kilograms to 500 to 700 kilometer sun-synchronous orbits. Momo is an ethanol and liquid oxygen pressure fed rocket.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

via Space.com https://www.space.com

August 16, 2018 at 11:24AM

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This Visual Effects Artist’s Masterful Age-Reversal Skills Are the Closest Thing We Have to Time Travel


GIF: Rousselos Aravantinos (Vimeo)

It’s a technique that’s often used for flashback sequences in movies when an older actor plays a much younger version of himself like Kurt Russell did in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But the results are never quite perfect, or at least don’t reach the impressive level of pixel perfection that compositor Rousselos Aravantinos did with this 4K digital touch-up that made this model look 30 years younger.

Typically, visual effects studios will cover up parts of an older actor (their hands, face, hair) with full CG replacements to make them appear younger. But that can often lead to results that fall squarely in the creepy uncanny valley. Remember the younger versions of Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy? There was something just not quite right about those characters, and while the quality and believability of photorealistic CG humans have improved by leaps and bounds in the eight years since that film was released, the techniques Aravantinos uses for his touch-ups are near impossible to spot.

Instead of creating detailed 3D replicas of a performer, which is an expensive process, Aravantinos uses a piece of 2D digital compositing software called Nuke. You can think of it as a far more advanced version of Photoshop that’s designed to manipulate and process moving images, not just stills. Erasing a wrinkle on someone’s headshot in Photoshop isn’t terribly challenging, but erasing that wrinkle across 150 frames of video while the person is moving is an infinitely more complicated process.

Boris FX’s Mocha Pro tracking software.
GIF: Boris FX

Digital airbrushing, combining blurred layers, cloning, color correcting, and warping are all techniques used to retouch and de-age footage like this. But since the corrections and fixes have to remain on specific parts of the model’s face that are moving around the frame, Aravantinos also takes advantage of Boris FX’s Mocha Pro tracking software which can calculate and reproduce the movements of anything seen in a clip.

The results of Aravantinos’ painstaking work are impressive, and had he not provided a side-by-side comparison with the original footage, it’s doubtful anyone would be able to spot his handiwork. It’s time-consuming work, though, which is why the 3D route is still so popular—at least until someone figures out how to teach a deep-learning AI to automate the digital de-aging process.

[Vimeo via PetaPixel via Retouchist]

via Gizmodo https://gizmodo.com

August 16, 2018 at 11:39AM

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Cool Video Game Inspired Door That Opens Geometrically


This is a video of logistics professional Warwick Turvey demonstrating the video game inspired shed door he built that “folds open and close in a precise geometric manner.” Admittedly, that’s a pretty sweet door (and very reminiscent of the door created by Austrian designer Klemens Torggler back in 2013, see second video), but it looks like it also increased your chances of mashing a finger in it, and I already have enough problems with regular doors. And don’t even get me started on sliding doors. One time I crushed my entire hand in the sliding door of my parents’ van. “One time?” Every time. Eventually my parents just started leaving me at home when they took my brother and sister to school in the morning.

Keep going for the video in case gifs aren’t your thing.

Thanks to Damien, who agrees doors are cool, but gaping holes are ultra-low maintenance.

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via Geekologie – Gadgets, Gizmos, and Awesome https://geekologie.com/

August 16, 2018 at 11:12AM

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How Sonos Is Building the Audio Internet


Nick Millington had just started to feel like a successful software engineer. It was early 2003, and at age 26, he had already had a fruitful career at Microsoft. He feared his one-bedroom apartment in Redmond, Washington—filled with a mishmash of bargain-bin furniture and DIY shelving made of cinderblocks and wood planks—wasn’t representative of his upward mobility. He wasn’t a starving student anymore, he was an adult. So Millington did what we all do once we’re able: He bought a larger, more elegant apartment and filled it with brand new stuff.

“I was starting to think more about the design of my home,” Millington says. “You know, upgrading to the fancier Ikea furniture that looked nice.”

Sonos chief product officer Nick Millington.


One nagging problem was how to rig up his music system. Digital music was exploding on the internet, and Millington had spent many hours methodically trying to collect every Billboard Top 40 hit from 1945 onward, amassing a wide range of other, more eclectic music files along the way. But listening to his treasure trove of tunes felt like living in the dorms again. All of his MP3s were stored on the boxy PC he kept in his living room. “At the time, my music setup was a Gateway 2000 tower PC and then I had a laptop,” he says. “I would do terminal server into the PC and play MP3 files there. That wasn’t cutting it for me.”

Around that same time, a Santa Barbara, California startup called Sonos was hiring engineers. Sonos courted Millington with a simple pitch: It wanted to make digital music players that would look respectable on his “fancier” Ikea shelves, wirelessly access his MP3s without requiring him to touch a PC, and play all of his music in every room of his house. Millington wanted in.

