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In the Zone

Virtual jam software: how musicians collaborate during a pandemic

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by Kevin Jacoby on 04/12/2021
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By all accounts, the music biz has been pretty hard hit by the pandemic. Lockdowns in virtually every country put an end to the rehearsals, performances and recording sessions that normally keep musicians connected and creative.

But surely musicians could use Zoom and FaceTime to play together, right? Wrong. The inherent latency of virtual meeting spaces makes it nearly impossible to play in time with another musician.

Why is it so hard?

The problem begins and ends with latency. That’s the time it takes for data to be transferred between its original source and its destination. In the case of virtual music creation, the data we’re talking about is the audio signal produced by each participating musician.

The timing of musical notes is crucial. Latency as low as 5 to10 milliseconds can mean the difference between a groove that makes you shake your rump and one that lays there like a cold, dead fish. Virtually connecting, say, a drummer and a bassist requires extremely low latency for any rump-shaking to occur.

Tech to the rescue?

Spoiler alert: There’s no easy or perfect way to bridge this particular divide. Creating a low-latency, high-quality connection among musicians is difficult. Many have tried; fewer have succeeded.

Right now there are 3 popular virtual-jam contenders: JamKazam, Jamulus and JackTrip. Each has its own pros and cons. The pros are compelling indeed. But the cons may leave you wondering, is it worth it?

Giving the virtual session game a shot may require heroic feats of IT trouble-shooting. Another alternative is to simply give up on the ideal of creative transcendence and instead settle for “good enough.”

Getting into a jam

At first blush, JamKazam seems to be the most accessible of the 3 services. Its “freemium” pricing structure offers 4 tiers ranging from free to $20 a month.

Paying for Premium gets you features that include unlimited playing time, 1080p video, 1:1 email and chat support, and an audio bitrate of up to 512 kbps.

JamKazam virtual jam session

JamKazam lets far-flung musicians play together

In addition, JamKazam lets users either create their own sessions—whether alone or with other musicians—or join public sessions. Musicians can also use this software service to conduct teaching sessions, make recordings and livestream performances.

Jamulus, by contrast, is a bit more of the DIY variety. Available for Windows, MacOS and Linux, this open-source software requires an onboarding process that may have some musicians reaching for the ripcord before they play even the first chord.

However, Jamulus is free. That’s possibly the only phrase your average musician loves more than “free beer at the gig.”

As is often the case with open-source software, Jamulus does not offer official tech support. Instead, you direct your questions to a community of regular users. Of course there’s no guarantee you’ll get a useful answer.

Jamulus discussion board

Jamulus discussion board, aka tech support

Also with Jamulus, the physical proximity of the musicians has a direct bearing on the latency. In other words, a guitarist in Chicago will sound better with a keyboard player in Boston than in Belarus.

Quite a trip

The best-sounding of the three options is JackTrip. It offers HD audio quality at up to 96 kHz.

Developed in partnership with Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and various Silicon Valley software entrepreneurs, JackTrip offers the best performance for the price.

Musicians can operate JackTrip in either peer-to-peer (P2P) or hub-and-spoke configurations. P2P creates a direct connection between each player, which lowers the total latency. Hub-and-spoke manages the session from a central server, requiring less computing power from each participant.

JackTrip architecture diagrams

JackTrip offers a choice: hub-and-spoke or P2P

When it comes to pricing, however, JackTrip tends to be a little cagey. Instead of actually listing a price, the JackTrip FAQ page coyly suggests that perhaps every musician on the session would like to own a $149 dedicated audio interface and microphone to match. (For the record, you can use your own.)

But JackTrip does make it plain that the managed servers behind its Virtual Studio service are free, at least as of today. But come this July 1, pricing will range from $1 to $25 a  month, based on the number of musicians and hours used.

Strike up the band

As you can tell, virtual jamming is neither cheap nor easy. But some options deliver varying degrees of facility. That’s more than any musician could say even 10 years ago.

The key to this particular journey is patience and perseverance. Even when the pandemic ends and it’s safe to venture back into the studio, virtual jam software will continue to progress.

And as the software gets better and easier to use, creative minds around the world will use it to connect. Only good can come from that.

In other words: Yes, it’s worth it.

 

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In the Zone

Wearables: Moving way beyond smart wristbands

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by Kevin Jacoby on 03/22/2021
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Due to the popularity of Fitbit, Apple Watch and other similar devices, you might think the wearables category begins and ends with a tiny computer just north of your knuckles.

But tech designers and engineers are now burning the midnight oil, thinking up new silicon-powered toys to adorn our bodies.

When the fruits of their labor are realized, the wearables category will encompass thousands of futuristic devices. And they’ll be designed to enhance not just our wrists, but every body part from the bottom of our feet to the crowns of our heads.

Gatorade: The sweat measurer

Think you’ve seen everything? How about a sports-drink brand hawking a disposable, single-use smart patch that tells you when you need to drink more sports-drink?

You have now:

Gatorade sweat patch and app

Gatorade’s smart patch tells when it’s time to chug

Available now for your saline measuring satisfaction, Gatorade’s Gx Sweat Patch comes two to a pack for around $25. An athlete’s profuse perspiration is measured by the patch and then reported via the free Gx app. The app is currently available for Apple iOS only. (Sorry, Android fanboys.)

