31 December 2009

OFH acquires Actuality's assets. Actuality is officially closed.

Hello -

I'm pleased to announce that the optical and electronic systems development company OFH [www.opticsforhire.com] has acquired the assets of Actuality Systems, the 3-D visualization technology firm I co-founded 12 years ago. With that, Actuality formally dissolves today. Our first press release about this explains it.

Out of professional courtesy, we're not disclosing the terms of the deal.

OFH (Optics for Hire) is a wonderful product development company. 20+ talented optical, electronic, software, and mechanical engineers help our clients go from concept to prototype on a wide range of products. The common element is that almost everything involves optics, and even when it doesn't, the problems people bring us are usually quite challenging. I'm a principal there, so I am a senior accounts manager, salesperson, and engineering liaison.

By the way, no one could have convinced me that our technology development roller coaster would have taken these particular ups-and-downs: I started making 3-D displays in 1988, which was the summer after eighth grade, and certainly didn't expect that my first experiments with lasers in the basement would be end-bracketed by an event way off on New Year's Eve in 2009.

Some of you have suggested that I post a how-to of corporate dissolution, the list of steps that happen between final lay-off and actual formal wind-down, final taxes-paid, etc. If anyone wants my viewpoints on that, I'd be happy to post about it.

Until then, Happy New Year! Here's to new beginnings and innovative ideas.


29 December 2009

Cited in Gizmodo display piece re:3-D display

Hi -

Vanity aside, you might find Kate Greene's piece in Gizmodo interesting: "The Hunt for the Perfect Screen."

It touches on 3-D, LCDs, flexible displays, Pixel Qi, and other display technologies which either have made it... or are still trying.


04 November 2009

A Creative Whack: Exaggerate

Hi -

Do you like to collect creativity-enhancing techniques?

I've enjoyed books like James Adams's Conceptual Blockbusting, which helps you notice (and thereby eliminate) your own blocks to creativity. You've probably also seen Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies," a deck of pithy thought-provoking sayings intended you to turn your creative problem on its ear.

Another creativity card-deck is Roger von Oech's "Creative Whack Pack." Many of the techniques are well-documented elsewhere, but I like how a deck of cards invites browsing. (I keep it in my briefcase and flip through it now and then.)

Here's a good example. It's a technique used by many successful entrepreneurs and inventors:

Imagine a joke so funny that you can't stop laughing for a month. Paper stronger than steel. An apple the size of a hotel. A jet engine quieter than a moth beating its wings. A home-cooked meal for 25,000 people. Try exaggerating your idea. Think big: what if it were a thousand times bigger, louder, stronger, faster, or brighter? What if the number of people who could use it were increased a thousandfold? Now think small; what if it were only one-thousandth as powerful, fast, costly, or complicated as before? How can you exaggerate your idea?


22 October 2009

Sony's 360-degree display

Sony is demonstrating a 360-degree tabletop display this week. They claim it is a "highly-multiview" autostereoscopic display, rather than a 360-degree 2-D display.

Have any of you seen it? How did it look? Is it a rotating LED paddle, or something different?

Recent update, with more images:

I dimly recall coming up with the term "highly-multiview" for an article a while back... but maybe that was just a coincidence of the translation.


ps Thanks to Andrew Woods for bringing this to my attention.

01 October 2009

Two sub-$5 toys with curious operational mechanisms

Hi -

Ever wish your 3 year-old had a toy or two which, despite being < $5, triggers a sense of wonder about how on earth it works? Here are two toys that I (finally!) found at Henry Bear's Park. Both are made by Toysmith (Auburn, WA).

I first saw this at a friend's house and spent two years tracking it down. This odd little ball is black with colored dots. When you roll it across the floor, it seems to frictionlessly glide along - it's actually floating within a clear sphere. If you smack it just right, the dots glow and blink. $4!

It's a wind-up plastic UFO that scoots along a tabletop, but a little mechanism inside makes it change direction just before it would have plummeted off the edge! The salesperson suggested that it would be a fun way to keep your one-year-old entertained at a restaurant, since it can't fall off the table. $2!

I hope to see more inventive toys with curious mechanisms inside...


06 September 2009

Optics: 2 papers @ OSA meeting. Me on 3-D, and Accardi / Wornell on QUASI light fields

Hi - 

I finally posted the 2-pager for an invited talk I'm giving at the OSA's 93rd Annual Meeting (Frontiers in Optics 2009 / Laser Science XXV): "Progress in Volumetric Three-Dimensional Displays and Their Applications."

It'll be on Tuesday, Oct. 13 (2009) in San Jose, CA.

Also: Anthony Accardi and his advisor Gregory Wornell will be publicly presenting very creative and multi-disciplinary work, along the lines of their recent JOSA paper, "Quasi light fields: extending the light field to coherent radiation." For free previews, see the PDF of one of Anthony's recent talks mirrored at Prof. Raskar's site, or an earlier post on related topics at ArXiv.


29 August 2009

Whew! Now you can swing side-to-side without fear of being sued!

Hi -

If, for fear of patent infringement, you had been avoiding swinging side-to-side on a swing suspended by trees - - breathe a sigh of relief! Read on...

One example of some of the problems with the U.S. patent system is exemplified by U.S. Pat. 6,368,227, "METHOD OF SWINGING ON A SWING," which generated substantial publicity for its young inventor when it issued in 2002.

Or, I should say, the expired '227. According to the USPTO database, it expired in 2006.

What did it cover?

1. A method of swinging on a swing, the method comprising the steps of:
a) suspending a seat for supporting a user between only two chains that are hung from a tree branch;
b) positioning a user on the seat so that the user is facing a direction perpendicular to the tree branch;
c) having the user pull alternately on one chain to induce movement of the user and the swing toward one side, and then on the other chain to induce movement of the user and the swing toward the other side; and
d) repeating step c) to create side-to-side swinging motion, relative to the user, that is parallel to the tree branch.