Now, 15 years later, Nick Millington is the chief product officer at Sonos; the guy responsible for all of the company’s speakers and software. When I meet him at Sonos’s east-coast headquarters in Boston, he’s dressed like an archetypical engineer in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt. Framing his round face is brown hair that’s kept in check, but seems to be waiting for the chance to poof and curl. He looks both completely put together and a dash disheveled all at once.

Millington is named as an inventor on 69 different Sonos patents, with 33 more pending—a significant portion of the company’s entire portfolio, which numbers around 500 patents. He also developed the core networking framework that keeps the playback of multiple Sonos speakers throughout a home in perfect sync. His work was central to the company’s early adoption of apps, and its expansion from amps to speakers. Yet, even though his efforts have proven critical to the company’s success, Millington tends to credit others a lot more than himself. He seems more concerned with solving problems than bragging about his solutions, which may be why he’s never sought a greater spotlight or given an in-depth interview before talking to WIRED.

Since 2005, Sonos has sold 19 million audio devices—each of them a representation of the work done by Millington and his team—into seven million homes. The same speakers still top many Best Of guides. By most measures, it’s a story of success.

In the future, Millington hints, Sonos may create its first speakers and audio products designed to leave the house.

But today, Sonos is sailing rougher seas. Co-founder and CEO John MacFarlane resigned in early 2017 and was replaced by COO Patrick Spence. The company has also had more than one round of layoffs as it’s dealt with an evolving competitive landscape. The rise of the voice-assistant smart speaker in particular took the company by surprise. Just this year, shortly before going public Sonos released a new soundbar that interacts with voice services from Apple, Amazon, and soon, Google—the same tech giants who have charged forcefully into the wireless multi-room speaker market Sonos built.

It will be up to Millington and his product team to chart a course through the choppy, frenemy-filled waters ahead. To do it, he may help guide the company into new places altogether. Until now, all Sonos products have been shackled to rooms inside your home. In the future, Millington hints, Sonos may create its first speakers and audio products designed to leave the house.

Millington is used to leaving houses. As the son of a British Diplomatic Service officer, he spent his entire childhood globetrotting, but it was his time as a kid in Japan in the 1980s—and era when the country was the worldwide epicenter for electronic innovation—that set him on a path toward tech.

“There was an area of Tokyo called Akihabara, which is where there were all of these tech companies and these stores where you could go buy endless arrays of parts, and incredibly cheap floppy disks and all sorts of equipment,” recalls Millington. “I used to go almost every weekend with a few geeky friends of mine and check out various developments and things like that.”

He learned about networking early on as well, subscribing to the first dial-up internet service provider in Japan, called TWICS. He ran a Tokyo PC users group on a bulletin board system that predated the web. Eventually, he landed at Duke University in the US and then to Microsoft when he graduated in 1998, where he worked on SharePoint, the software maker’s online collaboration platform.

When Sonos was founded back in 2002, there was no streaming music. No Spotify. No Pandora. AOL dial-up was the most popular way to access the internet, and many families didn’t even have Wi-Fi yet. iTunes was popularizing the concept of legal music downloads, and file sharing services like Kazaa were growing in popularity as the music industry reeled in the wake of Napster.

The four founders of Sonos, led by CEO John MacFarlane, recognized that digital music would increasingly become a bigger part of consumer’s lives. Their big idea was an ambitious plan to make it possible for anyone to set up a multi-room home speaker network for digital music. At the time, multi-room systems could be purchased, but they were inaccessible.

“The technology was very cumbersome,” says Millington. “It was difficult to set up. It was typically the domain of high-end installers charging very high prices for stuff that didn’t always work terribly well. Sometimes you had to actually rebuild your home to put in the necessary wiring and speakers.”

Their plan was to democratize the whole stack. Instead of requiring dedicated wiring or a team of professional installers, Sonos would create Wi-Fi amplifiers (“ZonePlayers”) that you could tether to the speakers you already owned. Set a Sonos amp in any room of your house, and digital music could be summoned from your computer using a dedicated wireless remote control. You’d be able to move your speaker setup to new rooms, alter which speakers were grouped together, and take the whole arrangement with you if you bought a new home.

Probes test the Wi-Fi antenna performance of a Sonos speaker.

Jeffrey Van Camp

By early 2003, the founders had hired Andy Schulert to head up product development. He quickly called on Millington, an old Microsoft colleague, to help solve the most daunting problem the company was facing: to develop networking tech that would flawlessly sync multiple amplifiers together, transport music between them, and keep them connected and updated through the internet—all over Wi-Fi, which was far less mature back then. Despite having no audio experience “except for 10 years of piano lessons,” Millington moved to Santa Barbara and taught himself what he needed to know about audio synchronization in a matter of weeks.

