Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Using USB-to-Ethernet Adapters in OS X

If the Ethernet port of your OS X Macintosh has failed (the motherboard-based port in my mother-in-law's iMac was damaged by lightning), or you wish to run multiple wired Ethernet ports (i.e., to use an old Mac as a router), you may have wished to use one of the many USB adapters for wired Ethernet available. Alas, there have been few manufacturers of these adapters who provided drivers for Macintosh - I know of no current products which have OS X support.

Peter Sichel of Sustainable Softworks (developer of networking software products for Macintosh) and Daniel Sumorok have developed open-source drivers for Mac OS 10.3 and 10.4 which allow the use of many, if not most, commonly available "Windows-only" USB-to-Ethernet adapters. Read Peter's article and download the free drivers here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Hope you have a happy and safe holiday season (as appropriate to your culture and/or hemisphere)! Thanks for visiting Useful Bulk!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Spray-on Chrome Finish

Just saw a segment of "Rides" on DiscoveryHD that featured this company's spray-on chrome finishing technology. In the show, the company chromes some composite replicas of 1966 Pontiac GTO headlight bezels for motion picture cars. Their on-camera demonstration was amazing to see, first spraying distilled water, then the company's proprietary finish from a traditional paint gun. The company claims the finish can be applied to almost any material. Impressively, the finish was demonstrated on thin flexible plastic, and was completely flexible itself.

The company sells a consumer product called Killer Chrome. You can see a video demonstration at this link. I don't know how durable this stuff is, but perhaps it will address a project or problem you have.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bomb-sniffing Bees

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently made a press announcement that they had trained honey bees to detect explosives.

By simply associating a sugar-water food source with samples of explosives, researchers have learned that they can program a "proboscis extension reflex" (their feeding mouthpart) for the bees within as little as 15 minutes. In one application, trained bees are placed inside a "sniffer box" in a tiny harness which holds their head in front of a video camera. Software detects proboscis activity and alerts operators as necessary.

This promises to provide a far more cost-effective solution for explosives detection than non-biologically based systems.

Bees sense of smell is said to rival that of dogs. Previous research efforts to use bees to detect explosives attempted to use free-flying bees as indicators, which required some method of observing their activities remotely.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Red One Camera Screening Account

On November 14, 2006, I attended a screening of footage shot with the in-development Red One camera. The Red Digital Cinema company was founded by the founder of Oakley, Inc., a company best known for manufacturing outdoor eyewear and apparel. I was at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles to represent a friend who placed a deposit on the first 1,100 of these "digital cinema" cameras, expected some time in 2007. He lives and works in Asia as a cinematographer, and was unable to attend the screening.

The following is my account to the friend, which includes my impressions about the way the company presented itself:

12:58pm - We arrive at the Nuart for the 1:30pm screening (the "V.I.P." screening) and there were maybe 50-60 people in line. 40 or so more arrived before they started letting the line into the lobby as they checked off our names around 1:10pm. It eventually filled the Nuart to probably 85 per cent capacity - impressive. And when we left, there was a 30-person line started for the 2:30pm screening.

The crowd was impressively conservative-looking. Not too many "tourists." Not as many 20-somethings as I'd expect - a generally mature crowd, but not exceeding 60 years of age. On the way in, I overheard two guys crossing the street identifying themselves as "a wanna-be director" and "I own a post-production house" - so it's also not just potential buyers, either.

1:15pm - I was thinking about who I'd expect to attend this, since it was clear that a *lot* of people were going to show up. [I mention seeing a motion picture cinematographer with which we've both worked] and saw Allen Daviau (cinematographer of E.T., the Extraterrestrial and Van Helsing) ushered in past the line as a V.I.P.

1:20pm - As we were just about to get checked in by the girl at the custom Red podium set up outside the lobby, a guy wearing a Red shirt came out and looked down the sidewalk at the line. Grinning, he said to all of us something like "are you guys as excited as I am?" and received a modest response.

1:25pm - When we entered the theater, there was a full-screen graphic on-screen of the Red logo - turns out this was supplied from a PowerBook or MacBook on a podium at the front.
"Ted" (the guy from the sidewalk) introduced himself and announced that we'd start on-time, though we were waiting for people to still file in.

1:32pm - "Ted" starts the presentation. He's standing behind a podium, unlit except by the glow of his PowerBook, whose Apple logo also glows from audience side of the lid. With the Red logo still displayed on-screen, he talks a bit about how this entire project was given a green light 10 months ago(!!!), and a few bits of information about how no one has seen any moving footage until the last month or so. He explains that the clips we're going to see were all shot on-site at Red's "garage" facility, and comments that the operation is really that small in scale. The first clips are interior, the last two were shot somewhat more recently and were shot outdoors in their "driveway." He comments that no attempt has been made to correct for dead pixels in the Mysterium chips, nor other color corrections. He also mentions that we're watching on "the Sony 4K projector."