2. The method of claim 1, wherein the method is practiced independently by the user to create the side-to-side motion from an initial dead stop.

3. The method of claim 1, wherein the method further comprises the step of:
e) inducing a component of forward and back motion into the swinging motion, resulting in a swinging path that is generally shaped as an oval.

4. The method of claim 3, wherein the magnitude of the component of forward and back motion is less than the component of side-to-side motion.

Whew! Google Patents: 6,368,227. Or search for the prosecution history in the file wrapper at the USPTO, here.


28 August 2009

Mass High Tech profile

Hi there - 

I'm profiled in this week's Mass High Tech in a piece by Jim Connolly: "Gregg Favalora sets his sights on the optics industry."

Maybe it’s in his genes or maybe it was from his environment, but Gregg Favalora feels he was destined to work with optics and imaging. In fact he has been working with 3-D imaging since he was in junior high...

01 August 2009

(Edge) Short course on synthetic genomics

Hello -

Brockman's Edge.org continues to showcase interesting work from his cadre of leading-edge thinkers (or, as I think of them, "the smart cool-kids.") George Church and Craig Venter taught a 6-hour course on synthetic genomics, presented at Edge.org, for free.

I didn't make it through all six hours, though what I watched I found really absorbing. I also admit I find the selection of students equally fascinating - they introduce themselves in the first minutes of part one. If you are a frequent visitor to Edge.org, or watch TED videos, or, really, go to any of the "conferences by big thinkers," they'll be familiar (though mostly West Coast) names.


24 July 2009

Watching simulated chromosomes mutate as they try to reach a "goal"

Hi -

What might a time-lapse of evolution look like, at the genetic level, watching genes win and lose on the basis of how well the organism was able to survive? In this blog post, we'll look at a really dumbed-down version of this that's still, I think, conceptually compelling.

How is a recipe different from an evolving organism? What if real-world problems, like designing bridges or electronic circuits, were solved by a computer that hunted around for a good solution rather than at the explicit, exacting direction of a team of engineers?

Genetic algorithms are computational "recipes" that function in this manner. Broadly, it's been possible to program a computer to program itself, using a technique that has some analogies with real-life evolution. This won't surprise any computer scientists, since the technique has been around since the 1950s and gained popularity in the 1970s. But I thought you might be interested in GAs because we can peer (diagrammatically) into an accelerated world of simulated, simplified "evolution" - and, also, it's a fun programming exercise that lets me get a little more experience with languages like Mathematica and C.

(If this is new to you, see the brief overview that I blogged about in 2007.)

In short, we give our evolution-simulating program a few things:
  • A population of organisms (usually called chromosomes), each chromosome being composed of a bunch of genes... and each gene can be as simple as a 0 or 1 -- or as complicated as a mathematical function like Sin(x). Usually the population is random, a bunch of Frankensteins.
  • A goal to achieve, like "figure out what math function best approximates this stock-ticker," or "figure out how to place 100 Lego blocks to make a really long bridge that doesn't collapse under its own weight." Usually the goal is presented in terms of a test called a fitness function. We test each organism (or chromosome's) ability to pass the test. The chromosomes that do better survive - pairs of chomosomes (parents) breed, make children, the kids are mutated, and the weaker parents are killed. Repeat.
  • And you need to let the simulation know how likely it is that genes will mutate or that breeding parents will swap chromosomal segments ("crossover").
As a prelude to a larger project, I put together a simple Mathematica notebook that would try out a problem in a textbook on the subject, Melanie Mitchell's An Introduction to Genetic Algorithms. The test?

Turning random "binary" chromosomes into a freaky population that loves the number 1

Start with a bunch of random chromosomes, like:

{0,0,1,0,1,1,1,0} (chromosome 1)
{1,0,0,1,1,0,0,0} (chromosome 2)

...and let them breed and mutate. The chromosomes that looked most like {1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1} were not killed off.

Our population had 40 chromosomes, each with 10 genes valued 0 or 1. The universe runs for 100 time-steps.

Here's a chromosome from the randomized primordial ooze, our friend chromosome 5:

And here is its universe, textually:

..and graphically (Mr. Five is in the fifth row from the top):

A few simple experiments: does it work?

Of course, I implemented the basic GA stuff, like a function for "fitness-proportionate selection using roulette wheel sampling," a fancy way of saying "a way to favor the parents that most look like a bunch of ones." At the end I'll link to the notebook so you can use it, laugh at my code, and offer suggestions.

Here I'll show you a few plots that show how the population's fitness improves (hopefully) over 100 sessions of selection, mating with crossover, and "honey, I mutated the kids."

Above, we use the recommended parameters for mutation (0.001 = 0.1% likely) and crossover (70%). As you can see, the population approaches the theoretical maximum fitness (400, which is the number of chromosomes multiplied by the number of genes each) at about step 20.

The curve goes up, meaning that the "fitness" of the chromosomes is improving.  A plot of the chromosomes at ten snapshots in their history are provided right under that.  They're getting more black - which means that they're becoming filled with 1s.  (Under that is what the first ten generations looked like.)

It bounces around, too. That's because the genes mutate now and then.

What if we go outside without sunblock?

What if we turn the mutation probability up to a whopping 10%?

Augh! The population never has a chance to improve its fitness; just as it tries to get healthy, we flip bits and really screw things up.

One other quick experiment: do what extent does the crossover probability matter? Let's turn it down to 0.5%, so that crossover happens about 1 in 200 matings. We'll increase the number of generations to 500:

Neat! Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it's as if improvements in fitness happen in punctuated jumps.

Oh, what does the life of one chromosome over the whole history look like? Going back to our original parameters for mutation and crossover, Mr. Five indeed tends toward all ones (or "all black," reading downward.)