Gatorade’s Gx app will tell you how much fluid and sodium you’ve lost during your workout, as well as the rate at which you sweated. Once the connected system feels you’ve output enough salt water, it will notify you that it’s time for some delicious electrolytes.

Looking for the app to recommend a Gatorade flavor? For that choice, you’re still on your own.

Behold the smart mask—because COVID

Famed gaming-gear maker Razer made headlines at the recent CES 2021 with a prototype of its new smart mask. Dubbed “Project Hazel,” the mask is the latest in personal protection equipment (PPE).

Razer Project Hazel PPE masks

Razer Project Hazel smart masks: the future of PPE?

Hazel, according to Razer, is “the world’s smartest mask.” Well, it boasts a slew of gee-whiz features, including:

> Replaceable filters, providing filtration comparable to an N95 mask

> A translucent front panel with custom LED lighting to help people read your lips

> Active ventilation that adjusts automatically based on ambient air quality

> Auto-sterilization via UV lights in the carrying case

> Voice amplification technology—because masks (ugh!)

However, Razer has made it clear that this smart mask has not yet achieved FDA approval. Nor has Hazel been blessed by the CDC, OSHA or any other official body.

That could change soon. Razer says it’s working with a team of scientists and medical professionals to develop Project Hazel into a top-of-the-line, medical-grade smart mask that meets the company’s vision. So far, that’s all we know.

But even if Project Hazel never makes it into production, the concept is a harbinger of smart things to come. COVID-19 was not our first viral pandemic, and it likely won’t be our last. Smart masks like Project Hazel could save lives while also making the day-to-day pandemic slog a little easier.

In which fabric grows a brain

The Apple patent junkies over at PatentlyApple.com recently delivered some intriguing news about Apple’s latest patent for smart fabric buttons. That may sound like small potatoes, but the implications are far-reaching

Apple’s patent filing noted that fabric buttons may contain capacitive and resistive sensors. These sensors, in turn, can detect various types of light, sound, motion, gyroscopic readings, and inertial measurements.

Apple fabric button patent application drawing

Technical drawing from Apple’s patent filing for smart fabric buttons 

When added to clothing and accessories, these miniature devices could fulfill thousands of varied functions. For instance, smart buttons could help improve personal safety by warning the wearer of a would-be attacker or an unseen speeding car. Similarly, a sensor could automatically activate a parka’s battery-operated heating system, switching it on when the air temperature falls below a user-defined level.

Smart fabric buttons could also help find lost children, send EMTs to the location of a fallen senior, or translate the hand movements of a deaf person’s sign language into an amplified, virtual voice. That’s pretty smart.

Change the channel to wearables

For the channel, emerging smart wearable tech should be an epic opportunity.

Smartwatches helped prove that wearables were a popular and lucrative market. But it’s the wearables of tomorrow that will separate the channel winners from the channel also-rans.

Perhaps the path to the gold medal is as much a question of anthropology and biology as technology. All human beings sweat, breathe and wear clothes of some sort.

These fundamentals of human nature powered the imaginations of Gatorade, Razer and Apple. The rest was simply the logistics of filling our needs and desires.

Surely there’s a lesson in their example.

 

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In the Zone

Tech Explainer: When will 5G deliver on its promises?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 03/15/2021
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5G mobile technology is hot. Maybe too hot.

To be sure, 5G is pushing smartphone sales to new highs. Market watcher IDC expects 5G to account for 40% of all smartphone sales this year. That could translate into as many as 539 million 5G-enabled smartphones shipping worldwide this year, according to Gartner.

Yet 5G is also still in its infancy. Over-hyped marketing messages make more promises than the mobile tech can deliver.

Yes, 5G will eventually deliver on its promises of high-speed cellular broadband, life-saving telemedicine and autonomous vehicles. Yes, 5G will eventually connect some 50 billion IoT devices. And yes, 5G will eventually obviate wired cable, DSL and fiber-optic internet connections.

But all those changes are in the near-to-middle future. For now, you’ll want to read the fine print. Because first, we have some antennas to install and some physical barriers to overcome.

Not ready for prime time

For an example of how 5G gets hyped, take a look at Apple’s recent introduction of the iPhone 12, the company’s first smartphone to support 5G. Apple sure knows how to make a splash.

During the iPhone 12’s unveiling, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg strutted his stuff next to Apple’s Tim Cook, both of them extolling the virtues of 5G. They might have been delivering a miracle cure to a long-beleaguered populace. But the only cure they offered was for their own smartphone sales figures, which have been declining since early last year.

Apple iPhone 12

Apple iPhone 12: Connects to a 5G signal—if you can find one

Were Hans and Tim lying about the brilliance of 5G? No, they just neglected to mention how much time will be needed to achieve it.

3 ways to 5G

To understand why 5G is still a work in progress, it helps to know a bit about the technology. One important fact is that there are actually 3 types of 5G networks:

> Low-band 5G: Uses a frequency range similar to 4G (600 to 800 MHz), but offers slightly better performance by delivering 30 to 250 megabits per second (Mbps).

> Mid-band 5G: Currently the most widely deployed 5G signal, it operates on 2.5 to 3.7 GHz microwaves and offers speeds of 100 to 900 Mbps. It’s a speed bump, to be sure, but not the one we’ve all been waiting for.

> High-band 5G: The most widely anticipated and yet least deployed version. Its 25 to 39 GHz millimeter waves are capable of delivering download speeds that would be world-changing—if only they could travel through walls and windows.