After maybe 5 minutes of somewhat non-informational comments, except to tell us "we were going to have fun," Ted calls for the screening to start.

The interior clips are brief, and all in limbo. There is no nat sound, but music plays throughout. Ted does not speak during the first round of clips. All of the shots we saw appear on the Red site as stills or downloadable movies. The interiors also apparently only feature Red staff as on-camera "talent." The interior clips were all 10-20 seconds in duration:
  • Extreme close-up of an Oakley Time Tank watch (naturally), which is slowly revolving on an unseen turntable. Except for red indicators, the watch is entirely grey. The shot is shallow-focus, and between that and the refractions through the relatively thick curved watch crystal, there are a lot of interesting grey tones.
  • Tight two-shot of an Asian girl blowing a bubble-gum bubble. A caucasian guy stands out-of-focus and out of the key light maybe four feet away. She's lit from camera-right by a large soft source - pretty close, and we probably lose a couple of stops or more by the time it gets to the guy in the background. As the girl blows a bubble, the guys steps forward and reaches out as though to pop the bubble. Nice shallow focus demonstration, and also lets us see how the Mysterium looks on the guy's face well below key, and it looks pretty good - very linear about responding to less light. [My wife, a cinema/television professor who worked in television production] eventually complains about skin tones for all the clips, but I never think they're that strange. The bubble gum colors for this and another clip are a disturbing shade of orange, but that's probably not the camera's fault.
  • Tight single of a swarthy-skinned young guy with dark hair wearing a black shirt who lights a cigar and blows some smoke. Nice lighting - soft key, super-subtle fill (maybe nothing) and very subtle kicker off the non-key side of his face. I think at this point about how high the black levels are in the limbo of the set - but that's probably a quality of the Sony projector. Like all the clips, the overall texture of the images is very smooth - nothing like "grain" or video noise.
  • Two young women in limbo - one tries to light a cigar for the other.
  • Extreme close-up (a down-res version is downloadable from the Red site) of a revolving pair of Oakley sunglasses. As with the watch shot, all greys, and nice-looking greys at that. In one lens of the glasses you can see a reflection of the soft light source and all the gradations within that bounce source.
  • A slow dolly shot of a silver or gunmetal grey Porsche 959 in which we see some lighting equipment: a 2K blonde behind a flag and eventually the face of another light. As you can see in the still on the Red site, where the light reflects off the back of the barndoors and when the shot eventually reveals the face of the backlight, the hot white part of the frame blows out perfectly, with no blooming and no clipping - just goes white. Even adjacent greys to the blown-out sections still read nicely.
  • A close-up of a blonde young woman blowing a bubble-gum bubble. You can download this as a BitTorrent file from the Red site. Resolution here is fantastic, where every fly-away hair reads perfectly with no aliasing. What little action there is for the few frames when the bubble pops looks pretty natural in terms of frame blur.
After the short interior clips, a 3-minute staged scene featured two women dressed in 1940s "work wear" (overalls and hair in a bandanna) outdoors doing repairs on an old city bus. You can see in the stills on the Red site the setting. The scene had no particularly hot spots - which makes me a bit curious. It looks overcast - and we haven't had many opportunities for overcast shooting in SoCal lately. Perhaps it was after sunset, or their parking lot was shaded from direct sun. The footage demonstrates nice shallow focus (using the Red 300mm prime) in daylight conditions, and very natural "film-like" frame blur while one of the women operates a floor jack.

While all the footage looked pleasant enough, it certainly begs for someone to really give the camera a rigorous battery of test-shooting. All of the footage demonstrated that the Mysterium and their lenses ([my wife] says that Ted said they were shooting some of the exterior with their zoom - I missed that) can produce smooth gradients of color, and delivers resolution rivaling (and maybe exceeding) a 35mm release print. But I'd like to see some more "dangerous" footage - like a daylight interior with full sun striking someone's face, and some night street exteriors with existing lighting. The audience applauded at the end of the brief viewing (less than 10 minutes total), but it's a very guarded amount of footage.

1:50pm - The Red logo reappears on-screen, and Ted goes through a computer presentation with slides of the Red workflow and the latest images (all CGI, I think) of the camera body and Red Rail. Early in the presentation, he puts up a graphic which says "everything is subject to change." As he describes the latest ideas about rail hardware, he indicates that this is constantly evolving. It occurs to me that the camera would look a lot less strange to people (I realize that they're trying to be "cool" to some degree, but it's clearly a love-it or hate-it kind of approach) if they'd just show it with a lens and matte box. I realize they're trying to indicate that they're really making a _camera_ (even though they will be selling lenses), but even a "ghost" image of a lens and mounted AKS would make people see this as a production body. After all, a Panavision body by itself is just a boring lump.