Well, that's it. If you find this interesting, you might want to code some of this stuff up on your own. I suggest a few video clips of neat stuff (e.g. synthetic organisms learning to crawl, Lego bridges...) and good books on these blog posts:

  • g-fav's first attempt to write a GA, in C (May 2007)
  • "virtual schadenfraude" - turn on your speakers! (Oct 2008)
  • Lego bridges and truck backer-uppers (May 2009)
The Mathematica notebook (do whatever you want with this, was written for fun and not error-tested, not responsible for damages...) max_ones.nb - free Wolfram Mathematica Player

Have a good weekend!


04 July 2009

Maps on FedEx shipping labels

Hi - 

Among Kevin Kelly's numerous thoughtful blog posts about network effects, the Web, and various design-issues is this brief post about FedEx's use of road maps printed directly on packages.  Check it out.  (One commenter noted that it would be more useful in the cab of the truck on a clipboard, instead of in the back of the truck stuck to a package, but still...)


28 June 2009

Where do things go when companies wind down? Boston Globe...

Good morning - 

New England's top tech / business journalist, Scott Kirsner, wrote an article about a topic that most entrepreneurs stay quiet about: what is the gritty reality (or what are the opportunities presented by) the "desks, PCs, patents up for grabs as more companies wind down?".

My startup, Actuality Systems, is one of the examples in the story.  Scott was one of the first journalists to cover Actuality (for Wired magazine in 2001!) - and I was willing to open up to him about our status in the hopes that other entrepreneurs would find it useful.  (Actuality has laid off its staff and is now contemplating various options regarding its valuable patent fortress in the space of 3-D technologies.)


26 June 2009

Insights for new entrepreneurs

Hi -

I didn't know this until today, but Microsoft is trying to make it easier for startups to buy their stuff... and as a part of this effort, they're sponsoring an online "book" for new entrepreneurs about basic lessons, like:
  • Building an advisory board
  • Choosing among LLC and Corp.
  • How to Pitch and not be Screwed By VCs
The intro section is here, followed by the table of contents. (This was due to a mention in the New York Times.)


24 June 2009


Hello, dear (hopefully RSS-based) reader,

I just thought I'd say a bit about what I've been doing lately. (If this blog-indulgence isn't your thing, look away!)

Actuality Systems
In mid-March, in the face of some nasty financial realities, the Board asked me to become Actuality's CEO again, at which point our team was beginning to achieve important results in the field of prostate cancer treatment using machine vision (i.e. PCs helping doctors get the most out of ultrasound). We were donning scrubs and recording terabytes of data at major Boston hospitals. However, I did the math, and absent any major commercial deals, our last paid day would be April 24. That left us with savings to be a mensch about paying our vendors and maintaining our patent fortress.

"Doing the math" on a weekly rather than monthy basis is an atypical exercise, one that pits accrual accounting versus cash-based accounting. Also, the mundane details of "winding down the company" are a little tricky to get guidance on. Why? Entrepreneurs go into hiding in the final days of their startups - startups go out with a whimper, not a bang, so little is written about the process. If any entrepreneurs would find a brief lessons-learned blog post about the topic, let me know.

What's Next?

After a partial asset sale and moving the HQ to my home office, Jenn and I made some changes. She returned to work a couple of days/week, and I immersed myself in a few things:

(1) preparing our patent portfolio for sale or ongoing maintenance (we have 19+ patents that cover everything from our crystal-ball hologram-like display to various floating-image systems that previously only existed in SciFi movies);

(2) allowing myself to think about Life After Actuality, blank-slate; and in pursuit of this,

(3) many meetings ultimately involving caffeine consumption. I have been quite caffeinated lately. And happily so.

Fortunately I now have the opportunity to meet wonderfully interesting people in the Cambridge startup scene - lots of medical devices, imaging-based ventures, Web-stuff, and overall optimism. If you are looking for networking events, check here. June is New England Innovation Month. Tangentially, I am curious who is going to step in to fill the funding-vacuum between $200k and $3M, but that is a discussion of its own.

I am carving out a few hours here and there to build new skills, like continuing to work with Mathematica to explore genetic programming, something that's interested me for a while. No progress to report there yet.

More Self-Indulgent Commentary

Jenn and I are enjoying a particularly fun time with parenthood: Toby's just over three, and Gabe is nine months old. (For those of you without kids, that means we're having hysterical conversations with the elder while the younger is finally scooting happily at high speed around the house.)

There is a local firm with whom I will probably work with part-time, and when the time is rightl, I'm excited to talk about it. I'll be at What's Next In Tech tomorrow (Thurdsay) night, and hope to see some of you there. I'm listening to the Talking Heads on our stereo tonight because, with Jenn and the kids gone, it's a little too creepy to listen to Boards of Canada. (Then again, when isn't it?)

Hey, it's almost midnight, and my ice coffee isn't finished yet.

Life is good!


10 June 2009

Major 3-D technology conference: call for abstracts

Hello, my optics-oriented friends:

The SPIE-IS&T Stereoscopic Displays & Applications conference - hitting its 21st year - is now accepting abstracts. This is the largest, longest-running technical conference on 3-D display technologies. Displays, software, compression, perception, entertainment... you name it!

If 3-D technology is up your alley, take a moment to visit www.stereoscopic.org.



04 June 2009

What do you think of this?

Microsoft's Project Natal made a splash at E3 2009.  What do you think of this video?


29 May 2009

Upgrading your MacBook HD

Hi - 

If you have a MacBook that's running out of space, you might want to consider upgrading your hard drive.  (Ours was, what, an 80 GB that filled up with the OS, various apps, and quite a few photos.)

It's simple if you aren't afraid of screwdrivers and avoiding static buildup; I...