“We had a saying in the early days of Sonos that if there’s one thing that absolutely has to work in version 1 of the software it’s the ability to upgrade to version 1.1,” says Millington. “But if there are two things that have to work, then the audio transport is definitely the core part of it. I have always liked to gravitate toward the core problem where, ‘If we don’t solve this, we have no product,’ and make sure that it’s handled in the best possible way.”

Syncing amps (and their speakers) wasn’t easy. One of the big challenges with multiple speakers is dealing with the accuracy of the human ear, which can quickly detect audio that’s out of sync.

“The way that you perceive stereo [sound] is with differences in time when the signal arrives at your right ear and your left ear,” explains Millington. “If that is moving around or it’s off it will seem like the sound is coming from a different location, and it can be quite quite disconcerting. You need to synchronize it to less than a millisecond of accuracy to have it be a really pleasurable experience.”

To get multiple speakers to sync that closely, Millington developed a method of time-stamping all the music traveling between speakers, thereby holding each speaker accountable. Timestamping made it virtually impossible for Sonos ZonePlayers to get out of sync.

Want to give Alexa an audio upgrade? Read our review of the Sonos One smart speaker.

The team made another important choice made around this time. Instead of designating a permanent master ZonePlayer that centrally ran the entire network, the team created a distributed network where every Player acted on its own and intelligently communicated with the others—no easy task. For example, if a user had five ZonePlayers hooked up, Millington couldn’t let all five of them fetch music from the internet. It would suck up too much bandwidth and potentially crush a home network. So he developed a “delegation” process that allowed every ZonePlayer to dynamically assign duties to each other. If one ZonePlayer was removed from the network, another one could pick up the slack and take over its duties—even fetching the music for all the Players, if necessary.

Unfortunately, none of this worked over Wi-Fi yet. John MacFarlane was adamant that the whole system work wirelessly, so Millington turned to mesh networking. This method offers a way to wirelessly connect devices together in an ad-hoc fashion, so you don’t need to rely on a central traffic point like a router to keep the network humming. Millington taught himself mesh networking in about six weeks.

By early 2004, Sonos’ wireless mesh networking system was working. Owners would be able to run up to 32 Sonos players in their home, grouping and ungrouping them at will to bundle rooms together, play the same music across an entire floor of their house, or use each player separately.

But code that works in the lab still has to pass real world tests. Millington and the crew began traveling to homes with different Wi-Fi setups near Sonos’ east-coast headquarters in Boston and its west-coast headquarters in Santa Barbara. They had to figure out what microwaves and cordless phones might do a Sonos player under the same roof. In the early days of wireless networking, many products didn’t use Wi-Fi as frugally as they do today, and some were major bandwidth hogs, causing a lot of headaches for the team.

It was tempting to take the easy road and blame someone’s Wi-Fi for everything that went wrong. But for Sonos to succeed as a product, it had to operate in less-than-ideal wireless environments, and several months of troubleshooting ensued. The intense amount of testing the team went through in that pre-launch phase has been immortalized in code; all Sonos products are packed with onboard Wi-Fi diagnostic tools that can send reports to customer service reps when speakers start having problems.

Space Oddity

Sonos’ earliest products were amps, and you connected your own speakers. The company’s iPod-like hardware remote could control it all.


The first Sonos ZonePlayer (ZP100) hit store shelves in early 2005 as part of a $1,199 bundle that included two amplifiers and a physical wireless remote controller.

That wireless controller had a screen and direction pad so you could play music without a PC. Some engineers affectionately referred to it as a “Russian iPod” controller because of its chunky, jog-wheel-bedecked design. But it was useful, displaying album art and song titles on a small screen, and giving users the ability to group and ungroup speakers. The company also made a strong effort to simplify setup with three-step instructions.

At launch, the ZP100 was a niche proposition. Wireless multi-room systems were entirely new. Sonos players were cheaper than a professionally installed wired system, but still fairly expensive, and the fact that they required you to purchase your own speakers was tough to communicate to a mass audience. Hardcore audiophiles likely understood it, but many of them were already in the market for (or owned) a professional setup.

Still, for a startup like Sonos, it was a promising debut. The team believed the product worked really well, was reliable, and initial sales were, at least, decent. As word of mouth began to spread and new ZonePlayer amps arrived, Sonos gained more attention.

All-In on iPhone

With its concept of networked audio proven and its amp business up and running, Millington was promoted to Director of Advanced Development and Architecture in 2006. In his new role, he assembled a small team of half a dozen engineers to create bold, innovative product ideas—a skunkworks team of sorts. While the rest of the company maintained and improved those wireless amps, he began working on new concepts.