Hide and seek

5G is here now, kind of. Your snazzy new iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S20 can jump on a high-band 5G signal right now—if, that is, you can find one.

Big metropolitan areas such as New York City and Philadelphia have a few millimeter-wave antennas here and there. If you stumble onto the right spot, connecting to one of these antennas is as easy as waking up your phone. But keeping that delicious high-speed goodness? That’s another matter entirely.

Millimeter waves are notoriously weak. They don’t like to travel long distances. And unlike their lower-frequency brethren, they can’t float through solid objects.

So if you’re lucky enough to find a high-band signal, you’ll have to enjoy it while standing still. Walking half a block could demote you from gobs of gigabits to a mild megabit mélange.

A 5G future

Like any new technology, 5G will need to get through its growing pains. Then it can mature into the basis for vast, reliable high-speed networks.

In the near future, low-band 5G will be relegated to emerging nations. The industrialized world will perfect mid-band coverage while also taking successive steps towards wider deployment of high-band 5G.

5G for smart transport

Qualcomm envisions a 5G-connected smart city

When that near future comes to pass, we’ll start to see a wave of disruption in a wide range of verticals. For example, gaming will finally cut the cord and begin to live its best mobile life. Similarly, ISPs will wake up to the harsh reality that we don’t need their gigabit pipes anymore. (Why would we, since we’ll just grab those gigabytes out of the air?)

5G should also make smart cities a reality. A great, silent conversation will begin between smart devices—including smart cars, phones, sidewalks, traffic lights and billboards—and the businesses that line Main Street, USA. If that sounds today like a sci-fi flick, tomorrow it’ll just sound like home.

For now, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with only marginally faster mobile data. Until the eggheads in Verizon’s basement figure out how to bring millimeter waves to the masses, it’s mid-band all the way.

Is that all we hoped for? Is that all we were promised? No. But it does let us peek into the not-too-distant future of high-band 5G. For now, that’ll have to do.

 

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In the Zone

Intel Core i9 gaming PCs: What’s the difference?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 02/23/2021
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The world’s best gaming PCs have lots of components in common. After all, how many processors and GPUs can perform such Herculean feats as running “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” at 4K with ray-tracing enabled?

Among the most popular of these common components is Intel’s 10th gen Core i9-10900K processor. This CPU features a 20MB cache and 10 cores, each capable of boosting up to 5.3GHz. So it’s no wonder that the best gaming rigs have this engine under the hood.

But that raises a tough question: With so many AAA gaming PCs using the same components, what (if anything) sets one system apart from the others? Or as your customer might ask, Why would you select one system over the others?

A Dell by any other name

A case in point is the Alienware Aurora R11. Peer inside its otherworldly chassis, and you’ll spy a few must-have components. These include the optional Intel Core i9-10900K and the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3090. With the Aurora R11’s price tag fast approaching $4,000, you’d expect nothing less.

Alien Aurora R11 and monitor

Alienware Aurora R11: style, substance and support from Dell

But why would you or your customer choose the Aurora over a similarly spec’d machine from, say, Maingear or MSI? One important answer has to do with scale.

When it comes to scale, Alienware’s parent company, Dell, is a behemoth. Dell’s silicon tentacles surround the world, dominating disparate verticals from healthcare to civil engineering. Whether you find that reassuring or distasteful, the fact remains that when your Alienware-using customers need help, they’ll appreciate Dell’s tentacles a great deal.

That’s because owning an Aurora R11 comes with the benefit of Dell support. Dell technicians are standing by 24x7 to help stranded gamers. Whether your customer is located in Mississippi or Mumbai, they can have replacement parts shipped out fast. Plus, upgrades are always just a click away. Dell even makes its own displays and peripherals, so compatibility isn’t an issue here.

Badass boutique

Pivot 180 degrees from Dell/Alienware, and you’ll arrive at famed boutique gaming-rig designer Falcon Northwest. Rather than take Dell’s macro view of the worldwide gaming landscape, Falcon NW opts for a micro approach. The company obsesses over every tiny detail to ensure that its high-quality hardware leaves gamers totally satisfied.

Falcon NW’s ultra-customizable Talon gaming PC offers the same Intel Core i9-10900K 10-core processor and GeForce RTX 3080 GPU as does the Aurora R11. But Falcon NW takes things one step further. It handcrafts what looks and feels like the Lamborghini of gaming PCs. 

Falcon Northwest's Talon gaming PC

Falcon Northwest Talon: it's all in the details

Clocking in at around $4,900—or more than $1,000 above the Alienware—the Talon features some bells and whistles that help justify the price bump.

The internal design, for instance, is pristine. Every electrical lead, every data cable is meticulously gathered and secured to the interior chassis to promote airflow and reduce wear and tear.

Even the standard EVGA SuperNOVA G3 750W power supply is perfectly matched to Falcon NW’s system. A PSU like this provides enough overhead to support multiple graphics cards, coolers and solid-state drives. And it does so without the need for expensive, time-consuming upgrades.

Add to that a dizzying array of both technical and aesthetic options, and you come out with an Olympic-level gaming rig.

Relatively thrifty

Have customers who need some money left over to address little expenses like food and shelter? They’ll be glad to know that MSI offers the MEG Trident X for around $3,300. That’s roughly $700 less than the Aurora rig and $1,600 less than Falcon’s. Yet you’ll never guess which processor you’ll find under the hood.