0. Was relieved to see that I already had an external backup drive, a LaCie 160 GB.
1. Printed out "How to Upgrade Your MacBook's Hard Drive" from Macinstruct / Tutorama.
2. Poked around online, read reviews, and picked a hard drive.  I chose the Western Digital 500 GB Scorpio 2.5" 5400 rpm jobbie from Amazon. It's an OEM component, meaning all you get is a drive in a static bag.
3. Got the right Torx screwdriver and weird flat pulling / pushing tools from some Amazon vendor.  (And recalled that I had a tiny Philips screwdriver already.)
4. A few days later they arrived.
5. Pulled back the static-friendly tablecloth on the dining room table, put a piece of paper on the wood, and got to work...
6. Excluding the initial backup, it took 15 minutes to install the drive and about 1 hour to restore it.
7. Done!

Fear not...  You too can have, like, 400 GB available on your MacBook!


28 May 2009

New dual-mode display: first pictures of Pixel Qi screen

Fresh out of the fab, see pictures of the Pixel Qi 3qi screen on the company's blog.

Why is this interesting?  According to Mary Lou,

We have been feverishly working on designing our first screen product We will be sampling our 10″ screens this spring and plan to be in high volume mass production this summer. These screens have an epaper state that rivals the best epaper on the market today. What’s different: unlike the other epaper products where one must wait a second or so to change the screen - we provide video rate refresh. Also, while we have a high resolution paper-white black and white, we also provide, in the same screen fully saturated color fidelity - the same as a standard laptop screen - same color, contrast resolution, field of view etc. Our screens consumer 25%-50% of the power of a regular notebook screen in their power savings modes and will be in available at comparable price points and volumes to standard LCD screens this summer. In addition, by integrating the screen with the electronics driving the screen a 5-fold increase in battery life between charges can be achieved.


22 May 2009

Note to self: Genetic algorithms, Lego bridges, etc.

Hey there, self (and David Oliver),

Here are a few papers you've been looking for:

P. J. Funes and J. B. Pollack, "Computer Evolution of Buildable Objects for Evolutionary Design by Computers," in Evolutionary Design by Computers, P. Bentley (ed.) pp. 387-403 (1999).  (Dave, see around Fig. 10 for the crazy-looking Lego bridges that were evolved computationally.)

J. R. Koza, "A Genetic Approach to Finding a Controller to Back Up a Tractor-Trailer Truck," ACC (1992).  Includes the best-named section heading I've seen in a while, "THE TRUCK BACKER-UPPER PROBLEM."

I finally tracked down this Ph.D. thesis:

T. P. Meyer, "Long range predictability of high dimensional chaotic dynamics," Ph.D. thesis Univ. Ill. Urbana-Champaign (1992). [CCSR-91-17]

And finally, the oft-cited co-evolution paper:


21 May 2009

Self-assembly of DNA into nanoscale three-dimensional shapes

Hi - 

Wired turned me on to the 3-D nanoassembly work in Harvard's Shih Lab.

Bjorn Hogberg posts the Nature (2009) preprint, "Self-assembly of DNA into nanoscale three-dimensional shapes."

Here is an illustration from the Wired piece:

Scale: the horizontal white bar is 20 nm long.

If you visit the Shih Lab site, hyperlinked above, you'll find a link to a nanoscale CAD program...


14 May 2009

(Scott Kirsner's) What's Next in Tech

Hey techie entrepreneurs, here's something for you to consider registering for...
Leading New England tech / business journalist Scott Kirsner wrote regarding the next step in his efforts to keep the best minds within Massachusetts and figure out where the next waves of growth are coming from.  He describes his "What's Next In Tech: Exploring the Growth Opportunities of 2009 and Beyond" event as:
The idea is to provide a picture of the tech clusters that are going to drive the next waves of growth here in Massachusetts, from cloud computing to robotics to videogames to energy efficiency to social media. Speakers include venture capitalist Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, Brian Halligan of HubSpot, and Tim Healy, who runs the publicly-traded EnerNOC. (Note: The early registration rate ends on May 15th -- tomorrow.)
See Scott's blog posting on the event (signup).

What do I think is "next in tech"?

Several folks who've answered this question focus on the leading edge of Web and mobile technologies ca. 2009, e.g. cloud computing, social networks, mobile advertising and tracking, etc. 
In my own little "circle in the Venn diagram" from the worlds of medical devices, electronics, optics, and recent fatherhood, I believe the next opportunities in tech are:

  • Medical devices with a stronger software component.  An example is retrofitting ultrasound machines with hardcore computer vision algorithms to assist the clinician in performing biopsies or interventions (e.g. my bias towards prostate brachytherapy).  These fall within "intraoperative planning and guidance" - there's a huge opportunity to make money by figuring out how to track defomable organs, like the brain or liver, to tell the surgeon where the tumor is right now.  Companies like Medtronic mostly focus on the 20% of the body that's rigid, e.g. orthopedic surgery.  That's the easier problem.  It's time to help the other 80% of the body.
  • Imaging, i.e., the capture and processing of light, e.g. cameras. This won't be news to you in computer graphics, but keep an eye on the labs of Ramesh Raskar (and his "imaging ventures" class co-led by Joost Bonsen), the various Stanford Graphics Lab research efforts in light fields, and Shree Nayar's work at Columbia's CAVE group.  Examples: cameras that you can focus after you take the picture and return home, removing blur from scenes, seeing objects from locations you didn't take a good enough picture of...  Graphics processor performance has gotten extraordinary enough that consumer-grade cameras will be capable of extraordinary things in a few years.
  • Display, particularly 3-D.  Yeah, sure, this is what I spent my conscious life working on, but there's really something here.  Stereo cinema has exploded.  RealD, one of the leading providers of stereoscopic cinema technology, claims to have over 1,600 screens worldwide.  This opens opportunities in: camera technology, editing / direction software, secure transmission and playback, glasses, projectors, and other areas.  Further, we might tire of our 2-D desktop displays for a more holographic experience.  Many organizations have developed technology that can project real, 3-D, "look-around" imagery in front of screens (or above tabletops, Death Star-style!).  The day will come.
  • Advanced toys.  That's all I'll say on that one.
  • Systems that begin to mimic natural processes like "emergence," "swarms," and "genetic algorithms," everywhere from automated mechanical design to distributed processing to more realistic videogame AI.
Anyhow, go take a look at Scott's original conversation on this topic.