One of his first projects turned out to be a critical milestone for Sonos.

With Millington at the helm, Sonos launched its first iPhone app in late 2008—the very same year the App Store launched. The company debated whether to charge for the app (nobody knew how much apps should really cost back then), but eventually decided to make it free.

Millington credits the other founders, particularly then-CEO John MacFarlane, for the brisk adoption of iOS. “[MacFarlane’s] a guy who lives three or four years in the future, and he takes for granted things that don’t actually exist yet, is kind of how I would describe his mindset,” he tells me with a smile. “He really gave us the push in that area.”

The app eliminated the need for a host PC or that physical “Russian iPod” wireless controller. In the years that followed, Millington and the team continued to flesh out the app, and began adding direct access to music streaming services as listeners stopped buying hoarding MP3s on their home computer and began turning to services like Rhapsody, Pandora, and Spotify.

Sonos also made a critical decision around this time that continues to define what the company is about: it chose to remain an open platform. The company decided against making its own music service, and instead began working to support every audio service on the market in a completely neutral way.

“Sonos is a level playing field for these services to compete for users attentions and subscriptions. We’ve never taken any money from a music service or promoted any one of them [over the others],” says Millington. “I think the services appreciate that.”

The Sonos app eventually grew to support around 100 services globally, more than any similar platform.

The First Sonos Speaker

The next milestone project for Millington’s team was a full-fledged speaker for Sonos. In early 2008, he hired an audio engineer named Chris Kallai, a self-described “audio nut” who had spent time at Harman and Velodyne.

In its early years, Sonos focused on amplifiers instead of speakers because it seemed too difficult for an unknown brand to launch a speaker as its first product. There were a lot of established companies in the space. Executives also believed that users and reviewers tended to judge speakers differently than amps. Amps are almost always evaluated objectively. With speakers, however, each listener tends to favor her or his preferred sound signatures.

“There was just a lot of snakeoil and folklore around which ones sound good and which ones don’t, and things like that,” says Millington. “You know the nice thing about an amplifier is you can measure whether it sounds good or not. Either it reproduces the input or it doesn’t, whereas with a speaker it’s much more subjective.”

To solve the problem, the company decided to avoid creating a “Sonos sound” of its own. Kallai, Millington, and others decided Sonos speakers would try to replicate what recording engineers heard in the studio as they recorded albums. They assembled a group of recording artists and engineers to help. Several notable names in music, including Rick Rubin, joined the group. (Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin and overseer of many recent Beatles remasterings, currently heads it up.)

An early Sonos Play:5 speaker.


With Kallai’s help, Sonos shipped the $399 Play:5 speaker in 2009. Millington and others described as a turning point for the company because of how much it simplified the Sonos proposition. Combined with the new iPhone app, it was a speaker that worked out of the box and sounded fantastic. It could be used alone, and also networked with as many as 31 pieces of Sonos hardware—other Play:5 speakers or older ZonePlayers. It also got more capable over time, thanks to firmware updates that downloaded and installed from the app—refreshing all speakers at once.

“In some ways you can think of [the Play:5] as the first smart speaker in the sense that it’s internet connected, runs software, connects to music services, and can make music itself rather than being hooked up to an external amplifier and speakers,” says Millington.

The Play:5 earned relatively high marks from reviewers, who liked its sound and features. It helps that the Play:5 stood out among what seemed like a sea of home speakers with iPod docks or then sub-par Bluetooth radios.

Let the Good Times Roll

The success of products like the Play:5 and iPhone app led to a promotion for Millington. He was put in charge of the entire product department at Sonos in early 2010.

Throughout the next few years, more and more music listeners began to rely on their phones to stream songs, and for anyone who liked using an app, Sonos became an attractive idea. The company enjoyed a wave of growth and recognition as a leader in multi-room audio during these years, adding speakers like the petite $200 Play:1 (the top selling Sonos speaker around the world) and Playbar soundbar to its lineup. Eventually, Sonos came full circle and revamped the Play:5, giving it touch controls and a modern exterior.

Sonos speakers undergo testing at the Boston lab. On the table are Play:5 speakers, a Playbar, and a Playbase. On the floor are Subs, the company’s wireless subwoofers.

Jeffrey Van Camp

In early 2014, Sonos redesigned its smartphone app, adding a universal music search that let you hunt through all your music services at once. Later that year, an update eliminated the need to physically plug one of your speakers/amps into your home router to create a Sonos network. All of a sudden, every Sonos player could just connect via Wi-Fi, further simplifying setup.