MSI Mega Trident X

MSI MEG Trident X: barely 5 in. tall, yet packs a Core i9 punch

MSI’s lower price tag will still bring your customers that vaunted Core i9. Here again, Intel’s 10-core engine crunches 1s and 0s like it’s going out of style. All those cores operate at a minimum of 3.7GHz, but go ahead and overclock if you like.

But with this size discount, something’s gotta give. And with MSI, that something is the GPU. The MEG Trident X’s graphics options top out with the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. Not to worry though, your customers will still be able to dial in upwards of 30 fps in “World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.”

MSI’s top-end gamer will not only save your customers money, but also takes up less of their precious office or home space. The Trident X box measures a diminutive 5.1 x 15.1 x 15.6 inches. That’s more than 3 inches shorter than the Aurora and nearly 4 inches narrower than the Talon.

Game on!

Today’s gaming rigs may share some big-name components, they differ in lots of other important ways. Design ethos, build quality, and support infrastructure create chasms of difference. That’s true no matter how many components they share.

All this is good news for channel partners. Your customer base is made up of myriad unique personalities and needs. It’s good to know there’s a gaming PC that’s right for each of them. Vive la différence!

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How do the new flip phones flip?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 02/15/2021
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Flip phones are making a comeback. Like Led Zeppelin reissued on 180-gram vinyl, what’s old is new again.

But to produce this new generation of smartphones, scientists and engineers are this time bending the laws of physics. The new flip phones combine today’s must-have features with yesteryear’s compact form factors.

Two aspects in particular set the new flip phones apart from our traditional, slate-shaped smartphones: bendable screens and high-tech hinges.

How to bend glass

Oh, you thought glass was rigid? Brittle even? Think again. The new Samsung Galaxy Z Flip features a 6.7-inch glass display that folds in half—the first of its kind.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip: first phone to bend glass

How do you bend something as rigid as glass? Well, it turns out that just about anything will bend if it’s thin enough.

For example, consider a sheet of aircraft-grade aluminum. It’s tough enough to withstand the kind of air pressure you get at 40,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. But stretch out that same sheet thin enough, and you’ll get something every bit as flexible as the aluminum foil you used to wrap last night’s leftovers.

As for the glass portion of the Galaxy Flip Z’s screen, it measures just 30 microns (1 micron = one thousandth of a millimeter). That’s about the same thickness as a human hair.

Samsung calls this material Ultra Thin Glass (UTG). Don’t let the name’s utter lack of imagination fool you. This fascinating, bendable glass has been created with space-age tech.

In fact, UTG is made not by Samsung, but rather by Schott, a German manufacturer of specialty glass. To enhance UTG’s protection and rigidity, Schott engineers added an ultra-thin, external layer of plastic. This plastic layer protects UTG against the detritus in your pocket, not to mention the nails of your thumbs.

High-tech flippin’ hinges

When it comes to cutting-edge flip phones, no ordinary hinge will do. Let’s face it, when you’re paying nearly $1,400 for a folding phone, you have every right to expect a hinge that’s smooth, quiet and reliable.

Here again, we have to look at Samsung’s latest flipper to see how high the bar is set. Sure, other contenders have stepped onto the field (the ill-fated Moto Razr comes to mind). But no other smartphone designer has yet to come close to the physical wizardry that makes the Z Flip, well, flip.

The hinges that bind the two halves of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip are based on a unique dual-cam mechanism. It’s shown in what may be the world’s longest (and slowest) animated GIF.

The cams are part of a larger, spring-loaded assembly that Samsung calls the Hideaway Hinge. Unlike your run-of-the-mill door hinge, Hideaway Hinge enables a smooth arc of motion, even while providing enough tension to keep the phone in any position between fully open and completely closed.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip hinge

The hinge of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip holds the phone in any position

Samsung’s unique hinge also features a simple yet brilliant solution for keeping dust out of the mechanism. As the hinge moves, row upon row of tiny silicone fingers collect unwanted debris and push it out of ports in the hinge assembly. It’s one clean machine.

The future of flip

Consumers are nothing if not contrary. We want ever-bigger screens, yet we also demand smaller, easier-to-handle phones. Perhaps the answer to this contradiction involves folding those big screens in half when they’re not in use.

As the dollars start rolling in, consumer electronics titans will race to meet demand. Even Apple is rumored to be working on a flip version of its wildly popular iPhone.

Apple iPhone prototype

Could this be Apple’s flip phone prototype? (Photo: Tom’s Hardware)

Time and tech will march forward; they always do. Glass will get thinner and eventually shed its protective plastic coating. Hinges will get smoother and perhaps even sprout tiny servo-motors.

Eventually, our sci-fi fantasies will come to fruition in the form of rollable sheets of advanced polymer, pocked with millions of micro-OLEDs.

In the meantime, feel free to grab the latest flip phone and journey back to the future. No DeLorean required.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: LiDAR — What is it? How does it work? And what’s it good for?

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by Kevin Jacoby on 01/25/2021
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LiDAR, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is one of the hot new technologies worming its way into our digital lifestyles. 
 
LiDAR operates similarly to its closest siblings, sonar and radar. The “detection and ranging” part is where the rubber meets the road. 
 