13 May 2009

From TED 2009: Clever interface

MIT Media Lab's Pattie Maes / Pranav Mistry developed a "Sixth Sense" set of technologies that get closer to letting you aquire and see visual information in some helpful ways.  From TED 2009:


27 April 2009

Computerworld publicity, and MIT class

Hi -

A few months ago, photographer Sara Forrest profiled me as a part of a collection of pieces on various entrepreneurs and a bit of our personal side. It is running in this week's Computerworld magazine, viewable online. "The Grill: Gregg Favalora talks about 3-D imaging breakthroughs."

At the moment, I'm back at the office ingesting liquid and solid caffeine in preparation for a class that Joost Bonsen asked me to participate in this Wednesday night at MIT: MAS.964, Imaging Ventures. (Two hours! Whew.)

It was around this time of year back in 1997 that Joost was responsible for pushing me into their business plan writing competition, which led to my leaving Harvard, which led to starting Actuality. Last week, we began the process of winding down the company. So this is a good way to formalize a lot of my recent introspection about product development and entrepreneurship.


25 April 2009

Cambridge (Mass.) Science Festival this weekend

Hi - 

The Cambridge Science Festival starts today.  The schedule is here, and includes (plug!) hands-on optics exhibits for kids from noon-4pm sponsored by volunteers from the NES/OSA.

12:00pm - 4:00pm
Optics: Light at Work
Kresge Auditorium, MIT Campus, 48 Mass. Ave.
Carnival!  We have an "Optics Suitcase" filled with experiments that demonstrate the principles of light, such as transmission, refraction and reflection, in an entertaining, hands-on way. For instance, we have a water bath with optical components that demonstrates the effects of lenses. We have fiber optics made of Jello. We have an experiment with an overhead projector which shows why the sky is blue. And we have a huge kaleidoscope to demonstrate the properties of reflection. We will have give-aways for attendees, including beautiful Optics wall posters.


Long-overdue techie links

Hello - 

Posting has been light lately due to, well, life, and also business developments, of which I might speak later.  But until then a number of enticing things have accumulated in my "read later" folder, like:

500 Hats on entrepreneurship, or why you ought to be crazy to do it, or...

Wired.com on a pocket roll-out e-book reader I hadn't heard of

"Insane landing at St. Maarten airport." (YouTube)

Optics: A discussion about printing your own integral photographs at home.

Well, it should be nice and sunny tomorrow in Boston.  J-Fav and I are considering doing some morning Geocaching.  I still haven't found the one at the Uncle Sam statue in Arlington Center...


15 April 2009

Limited-time optics auction @ eBay

Hello, dear reader - 

Our company, Actuality Medical, has transitioned from 3-D display technology to software-based medical devices.  So?  We have a great collection of excellent-quality optical components and equipment for you to check out.

  • Optical tables
  • FireWire cameras
  • Collections of optics, like singlets, prisms, etc.
  • Translation stages
  • Other cool stuff, like SensAble Phantom OMNI haptic interfaces
Have fun!


08 April 2009

An experimental new Segway

Thanks to DP for pointing me to an experimental effort between Segway and GM, the P.U.M.A. It is a longer-range vehicle that strikes me as a cross between a car and a wheelchair. What do you think?

> P.U.M.A website
> Video:


20 March 2009

A few entries from my "Read Later" folder

Good evening -

I came back from tonight's NES-OSA meeting at the Media Lab, which was a real joy. We learned about Ed Boyden's optically-throttled neuron experiments (in which a virus genetically alters mice embryos to make their brains optically-sensitive), Ramesh Raskar's work in computational photography (including deblurring using "fluttered" shutters), and Michael Bove's progress in holographic video using surface acoustic wave modulators.

Been storing up a few interesting links for my faithful readers:

(movie clip) Dan Dennett's TED talk regarding a Darwinian view on why things are funny, or sweet, or cute, or sexy. The explanation for "funny" was the most surprising to me.

(blog) Kevin Kelley's blog, "New Rules for the New Economy," lately discusses various swarm-related ideas. He's got an RSS feed.

(utterly random nerd humor) From the people who brought you the faux-scientific educational series "Look Around You" is this very brief clip, "The Helvetica Scenario."

Like some other forms of stimuli that need to become progressively more extreme to elicit a reaction, I wonder if there's an analogy for humor. I think my sense of humor is really getting stretched towards the increasingly bafflingly bizarre.

Will this reach a limit? Next year, will I only laugh at things that are a collection of non sequiturs? I remember back in fifth grade, all it took was a good Monty Python episode. Then, in grad school, I needed something along the lines of those parody GI Joe public service announcements, overdubbed with nonsense. Then came the "Retroencabulator," followed by "Look Around You," which is a sort of meta-humor that pokes fun at how utterly arbitrary the scientific method must seem to non-scientists, and then Matthias had to up the ante and direct me to "You Look Nice Today," which I find funny for its stream of utter falsehoods passed off as obvious truths.

What's next, I wonder? :-)

(slapstick) Well, maybe it comes full circle. Here is a video collection of talking cats and dogs.