But at the end of 2014, things began to change. Amazon released a small voice-powered speaker named the Echo. It didn’t sound very good, and Sonos didn’t recognize it as a threat. But the Echo quietly kicked off an entirely new wave of smart speakers powered by voice control. Just as things were beginning to get comfortable, the ground beneath Millington and his team’s feet began to shift.

A peek inside the Sonos lab.


After I finish my multi-hour chat with Nick Millington in the “Fenway” meeting room at Sonos’ Boston office, hardware lab manager Jim Weineck whisks me away to give me a full tour of the company’s labs where products, new and old, are put through their paces. The facility is intense. Many testing chambers look like massive bank vaults from the outside, and it’s not uncommon to see huge foam cones protruding from the walls and ceilings.

In one chamber, speakers are stress-tested by having special pink noise tones piped through them for several months at a time. Pink noise sounds a lot like white noise, but it contains frequencies that are better for testing audio systems. (I was told that, in the Santa Barbara offices, Sonos had 64 Play:1 speakers playing audio at maximum volume for twelve months straight using a custom-designed tone. This tone, called “life test noise,” simulates a bunch of songs across all genres all at once, and pumping it through the speakers for a year can simulate 10 years of playback.)

In another room the size of a walk-in freezer, a huge circular array of probes studies how well the Wi-Fi antennas in Sonos products pick up and emit a signal. A monitor shows me a 3-D Wi-Fi cloud for the Sonos Playbase, which appears to have a tough time picking up signals directly below it. Other rooms test for things like the long-term effects of extreme temperatures, static electricity and how it impacts touch controls, and unintentional radiation.

On the tour, one engineer tells me Sonos speakers are packed with more antennas and connectivity tech than they actually need. The team even tries to squeeze in features that may not be used yet, knowing they might activated in the future via a software update. Whenever Sonos releases new updates, it takes pains to make sure older hardware still works reliably. Millington and other employees say there are still ZP100s out there in the world, serving up music in 2018 just like they did in 2005. Quite a few of them, actually. Sonos claims that 93 percent of all the players its ever sold are still in use today—a figure that stands out in a tech world where internet-connected products increasingly seem to die on a whim.

A speaker is evaluated inside the anechoic chamber.


Weineck leads me into Sonos’ anechoic acoustic chamber, my favorite part of the tour. It’s a two-story vault with a door so heavy it needs to be operated electronically. Inside, the room is completely silent. The walls and ceiling are covered with bundles of foot-long gray triangular prisms that absorb all sound and cancel any reverberations. The floor is a trampoline-like mesh material topped with a metal wire grid. If you peer through the mesh, you can see that you’re suspended about 10 feet off the gray, foamy ground. In the center of the room is a pedestal where a speaker sits with an arced pole of microphones in front of it. These mics capture and map the sound that comes out of a speaker.

Standing in a silent chamber is oddly unnerving. Weineck tells me that with the lights out, people actually start to go crazy after a few minutes in the vault because they lose all sense of space and direction. All they can hear is their own heartbeat. As soon as he tells me this, I too swear I can hear my own organs pulsating.

Other areas of the facility hold Faraday cages that block outside signals to create a pure environment where Sonos can test the Wi-Fi access points of its speakers (a necessity in a building filled with hundreds of internet-connected devices). A 3-D printing room lets designers quickly mock up new product ideas.

Weineck describes a couple rooms as “teleconferencing on steroids” thanks to their electronic whiteboards, highly sensitive directional microphones, and a surgical camera mounted to the ceiling. The camera is precise enough to zoom in on the threading of a screw. The Santa Barbara offices have rooms identical to these here in Boston, enabling worldwide nitpicking as teams on each coast work together to perfect the look or sound of a new speaker.

Notes of humanity peek through the sterile jungle of lab equipment on concrete floors. I notice jokes posted on the walls, or oddly placed toys like a shark sitting atop test equipment, hinting that there is at least a little time for play in the audio labs. In a woodworking lab, some employees pulled a prank on an engineer’s tendency to meticulously label his supplies by labeling absolutely everything in the room when he was on vacation, including his sink and chair. They laughed, telling me it was to help him “get back up to speed quickly.”

There are also Obi-Wan Kenobi photos saying “this is not the room you’re looking for” cheekily plastered on some of the more mysterious doors in the labs during my visit. Like a good stormtrooper, I move along, but I also wonder what the audio Jedi are up to in those secret labs.

For a company born by looking ahead, Sonos was late to recognize the importance of voice controls in speakers. Though the Amazon Echo launched way back in 2014, Sonos just began selling its first voice-enabled products in the past year, with the Sonos One and the new Sonos Beam. The shift has forced Millington and his product team to re-think what a Sonos speaker should do all over again.