A slide reminds us that the price is still $17.5K US. A subsequent slide shows the $5,000 300mm prime and an "image not available" for their 18-85mm zoom. Interestingly, there's no price on the slide, though he tells the audience the zoom is $10,000, then "actually more like $9,500" - and this price is currently on the website.

Ted talks a bit about the Red RAW codec and shows graphics of the two styles of camera "door" (my term) - one holding onboard flash RAM (did he say 30 to 60 gigabytes of Flash RAM!?!) for shooting Red RAW and another to connect a (did hey say optical?) data cable to an external data recorder for shooting RAW.

Ted mentions that October 31, 2006 was a cutoff date for reservations, and asks for a show of hands if anyone in the theater got in "under the wire." A few hands go up.

Ted says that about 1,100 "reservations" have been made for Red Digital Cinema cameras around the world, and shows a map of the world which he says someone has recently prepared. He then says he's going to show us how "international" the reservations have been, and presses a key. I expect a bunch of little dots, but instead, entire countries are filled in with red to represent reservations. Both [my wife] and I figure you must have been the one guy who filled all of Thailand (actually, I won't be surprised if you tell me you know of more orders there). All of Russia is filled in - not a very good or fair way to represent the information, really. Ted then says something about some countries that *aren't* filled in, then hits another key and China a Japan turn red and he says something about there finally being reservations from there.

2:00pm - Ted asks the audience if they want to see the demo clips again, and the audience applauds. We watch the clips again, but this time, there is no music and Ted continues to talk, telling us to notice things: the nice shallow depth of field on this shot, notice this guy is wearing a black shirt, so there are a lot of different blacks in this scene, etc. We finish all the same clips again.

Then Ted says "I want to show you one of the clips one more time," and we see the exterior bus mechanic girls - one shot, twice, silent. I think there's a slight green cast to the scene, but I'm expecting some narration that never comes. After the screen goes dark and the Red logo comes up again, Ted tells us that we just viewed was shot using Red RAW (the rest of the demo apparently being RAW). While there might be something to be said for NOT telling us beforehand what we were supposed to be looking for, it would have been nice to see the clip again *after* finding out it was Red RAW, and if they were really trying to show off, they'd run both codecs back-to-back. I'm not saying they're hiding anything, but they shouldn't be acting too cagey at this point, either.

Ted finally says that they basically wanted us to know that their product was _real_, and really happening. He thanks us for coming, and there's more applause.

And we leave.

One of my first thoughts was, "how many of these things could they sell?" When you consider 1,100 reservations at $17,500, that's under $20 million - not a lot of money to recover from development and tooling. Seems like they'd have to sell a *lot* to really profit. To which [my wife] said, "maybe they don't want to profit." Based on how this project was described to me the first time, it does sound like a "vanity project" for the Oakley founder. Maybe it *would* be enough to put yourself in textbooks for the next 100 years as someone who was instrumental in the transition from film. On the other hand, at this price point, this camera could be purchased by every knucklehead (nothing personal) who planned on buying a pro video or film camera - but I can't guess how many that might be.

It's exciting, if still a bit of vaporware. I tried to imagine that this could all be scam - just because it sounds too good to be true. But I'm really NOT suspicious. This is how big changes often *have* to take place - a single influential individual exercises their desire for something, and it happens. Like the original "Skunk Works" - a small, politically autonomous group within Lockheed Aircraft tasked with developing secret military aviation without intervention from the corporation - Red might just be able to pull off something that giants like Sony could never push through their organization.

I'm curious about whether Red intends to make the operation and post-production processes push-button easy. No one, from industrial video productions to feature motion pictures, wants to have to train and/or hire a new class of technical specialist just to figure out how to run the camera, or make sure the data gets to the right place in the right form. I'll be very interested to see how that evolves.

[My wife] was disappointed with "Ted" - complaining that he wasn't technical enough. I'm not convinced there's a lot more technical stuff they want to share or can share. The whole presentation was maybe 35 minutes - short and sweet, or too short, and too sweet.

Sorry about the long account - but I thought you might care about how Red presented themselves, as well as how the footage looked. Finally - I sort of indicated this before - the footage may represent something we've all never really seen before - very low-noise, grainless high-resolution imagery (all at 24fps, by the way) with none of the negative characterstics of video. So while it doesn't look like video, it also doesn't look like film. I haven't really critically viewed 35mm contact prints while thinking about how different they are from 3rd-generation release prints - this might be more like a low-generation 35mm print than anything.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Time Travel the Internet

Want to know what a given Web site looked like at some point the past? The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has been archiving Web pages since 1996. Check out your favorite site's headlines over the years.