The rest is more a matter of the medium by which one achieves it. Sonar uses sound to enable detection and ranging. Radar uses radio waves to the same end. When it comes to LiDAR, the medium is ultraviolet, visible or near-infrared light. 
 
LiDAR diagram
LiDAR sends out lasers, then measures their rate of return (Illustration: Génération Robots)
 
To get a fix, a LiDAR-equipped device first emits multiple beams of laser light. Once those beams bounce back to the device’s sensors, the processor interprets the time it takes for the light to make the round trip. Each beam returns to the sensor at a different time. These varied rates of return help the system to understand a physical object’s size, shape and position. 
 
Finally, the processor uses the resulting information to paint a 3D picture of the immediate environment.  That includes the length, height, depth of objects, as well as the position of other objects nearby. 
 
That makes LiDAR ideal for cameras. Indeed, LiDAR’s most recent claim to fame is its inclusion in the optical rangefinder of the new Apple iPhone 12 Pro. As shown in the photo below (courtesy of Engadget), there’s a LiDAR scanner in the phone’s camera unit. 
 
Apple iPhone 12 with LiDAR scanner
iPhone 12 Pro’s camera sensors and flash include a LiDAR scanner
 
But Apple, like many of today’s biggest consumer-electronics designers, has yet to fully realize the potential of this oft-misunderstood technology. As LiDAR becomes more commonplace, Apple could support optical range-finding on some of its homemade software. Mobile apps such as Apple Fitness, Health, Support, FaceTime and Face ID could become more useful with a better understanding of their host device’s physical position.
 
Industrial light & (near) magic
 
It won’t be long before LiDAR becomes an indispensable tool, enabling not only better photography, but also better security, healthcare and design. Current industrial uses for LiDAR include such lofty verticals as construction, industrial design and autonomous-vehicle navigation. 
 
Mass retailer Ikea is among those making commercial use of LiDAR by applying it to Augmented Reality (AR). The company’s popular Ikea Place app uses this potent combination to give users the ability to “place” virtual furniture in their room, so they can try before they buy (sort of). 
 
Ikea Place mobile app
Ikea’s Place app combines LiDAR with AR
 
The higher degree of accuracy provided by a LiDAR scan makes the Ikea experience pretty realistic. One day soon, it should even let users scan their spaces and customize their desired Swedish bed frames. The resulting info could then be sent to a 3D printer for the ultimate in instant gratification.
 
In consumer electronics, LiDAR’s relevance for smartphones and tablets is somewhat less heady, but still impressive. 
 
For example, LiDAR is being used to enable better photography, especially in low-light situations. By creating a 3D map of, say, Fluffy, the family feline, a smartphone’s optical sensors can better separate the subject from its surroundings. This, in turn, lets the user feature Fluffy in the foreground while defocusing the background. 
 
By creating depth of focus in this way, LiDAR brings smartphone photography into the professional realm of DSLR cameras—but without the extra expense and steep learning curve. 
 
What’s next for LiDAR?
 
It’s not hard to imagine a near future in which LiDAR becomes a commonplace tool used by a growing cross-section of consumers and SMBs. 
 
For example, the enhanced resolution offered by a laser-based detection system could help improve biometric security features such as facial recognition. 
 
Same goes for home healthcare. There, LiDAR tech could be used to help assess maladies and watch over those who need a little extra care from day to day.
 
Smart glasses
Smart glasses could use LiDAR to watch for danger
 
Wearables is another high-growth category that should take on an added dimension with the aid of LiDAR. Imagine a smart handbag that uses range detection to warn the wearer of would-be pickpockets or attackers as they draw near. Or glasses that keep a constant vigil as you’re walking around town. They could vibrate when it’s time to make a left on Broadway, and remind kids to look both ways before crossing the street. 
 
Don’t miss the LiDAR Express
 
Can you recall a time when you wished you’d gotten in on the ground floor of a new tech, especially one that could lead to extensive revenue growth? 
 
It’s happening now with LiDAR. We’re witnessing what should soon become the mass adoption of a new, smart technology. Over the next few years, LiDAR could potentially show up in hundreds of new devices. 
 
Ready to jump on the LiDAR bandwagon? Step one is opening your eyes to see the light. 
 
 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Here’s the gear you need to make flight simulation take flight

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by Kevin Jacoby on 01/19/2021
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Guess who’s gearing up to spend some big bucks on PC hardware? Yup, the gamers are back, and with their credit cards ready. 
 
But now it ain’t Fortnite they’re after. This time it’s a whole new journey. 
 
Due to the pandemic, we may not want to travel in the real world, but we’re sure lining up for flight sims. Over the next 3 years, gamers will spend some $2.6 billion on PC gaming hardware just to run the latest version of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, predicts Jon Peddie Research.
 
Flight Simulator 2020
 
Flight Simulator 2020: unbeatable realism—but only with the right gear
 
Some of those billions will come from the $60 to $120 each flight-sim enthusiast will need to spend to buy the game itself. Jon Peddie believes they’ll buy some 2.27 million units of Flight Simulator 2020 over the next 3 years.
 
But that pile should also include the billions of dollars enthusiasts will spend gobbling up high-performance components, flight-control peripherals and even virtual reality (VR) gear.
 
So what does a good flight simulator rig look like these days? Glad you asked.
 
Need for speed
 
Make no mistake, you can’t run the latest flight sim on Dad’s old ultrabook. Just getting onto the ground floor of performance and frame rates requires a hefty rig, one that’s ready to churn like a Pixar render farm. 
 