In some ways, Sonos is still ahead. The multi-room capabilities in the Google Assistant app are already starting to get pretty good, but Amazon’s Alexa is plagued by a lot of headaches when it comes to multi-room and third-party speaker support. Neither Google’s or Amazon’s product supports as many streaming services as Sonos, and the only streaming service supported by Apple’s Siri-enabled HomePod speaker is Apple Music.

Sonos has chosen to remain agnostic when it comes to voice assistants.

“Smart speakers can do a ton of things, [but] the killer application is music,” says Millington. “I think second only to you know ‘Alexa set a timer for 30 seconds,’ music is the predominant application of smart speakers. Once you’ve put multiple speakers into an environment you have to deal with the multi-room issues. They’ve gotta be synchronized, you’ve got to be able to group them, and you’ve got to do it in a way that’s decentralized, that doesn’t involve any kind of server.”

Much like they did by supporting all music streaming services equally, Millington and his crew have chosen to remain agnostic when it comes to voice assistants. While almost every other voice-activated speaker focuses solely on supporting a single service, Sonos plans to support the three biggest—Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant—by the end of the year. The team even has a name for the body of content we all access on voice assistants: the sonic internet.

“In many ways, speakers are the browsers for that sonic internet,” Millington explains. “They’re the thing that lets you go and connect to all the content that’s out there. Now, imagine a browser that could only go to Amazon.com, or could only go to Google.com, or could only go to Apple.com. That’s a rather limited experience.”

Supporting more than one assistant in a single speaker adds compatibility problems.

“We’re working with Google Assistant alongside Alexa and nobody’s ever really thought about how to get those things to coexist before,” says Millington. “What does it even mean to ask Alexa to ‘Order an Uber’ and then ask Google, ‘When’s my Uber going to be here?’ We’re starting to think through a bunch of those types of issues. That for me is where the innovation often happens.”

Walk This Way

Until now, Sonos products have always been made to live in rooms of your home. The company’s mantra has long been “fill every home with music.” But that mission may be too limiting for Sonos today, says Millington.

The next step for Millington might be taking all those voice assistants on the sonic internet, and the entire speaker platform Sonos has developed, outside the home for the first time.

“One of the key transitions that we talk about is from home to everywhere,” says Millington, parsing his words carefully. “The home isn’t the only place where you listen to music. There are many places where you listen to music. So I would say, without giving the blow by blow of everything in our roadmap, that’s one of the key themes that we’re thinking about.”

When I ask again, he clarifies his words, but won’t commit to any future products, or if they were ideas or actually in development.

“Over time, everywhere that you might want to enjoy music—in different rooms of your house as well as outside the home—we want to have a product that serves that scenario really well, and also any content that’s relevant to you,” he says. “We want to make it as easy as possible for you to summon that up wherever you are. All of our work is going into those areas. And again, when I say content it’s not just music. It’s sonic culture umbrella in general: podcasts, entertainment, TV soundtracks, things like that.”

Does that mean Sonos is planning to make a set of headphones in the future? Maybe a battery-powered portable Sonos speaker? Something else entirely? We’ll have to wait and see, but thinking about how Sonos might work outside the home is exciting.

Since there is no reliable Wi-Fi outside, Sonos products would need to tether to your phone via Bluetooth, or maybe they might directly connect to LTE service—though that, admittedly, feels like a longshot. What we know is that these are now all things Sonos is pondering as well.

For Millington, the best part about the future of Sonos is how it will improve every product the company has already shipped.

“Personally, I’m incredibly proud of the fact that you can use the latest iPhone and our app to control a Sonos player that you bought back in 2005, and listen to Spotify, when none of those technologies even existed at the time.”

Whether Millington and Sonos can maintain that mindset and keep all of their new products alive for more than a decade—all while pursuing the kind of growth that’s demanded of a publicly traded company—is a question no voice assistant can answer just yet.

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August 15, 2018 at 06:09AM

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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Changes Nothing About Rom-Coms, and Everything About Movies


Rachel Chu and Nick Young are like most millennial couples in New York City—at least millennial couples in which one is a brilliant economics professor and the other is heir to a real estate empire in Singapore. There’s a problem, though: Nick (Henry Golding) has kept Rachel (Constance Wu) in the dark about his circumstances back home. His plan to invite her to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend and to meet his family, he hopes, will remedy this. So begins director Jon H. Chu’s posh extravaganza, Crazy Rich Asians, a movie of necessary firsts and communal heart.