16 March 2009

3 optics talks Thurs @ MIT Media Lab - RSVP -today-

Hello friends,

I am excited to announce that the New England Section of the Optical Society of America has teamed up with the Boston IEEE Lasers & Electro-optics Society to present an evening of talks with three world-class researchers:

Info: Three Talks at the Media Lab (takes a few seconds to load)

"Computational Photography" with Ramesh Raskar
"Optical Brain Control" with Ed Boyden
"Toward Consumer Holographic Video" with Michael Bove

When: Evening of Thurs. March 19, 2009
Deadline: To join the dinner networking pre-event, RSVP *today, Monday.*

For those of you who haven't been to an NES-OSA meeting before, this is a great way to meet other people in the optics community. Also, there should be sign-up sheets for people who want to join.


ps Remember to RSVP now.

23 February 2009

Mathematica Home Edition: US$295

Hi there -

Following two small self-educational / art projects here using Wolfram Mathematica (see through bushes! funkify your portrait!), a Wolfram representative wrote me to let our readers know that you can get a fully-featured license to Mathematica 7 Home Edition for just $295.

This is a good deal. You can learn more about it here.

By the way, we use Mathematica 7 (I defy you to click that link) at Actuality, and have noticed some great enhancements over v6.

For example, it now runs wonderfully on my 2004-vintage IBM ThinkPad T41 - whereas, in the past, 3-D visualization would close the program. It seems to take advantage of multi-core processors. Also, it comes with new image processing functionality that makes it easier to... aw, heck, check it out for yourself. If you use the professional edition at work, I think it comes with a home-use license too.


18 February 2009

Good-enough synthetic aperture photography

Hello -

Today I'd like to share progress on my efforts to learn about "synthetic aperture photography," a branch of computational photography.

Jenn and I drove up Mass. Ave. in Lexington (i.e., Paul Revere Lexington), put a video camera out the window, and filmed the buildings whizzing by.

Here is a typical collection of frames of, say, a school (or apartment?) blocked by trees:

After picking, say, 16 successive movie frames, you can stack them up, shear them, and slice them to simulate having a camera that's 20 feet long or so. Why? This manipulates the data so as to create the final image of the building with the trees removed:

This won't be news to those of you in the field of computer graphics since, say, 1997, but there's a lot of activity analyzing optical systems - such as large-lens or multi-lens systems - for benefits in graphics. Marc Levoy, a professor at Stanford, held a class on a collection of topics he called "computational photography." Today, the field, building on work in computer vision and 3-D display, includes:

Snapping a photo, and not worrying about focusing it until later. E.g., when you get home.

Visualizing 3-D scenes from angles between those you've taken pictures, such as the post-inauguration Microsoft / CNN project.

Taking many snapshots of a scene - say of a building obscured by bushes - and then "erasing" the bushes to show what's behind.

I've been attending talks, flipping through papers, and watching colleagues try their hand at this burgeoning field.

How It's Done

(1) Take video at constant velocity along linear track, (2) collect frames into an array - a spatio-perspective volume - and recenter synthetic film plane on the region of interest, and (3) average over all fames & display it.

I like Mathematica 7 for its functionality and elegance (though not its memory management). We took a few minutes of video & chose some few-second clips using our MacBook's video editing software. Exported it as a QuickTime movie, and from QuickTime Pro, exported an AVI. (For some reason my Mathematica won't play nice with MOV.)


Import a good 16 or 32-frame segment into an array of images. I chose frames that showed a buliding in the background with plenty of occluders, minimal vertical jumpiness (remember, we were driving), and relatively constant speed. To save memory, cropped the images to a horizontal region. Mind you, the linear camera motion doesn't need to be at constant velocity, but it will make your life easier if you'd like to automate the process.

Verify the constant velocity by viewing a 2-D slice of the 3-D "spatio-perspective volume," an informal approximation of an "epipolar-plane image," as Bolles and Baker called it in the 1980s.

What's that? For the purposes of the blog post, it is a 2-D image with time occupying the vertical axis and space occupying the horizontal.

Hang with me for a second. Even if you're not a computer graphics nut, I think this offers an interesting way to view the world, in the sprit of an earlier post regarding how engineers sometimes find it easier to manipulate information if it's first converted into a different format.

(Links to: Jan Neumann)

Imagine taking a sequence of frames from that movie, above, printing them out, and then stacking them up like a stacked deck of cards. The back card will be the car's starting point, and the facing card will be the car's ending point. Got it? Now imagine whipping out your sharpest knife, slicing through the deck, and peering down on it.

It would look like this:

Since nearby objects whiz past our field of view quickly, they cover lots of ground in very little time. The nearby trees and signposts therefore are the most horizontally-slanted objects in the image above. On the other hand, the school is in the distance, so it appears to creep along as we drive past it. It's nearly vertical in this representation.

Fortunately most of the tracks through the image are linear, meaning that this process can be completed with a minimum of pain.

What if we wanted to "freeze" the motion of the building, so we could synthetically "focus" on it? We'd need to recenter the film plane by shearing this stack of images. By trial and error, it turns out that the building moves 4 pixels to the right for each successive frame.

We recenter the data by incrementally padding it. If we do it correctly, the building's spatio-temperal tracks will be vertical:

Recentered film plane.


Now we just need to eliminate those pesky trees. Real-life lenses are good at doing that, because if the lens is big enough, it can "look around" the trees. In aggregate, little pieces of the lens really do get to see the whole face of the building. And so does our video camera.

We can simulate this giant-lens action by simply averaging over all of those frames. (And thanks to my co-worker, Joshua Napoli, for putting it so simply. Here is his similar project of last year - viewing houses through trees - but his blog post [had been] AWOL.)

What does it look like?

Success. Trees are blurred out. Compare to the photos at the top of this post.

How can we take this a step further? We can simulate a variable-focus lens by computing what every possible set of shearing parameters will do. That is, we can tilt our deck of cards by varying degrees so that the space-time path of various objects become vertical, and hence able to be imaged by our gigantic synthetic lens.

Here's how this looks. Let's recenter every 7th pixel so we can "focus" on a tree in the center, and "stop down" the aperture by averaging over fewer frames than we did above.