First of all, any virtual pilot pining for a truly great flying experience will need to secure a heavy-duty processor. To power your 787 Dreamliner and all the lush scenery below, only the heartiest engines will do. If you’re looking at anything less than an Intel Core i9-9900K, keep looking.
 
Having the right graphics card is important, too. Flight Simulator has the option to bring in real-time mapping and meteorological data from Bing. Processing all those trees, clouds, buildings and other bits of hyper-realistic terrain at 30 to 60 frames per second requires a GPU with VRAM to spare. 
 
If a high frame rate and 1080p or better resolution is required, then it’s worth considering something like the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. While this GPU costs a bundle — around $1,200 — it brings to the party 11GB of GDDR6 VRAM. That should be more than enough.
 
NVIDIA GeForce GPU
NVIDIA GeForce GPU: hi-res, fast frames
 
Main memory matters, too. And when it comes to flight simulators, the question is not only “how much?” but also “how fast?” As Jarred Walton’s tireless research for TomsHardware.com shows, 16GB of RAM running at the DDR4-4000 speed can actually outperform twice as much RAM (32GB) running at the slower speed of DDR4-3600.
 
Keyboard overboard!
 
Can you fly a simulator with your standard PC keyboard? Sure. 
 
But is that the best way to have the most fun? Absolutely not.
 
In fact, to fly the friendly skies in true style, you need the right peripherals. Get rid of that keyboard and start instead with the Logitech Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals
 
Logitech’s setup includes a yoke, throttle quadrant and rudder pedals. With it, computer pilots can simulate real-world aircraft ranging all the way from a lowly, single-engine Cessna to a gargantuan Lockheed C5 Galaxy. 
 
Logitech Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals
Logitech’s Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals
 
However, due to the overwhelming popularity of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, Logitech says it’s currently sold out of the Flight Yoke System + Rudder Pedals. Fortunately, other retailers, such as the appropriately named MyPilotStore.com, have the setup in stock. They’re offering it for around $400. 
 
Virtually real 
 
Good as flight simulation is, it gets even better with virtual reality. VR makes total immersion possible, and without the cost of multiple high-res displays. 
 
One cool VR option comes from Asobo Studios, the designer of Microsoft’s vaunted Flight Simulator. Last month Asobo released a free software update; it enables OpenXR-compatible VR headsets such as the Windows Mixed-Reality Headset shown below to be used with Flight Simulator. 
 
Acer Windows VR helmet

Acer Windows Mixed-Reality headset: now ready for Flight Simulator

Imagine turning your head to see out the side window of an Airbus A380 cockpit. You look down to the churning Pacific waves below, then glance up at the contrails of a distant jet. Your head swivels back to center as your eyes flick from the altimeter to the airspeed indicator. Then back to the window for a view across the nose of a jumbo jet that few will ever get to see
 
The channel soars
 
PC sales are on the rise, having pushed up 26% in Q4, according to IDC. For the channel, that’s a welcome tailwind. Now it’s time to kick in the afterburners.
 
With its bleeding-edge components and high average sale prices (ASP), gaming continues to be a winning niche market. The new Flight Simulator 2020 represents a niche within the niche. 
 
This could be your chance to soar. Bon voyage!
 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Explainer: How wireless induction charging works

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by Kevin Jacoby on 12/21/2020
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Wireless charging promises ease-of-use and a clutter-free workspace. Just plunk a compatible smartphone, tablet or other device on a charging pad — sold separately, of course — and wait for the battery to fill up.

But how does this marvelous modern convenience work? And is it worth the hype?

A long, wireless history

Wireless charging, also known as inductive charging, began creeping into the modern zeitgeist around 2008. That’s when the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) came into being. By 2010 the WPC had created today’s most common wireless-charging standard, known as Qi (pronounced “chee”).

But the real birth of induction power transfer started much earlier — back in 1894, to be exact. That’s when two engineers named Hutin and Le-Blanc proposed a system of wirelessly charging electric vehicles.

Their work, in turn, was based on discoveries made by famed English physicist Michael Faraday. In 1831 he had discovered the theories of magnetics and electricity that make induction charging possible.

Faraday induction experiment

Illustration showing Faraday’s magnetic-induction experiment (From 1892 textbook, via Wikipedia)

In 1977, nearly a century after Hutin and Le-Blanc did their work, their concept was finally realized in the form of a patent for an “electromagnetically coupled battery charger.” The patent application, filed by one John E. Trombly, listed as its primary use “charging headlamp batteries for coal miners.”

Fast-forward another 33 years, and here we are. You can now buy Qi-certified devices such as Apple’s new MagSafe charger to juice up your cellies without any pesky cables.

Look mom, no wires!

The underlying mechanism of inductive charging is as simple as it is elegant. An induction coil in the charging pad creates an oscillating electromagnetic field, just like the one Nikola Tesla created back in the 19th century.

This electromagnetic field then hangs out, floating like a butterfly waiting patiently for a compatible mate. Place your phone on the charging pad, and the device’s receiver coil converts this magnetic field back into electricity, which then charges the device’s battery. That’s all there is to it.

Wireless charger

Wireless charger, with room for multiple devices (photo courtesy of Amazon)

The maximum distance between the charger and your device is determined by the size of the coils in each. The larger the coils, the greater the distance you can have.

