News From Space: Astronaut Robots

spheres_1As if it weren’t bad enough that they are replacing workers here on Earth, now they are being designed to replace us in space! At least, that’s the general idea behind Google and NASA’s collaborative effort to make SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). As the name suggests, these robots are spherical, floating machines that use small CO2 thrusters to move about and performing chores usually done by astronauts.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it’s plan to launch some SPHERES aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station to begin testing. That launch took place on July 11th, and the testing has since begun. Powered by Tango, Google’s prototype smartphone that comes with 3D sensors that map the environment around them, the three satellites were used to perform routine tasks.

nasa-antares-launch-photoNASA has sent SPHERES to the ISS before, but all they could really do was move around using their small CO2 thruster. With the addition of a Tango “brain” though, the hope is that the robots will actually be able to assist astronauts on some tasks, or even completely carry out some mundane chores. In addition, the mission is to prepare the robots for long-term use and harmonized them to the ISS’ environment.

This will consist of the ISS astronauts testing SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge (since their batteries only last 90 minutes), and use the Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. This data will be fed into the robots so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The smartphones will be attached to the robots for future imaging tasks, and they will help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

spheres_0In true science fiction fashion, the SPHERES project began in 2000 after MIT professor David W. Miller was inspired by the “Star Wars” scene where Luke Skywalker is being trained in handling a lightsaber by a small flying robot. Miller asked his students to create a similar robot for the aerospace Industry. Their creations were then sent to the ISS in 2006, where they have been ever since.

As these early SPHERES aren’t equipped with tools, they will mostly just fly around the ISS, testing out their software. The eventual goal is to have a fleet of these robots flying around in formation, fixing things, docking with and moving things about, and autonomously looking for misplaced items. If SPHERES can also perform EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, space walks), then the risk of being an astronaut would be significantly reduced.

spheresIn recent years there has been a marked shift towards the use of off-the-shelf hardware in space (and military) applications. This is partly due to tighter budgets, and partly because modern technology has become pretty damn sophisticated. As Chris Provencher, SPHERES project manager, said in an interview with Reuters:

We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors [to the SPHERES]. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.

The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017. Combined with NASA’s Robonaut, there are some fears that this is the beginning of a trend where astronauts are replaced entirely by robots. But considering how long it would take to visit a nearby star, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least until all of the necessary terraforming have been carried out in advance of the settlers.

So perhaps robots will only be used to do the heavy lifting, or the work that is too dull, dangerous or dirty for regular astronauts – just like drones. Hopefully, they won’t be militarized though. We all saw how that went! And be sure to check out this video of SPHERES being upgraded with Project Tango, courtesy of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP):


Sources:
nasa.gov, extremetech.com, techtimes.com

Cast of Star Wars VII Announced!

star-wars-episode-7Happy (early) May the Fourth everyone! This year, I thought I’d get on this fandom anniversary early by passing on some franchise news that was just released from Lucasfilm and Disney regarding the upcoming relaunch of the Star Wars franchise. After months of speculation, the cast for the upcoming Star Wars movie has finally been announced! The news came this past week in a post on StarWars.com, where  companies spelt it out for all the fans who have been eagerly awaiting the news.

In addition to Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher – who will receive top billing as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia – Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker will also be reprising their roles as Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2. Also, the movie will star several notable actors in new roles, including acting great Max von Sydow (The Tudors, Minority Report, Snow Falling on Cedars, Judge Dredd, Needful Things).

starwarsAlso, Adam Driver (Girls, Lincoln), Oscar Isaac (Robin Hood, Sucker Punch, Drive), Andy Serkis (who brought Gollum to life in LOTR and the Hobbit franchises), Domhnall Gleeson (who played Bill Weasely in the Harry Potter series), and British television stars John Boyega and Daisy Ridley were announced, though has is not yet been announced what characters they will be playing. But since the upcoming movie will be taking place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, it’s fair to assume that the focus will be on these characters rather than on the original cast.

In a photo release this past Tuesday (seen below), director JJ Abrams is seen having a roundtable discussion with the cast at Pinewood Studios in the UK. Note the body of R2-D2 which sits unboxed behind them, having no doubt just been brought out of storage. JJ Abrams, identified by his spiky hair and glasses, can be seen sitting to the left of R2, with Harrison Ford to his right, Carrie Fisher two seats down, and Mark Hamil seated opposite to the far left of the photo.

star-wars-episode-7-cast-announceWhen news of the cast was released, Abrams was quoted as saying:

We are so excited to finally share the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.

This, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, and is slated for a December 18th, 2015, release. In addition to Abrams directing, he is also collaborating on the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan, the man who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, and Bryan Burk are producing, and John Williams returns as the composer.

star-wars-prequelsI think I speak for fans and geeks everywhere when I wish them all luck! Lord knows we could all use a really decent Star Wars sequel, especially when so many of us felt so utterly let down by the prequels! However, I think it is fair to say that Abrams and the rest should not be too concerned about what the fans and expect. If this latest installment is to be a success, it must not be overly aware of itself or its legacy. Such was part of what brought the prequels down in my estimation, and like everyone else, I just want to enjoy what comes next!

Good day and May the Fourth be with you all!

Source: starwars.com

Star Wars News: Vader WASN’T Luke’s Father Originally

SW7You know, it’s been awhile since I spoke about anything related to one of the greatest science fiction franchises in history. I am of course referring to Star Wars. Lucky for me, a series of stories have popped up on the news lately, so I thought now would be the perfect time to remedy all that. And this story is quite interesting, as it has to do with Lucas’ original plan for a major plot element in the series.

In short, Lucas’ original draft for The Empire Strikes Back, which was recently leaked to the public, and in that version, Darth Vader was NOT intended to be Luke’s father. That major plot twist, which proved intrinsic to the series’ story arc, was introduced by another writer, Leigh Brackett. As a veteran Hollywood writer, and given the success of the first movie, Lucas wanted her help in making sure the script for the sequel was up to par.

starwarstheempirestrikesback2Working from Lucas’ original plan, Brackett turned in an initial draft where Luke travels to Dagobah to receive instruction from Yoda, the ghosts of Obi-Wan AND his father. As for the major confrontation between Vader and Luke aboard Cloud City, the entire scene has no major twist, and instead consists of Vader offering Luke the chance to rule the Galaxy with him. Not “as father and son” mind you, just as two bad guys!

Sounds pretty weak doesn’t it? Well, turns out it gets better. In addition to there being no major twist, the original draft also had Han Solo showing Luke the basics of how to use a lightsaber (what WHAT?), featured a boatload of Wampas with the ability to freeze people, and had Han Solo spending part of the movie trying to recruit his stepfather into the Rebel Alliance.

Empire strikes back_338858Tragically, Brackett died shortly after sending in this first draft which was worked from Lucas’ notes, so she never got a chance to rework it. That task fell to Lawrence Kasdan and Lucas, who eventually worked from Brackett’s draft to create the film we all know and love. Alas, it was a good thing Lucas brought in some outside talent to help him with his script, or he would have had a Phantom Menace situation on his hands two decades too soon!

Going from the original story, as Lucas had it, the story not only loses most of its intrigue, but it’s also becomes bogged down in superfluousness and one-dimensionality. Part of what made Luke’s character so interesting was the inner turmoil he faced – being torn between stopping his father and wanting to help him, but also knowing that by killing him, he would risk becoming him.

empire strikes back_duelWhat’s more, in this version Vader loses all depth and becomes a cardboard-cutout bad guy. By learning that he was in fact a once-great man who “fell from grace”, his character became far more interesting and involved. And of course, knowing that he was once good presented Luke with a third option and a resolution to his quandary – redeem his father rather than kill him, thus ending the war in a way that would not damn his own soul.

And sure, Obi-Wan did tell Luke point blank in the original movie that Vader betrayed and murdered his father, but that was what was so cool about it looking back. In that film, Alec Guinness’ abilities as an actor really made it seem like he was holding something back with Luke. Knowing that his tale was meant symbolically rather than literally just made sense. I mean, he is a warrior-mystic after all. He’s supposed to be all meta!

empire_strike_back_endshotAnd really, this twist was what made the Star Wars trilogy work on so many levels. The idea of a son having to face his father, a fallen angel, in a titanic struggle of good and evil with immense personal implications and the fate of the universe hinging on the whole thing. It’s like Judea-Christian and classical mythology, Jung, Freud, and Existentialism all rolled into one!