Still awake? If you're interested in this stuff, try out:


ps A big thank-you in advance to anyone who can explain why Blogger: (1) doesn't insert images at the cursor, but rather on top; and (2) why an extra linefeed appears for every paragraph whenever I insert a photo.

16 February 2009

Facebook keeps your stuff even if you quit

Plink co-founder and Polaris Ventures partner Simeon Simeonov wrote a blog post regarding a recent change to the Facebook terms of service.  He links to this piece at Mashable which explains the changes that suggest Facebook owns what you've posted even if you deactivate your account.

You are solely responsible for the User Content that you Post on or through the Facebook Service. You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof. You represent and warrant that you have all rights and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses.


10 February 2009

Audio signal processing, or "On T-Pain & Kanye West..."

Hi - 

Have you heard Kanye West's "Love Lockdown," an entrancing bit of intriguingly spare but heavily-engineered instrumentation?  Like many 2000s hip-hop songs, it features a vocal effect attributed to pitch-correction software - Auto-tune - from Antares Audio Technologies. [1]

According to a note in XXLmag.com (ref. 1),  we're supposed to understand that the pitch-locking vocal effect is not strictly a plain vocoder, but the proprietary Antares technology. Perhaps it is described by U.S. Pat 5,973,252 [Google Patents], "Pitch detection and intonation apparatus and method."  (Side note: Antares's Andy Hildebrand was a former seismic 3-D data analyst!  Small world, signal processing...)

Commenters on XXLmag.com offer examples of Auto-tune extreme-use (e.g. T-Pain), as opposed to traditional vocoder effects, but, frankly, I can't recall enough from my grad-school speech synthesis days regarding what the differences are between a vocoder, a phase vocoder, and Auto-Tune.  Ah, well.  I know a few of you reading this do indeed know the difference, so please chime in.

Before I leave you with a few YouTube clips, I want to explore the orchestration of "Love Lockdown" because it is a relatively minimal presentation of a theme for Top-40 radio.

First, the core tracks are available on Kanye's website, on the page "Love Lock Down Stems." They include a capella and (quite) distorted, guitar-esque vocals, a 4-beat 808 drum track (||: 1&2 3 ... :||), African percussion, piano (tutorial here, though I don't know if it's in the right key [YouTube]: C#m7, F#m7, B), and outro synth.

The African percussion sounds like a straightforward 1-bar loop which, for a moment there, makes me wonder if it's actually 4 bars in some subtle way.  Anyhow, omitting the lead-in bar crossing and the quarter-note clap:

 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a
 x xx x x  x xx x xx x xx x x  x xx x xx

 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a
 x xx x x  x xx x xx x xx x x  x xx x xx

From the listener's point of view, four tracks are active during most of the song: the 808, vocals, piano, and African percussion.  During the first half of the song, they layer (much like standard electronic "house music," i.e. kick, snare, bass, synth, black & white movie samples... :-):

iTunes length 808 voc pno Afrc
0:00   4M      x
0:07   16M     x   x
0:40   8M      x   x   x
0:55   8M      x   x   x   x
1:13   16M     x   x   x

Frankly I got a bit more into it than that, mapping out the song:

Song structure

Then, dear reader, around 10pm I started to wonder why on earth I was putting so much effort into this when I could be, I don't know, doing just about anything else.  I think my intrigue with the song's simplicity became... a spreadsheet.

Anyhow, here are a few YouTube clips for you to consider:

[embedding disabled]
(Video. Kanye West, "Love Lockdown" - commercial version)

(Kanye West, "Love Lockdown" - an evidently leaked SNL version)

[embedding disabled]
(T-Pain and Lonely Island / SNL digital short: "I'm On a Boat")

[embedding disabled]
(Kraftwerk, "The Robots")

(Video. See starting @ 3:00 - poking fun at how poor of a singer one can be & still sound in-tune-ish)

(A plain vocoder sounds quite different: YouTube clip)

Finally, being a New Jerseyite, I must leave you with Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer."  No idea what this effect is.


Hot display technologies at CES 2009

Display industry consultancy Insight Media has released their "CES 2009 Best Buzz Awards," which includes a Samsung cellphone with built-in projector, a USB-powered 7" monitor (?), and a Vizio LCD TV.  As usual, Insight Media digs into the details.


04 February 2009

Peer Review

Every now and then, I'm asked to help do anonymous review of science or engineering journal manuscripts.

For some reason I got a kick out of this paragraph (this is from the OSA):

Although this paper need not be exceptional, it should add significantly to the field for you to recommend acceptance or revision. Lately, a substantial number of papers have been submitted that can be called "not wrong" papers. These are papers that contain no errors, but they also lack any new and useful information that would move your field forward; they may provide no citable results, or document so little progress that researchers in your field will ignore them. These papers take up your time and ours; they clutter up the literature; and they do not advance research in the field. If you find this paper fits this description, you should recommend that the paper be rejected.


03 February 2009

For my entrepreneur friends who are tired of pitching to VCs

I stumbled across Merlin Mann's entry into the "worst website ever" panel at SxSW 2008.

Dear reader, you need more acronyms! You need to open the kimono! You need DRM and paradigms! You need more socially-networked "friends"!

Here you go. (movie)


01 February 2009

Netbooks, baby!

With nice, compact, powerful laptops like the MacBook, what exactly makes netbooks so enticing? I'm trying to figure that out, and seeing if anything's worth buying... yet.

Here is a good top-10 review from C|Net Crave (in the UK). From Oct. 2008, but it seems reasonably up-to-date.

(Do you have and like your netbook? Ever written a document on it? Use Linux / StarOffice? Read a technical paper in PDF? I'm curious.)