The latest, greatest wireless charging currently allows for up to 50 mm (equivalent to a little over 2 inches) between the device and its charger.

That may seem like a short distance, but it’s long enough to obviate the precision previously required to charge devices on older charging pads. In other words, 50 mm is just enough to give the user a chuck-it-on-the-pad-and-fuhgeddaboudit kind of joie de vivre.

A few cons

Wireless charging is mostly good news. As this technology rapidly spreads, subsequent generations of digital-natives will forget about peripherals as banal as USB cables and wall-warts.

But the news isn’t all digital daisies and wireless roses. There are the small matters of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Today’s inductive charging doesn’t have enough of either.

When we’re talking about the low-power wireless charging common to mobile devices (that is, less than 100 watts), we’re talking about a slower, less-efficient method of charging.

 As the chart below shows, charging a mobile phone with a Qi wireless charging pad is, at best, around half as fast as charging with an old-fashioned cable, according to Nick Guy of The New York Times.

Wired vs. Wireless Charging chart

Source: Wirecutter via The New York Times

Inductive charging is also relatively expensive. Manufacturing chargers and devices that contain the requisite drive electronics and coils raises their price per unit. Guess who that price increase gets passed on to?

Then there’s the matter of efficiency. Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, says that approximately 50% of the energy coming from a wireless charging pad ends up as wasted heat. With an estimated 3.5 billion smartphones in use worldwide, wholesale adoption of wireless charging could waste a staggering amount of energy.

How’s your Qi now?

But not to worry. As wireless charging becomes the de facto standard around the globe, our hardworking tech giants will likely figure out a way to increase efficiency and lower costs.

For now, consider the future of inductive charging as it pertains to the channel. Your customers will need chargers for their myriad devices. And when new chargers are available, they’ll need those, too.

So keep your eye on the inductive ball. A wireless wonderland may be closer than you think.

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

Tech Provider Zone holiday gift guide, 2020 edition

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by Kevin Jacoby on 12/11/2020
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’Tis the season to spend some money. But what to buy for the tech geek in your life? With so many gadgets to choose from, option anxiety constitutes a clear and present danger.

Never fear, we’re here to help. Behold, the Tech Provider Zone Holiday Gift Guide, 2020 edition.

For the Beleaguered Apple TV Owner

What: One for All - Streamer Remote

Where: Best Buy

How much: $25

If you know someone who owns an Apple TV, then you also know someone who hates the included remote.

Apple, usually one of the best designers in the world, really dropped the ball with the Apple TV’s remote. Fortunately, a company called One For All has picked it up.

One For All’s Streamer Remote echoes the size and shape of the standard Apple TV remote. But it adds 1 thing that Apple forgot: usability.

For about $25, your giftee can enjoy easy scrolling, volume changing and general UI navigation — and without tearing out any hair.

One for All Streamer Remote

Streamer Remote: a better take on the Apple TV classic

One caveat: The Streamer Remote connects with IR, not Bluetooth. So to get this remote to work, you’ll have to actually point it at the Apple TV. But for easy binging, that’s a small price to pay.

For the Image-Conscious Zoomer

What: Razer Kiyo

Where: Razer.com

How much: $100

Think back to your last video chat. Did one of the chatters look pale and sickly, with sunken eyes and fuzzy hair? Chances are that person’s health is fine. It’s their webcam that’s sick.

For those who want to look good while chatting, Razer has introduced Kiyo, an HD webcam with a built-in ring light.

Razer Kiyo

Razer Kiyo: high-def video & lighting in 1 easy package

Kiyo offers 1080p resolution at 30 frames/second with a slightly wider than usual 82-degree field of view. And the light is programmed with 3 sensible defaults: bright, dim and off. That makes it easy to use, and hard to look bad.

For the Indoor Exerciser

What: The Mirror

Where: Mirror.co

How much: Starting at $1,495 + $39/mo.

Do you know someone aiming to have a killer post-pandemic bod? Do they already own a talking mirror?

If not, this could be just the holiday cheer they need. The Mirror hangs on the wall, just like a regular mirror. That’s the low-tech part. During a workout, the user watches their reflection to make sure they’re using the correct form.

The high-tech part comes from the embedded smart display. It projects a professional trainer onto the screen for some one-on-one panting and sweating.

There’s also an embedded camera. It keeps an eye out throughout the session, delivering real-time adjustments based on your fitness goals.

The Mirror

The Mirror: 1-on-1 workouts are the name of the game

The Mirror’s $39/month subscription price delivers an ever-expanding selection of workouts, including yoga, Latin dance, kickboxing and Tai Chi. Each workout also includes a curated music playlist to keep the energy up and the tunes flowing.

For the Person Absolutely Never Going Back to the Office

What: Autonomous Zen Work Pod

Where: Autonomous.ai

How much: $5,400 (pre-order)

The pandemic has shown us that working from home long-term is indeed possible. For many, it has even become preferable. If, that is, they can find some peace and quiet.

That’s where the Atonomous Zen Work Pod comes in.

It’s an outside office with all the comforts of your old office, minus the commute. That includes built-in shelves, a desk and chair, tempered glass walls, and sustainable oak and walnut components.

To be sure, it’s compact. The interior space measures roughly 6 1/2 x 8 feet, and the ceiling measures 10 1/2 feet at its highest point.

