This robot can build your Ikea furniture

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hate building Ikea furniture and madmen. Now, thanks to Ikeabot, the madmen can be replaced.

Ikeabot is a project built at Control Robotics Intelligence (CRI) group at NTU in Singapore. The team began by teaching robots to insert pins and manipulate Ikea parts and then, slowly, began to figure out how to pit the robots against the furniture. The results, if you’ve ever fought with someone trying to put together a Billy, are heartening.

From Spectrum:

The assembly process from CRI is not quite that autonomous; “although all the steps were automatically planned and controlled, their sequence was hard-coded through a considerable engineering effort.” The researchers mention that they can “envision such a sequence being automatically determined from the assembly manual, through natural-language interaction with a human supervisor or, ultimately, from an image of the chair,” although we feel like they should have a chat with Ross Knepper, whose IkeaBot seemed to do just fine without any of that stuff.

In other words the robots are semi-autonomous but never get frustrated and can use basic heuristics to figure out next steps. The robots can now essentially assemble chairs in about 20 minutes, a feat that I doubt many of us can emulate. You can watch the finished dance here, in all its robotic glory.

The best part? Even robots get frustrated and fling parts around:

I, for one, welcome our Ikea chair manufacturing robotic overlords.

Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over Wi-Fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple of bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be sent with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

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SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Jaquet Droz is shipping its mechanical signing machine

Watchmaker Jaquet Droz announced its Signing Machine – a mechanical device that will sign your name for you using a series of miniature gears and springs – in 2014. Four years later, the company is ready to ship their miraculous contraction just in time for you to ink the deal you’ve made with Cybereus, lord of the digital underworld.

This exquisitely baroque gadget is essentially a little cartridge full of clockwork. You wind it up, stick a pencil in its tiny retractable claw, and let it go. The gears and levers recreate your signature with a series of flowing strokes generated by the movement of the gears.

Droz, a 18th century watchmaker and automaton manufacturer, was famous for his miraculous contraptions including a Draughtsman and Writer, two human-shaped robots that could draw and write, along with his beautiful singing birds that used tiny pipes and bellows to recreate birdsong.

The Signing Machine is activated after you enter your four digit code into the the device and each unit is individually decorated for the owner.

How much does this bit of titanium jimcrackery cost? It starts at $367,500 and goes up depending on your signature. Too much? Just remember: making deals with the cryptodemons of the digital underworld isn’t cheap. You’ll need something like this oddly tactical piece of metal to truly widen their hooded, red-shining eyes.

EarthNow promises real-time views of the whole planet from a new satellite constellation

A new space imaging startup called EarthNow aims to provide not just pictures of the planet on demand, but real-time video anywhere a client desires. Its ambition is matched only by its pedigree: Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures, Airbus, Softbank, and OneWeb founder Greg Wyler are all backing the play.

Its promise is a constellation of satellites that will provide video of anywhere on Earth with latency of about a second. You won’t have to wait for a satellite to come into range, or worry about leaving range; at least one will be able to view any area at any given time, so they can pass of the monitoring task to the next satellite over if necessary.

Initially aimed at “high value enterprise and government customers,” EarthNow lists things like storm monitoring, illegal fishing vessels (or even pirates), forest fires, whale tracking, watching conflicts in real time, and more. Space imaging is turning into quite a crowded field — if all these constellations actually launch, anyway.

The company is in the earliest stages right now, having just been spun out from years of work by founder and CEO Russell Hannigan at Intellectual Ventures under the Invention Science Fund. Early enough, in fact, that there’s no real timeline for prototyping or testing. But it’s not just pie in the sky.

Wyler’s OneWeb connection means EarthNow will be built on a massively upgraded version of that company’s satellite platform. Details are few and far between, but the press release promises that “Each satellite is equipped with an unprecedented amount of onboard processing power, including more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined.”

Presumably a large portion of that will be video processing and compression hardware, since they’ll want to minimize bandwidth and latency but don’t want to skimp on quality. Efficiency is important, too; satellites have extremely limited power, so running multiple off-the-shelf GPUs with standard compression methods probably isn’t a good idea. Real-time, continuous video from orbit (as opposed to near-real-time stills or clips) is as much a software problem as it is hardware.

Machine learning also figures, of course: the company plans to do onboard analysis of the imagery, though to what extent isn’t clear. It really makes more sense to me to do this on the ground, but perhaps a first pass by the satellite’s hardware will help move things along.

Airbus will do its part by actually producing the satellites, in Toulouse and Florida. The release doesn’t say how many will be built, but full (and presumably redundant) Earth coverage means dozens at the least. But if they’re mass manufactured standard goods, that should keep the price down, relatively speaking anyway.

No word on the actual amount raised by the company in January, but with the stature of the investors and the high costs involved in the industry, I can’t imagine it’s less than a few tens of millions.

Hannigan himself calls EarthNow “ambitious and unprecedented,” which could be taken as an admission of great risk, but it’s clear that the company has powerful partners and plenty of expertise; Intellectual Ventures doesn’t tend to spin something off unless it’s got something special going. Expect more specifics as the company grows, but I doubt we’ll see anything more than renders for a year or so.

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