16 January 2009

Some Contemporary Artists

I enjoy the Taschen book Art Now, a 190-page rapid survey published in 2001 of the artists the authors think are worth knowing about. Sure, that method has its drawbacks, but I really responded to some of the snippets in there. Did some web browsing on them:

Matthew Barney, who "stages timeless fictions in the form of hybrid installations, filmed performances and stylized videos." From what I gather, he films intricately-staged fictional environments, and then exhibits photographs (still frames) of those films. I think. They had it at Mass MoCA once. His Cremaster series is evidently his best-known work. Here's CREMASTER 1, which includes the cinematic trailer.

Thomas Demand also photographs fictional scenes, but he is more likely to create a stark office out of simple materials and than take a snapshot - but we don't realize it's of a fake office. (Once the PHOTOGRAPHS page loads, you can moveover to scroll some of his collection. I like "Studio.") The MoMA exhibition notes say, "Demand begins with a preexisting image culled from the media, usually of a political event, which he translates into a life-size model made of colored paper and cardboard."

Katharina Fritsch's eerie super-sized models of, I don't know, people at meetings and giant rats.

Jenny Holzer, but, hey, everyone likes Jenny Holzer. I mean, a strong sense of duty imprisons you, right?

I'd like to see Henrik Plenge Jakobsen's work in person:

And I doubt I will tire of Jeff Koons. His site is an exhaustive catalog of his work.

Steven Pippin "...succeeds in recalling for a brief moment those sentimental hopes that were once placed in photography and television..."

I wish they had included Arthur Ganson, Anna Hepler, and Steve Hollinger.


14 January 2009

Pantry Dinner: Diced marinated pork with bacon, cilantro, rice, and beans

Hello -

(This post is for the "benefit" of my Facebook friends.) From time to time I like to share my culinary adventures and mishaps. In the middle of cooking this, I thought that it was going to trainwreck into disaster-land - but somehow it all came together. Fortunately this is a keeper for me, rather than an entry from the diary of my disqualification from Home Top Chef. Not yet at least.

  • 2 boneless pork chops cut into 1"-cubes
  • 1 can of black beans
  • 1 can of kidney beans - open and drain the beans now so you don't burn the garlic later
  • 1/2-ish cup of chicken stock
  • handful of cilantro, chopped
  • 1 cup of Chiavetta's marinade (come to think of it, it's unlikely you'd have this on hand, but I suppose salting the pork would get you halfway there) (thank you Bridget)
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • 5 pieces of good bacon - e.g. Boar's Head - sliced into 1/2"-wide fingers
  • 1 little packet of Sazon Goya (why we have this I have no idea)
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Rice, like a few cups of brown or white rice

Find yourself a decent sautee pan, like a heavy Calphalon
  1. Put the pork cubes into a bowl or bag and marinate in Chiavetta's for 15-30 minutes
  2. Fry the bacon fingers (excuse me, lardons) on medium-low heat until they're done, remember to flip them, and transfer to a paper towel-covered-plate
  3. Turn heat up to medium-high
  4. Place the pork cubes into the pan, shaking off the marinade, for about 4 minutes per side. Check the pork to make sure you don't over-cook it. They should brown nicely.
  5. Transfer pork to a bowl and set aside
  6. Turn heat back down to medium-low and sautee the garlic until fragrant
  7. Add the cilantro
  8. Make sure you don't burn the #&@! garlic, tough guy!
  9. Add both kinds of beans
  10. Stir up all that goodness
  11. Add the chicken stock, Sazon Goya, pork cubes, bacon, and stir
  12. Bring to a boil
  13. Bring down to a simmer, add the lime if you actually have it
  14. Reduce it until you're tired of reducing it; the goal here is to keep it wet
  15. Cover the pan
  16. Taste it and marvel at your impromptu brilliance
  17. When the rice is done, feel free to add it to the pan and mix well, and let it simmer some more. Add some chicken stock to keep it moist, if needed.
  18. When your tired family comes home from their play date, feed them, and bask in your own glory

Comments? Complaints? Contact our help line.


13 January 2009

Scott Kirsner on his _Inventing the Movies_; 3-D conference

Hi -

Just a quick note; if you are interested in the history of cinema or the ups-and-downs of marketing a disruptive technology, you might want to attend journalist Scott Kirsner's last two East Coast book tour events: Thurs. Jan. 15 (Concord Free Public Library) or Wed. Feb. 11's chat at the Boston Public Library. He'll be discussing his new book, Inventing the Movies.

Also, the SPIE-IS&T's Stereoscopic Displays and Applications conference is next week in San Jose, CA. 20th anniversary! Hoo-ah. You don't need to bring your anaglyph or polarized glasses, because, as all the cool kids know, they give them to you there.


ps Optics people: have you seen the great talks scheduled for the New England Section of the OSA? Photolithography, computational photography, and biological imaging...

10 January 2009

Brief graphic design / packaging rant

Hi there -

It's possible that I'm drinking too much espresso-that-I-thought-was-coffee, reading webpages about how to use my Moka Express, and traveling to Helvetica-saturated continents. But have you seen the awful redesign of the Tropicana brand?

I was shopping at Stop & Shop and almost missed the orange juice section because it looked like a blankish wall of... I don't know... industrial-grade biochemical products, or no frills dry milk, or signage for a Swedish hospital.

No! It's the Tropicana redesign! Enjoy it here. (@ underconsideration.com )

Don't even get me started on the Eurostile-ification of MA, the newest victim being the Capitol Theatre (following the Alfewife typography mishap, I guess).

Woah, who put the extra snobby in my espresso today?


02 January 2009

Private Equity glossary (humor) / EDGE 2009 Questions

Happy New Year!

I thought this was funny: peHUB's "Translating PE-Speak" by Erin Griffith. But let's stick to our knitting.

Edge posted responses to their 2009 Annual Question, "What will change everything?" Hear what Brockman's posse has to say.