Autonomous Zen Work Pod

Zen Work Pod: Instant office — including desk & chair

Just pull the 5,400-dollar trigger, and the pod will arrive at your home in just 2 to 4 days. The full setup and assembly is completed for you in about 72 hours. Then, viola!, instant office without the obligatory breakroom chatter.

For the Ultimate Movie Fanatic

What: LG Signature Z9

Where: LG.com

How much: $30,000

It’s OLED. It’s 88 inches. It’s 8K. It’s insane.

What do you get for the person who has everything? The LG Signature Z9, a TV that costs as much as a well-equipped Toyota Camry.

The Z9’s organic LED delivers the sharpest picture currently available. And, at 88 inches, it also delivers the largest.

The sound, of course, is Dolby Atmos. Which means you’ll want to pair it with the best surround sound system money can buy.

LG Signature Z9 TV

LG Signature Z9 OLED TV: 88 inches of 8K def

The Z9 has its own brain capable of streaming and binging ‘till the cows come home. This smart TV’s smarts include Amazon Alexa, Apple Airplay 2, Google Assistant, and its own hands-free voice control system.

As a bonus, the Z9 looks like a piece of modern art. Now you’ll just need an art collector’s budget.

Go forth and spend thy ducats

Time’s running out. If you want to get those gifts under the tree before Santa comes down the chimney, now’s the time to do it.

Happy shopping!

 

The indispensable source for professionals who create, implement and service technology solutions for entrepreneurs to enterprise.

In the Zone

The best HPC systems of 2020

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by Kevin Jacoby on 11/20/2020
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If 2020 has been the year of working at home, it’s also been the year of high performance computing (HPC) upgrades for the home office.

With all that enterprise-level hardware gathering dust at corporate HQ, your customers have had to bring home enough power to work (and play) hard.

What sets an HPC systems apart from standard PCs? The brute processing force needed to reach a bar that gets raised higher every year. Here are 3 that set the bar pretty high in 2020.

Bizon V500: The show must go on

Even during a pandemic (or perhaps because of it), we’re glued to our TVs. Whether that’s a news show about COVID-19 or a nice, long binge to help us forget, someone has to put all that video together.

Tossing around hours of 4K footage and lifelike animation requires processing power, and lots of it. That’s a job for a pro video-editing workstation such as the BIZON V5000. It can bust a move without breaking a sweat.

Bizon V5000

Bizon V5000: Powerful — but also pricey

The V5000 starts out at around $3,000, but maxing out this system can easily bring the price tag to an eye-watering $37,000. If your customers are spending that kind of money, they’ll expect nothing but the best. With Bizon’s system, that starts with an 18-core Skylake X Intel Core i9-10980XE running at 3GHz.

Remember to round out the box with 256GB of 3,000 MHz DDR4 memory and a chorus of NVIDIA RTX graphics processors. With that kind of gear, your customers will have the power to create superhero universes and AAA games to their heart’s content.

Apple MacPro: Costly fruit

So you thought 37 grand was a lot to pay for a computer? Then Apple’s fully tricked out MacPro may seem a little crazy. But if your customer has $52,000 to burn, they can kit out their home office with one of the most powerful, commercially available HPCs in the world.

When configured to the digital hilt, the Apple MacPro sports an Intel Xeon W processor with 24 cores (!), each capable of boosting up to 4.4GHz. Because this is a server-class platform, users can match that bodacious engine with up to 1.5 terabytes of DDR4 ECC memory.

 

Apple MacPro

Apple MacPro: server-class CPUs, up to 1.5TB of RAM

What can your customers do with all that power? Anything they want.

Worthwhile targets for this cruise missile of a computer include audio/video production, pro animation rendering, and the kind of scientific research that used to require a warehouse full of mainframes.

Alienware Aurora R11: All fun & games

The Alienware Aurora R11 Gaming PC might seem small. And compared with the aforementioned BIZON and Apple desktops, it might seem downright cheap. But this system delivers plenty of gaming cred and, well, fun.

The Aurora R11 sells for about $5,000 when fully loaded. Not cheap, exactly, but a lot less than the BIZON and MacPro. And measuring roughly 19 x 8 x 17 inches and weighing just a hair over 39 pounds, the Aurora could conceivably be dragged along to a gaming party.

Just don’t call it underpowered. The Aurora R11 can be kitted out with an overclocked 10-core Intel Core i9-10900KF processor, 128GB of HyperX FURY DDR4 XMP memory and a pair of NVIDIA RTX 3090 cards. That will make your customer competitive in any eSports tournament.

Alienware Aurora R11

Alienware Aurora R11: 2 colors, 1 big Core i9 punch.

Keeping them competitive, however, will require the optional liquid cooling system. It’s a veritable necessity when dealing with all the heat coming off of those top-of-the-line components.

Users can also pick a chassis color to suit their demeanors: Dark Side of the Moon (dark grey with blue LEDs) or the slightly more expensive Lunar Light (light grey with blue LEDs). Why the light grey costs $30 more is anyone’s guess.

HPCs are super

Are tablets and laptops eating away at desktop PC sales? Sure, and they have been for years. But no skinny piece of glass can leap tall buildings in a single bound the way an HPC can. And no ultrabook has what it takes to process an animated feature film faster than a speeding bullet.

That makes HPCs a good bet for channel partners. After all, offering reliable tools for which there can be no substitute has always been a solid business model.

You might even call it bulletproof.

 

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