To know that Lucas never intended it to be such, well that kind of puts a damper on the whole thing doesn’t it? But then again, it also answers a lot of nagging questions: like how the man who created the original saga could have created such fluff just twenty years later. Good thing he knew how to accept help back then, otherwise we’d have all missed out on a massive sci-fi pop cultural phenomena!

And in the meantime, enjoy some of these outtakes from the original movie which also recently emerged. Apparently, these come from the movie archives of the original film, which strangely, Lucas claimed had been destroyed. Wasn’t that the reason he couldn’t release the originals alongside the heavily CGI’d versions on DVD? Ah, who cares! Enjoy the clip:


Sources: blastr.com, uproxx.com

The Phosforce: A Real-Life Lightsaber?

phosforceSure, it may not be able to cut your hand off or deflect blaster shots, but this invention has geeks and engineers all experience a collective fangasm! In honor of Star Wars Day this year, the company known as Wicked Lasers debuted the Phosphorce, a laser-turned flashlight with the power to both illuminate and incinerate. Now tell me that doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping and make you wonder if it comes in designer shades and in both the single and double-bladed form!

As the video below shows, the Phosphorce is the company’s most powerful handheld laser married to a special lens. Attached, the lens turns the laser into a flashlight that produces some 500 lumens of power, making it the most powerful light on the market. Once removed, the device is back to being its usual, single-watt Spyder 3 Arctic laser, which is capable of projecting a beam up to a distance of 10km and incinerating at close range – just balloons, in case you were worried.

phosforce1And if case that’s not enough, the company also designs handles like the SABER, an attachment that turns their Arctic or Krypton lasers handhelds into the most stunning approximation of a lightsaber available. Already, BMW is in talks with Wicked Lasers to use the technology to fashion laser headlamps for their cars. The laser goes for a hefty $299.95, while the lens is available for a comparatively modest $79.85.

Yeah, not the cheapest lightsaber replica on the market, but at least it comes in Arctic blue. Tell me that doesn’t bring the Jedi’s weapon to mind! And be sure to check out the video, it is sure to pop your eyes!

May the 4th be With You!

YodaWell, it’s the Fourth of May again, and you know what that means… it’s time to commemorate Star Wars! And what better way to do that than to point out some Star Wars related promotions and cool stuff! And as luck would have it, my buds over at Movoto Blog have forwarded me a rather interesting real-estate proposal. It seems that after decades of living on the swampy world of Dagobah, Yoda is looking to move his hutt!

As you can see from the infographic below, it’s listed as a fixer-upper, priced to move, and even comes with an endorsement from Luke Skywalker and R2D2… sort of. The overall price is listed at a bargain-hunting $7,762, and even provides square footage (90.25, or about the size of a spacious cardboard box) and helpful directions on how to find the place. Who knew it would be in a swamp outside Morgan City, Louisiana, specifically in the Atchafalaya Basin which sits to the west of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Ah yes, and apparently, Yoda’s hutt is a highly improvised structure, composed of mud and salvaged components from escape pods. And it seems that the Jedi Master relies on the Force to hold it all together. So anyone planning on moving in had better have a sufficient command of the Force (or a high enough midichlorian count) to see to the structural integrity of the thing!

Much like their real-estate assessments of Hogwarts, the TARDIS from Doctor Who, and how to zombie and ninja-proof your house, this bit of comedic fangasmery is the work of Motovo’s clever staff – nerds who moonlight as prospectors and real estate agents. Be sure to check out the infographic below and see more examples of their work at motovo.com.

yodashut
Source:
movoto.com/blog/novelty-real-estate/yoda/

 

 

Star Wars News!

star-wars-episode-7You’re not going to believe this. But just 15 minutes ago, on his Facebook feed, George Takei announced that he will be starring in the upcoming Star Wars remake. Not only that, but he had a few newsworthy items to share about the upcoming sequel that the studio has not been sharing just yet. These include the name of the new film and when filming will begin.

Friends, I am thrilled to announce that I’ll be starring in the Star Wars reboot directed by JJ Abrams. I’ll be playing Master Ceti Maru, a member of the Jedi High Council. The new film, entitled “Star Wars: Galactic Empire,” is greenlit and will begin filming sometime early next year. It is truly a moment for The Star Alliance. Thanks to all my fans for their decades of support.