What Rachel doesn’t realize when she accepts Nick’s invitation is that he isn’t just from any family, but Singapore’s wealthiest and most influential (a fact that has lended him celebrity-bachelor status among locals). It doesn’t take long for the drama of home to reveal its sneer. Rachel—who is Chinese-American and thus considered an outsider—finds herself in an obstacle course for acceptance. The first series of hurdles are relatively painless. Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is harboring secrets of her own; she’s discovered her husband is cheating and finds an unlikely confidant in Rachel. Next are Nick’s aunties and a former flame. With help from her college BFF Peik Lin (a rowdy and riotous Awkwafina) and cousin Oliver (Nico Santos), Rachel proves a resilient spark against their torrent of social exile.

The final hurdle turns out to be Nick’s mother, the matriarch of the clan. Deeply protective, Eleanor Sung-Young (a steely Michelle Yeoh) is a woman of familial duty and respect, and believes Rachel is the wrong woman for Nick. And so the women come to represent dueling ideals of tradition and freedom. Eleanor wants Nick to take control of the family business, but he’s become enthralled with the idea of carving out a life with Rachel, even if that happens to be in America. A mother’s wrath, though, is unforgiving and its reach endless. Eleanor’s last-ditch effort to torpedo the couple’s relationship—by exposing a long-buried secret about Rachel’s father—triggers the film’s most high-stakes moment.

Crazy Rich Asian culminates like a Singaporean Cinderella, illustrating the extent each character will go to for the people they love. It’s a film of big ambitions that doesn’t entirely upend the rom-com format, but instead infuses the genre with a tint of hope. And so, we are left with a movie about sprawl—and the lengths people travel to connect with others, to greet them where they are, to find peace on common ground. Between mother and son. Between partners and friends. Between America and Singapore. Between the known and the unknown. Between truth and fiction.

Based on the 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, the film does vital work in demolishing certain Asian stereotypes that have found an unlikely lifeforce in American pop culture. Early on, Peik Lin’s father (a predictably bonkers Ken Jeong) instructs his two youngest children to finish their dinner; “Think of all the starving children in America,” he says. Other chasms the film attempts to cross prove less fruitful. Unfolding at a blistering pace, it never quite comes up for air to allow for enough nuance around characters that demand it. Astrid and Eleanor’s backstories, while convenient, feel microwaved and could have ultimately benefited from more substance and time.

These are important stories to tell. And we need to witness them on screen. But danger lurks in the collective narrative.

The marrow of the film, and its most crucial lesson, deals with the politics of comfort: how those on screen navigate the trappings of high society, and how we, the viewers, are cushioned into a specific characterization of Asian identity. The movie is full of humor and pluck, but nothing emotionally gut-wrenching. And deservedly so. It is a rom-com after all. But one gets the impression that Hollywood would have been less eager to greenlight a $30 million film that more closely resembled 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, which chronicled four struggling immigrant families in San Francisco. It was the last studio-backed feature to enlist a majority Asian and Asian-American cast until Crazy Rich Asians (which includes actors that span the diaspora—China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines).

The comfort nourishes us, but is it what we need? We only ever witness the splendor of Singapore, touring its most elite enclaves and never once getting a peek into its other, less affluent regions. Not that the film, its writers or director, have that particular obligation. But it does raise the question—who is this movie speaking for and speaking to? That is not to take away from its historic achievements. But a movie of such cultural immensity is bound to be viewed as representing for the whole, whether it intends to or not—a weight shouldered earlier this year by Black Panther.

These are important stories to tell. And we need to witness them on screen. But danger lurks in the collective narrative. It’s an onus routinely projected onto major films (or books, or TV shows, or even politicians): The first Asian this. The first black that. But no one movie can speak for the whole. Not entirely. The fault is ours, really. We are a culture that, in 2018, still revels in “firsts.” A culture that happily celebrates victories we so desperately need, but rarely investigates why it took us so long to get here.

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August 15, 2018 at 02:39PM

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Mysterious X-37B Military Space Plane Nears 1 Year in Orbit


Artist’s illustration of the U.S. Air Force’s robotic X-37B space plane orbiting Earth.

Credit: Boeing

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B miniature space plane has winged past 340 days in orbit performing secretive duties during the program’s fifth flight.

The robotic craft’s latest mission, known as Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5), kicked off on Sept. 7, 2017, with a launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

As usual, Air Force officials have revealed few details about OTV-5. But we do know that one payload flying aboard the X-37B this time around is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-11. Developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, this cargo is testing experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long durations in the space environment. [The X-37B Space Plane: 6 Surprising Facts]

The classified X-37B program “fleet” consists of two known reusable vehicles, both of which were built by Boeing. Looking like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).

The X-37B has a payload bay about the size of a pickup-truck bed, which can be outfitted with a robotic arm. The space plane has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium-arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Each X-37B mission has set a new flight-duration record for the program:

  • OTV-1 began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

  • OTV-2 began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

  • OTV-3 chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit before finally coming down on Oct. 17, 2014.

  • OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent in space for the OTV program to 2,085 days.

How long OTV-5 will stay aloft is unknown. Whenever it comes down, the robotic vehicle is likely to land at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility, as the OTV-4 mission did back on May 7, 2017. That was a first for the program. All prior missions had ended with a tarmac touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Ted Molczan, a Toronto-based satellite analyst, told Inside Outer Space that OTV-5’s initial orbit was about 220 miles (355 kilometers) high, inclined 54.5 degrees to the equator. “Its ground track nearly repeated every two days, after 31 revolutions,” he said.

On April 19, the space drone lowered its orbit by 24 miles (39 km), which caused its ground track to exactly repeat every five days, after 78 revolutions, Molczan said — a first for an OTV mission.

“Repeating ground tracks are very common,” Molczan added, “especially for spacecraft that observe the Earth. That said, I do not know why OTV has repeating ground tracks.”

Does the X-37B program fit into the Trump administration’s call for a Space Force?

“Ironically, the X-37B is exactly the type of program — toward giving the U.S. flexibility of operations in space — that seems to be prompting the current push for a Space Force, yet are already underway,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Leonard David is author of “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet,” published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series “Mars.” A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.

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August 15, 2018 at 04:36PM

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We Need to Capture Carbon to Fight Climate Change


The conclusion of the Paris Agreement in 2015, in which almost every nation committed to reduce their carbon emissions, was supposed to be a turning point in the fight against climate change. But many countries have already fallen behind their goals, and the U.S. has now announced it will withdraw from the agreement. Meanwhile emissions worldwide continue to rise.

The only way to make up ground is to aggressively pursue an approach that takes advantage of every possible strategy to reduce emissions. The usual suspects, such as wind and solar energy and hydropower, are part of this effort, but it must also include investing heavily in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS)—a cohort of technologies that pull carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or even from the air, and convert it into useful materials or store it underground.

Although CCUS has been opposed as too expensive and unproved, recent gains have made it far more effective. Improvements such as chemical compounds that are more efficient at latching onto carbon could drive the cost down from $100 per ton of captured carbon in 2016 to $20 per ton by 2025, according to a 2016 article in Science. Start-ups are also developing new tactics, among them the transformation of trapped carbon into fertilizer, which could spur further savings.

Without CCUS, the level of cuts needed to keep global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—the upper limit allowed in the Paris Agreement—probably cannot be achieved, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2050 carbon capture and storage must provide at least 13 percent of the reductions needed to keep warming in check, the agency calculates.

Three primary CCUS paths lead us to this goal: retrofitting existing power plants to strip carbon dioxide from the exhaust produced by fossil-fuel electricity plants; reducing emissions in industries that cannot run on renewable energy; and directly removing carbon from the air. Cutting emissions from existing electric power stations with CCUS could be made more appealing in a future with a circular carbon economy, in which captured carbon could be resold and recycled for other uses—for instance, serving as a raw material for making concrete or plastics.

CCUS technologies can also help decarbonize emissions in heavy industry—including production of cement, refined metals and chemicals—which accounts for almost a quarter of U.S. emissions. In addition, direct carbon-removal technology—which captures and converts carbon dioxide from the air rather than from a smokestack—can offset emissions from industries that cannot readily implement other clean technology, such as agriculture.

The basic idea of carbon capture has faced a lot of opposition. Skepticism has come from climate deniers, who see it as a waste of money, and from passionate supporters of climate action, who fear that it would be used to justify continued reliance on fossil fuels. Both groups are ignoring the recent advances and the opportunity they present. By limiting investment in decarbonization, the world will miss a major avenue for reducing emissions both in the electricity sector and in a variety of industries. CCUS can also create jobs and profits from what was previously only a waste material by creating a larger economy around carbon.

For CCUS to succeed, the federal government must kick in funding for basic research and development and offer incentives such as tax breaks for carbon polluters who adopt the technology. The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to slash energy technology R&D, with the Department of Energy’s CCUS R&D cut by as much as 76 percent in proposed budgets. But this funding must be protected.

There is hope for doing that. The FUTURE Act, the provisions of which were passed with the February 2018 budget bill and which was championed by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate, contains tax incentives that are important steps toward making CCUS economical. The same bipartisan group of senators has proposed the USE IT Act, which would amplify support for CCUS technology by directly funding research and development and by setting up a prize competition to reward deployment.

The transition to clean energy has become inevitable. But that transition’s ability to achieve deep decarbonization will falter without this wide range of solutions, which must include CCUS.

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August 15, 2018 at 08:03AM

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