You may not think it, but even a little hint like the name of the film can tell you volumes. In this case, it would seem to confirm what Hamil has been saying, that the movie would be set in a time when the children of Han and Leia were growing up, a time where the Republic had been resurrected and was fighting the remnants of the Empire to take control of the Galaxy.

In addition, since he will be playing a Jedi Master, its clear that in this time period, the Jedi Order has been restored. So Luke won’t be the only one anymore. Perhaps he’ll just be the head honcho, which is a bit of a change-up ever since Yoda passed away. What’s more, Takei was sure to provided a little mockup photo to get fans in mind of what he would like sporting a Jedi robe and a lightsaber (I see he went with the Windu model). Excited yet? I know I am.

Addendum: It’s officially midnight, so Happy April Fool’s Day! George, you’re one mean SOB!

georgetakei_jedi

Star Wars News!

Star-Wars-Luke-Skywalker-TatooineEver since Mark Hamil announced that he would be returning to the Star Wars universe, courtesy of Disney and Lucas’ multi-billion dollar payout, fans have been wondering exactly how the aging star could reprise a role that occurred over thirty years ago. Well as it happens, Hamil had his own thoughts on the subject, and shared them during a recent interview with Comingsoon.net.

In essence, he believes that the new stories will be focusing on the offspring of the original cast, rather than simply picking up where the old stories left off. This would put Luke in a senior role, making him the sort of mentor figure that Obi-Wan was to him:

I’m assuming, because I haven’t talked to the writers, that these movies would be about our offspring — like my character would be sort of in the Obi-Wan range [as] an influential character. … When I found out [while making the original trilogy] that ultimate good news/bad news joke – the good news is there’s a real attractive, hot girl in the universe; the bad news is she’s your sister – I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to wind up like Sir Alec [Guinness]. I’m going to be a lonely old hermit living out in some kind of desert igloo with a couple of robots.

RS_fightHe was also keen to give some pointers to Abrams, the director of the new trilogy. Of particular interest was the fact that he advised that the new director steer away from a rather controversial aspect of Lucas’ newer films, which many fans felt placed special effects above substance and elbow-grease.

I said to George that I wanted to go back to the way it was, in the sense that ours was much more carefree and lighthearted and humorous – in my opinion, anyway….hope they find the right balance of CGI with practical effects. I love props, I love models, miniatures, matte paintings — I’m sort of old school. I think if you go too far in the direction of CGI it winds up looking like just a giant a video game, and that’s unfortunate.

Sage advice. In Hamil’s day, the sets were made to look like Franz Oz and Jim Henson were in charge, not a million computer geeks saturating every single frame with digital effects while actors spoke to tennis balls suspended from strings.

But most important of all, Hamil was sure to let people know that he hopes and intends to have all of the original cast back for another swing. Rumors abounded after he signed on to the project that others might be as well, which he quashed. However, he did let people know that he hoped they would:

Another thing I’d want to make sure of is are we going to have the whole gang back? Is Carrie and Harrison and Billy Dee and Tony Daniels, everybody that’s around from the original [returning]? I want to make sure that everybody’s on board here, rather than just one.

RJ_leiaAnd as it turns out, he may get his way yet. In a more recent interview with Palm Beech Illustrated, Carrie Fisher announced that she will be joining her “brother” as part of the cast and reprising her role as Princess Leia. In the course of a little QandA with the magazine, she was quite direct about what her plans were with the new movies. And she was more than a little cheeky about what it might look like:

Disney is going to continue the Star Wars saga, producing movies set to hit theaters starting in 2015. Can you confirm whether you’ll reprise the role of Princess Leia?

Yes.

What do you think Princess Leia is like today?

Elderly. She’s in an intergalactic old folks’ home [laughs]. I just think she would be just like she was before, only slower and less inclined to be up for the big battle.

And still wearing the bagel buns?

The bagel buns and the bikini, because probably she has sundowners syndrome. At sundown, she thinks that she’s 20-something. And she puts it on and gets institutionalized.

Solid enough for ya? So if I’m not mistaken, that just leaves and aging Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz and a few extras to wear the Chewbacca, C3P0 and R2D2 suits, assuming the originals have retired. How hard could that be? Disney’s at the helm, not Lucas, and they’re sure to pay through the nose to get the old nostalgic-cast factor going. So c’mon, people, you got something better to do?

Source: Blastr, IO9